On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, September 4, 1982, the Seattle Symphony performs at the dedication of Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park in Kent, in south King County. The design for the park -- by Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) -- was showcased at a 1979 King County symposium titled Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, where artists were invited to create reclamation plans and design public spaces in King County's environmentally damaged lands. Bayer's design innovatively fuses art and ecology in the creation of a public space. Stormwater-management issues are artistically solved using the cut and fill of earthen landforms. The Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park will be designated as the City of Kent's first city landmark in April 2008. Shortly after this designation, construction will begin to raise the height of the berms designed by Bayer, in order to meet new regulations meant to prevent catastrophic flooding.
Mill Creek Canyon
The city of Kent was built on the banks of the White and Green rivers, making flooding a constant threat since its beginnings. Flooding changed the course of the White River in the early 1900s, and a dam was added in 1962 to the Green River to reduce the severe flood hazard. The Kent area was a major hops producer during the nineteenth century, struggled in its dairy-farming ventures due to flooding in the early twentieth century, and became the "Lettuce Capital of the World" during and after the Great Depression. Following World War II, Kent expanded from an agriculturally-focused city to an industrial and commercial city conveniently located along major transportation corridors.
Downtown Kent developed just west of the Mill Creek Canyon. Mill Creek runs through the middle of the steep canyon, collecting water from the larger watershed and, as development grew, from the nearby residential communities and State Route 516 located just north of the canyon.
King County Arts Commission and the Earthworks Symposium
Established in 1969, the King County Arts Commission (later 4Culture) was one of the first county arts agencies in the country. In 1973 it adopted a percent-for-art funding mechanism, allotting a percentage of the cost of publicly funded capital-improvement projects for the commissioning of public art.
The King County Arts Commission continued its innovative trend in 1979, when it convened a symposium titled Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture where internationally renowned artists were invited to create reclamation plans and design public parks in King County's surplus gravel pits, surface mines, landfill sites, and other environmentally damaged lands. The symposium led to discussions about unconventional methods of reclaiming damaged sites for the public's enjoyment. The artists demonstrated through their designs the transformation of derelict sites into works of art and public spaces using landforms and earthworks.
The symposium included several design proposals with one built demonstration project. Robert Morris (b. 1931) was selected to design the demonstration project in an abandoned gravel pit in south King County in what later became the City of SeaTac. By 1979 he already had a reputation as an experimental artist and influential sculptor. The symposium included six other artists selected to develop designs for various damaged sites in the county: Iain Baxter (b. 1936), Richard Fleischner (b. 1944), Lawrence Hanson, Mary Miss (b. 1944), Dennis Oppenheim (1938-2011), and Beverly Pepper (1922). Also showcased at the symposium was the earthwork design independently undertaken by the City of Kent for the Mill Creek Canyon Park. Designed by Herbert Bayer, the drawings and models toured museums across the country for the two years following the symposium.
The King County Arts Commission and its 1979 symposium were groundbreaking for their time, calling on contemporary artists in land reclamation to design for a government agency. The symposium demonstrated how reclaiming environmentally damaged sites could be accomplished for less money than traditional projects, even while allowing access for public use. It was an inspiration for the formation of public-art programs in the region and across the country.
The public and private support and success of the symposium was a reflection of the strength of environmental and art movements of the 1960s. Art of the late 1960s produced an appreciation of land art, also known as earth art, environmental art, or earthworks. This type of art was a rejection of museums and galleries, a protest against the commercialization of art. Artists viewed the landscape as the canvas, as the means of creation. There was a paradigm shift from placing art in the landscape to creating artful places using aesthetics and the land itself. Land art was, then, inseparable from its context.
One of the earliest examples of land art was Herbert Bayer's Earth Mound, created in 1955 at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. It predated the ecological art movement that began in October 1968 with a group exhibition titled Earthworks at the Dwan Gallery in New York, which included works by Bayer. The term "earthworks" was coined by Robert Smithson, who in 1970 created the Spiral Jetty, one of the best known land-art pieces. Many of the first pieces of land art were found in the vast expanses of the American West, in deserts or, in the case of the Spiral Jetty, on the shoreline of Utah's Great Salt Lake. The ecological art movement of the 1960s was not the first involving great modifications of land. Its roots can be compared to the great moving of earth in the creation of the "Picturesque" gardens of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park in New York City, and even to ancient ritualistic earthworks, megaliths, and mounds around the world.
Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park
During the 1960s, the City of Kent purchased land east of the downtown core for a Mill Creek Canyon Park, committing to public access as a component of the future plans. The city hoped to preserve the natural character of the ravine by dedicating it as a park but development of bluffs above Mill Creek created problems with blocking stormwater systems. Silt and debris clogged the creek, resulting in the need for a water-detention dam. By the late 1970s, development had grown to the point that catch basins and stream-flow controls were needed to manage stormwater. City administrators were now faced with a utility project rather than designing a beautiful public park. They attempted to merge the two goals and hired URS Engineers to develop designs for a dam and a public park with the goals of controlling flooding, restoring fish runs, and creating an aesthetically pleasing public facility. City officials were not happy with the engineers' proposal, as it lacked the feeling of a beautiful place.
