PRINT January 2004


the Center for Land Use Interpretation

YOU WON’T FIND the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale on any star map, but on a September Saturday last year, fifty of us are on a tour bus heading for that very town. There, scattered among the standard landmarks of contemporary suburbia—a strip mall, gas stations, an office park—are the peculiar and sublime sites we’ve come to see: a gravel quarry, some piles of sand, a speedway, a dam, an asphalt factory, a brewery.

The guide for this unusual excursion is the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). CLUI was started in 1994 as a nonprofit institution devoted to understanding the “utilization of terrestrial and geographic resources.” Early on, the group, having done several site-specific installations, such as placing a sound-emitting device (“gently lapping water”) in a dry lake bed in central California, moved beyond art making per se to organizing fact-finding missions, publishing the results in handy quarterly pamphlets, and setting up an infrastructure (headquarters, website, generic United Nations–esque logo) that more closely resembled a research institution. Since then, CLUI has hosted numerous exhibits of photographs and maps in its LA-area gallery. For example, “Ground-Up: Photographs of the Ground in the Margins of Los Angeles,” at the gallery last fall and to which our trip is keyed, looked at the condition of the land at the edge of a metropolis. Viewers first saw several textbooklike diagrams detailing trenching and shoring methodologies, and, as is typical of such exhibitions at CLUI, these documents were presented as found material with little graphic intervention other than enlargement. Rounding out this small, focused show were large color photographs of parcels of land with highly idiosyncratic uses, including one photo of flat farmland where a layer of grass is just beginning to form—a sod farm. Other pictures depict an off- road-vehicle recreation park and, seemingly in a nod to Robert Smithson’s 1969 photograph Asphalt Rundown, a hill where excess concrete is regularly dumped. The bus trips, such as the one last September, are extensions of these gallery shows. Past tours have visited nuclear power plants in Washington State, shipyards in and around the San Francisco Bay, and, naturally, Area 51. CLUI considers such forays critical to their goals. As the group’s mission statement declares, “There is no substitute for being there, especially in these increasingly virtual times.”

In spite of such Ruskinian pronouncements, CLUI is not always so “hands-on.” The group can be rather mysterious—indeed, even virtual. The center, such as it is, is not easy to find. It’s housed in a windowless storefront on a busy commercial boulevard in a nondescript part of Culver City. (It is so unassuming as to be easily missed even by those who visit the better-known but equally inscrutable Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is located next door. That these two organizations should be neighbors is a happy congruence: Both agitate the middle ground between art and science, adopting a studied detachment that allows humor to seep in through the cracks.) Furthermore, the group’s most accomplished work to date is virtual, in the most literal sense: Their website’s Land Use Database ( is an archive of marginal land uses nationwide, from nuclear-waste sites and artillery ranges to mining museums and Earthworks.

CLUI has succeeded in identifying compelling episodes in the otherwise workaday story of land use, and that’s why we’re spending our Saturday in Irwindale. Our trip recalls another September Saturday thirty-six years earlier, when Smithson rode the number 30 bus from New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal out to Passaic, New Jersey, for an adventure into the wilds of suburban New York. Among the more typical sights and sounds—a high school football game, a used-car lot—he found some equally generic yet for him more evocative scenes: concrete abutments, an oil derrick on pontoons, a cluster of pipes spouting water, a sandbox. Smithson’s account of this odyssey, published in these pages (“The Monuments of Passaic”), elevates ordinary episodes in the modernization of suburban infrastructure into epic struggles between progress and entropy:

The suburbs exist without a rational past and without the “big events” of history. Oh, maybe there are a few statues, a legend, and a couple of curios, but no past—just what passes for a future. A Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass, and a place where the Passaic Concrete Plant (253 River Drive) does a good business in STONE, BITUMINIOUS, SAND, and CEMENT.

That CLUI’s tour was inflected by Smithson’s sensibility was evident before the bus left for Irwindale. Smithson’s 1967 essay and its Land-art legacy had long since helped aestheticize the kinds of landscapes seen in the gallery show.

As we head out on the eastbound 10 freeway, CLUI cofounder Matthew Coolidge delivers some opening remarks over the bus’s PA system. “You’ll see banal and dramatic landscapes. By the end of the day, you won’t know which is which.” For the veterans of previous CLUI bus tours, Coolidge offers this proviso: “Our tours have had to get more boring to get more interesting.” In Irwindale, the regional center for aggregate mining, boring turns out to be a way of life. The town’s nine and a half square miles are, according to Coolidge, “more pits than surface.”

We exit the highway at Irwindale, circling a piece of aggregate-themed public art filling the cloverleaf of the off-ramp, to arrive at our first stop: the Durbin aggregate pit. This is a high-yield rock farm and a monumental crater in the making. Down in the belly of the pit are piles of rubble neatly separated according to size and type: “3⁄8-inch crush,” “1⁄2-inch gravel,” “3⁄4-inch minus.” (Twenty years from now, all of this valuable gravel will be gone, mixed into building foundations and highways. The empty mine will revert to being what’s called a “percolation pit,” where runoff slowly filters back into the water table.) Next, we roll into the Nu-Way Live Oak Landfill, a former aggregate mine now in the process of being refilled. Trucks packed with construction waste follow our bus into the pit and deposit their payloads of broken concrete, rebar, and dirt. This material is then combed for recyclables. Rebar, for instance, will be extracted from chunks of demolished buildings, melted down, and recast as a lower-grade steel product. After each pile has been sifted through, steamrollers press the debris flat. In seven years, the ground level will have risen back up to that of the surrounding roadways, whereupon the site will likely be leased as prime industrial real estate. Irwindale’s condition of being “more pits than surface” begins to appear more complex than at first glance. Pits are mined. Pits are filled. Pits are mined again, and so on in an entropic cycle whose endgame is dust and degradation.

After a spin around the Irwindale Speedway (built over a landfill), we are led deep into the inner workings of the Santa Fe Dam. Down a long, dark tunnel of perhaps a hundred yards, we find a small control room and a colonnade of giant valves. Charts on the wall detail the measurement of water pressures during past floods. These diagrams are yellowed with age and somewhat cryptic, giving off a distinctly Duchampian aura. We photograph them. In fact, these are precisely the sorts of artifacts one might find presented as found objects in a CLUI gallery show or publication. Whereas Smithson and his Land-art comrades used actual landforms to monumentalize entropic process, CLUI uses photographs to document the ubiquity of entropy. We conclude our tour with visits to Irwindale’s two major cultural institutions, the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club and the Miller Brewery.

In the end, the tour was not an homage to Smithson but rather an appropriation. CLUI reenacted Smithson’s seminal work in order to demonstrate how the world and interpretations of it have changed. No longer does the spectacle of modernization inspire spiral-shaped aggrandizements of process: CLUI is not in the business of generating monuments but of disseminating information. No longer is a suburb under construction a cause for reflection on the futility of Utopia. In a town such as Irwindale, the struggle is now not between progress and entropy but rather between entropy and more entropy. It’s a spectacle of entropic process. Take your pick: mountains, rocks, gravel, sand, concrete, asphalt, bullets, or beer.

Daniel Herman is a Los Angeles–based architect and writer.