New Scenes in America Deserta

The images shown here attempt to capture Land Arts of the American West at Texas Tech University, an interdisciplinary course within the College of Architecture led by architect Chris Taylor. The program is a self-described “semester abroad in our backyard,” where students directly engage with land art, ambiguously corralled by Taylor as “anything humans do in the landscape.” The group visits a range of sites, from essential art destinations — Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, The Lightning Field, Double Negative, Roden Crater, the Chinati Foundation — to active indigenous settlements, archaeological sites, military bases, research outposts, mines, and natural formations. It is a wide-eyed, sunburnt trip that explores how we alter the land around us.

The Land Arts program began with Bill Gilbert, an artist and professor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, who led its inaugural expedition in 2000. Taylor, after finishing his Master of Architecture at Harvard, met Gilbert while living in New Mexico in the early 1990s. Beginning in 2002, Taylor established a joint Land Arts program with Gilbert while teaching at The University of Texas at Austin. Since 2008, Taylor has led his outfit independently at Texas Tech University (TTU). Gilbert’s program remains ongoing, as well; a reference for the collaboration’s early years is their eponymous book, published in 2009 by The University of Texas Press.

Taylor’s program logs about 6,000 miles on two month-long trips. Students, between five and ten, are packed tightly into two vans — one for bodies, one for gear. The first tour moves quickly, looping up and around Utah’s Great Salt Lake before descending through Nevada and across northern Arizona and New Mexico back to Lubbock. The second, slower jaunt stays farther south, as fall temperatures drop, and typically runs through southern New Mexico and Arizona and returns via Marfa. 

Land Arts voyagers camp for the trip’s duration; they cook and clean together, sharpening the skills needed to survive on the road and in the backcountry. The group also works through a course reader to add context to the outings. The surroundings and the readings together impact the students as they make responsive, site-based works. Because of the program’s open framework, the scale and scope of projects are left to each individual. Project media vary, from a series of out-of-place basketball hoops, to a deployable tetrahedronal tepee, to experiments on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Back at TTU, the “third journey” begins as students prepare finished pieces — sculptures, objects, mixed media works, photographs, videos, drawings, texts — for final reviews in December. A more formal annual exhibition is realized in the following April.

Along the way, field guests join the group: Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Lucy Lippard, Joan Jonas, Ann Reynolds, William L. Fox, Nichole Wiedemann, Barry Lopez, among others. Some experts help decode the landscape at hand, while others share their own work — sometimes projected onto the side of the van in a nocturnal lecture — and dialogue directly with students. With the program’s active schedule, Taylor summarizes his role as a choreographer, introducing ideas and staging frameworks but leaving interpretation to the individual primacy of experience and reflection. 

Taylor is serious about the transdisciplinary nature of his endeavor. While the course is formatted to fit within the graduate architecture studio sequence at TTU, participants regularly come from

other disciplines — some are artists, art historians, designers, and poets —or are temporary students from other institutions. Some are between undergraduate and graduate degrees, and use the course to focus their vision for future achievements. The communal format injects a diversity of voices into the adventure, and aids in understanding the layered ecologies witnessed. 

The architectural implications of the program are essential to the course’s impact. Land Arts offers a meta-architectural experience, an opportunity to zoom out and see the context within which architecture exists. Taylor comments that this type of landscape understanding is critical for those shaping the built environment. He encourages architects to extend “lines of force” into and out of the discipline, in an effort to clarify, respectively, how societal priorities affect the profession and how architects can, in turn, participate in culture. To this end, Land Arts fosters an appreciation for the holistic interconnection between the knotted worlds of nature and culture, with the goal of cultivating practitioners who will operate in that hybrid world with sensitivity to its realities. It provides a framework for understanding the existential conditions that make architecture possible, and at that fundamental level the program’s benefits are most strongly evident. 

This influence shines brightly in the attitudes of Land Arts alumni, who emerge from the experience with heightened self-confidence and a unique body of work. Alumni cite the importance of on-site observation and note that their critical thinking skills were significantly sharper after the program. Adrian Larriva, who participated in 2009 and served as a program assistant in 2011, reflects that the course made him a “multivalent individual,” in addition to a better designer. Bradley Wilson (2010) still carries with him the out-of-the-box modes of “education, investigation, and curiosity” that Land Arts instills. Celeste Martinez (2011), now completing her Master of Architecture degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, says Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” made her question how her own work will impact a site: “Will it/should it stand the test of time?” she asks. 

For these designers, Chris Taylor is most interested not in the work they made during the semester, but in the work they will realize ten years from now, once the experience has been fully absorbed. This cyclic process of observation, synthesis, and creation summarizes the slow work of making culture. And, now, continued insight into our environment — natural and built, together — grows increasingly important. The Land Arts of the American West program aids in this ongoing search. Taylor wisely notes, “The more people we can have looking at the landscape with a complex understanding and dealing with it in deep ways, the better.” 

This year’s Land Arts of the American West exhibition is open April 3 through May 1, 2015, at the Louis Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts, in Lubbock. Receptions will be held on the start and end dates as part of the First Friday Art Trail. 

The Land Arts program figures prominently in a new feature documentary by filmmaker Sam Wainwright Douglas, who previously directed “Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio.” The film is scheduled to be released in 2016. 

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin.

Originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Texas Architect.