Gwen F. Chanzit, Ph.D.
Mill Creek Canyon Park and Herbert Bayer's Pioneering Design Strategies
“I am not so much concerned with the individual work of art, as with the total shape and content of the human scene.”
---- Herbert Bayer, Herbert Bayer, Painter, Designer, Architect (1967) (1)
Mill Creek Canyon Park represents the culmination of Herbert Bayer’s artistic direction that moved him beyond the easel to the world at large. Here, Bayer’s innovative design provides a creative response to an ecological concern and demonstrates how expansive artistic vision may forward a practical solution—in this case ameliorating the potential danger of a flood plain. Bayer’s career included painting, sculpture, architecture, earthworks, photography, graphic design, typography, and exhibition design. He regularly combined these diverse media, extending his creative output into the greater environment, with his first consideration always how those spaces would function for the people who use them.
Probably best known for his projects beginning in the mid-1940s at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies (Aspen, Colorado), Bayer had a longstanding interest in the design of landscapes, both urban and natural. As a student at the renowned German art and design school, the Bauhaus, Bayer was introduced to the notion that artists should take an active role in the world rather than retreating to some ivory tower. He arrived at the Bauhaus in 1921, at the age of twenty one, just two years after the school’s founding in Weimar, Germany. Within a few years, he was promoted to the position of “master” (teacher), setting up the school’s first graphic design and typography workshop when the school moved to Dessau. Bayer’s signage for the façade of the new Bauhaus building joined with the furniture, lighting, and murals designed by other Bauhaus workshops, to make an integrated architectural whole still celebrated today as a masterwork of modern design.
For the next sixty-some years, first in Germany and then in the United States where he immigrated in 1938, Bayer embraced the Bauhaus concept of integration of the arts. He practiced a range of artistic disciplines in the service of a total design where each part is integrated into the whole, and the whole interacts with the people who use it. As he explained, “the bauhaus already saw the function of the artist not only in the shaping of particular objects and issues, but in the totality of all design for an all inclusive environment.” (2) During Bauhaus times, the term “environmental design” had
not yet come into being; but the school’s advocacy of integrating good design into all facets of life was the catalyst for Bayer’s lifelong commitment to improving the human domain. Throughout his long career, Bayer ceaselessly advocated a process where architects, planners and artists would coordinate efforts and expertise—structural and mechanical engineers, acoustical experts, real estate planners, demographers and artists working together. In 1972, he reiterated the need for the artist to be a central member of such a planning team:
art, integrated from the very inception of the urban plan, is of fundamental
importance. this suggests that artistic work will expand from the picture
frame to the large outdoor spaces where it will eventually assume
terrestrial, even cosmic dimension. it will again assume meaning for the
As early as the 1930s, Bayer thought of creating an urban light environment. New York City’s brilliant night-scape of luminous outdoor advertising sparked his new ideas.
in the late ‘30s I watched the light and motion environment of times square
in new york…it was like an art gallery where one could see designs and
word-messages light up, change, and disappear rhythmically…it was the
conglomeration of many signs, different in kind and size which produced an
incoherent but brilliant night environment and bathed times square in
Light and motion had already been investigated at the Bauhaus in the nineteen twenties by László Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer. Bayer had the idea to expand these experiments into the public environment.
at the time [in the late 1930s] I intended to enlarge the light posters of
times square into truly gigantic sizes by using entire skyscrapers. since all
interior light sources appear through the grid pattern of the windows, each
illuminated window would then become one dot of a large light screen…. the
lights would turn on and off according to a previously designed pattern and
produce sequences of changing designs….a similar method occurred to me….
[in which] all light sources of one building would be covered by a clip-on
device or by plastic sheets placed over the windows. Red, blue, yellow
illuminated towers would stand out gay and festive at night if one color for
each skyscraper would be used. (5)
Just as there was no such term as “environmental design” during Bayer’s tenure at the Bauhaus, there also was no such idea as an “earthwork” when he had the idea to mold earth in the mid-fifties, in Aspen. Aspen became a kind of a testing ground for Bayer’s Bauhaus belief in total design and here he found opportunity to develop that space using every available medium. In Bayer’s words, “what the future of aspen promised… was participation in shaping an environment.” (6) Beginning in the 1940s, Bayer’s design for the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies included buildings, murals, sculpture, and graphic design projects—all visually integrated among themselves and with the natural landscape. In 1955, he created grass mound, an earthwork forty feet in diameter. This monument of molded earth was constructed fully a decade before anyone had thought of that term, making him a pioneer in what is today known as site-specific sculpture. Though he has been much
acknowledged as influential on later earth artists, Bayer insisted his work was, foremost, part of his total design project that bridged the gap between art and everyday life: “…it was natural to me to shape earth and cover it with grass to become integral with the landscape.” (7) When asked about its function, he replied, “it may be used to sit on.” (8)
By 1973-74, Bayer completed a larger earthwork park at the Aspen Institute, Anderson Park. Here, Bayer’s design combines nature and art in a site that harmoniously provides a physical link between the conference buildings and the residences of the Aspen Institute, and also becomes a beautiful foil for the towering mountains all around. Like Mill Creek Canyon Park, Anderson Park actively engages people of all ages with its hills, recesses, and natural water features.
