A River of Blue Light

German artist presents design for municipal center art
Herbert Dreiseitl stands near a scale model of his proposed water sculpture during a presentation on Monday. (Photo by the writer.)

Herbert Dreiseitl stands near a scale model of his proposed water sculpture during a presentation on Monday. (Photo by the writer.)

Although he was born there, Herbert Dreiseitl doesn’t belong to Germany. He doesn’t belong to Norway, Australia or Singapore either. He belongs to the planet.

That’s what Dreiseitl – the artist the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission hired to create a public art installation at the new city municipal center – told the audience at a presentation on Monday morning at city hall.

“As a person, I always feel home where I am,” Dreiseitl said.

The controversy over the municipal center project – especially the fact that AAPAC isn’t using a local artist for the nearly $800,000 project – drove Dreiseitl to make those remarks as he presented his designs for the artwork during his recent visit to Ann Arbor.

He spent most of the day on Monday in public and private meetings about his work, including a morning session with city staff and art commissioners, a public reception and a formal presentation to city council.

Structural Details

The German artist, who has over 20 years of experience integrating art with urban landscapes and stormwater, proposed a water-driven work to draw people into the new city hall entrance with its flow. Dreiseitl used two scale models, sketches and a PowerPoint presentation to express his vision for the installation.


A drawing of what Herbert Dreiseitl's water sculpture would look like upon completion. It would be located in a plaza on the Huron Street side of the new municipal center, next to a planned rain garden.

The sculpture would consist of a large, upright piece made of two rectangular metal plates standing close together, facing Huron Street. Water would flow down the front piece, which would be concave at the top and transition to a convex shape at the bottom. The water would flow from the top and drain out the back, continuing on toward the building like a river. Tanks connected to the center’s rain garden would store and filter water so it could be circulated through the sculpture repeatedly.

Dreiseitl’s models showed a bridge over the river-like part of the sculpture, as well as a couple of benches alongside it. He explained that he wanted to integrate his work with the surrounding architecture and landscape.

“This should not be an isolated piece of art,” Dreiseitl said.

The vertical part of the sculpture would be approximately 3 feet wide at the top, 3.3 feet wide at its base and 16.5 to 20 feet tall. It would lean back at an angle toward the building. That element, along with the direction of the water’s flow, would serve to bring people in toward the building’s entrance, Dreiseitl said.

Dreiseitl mentioned that he wanted the flowing water “very shallow,” so it wouldn’t be a danger to children. He indicated the depth by holding his thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart.

As for material, Dreiseitl said he envisioned “a very big, beautiful piece of rusty steel” for the vertical part of the sculpture (although his designs also listed bronze as an option).

“It’s something which has history,” Dreiseitl said of his ideal material. “Patina.”

As for the ramp the water would travel along from the back of the standing part of the sculpture toward the building, Dreiseitl said he could use either concrete or Cor-Ten steel. He expressed a preference for the steel.

Blue LED lights

LED lights illuminate glass spheres, which Dreiseitl described as "pearls," to be incorporated into the scuplture. (Photo by the writer.)

Use of Light

He also explained another element to the sculpture: light. Glass spheres – or “pearls,” as Dreiseitl called them – with cavities for waterproof LED lights would be mounted with screw systems so they peek through holes in the steel. The water would flow over them. As an example, Dreiseitl showed a piece of metal with two “pearls” mounted on it, radiating blue light. He described the possibility of them fading in and out to create their own wave-like pattern. The artist also pointed out that the LED lights wouldn’t require much maintenance, even though his design makes it possible to replace the lights, if needed.

“This lasts, really, almost forever,” Dreiseitl said of the lights.

He said the sculpture should be lit at night, mentioning several options to accomplish this. They could install a floodlight at the back of the sculpture, or use the illumination of nearby street lamps. However, he said he didn’t want to overdo it.

“I would not put too much,” Dreiseitl said. “Water always reflects. So the water doesn’t need light.”