Kent Mayor Isabel Hogan (1921-2015), who had started the City of Kent Arts Commission in 1975 after the example of King County, saw a potential solution for the Mill Creek Canyon Park plan after hearing about King County Arts' upcoming Earthworks symposium. She asked King County to reconvene the artist-selection panel to find an artist who could help the engineers design an earthen dam that would function as a public park. While not officially part of the 1979 King County symposium, Herbert Bayer, the chosen artist, displayed his drawings and models at the symposium. The park became a reality three years later, dedicated at ceremonies held Labor Day weekend 1982 that included the Seattle Symphony performing in celebration on Saturday, September 4.
Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park was located at the entrance of the valley, just east of downtown Kent. The 2.5 acres of designed components within the park were focused in the northeast corner of the full 107-acre park. The elements of sculpted earth, pathways, water, and lawn together created a functioning stormwater retention facility, public park, and land art that revealed Mill Creek's dynamic cycles of flood and drought. The experiential quality of the landscape changed based on the water levels in the various designed spaces. The park consisted of a series of sculpted cones, circles, lines, and berms built into the alluvial delta of Mill Creek Canyon. Grass-covered mounds between 40 and 100 feet in diameter were built upon a stormwater-detention facility. Native vegetation and single rows of poplar trees along the north and south boundaries created contrast, while pathways swept and curved between the earthworks.
The park was a significant landscape of the modernist style. It fused land art with service to the public; it set a precedent of collaboration between city agencies, artists, and engineers; it brought the schools of arts and sciences together within the field of landscape architecture; and it was based on the success of grassroots support. Bayer's design took land art to the next level. It was no longer about creating art by moving earth in the open American West, but added a quality of function and service to the art. Bayer's piece, sited adjacent to a residential community, served as a public park. It was the fusion of art and ecology that the casual observer strolling through the park on a Sunday morning could understand and appreciate.
Born April 5, 1900, in Austria, Herbert Bayer was a man of many specialties. He was one of the Bauhaus school's most influential students and teachers of the twentieth century. "My work seen in its totality is a statement about the integration of the contemporary artist into an industrial society," Bayer wrote in a 1962 "credo" (Glueck).
Known most widely as an artist, architect, and designer, Bayer apprenticed as an architect with a focus in graphic design and typography. He joined the Bauhaus faculty in 1921, moved to New York in 1938, and to Aspen in 1946, where he became an art and design consultant to corporate and industrial clients in postwar America. The 1955 Earth Mound sculpture that he created in Aspen is credited as being the first contemporary earthwork. Bayer died on September 30, 1985, in Montecito, California.
Bayer's design for the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park was similar to some of his earlier work in Aspen. Anderson Park in Aspen Meadows, built in 1973, was a play of cut and fill earthen landforms with circular pools of water. Bayer proved his ability there to design landscapes with continually changing spatial interest.
Lasting Impacts on the Field of Landscape Architecture
Bayer's work influenced the field of landscape architecture during a time of division between the schools of art and ecology within the field, as well as by supporting the public process. Notable landscape-architecture design firms that blend art and ecology today, such as Hargreaves Associates, Field Operations, and West 8, looked to Bayer for inspiration.
Richard Haag (1923-2018), a well-known Seattle-based landscape architect during the second half of the twentieth century, was influenced by Bayer's early work in Aspen and used it as inspiration for his design of Charles Jordan Marine Park in Everett, Snohomish County, built in 1971. Although few elements of the park remain today, Charles Jordan Marine Park has been considered the first contemporary earthworks by a landscape architect. It consisted of conical forms, circular pools of water, and curvilinear pathways. Later in his career, Haag followed Bayer's commitment to his work serving a social purpose and combining art with science in the remediation project for Gas Works Park on Lake Union in Seattle.
Historic Landmark and Environmental Regulation
In September 2007 there was a public celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park, with an outdoor exhibition, performance art, and a gallery show titled Channeling Herbert: Earthworks, Artworks, Public Works. The Kent Arts Commission invited renowned artists, landscape architects, and historians to participate and welcomed public comment on design in the face of potential change. The University of Washington's Landscape Architecture Studio collaborated with Kent Public Works to display designs that addressed new stormwater regulations meant to prevent catastrophic flooding.
In April 2008 the King County Landmarks Commission, acting for the City of Kent, waived the usual 40-year threshold and designated Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park as Kent's first city landmark. The designation provided protection for the park, but it was already threatened by the need to continue to provide ecological function and meet increasing regulations. Just weeks following the designation, construction began to raise the park's berms by two feet. The Washington State Department of Ecology required the dam spillway to meet a 10,000-year storm, instead of the 100-year storm that Bayer designed for. City and county preservation staff met with environmental engineers to mitigate the impacts to the earthworks and visual character of the park.
Grassroots support allowed initial creation of Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park and has secured its long-term success. In 2009, the City of Kent received $13,850 from a 4Culture Landmark Challenge Grant to restore design elements including the cone and double-ring pond that were impacted by the increased environmental regulation. One year later, Kent competed for a competitive Partners in Preservation grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Based on a selection process including public voting results, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park finished in 12th place, out some 25 Puget Sound area historic-site contenders, and received $70,000. Earlier in 2010, local residents had organized an Earth Day celebration at the park to celebrate Earth Day's 40th anniversary and spread the word to vote for their beloved park.