Artist Julie Chang Secret Garden project

Julie Chang’s 23,000 square foot terrazzo floor, Secret Garden, took her ten years of meticulous work

Julie W. Chang’s, Secret Garden at Salesforce Transit Centre, San Francisco, was honoured at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in Minneapolis among 50 outstanding public arts projects.

Julie Chang, the child of Chinese immigrants, grew up in Southern California in a home decorated with Baroque and Rococo patterns. Chang won her first public art commission right out of her MFA program at Stanford. Her 23,000-square-foot terrazzo floor for the Grand Hall of the new Transbay Terminal evokes a Victorian garden with imagery mined from the local ecology and other symbols that represent the people and cultures that are a part of the fabric of the Bay Area. 

Julie Chang’s impeccable use of colour and control over her paintbrush has breathtaking technique. While from afar, Chang’s masterpieces appear ambiguously patterned, a closer observation will lend insight into her carefully crafted compositions coalescing a variety of symbols, images, and designs. Chang’s California origin and Chinese heritage have certainly influenced the significant social themes addressed in her work, directly portraying a synergy between commodification and cultural practice, interlaced with her own personal experience.

Secret Garden, a 23,000 square feet terrazzo floor located in the Salesforce Transit Centre’s Grand Hall, San Francisco, welcomes visitors into a richly coloured inviting environment that evokes a lush sunlit Victorian garden that is inspired by local ecology, design elements include California poppies (the state flower) and jewel-toned hummingbirds.

Integrated into the design is a subtle overlay of icons and patterns that draw from the rich tapestry of people and cultures across the Bay Area. Motifs include flower-like circular rings from an Indian sari, cloud-like curves inspired by Chinese embroidery, Japanese crests, diamonds and chevrons found in a variety of sources including African textiles and Grecian pottery and star and cross shapes from Islamic tiles.  Throughout the design, symbols migrate, cross boundaries and become transformed by encounters with other forms, offering moments of surprise and delight for commuters and visitors going about their daily lives.

It is an intricate installation that contains sixteen colours and 375 waterjet-cut elements of brass and zinc, beautifully complementing the scale and architectural elements of the space. The terrazzo was installed on a concrete topping slab that contains a radiant flooring system over several inches of rigid foam insulation. The design and installation of the floor also had to take into account a second phase of construction, in which large structural slabs will be removed for the installation of escalators to provide access to projected commuters and high-speed rail.

 The Salesforce Transit Centre welcomes scores of people (and their feet). However, since the people who venture into the transit centre are only there for a few seconds, Chang had to plan for brief encounters with commuters rushing to and from buses and trains.

“I hope visitors are transported into this garden while they’re going about their daily commute so that they can have an open space, where they can also just be in the moment,” Chang said in a press preview before the transit centre’s official opening.

She sees the centre — and San Francisco — as a nexus of diverse cultures. Secret Garden is her homage to a city she’s lived in for almost 20 years and which is “the only place that’s ever felt like home.”

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