Learning from the Murmur

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I was lucky to catch the last rays of early September sun glistening off the ornately glazed tiles and finials of downtown Oakland’s deco treasures; the building facades just drink up this light, colors saturated against a deep azure sky. I had arrived on bike just as the Murmur was setting up, bought tickets at the Fox to see The Hives, and strolled the seven or so blocks of Telegraph closed off to thru-traffic for the evening, scanning food trucks and bicycle vendors for something yummy to eat before folks arrived en masse. Oakland’s Art Murmur is a phantasmagorical, largely improvised street festival happening on the first Friday of each month, whose current locus is several blocks between Telegraph and Broadway, 18th and 27th streets, but is fast spreading further downtown to the harbor. It was my first Murmur and I was seriously blown away.

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I was on the final leg of reconnaissance as we prepare to design a permanent sculpture to be sited by the shore of Lake Merritt just a couple of blocks to the East, a public art project commissioned by the City Of Oakland as part of the City’s innovative Lakeside Green Streets initiative. One of our goals is to create a destination that better links the Lake with the social contours of the City, particularly in light of Oakland’s exceedingly popular Art Murmur. Like the lovely art deco buildings so associated with Oakland’s uptown revival, we want the sculpture to communicate a fine-ness for the ages, while encouraging the temporal exuberance of public events like the Murmur. It’s the ultimate design challenge for any successful public space to balance these extremes, so I was very curious to witness how people interact today, what draws them together, and how the built environment might act simultaneously as catalyst and stage.

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As the Murmur wound down I walked my bike down 20th to the Lake, stood at each of our proposed sites, stared out at the black water and thought about what might attract people to Lake Merritt after dark. Though I could still hear bands playing and people laughing just a couple of blocks away, no one was around. I cycled south to Lake Chalet, a thriving lakefront bistro in the old Boathouse, and found a bustling crowd inside, spillover from the Murmur. Our site is almost exactly between the two scenes, an easy walk from either. I ordered a hoppy IPA from Lake Chalet’s own brewery and pondered the possibilities.

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To learn more about our project for Oakland’s Lakeside Green Streets, click here and scroll down.

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