THE SALT MOUNTAIN DISTURBANCE
The Salt Mountain Disturbance, a site work proposal exhibited at Artisterium in Tbilisi, drew from field research on the vegetation and substrates of a salt stockpile site in Columbus. Through subtle grading changes and vegetation management, Salt Mountain converts what was a hazardous surplus—road salt—and channels it into a striking urban landscape of mineral gradients and salt tolerant ruderal species.
Site Joyce Avenue Railyard, Columbus, Ohio | Exhibition Artisterium, Tbilisi Georgia 2010 | With Justin Braun, Kirk Hiatt, Abigail Downs, Jesse Hartman, production
Dysfunctional but Different
Playing on the numeric categorizations of landscapes by landscape architect Gilles Clément, historian John Dixon Hunt and ecologist Stephen Kowarik, I proposed an alternative categorization to include design interventions within sterile, engineered structures. The goal is to not restore ecosystems to their pre-control state, but rather incubate novel ecological activities and allow for public access within the control system armature. Dysfunctional but different casts aside the aspirations and “naturalization” tendencies of ecological restoration practice to stimulate new aesthetic and ecological approaches.
The former Pennsylvania railroad yard at 20th street in Columbus, Ohio is now a site of ruderal meadows and woodlands. A mountain of road salt anchors the western edge of the site. The salt stockpile is a Columbus landmark, visible to motorists approaching Columbus from the airport.
Saline runoff precipitates at the toe of the slope in feathered gradients of color. New crystal gardens form as rainwater evaporates. The runoff follows a ditch, draining into the storm sewers. The site’s surplus—the saline rich solution—created a water quality hazard downstream. Nothing blocked the runoff from entering the storm system.
Over a period of a few weeks in the fall of 2009, I created a series of drawings interpreting the site and surroundings. These observations of vegetation and finely detailed saline precipitation patterns led to a turn in my thinking about how a landscape architect might approach material surpluses site hazards: rather than efficiently divert the saline runoff from the storm sewer, I proposed re-grading the site into a series of subtle slopes to create saline precipitation gardens, visible at two speeds: site visitors on foot and passing motorists.
In summer of 2011 curator Lydia Matthews invited me to participate in Artisterium, an international exhibition in Tbilisi, Georgia. I suggested we present our work on the rail yard and salt stockpile. The limits of the project were a short timeline, and a 70 kilo weight limit for flying the artwork in our personal luggage. I enlisted fabricator Justin Braun to join me in production and installation in Georgia.
Our initial studies were in cardboard and found objects; expedient for working-out-ideas, yet too ambiguous and imprecise to tell a story. Given the constraints of transporting the exhibition to Tbilisi, and the compressed time frame the models we felt the models should exhibit a high level of craft and detail because of their size – they would be objects as much as models.
We retained the idea of test plots in the final series of models. We imagined 5 different plots. Elements of each plot were drawn from found conditions on-site and invented conditions that might redirect or amplify existing site phenomena.
Salt “vanes” diverting runoff at the toe of the slope, with a removable dam to re-direct flows
- The meeting of two runoff channels with a removable dam
- An emergent meadow cut into an asphalt pad
- The intersection of a road and abandoned railroad grade
- A channel between a paved and unpaved plateau above a wetland.
The wood models are “frames” depicting the cycles of disturbance and successional response. The complete exhibition included 25 milled and hand-tooled models: 5 test plots at 5 stages: setup, initiation, disturbance, response, and re-disturbance. Milling allowed the precision in slopes to emphasize the fractional crystallization of the rich brine runoff. Hand tooling provided texture of ground planes. A few examples:
- An access road is retained on site for circulation but holes drilled in the asphalt of a former access road allow pockets of vegetation to emerge.
- A compacted swale is scored with small depressions to trap saline runoff in a dappled pattern and a metal weir divers runoff.
- An asphalt plane is slopes gently to an interceptor swale that divides into several furrowed vanes.
- Holes are drilled in an asphalt plane to allow for emergent vegetation. The asphalt plane is cut to create a swale and a shallow wetland is dug to create a salt marsh.