King County Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture
EARTHWORKS: Land Reclamation as Sculpture
Exhibit by the King County Archives
King County in the Vanguard
In 1979, the King County Arts Commission brought together a group of internationally recognized artists to demonstrate how environmentally damaged sites---abandoned gravel pits, surface mines, air strips, and landfills---might be transformed into works of art, called earthworks.
In involving contemporary artists in land reclamation, the King County Arts Commission entered a field that no governmental agency had yet attempted on any significant scale.
Public and private support for the Earthworks project reflected the strength of the environmental movement of the 1970's.
The artists' proposals for reclaiming damaged land also addressed artistic concerns that resonate today: the role of art in public space and how art should respond to humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
(Cover of Earthworks Symposium brochure, 1979. King County Archives Series 278.)
Phase I - Robert Morris earthwork, SeaTac, Washington
(Aerial photograph of Johnson Pit July 5, 1978. King County Archives Series 278.)
King County chose Johnson Pit #30, a surplus gravel pit, for the demonstration earthwork, which was completed in 1979.
The Artist: Robert Morris
(Robert Morris delivering keynote address at Earthworks Symposium at University of Washington, Kane Hall, July 31, 1979. King County Archives Series 278.)
Watch keynote address
Sculptor, painter, experimental artist, and writer Robert Morris was selected to design the site.
Robert Morris had also created earthworks at Western Washington University, in the Netherlands and in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Artist's Design: Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)
(Model for Johnson Pit proposal. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Morris's tiered design drew from both ancient traditions and modern mining. Robert Morris has spoken of "the prototypical act in shaping the earth – digging a hole and piling up the earth beside it."
But he acknowledged that the viewing public would want to know what his design "meant."
Art critics described the design as "beautifully devoid of interruption," "gracefully undulating," and "a work of awesome, elegant simplicity."
Photographs by project photographer Colleen Chartier show the clean-sculpted lines of the Morris earthwork at the time of its completion. Photographer Robert Brittain of the Department of Public Works also captured the look of the site on a clear morning in November, 1979.
(Morris earthwork construction completed, 1979, photograph by Robert Brittain. King County Archives Series 400.)
(Morris earthwork during construction, 1979, photograph by Colleen Chartier. King County Archives Series 1747.)
(Morris earthwork after construction, photograph by Colleen Chartier. King County Archives Series 1747.)
(Construction sign at Morris earthwork. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Some County Councilmembers asked, what could the earthwork be used for? Was it a park?
At first, West Hill residents had seemed unaware of what was happening in their neighborhood.
On October 23, 1979 Arts Commission representatives met with residents protesting at the site. Commissioners claimed that this was the first objection that they had heard about the project.
"This has national publicity!" Arts Commission staff had said proudly to local residents.
Erosion, repair and restoration – 1980
(Left: 1980 erosion. Right: "Earthworks" composed by Council administrative staff. King County Archives Series 2682.)
Shortly after its completion, bad luck struck the Morris earthwork. Unusually heavy rain caused the soil to saturate. A large amount of rock and mud fell onto the roadway, bringing further criticism from County residents.
Could artwork really coexist with environmental engineering?
Maintenance: 1981 – 2003“Probably the willingness of [local governments] to provide maintenance will depend on the popularity of the piece created.” (Deloris Tarzan, art critic writing in the Seattle Times, October 17, 1978.)
It became clear that its care and keeping would present ongoing challenges.
(1994 Cleanup Day at Morris earthwork site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Various approaches to maintaining the site were tried over the years, from Earth Day volunteers to rented goats.
In 1992 the County Council asked staff to evaluate options for the earthwork, including its destruction, which drew protest from the international arts community.
After significant outreach and community input, the County undertook a major restoration of the earthwork in 1996.
“So what if people in the next century can see [the Morris Earthwork] and say, ‘Look what they did in the ‘70s’!” (President of the Highline Recreation Council, 1979)
Robert Morris himself questioned the motives behind using art for land reclamation:
"But it would perhaps be a misguided assumption to suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariably choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place."
- Watch a video of the Morris keynote address, University of Washington, July 31, 1979<Tape 5>
- Text of the Morris keynote address
In spite of its controversial beginnings, the earthwork still serves as a place for reflection and is valued as an artwork. As an open green space, it is increasingly cherished by those living around it. The site is also now part of the bicycle/driving tour of Kent Valley earthworks.