Inside the Building

Dreiseitl’s vision didn’t stop at the building’s entrance – the project includes two pieces on the walls inside the new building. One of his concepts: a relief of the Huron River watershed, featuring the same LED pearls used on the outside sculpture to show the movement of the water.

“The piece of art is celebrating the water of the region,” Dreiseitl said.

His other idea involved engravings of local plants, showing the extensive root systems they’ve developed for survival. The lights would make an appearance here as well, in a pattern demonstrating the water’s journey from sky to soil.

The Design Philosophy

Dreiseitl didn’t just incorporate water for aesthetic appeal or motion; he explained that it possesses a deeper meaning to him, particularly in the context of the municipal center and the region.

“Water is getting more and more critical and more and more important,” Dreiseitl said. He added that it’s especially relevant in this area, with all of the lakes and rivers.

On a personal level, Dreiseitl said water connects to spirituality and humanity. He discussed how tears can convey different emotions – joy or pain – and how water helps people “to relax and be open.”

Since his sculpture would also be near the court and police station, Dreiseitl said it would help people put their individual problems in perspective.

“What happens to this entrance here?” Dreiseitl said. “People come with different expectations. The city hall is something bringing the community together. Also, very personal decisions are done at the court.”

Seeing the sculpture and watching the water will hopefully remind them of something larger than they are, Dreiseitl said. As his PowerPoint stated, “Water and rain are beautiful symbols that connect us to the world outside ourselves.”

Using Local Resources

After expressing his awareness of the fact that his non-local status is a sore point for some Ann Arbor residents, Dreiseitl stressed the fact that he wants to obtain the materials and perform the labor for his work locally. He mentioned collaborating with the University of Michigan and area scientists on creating the designs on the walls inside the building as well as creating the outdoor sculpture. Companies in the region could also provide the materials.

“I want to produce everything here in the U.S., in the region,” Dreiseitl said. “This is a region for steel.”

During one of his presentations, Dreiseitl informed the city council that he was already aware of companies with the capability to shape and curve steel in the way he wanted, though he didn’t want to mention specific companies by name. The next step in the process would be narrowing the selection down to a few companies and investigating them more closely.

Why Dreiseitl?

This isn’t the first time Dreiseitl has spent time in Ann Arbor. In a one-on-one interview with The Chronicle, he explained that the Huron River Watershed Council brought him here to lecture last September. He also spoke at UM during that trip, and to AAPAC, whose members were working on the public art component of the municipal center project.

“They really were impressed with my artwork and my environmental and social context,” Dreiseitl said.

They asked him if he would participate in the project, and he accepted.

“It’s an interesting way to bring some hope and perspective to people,” Dreiseitl said of the installation. “The topic of water is very strong here.”

He described his extensive experience with water-related projects. During his presentation on Monday, he showed examples of some of his work. His portfolio includes pieces in Germany, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland (among other countries). He’s also done work in U.S. cities such as New York and Portland.

His design for the municipal center piece conveys some of the same style as his other projects, but it has unique aspects to it.

“The lines and everything are certainly a Dreiseitl design,” he said. However, he hasn’t previously incorporated the LED lights poking through metal.

“This is an idea that’s new,” he said.

Dreiseitl mentioned that he’s paid attention to the media here and therefore knows that some are less than happy that AAPAC is spending a substantial chunk of funding ($77,000 for preliminary design work and roughly $700,000 for the completed artwork) on a non-local artist.

“I’m a world citizen,” Dreiseitl said, echoing his earlier public statement. “I do things in the U.S. a lot.”

The controversy also led to his “special concept” of using local materials and labor.

“I’m very aware of the sensitivity,” Dreiseitl said.

AAPAC Chair Margaret Parker also addressed the issue in her introduction at a public reception for Dreiseitl Monday afternoon.

“We had also looked at artists from Michigan,” Parker said. “We looked at artists from the Midwest region. We looked at artists from around the country. We looked at artists from around the world.”

Questions and Reactions

Attendees at Dreiseitl’s presentations had no lack of questions and concerns about his proposed work.

AAPAC member Elaine Sims expressed a desire for a more fluid design for the standing part of the sculpture.

