"Culture-a-go-go": The Ghirardelli Square sculpture controversy and the liberation of civic design in the 1960s

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In the early 1960s, historic Ghirardelli Square was crafted from old factory buildings by leading modernist architects, landscape architects, and innumerable allied artists, and to great acclaim emerged from the transformative crosscurrents of the Bay Area in that decade. In 1968 a public controversy over a new sculpture in Ghirardelli stirred latent attitudes towards the Square as a civic place and as an artifact of urban design. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin's demand for the removal of Ruth Asawa's mermaid sculpture galvanized debate over men's domination of the symbols and design of urban public space. While it began as a formulaic battle over the appropriateness of abstract or representational art, the controversy revealed that a different modernism was at stake, namely the boundaries of feminism, and the presence of women and female sexuality in public places. In the local context, the mermaids offered either a wholesome, maternal alternative to the neighboring topless club scene, or confirmed fears of an encroaching, corrupting public sexuality. Focusing on the Square and sculpture controversy, this essay explores how such civic-commercial sites brokered as well as distilled urban transformation. The generational revolutions in San Francisco and the national experimentations with urban redevelopment were woven together. These two stories of arts and place-the local and the national-intertwined as San Francisco's rebuilding crossed boundaries and redrew distinctions between historical and modern, preservation and renewal, men's and women's realms, art and urban design, benign form and radical content, and civic and commercial space.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)379-412
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of Social History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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