Robert Smithson and his Influence Today

The Continuing Relevance of Robert Smithson

This is an article reposted from Blouin ArtInfo original post here:

Robert Smithson, Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis), 1969
Art © Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Installation view of Robert Smithson’s “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),” 1969
by Alan Rapp, Modern Painters
Published: July 20, 2013

Adopting the concept of reclamation, Smithson produced projects with more contentious stances toward the environment. The ecological basis of land art was widely assumed, but Smithson’s position on environmental issues was not blithely pro-conservation. The last piece he published in Artforum, a long-form essay titled “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” and the positions he stakes out there do not assign a negative value to human impact on the environment. Central Park is a radical imposition of design onto what once was “real” nature; Smithson dryly cites the photographic evidence that it was a man-made wasteland during the transition to parkland. He saw Olmsted as an agent of creative destruction—engineer, maker, doer: “Olmsted made ponds, he didn’t just conceptualize about them,” Smithson stated.

In 1970, Smithson came close to realizing an ambitious project called Island of Broken Glass. Aiming to replicate on a larger scale a sculpture he had installed in a New Jersey parking lot, Smithson secured an islet in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia, with the intention of covering it with 100 tons of pulverized glass. Environmentalists noisily objected, citing the potential impact on the island’s wildlife, especially the migrating cormorants. Smithson acquiesced and instead proposed a “dearchitecturalized” broken concrete work that would encourage wildlife habitation and indeed result in “a monument to ecology,” as he termed it. But by then even such a moderated intervention did not gain approval.

As his reputation grew within and beyond the art world, Smithson became increasingly self-assured in his communications as he navigated proposals, licenses, and permits with government agencies and industrial corporations. The spreading awareness of a global ecology movement provided Smithson a well-publicized platform for speculation at the intersection of landscape and industry. Emboldened to proclaim that “aesthetic impact needs to be dangerous,” he directly approached resource-extraction companies to pitch collaborations. His confident appeals at times included statements so polemical they would not have been out of place in one of his numerous critical writings.

In a 1972 letter to Allen Overton Jr., president of the American Mining Congress, “regarding my relationship to the mining industry as an artist,” Smithson grandiosely declaimed about his work’s transformational nature: “I am developing an art consciousness for today free from nostalgia and rooted in the processes of actual production and reclamation…. Industry cannot afford to view my kind of art as a luxury, but rather needs to view it as a necessary resource. My earth sculptures are of primary concern, not secondary. A dialogue between earth art and mining operations could lead to a whole new consciousness.” All of this points to a voraciously inclusive practice whose correspondence to architecture as a form-generating practice is perhaps peripheral. Smithson did more proposing of ambitious landscape-altering concepts than were ultimately built—and much the same can be said about the architecture industry today. Following a period of global recession that has precluded, deferred, or canceled a lot of architectural projects, studios have switched into research mode and deployed their powerful digital rendering tools toward hypothetical projects. Alluring structures with radical forms still fuel the press release–driven trade press, but some architects are working in sophisticated speculative zones, where they can project scaled-up concepts that integrate and blur architecture, landscape, and industry, much as Smithson did late in his career.

When Oregon-based architect Brad Cloepfil saw the posthumously realized Smithson work Floating Island, a tug-pulled barge landscaped with trees and shrubs that cruised the waterways around Manhattan in 2005, he felt reaffirmed by Smithson’s singular—and, in this case, rather deadpan—vision. Cloepfil’s Sitings Project, an early manifesto and proposal for enigmatic structures across the Pacific Northwest, bears distinct traces of this type of extra-architectural inspiration. The sole built work from the concept, the Maryhill Overlook at the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state, is a 150-foot-long, 8-foot-wide extruded concrete bunker form through which, Cloepfil says, “the inherent architecture of [the] landscape is revealed.”

Even as Floating Island circled Manhattan, Cloepfil’s firm, Allied Works, engaged in the controversial renovation of Edward Durrell Stone’s colonnaded building at 2 Columbus Circle (now the home of the Museum of Arts and Design). “Smithson and the installation artists of that period basically saved me from what at that time was a kind of commercialized neoclassicism,” Cloepfil says. “He showed me that architecture had a kind of alternate, aberrant past. He really kept me believing in architecture.”

A more conceptual, multimedia studio, such as MOS Architects in New York uses the physics simulators that game designers program for consistent rule-bound game play to explore and subvert traditional architectural forms. Principal Michael Meredith calls the process by which these multihued agglomerations of geometric forms result as “pouring blocks into spaces to see what happens, pouring digital asphalt on a hill, then changing the gravity slightly…really Smithson plus video games.” The software research informs some of the firm’s projects that can be realized in real space but that retain a critical edge: Thoughts on a Walking City, MOS Architects’ entry for the 2012 MOMA exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” sites a rambling, metastasizing mixed-use development in the street spaces that exist between residential and industrial blocks. The project is volumetrically reminiscent of the strewn prisms of peat in Smithson’s 1971 drawing Peat Bog Sprawl.


“Peat Bog Sprawl” (1971) — © Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA

Beyond the daring (yet anticipated) experimentation of recent expo pavilions—from Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio’s Blur Building, a massing of mist at the 2002 Swiss National Expo, to Heatherwick Studio’s Seed Cathedral of 2010 in Shanghai, a semisolid studded with fiber-optic rods—architects may be working more like environmental installation artists than ever before. London-based architect Asif Khan debuted Cloud, floating bubbles that slowly amass into a canopy, at 2011’s Design Miami/Basel. That same year, Khan and Pernilla Ohrstedt created Future Memory Pavilion in Singapore, commenting on the history of its host city-state in evocative construction materials: sand and ice framed in a tensile structure of rope and steel.

Smithson toted around a 1965 Brian Aldiss sci-fi novel prophetically titled Earthworks on his famous peregrination through the detrital industrial “monuments” around Passaic, New Jersey. As the reality of our world resembles in ways the pitiless dystopias in stories by Aldiss and J.G. Ballard—the science fiction writers of the British New Wave that Smithson read—these once exotic encounters between built form and landscape seem less like conceptual exercises and more like survival strategies. The emerging conditions facing the city today include the proliferation of remnant spaces (even as cities become denser) and interstitial sites that sample residential, commercial, and industrial programs. The new ideal sites for Smithson’s brand of exploration have returned from the hinterlands to be folded into the urban fabric.

One need look no further than a project that exemplifies the sunny marriage of industrial reuse, landscape architecture, and public space: New York City’s popular park, the High Line, shows that what once might have been a larky, radical conjecture is now the new normal. In a space ambitiously adapted by James Corner Field Operations (project lead) with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Piet Oudolf, families and tourists now mass to behold the sensitively curated local flora threading throughout the paved-over elevated track.

More epochal in every way is Corner’s planned transformation of one of the world’s largest landfills, the notorious Fresh Kills on Staten Island, into vast parkland (more than three times the size of Central Park) with a revitalized ecosystem, over the course of the next three decades. The “danger” of Smithson’s most audacious visions may have been neutralized, but in almost every other respect, it’s his world and we just live in it.

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