Phase II: The Design Symposium, July 31 – August 18, 1979
For Phase II of the Earthworks project, six nationally recognized artists were assigned a variety of damaged sites. Each developed a proposal, with drawings and models that were exhibited in art museums around the country.
The artists' proposals are briefly described below.
Tolt River Steppes
Carnation Pit No. 60, N.E. 32nd Street and 328th Avenue SE
Iain Baxter proposed to construct an amphitheater-like pit that descended to a platform where two mounds would form the infinity symbol. The tiers were to be paved as asphalt jogging tracks. Another track around the infinity mounds was designed for wheelchair users, and included ten wheelchair fitness stations.
"I would like to create a great sculptural place," said the artist. "A sort of park, a whole family experience."
(Design drawings for the Tolt River Steppes earthwork by Iain Baxter. Above: Aerial photos of site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Proposal for Lakeside Sand and Gravel Pit
6600 – 230th Avenue SE, Issaquah, Washington
Richard Fleischner was partnered with the only private company sponsoring an Earthworks artist, Lakeside Sand and Gravel. The earthwork was designed so that the company would actually be constructing the artist’s vision as it continued mining for another ten years.
When completed, a series of stepped gardens would descend the face of the hill. One version of the design included apartment housing.
(Model for earthwork by Richard Fleischner. Top: Aerial photos of Lakeside Sand and Gravel site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Watch excerpts from interview with Richard Fleischner onsite at the Lakeside site, August 1979:
Snoqualmie Pit, 372nd Place SE and SE 84th Street
Lawrence Hanson’s design for another surplus King County gravel pit was to line a bowl-form with brilliant white gravel and stones that would reflect the natural light by day. The bowl would glow with blue electric light in the evening hours, to create a meditative space.
(Site plan for Snoqualmie Pit earthwork by Lawrence Hanson. Above left: Aerial photo of site. Above right: Lawrence Hanson at work. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Enclosure for Viewing with Passages and Courts
Airport free zone at southwest edge of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, east of Twelfth Avenue South
Airport free zone at southwest edge of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, east of Twelfth Avenue South
Mary Miss prepared a design for an "airport free-zone," an abandoned residential area abutting the airport that had been cleared of homes by the Port of Seattle for health and safety reasons.
A strolling viewer might gain an appreciation of the site’s topography, explore scale relationships, and either observe the adjacent airport and its traffic, or find seclusion from it.
(Site plans for Aiport Free Zone earthwork by Mary Miss. Above, model for earthwork. King County Archives Series 1747.)
A Waiting Room for the Mid-Night Special (A Thought Collision Factory for Ghost Ships)
Warren G. Magnuson Park
7400 Sand Point Way NE
(Above: Dennis Oppenheim in studio. Below: model for earthwork, by Dennis Oppenheim. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Dennis Oppenheim created a design for a deserted airstrip at the City of Seattle’s new Warren G. Magnuson Park, the former Sand Point Naval Air Station. The property today is within Magnuson Park and includes part of a popular off-leash dog area.
Oppenheim used humor, fantasy and contemporary artistic vocabulary to create what was intended to be a dream environment, a "collision factory," for processing thoughts and ideas.
Watch excerpts from interview with Dennis Oppenheim onsite at the Magnuson Park site, August 1979:
Montlake Landfill Proposal
University of Washington East Campus on Union Bay
Beverly Pepper worked with the University of Washington to develop a design for a part of the Montlake Landfill, on the eastern edge of campus.
Pepper’s design included a walkway with two main elements: First, a 100-foot circle of white-capped posts would show shifts in land level and could be used for study of the earth by UW students.
Second, a cross section would be cut through a mound with a glass wall that would reveal living plant roots, decades of garbage accumulated at the former landfill, and a layer of gravel to show the earth's movement.(Drawing and model for Montlake Landfill proposal, by Beverly Pepper. Above: cross section of earth from Monlake Landfill showing refuse. Top: Montlake Landfill site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Watch excerpts from interview with Beverly Pepper onsite at the Montlake Fill site, August 1979:
For a detailed history of the project, to view additional images, and to watch complete videos of interviews with the artists, visit the full exhibit, Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture.
Please contact the King County Archives for permission to use images in this exhibit or to comment.
Records used in this exhibit are open to the public for research use at the King County Archives. Contact the Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (206) 296-1538.
See also: 4Culture's Public Art Collection Project Profile for the Robert Morris Earthwork
Another local earthwork constructed at the same time is at Mill Creek Canyon, in the City of Kent, and was designed by Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer.