Artists are frequently inspired by land — be it painter Robert S. Duncanson’s renditions of American landscapes, or William Kentridge’s subversions of colonial-era British paintings depicting African vistas. Some artists, though, have preferred to work directly with the land, creating structures that sit on landscapes, or carving into the land itself. This art style — formally termed as Land Art — gained prominence in 1960s and 70s United States, in the context of the rise of the environmental movement amidst civil rights and antiwar protests, and as artists looked to separate themselves from the art market.
Large conceptual gestures were made by sculpting into the landscape one way or another, by artists such as Walter De Maria — whose 1977 Lightning Field featured 400 stainless steel poles installed in a grid in a New Mexico desert; or by Nancy Holt, who positioned four hollow concrete cylinders to frame the sun in the northwestern American state of Utah. These works, as much as they are artistic explorations, can also be viewed as architectural experiments. With Land Art, the contested line that determines what is “art” and what is “architecture” can get extremely blurred.
Defining architecture in relation to art, or vice-versa, is a difficult affair. A commonly-held viewpoint is that while art can be produced only for its creative sake, architecture has a mandatory functional element, responding to site-specific or client-specific constraints. Looking at the work of artist duo Christo and Jean-Claude, for instance, this distinction with reference to Land Art is tricky to navigate. Their 2016 The Floating Piers installation in Italy's Lake Iseo consisted of floating blocks wrapped in yellow fabric, anchored to the bottom of the lake to shape piers. The result of this project was a three-kilometer walkway that seemed to hover on the lake surface, intended to create the sensation of walking on water.
The Floating Piers is evidently an art installation — it was dismantled after sixteen days — but in many ways, the walkway is an architectural intervention on the nautical landscape. For the first time, someone would be able to walk from the town of Sulzano, to the island of Monte Isola, and onto the smaller Island of San Paolo. The walkway wrapped around the existing architectural context of an idle Franciscan convent on San Paolo, and a map charting the path of the walkway and the fabric is, in effect, an architectural site plan. The transparent link between architecture and Land Art is in the name of the latter — land. By virtue of being art sitting in a parcel of land in the landscape, Land Art interacts with the earth in the same way a building might, but also, much like a building, brings to the fore questions about land ownership. And again, much like a building, these large-scale installations can exploit land in harmful ways.
The American Land Artist Michael Heizer is one of the pioneering names of the Land Art movement, typically using the American West as a workspace to exhibit monumental sculptures made with earth-moving machines. His 2022 piece City is enormous in size — 0.80 km by 2.4 km — and is the culmination of a 50-year process. Composed of abstract forms made out of rock, concrete, and compacted dirt, the artwork is influenced by colossal architectural marvels of the past, drawing upon the scale of iconic sites such as Angkor Wat and Chichén Itzá. Located in a desert valley in rural Lincoln County in the U.S state of Nevada, City might be in a remote area, but this land is certainly not a blank canvas. City is a $40 million endeavor built on Paiute territory — one of four Indigenous tribes who have tribal lands in the Western American state. The context that City is built upon is violent — the land was seized from the tribe as part of the American colonial project in 1874. And, as was customary for the colonial project, the land was obtained without a treaty, with no compensation given to its residents.
Far from being on an impartial, vacant site, Heizer’s career-defining piece, which mobilized an enormous amount of resources to realize, is situated in a context that is backdropped by modern Indigenous lands being more vulnerable to the effects of climate change — facing reduced rainfall and extreme heat, this a direct consequence of forced relocation by settlers to land considered less valuable.
This contentious relationship with land, of course, is also visible from an architectural viewpoint. The 1930 Art Deco-style Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, is a Modernist landmark today, but it was constructed to take center stage in the colonial segment of the city, as the French 1914 urban plan saw Casablanca’s land demarcated by boulevards and parks that racially segregated the city. In more recent times, we have seen indigenous rights groups attempt to thwart the construction of Amazon’s 70,000 square-meter Africa headquarters — to be built on land sacred to Khoisan tribes.
When does land art become architecture? It is hard to say. Perhaps the common thread most clearly lies in a historic and contemporary truth — that land is not neutral.