The notion that design should be incorporated into the everyday—that aesthetics and humanity should be a consistent portion of our experience—is about as foreign to contemporary culture as are hand-cranked sewing machines. In an era where an almost surgical efficiency rules, we are quick to circumscribe times, objects, thoughts and beliefs into boxes. They define our commutes, our children, and our cities. It’s cleaner that way, we think; with so many neat compartments, it’s easy to know when something is out of place.
Given the stereotypes, you would think that an Austrian, who worked for the Container Corporation of America, would appreciate this ordered efficiency. But Herbert Bayer rebuffed this channelization of thought; above all else, he was a humanist of the highest order and embraced the overlaps, inconsistencies and the floodplains of thought that make the human experience richer. Of all of his Bauhaus brethren, it was Bayer who carried the ideals of integrated design the furthest. Whether wielding this power through typography or product design or exhibitions, Bayer’s raison d'etre seems to have been to dissect the boxes that were being formed all around him—to move away from the mechanical—which he saw as a tool, not an end—and to allow for the sediment of humanity to accumulate in order to see what might take root.
I wonder then, what Bayer would have thought about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina? The boxes that held people in at the edge of the Mississippi Delta were so starkly apparent after August 29, 2005. The Black Box. The Poverty Box. The Boxed Culvert of the Mississippi River, draining an increasingly urbanized America. The Box of White Consciousness. The Box of the Superdome. The Box of Apathy. The Box of Underfunded Education. Each was laid bare, scattered about for all to see when the waters receeded.
With his perpetual hope for the human species, Mr. Bayer might have sought to find ways to used those banged up cubes as the raw material for a new start. He would have believed that the inviolable shared culture of the swamps and bayous of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi could coalesce around a new infrastructure that honored economic, social and environmental considerations as a system, rather than as discrete boxes, without relationship to each other.
On a lesser scale, these are the same questions and themes that surround the future of the Earthworks. Mill Creek, a modest unassuming stream within the Puget Sound basin, would not give anyone pause if not for two quite consequential human choices. One happened largely before Mr. Bayer’s time, the other largely afterward.
When Kent was established, Mill Creek was a reliable power source for the booming logging industry, driving the whip saws that would rip timber to boards. In time, those boards formed the raw material for building the town around the mill. Decades later, the mill was gone, but the town remained, resting on the floodplain of the Green River Valley with the nozzle of Mill Creek aimed directly at what was now downtown Kent.
Gradually, the land that had been denuded by the lumbermen regained its forest, and the torrent of Mill Creek was slowed by the naturally regulated flow provided by the rich duff and canopies of the native forest. For a time, the walls between nature and culture were weakened and both were serving the same purpose--as it had been for 10,000 years before Euro-American settlers came.
But the siting of Kent, like the siting of New Orleans, already placed it in a precarious situation, hemmed in by natural systems that were beneficent for much of the year, but that could turn ruinous during a long rain. The careful planning and understanding of upstream impacts on the waters of the streams and rivers of the Kent Valley should have been of paramount import, but it was not. Like everywhere else in America, sprawl took root with little thought about how the dedritics of development would affect the hydology of the place. So Mill Creek flooded, salmon drowned, and downtown Kent sat waterlogged in the winter. Indeed, it was into this sad position in our history that Bayer entered the scene.
Bayer’s intention, again, was to obscure the traditional boxes by creating something previously unknown: a hybrid ecology where the boundaries between nature, art, landscape and infrastructure blurred into a coherent whole--separate from and greater than its parts. He states, “a dam in the ordinary sense constitutes a radical interference with the natural configuration of the land. My intent was, therefore, to give the dams a natural appearance conforming to the landscape (surroundings) and to become integral parts of the landscape being created.”
Breaking down barriers and establishing new frames was part of the intention of Chromatic Levee as well. Hovering between the ideas of art and infrastructure, social and economic identities, inertia and entropy, nature and art, the natural and the artificial, performance and sculpture, history and the present, I sought to portray a continuum of place—a richly layered stratigraphy, both lithic and dynamic, yet extricably borne of its endemic geography. Most directly, the piece is an homage to Bayer's color explorations, which find their resonance in the colors of the Chromatic Levee. Reflected in the waters of Mill Creek, Chromatic Levee attempts to meld art, nature and infrastructure to remind us of a future we have only to articulate to achieve.
On the other hand, like the Earthworks themselves, it was not solely the eidetic, but also Bayer’s humanistic ideal, that needed to be attended to. In achieving this, Catherine Eith's assistance could not have been more welcome or timely. As I moved through the process of sorting out the materials and methods of construction, she suggested purchasing a particular, high-quality fabric. This modest investment would prevent us from sending this material to the landfill; instead, we could send these items to the Gulf Coast. We fashioned the sandbag modules here, used them once for the installation, then shipped them to our friends in the Gulf Coast. By the time you are reading this, the victims of Hurricane Katrina who lost so much are now sleeping under quilts and blankets made from the sympathetic reverberations found in Kent and King County, Washington.
Brice Maryman, ASLA, recently co-authored the Herbert Bayer article for Pioneers of American Landscape Design Volume II. A landscape and urban designer with SvR Design, Brice is also a part-time lecturer at University of Washington's Department of Landscape Architecture. He is also the Seattle area representative to the national board of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which is the country's only non-profit dedicated to increasing the public's awareness of the importance and irreplaceable legacy of cultural landscapes. With professor Nancy Rottle he co-directed Open Space Seattle 2100 to "design Seattle's green network for the next century."
Chromatic Levee, 2007.