Giant, glowing octopus grips downtown parking garage

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One of the biggest pieces of public art ever to be erected in greater Lansing quietly slithered into the heart of downtown in the closing weeks of 2021.

An undulating ribbon of anodized aluminum hundreds of feet long, designed by St. Johns artist Ivan Iler, of Netflix’s “Metal Masters” fame, now stretches across the west and north faces of the colossal Capitol Avenue parking ramp between Shiawassee and Ionia streets.

At night, hundreds of LED lights embedded in the aluminum flash in programmed patterns, as if a phosphorescent octopus had taken permanent hold of the garage.

City officials say the nameless sculpture is meant to distract from the stark concrete Brutalism of the huge ramp, built in 1972 in the widely despised style named after béton brut, or raw, cast-in-place concrete slabs.

“It’s brutal, for sure,” economic development and planning director Brian McGrain said. “The name speaks for itself.”

Chad Gamble, the city’s parking director when the project was conceived three years ago, called the garage “monstrous.”

“It breaks up the downtown,” Gamble said.

But the artist is not among the haters. 

“There are very beautiful things in Brutalism,” Iler said. “I wanted to contrast with them rather than to hide them.”

The Greater Lansing Arts Council and city officials picked Iler’s vision out of several competing designs.

“The ramp has all these beautiful architectural lines and a really amazing shape,” Iler said. “It has a simple beauty. At the same time, it’s a lot of straight edges and a lot of straight lines. My thinking was to add a more natural element to it.”

Iler’s organic vision dovetailed with Lansing’s multiyear, bond-financed, $7 million push to renovate the city’s three downtown parking structures and make them more welcoming to residents and visitors.

Iler already had several huge sculptures under his belt, including a leaping, 25-foot-high fish installed in Baldwin in 2018, billed as the “world’s largest brown trout sculpture” (beating out the previous record holder in New Zealand by a few feet), and “Portrait of a Dreamer,” also known as the “gearhead,” a 15-foot-tall bust of a man with gears extending another 20 feet from his cranium over Museum Drive in downtown Lansing.

Iler just started working on a new sculpture, “Bridge Between Banks,” after winning a competition to design the first public sculpture to be installed in Dimondale in December.

But the Capital Avenue octopus is by far the biggest thing he has ever worked on.

The obvious choice for material was aluminum, which is light (about a third the weight of stainless steel), resistant to corrosion and good at reflecting light. It also pops nicely, even in the daytime, when layered over béton brut.

“The beauty is in the contrast between the two,” Iler said. “We’re not trying to hide one or the other; only to show one using the other.”

Iler appreciated the ramp’s pure, geometric forms even more when a colleague created a 3-D computer model for him to manipulate.

“I could fly around it, as if I were Peter Pan, able to look in any direction, at any angle,” he said. “I went down there and took photographs, but I realized that I wasn’t going to get what I needed from that.”

He enjoyed working within the restrictions of the site.

“This is the first one I ever did that was integrated with a building,” he said. “Sometimes having constraints can push creativity. Without that building I would never have designed something like that.”

Gamble, project leader for the parking garage renovations, now retired, said he was inspired by recent improvements made on the campus of neighboring Lansing Community College, where former LCC President Brent Knight opened up an all-out assault on the campus’ Brutalist look. 

 “I had the honor of taking Dr. Knight’s golf cart campus tour, and that was the seed,” Gamble said. Knight added dozens of sculptures, signs, flowerbeds, trees, shrubs and a clock tower, splashing the ’70s béton brut with light and color at every turn.

Gamble stressed a factor most people don’t consider when they think of a parking garage.

“From a visitor’s perspective, it’s the first thing and the last thing people will see when they come to downtown,” he said. 

It took a statewide team of engineers and fabricators, and a lot of Zoom meetings, to breathe life into Iler’s design.

Engineers from Walker Consultants, based in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, wrestled the design into three dimensions.

“We had electrical engineers looking at layouts and power draws, making sure we could power up everything,” Gamble said. “You don’t normally think of putting a sculpture on the side of a building.”

The octopus came to life, section by section, in the Detroit workshop of America’s Green Line, an LED lighting company based, under the direction of Aaron Mohr.

The lights are about 5 feet apart and the aluminum ribbon varies in width from about eight to 14 inches.

“It has to look good when you’re looking at it straight on, but also if you’re looking at it from an angle,” Iler said. “I needed to widen it out and thin it out to give it a feeling of flowing and motion as you’re driving past it.”

Chris Revis of Ram Construction, based in Detroit and Grand Rapids, called the sculpture a “swoop ribbon.”

“I’m in the concrete business and I’ve never worked on anything like this,” Revis said. “It was fascinating seeing everything come to fruition, from a scratch drawing on a piece of paper to seeing on the side of a building. It was a very unique project.”

“It felt good, like a team effort,” Iler said.

In late fall, Revis, McGrain, Iler and other major players converged in Detroit to view the finished sections and give the thumbs-up for delivery to Lansing.

The sculpture was affixed to the garage with about 500 Tapcon carbon steel screws of the same kind you might use to put up shelves on your cement basement wall.

Revis said the design only needed “a few tweaks here and there” as it went along. The biggest problem the team faced was negotiating the supply chain delays that cropped up in the second half of 2021.

“I think it will leave a lasting impression on a lot of people,” he said.

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