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A look at Robert Irwin's commission for the new San Diego federal courthouse

You can just glimpse it if you peer over the green construction fence at the new federal courthouse downtown. But you might not notice it. There's a simple-looking beam inside the lobby, wrapped in the way you might cover a piano to keep it from dust and debris while construction continues. But the 33-foot-tall column under the shroud is not just any old functional beam. The column is an important sculpture, liberated from a basement at a university in Northridge. The long-awaited $385 million federal courthouse is a few months from completion, its striking slim shape now towering over Broadway. The courthouse project includes Robert Irwin, a significant artist who’s lived in San Diego for the last two decades and whose influential career stretches back to the 1950s. He’s designing a ramp of zig-zagging hedges for the courthouse’s outdoor plaza. And the concealed beam is an acrylic prism he made decades ago that never found an appropriate home. The courthouse is likely one of the artist’s last projects, and the two components involving him harken to two significant parts of his career: Anti-object objects, like the now-shrouded column, and outdoor gardens. The artist known as the godfather of a Southern California-initiated art movement called “Light and Space” will have his fingerprints on how visitors to the courthouse perceive the light and space there, both inside and out. ‘I’ve Never Seen the Piece in All of Its Glory’ Years ago, a panel of two local art experts, a judge and a prominent collector didn’t hesitate before recommending to the feds that they should try to woo Irwin. At 83, he can afford to be choosy about the projects he takes on. “The idea being it’s our hometown, and why not get our best-known, most famous artist involved if he’s willing?” said Hugh Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and a member of the government’s advisory panel for the project. Irwin said yes and began working with architect Michael Palladino and landscape architects Spurlock Poirier on the design for the outdoor plaza. But he had an idea for the inside, too. He brought up an old piece he’d made that had never really found the right place to live. The sculpture is a highly polished obelisk, made of virtually transparent acrylic so it becomes a prism. Irwin is known internationally for his thought-provoking approach to the way our eyes see and our brains perceive, for playing with light and space and perception. Though he started as a painter, much of his career has been about getting away from art-making as object-making. He tries to inspire viewers to consider their own perception rather than a created image or object. In the sunlit lobby, when the light’s overhead, you might not see the column at all. But when the sun moves, the prism refracts light and casts colors. You might catch a flash out of the corner of your eye. “I had this idea to make an object that was nearly transparent, so that it would almost disappear,” Irwin said recently. But it never found its ideal environment. Originally built for a glass atrium in the home of a collector who died before it was done, the piece was installed instead in a shopping mall, where it was scratched, damaged and never lit properly, according to the Los Angeles Times. In the mid-‘80s it went to Cal State University in Northridge, where it waited for years for an appropriate home — a slightly more challenging search for a 33-foot column dependent on prolific sunlight than, say, a framed painting. “No one could find an appropriate space three stories tall,” said Philip Handler, the former dean of the art school at CSU Northridge, who was given the task of trying to get the piece out of the basement. He invited Irwin to come walk the campus. Neither of them could find a suitable place. “I’ve never seen the piece in all of its glory,” Handler said. So in 2005 when Irwin started talking with Palladino about the federal courthouse, he wondered if his homeless column might finally find its desired habitat. The government sets aside 0.5 percent of construction costs to integrate art into the new buildings it commissions. In this case, the art budget is $985,000; all but $200,000 covers implementing Irwin’s plaza project and acquiring the column. While the piece was at Northridge, the Getty granted money to have the piece restored. The Museum of Contemporary Art stored the column in a 36-foot crate in its Chula Vista warehouse for three years. But at long last, the piece is in the lobby, cloaked and waiting for the building to open later this year. ‘It’s a Slow, Slow Process’ A dozen miles north of downtown, the sun beamed through the June haze on a recent morning, coaxing hundreds of pots of green leafy plants to stretch taller. Above their heads, taut string taunted them, giving them a goal to aspire to. Those plants are growing into hedges that will be planted outside the courthouse in a formal shape at different heights. Visitors can start in the courthouse plaza and wind their way up a zig-zagging ramp, disappearing behind the sloping hedges at points and reappearing. The planned hedges will be about three feet wide and between two feet and eight feet tall. Irwin’s interest in gardens came as an extension of his ideas that created the column — the concept of art not as one object but as perception, shadow and light. He’s designed gardens as artwork at several institutions, most notably the Getty. Now, these hedges are the medium of choice for a striking element of the courthouse plaza. Irwin’s working on the feature with his longtime friends and collaborators, landscape architects Andrew Spurlock and Martin Poirier. The idea came from a diagram. Spurlock and Poirier were trying to help Palladino figure out how the courthouse’s plaza on the street level would work with his lobby entrance, elevated several feet off the ground. They brought Irwin in. The firm worked with Irwin on his ideas for the gardens at the Getty, too. Looking at the diagram of the space with the height elevation drawn on top, the team talked about a few ideas and left. Next time they met, they had a plan based on an idea Irwin had for a chevron-shaped hedge. “He’s good at distilling things down to its basic problem and letting geometry solve the problem,” Poirier said. The Miramar Nursery started growing the plants to specified heights more than two years ago. They’ve got more than 1,000 15-gallon pots of the hedge plant Ligustrum, sometimes called Texas privet, arranged in a cordoned-off area labeled “Courthouse Contract Grow.” In a few months, the pots will be labeled according to their height and shape and taken downtown to be planted in the right formation. But they have a ways to grow still through the summer and fall while the construction team finishes the building downtown, expected to be completed in December. “If you have extra time, you can sit out here and watch ‘em grow,” said Charlie Olson, a horticulturist at the nursery, standing in the middle of the plot. “But it’s a slow, slow process.”
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