My first encounter with the work of Walter De Maria occurred in an intro to modern art class at Rice University. The instructor, Bill Camfield, was a Yale art history grad lured back to his native Texas by that inimitable talent-magnet, Dominique de Menil (whose Menil Collection museum by Renzo Piano just won the AIA’s 25-Year Award). Professor Camfield’s focus was Dadaism; his research on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the famous urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is still canon. But his passion for every breed of modern art shone through in his lectures. The one on De Maria’s The Lightning Field practically knocked me out of my seat.
Imagine the force of will necessary to engender such a thing: a 1-mile-by-1-kilometer grid of 400 stainless steel poles embedded into the dry New Mexico earth with such precision that the top of each aligns at the exact same height above sea level as all the others, the undulation of the ground plane notwithstanding. So pure of concept, so laborious to realize.
I can’t speak to the actual experience of walking through The Lightning Field, never having been there. But I imagine it causes one to oscillate wildly between phenomenological and conceptual extremes: simplicity and complexity, form and meaning, order and chaos. Such is the effect of another work by De Maria, which I have visited: The New York Earth Room.
The name pretty much says it all: It’s a big white-painted room in an old SoHo industrial building filled to about knee-height with dirt. Simple? Sure. Stupid? Hardly. The room and its contents amount to an extreme juxtaposition of the manmade and the natural—one that operates on all of one’s senses simultaneously. The rich smell of the earth, the muffled acoustics, the elevated humidity—these subtleties hit hard in contrast to the intense sensory experience of the New York street. Through such works, De Maria charted a new course to the sublime.
Hopefully I will make it to The Lightning Field someday. It’s a major stop on my “Monsters of Nature” dream tour of the Southwest, along with those other landmarks of the Minimalism and Land Art movements: Donald Judd’s Marfa, Texas, compound; Michael Heizer’s City and Double Negative earthworks, both in Nevada; James Turrell’s Roden Crater complex north of Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
All of these artists worked (or work, in the case of Heizer and Turrell) at scales and in modes that can be described quite accurately as architectural, or even urban. The oeuvre of each has its particular strengths and areas of focus—light in Turrell’s case, form in Judd’s. But together, they offer a lesson of supreme value:
Do more with less.
I can think of no better credo for architects and designers in this age of diminishing resources. Do not confuse it with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous saying, “Less is more.” Sustainability was not a concern for Mies’s generation. His “less” was a matter of form, not performance; his reductivist tendencies were more academic than ethical. Energy came cheap back then.
De Maria and his fellow earth artists, along with architectural contemporaries such as James Wines of SITE, began a slow cultural shift in emphasis toward the environment. Aesthetics will always be a central pursuit for architects, but the net-zero-energy building just might be replacing the perfect corner detail as the most rewarding outcome.
There’s a second, equally important but often-overlooked takeaway worth mentioning in passing: Accomplishing a lot with a little is much harder than it looks. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson one can only absorb through experience. The road to the sublime—and the sustainable—is never easy.