By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
The strip of 30 columns under the I-5 overpass on South King Street has undergone a makeover in a bid to transform and revitalize the area. The community project, led by former architects-turned-retirees Dennis Su and Alex Young, had a recent dedication ceremony to commemorate the painting done on the columns.
Though painting for the project officially ended in November, its origins began in 2011, when InterIm CDA, a community development nonprofit organization based in Chinatown and the International District, first put out a call for proposals to redo the columns on South King Street.
As a long-time community stakeholder, Su makes it his civic duty to improve the International District when he can. In 1999, Su proposed and subsequently headed the redesign of the columns on South Jackson Street, which also sits under the I-5 overpass. This experience, coupled with his background of having run his own urban architectural firm, made him an ideal choice for InterIm’s latest community project on South King Street.
However, Su had a bigger vision for these columns, and pursued help from other professionals with niche experience in public artwork. Inspired by the art display of bronze salmon sculptures attached to the Sound Transit ramp by the Eastgate Freeway Station in Bellevue, Su actively sought out the project’s mastermind.
This quest led him to Young, who previously worked with the Department of Transportation for 30 years, and held a long history of working on public enhancements and structures. Intrigued by working on his first community project for the International District, Young agreed to collaborate with Su.
The two men brought their respective unique talents to the project: Su pitched and cultivated the artistic vision, while Young brought more technical skills and advice to the table.
When considering images to use for the columns, Su drew on both local geography and Asian art for inspiration. His aim was to choose a symbol that reflected the values and roots of the International District’s diversity and origins.
Like the South Jackson Street columns, Su and Young recognized that the columns lie on a stretch of South King Street that links the Little Saigon and Chinatown sub-districts.
“We didn’t want to exclude any party from this project,” said Young. “This should ideally be a space that not only serves both sub-districts and cultures, but the Asian community overall.”
These conclusions led them to the ocean, or more specifically, the symbol of a wave.
“Because [all Asians first immigrated from] across the ocean, this image of the wave is the one element that links all of us together,” explained Su. “It’s a symbol of unity.”
Blue and green were chosen as the columns’ primary colors, as they reflect the hues and depth of the ocean. After extensive research and sketches that led the duo through countless Chinese and Japanese woodprint wave designs, Young realized that their chosen design not only had to be symbolic, but also easy to produce.
“The challenge lies in coming up with a design that is stylized and symbolic, yet easy to paint,” explained Young. “We developed a more modern interpretation of the wave with softer curves. It’s still a version that draws on traditional wave designs, but this way, it will be easier to execute during the actual painting, and easy to maintain after.”
Su also had additional plans for the area. “I wanted to go beyond just painting the columns a specific color,” said Su, when discussing his methodology. “When you drive under that dark area of the overpass, it’s too gloomy. What I’d like to do is lighten up the experience there for people.”
Beyond the waves
Together, the two pitched a three-stage proposal to InterIm that expanded past the columns. First, they proposed to paint the South King Street columns with the wave design. Later, they hope to add living plants and hang stain steel fish overhead, as well as address the number of transits living under the freeway in order to encourage citizens to visit the area. Impressed by their comprehensive approach, and equipped with funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, InterIm awarded Su and Young with the project bid.
Though their proposal was first submitted in 2011, actual labor on the project did not commence until July 2013. Executed by local nonprofit UrbanArtworks, a team of 12 youth, led by four professional artists and five community volunteers, painted the columns between July and November of this year. The result yielded columns that add considerable light and color to the space.
“The artwork underneath the freeway not only creates a new visual landmark for the neighborhood, but it also improves pedestrian connections between the east and west sides of the community that is divided by the freeway,” said Tom Im, a community planner at InterIm. Young and Su consulted extensively with Im throughout the coordination and execution aspects of the project.
Though the two are proud to see the completion of the first stage of their proposal, the future of the second and third stages remain unknown due to a lack of additional funding.
“At least the seeds have been planted in the community’s mind,” said Su. “So whenever InterIm does get funding, we can execute the rest of our project.”
Though Su ultimately wants the South King Street columns to become the pride and jewel of the International District, he also recognizes that this cannot happen until citizens start to feel safer, which would be solved by addressing the concern of transients.
“Due to a deficiency of legitimate temporary housing units and city wide shelters, homeless individuals flock to overpass embankments due to the protection the freeway provides,” explained Im.
However, Im thinks that Young and Su’s proposed second and third stages could solve this issue.
“Besides creating better housing options for these individuals, the community should create positive activities or artful obstructions that make the area less habitable,” said Im.
“Just painting the columns alone won’t solve the security issue,” added Su. “For people to actually want to come to this part of the district — to actually want to use the sidewalks and feel safe — we need to figure out how to deter transients from the embankment in the summertime, and enhance that area overall. Only then will this area start to become accessible and welcoming.” (end)
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.