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A Composed Ecology
After 20-plus years, how is Herbert Bayer's renowned Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks holding up?
By C. Timothy Baird

For thousands of years, humans have created works of environmental art for spiritual, ritual, religious, and possibly recreational purposes. It is a fairly recent phenomenon, however, for artists to use the medium as a means of reclaiming abused and neglected sites or to facilitate such mundane functions as stormwater detention and erosion control. Herbert Bayer's Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks is a reclamation that clearly articulates—through its serene beauty, evocative experiential quality, and usefulness to society—the artist's goal of unifying art and life with technology. This work of environmental art is actually a 2.5-acre portion of a 96-acre city park in Kent, Washington, near Seattle. The work was conceived as a part of Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, organized and administered by the King County Arts Commission in 1979. This watershed event in the area of environmental art as a means of reclaiming land consisted of proposals by eight artists for reclaiming sites around the Seattle region and concluded with a symposium that addressed the many facets of the artist's role in reclamation. Of the eight proposals submitted, only two were realized: Robert Morris's Untitled (Johnson Pit #30), also in Kent, and Bayer's Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks.

Courtesy ART ON FILE

This landscape is unique in that its forms were generated not from nature but from geometry, even though its designer felt that this was a natural landscape of natural materials that was well integrated into its surroundings. The argument could be made that the project was, and is, ecologically sound and sustainable, though not by today's conventions.

The city of Kent, through its Arts Commission and Parks and Recreation Department, commissioned this project in response to the organizers of the Earthworks endeavor as a solution to urban stormwater runoff and its resultant soil erosion problems. The environmental artwork was a means of enlivening the plans for a proposed stormwater detention basin and creating an unusual entrance to an existing public park. The city's goals were to control flooding, to restore fish runs, and to create an aesthetically pleasing facility that would contribute to enhancing the park.

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