Other Bayer designs engage their surroundings and the people who use them, including corporate spaces for Container Corporation of America and The Atlantic Richfield Company (both now defunct), sculpture seen from busy highways in Mexico City and Denver, Colorado, and a polychromed gate sited along the beach in Santa Barbara. His design for an ARCO site in Philadelphia, to screen an ugly highway view of an oil refinery, with brightly colored modular sculpture, though well-conceived, did not get approved. Also never realized were his surf sculptures designed to lessen the effects of erosion along the California coastline.
The opportunity, towards the end of his life, to design Mill Creek Canyon Park must have seemed a natural extension of Bayer’s lifelong pursuits: creative designs that function for people. In the case of Mill Creek Canyon Park, the solutions utilized the talents of a full team of experts. Bayer’s design, as realized in 1982, protects against floodwaters and also creates a beautiful park of berms and recesses. For twenty-five years this site has remained a popular spot for outings and, on more than one occasion, has protected the town of Kent from destructive floods that affected nearby municipalities. This landmark project culminates the heightened vision of an extraordinary artist/designer who worked throughout his life to achieve a thoughtful shaping of the human landscape, to unite the functional and the aesthetic, to realize large scale designs for the people who use them. How much more successful might a project be?
Note: Throughout his adult life, Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) used only lower case letters, believing a unitary type to be more efficient than one with both capital and lower case letters. (His only exception was the personal pronoun, I.) Bayer’s titles and all quotations cited in this essay follow his practice.
Gwen F. Chanzit, Ph.D., is Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive at the Denver Art Museum. She is also a faculty member at the University of Denver School of Art and Art History where she teaches modern art history and directs the graduate program in museum studies. She has organized a variety of exhibitions and has lectured and published extensively on Herbert Bayer, including her 2005 book, From Bauhaus to Aspen: Herbert Bayer and Modernist Design in America.
(1) Herbert Bayer, Herbert Bayer, Painter, Designer, Architect, p.13.
(2) Herbert Bayer, unpublished “future lecture ‘on environment,’” 1972, p.1. (3) Ibid., p.4.
(4) Ibid., p.1. Bayer also discussed his ideas for light projects in a sketchbook entry of 1943, pp.19-20.
(5) Ibid., p1-2. Some seven decades after Bayer’s notations—today, similar large-scale light environments using skyscraper luminosity have met with great success in cities like Hong Kong where these colored light shows sometimes celebrate holidays or festivals. Computer technology, no doubt, now expedites these applications.
(6) Herbert Bayer, Herbert Bayer, Painter, Designer, Architect, p.112. (
7) Herbert Bayer, unpublished letter to Margaret Sheffield, Rome, Italy, 3 August, 1978.
(8) “Aspen: New Shapes in the Mountains,” Architectural Forum 105 (July 1956): 151.
The Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive at the Denver Art Museum contains some 8,000 works by Herbert Bayer, along with extensive documentary material.
Herbert Bayer, American, Austrian born
1. Study for “positive-negative grass sculpture,” 1954 Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer
2. Study for “mound with ring of water,” 1956 Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer
3. Study for “positive-negative, earth sculpture (mound and hole),” (1954)-1978 Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer
4. Studies for “grass sculpture, moonscapes, negative crescent, 2 positive crescents,” 1970 Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer
5. Studies for grass spiral mounds, 1969 Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer.
6. grass mound, 1955 Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Aspen, Colorado
7. Anderson Park 1973-74 Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Aspen, Colorado
8. Study for Anderson Park, 1971 Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Aspen, Colorado Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer
9. Studies for landscape designs, 1969 Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum, Gift of Joella Bayer