Gateway to Criticism

Proposed Chinatown sculpture stirs controversy in New York

A rendering of the proposed Chinatown sculpture taken from a presentation. (Courtesy NYC DOT/Chinatown Partnership/Van Alen Institute)

A sculpture proposed for a traffic triangle in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood is being criticized by some members of the community for its “stack of tin can”-like appearance. The art piece is a product of the Gateways to Chinatown project, a collaborative effort by the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT), local development corporation Chinatown Partnership, and the Van Alen Institute to “engender pride of place, foster connectivity, and reinforce cultural and social identity within Manhattan’s Chinatown.” Focusing on the plaza where Canal Street forks and Walker Street begins, organizers oversaw an open competition to select which artist would work with the project’s $1 million budget.

While the primary purpose of the project was, according to director of communications at Van Alen Alisha Levin, to “foster connectivity and better enable way-finding with a new public landmark,” selectors also sought a proposal that “responded to the site’s history and context.” Out of 80 total submissions, an installation by Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee was ultimately chosen. Lee partnered with two New York-based companies—architecture firm Levenbetts and public art fabrication studio UAP (Urban Art Projects)—to facilitate the structural design and installation of the project.

As renderings released last month indicate, the piece consists of a series of perforated cylinders stacked irregularly above the sidewalk. Inspired by traditional Chinese drum towers, the form of each component is reflective of both drums and the cylindrical rooftop water towers that have come to represent New York City. Titled The Dragon’s Roar, the proposal maintains a level of flexibility through its minimal impact on the traffic triangle’s ground plane. Even with the sculpture installed, the space would still be able to accommodate a small kiosk or seating for social gatherings.

As with most contemporary art that is proposed for urban public space, The Dragon’s Roar has received plenty of criticism from some members of the community. Certain residents have argued that its overall form, which makes only abstract reference to Chinese culture, has nothing to do with the local neighborhood and its heritage. Others have compared the drum-like cylinders to tin cans, complaining that the installation is unsightly and should not become a neighborhood landmark. While organizers of this year’s competition did engage with local community members at various stages in the process to determine what should be placed on the traffic triangle, many insist that outreach efforts were inadequate. The controversy is reminiscent of a similar incident from one year earlier, when residents of Chinese descent called a “Dog-Man” sculpture proposed for Chatham Square demonic and whitewashed. Protests over that piece eventually forced the city to relocate it to Foley Square.

As for The Dragon’s Roar, Levin told AN that Van Alen will “take all feedback in earnest” and will continue working with DOT, community boards, and neighborhood stakeholders to make certain that the final product reflects its cultural and social context. Before Community Board 3 weighs whether to approve the sculpture in September, detractors have promised to make their voices heard.

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