Baltimore is a city with great public life. We're also a city that's known for having great art. So it's downright confusing that the majority of our public art is underwhelming, predictable, or just plain bad. Because the uncertain fate of the Red Line has been so widely discussed in the media lately, I decided to go on the MTA's website to check out the "Art in Transit" proposals that may one day grace our potential subway-to-surface-light-rail line's stations. Spoiler alert: They're mostly pretty terrible. As much as I'm eagerly waiting for construction on the Red Line to begin, I'm not too excited about the prospect of someday waiting for the train and staring at yet another mural of children laughing in front of rowhouses or a "kooky" metal assemblage.
There are precious few times that the MTA gets anything right, and even fewer times that public art in Baltimore is noteworthy. This makes the Lexington Market subway station (built in the early '80s) a truly magical rarity. The concrete beams above the platform are embellished with a ceramic mosaic by local artist Pat Alexander. Each one is covered in a bright pattern evocative of textile designs. Some of the motifs carry over from one beam to the next, sometimes changing scale. When a passenger looks up as a train is pulling into the station or down while descending the escalator, the beams overlap and almost form a singular composition. The fact that not all of the elements match up gives the piece a strange, tense energy.
I can say without any hyperbolic exaggeration (but just a tinge of civic pride) that it's one of the best examples of considering perspective and ornamentation in 20th-century architecture. There's something oddly timeless about the space—it calls to mind everything from Babylonian temples, Navajo weaving, Mexico City's idiosyncratic mid-century modernism (the backdrop for the first "Total Recall" film), and the saccharine animated GIF art popularized in the mid '00s. It's simultaneously ancient, quintessentially brutalist, oddly contemporary, and futuristic.
Critic/theorist Rosalind Krauss famously explained modernism as the divorce of architecture and art. Here, though, an artwork feels happily married to a space from the twilight years of high modernism. The mosaic (which I've always loved, but just recently found out is titled 'Geometro') seems to update the understanding of classical spaces as proto-cinematic experiences; before the proliferation of print/mass media, art was a "place" people visited to see a story told in stained glass, fresco, mosaic, or sculpture. Alexander's "storyboards," however, are abstract—describing an unspecified tension as opposed to a narrative. The kinetic energy of the metro—arguably the most utopian token of the machine age—animates the panels like sunlight "powered" the screens of medieval cathedral windows. The artwork is meant to be experienced in motion, and no still photograph can do it justice.
Baltimore seems to make all the wrong decisions when it comes to managing what we've inherited from the era of urban renewal. Downtown leaders condemn unique, irreplaceable brutalist landmarks such as the Mechanic Theater and McKeldin Fountain as ugly and outdated, but demand that concrete never stop pouring for more parking garages. Elevated skywalks are torn down, but the wide streets they crossed remain hostile streams of fast-moving traffic. Rather than maintain public housing, we replace it with the loathed typologies of cookie-cutter suburbia. Perhaps the one upside of the contemporary dearth of funding for mass transit is that Lexington Market's magical subway platform may never suffer a renovation that replaces Pat Alexander's brilliant tiles with a mural of a rose growing from cracks in the sidewalk. Already, a recent MTA "improvement" broke a cardinal rule of maintaining aging concrete—the station's walls were painted a bland beige rather than cleaned. Maybe one day Baltimore will realize that brutalist architecture is meant to be power washed, not covered up. And certainly not demolished. I hope future Baltimoreans will always have the opportunity to fall in love with 'Geometro' as much as I have. Beyond functioning as a monument to the end of a more optimistic era, the space possesses a transcendent, timeless vitality—Baltimore's little "Alhambra under Eutaw Street."