Zanja Madre; All photos by Katherine Montgomery

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA currently presents visitors with a false archaeological site, one populated with carefully arranged pieces of frozen trash, petrified wood, and stratified concrete and resin columns evoking geologic core samples. The assemblage of objects are the work of Argentine artist Adrian Villar Rojas, part of an installation situated in a large, dark hall split by a series of bright blue walls, an environment capable of inducing a sense of feeling both underwater and underground at the same time.

Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York /Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé

More than the physical objects, Rojas’ “Theater of Disappearance” is conceptually intriguing. In conjunction with the exhibit, I attended a lecture by Los Angeles-based writer Normal Klein, whose exploration of the city as ruin touched upon several ideas I have been mulling over for a while. Klein’s presentation was guided by Google image searches, a source which he referred to as the “Brain”. Klein used photos of historic and recreated ruins as reference to ask why we give weight and meaning to remnants of the past. Klein suggests ruins provide a sense of comfort, a visual memory, and a depth to the otherwise shallow present. The discussion eventually turned towards city planning and historic preservation of functional architecture, but I was left more interested of the idea of incorporating obsolete structures into the landscape as totems, activated by what Klein called the “dissolving present”.

Los Angeles is a constantly evolving city only now slowly learning to value its past. A see-saw process of older structures being torn down for the erection of new condos is perpetually unfolding, rendering some streets unrecognizable in short time – a “Theater of Disappearance”. But Los Angeles – while often seen as a city lacking in history – does harbor historical depth, one as engaging as any older civilization: fascinating ruins such as the Belmont Tunnel, Murphy Ranch, Echo Mountain, and even abandoned oil derricks all remain integral to the city’s rich landscape and history.

Klein’s discussion sparked more thoughts about remnants than ruins – objects, instead of buildings or infrastructure. How can they can be integrated into a designed landscape without being a simple memorial? How do physical relics affect our connection to a space, and how can we use them to create more dynamic landscapes?

When the Blossom Plaza was being built on the site of Little Joe’s Italian Restaurant in Chinatown, the construction team discovered a brick water pipe dated to the very beginnings of Los Angeles. The water conducting pipe was laid into an even older ditch, or Zanja Madre as it was called, a conduit once responsible for connecting the early city to the Los Angeles River. A piece of the pipe is now tucked into a small corner of the LA State Historic Park, with the Metro Gold Line tracks separating access between it and the public. It’s hard to tell if its location was meant to keep it safe, or simply keep it hidden until a better situation is decided. Should it be left to erode into the landscape, left underground in its original place, or placed in a protected environment? In any case, its current state is not ideal.

The 6th Street Bridge, Los Angeles.

The design for the new 6th Street Viaduct and adjacent park will incorporate one of the iron arches of the iconic 6th Street Bridge, which was demolished this past year. The city even handed out chunks of the bridge’s concrete with a certificate of authenticity so people could have their own personal remnant. The 6th Street Bridge was a central figure in the culture of Boyle Heights, and the neighborhood mourned its demolition with a few final, illegal cruises right before it was dismantled. Incorporating a physical piece of it into the park below is a small token gesture to its vibrant past. I am curious to see how it will be used. How will visitors be able to engage with it? Will they people able to walk through it, touch it, or park their old low-rider in front of it for pictures?

An example of an “accidental totem”.

It was a few months ago while hiking around the Hahamonga Wash a few months ago I took this photo of a concrete wall. The man-made interplay of movement and light within a very wild context offers an ideal backdrop for plants and their shadows. Much of my own interest in landscape revolves around ecology – I like systems with a purpose, that work, and support a larger purpose. I often focus solely on the world of nature, but I also love seeing the interaction between humans and nature. This remnant of some forgotten infrastructure is now enveloped by plants, resembling a piece in a sculpture garden, an accidental totem layered into the landscape.

Which leaves the question: At what point does a remnant of the past become art?

The “Theater of Disappearance” touched upon these ideas, sparking conversation about how LA’s landscape architects can use to better design within the context of our history. As we design landscapes, these elements of the past are capable of telling a complex story, one rich with historic context to the present and a physical connection to the past, imploring us to ask questions like, “Who else has touched these bricks?” or “Why is this here?”

I prefer we continue to use these elements in the landscape – objects activated by humans and nature permitted to grow, decay, and move – rather than leave them to stagnate forgotten or in a museum. Their presence honors the collective memory of a place.

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