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Curious Origins Of The Wings of Freedom Sculpture

Above: A rendering of the "Wings of Freedom" sculpture being proposed for the tip of Navy Pier in downtown San Diego.

Aired 11/17/11 on KPBS News.

San Diegans will soon weigh in on a proposed 500-foot sculpture for San Diego’s Navy Pier called Wings of Freedom. But the sculpture’s design has curious origins.

Artist Malcolm Leland. Photo courtesy of Leland's nephew, Richard Moore.
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Above: Artist Malcolm Leland. Photo courtesy of Leland's nephew, Richard Moore.

Magnificent. Iconic. A set of bunny ears. A giant hood ornament.

Those are just some of the terms used to describe Wings of Freedom, a massive sculpture being considered for the tip of Navy Pier.

The sculpture resembles two sails rising out of the ground to tower 500 feet over San Diego Bay.

Partial credit for the design goes to Malcolm Leland, a San Diego artist known locally for the Bow Wave, a bronze sculpture in the civic plaza in downtown San Diego.

The original model for
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Above: The original model for "Harbor Wings," an amphitheater with a retractable sail roof designed by artist Malcolm Leland.

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Above: "Harbor Wings" with the roof lowered to cover the amphitheater seating area.

It was more than 25 years ago that Leland developed a different design he was quite proud of, according to shop owner David Skelley.

Skelley owns Boomerang for Modern in Little Italy and is a close friend of Leland's. He says Leland was so proud of his design he built a small wooden model of it. "Malcolm, when he designed this model, had a very simplistic name and a very appropriate name, called 'Harbor Wings.' ”

Skelley doesn’t think much of the name, Wings of Freedom. "It’s pretty hokey. It’s not what Malcolm would call it."

It’s not just the name that’s different. Leland’s original design was an outdoor amphitheater with two large sails that could fold down over a seating area to shield the audience from rain or harsh sun.

Skelley exhibited Leland’s model design in his store. "People were always blown away by it. It was like, 'This needs to be built!' "

Skelley was surprised when shown a picture of today’s proposed Wings of Freedom sculpture. "Well, that doesn’t look like Malcolm to me. I wonder how this got this far from the original concept, which is very, very different."

Today Malcolm Leland lives in an assisted living center in Portland. I called him to talk about his design. He’s going to be 90 this year and he's quite frail. In an almost whisper, he admitted, "well, I’m frustrated that they’re not using my idea because it’s so simple."

He said there are likely reasons why they can’t use the original design, both technical and financial.

Leland added: "I’m kind of in the dark. It's so far beyond my having any effect on it I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. It was an honor to have done the original and maybe someday somebody will build it."

The 1972
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Above: The 1972 "Bow Wave" sculpture completed by Malcolm Leland in 1972. ByChimay Bleue

Hal Sadler is the founder of the firm Tucker Sadler Architects. He’s guided the sculpture proposal through its many iterations. Sadler is also a longtime friend of Leland’s. We sat in his offices on the 16th floor of the Wells Fargo building, overlooking dramatic views of San Diego Bay. I asked Sadler who designed Wings of Freedom.

"Well, it’s kind of a team that worked on it. Me on the original and certainly Malcolm Leland. He was a vital part of the team but we all gathered together and created the forms," Sadler said.

Greg Miller is the CEO at Tucker Sadler and he sat in on my interview with Sadler. Miller added: "This is a perfect example of artists and architects working together to come up with a perfect solution."

Leland’s amphitheater was estimated to cost $130 million dollars. Wings of Freedom will cost $35 million. Philanthropist Denny Sanford, who lives part of the time in La Jolla, has pledged the entire $35 million to build it.

I asked Sadler if he thinks the sculpture will actually get built. He didn't skip a beat. "Sure I do. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have spent 20 years of my life sitting around, worrying about it, spending half of our profits every year trying to get out on it."

After being out of touch for a couple of years, Sadler spoke with Malcolm Leland the very day he and I met. I asked him what they talked about. "We talked about the design, of course. He’s saying is there any hope at all (for the original design) and I told him a number of times there’s not. And we both commiserated a little bit …. When you have something you’ve done that’s so special, you don’t want to ever give it up. You just keep going, keep trying to make it happen."

