File cabinets are purely functional and rarely attractive, but last June, Bren Alvarez began to envision these hulking office fixtures as conceptual public art. The 45-year-old Burlington architect, who also co-owns the Flynndog gallery, wanted to create a satirical sculpture that would comment on the bureaucracy of urban planning. "The idea just flashed in my mind like a cartoon," she recalls, referring to what is now a more than 40-foot-tall monument to state and municipal persistence.
Titled "File Under So. Co., Waiting for...," the assemblage rises up from an otherwise vacant lot overtaken by weeds on the north side of Flynn Avenue, just west of Pine Street. Alvarez says the structure symbolizes the paperwork that has accumulated since 1965, when the controversial Southern Connector was first proposed to link downtown Burlington with Interstate 89. The purpose of the stalled beltway, which would stretch about two-and-a-half miles through the South End, is to relieve traffic congestion on Shelburne Road.
Alvarez's narrow monolith is a stack of 11 metal filing cabinets in brown, beige, black, gray and green, with a total of 38 drawers. "I wanted one drawer for every year the project's been in existence," she explains. "The sculpture is very site-specific; it's right on the center line of the Connector."
The cabinets are welded together and stabilized by an interior steel post. On one side, Alvarez used a blow torch to emblazon a map of the area along with a timeline in Roman numerals that reflects the phantom road's history from 1965 to the present. In 1981, for instance, a land-use permit was approved with the stipulation that contaminated soil next to the nearby Barge Canal must first be removed. In 1999, a temporary skateboard park opened on the only section of the Southern Connector that has been constructed to date, not far from Home Avenue.
Over the decades, as the project experienced one delay after another, the corridor's route and design were changed, often as a result of heated debate. Some residents felt the sense of neighborhood would be destroyed; others saw the potential benefits — a solution to traffic and parking problems — as outweighing the damage. Ultimately, the road was scaled back from four lanes to two. Almost two generations' worth of viewpoints later, the so-called Champlain Parkway is still on the drawing board.
"My assemblage is not a slam to the city," Alvarez contends. "It's an ironic, irreverent look at the public process."
Whatever the message, she would like the medium to survive. "Last I heard, they're talking about completion of the project in 2004," Alvarez says. "So, in two years, if "File Under' is still there, maybe I can add more cabinets."
Although her initial request to city officials was for a temporary installation to coincide with the recent South End Art Hop, Alvarez now hopes that the piece can live on. She is seeking permission to extend the welcome at least until the beltway is actually a done deal.
"It doesn't matter to me if it stays there," suggests Steve Goodkind, director of the city's public works department. "But there may be a zoning requirement. Technically, it's on a future right-of-way."
That future, he adds, is not necessarily another 38 years off. "The connector is moving forward," Goodkind says. "We still have a few permit hurdles, but construction could begin as early as the fall of 2003."
When Alvarez dreamed up "File Under" this spring, she mentioned it to her husband, David Farrington, Jr. "He didn't say anything at all," she remembers. "Then, three weeks later, he told me: 'I know where I can get you some file cabinets.' Fletcher Allen was giving them away. I got both vintage and contemporary there.
"The older cabinets have springs and levers inside, brass name plates and handles outside. They're so heavy I had trouble dragging them. The newer styles are light as tin," Alvarez points out. "What I learned about file cabinets could fill, well, a file."
Her next step was to approach the experts for help. She consulted an engineer. Reliance Steel in Colchester allowed Alvarez to scour their "boneyard" full of scrap, where she found four sturdy posts that could be welded together as one. Metalworks on Flynn Avenue, which agreed to do the structural welding, donated a portion of the company's parking lot so she could place the file cabinets end to end for gutting. She removed the tops, bottoms and innards of each one. The drawers, some left partially open, are actually now facades that were reattached.
"I cut for a month," Alvarez explains. "It was great. They taught me how to weld."
At the site, her volunteers from S.T. Griswold in Williston poured a reinforced-concrete block on top of a plastic sheet to lay a 10-by-10-foot foundation that is 18 inches high. The structure is attached with eight one-inch-diameter bolts. At the top, a slab of steel with an egg-shaped hole in it can accommodate grappling hooks when, and if, the sculpture needs to be removed.
From a distance, "File Under" resembles one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Strangely, the Burlington artwork went up on September 11 at the very moment that the first plane had attacked New York one year earlier.
"That was just a coincidence," Alvarez says. "We began at dawn in the rain and wind. My husband was driving a Bobcat, which is a small bucket loader, backwards at the front end of it. Mike from Metalworks was on the other end of it with a forklift. I was walking next to it. We were moving at three miles per hour. Then, as the crane we hired was lifting the 2800-pound piece into place, a strong gust made it swing sideways. And we had to stop for a half-hour until the lightning passed."
Despite the adverse weather, the sculpture was quickly made vertical. "It took, like, three seconds to lift and three seconds to bolt it down," Alvarez notes. "Some people have worried about safety, but there's solid steel inside. It's geared to sway 16.9 inches in a 75-mile-per-hour wind. I do get a vertigo feeling, though, when I look up at it."
Reasoning that "File Under" might merit a literary component, in July Alvarez contacted poet Marylen Grigas, who has lived in the South End for 20 years. "A week later, she called me back after doing all this research. She had written a 30-minute play, Paper Highway. It's hilarious."
The one-act show was performed three times at the site during the weekend-long Art Hop by a cast of eight, along with the Burlington Taiko drummers, who are tenants in the Flynndog building. Audiences were encouraged to come early for "mezzanine seating" on an 18-wheel flatbed truck provided by S.T. Griswold. "We had mowed a circle with a radius of 22 feet around the assemblage, which made a perfect theater," Alvarez notes.
Paper Highway, subtitled A Farce in Fifteen Files, is about people in the year 2552 who make an exciting archaeological discovery. Two CNN reporters think the stack of cabinets is an ancient shrine to the gods. "This is definitely a religious artifact," muses one of the characters, who wonders about the vanished civilization behind an abandoned road to nowhere.