A Synergy of the Whole

When I first thought about the Walker Art Center’s (WAC) theme “bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of the whole” my mind wandered toward another similar phrase that would eventually characterize my final studio project of this first semester.  I first learned of R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) almost twenty years ago and have since drawn a great deal of inspiration from his philosophies.  Though most prolific in the latter half of the twentieth century, Bucky’s ideas about sustainability, architecture, and design are still quite current.  I even lived for a year or so– some time ago– in a geodesic dome in the mountains of New Mexico.  Mr Fuller clarified his theories of synergy as “… the behavior of whole systems not implicit in any of the behavioral characteristics of any of the parts of the system when those parts are considered only separately.”  I think that this is a similar concept surrounding the Walker Art Center’s philosophies of collection and exhibition.  

The Walker Art Center is also interested in establishing itself as a “town square” in which people are invited to convene and to create.  As I draw upon my own history to understand what a “town square” would be like, the Gambian bantaba is the most obvious and easy for me to understand.  I spent 27 months (2007-2009) wandering from one bantaba to the next.  These are bamboo and wood structures found in nearly every village that I visited in The Gambia, often situated in key places where people can sit and talk, rest and relate.  Usually beneath a mango tree for shade and raised a few inches off the ground to avoid snakes and scorpions, the bantaba is an informal meeting space where people assemble to discuss current and historical events, to work on community projects, and to display their cultural and individual selves.

Finally, I was inspired by the Walker Art Center’s mission to present performance and multimedia exhibits to their visitors.  Throughout the WAC, one will find alcoves with video screens and headphones so that the visitor might engage in a more solitary and interactive experience.  In many cases, any audio-visual presentation can be selected from a list so the museum-goer can tailor the exhibit to his or her immediate interests.  In a contemporary art sculpture garden, I think that the sculptural pieces might be interactive, flexible, and dynamic.  I wanted to find a way that the WAC could utilize these a-v materials outdoors while also creating refuge spaces where the visitor could get out of the elements and sit while having some control over his or her experience.

My design for the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden required many hours of work to hone the plan and to create the appropriate graphics to demonstrate my idea.  My fellow students labored together on 3-D and 2-D representations of our ideas as the semester closed around us.  We were required to build a model of the site and to present a rendered perspective, plan, and section-elevation to clarify our ideas.

The overview of the model demonstrates that I tried to maintain an open field at the bottom of the hill at the north (left of photograph) of the site while increasing the vegetation toward the top of the hill at the south (right).  This decision was made to facilitate large-scale performances that might attract large crowds.  A stage could be erected at the bottom of the hill and the audience could be situated on the open terraces in a sort of natural amphitheater.  The open field could also be used for sculptural placements and traditional park activities including picnics and kite-flying.  The handicapped-accessible path uses switchbacks to climb the hill and has off-shoots to the three geodesic dome multi-media rooms.  The path eventually leads the visitor to the performance plaza outside the Cargill Lounge, the James Turrell Sky Pesher, 2005, and to the wetland area at the rear of the site.

I decided to place a few evergreens between the parking ramp entrance (bottom of photo) and the main Vineland Place pedestrian entrance.  Several variously-sized grass hills would be placed in the entrance courtyard to create visual interest and to draw people in from the street.  These grass hills have three main precedents:  They reference Minnesota’s terrain of kames and drumlins, they reference the glass geodesic domes on the lawn, and they reciprocate the flat grass circles found on the Hennepin Street sidewalk.

The three geodesic domes are strategically placed to be viewed through the Walker Art Center’s windows in an attempt to draw visitors outside.  The glass structures could be variably lit to make a dynamic statement both in the daytime and at night.  As one continues up the path, he or she is given the opportunity to visit the Cargill Lounge extension performance plaza.

Again, the grass circles from the Hennepin side are reciprocated but this time more literally.  There is a reflecting pool here that spills over the existing 15 foot tall wall and drains into an identical one at the entrance courtyard.  The performance plaza is grounded by bricks similar to those inside the Cargill Lounge in order to bring the inside out or the outside in, depending upon which way the visitor is looking through the large open windows there.  The path then continues on to the Sky Pesher.

I designed the south part of the WAC site to be a functional wetland.  This is the most problematic aspect of my design since it is placed upon the roof of the underground parking ramp.  I chose to site the wetland there for several reasons: Primarily, I wanted to create an attraction to draw people up the hill and through the sculpture garden.  Prior to settlement, this area of Minneapolis was covered by wetlands.  I feel that by re- introducing one here would create a transition from the urban/contemporary art museum setting to a more natural/residential one.  A functional wetland collecting stormwater from the WAC roof would create a sustainable habitat for wildlife while separating the sculpture garden from the unsightly loading dock at the rear of the WAC. Finally, it might create an interesting setting for the viewing of certain examples of contemporary art and land art exhibits.  Structurally, it wouldn’t be a major feat to construct a wetland here.  I consulted three experienced landscape architects who all agreed that the roof could support a shallow basin of water and the accompanying vegetation with only minor modification.

After hours of sometimes frustrating and always exhausting work, my project Bits + Pieces: A Synergy of the Whole was ready for review.  This is what we had all been working for.  Each of us had poured so much of ourselves into our designs and our presentations.   What do we each expect in return though?  The instructors tell us that grades do not matter in graduate school.  Is there any way to be rewarded through some external praise or consideration for the actual work that was performed. Fretting over whether the glue shows at the seams of our building.  Choosing one style of tree over another.  Smoothing clay until our fingerprints are vanished. Losing sleep, missing loved-ones, driving ourselves crazy and making ourselves sick.  The day of the review, the finishing touches, the faces of professional architects on the review panel. Four minutes. It comes down to a four minute presentation.  Do I have an interesting design?  Do my graphics represent my ideas? Does the craftsmanship of my model illustrate my commitment to this project? And before I’ve even begun to explain myself, the moderator is pointing at his watch and I’m out of time.


About matthewtraucht

Graduate school student at the University of Minnesota's College of Design pursuing a Master's of Landscape Architecture, class of 2013.
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