“I’d love to see something that just has a little more flow to the shape of it,” Sims said. “There’s a tension there that’s just too tense for me.”

Dreiseitl responded that he wanted the sculpture to be more “organized” than “romantic.”

“All the architecture is straight,” Dreiseitl said of the work’s surroundings. Therefore, he reasoned a more flowing shape wouldn’t mesh with its environment.

Some wanted to know if it would be possible to climb the large vertical piece. The answer seemed to be no, as Dreiseitl explained it would be too steep and the water cascading down it would complicate things (although he joked that a practiced rock climber might be able to scale it).

Another question concerned maintenance. Dreiseitl said he had designed the artwork with the aim of keeping it low-maintenance. For example, there would be no running water in the winter (to prevent problems with frozen pipes) and no standing water at any time. The lights would require a computer system, which Dreiseitl said might take one person in city hall to manage (although it would run itself once installed). Other than that, it should probably be cleaned once a year with a brush or pressure washer.

“In all my projects, I take a lot of care with this issue,” Dreiseitl said. “It’s a question of how to design it very clever and very smart.”

At the public reception, most people seemed in favor of Dreiseitl and his ideas.

Linda Diane Feldt, a holistic health practitioner, said she had understood those who opposed Dreiseitl because he wasn’t a local artist until she saw him and his ideas.

“I was sympathetic until I went and saw who he was and the concepts that he’s creating around the world. This is a world-class installation,” Feldt said.

But the controversy had its advantages in inspiring him to go local with the process of creating the installation, she said.

“The good thing about that conflict…it has changed his approach,” Feldt said.

City intern Adrienne Marino also expressed enthusiasm for Dreiseitl’s work.

“I think he’s a world-renowned artist in this type of art, and it’s really exciting that he’s doing something for the city,” Marino said.

Landlord Nick Contaxes was more cautious in making a judgement; he said he’d come to the presentation “mainly to get some information.”

“I’m still trying to form a picture of what’s going on,” Contaxes said. “I didn’t know [Dreiseitl’s] distinctive motif.”

Contaxes expressed some uncertainty about the financial aspect of the project.

“Is it a good thing to do? I say definitely, yes,” Contaxes said. “Can we afford to do it? That’s a different question.”

Next Steps

Dreiseitl gave his presentation on the project three times. AAPAC commissioners, members of the municipal center task force, city representatives and others involved in the design and building process attended a meeting in the morning. The next presentation took place in the afternoon, for attendees of the public reception. Finally, Dreiseitl explained his plans to the members of the Ann Arbor City Council. All of those presentations were open to the public. The presentation to the city council was also broadcast on Community Television Network and can be viewed on the city’s website.

AAPAC and the task force also met that afternoon to discuss Dreiseitl’s proposal. According to an AAPAC handout describing the day’s events, the task force discussed Dreiseitl’s proposal concentrating on “whether the proposal fulfills the mission, direction, and spirit of the public art envisioned for the Municipal Center.” Similarly, AAPAC met to “concentrate on whether the proposal fits within the larger priorities that AAPAC has set for public art for the whole community.”

The task force will make a recommendation to AAPAC, which will discuss the design at its Aug. 11 regular meeting, unless they decide to schedule a special meeting before then specifically to focus on this project. Then, AAPAC will make a recommendation to city council. If council approves that recommendation and the project, city staff will proceed with negotiations with Dreiseitl.

At the public reception after the meetings, Parker said it was too soon for the commission to hint at a decision.

“This is the day that we are all listening and looking and thinking about it,” Parker said. “We’re working on our decision. But I think that there has been real excitement surrounding it.”

About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. July 22, 2009 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    I like it. If we’ve got to spend $800,000 on a piece of art, this looks like a good choice.

    However, I wish he would have made a 3D simulation available so that we could see the sculpture from different perspectives.

    Dave, maybe you can convince him to take is CAD Cam files,convert them and locate them on the Chronicle website. That would be both a coup and a contribution.

