Pacific Highway doesn’t look like it sounds. The name calls to mind surfboard-topped VW buses, sunsets, and bike-riders in bathing suits, something like what you’d see on Highway 101 around Cardiff. But instead, it’s mostly an uninspired stretch of bumpy road that offers views of long-term parking lots, gas stations, and the back sides of car rental agencies. The best thing Pacific Highway has going for it is that, in the quarter mile between Grape and Ash, it provides some relief from the crush of cars and people in Little Italy to the east and on Harbor Drive to the west.
On a hot Tuesday afternoon in July, I sit on a bench in front of the snazzy new fire station on the corner of Cedar Street and Pacific Highway across the street from the County Administration Building. Although this is the most aesthetically pleasing corner of the whole five-mile stretch of road between Fiesta Island and Seaport Village, the passersby I encounter don’t seem all that interested in the station behind me or the bronze-and-steel sculpture that stands in front of it. And honestly, on any other day, I might not have paid much attention either if I hadn’t sat down on this bench and started hearing sounds that made me perk up and look around.
At first, it’s hard to know exactly what I’m hearing or where it’s coming from, but I tune my ears toward the sound of crackling, maybe, or a fire engine, and end up sticking my head into the bronze sculpture behind me. With my ear inside a trumpet-shaped flower (or maybe the horn of an antique phonograph), I swear I hear the sounds of food cooking on a stove, doors closing, fire engines, water dripping. Curious, I step back down on the ground and look up at the sculpture. It features two of those trumpet flowers (or gramophone horns) on eight-foot curvy bronze stems and a fire hose nozzle growing up out of a concrete base. When I stick my head into the flowerhorn closest to the firehouse, I hear a different set of sounds: feet running, an engine starting, sirens. It’s all strange enough to make me look around to see if anyone else notices, too. No one seems to.
Decay, growth, and rebirth
Six months later, I’m standing in front of the open bays of the Bayside Fire Station with Ingram Ober, the Palomar College art professor who designed the sculpture in partnership with his wife Marisol Rendón-Ober, and Los Angeles artist Chuck Moffit. A few days ago, Rendón, an art professor at Southwestern College, offered to meet me onsite to give me the lowdown on what she calls the “sound sculpture.” Unfortunately, there was no sound coming from it that day. And it’s still a problem, which is why we’re here, waiting for the sound engineer and a guy from the Commission for Arts and Culture, who are on their way to see if they can figure out the problem and fix it.
Ober, Rendón, and Moffit won the commission to create their sculpture, titled “And Then...,” in 2008, when the fire station was still in the design phase. This morning, the station is in full swing, as it has been since March of last year. At the moment, the fire crew is at work washing the trucks, sweeping the floors, and bustling around. Outside, people in business attire head west on Cedar and cross Pacific Highway to the County Administration Building, none casting more than a casual glance inside the station. It’s old news to them, but to me, it’s still bright and shiny, and unlike any fire station I’ve seen before.
“From the beginning, the architect told us about the fragmentation of the building,” Rendón said earlier in the week. We stepped back to look up at the 3-story, 4-level, 16,000-square-foot structure that architect Rob Wellington Quigley designed around the concept of decay, growth, and rebirth. The north- and west-facing facades look as though they’ve broken apart in the middle where they should meet and a structure of glass and greenery grows from the ruin.
“It was almost as if the building had fallen in sections. And he had a whole wall here that was going to be all planted with trumpet vines.”
She gestures to the top of the building, where green vines spill down from the rooftop over the third-floor windows.
As exciting as it was to be involved during the conceptual phase of the architectural plan, the experience had its challenges. During the first two or three meetings with Quigley, Ober, Rendón, and Moffit would get excited about some aspect of the building and start designing their concept around it. But then at the next meeting, that feature would be eliminated from the building’s design plan, and they would have to start over with their concept. After a few false starts, they began to look for a constant in the project, something that would most likely remain unchanged during the design process.
They settled on the grassy area planned for the northwest corner of the lot, where the sculpture stands now. Rendón explains that the sculpture, too, plays on the idea of decay and rebirth. The concrete base was inspired by the idea of a piece of debris fallen from the building, and the trumpet-vine-like elements allude to the growth that rose up from it. “We feel there is some connection between the growth of the vine and water and fire, which are essential components of the fire station,” Rendón says.
