“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” This line from Wizard of Oz (the 1939 movie, not the Frank E. Baum book) has ascended to such currency that’s it’s essentially a catchphrase. And those who use it, from age five to eighty-five, often forget the full connotation to its original function. Sure, it has something to do with the disembodied green head amidst flames and smoke, which collectively are supposed to instill awe and fear in Dorothy and her travel companions. But, thanks to Toto’s discovery, the beleaguered wizard has no choice but to utter his command—really more of a plea—so Dorothy and Company (and the viewers themselves) have no choice, after the wizard quickly yanks it back, to shift attention to the curtain itself…and the man hiding behind it. That emerald curtain is the entity that tries and ultimately fails to conceal the source of all that wizardry, a bunch of knobs and levers for which there is less than meets the eye. The revelation brings Dorothy’s heretofore surreal Technicolor adventure back to something approaching reality. Without the curtain to hide the source, the magic is gone.
It’s not that hard to find metaphoric curtains outside of Oz. (Frank Baum and Victor Fleming’s curtain was largely allegorical anyway.) Not far from the Clarendon metro stop in Arlington County, Virginia, one encounters an odd installation on a side street behind a few popular restaurants.
From the angle in the above photo, it doesn’t look like much, but that’s the point. Walking along the sidewalk adjacent to Fairfax Drive, this is what a pedestrian will see, and it isn’t likely to strike him or her as much of anything. Since it’s outdoors, it’s not a curtain, obviously. It serves the function of a fence, but it doesn’t look like most fences, even those with a dual function of inhibiting movement and blocking sight. But it’s not opaque like a wall, nor is it even transparent.
Though difficult to describe, I’d characterize it as a series of evenly spaced planks or louvers, almost like a vertical xylophone with each bar rotated 90 degrees. Or like vertical mini-blinds. If the pedestrian pivots ever so slightly to the left, the installation offers an entirely different view.
The louvers have enough of a gap between them that they’re easy see through, but they’re close enough that they don’t encourage peering between them. In fact—and this is precisely why I decided to feature this curtain/wall (whatever we want to call it)—I walked this stretch of Fairfax Drive dozens of times before I ever even really noticed this as an installation, as something out of the ordinary. Why did it take me so long? It makes a lot more sense when one steps off the sidewalk and crosses little Fairfax Drive.
Probably no surprise, but instead of a wizard behind the curtain, Arlington—or, rather Dominion Energy—gives us a substation.
A modern urban electrical grid hardly qualifies as magic in 2023. But for the average urbanite, the closest thing to a visible energy source is the nearest substation. In urban settings, they’re particularly prevalent, thanks no doubt in part to the density of demand—the strain placed on the grid in densely populated areas like this part of Arlington County. (I won’t pontificate on power loads any more than that. Not being an electrical engineer and having no more understanding than from elementary physics, I’m sure to embarrass myself.) More interesting than a substation’s role as the lifeblood to a downtown’s economic activity is its almost universally agreed upon unpleasantness. People don’t like to be around substations. Not only do they evoke danger, but they are almost uncompromisingly austere. They are a downtown’s equivalent to a home’s boiler or furnace room. (Okay, they’re probably closer to a home’s circuit breaker, but that analogy doesn’t carry as much weight. Literally.) Those who live near substations would rather not have to look at them, to the point that they can lower a property’s value or repel tenants from leasing space, unless the utility provider sheathes them.
So the curtain along Fairfax Drive tries to hide this substation, but it’s a half-hearted attempt.
Here’s why I still prefer to call the installation a curtain—or, more generically, an “installation”. Dominion Energy includes an author’s placard.
Dominion Energy commissioned local artist Ben Fehrmann to build this streetscape feature, named ballston* substation, and it replaced a chain link fence. Fehrmann notes that it gains or looses opacity depending on the angle of a pedestrian’s approach, but that it “is not an attempt to disguise the substation, but rather to resolve its physical presence with the urban environment it serves”. The narrative continues. I don’t customarily focus an article on the efforts of a single individual, but Fehrmann’s work is this article’s essence; I have to credit him, and I like the coy simplicity of his homepage. The QR code at the bottom of this artist placard links to a separate page from Arlington County, with a bit more info and additional links.
In short, this fence or wall or curtain receives exactly the same attribution one might expect at an art gallery. The name might be ballston* substation (Ballston is the neighborhood district and a nearby WMATA metro stop), but the treatment is akin to something curated, something indoors, like the curtains framing a museum’s display. It doesn’t conceal the substation; it merely de-emphasizes it. As one continues along Fairfax Drive, the curtain arcs inward toward the energy source; a more conventional chain-link fence serves as the barrier for the rest of the perimeter.
Like the folds of a curtain (or the slats of a mini-blind), the aesthetic impression differs upon the viewing angle, as well the interplay of light based on the time of day—artificial light at night, as was the case during these photos. It is both sufficiently distinct to generate interest that competes with the substation, and sufficiently banal to blend in with the surroundings. It depends more on the frame of mind of passers-by. Much like the wizard’s curtain, it can become the replacement focal point, depending on the context, drawing attention away from the imposing machinery in the substation.
Though not as conspicuous as a huge mural or a sculpture, Fehrmann’s curtain is every bit as much of a public art initiative, even if a utility company’s substation rests on private land. A partnership between Dominion Energy and Arlington, where the former financed the work and the latter merely promotes it (as part of the County’s larger public art initiative), its not the first subtle effort I’ve featured to enliven otherwise neglected or unaesthetic bits of high-profile space in this densely populated area. Though hardly opulent, the curtain here is certainly more elaborate than the chain-link fence that contains most substations (and stood here prior to 2012). A utility company flush with cash can do whatever it wants, but the civic initiative that helps curate this far more likely in an urban area where the income density is even greater than the population density. To invest in (like Dominion) and continue to curate (like Arlington) a feature vaguely evoking a curtain—a barrier designed by a commissioned artist/architect—is far more emblematic of a place like Arlington, one of the densest and wealthiest counties in the country. Not an initiative we can expect in most of the nation’s 3,143 counties.
This is hardly the fault of Arlington County, and I’m glad they’re partnering with nearby companies to aestheticize the most unremarkable and otherwise neglected of spaces. But I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)