White Water on Dry Land

In Owens Lake, a land art installation draws on 100-year-old history while providing critical habitat.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

When NUVIS Landscape Architecture was hired to assist the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) with its dust mitigation effort at Owens Lake (see “Dust to Bust,” LAM, October 2012), Perry Cardoza, ASLA, was given a list of objectives. Foremost, any design needed to tamp down the dust that had become a public health hazard, but it also would have to meet very specific habitat goals and help the department meet its water-use reduction targets. (LADWP has used up to 95,000 acre-feet of water annually for dust mitigation.) What was not on the list was any mention of land art.

“In everyone’s mind, this was going to be a hiking trail with a parking lot,” says Cardoza, an executive vice president at NUVIS. “We would have gravel and wetlands and some salt grass, and [we] would call it a day.” The project evolved, however, and the completed landscape, which opened to the public in April 2016 and won an Award of Excellence from the ASLA Southern California Chapter the same year, falls right into the land art tradition, even as it fulfills its mandate as an ecological booster.

Though they vary in size, the forms all “flow” in the direction of the prevailing winds. Image courtesy of NUVIS Landscape Architecture.

Located on a tiny parcel—at 700 acres, the parcel is still just 1 percent of the lake’s total area—near the lake’s northeast boundary, the design includes a monument-like shade structure and a series of plazas and interpretive kiosks that are connected by four miles of walking paths. For Cardoza, what pushes the work into the realm of land art are its 14 “whitecaps,” wavelike landforms that recall the lake as it was in the early 1900s, before it was drained by the Los Angeles Aqueduct and transformed into a white, windswept landscape that feels completely devoid of life.

The whitecaps are not formal exercises, however. They provide topographic variation that benefits invertebrates and small mammals, which help build a more robust ecosystem for migratory birds. “I understood early on that whatever we proposed out there had to have dual meaning,” Cardoza says. He also made it difficult for LADWP to say no. He borrowed the material palette and the engineering of the berm roads that the department already maintained, building the landforms out of dredge material and fortifying them with football-sized riprap.

Elements initially meant as symbolic double as habitat. In the main plaza, the snowy plover is represented both by the shade structure, with columns inspired by the shape of the bird’s wing, and in the monolithic stone obelisk that sits within a circle of smaller stones, a reference to the plover’s rock nests. Like the stone that wraps the whitecaps, those smaller stones provide niches for lizards, mice, and other small animals. Jaime Valenzuela, LADWP’s construction manager, says the land art meets the department’s goals and also added its own layers of complexity to the project.

Although Cardoza had no experience with large-scale art installations before Owens Lake, the process of creating the whitecaps felt like a natural response to an otherworldly and hostile environment, which because of the lake’s alkali nature made the introduction of foreign material futile. “To try to change the playa,” Cardoza says, “you’re going to lose.”

Timothy A. Schuler, editor of Now, can be reached at timothyaschuler@gmail.com and on Twitter @Timothy_Schuler.

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