Kasama Polakit Articulates the Message of Public Art
By Leon M. Rubin
“If we neglect to pay sufficient attention to the individuality of places,” British urban design consultant John Dales wrote in a recent article, “we run the risk of a future where everywhere looks the same.”
It’s safe to say that Kasama Polakit would like to ensure that Broward County’s future is anything but homogeneous. Through her teaching and research as an assistant professor in Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban & Regional Planning, she explores and explains what she defines as “place character.”
“You can go somewhere and not remember it at all,” she observes. “‘Place character’ is a combination of the place and the people. Together, they create a strong image that you won’t forget. They contribute to a place’s identity.”
As a member of the Broward Cultural Council’s Public Art & Design Committee, Polakit has the opportunity to bring her experience and insight about place character to bear in the real-life laboratory that is Broward County. Since joining the seven-member committee in 2009, she has worked with her colleagues to evaluate proposals and make recommendations for new works of art that are located in Broward County buildings, such as those at Port Everlades and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“The process of art selection is very interesting. It is highly structured, very democratic and very transparent,” Polakit says. “I like that. Sometimes we disagree, but it’s very healthy. The members of the committee bring diverse opinions. I’m not an artist, but some of them are artists. There’s great diversity.”
Prior to joining the committee, she served on an art selection panel for public art to be incorporated into the beach renourishment project in Broward County. Her academic perspective on place and space – along with her interest in interdisciplinary design of built environments - made her a logical choice for membership.
Polakit says public art plays an important role in urban design, which she defines as “the space in between architecture and urban planning.” Architecture focuses on specific buildings or parcels of land, she explains, while urban planning is concerned with the big picture of a community and a region, including such broad issues as transportation, housing, infrastructure and sustainability.
In an urban design context, “art creates awareness of something. It has a message to the public in general,” Polakit says. “Art is a language you deliver to a society.
“Many urban design projects are driven by public art,” she adds. “We’re always going to have public art pieces in public spaces to enhance the quality of the environment and to educate our younger generation to know who we are and where we are.”
In Polakit’s view, for public art to be considered truly public, it must be accessible to anyone and everyone. “Urban designers focus on outdoor public art,” she says. But it’s not just about the piece itself. “Public art makes a strong statement. You can’t just put it anywhere. It’s site-specific. As designers, we are concerned with where to put it and why to put it there.
“Public art that’s the most successful is also the most memorable,” she continues. “It doesn’t have to be by a famous artist, but it is integrated into the character of the place.”
Polakit has been observing – and now participating in – the development of public art in Broward County since 2005, when she joined the faculty at FAU. She holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in urban design and a master’s degree in planning and design from the University of Melbourne, Australia. She earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Before entering academia, she was an architect in Thailand responsible for design projects ranging from interior design and private houses to high-rise and mid-rise condominiums, housing developments and resort hotels.
She applauds Broward County’s commitment not only to encouraging public art, but to ensuring that it’s within the public’s reach. She especially likes projects that represent collaborations between individual artists and the community.
“Broward County has made an effort to strengthen the quality of public art,” Polakit observes. “Public art is a part of economic development and a part of place-making.” By encouraging the installation of public art throughout the county, “We can contribute something toward delivering this message to communities that might not have the chance to have public art on their own,” she notes.
This process leads, of course, to the enhancement of each community’s distinctive character - and the assurance that, in Broward County, no one can ever say that “everywhere looks the same!”