‘God is in the details’ to quote Mies, and some of the details and craft of Levitated Mass are the devil. If art can be defined by the highest level of craft, then more should be expected from Michael Heizer’s team – especially the engineers and the welders. Almost seems that the trench was designed before they found the rock, and the brackets were the ‘make-it-work’ solution with some of the sloppiest welds this side of a vocational school. So here is a rundown of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Levitated Mass installation at LACMA.
Concrete – the good
The concrete work is highly refined at the level of a James Turrell Skyspace (but not equal to Tado Ando or other concrete masters), with a very smooth skimcoat on all exposed surfaces. I’m puzzled by the triangular notches at the ends of the trench (see above), as they are gratuitous interruptions to the visual pull of the rock. The integral ADA mandated handrails are quite elegant, and again invoke Turrell.
Earthworks – the good
The grading around the trench is quite precise, but seems designed for easy maneuvering of the bulldozer, not for visual or tactile effect. From the Cor-Ten rail edging, there is a gentle slope to the walls of the trench. This puts the Rock at waist height when standing next to it. First impression is that the soil of the slope towards the trench has been treated with a polymer stabilizer as it has a slight sheen and is darker (see below) then the adjacent decomposed granite surface. While suppressing dust and minimizing erosion are worthwhile goals, the desert that the decomposed granite is intended to evoke is a dusty and eroding place, so soil stabilization works against the larger intent.
That edging strip could be the crown of a railroad extrusion, if weathering steel was used for train tracks.
Metalwork – the bad and the ugly
The official dedication ceremony for Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is set for 11am on Sunday, June 24th at LACMA. Christopher Knight of the LATimes has an early review of the work with photos by Mel Melcon (all the images used in this post). Knight’s piece is a solid review that pulls in a myriad of non-obvious precedents, potential influences and narratives that haven’t been part of the discourse to-date.
“Levitated Mass” is a piece of isolated desert mystery cut into a dense urban setting that’s home to nearly 10 million people. A water-hungry lawn north of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion was torn up and replaced by a dry, sun-blasted expanse of decomposed granite. A notched gray channel of polished concrete slices 456 feet across the empty field, set at a slight angle between the pavilion and 6th Street. Like a walk-in version of an alien landscape painting by Surrealist Yves Tanguy, quiet dynamism inflects a decidedly sepulchral scene.
What really, really surprises me about the installation are the hefty steel brackets that the monolith is mounted to. All preliminary descriptions evoked a rock sitting directly on the concrete walls of the trench, not mounted on massive steel corbels. The maximalist brackets are a significant shift towards structuralism and away from from Heizer’s minimalist material palette of soil, stone, and concrete (artificial stone). If hidden mountings and connections had been utilized for the rock (I’m thinking about Brian Murphy’s Hopper House) or other highly refined mininalist architecture, then we could have experienced the illusion that the boulder was hovering. As detailed, those gusset plates express the shear mass being supported and bring the levitating mass crashing back to earth.
Lots of architects have used similarly proportioned gussets with Cor-Ten structural elements – this is no Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, or Thom Mayne building though – perhaps Michael Rotondi is part of their lineage. (Here are some images of similar details: 1, 2). The artists that pop to mind from these brackets include Mark di Survero with his structural steel sculptures and Serra for his pioneering use of weathering steel.