PRINT January 2011


Enveloped in fields of glow and shadow, viewers of Robert Irwin’s signature sculptures and installations never know quite what they are seeing. And yet they are made acutely, surprisingly aware of their own perceptual faculties, their bodily tics and errors and their leaps of sense. It’s for this reason that Irwin’s practice is famously aligned with the Light and Space movement of the 1960s and ’70s. In the decades since, however, the artist has also focused on large-scale interventions into public sites, from the celebrated J. Paul Getty Museum garden to the master plan at Dia:Beacon. These endeavors braid the viscera of physical experience with the historical and cultural aspects of their location—demonstrating, ultimately, that Irwin’s Light and Space work and his landscape interventions are tightly related. Both are suffused with the historical specificity, the here and now, of perception. In the following pages, Irwin presents four little-known projects that were never realized—but which remain vivid proposals for changing our awareness and our thought.

Robert Irwin, Freeway Monument, 1977. Photographic documentation of proposed site. All works by Robert Irwin © Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Embarcadero, San Francisco, 1977

In 1956–65, the citizens of San Francisco wisely rose up in collective protest to stop in its tracks the construction of a cumbersome double-decker freeway, which would have, in effect, cut off the famed “city by the bay” from its waterfront (a fate that plagues truncated Seattle to this day). The proposal here turns up the two unfinished ramps of the freeway as if a giant hand had intervened, intended to memorialize the legendary activist spirit of the Bay Area.

The project never had a serious airing.

Robert Irwin, Tilted Planes, 1978. Detail of model.

Ohio State University, 1978

A competition initiated by the university art gallery for a site-specific project elicited proposals from Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Tony Smith, and myself. The area I selected, the “oval mall,” is the active focal point of the campus, augmented by the real complexity of its interwoven paths and the fact that, every hour on the hour, the oval is inundated with a crowd of students crisscrossing through.

Tilted Planes was intended to act in concert with these givens. Because of the scale and the ever-so-slight “bowl” of the oval, the different raised sections of triangular grass planes would take on the optical qualities of rising and tilting. My proposal was simply to activate these qualities to a level of cognizance without changing the site’s historical configuration.

This, it seemed to me, would have produced a perfectly integrated figure-ground relationship. I won the competition, but the dean’s question, “Where’s the sculpture?” proved my point and killed the project.

Robert Irwin, Various Sight Lines, 1988. Side- and aerial-view drawings.

Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1988

Fallingwater was a unique challenge. The house is an architectural shrine—it cannot be touched. The grounds have a natural relationship to the house and offer no real focused opportunity. But there was a very real problem: too many visitors, too little access.

During my research on Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings for the building, a curious opportunity presented itself. Wright’s drawings for presentation each focused on three views, all of which were inaccessible: 1) a side view of the house stepping down a steep slope, 2) an eye-level view of the front of the house, and 3) the most photographed view, looking up at the house over the falls. My proposed solution was to provide unique access to each: 1) an open-grille catwalk from the upper (lightly used) road, which would pass through the tops of the trees to Wright’s sloped view of the house, 2) an earthen tunnel opening at the center of the cliff opposite the frontal view, 3) a stone path down the slope to a catwalk on the water, looking up at the storied view over the falls. Collectively, these present a series of classic Wrightian views—and in turn relieve the congestion on the other existing paths.

Unfortunately, my client, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., an architecture critic and son of the owner, passed away, and the project went into limbo; it soon died in the hands of a caretaker committee that lacked the nerve to touch a shrine in any way.

Robert Irwin, Allée, 1992. Photographic documentation of proposed site.

Winter Olympics, Albertville, France, 1992

After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find a place amid the hype of the Winter Games here, I was taken by the serenity and sheer beauty of the valley leading up to and back from Albertville. There, I settled on a simple integrated solution: the road, the passage, and the unique groups of trees—their order and sheer power of form being the only sign of human intervention. I guess it wasn’t Olympic enough.