As for the name of the sculpture, it was the Midway Museum who came up with Wings of Freedom. (The Museum is responsible for proposing a development project for Navy Pier to the Port District). Greg Miller explained. "They looked at it as a perfect example of wings of freedom, sails of freedom, and they coined the term. And that’s the beauty of art and architecture. It’s open to interpretation and people can see what they want in the structure."

That may be both the beauty and the curse. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good art.

Mary Beebe is the director of the Stuart Collection at UCSD. She’s not a fan of Wings of Freedom.

It would be so great if San Diego could get an internationally known artist to do something important on the waterfront. Rather than [this sculpture that looks like] water wings that children wear. It’s really an opportunity to do something significant that would be internationally recognized instead of something that looks so silly."

Hal Sadler obviously disagrees. "It’s a proud statement of who we are and what we can be. It’s a major step forward."

According to recent polls, public opinion is split down the middle on whether Wings of Freedom should be built. The public will get to weigh in on "Wings of Freedom" in a series of meetings beginning November 29th.

The Midway Museum (developers of the proposed park and sculpture) will hold three public meetings on the Navy Pier plan, all at the port's headquarters, 3165 Pacific Highway: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 and 9 a.m. Dec. 10.

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Avatar for user 'dialyn'

dialyn | November 17, 2011 at 6:39 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

It took 20 years and a team of people to come up with giant bunny ears? Well, the joke is on the City of San Diego -- a celebration of wasteful spending and ego stroking. The perfect symbol for San Diego.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | November 17, 2011 at 8:39 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

First off, I would like to commend the originators of this proposal for at least trying and thinking BIG and OUT OF THE BOX.

Our city needs this.

With that said, I would like to see more proposals.

I'm afraid the nautical theme is a bit sophomoric and the piece just seems to be lacking in depth and meaning.

What does it represent?

The Sea?

Many world cities are located on the sea and have ports.

Come up with something more original that will set us apart.

Reach into San Diego's true heritage, and come up with something a bit more complex.

Something that will make viewers think and go "wow".

By the way, from the interview I heard on NPR it seems like this current rendition is quite a bit off from the original concept Leland designed, so I think folks should keep this in mind before being too critical of him.

And as for the people currently involved in trying to get this off the ground, a word of advice: you don't skimp on cost and original design when trying to create an icon that will represent our city to the world. That doesn't say iconic, it says cheap and mediocre.

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Avatar for user 'jimiangst'

jimiangst | November 17, 2011 at 8:45 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Great report Angela.

All I have to say is – seriously? Another sculpture as a signature "hood ornament" plopped down in front of a problematic redevelopment design? We have now suffered through proposals for 5 hideous whales ($50,000.000.00), a third rate plastic copy of an Alfred Eisenstaedt iconic photo, and now a huge ($35,000,000.00) meaningless abstraction called "Wings of Freedom”.

When will San Diego Unified Port District Commissioners, the pier redevelopment team, and the Midway Museum board ever learn that grand gestures make very poor public art? How do you explain that distorting and enlarging a questionable design out of context and behind closed doors, architects end up designing more architecture – not art? And don’t try to convince us that architects are public artists.

SDUPD seems to be aimless and clueless when it comes to Art in Public Places. For $35,000,000.00, SDUPD could commission and own one of the largest collections of Sculpture and Public art in the entire nation - if not the world, and put this city on the world's cultural map.

Limited vision and parochial imaginations continue to doom this city to perpetual mediocrity, and this is a prime example why public art is too complex to be hyped and promoted within an architectural/developer feedback loop system.

We have many great public artists here locally including Robert Irwin. We will never have decent Public Art in San Diego until we learn to trust and draw upon their expertise.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | November 17, 2011 at 10:27 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Thank you for commenting. I'm always curious if people plan to go to the public meetings to voice their opinions there. Do all of you plan to go?

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Avatar for user 'jimiangst'

jimiangst | November 17, 2011 at 11:03 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Hi Angela: My history with SDUPD goes back more than 20 years when I was brought in to meetings and hearings as a Public Art peer advisor (I was the former Public Art Coordinator for the City of Carlsbad, and I teach sculpture and public art at Grossmont College. I also am a practicing public Artist). Even at that time, the Port Commissioners ignored the advice we offered on how to build and administrate a successful Public Art Program.

I have attended innumerable SDUPD meetings in the past, and frankly I feel I have done my part to promote and guide Culture and Public Art in San Diego (I co-authored the proposal and studies to convert the San Diego Navel Training Center into what has now become Liberty Station, as well as several other initiatives in the region).