Other elements that influenced “And Then…” include the baroque scrollwork used to ornament fire engines for 250-plus years, and the mosaic tiles and fluting on the facade of the County Administration Building across the street.
Later, after their sculpture had been designed and approved, the team learned that the ground beneath their art piece would not be ground at all. Instead, it would be a 10-foot-deep hollow vault for wastewater management. Even though it’s a pedestrian-scale design, the project still required eight yards of poured concrete, four or five hundred pounds of bronze, and a thousand pounds of stainless steel. They had to bring in an engineer to make sure all that weight would be supported.
“I like to solve problems,” Rendón says, dismissing the idea of panic.
A telenovela’s worth of narrative
Ober is a talker. He uses words like “plinth” and “haptic” the way others might use everyday words like “butter” and “coffee mug.” While we wait in the fire station driveway for the city guy, he explains that after his team won the commission for the project, the city pulled the funding and put the project on hold indefinitely. He and his team went about the business of their lives for the next eight years.
In 2016, they finally got the call. It was a go once again. Time to get the subcontractors together and the paperwork lined up. But Moffitt was no longer interested, so the Rendón-Ober family took over the contract themselves. Moffitt was supposed to be the fabrication guy, but the cost of shipping to and from Los Angeles was going to be prohibitive. So Ober and Rendón had to figure it out themselves.
By the time Ober gets to this part in the story, we’ve been joined by sound engineer Robert Mason. Ober says it’s a “grave disservice” to call him a mere audio engineer. Rendón said something similar when we spoke.
“He was the only person that could work with us for this project,” she said. And when I asked why, she added, “Because there aren’t many sound engineers with the sensibility to work with this sort of non-commercial project.”
The sound element of the sculpture consists of two seven-minute narratives in parallel locations. One takes place in an imaginary kitchen where someone cooks, a grease fire starts, and the fire department is called. The other takes place in a fire station where the call comes in and the firefighters take action and start the truck. At the five-minute mark, the two narratives overlap with the combined sounds of fire and water. The timeframe is a deliberate nod to seven-minute response-time goal for the San Diego Fire Department. The Bayside Fire Station was built in this location to serve the area west of downtown unimpeded by trains.
Mason collected all the sounds, using 95 percent live sound recording on location.
“I went to the main fire station downtown,” he says, “and they let me hang out all day, recording them running down the hall and sliding down the pole. If you listen, you can hear the squeak of their hands on the pole.”
The only reason he did not use 100 percent live sound recording is that federal regulations prohibited him from using real emergency calls. Instead, he was able to create a fake dispatch call and use the “futzing” process to re-create the audio quality of a real dispatch call.
Ober pipes in to inform me that the subtle sounds of the final version were very different than the first version Mason presented.
“He had a telenovela’s worth of narrative. He basically scored two seven-minute short films,” Ober says. “The first time, it was stress-inducing.”
They ended up remixing the sounds to make it more emotive, less linear, and to tone down some of the human emotions while still maintaining the narrative underpinnings.
“I tried to create a sonic world,” Mason says, “but they had the knobs.”
$1 an hour
Both Rendon and Ober suggest that at times, they wondered what they had gotten themselves into. Neither had ever managed a project of this scale before. “The amount of stakeholders in this project is dizzying,” Ober will say later in the day while using a knife to scrape a piece of gum off the red terrazzo bench. “The daily relationships with contractors, the Quigleys. We’re on our third set of project managers for the Commission for Arts and Culture.”
Between 2008, when they won the contract for the project, and 2016, when it was finally time to execute, prevailing wage laws went into effect. They require that all workers on public works projects be paid the prevailing wage as determined by the state’s Department of Industrial Relations. It also meant that artists would no longer be able to hold the contract for installation of their own public artwork. But Ober was able to get himself grandfathered in and maintain the contract.
When I Google “prevailing wage laws public art San Diego,” the very first result is a November 4, 2015 document on the city of San Diego website giving Ingram Ober the right to fabricate and install his own art work, as per the original contract.
Acting as the contractor and trying to make sense of all the rules and regulations came with its own headaches and confusion. Ober mimics talking on the phone with the city. “You go, ‘Yeah yeah, we get it.’ Meanwhile, you hang up the phone, and you’re like, ‘What does that mean?’ And you try to figure it out.”