  2. By ROB
    July 22, 2009 at 3:37 pm | permalink

    Just as I suspected… a complete waste of taxpayer dollars by the clueless, so-called, “Public Art Commission”. Time to put them on a much shorter leash or abolish them altogether – it is obvious they can’t be trusted with our money. Next, we need to know who decided on the “one percent rule” with respect to funding all this nonsense and send them on a long walk off a short pier. Finally, come the next few elections we need to identify all the elected officials who had a hand in creating this boondoggle and send them packing. I suspect the current Mayor and his cronies are complicit, and will pay the price come election time. Hopefully the next administration will realize that Pfizer’s tax dollars are gone forever, and the money that used to flow from the auto industry into the local tax base is, too. There are far more pressing priorities for the remaining dollars than “public arts”, as many here have noted

  3. By John
    July 22, 2009 at 6:37 pm | permalink

    As a practicing artist I am appalled that this was not set up as a commission for local artists. We have one of the highest per capita artist demographics in all of the midwest – and we couldn’t find someone to do something amazing here? I guess the AAPAC would just throw Michigan out as a cultural resource if it could. An open call – publicized in the AA News would have been appropriate. Look at the energy being created in Grand Rapids with ArtPrize – and they will spend far less than $700,000. How uncreative a decision made by individuals who represent culture. WOW!!!

  4. By hospadaruk
    July 22, 2009 at 7:55 pm | permalink

    Great story Helen.
    It looks like a really nice work, I attended a seminar where Dreiseitl talked about many other of his installations and I like what he does. He is a remarkable guy and worth looking into. Check this out:
    link to Dreiseitl

    It’s no accident that A2 is remarkably buffered from the economic woes being experienced by the rest of SE Michigan. Ann Arbor is a place where people want to live and companies are attracted to it. Sure the U is a big contributor to this attraction, but so are the forward thinking townies that realize the value of things that are good and beautiful – we know they are necessary as well.
    I don’t mind a good witch hunt now and then, let’s see, who can we run out of town now…

  5. By mr dairy
    July 23, 2009 at 10:10 am | permalink

    I like the sculpture and sometimes art is not fully appreciated in concept or when first viewed. The problem with how the process was handled by the AAPAC and it’s location.

    The proposed sculpture is out of place at that location. City Hall is in a dead zone. It has no sense of place and I doubt that a sculpture will make people forget their troubles or reflect on their municipal business in a different way. We have a different and sometimes not so charitable view of government here in the US than Europeans do. City Hall has never been a place where people gather for reflection or socializing. I doubt that a beautiful sculpture will inspire people to sit and reflect regardless of Driesetl’s meaningful concept People will either glimpse the work as they drive by on Huron or 5th or when they attend to their timely public business. Few people actually enjoy going into city hall for much of anything. A work of art, no matter how high minded wont change this.

    I’m a firm believer in public art and think the 1% is a good idea, but this sculpture seems to me to be little more than a poorly thought out idea by political appointees in a location unrelated to the artists concept or his previous work. It’s more of a monument to government than it is a piece that makes us think our relationship to the environment.

    If there is serious consideration of a Greenway through downtown along the Allen Creek, such a work of art or something similar would have been better located along the Greenway where water is an integral part of our environment. It would have been an attraction along the Greenway and a place for people who seek a green open space in downtown for relaxation or contemplation away from all the concrete and asphalt.

    This sculpture at that location is the result of insufficient public input and open debate. It is not the result of “thinking big” by anyone except the artist.

  6. By Julie
    July 23, 2009 at 10:31 am | permalink

    Mr. Dairy,
    My thoughts about the location differ from yours a bit. I agree it’s a bit of a dead zone. But as Ann Arbor continues to work on zoning etc to increase the vital areas downtown, the hope is that vitality will expand a bit geographically. And I know that I, for one, will walk the extra block or two to hang out at this new courtyard, bring my kids to visit it, etc. I’m sure I’m not the only one. We don’t have a lot of places downtown to go sit and take a rest (just Liberty Plaza, really), and I think this could be a destination place.

