King County in Washington State is home to several important Earthworks, built from 1978 to the present. The earlier earthworks were more in line with the genesis of the movement which linked land and art and tend to have an almost totemic style. That is they remind me of archeological earthworks; that is the mounds, fissures, stonework and the like that is all that remains of an ancient site (see BrÃº na Bóinne as a good example). Later earthworks seem to be more an attempt to transform disruptive human action, such as a wastewater treatment plant, into an artificially natural landscape. That is to say it acknowledges the disruption and tries to reclaim it as art. Of course earthworks were often built on land that had long been abused and the artists often highlighted this.
In 1978 the King County Arts Commission (now known as 4Culture) held the Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture symposium whose stated its purpose as:
“The purpose of the symposium was to create new tools to rehabilitate land abused by technology and to provide artists with design opportunities for surplus King County property in gravel pits, surface mines and landfill sites.”
Along with this symposium (which I should mention is something I can’t possibly imagine 4Culture doing) there were two earthworks constructed not to far from each out in south King County. The most well known is Robert Morris’ Untitled Earthworks (more on that in another post) but just a few miles from it in Kent is the Herbert Bayer’s designed the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks. Morris’ earthworks was of course constructed for the symposium in 1978 whilst Bayer’s was finished in 1982, but they are both connected to the symposium. Also related is The Source at Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island (the first of these I visited, more later) which of much smaller scale was completed in 1980 while the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks was in progress. This seems to have set off a trend that slowly continued over the next few decades: Waterworks Park (more on this one in a subsequent post) in Renton (finished 1998), and current projects such the one in association with the Brightwater treatment plant in north King County.
The City of Kent seems to be pretty proud of its earthwork and its website is the most comprehensive about not only the Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork but also the others in King County. They designated it a city landmark and held a 25th Anniversary Earthworks Celebration in April of 2008 which seems to be the genesis of this website. Recently they announced that they’d be adding a bicycle tour of three adjacent earthworks to their existing vehicular tour. I’d been planning to cycle out to the Robert Morris earthwork for some time now, but hearing news of this planning I worked out my own tour route (which honestly I bet is about what the official one does: there aren’t many options). Anyway on Sunday August 1st I did said tour visiting the three earthworks (for more on the tour look for a forthcoming post on my cycling blog). Over the next couple of days I’ll be posting about these earthworks beginning here with Herbert Bayer Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks.
As the name implies the earthwork is built in a valley with a creek running through it. This Google maps satellite image gives the best overview of the valley, which by moving around you can see goes on for quite a ways. Trails run throughout the wood section following the creek and makes for a nice shady park. The entrance of the valley, which is pretty much right beyond the downtown of the small city of Kent is where the Herbert Bayer designed components are located. Bayer of course was a Bauhaus artist and its interesting to see the geometries and platonic ideal forms structured out of nature. The main features of the park are two depressions each with a circular form molded out of the earth, a ridge area with two mounds and a third mound with a wooden bridge running over it. Their is also a well integrated washroom and toward the wooded end of the park a rather Japanese-esque amphitheater. I began my exploration of the park from this amphitheater and made my way toward the entrance of the park.
The first of the major structures is a bisected doughnut like mount in a shallow valley. The cuts are marked with white cement and in and around it runs a little creek or corralled wetland. This area was quite overgrown with very lush grass. In the center of the doughnut was a wooden platform that is like an oasis in the overgrown grasses. The path wends its way through this valley and then under a ridge of on which the path to wood bridge runs. The path through the doughnut continues on up the valley to the second circular structure. This one is more a depression that I think was again like a shallow wetland but was again quite overgrown. This I think would have some of those interlocking shapes that evoke the Bauhaus if the grass was more controlled. It does appear so in the Google Maps images.
Climbing up the ridge from this structure on then can make ones way around this valley toward the washroom or toward a field a the entrance that has the two mounds. Near one of these mounds is a rather bauhaus-ian cistern. Following the path around past the washroom (which features the ceramic tile art, Underworks, by several artists) then over the ridge between the two circular structures. This leads to the wooden bridge which cross the third mound and then there is a stairwell up to the street above. This stairwell was blocked off from here, though the steps up to it from the valley floor were not. The staircase up was blocked at the top and rather half-assededly in the middle. Further displays of the neglect were in evidence here as their was vast amounts of trash around this structure. This was unfortunately a really dominate aspect of the park irregardless of how nice the website was and the occasional events that they put on here. On a fairly nice summer Sunday the park was pretty sparsely attended and the signs of neglect were everywhere. Trash was all along the margins and piled up under the structures. All along the valley walls blackberry bushes were growing out of control. Aspects of the earthwork itself seemed overgrown and wild. All of which is a pity as this is both a great park and a great piece of art. I did enjoy the relative peace and quiet and clearly with the path through the woods there is even more of that to be had, but it’d be nice if they kept the park up. This is a unique and wonderful place that deserves respect and appreciation.
Check out all of my photos of the Mill Creek Valley Earthworks on Flickr.