How to Build an Icon

The icons of San Diego include the beach, the bay and Balboa Park. But there is no structure in the center of the place that people know about and recognize. There’s no Empire State Building. No St. Louis arch. No Sydney Opera House.

The Hotel Del Coronado, seen in the classic film comedy “Some Like it Hot,” comes close. But it’s not actually in San Diego and its image isn’t easily lodged in the mind. When I first knew I might move here, I had seen and remembered a few  photos of the downtown convention center. But I thought it was a silly-looking thing that resembled an enormous tent. Not an icon.

Now, a group of local denizens has come up with an idea for an icon, and they have a rich philanthropist who’s agreed to pay for the thing. It would be a huge two-part sculpture located on Navy Pier and would be called Wings of Freedom. (Oh barf!)

But let’s set that aside the ridiculous, pseudo-patriotic name and take a look at what it would be: A 500-foot pair of sculptures that look like aircraft wings. It would sit on the end of the pier where the retired aircraft carrier, the Midway, is now docked.

Wings of Freedom

Typical of big proposals like this, it’s gotten a wide range of emotional reactions. Some think the theme is too militaristic. Some think it’s just great. Some say it’s bad art. But one thing is clear: The price is right. Denny Sanford, a Midwestern credit-card tycoon who lives half the year in San Diego, has pledged $35 million to build the freedom wings.

Do you build a huge sculpture right on the bayfront just because you have $35 million to do it? No. Nor does it mean you don’t build it. So far, I think most of the reaction to this proposal has been, well, reactionary. It deserves more serious thought.

Aviation has been a great part of the history of San Diego. Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was built here. San Diego factories turned out bombers for World War II. The Navy and the Marines have based their air divisions here for many years. So the theme of the sculpture is unassailable.

But how good is the artwork? That’s a matter of opinion, and I haven’t formed a strong personal opinion. I think you have to imagine seeing the sculpture from the ground and the air from a lot of different angles. What will it look like as you sail past it on the bay and see the shape slowly change? How will the sun play off the sculpture as the day changes from dawn to sunset?

The hardest question is whether the shape and image of the piece are strong, singular and beautiful. You don’t spend $35 million of anyone’s money, or give a huge sculpture the city’s front and center stage, if it doesn’t have all of that.

So far, the model has attracted a lot of snooty comments. It’s been called bunny ears. It’s been called a hood ornament, children’s water wings, etc. But it’s easy to come up with sarcastic put downs, and they’re not helpful. I can imagine someone today looking at a model for the St. Louis arch, prior to it being built. “What is this? A goddamn McDonald’s?”

The idea for Wings o’ Freedom (I really dislike that name) comes from a real artist named Malcolm Leland. But he had something very different in mind.

Leland imagined an amphitheater on San Diego bay in the shape of a ship, where the sails would close over the auditorium during inclement weather. Leland’s “sails” morphed into “wings” as others fastened onto it.

Leland told arts reporter Angela Carone he lays no claim to the current proposal, and he wishes the city would build his original model. Sadly there’s not much chance of that. The estimated cost of Leland’s amphitheater would be nearly four times the cost of the freedom wings.

Public art mavens and academics have said the city should just hire a great artist with a vision, and do what he says. But does a big-name artist guarantee  a memorable, iconic structure? I doubt it. Creating an iconic structure takes heart, vision and a great idea that can gather enough momentum to survive the tough, nasty process it takes to win over the city fathers.

So far, we’re a long way from concluding that will be found in the Wings of Freedom.

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One Comment on “How to Build an Icon”

  1. Joe B. Says:

    Every time I read about some wealthy person who lives part of the year in San Diego, they are a member of the LDS Church.

    And this guy is too.

    Independently of his religious affiliation though this wing thing is a poor idea.

    I’m surprised he doesn’t want a statue of himself, he already has one outside the USD Medical Center.

    You might imagine I have a bit of an issue with wealthy LDS Church members from out of town as they spent parts of their fortunes to steal my marriage rights from me.

    I hear Monterey and Pacific Grove are lovely. Wish these wealthy Mormons would have picked there to place their awkward looking cathedral.

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