Light the way

Sculptor's Plaza towers will be practical, pleasing

Staff WriterAugust 2, 2009 

— The four towers that will define the new City Plaza at the end of Fayetteville Street have risen from the wreckage of Raleigh's last skirmish over public art.

Some will see them as reminders of what could have been -- a stamp of international attention from acclaimed sculptor Jaume Plensa -- and others will welcome them as far more practical than Plensa's complex water-and-electronics scheme that the city rejected in 2006.

But for the artist who built them, the 55-foot-tall stainless-steel towers represent not only the biggest job in his accomplished career, but also the promise of the best ideals of public art.

"You're getting something pretty fantastic," sculptor Jim Gallucci said last week after another long day spent working with crews on final detail work. "I love the idea of art that makes a difference."

Gallucci, who lives in Greensboro, has large-scale metal sculptures in cities around North Carolina and the rest of the country. He designed the "Whisper Gate" at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh, and another of his works will be installed in a North Raleigh park this year.

Gallucci won the downtown contract in 2007 after the city came up with the idea to put four light towers in the plaza, following on Plensa's concept of an LED canopy that could display messages and images skyward over a large cascading fountain. It was a utilitarian interpretation that was the result of brainstorming sessions by people with a stake in downtown's cultural and commercial scene.

Gallucci took that potentially pedestrian concept and made it bigger. "You could buy four towers for a baseball stadium, but I don't think you want that," Gallucci said. "I wanted to give it some meaning, some function, but at the same time I thought, let's give it some pizazz."

Over the past eight months, the towers were created in Gallucci's warehouse-sized studio and then transported to Raleigh. Once here, they had to be broken into smaller parts so a 240-ton crane could lift them into place.

"It became a real logistical nightmare," Gallucci said. "We had to build this thing in reverse."

The towers are coated with 20,000 stainless steel oak leaves. Each tower contains the equipment to run the LED lights that can be programmed for special occasions. The lights can also be used with stage performances and by light artists.

"What's really cool is I'm creating a pallet that other artists can make their art with," Gallucci said.

The sculptor also likes the idea that the plaza by day will be a public thoroughfare -- a mega-space that can be turned into a micro-space for special events, he says. It's a way of turning America's traditional commitment to utilitarian function into something more, he says, something that draws people togther.

"We're great at building roads and infrastructure, but terrible at getting purpose in life," Gallucci said. "That's where the art comes in. The arts give you that, 'Let's go downtown, let's explore it, let's talk to somebody I never talked to before.' That's what the arts are all about. It gives meaning to life."

City Plaza is scheduled to open in October. or 919-829-4576

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