My personal frustration with the Port District is that they never trust or listen to experts in our community, and they are dismissive of advice from Public Artists, Arts Administrators and Consultants they retained over the years. Instead Port Commissioners make decisions based upon non-existent criteria and often bypass the very processes they set up for Public Art projects. That micro-management is why the Port has experienced so many misfires and cancelled proposals over the years.

After all these years, I have not decided yet if I will become involved in this issue at this time. I will give it some thought, but my sense is that the culture of the board (who is unelected and therefore unaccountable to the voters) is entirely too enamored with the developers and firms they hire for voices like my own to make any difference.

If in fact the developer already has $35,000,000.00 donated to build this - these hearings probably are Pro-forma, and the decision has already been made at this point behind closed doors. That is business as usual in San Diego.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | November 17, 2011 at 11:54 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Jimiangst: that's disappointing to hear, though I've heard similar things from others. I'll be interested to see if anything is different for this round. As you suggest, I wonder how much the secured funding will impact tone and outcome of the public hearings.

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Avatar for user 'DonWood'

DonWood | November 17, 2011 at 6:37 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

The bastardization of Leland's original concept into a titanium tampax is the product of Hal Sadlers giant ego. He wants a permanent, skyscraper sized memorial to his interest in sailing. He also wants to demonstrate that he and Malin Burnham can do anything they want downtown and on our waterfront, regardless of what the public wants. They've gotten away with it for decades, so they expect they can do it again. The sculpture proposal also distracts the local media away from the Midway Museum's attempt to violate the Port Master Plan and the California Coastal Act by building a two story high parking garage covering all of Navy Pier, instead of building the public park on the existing pier deck as required by the Port Master Plan.

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Avatar for user 'travisz'

travisz | November 17, 2011 at 7:17 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Could he alter it a bit and make it a Solar Sail and generate energy for the city?

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Avatar for user '87marine'

87marine | November 18, 2011 at 9:07 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Please tell me this is not going to happen, that we are not going to erect this monstrosity -- the idea of a whack job who calls himself an artist -- in our city. Someone come to their senses, and soon.

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Avatar for user 'inetnate'

inetnate | November 18, 2011 at 9:22 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

This design should incorporate some wind power generation if it is going to be so tall and blocking the skyline. At leaste make it functional if it isn't going to be asthetically pleasing.

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Avatar for user 'jjschlichtman'

jjschlichtman | November 18, 2011 at 12:54 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

There is a history of this in San Diego. Something great is proposed, something mediocre is accepted. Why not wait until we have the money to build the great? Once stuff is built, it is there a while. You don't get a second chance to build a city hall or a waterfront or a...

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Avatar for user 'ematus'

ematus | November 18, 2011 at 1 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

I look at the new concept and the original concept and conclude the project was hijacked by someone. The original concept had some great functionality but was somewhat crude in it's artistry. While the latest proposal looks nonsequitur to the surroundings and each wing to the other. If you look at the Sydney Opera House the shapes are complimentary which the "Wings of Freedom" (yes that name is hokey and not an improvement over "Harbor Wings") are not. A series of perhaps three wings which start as a conventional sail shape and progress through a modern wing shape and end with a futuristic shape would at this size be something that might be appreciated by all cultures and levels of artistic appreciation. Have wind tunnel tests been performed by the current proposed piece. It looks like it might present an engineering problem during stormy winds from directions that don't occur very often. Three wings in close proximity could present a shape that would break up any direction's wind and reduce risk of a collapse or stress failures as the piece ages.

Looks like a little more work on artistry and engineering is needed but I agree and "World Class Art Piece" would be a benefit to promoting San Diego as a destination.

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Avatar for user 'jjschlichtman'

jjschlichtman | November 18, 2011 at 1:02 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

The amphitheater concept has the benefit of being both great and local.

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Avatar for user 'paulism1984'

paulism1984 | December 4, 2011 at 7:16 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Hi everyone, lets not build this, it's an insult to integrity for one simple reason, the signing into law of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act makes us LESS free and so to have any iconic symbol propping up 'Freedom' like a catch- phrase for the biggest military industrial complex city in the country is completely incoherent.
Rather, Let's get a statue of big sky high metal detectors and TSA frisking a child with a complete conformist expression on her face.

"freedom ain't free" say you? No, it's not, WE pay for it, with our 'Freedom.'

Here's a link for what the Patriot Act allows:

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