For Rendon, the lengthy construction documents phase was one of the biggest challenges. It required them to gather all kinds of obscure paperwork from the seven different subcontractors with whom they were working. Everyone needed commercial auto insurance and liability insurance, and a range of other documentation that took more than a year to gather together.
“You have to justify every single thing,” she says. “Every single move. It’s a lot. Especially since we’re full-time teachers and full-time parents.”
And then there was the creation of the art itself, making the molds of the curvatures, drawing enlargements on paper, segmenting the sections to fit onto an eight-by-four sheet of plywood, and then cutting the wood with a jigsaw. Rendon shows me pictures of all the different steps on her phone, explaining the process with phrases like “sandpacking the molds for the filigree” and “lost wax technique.” The bulk of the work was done between the foundry at Palomar College, the woodshop at Southwestern College, and the Rendon-Ober driveway in Lemon Grove. But there was also time spent digging trap to trench for bench supports, running conduit, pulling cable, setting concrete forms, welding and grinding the stainless steel, mounting the bronze flower forms, installing the lighting and sound devices, plus a long list of other tasks that had to be done onsite. Ober estimates hundreds and hundreds of hours of labor between them.
The total budget for the project was $188K, and Rendon says approximately 95 percent of that went toward project materials and subcontractors.
“I think we were paying ourselves $1 an hour,” she says. “It was that crazy.”
Shoulda been a fireman
Back at the fire station, our group has now grown by two more men: Chuck Miller, the red-bearded senior public art manager for the Commission for Arts and Culture; and a tall, broad-chested administrator from the San Diego Fire Department who prefers to remain unnamed.
The department administrator walks us through the open bays and into the fire station. The fire crew maintains their activity level around us as we head down a ramp to the 7000-square-foot parking garage below, past a shelf crowded with large duffle bags, and into a small room with a slatted door. Electrical boxes line the back wall. A surfboard stands in one corner, and another corner is stacked with bins, all marked with blue tape that reads, “Dion.”
A black case with a glass door hangs on one wall. Miller pulls out a key and opens the case. “The on-off switch is where I’d start,” the administrator says. And that’s what Miller does. He reaches into the case and flips a switch. Inside the case are four shelves, each holding a different component: the main circuit, the crossover, the media player, and the amps for trumpet 1, trumpet 2, and the subwoofer. For the next five mintues, while they wait for the reset to happen, Miller and Ober and Mason exchange technical jargon. The hum of under-building infrastructure sounds all around us, occasionally punctuated by the sudden hiss of the air compressor in the corner.
When they decide it’s been long enough, Miller turns the switch to on again, and Mason and Ober go back outside to see if it worked. They come back a few minutes later to report that both narratives are coming out of one trumpet. Mason has brought a new memory card, so now they try that. He and Ober and Miller all go up to give it a listen. They’re gone long enough to listen to the full cycle of both tracks.
“It repeated,” Ober says happily when he returns.
We all cheer and go upstairs to listen and make sure it’s going to keep working before the group disbands.
After Miller and the administrator guy have gone, Mason and Ober and I hang around the sculpture for a little while, sticking our heads in the trumpets to hear the sounds, which are working smoothly again, and laughing about what Ober calls the “lengthy discussion that was had about where to put the plaque.” (It’s on the side of the building, around hip height if you’re 5’1”.) We all hush when a woman in a backpack sits down on the concrete bench. She seems to be resting her feet while she waits for the crosswalk sign to change. Suddenly, she sits up straighter and looks around behind her. Then she stands and looks at the sculpture.
She notices us watching her. I smile and wave. She takes a step back and cranes her neck to look up at the building.
“Is that a fire station?” she asks.
“Yes,” Ober says.
She marvels at it for a moment before she realizes that the light has changed. She runs off to catch it.
Ober and Mason are clearly pleased.
A few minutes later, a man in flip-flops walks by on Cedar.
“My God, I shoulda been a fireman,” he says, looking up at the building. “I keep telling my son to go to college and get a job. But I’m rethinking this.”
“Oh, here’s something funny,” Ober says to Mason and me when the man is gone. “Some people try to talk into the trumpets.”