Julie Chang’s Terrazzo Floor in the Salesforce Transit Center Took Her a Decade

Secret Garden should be visible to commuters whenever the beleaguered terminal re-opens. Check it out if you haven't already.

Julie Chang worked on Secret Garden for 10 years. That’s 10 years of thinking and planning and figuring out exactly how she would design the 20,000-square-foot terrazzo floor of the new Salesforce Transit Center.

That’s a lot of planning — and a lot of floor. It’s about the same size as a large auditorium or a small football field. And, like a busy auditorium or a well-used field, the main floor of the Salesforce Transit Center welcomes scores of people (and their feet). But since the people who venture into the transit center 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 center’s official opening — and before the center was closed last week because of cracked steel beams.

When the center reopens, visitors will once again be able to step on Chang’s flowers, insects, birds, star patterns, and other shapes, all of which were painstakingly considered. Some of them act as de facto directionals, pointing people toward east, west, north, or south. Chang, a San Francisco resident who grew up in Orange County as the only daughter of Chinese immigrants, sees the center — 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.”

“To understand my work, it helps to understand my background,” she said on her preview. “I was raised in a white, predominantly affluent, conservative community in Orange County in the 1980s. [It was] a crash course in belonging or not belonging — a struggle with alienation. I was treated like a foreigner even though I was born in this country. Through that experience I found a voice and purpose that has directed my practice as an artist to this day. I’m constantly thinking and looking at how identities are constructed. How understanding or misunderstanding the Other might be resisted, subverted, and even reimagined.”

Because of that approach, Secret Garden mixes and matches the influences of different cultures, with shapes that borrow from Indian saris, Japanese crests, Chinese embroidery, African textiles, Islamic tiles, and other items. A white Victorian band weaves its way throughout the floor.

As Chang puts it: “I look at the vocabulary of cultural hybridity as a way to juxtapose different perspectives so we can talk about race, class, gender, and the commodification of culture. I weave together familiar icons that work as a metaphor for a new kind of social and political harmony.”

Commuters who really want to understand the work will want to read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, The Secret Garden, which inspired Chang to name the floor. One passage in particular riveted Chang, which she read to journalists as she stood atop Secret Garden: “In secret places we can think and imagine, we can feel angry or sad in peace. There is something to be said for just being, without worrying about offending anyone.”

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