Michael Elion: Creating Moments of Magic in Cape Town

A look inside the mind of the artist-architect who’s injecting the urban landscape with colour and whimsy

Apart from some ornate architecture and the odd busker providing aesthetic interest in a CBD, urban hubs tend to be little more than just mundane, monochromatic centres dominated by dull hues and stiff, generic business suits. But what if every time you wished to reach the other side of a street, you could saunter over a rainbow instead of the usual, boring black-and-white crossing? And imagine if when you traipsed to work in the morning, you found that the repetitive grey lines of the standard city centre office blocks had been replaced with sky-high art installations.

It sounds a little like something out of a Care Bears episode, but this is the vision that Mzansi artist Michael Elion has for the city of Cape Town. Qualified in both architecture (London) and philosophy (Paris), this local creative, who is most well known as the brain behind The Secret Love Project, a subliminal social engineering experiment that’s seen colourful heart stickers pop up all over the CBD, is committed to lifting our moods and enriching our experience of public spaces by punctuating them with little surprise splashes of magic.

“Our psychological wellbeing is so important in everything that we do,” says the well-travelled visionary. “So you can’t underestimate the value of providing those sort of moments of mental relief to an entire city.”

While he’s already launched a number of initiatives that offer such relief by adding specks of enchantment to the urban landscape (those glinting glass crystals you might have seen suspended from city centre street lights are Michael’s work too), his two latest ventures are set to take this objective to a whole new level. The first, an official 2014 World Design Capital (WDC) project called Art Street, aims to transform the once almost invisible Roodehek Street in Gardens into a fantasy lane where buildings, lampposts, benches and sidewalks are converted into giant pieces of art. Ultimately, the road is billed to become a permanent artery of creativity that whisks pedestrians away to a magnificent surreal realm.

The second of Michael’s two most recent undertakings is a component of the four-part City of Rainbows WDC campaign (the hanging crystals and The Secret Love Project are other elements of this). Titled Rainbow Crossings, this initiative seeks to replace all of Cape Town’s mundane, colourless zebra crossings with multihued walkways that inject the urban environment with life and wash the city’s thoroughfares with vibrant tones. Michael’s already done similar things elsewhere (in 2008, for example, he painted a street in Paris pastel pink), and although the project is in its early stages and still requires approval from certain bodies, he considers it a very viable option for turning the Mother City’s public spaces into sources of intrigue and delight.

“Streets are the way they are for no reason other than the fact that they need to be functional, but this doesn’t preclude them from also being fun, interesting places,” explains Michael, who firmly believes that cities should never be designed based solely on utilitarian principles. “We shouldn’t revert to function alone. For me, it’s more important that a space is beautiful, that it makes you feel good and reinforces your sense of wellbeing”.

In other words, the primary factor that should dictate the way roads and parks and communal centres are laid out is a desire to spread happiness. After all, it’s those unexpected little magical moments and random joyful surprises in everyday scenes that give life colour and offer respite from the dull routine of the daily grind.

And so far, it seems, the initiatives that are already underway have been very successful in eliciting delight and cheer in individuals across Cape Town. Michael has been overwhelmed with positive responses, and everyone from street sweepers to boutique owners have commented on how his ubiquitous hearts and crystals have brightened up the neighbourhoods they’re found in. Car guard Ronald Pietersen, for example, feels that they have “added something nice to the city by making people smile” and Ziggy Francisco, owner of Peter’s House restaurant, which sits on Kloof Nek Road where many of The Secret Love Project stickers have been placed, insists that these tiny symbols “lift everyone’s spirits and create a happy, friendly environment”.

No doubt, Michael’s whimsical Art Street and quirky Rainbow Crossings will have a similarly affirmative effect, and the artist-architect hopes that they will ultimately become legacy items for Cape Town. That is, his vision is that the Mother City will soon become known worldwide as that place that’s been completely reimagined with whimsical accessories…the must-visit destination where vivid shades of red, green and violet spill over the streets, where glittering glass balls dangle from lampposts and where building are dynamic sculptures not dull geometric structures.

It sounds a little mythological. It sounds a little surreal. But it also sounds like the sort of urban centre that breeds child-like glee, and thanks to the wild imaginings of one Michael Elion, it just may soon be our city’s reality.

Photos: images of Art Street and Rainbow Crossings are only concept drawings.

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Interested in the local art world? Read about our take on Cape Town’s potential to become a global creative capital.

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