A Fix for 6 and 146: Grinnell College and Hood Design Studio Reveal Sculpture Park Plans, Crossroad Jewels
By Michel McAllister
Once upon a time, a piece of sculpture was something to be viewed. The closest to interacting with it—unless one was a pigeon—was reading a plaque, perhaps, and sitting on a park bench nearby to contemplate the piece.
But, beginning in 1913, some artists began to break ranks and introduce a new concept of art in general and sculpture in particular.
According to MoMA, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Marcel Duchamp was among the first to challenge traditional ideas of art when he mounted a bicycle wheel upside down on a wooden stool. He defied the ideas that a work of art had to be an original creation and that it had to conform to traditional aesthetics of beauty.
And he went a step further and encouraged viewers to spin the wheel.
MoMA reports that Duchamp found the spinning wheel “very soothing, very comforting.” He continued, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.”
In the century-plus that has passed since 1913, the value of art that invites participation has intensified. Various artists and design groups have created works that become part of an urban landscape, works that blend with an eclectic environment and that strive to enhance the space they inhabit both aesthetically and intellectually.
On Friday, May 12, Grinnellians viewed an example of interactive art that will become a part of the town. Two sessions—one at the Drake Community Library and one at the Faulconer Gallery on the Grinnell College campus—featured landscape architect Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio and his concept of how an area can blend the past with the present, can elicit both viewing and participation, and can establish, to quote one of the goals of the project, “a landmark piece that beautifies the area, while capturing and celebrating the unique character of Grinnell and the college.”
Grinnell College owns the lot at the southeast corner of the intersection of highways 6 and 146. Part of the Zone of Confluence, the space has “limited commercial appeal given its unusual shape and small size,” reports a Grinnell College press release dated October 19, 2016.
City Manager Russ Behrens, speaking as one of the officials at Friday’s unveiling, recalled driving into Grinnell from the north in 2002, investigating the opportunity of becoming Grinnell’s city manager, and being welcomed at the intersection of Iowa Route 146 and U. S. Highway 6 by a gas station with plywood in place of windows, spray paint in place of signage, and “32 smashed-up vehicles sitting” on the lot.
From the northeast looking southwest.
The intersection has been improved considerably since that time, but the question of how the property might contribute to the community, might even become vital, arose when Grinnell College acquired it. Dr. Raynard S. Kingston, President of Grinnell College, became acquainted with Walter Hood’s work; thus, a collaboration began.
Founded by Walter Hood in 1992, Hood Design Studio specializes in “work [that] is always attentive to place, people and the idiosyncrasies that arise,” the company’s website reports.
“Finding value and producing meaning in places that previously had none”—this is the result of Hood’s work, according to Charles Waldheim, chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard University.
Locations that have called on Hood Design Studio include Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Hood teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and he is the recipient of the 2017 Arts and Letters Award in Architecture from the Academy of American Arts and Letters.
As part of his design process, Hood solicits public opinion. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in July of 2016 that Hood, commissioned to rework the Bayview Opera House in San Francisco, “dragged a rocking chair onto the porch overlooking Third Street and invited neighbors to tell him what they thought of the old barn.”
“They wanted it to be theirs again,” Hood concluded, and he did what he could to give it back.
Similar public input was at work in Grinnell beginning in October 2016 with walking tours of the town and question-and-answer sessions involving representatives of Hood Design and members of the community.
In the Friday, May 12, presentation, Walter Hood stressed aspects of Grinnell and qualities of the site that had impressed him and that he wanted to incorporate into a final design. There was the history of the site; it once bore two homes and a carriage house. There was the slogan that defines Grinnell—Jewel of the Prairie—and the sparkling enhancements that jewels provide. There were the icons of Grinnell—part mythology, part pop culture. And there was the overriding concept of interactivity. “We want to get people out of cars…and walking,” Hood stated.
“Just how did this place become what it is?” That was one of the questions that Hood sought to answer with his design. “People shape places,” he added.
In addition, “There are always ghosts around, and which ones do you want to bring back?”
“Maybe this piece should have an architectural component to it,” he concluded. So the buildings that once stood on the site became ghosts that Hood sought to call back.
He was also struck by various Grinnell images that draw upon mythology and that invoke the power of wings. “Why do you guys have so many flying things?” Hood wondered.
Various aspects began to blend: the gridwork of the city and the Grinnell College campus, the flatness of Grinnell’s prairie location, the jewel motif, the predominance of wings, two homes and a carriage house, the link between a campus and a town—and people.
Then, too, the quality of strangeness was a factor. “If it doesn’t look strange in the end, it’s not a good piece,” Hood asserted.
And a design emerged.
Hood Design Studio proposes a steel gridwork construction to suggest buildings and to anchor the space. Maple trees and hedges will border the lot on the west and on the south.
The gridwork will seem to change as one approaches, and it will change with the weather. A sunny day, for instance, will produce a lively display of shadows. Leaves on the ground in autumn and snowfall in winter will of course generate other effects.
Enhancing the framework—the jewels, so to speak—will be glass or plastic icons, lit from the back, that speak specifically to Grinnellians by representing the winged iconography about the town. These objects go a step further by providing fundraising opportunities—for example, a family might purchase an icon dedicated to a loved one.
The lighted jewels will give the construction a magical quality at night.
And in the daytime, the piece can function as part of a park.
During the question session, one attendee asked if Hood envisioned young people climbing on the gridwork.
The answer was no, but he addressed the idea further.
While Hood has designed works that have seen a climber or two, the icons that protrude from the gridwork of Crossroad Jewels well tend to make people step back, Hood predicts. There is a difference between art as spectacle and art as experience, he continued, and Crossroad Jewels is designed to invite experience.
“When do you want to get started?” another audience member asked.
“Late summer, early fall,” Hood replied.
Not all details of the sculpture park are finalized. As with just about anything, cost is a factor. Some fabrication details are yet to be resolved. But it is a fact that Grinnell College is committed to a space that will be meaningful to Grinnellians and inviting to people passing through, and it is a fact that Walter Hood and his associates can provide both.
Watch this space, the saying goes. In this case, the space is the southeast corner of highways 6 and 146, where Crossroad Jewels will sparkle before the year is out.