  7. By mr dairy
    July 23, 2009 at 12:10 pm | permalink

    I don’t think that many people will actually walk a few blocks to city hall for all but the most spectacular work of art. I also tend to doubt that many people will cross busy streets like Huron or 5th Ave. That sentiment (and according to the DDA’s constant desire for more downtown parking) is evident from people’s unwillingness to walk even a few blocks to a downtown restaurant or store much less to a sculpture at a municipal building.

    There is precious little green open space in downtown and Driesetl’s sculpture will be dwarfed by the buildings around it. Traffic pollution and noise, the Fire Hall won’t help anyone appreciate the what he’s trying to say. What little greenery or water there is in his work (7 months a year) associated with the sculpture wont negate its poor location. Real Big Picture thinking by the AAPAC (political appointees serving the “vision” of their appointers) and the bureaucrats and politicians who hold the purse strings would have been better served by open debate and discussion from a wider group of people including local artists.

    DrieseitI’s work would have been better located on the drainage area at the YMCA on Huron or along the proposed nearby Allen Creek Greenway than at city hall. I can better imagine you and your children walking along a greenway that follows the path of the Allen Creek and stopping to experience Driesetl’s work in pleasant surroundings more than I can imagining you crossing Huron to sit at the front door of the Police and Courts building to look at, contemplate, regardless of it’s high concept, what is little more than a modern fountain.

  8. July 23, 2009 at 1:00 pm | permalink

    Maybe it could be the centerpiece of the park at First and Washington.

  9. July 23, 2009 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    Sorry, meant First and William, where a parking lot currently exists and council is proposing a park. First and Washington is a development zone, of course.

  10. By Marvin Face
    July 23, 2009 at 4:26 pm | permalink

    I want to preface my comment by stating that I am absolutely for the 1% for art program. I think it is something that is great for Ann Arbor. However, I still have to agree with John in comment #3.

    If there is a blind competition that is open to all and judged on the creative and conceptual merits alone, I pretty much guarantee this design would not be the winner. How inspired is a small trickle of water, some steel, a few LED lights and massive sweeps of concrete? What does that say conceptually about the local area or the region we live in? And what about the inside…a relief map of the Huron River Watershed and engravings of local plants and their extensive root systems? I call “CLICHE”! You would the thrown out of first year design class if you tried something like that. What about bringing some water into the building so it reflects the sun or lights onto the ceiling or the tricle can be heard echoing though the lobby? Something.

    His basic concept is always to capture rainwater and recirculate it in an interesting way. Fine. Techically that part is simple. Lots of people could be given this as a design requirement and off we go to open local/regional/US/international artists to be inspired. I still maintain that, even though Margaret seems to be covering her tracks now saying they looked for artists, they essentially commissioned this work. I think it was the wrong approach.

    I have been to Tanner Springs Park in Portland that was at least partially designed by Herbert. If we got a Tanner Springs, or even a fraction of it, I would be ecstatic. We did not get a Tanner Springs Park.

  11. By mr dairy
    July 23, 2009 at 7:52 pm | permalink

    Thank you Ann Arbor Chronicle.

    This is the type of debate that the AAPAC should have engaged in before making any decision.

    Unfortunately, this was a decision made by an elite group chosen by another group of elitists with little input from a community fully prepared and equipped to debate and discuss these kinds of issues. Just another example of how skewed discussion of political, social and cultural issues has become in Ann Arbor.

  12. By Susan
    July 23, 2009 at 10:14 pm | permalink

    I really wanted to like this art. Really. But I’m with Marvin (10). Almost half the year this $800,000 steel and LED leaning tower fountain will be dry. How inspiring. At least he didn’t include a parking structure sized mural of himself designing it on the side of the “new” city hall.

  13. By Gill
    July 24, 2009 at 9:49 am | permalink

    Well, he is trying to make the most out of what is left after the poorly conceived City Hall expansion. There does not appear to have been much long range planning in the building placement, as it eliminates the possibility of ever including a sufficiently-sized court yard (gathering space) entrance to City Hall (sorry, Municpal Center). If the building addition were to have occurred on the north or east side of the existing building, a meeting space could have been established that would have had room for a more encompassing storm water display.