All is Well Bell to Ring in Mission Bay
One of the ways we understand places is by their sounds. When I moved to Noe Valley many years ago, I became aware of the nearby and faraway bells that echoed throughout the neighborhood and in the Mission District on Sunday mornings, calling people to church. A comfort grew with the familiarity of their sound, which became more subliminal than conscious, lending a transcendent quality to the day. The sonorous chorus marked it as different from the rest of the week.
Many other sounds punctuate or puncture San Francisco’s general hum: cable and street cars signal their arrivals; ambulances, police sirens, and fire alarms call out urgently. One of the most jarring noises is the noon siren each Tuesday, during which 65 air raid-style sirens around the City blast for 15 seconds as a test of the emergency warning system. While necessarily louder and far more piercing than the Sunday church bells, the siren’s reverberations are also part of the anticipated urban soundscape, providing a sense of reassurance in its regularity—it must be noon on Tuesday!—reminding that the City’s warning system is fully functional.
In this context, it’s notable that Potrero Hill-based artist Paul Kos has created a bell for the new San Francisco Public Safety Building, located in Mission Bay. The bell is at the hub of artwork the San Francisco Art Commission selected Kos to create for a community plaza adjacent to the building. The site will house the San Francisco Police Department Command Center Headquarters, the Southern District Police Station, and a new fire station.
After being awarded the commission, Kos searched for an icon that would conceptually link the police and fire departments. His research uncovered the fact that while both fire and police vehicles have sirens, every San Francisco fire truck also carries a cast bronze bell. This knowledge motivated Kos to design a 22,000 pound, cast bronze bell that will ring three times daily: at 15 seconds before noon, noon, and 15 seconds after noon, to let the community know that all’s well. Kos named the sculpture “The All is Well Bell,” with the intention of creating a significant counterpoint to the warnings denoted by fire and police bells and sirens.
The experience will be enhanced by the bell’s chosen tone, which is D below middle C, a rich sound that will resonate for as long as four minutes. Varnished so its exterior won’t tarnish, the bell’s 1,000 pound clapper—its “tongue”—is made of soft steel, a material chosen to enhance its sound quality. The bell was cast at the Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, France, which has created bells for more than 200 years. It will travel by ship through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, where it’s expected to arrive in early spring, 2014.
Because Kos’ bell is planned to ring at the noon hour each day, it will have the potential to become a call to the local community to come to the Public Safety Plaza at lunch time. Other significant plaza elements include trees that will create wind break and shade, and a seven-point sculptural police star made of Sierra black granite, where people will be able to sit and talk or eat their lunch, a social function the artist hopes to engender. Red concentric circles rendered on the plaza surface will emanate from the bell, concretizing its reverberating sound.
Paul Kos has a long interest in and relationship with bells, which emerged, in part, from his childhood experiences as an altar boy. As an artist, he first worked with bells in 1986 for his piece Sympathetic Vibrations, which he created while in an artist residency at the Capp Street Project. Unlike his All is Well Bell, for Sympathetic Vibrations Kos brought together a team of eleven people to ring eight large, loud, bells daily at noon for 30 days. He describes this action as his first “social sculpture,” one where he rang bells to evoke the various ritual and communal functions the instruments serve.
Kos has created numerous other bells for museums and public art locations around the world, and has occasionally used bells in his installations. For each of these bell pieces he’s had different intentions, sometimes social or political, other times personal, but each of them has been created as art.
Within Kos’ oeuvre, the All is Well Bell is unique as he’s blended its identities as a working bell and an artwork. He hopes that the bell will create a symbiotic relationship with the neighborhood, “as when the police star and tree are silent, the one with the tongue will let us know that all is well.”
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