Robert Smithson created one of his first works of Land Art in Kent, Ohio, in January 1970. Partially Buried Woodshed consisted of “partially burying” a woodshed by pouring twenty lorry loads of earth onto it until its central beam cracked.
Invited to Kent State University by the organisers of the “Creative Arts Festival”, he had shown his slides to an audience made up mainly of art students. He had just created his first earthworks on industrial wasteland. On site in Kent, he planned to pour mud: he would have it flow down a slope as he had already done with asphalt a few months earlier in Rome.
Yet this month of January was very cold and the ground was completely frozen. Nothing whatsoever would be flowing. He had to change his plans. What could he do instead?
In an old farm that the University had just bought, a student spotted an abandoned woodshed, full of earth, gravel and logs. Once the necessary authorisation was obtained, nearly all the wood stored there had to be removed. While the artist made sketches, the students and their professor spent the entire day carrying away logs. Twenty lorry loads of earth were then transported from another campus site to be poured onto the shed. All wrapped up, sketch book in hand, the artist supervised the operation. According to a witness, “the earth was put on scoop by scoop, like applying paint with a brush”. When the work was complete, Smithson took photos. This is a particularly successful example of the process he called “disarchitecture” or “entropy made visible”. The headline in the local newspaper ran “It’s a Mud Mud Mud World”).
It’s now 2008 and we’re in Paris. If he had not been killed in a plane crash in 1973, Smithson would have been celebrating his 70th birthday. As is often the case these days, an artist is invited to create an in situ work. What could he do for us on our campus at the University of Paris 1?
In wet weather, students sat in the Saint-Charles Centre lecture hall sometimes have rainwater drip from the ceiling onto their notebooks. It seems that the seepage comes from water retention on one of the building’s terraces.
The project that I created (by replacing the invited artist, who unfortunately passed away 35 years ago) involves putting a garden on this terrace. The public would be asked to plant tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and carrots on it. Oak, cypress, chestnut and maple trees! We would thus absorb the residual water, enhance the site and contribute to sustainable development!
But the building was not intended to support such weight. There’s a strong possibility that the structure will collapse under the weight of the garden, which will invade the floors below. Foxglove and lavender will grow on the podium. Daisies and campion will spring out of the ground; jasmine, wisteria, clematis and ivy will climb up the walls. A bed of poppies will take over the lift while a line of poplars will climb the stairs.
For now, Partially Buried University exists in the form of an interactive application that stages the Saint-Charles Centre being buried by the roof garden planted on its terraces. An in situ route invites visitors to project themselves into this possible future. This garden was designed to make the conflict between order and disorder visible. It is intended to be a reflection on entropy, on the evolution of a small-scale ecosystem and on the temporality characteristic of Robert Smithson’s projects, and to maintain their memory.
In simulating the action of utopia, we are exploring the process that Smithson called disarchitecture, by combining it with a permanently topical theme – ecological architecture.
.Brinsley Tyrrell, quoted by Dorothy Shinn, Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, exhibition catalogue, KSU School of Art, 1990. See my article “Ruines à l’envers” on the Transactiv-exe website: http://www.transactiv-exe.org/spip.php?article133.
.Bob Swick, quoted by William Bierman, “Spare the Woodshed! Burn the Woodshed!”, Akron Beacon-Journal, July 20, 1975.
.Allusion to a popular 1963 film, “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World”. The article is quoted by Smithson in “Entropy Made Visible”, Interview with Alison Sky, On Site N°4, 1973, republished in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996, p. 307.