A Tour of Space(s) between Chicago and San Francisco

Written By: aZ – “architectural Zealot”

I had decided to drive from San Francisco to Chicago with the intention of visiting several monuments of 1970’s “Land Art”, a movement characterized by very large scale works  executed primarily in the American west by a handful of sculptors. I also intended to see a series of American civic art museums built between the 1920’s and 1940’s in middle American cities, which have recently had additions by famous national and international architects. I gave myself one week to accomplish this task.

My plan on DAY 1, August 24, was to drive from Palo Alto, California, to eastern Nevada where I intended to visit two renowned works of the land art movement: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and his wife Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. My journey took me through 615 miles of scenic, mountainous, spare terrain, particularly in eastern Nevada where I arrived around sunset.

On DAY 2 my first stop was Nancy Holt’s 1976 work, Sun Tunnels. Even with detailed narrative directions from the so called town of Lucin (note: Lucin is not actually a town, but barely a crossroads) the Sun Tunnels are hard to find – the abbreviated version is: south from Lucin crossroads 2.5 miles, then bear east (to the left). The tunnels are visible on the distant horizon to the left, head towards them for two miles, then bear right for 1.5 miles and arrive at the tunnels. If you get to the used tire scrapyard, you’ve gone too far. They consist of four 3M diameter drainage pipes, arranged in an asymmetrical “X” configuration on the desert floor. Each of the four pipes is related to, and shares the name of, a single constellation in the night sky. Corresponding apertures in the “ceiling” of the pipe wall are aligned with the stars in said constellation. The pipes frame views of individual stars in the night sky and of one another, along with views of distant landscape features during daytime. The work conjures up images of a post-industrial Stonehenge .

Robert Smithson’s 1970 work, Spiral Jetty, was several hours away on nearly continuous unpaved roads. This very large project is composed of a continuous ridge of black basalt boulders (lava stone) which projects south from the north shore of the Great Salt Lake some fifteen miles south of the Golden Spike National Historic Site where the east and west segments of the transcontinental railroad were joined to one another in 1869. The Jetty has recently risen above the water level of the Great Salt Lake following a period of submersion. (The rise and fall of the lake water is cyclical.) It is now possible to walk across the salty surface of the lake bottom which is rather like walking across a crusty ice surface. The contrast between the white salt and the black rock made the sculpture particularly graphic in the bright, summer sunlight.

After driving south for two hours, my next stop was the University Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, designed by Boston architects Machado and Silvetti. Overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, the museum is detailed a series of crisp brick boxes with lead coated copper bay windows projecting from the main building mass.

The distance traveled on day 2 was 547 miles of often unpaved roads, especially along the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake.

1 Response

  1. Bob Collins says:

    Loved this post. This is a trip I must take.

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