The Palo Alto Byxbee Park project transformed a newly closed landfill into a public amenity, where people could recreate, recharge, and enjoy what some think of as a natural landscape. The surrounding Palo Alto Baylands was not and had not been a “natural” landscape for many years – even though it has wetlands, populations of reptiles, mammals, migrating and resident birds, and wonderful views of marshes and the bay to the east. Besides the landfill itself, the area included, in close proximity, a municipal airport, a golf course, a water treatment plant, an antenna farm, a yacht basin, a bay lands interpretive center, a flood control basin, high-tension power lines and a major freeway.
As design team members, we were charged with preserving and expanding the marshes, protecting the wildlife and restoring a diversity of plant and animal life, while making provisions for pedestrian and bicyclists, and restricting urban intrusion. Ultimately, we were to ensure that the disposal area became an environmental asset and a continuation of the natural green space. As artists, we were to fully integrate art with the park landscape and its surrounding landscape.
Because of the site’s context, as outlined above, and because of the physical nature of the landfill itself and its litany of design constraints, the team argued that it would not be possible to return the site to some undefined and romantic notion of nature. Robert Morris’ ethical questions raised at the symposium organized by the Seattle Art Museum in 1977 concerning the implications of wiping away land-use transgressions of the past through the application of an artistic overlay, strengthened our request to the City of Palo Alto to allow us to work with what the site offered at present, and to address a situation where the systems of nature and systems supporting human activity had merged creating a new ambiguous landscape. Furthermore, we were inspired by Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks offering of a creative and inspirational solution for the practical problems of flood control and drainage in an altered watershed. Bayer’s work did not deny past usage, but instead addressed the issues at hand, while creating a well-used and popular public space and an iconic work of art.
With the support of Palo Alto’s Visual Arts Jury and City Council, our master plan for the 120 acre landfill was approved. Part of this plan was a treatment of a recently closed portion of 45 acres which included a series of sculptural elements designed to heighten people’s sense of discovery, connect them with the contextual aspects of the place and to highlight the interplay between natural and built systems. The remaining 75 acres will be closed and capped in 2010.
Peter Richards has built a reputation for creating public spaces that involve many layers of complexity. As a long-term Artist in Residence at the Exploratorium (an innovative science museum in San Francisco, California), Richards shares his enthusiasm for nature and their elements through his work. His engaging outdoor sculptures and immersive landscaped environments bring such phenomena as wind and tidal movement into a larger cultural context.
Peter Richards received his B.A. degree in sculpture from Colorado College in 1967 and a M.F.A degree in sculpture from the Rinehart School of Sculpture in Baltimore in 1969. He has permanent outdoor installations in Austria, New York, Colorado, California and Washington. He has taught at the Center for Experimental and Interdisciplinary Arts at San Francisco State University, Ecole d' Art Aix en Provence, the San Francisco Art Institute and Stanford University. He was a founder of McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was a Research Fellow at the Studio for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University. As previously noted, he is currently Senior Artist at The Exploratorium in San Francisco, California.
Byxbee Landfill Park, 45 acres. landscaping materials, concrete, wood, steel, rope. 1991, commissioned by the City of Palo Alto. Created in collaboration with Michael Oppenheimer and George Hargreaves and Associates.
1. Pole Field
A field of poles was planted at the easternmost tip of the park. Evenly cut to form a tilting plane, they are spaced in a grid formation. The land undulates underneath this plane, resulting in some poles being over 15 feet tall, while others are only 18 inches.
The Palo Alto Airstrip can be observed in the distance from this high point in the park. The centerline of the strip was extended through the park itself by aligning pairs of concrete highway barriers along this axis. By placing these barriers at right angles to each other, a series of chevrons were created. They are visible from the air and are an aeronautical symbol meaning "Don't land here."