Giant rubber ducky quacking tonight in Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh's been "America's Most Livable City" numerous times but how about "America's Most Whimsical?"


That's because a 40-foot-tall, 30-foot wide rubber duck whose kin have created an international sensation in France, Australia, Japan, Brazil and five other countries since 2007 made its first appearance in the United States this afternoon, floating on our rivers.

When you think about it, what better place could Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman pick for the American debut of his Rubber Duck Project than Pittsburgh -- birthplace of Andy Warhol, sandwiches with fries and cole slaw and Pittsburgh Dad? Not to mention the beautiful symmetry of three rivers converging.The rubber duck's arrival marks the start of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, which runs through Oct. 26.

Other American cities are envious. San Francisco -- home of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Tony Bennett's heart -- has been vying for the distinction of hosting the world's most interesting rubber duck. Christina Wong, a 30-year-old attorney who saw the duck in Hong Kong and started the Facebook page, "Bring the Giant Rubber Duck to San Francisco," in May said she is competitive by nature but is happy for Pittsburgh and may travel here to see it.

"The duck brings joy. Pure, refreshing, childlike joy. The duck may not be in my awesome city, but it's a lot closer now than when it was in Asia!"

The fun here began today at a remote part of the Alcosan property on the Ohio River, where the rubber duck was inflated with cold air from a fan and generator. It was then towed on a pontoon from the West End up the Ohio River and the Allegheny River, where it is now moored near the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the site of the Rubber Duck Bridge Party, until 10 p.m. The span will be closed to traffic until midnight.

Tonight's festivities, including Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's largest Night Market on the bridge with 70 food and art vendors, also run in tandem with the cultural trust's Fall Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District.

After tonight's festivities, the duck will be moored on the Allegheny near the Point through Oct. 20.

In Asia, Europe, Australia and South America, the rubber duck has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors and smiles infinite and heartfelt. It's so popular, it even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account.

"How can you not smile at a 40-foot-tall rubber duck, and that's the point," said Paul Organisak, the cultural trust's vice president of programming, who is responsible for bringing the duck to Pittsburgh. On a whim he contacted Mr. Hofman a year ago about making his U.S. debut here, and the artist agreed.

"It's a serious piece of art," Mr. Organisak said. "When people are seeing it they are engaging and coming together. It's about connecting the planet in a very global way."

Mr. Hofman said the rubber duck inevitably reminds people of their childhoods.

"It's about looking, viewing, seeing things in new ways and being amazed," he said at a news conference. "When we are living on one planet, all global waters become your bathtub."

It should be noted he was speaking metaphorically in case anyone was thinking of taking a bath with the rubber duck in the Allegheny. A 20-foot perimeter marked with yellow buoys will designate a no-trespassing safety area and security guards and a web camera will provide 24-hour rubber ducky protection.

While massive at four-stories tall, Pittsburgh's version is a story or more smaller than those that have appeared in other cities so that it would fit under the West End and Fort Duquesne bridges. Each city's duck is custom-built locally under Mr. Hofman's supervision. The company Inflatable Images in Brunswick, Ohio, made Pittsburgh's inflatable PVC duck and Western Pennsylvania Steel Fabricating in New Castle built the 14,000-pound pontoon.

Lt. Cmdr. John Dittmar, the executive officer for the U.S. Coast Guard in Pittsburgh, said his office had issued safety advisories to commercial and pleasure craft on the area's rivers to essentially "keep their eyes out for a big rubber duck."

That shouldn't be difficult. "It's not something you see every day," he deadpanned.

Could it be an omen that the rubber duck will be moored near the North Shore because there might be at least one baseball playoff game at PNC Park where chants of "Let's Go Bucs!" will alternate with "Let's Go Ducks"?

"He's wearing the right colors," Lt. Cmdr. Dittmar noted.

In any event, Pittsburgh is poised to show it can be as world-class in going ga-ga over a rubber ducky as other locales the art project has visited.

Downtown storefronts are plastered with large rubber duck decals. Rubber duck collectibles, T-shirts, caps, stickers and magnets are for sale. And restaurants, hotels and attractions are offering duck-related deals they call -- I apologize -- "Quackages."

Not to be overlooked is that the rubber duck's debut here puts Pittsburgh in the ranks of cities such as Sydney, Sao Paulo, Amsterdam and others where the art project has visited. Mr. Organisak noted that under an agreement with Mr. Hofman the rubber duck cannot appear in any other U.S. city for three months after it leaves Pittsburgh.

San Francisco's Ms. Wong hopes that its next destination will be the City by the Bay, which among its many charms has one that would appeal to the rubber duck.

"You do know San Francisco banned foie gras, right?"

neigh_city - artarchitecture

Michael A. Fuoco: or 412-263-1968. First Published September 27, 2013 4:00 AM


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