Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks
Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park, 742 E. Titus, Kent, WA
A dam in the ordinary sense constitutes a radical interference with the natural configuration of the land. My intent was, therefore, to give the dams a natural appearance conforming to the landscape (surroundings) and to become integral parts of the landscape being created.
– Herbert Bayer, King County Arts Commission newsletter, August 1982
As a Bauhaus master, Herbert Bayer’s entire career was dedicated to integrating artistic concerns into the everyday operations of society. With the Earthworks, he created a much loved public park, a stormwater detention dam and a modernist masterpiece. Installed in 1982, the Earthworks was immediately lauded for its fusion of art and infrastructure, making the installation a powerful precedent for engineers, landscape architects and artists.
A series of sculpted spaces that feel both ancient and modern, the Earthworks’ pure forms—cones, circles, lines and berms—are built into the alluvial delta at the mouth of Mill Creek Canyon. Grass and concrete, a wood bridge and steps: these are the materials at work, joined by the natural forces of Mill Creek itself.
Landmark Designation and Restoration
Today, the same issues that necessitated building the Earthworks 25 years ago have intensified dramatically. The regulations for the dam's spillway have increased from a 100-year storm event to a 10,000-year storm event. Also, since the goal of restoring salmon runs has been a success, fishery regulations have made it difficult to remove vegetation impacting the sightlines of the artwork.
In April 2008, the Kent Arts Commission nominated the Earthworks for a City Landmark Designation. The site was proclaimed "exceptionally significant" prior to the dam safety construction project, which took place over the summer of 2008.
Partnering with King County's Office of Historic Preservation brought the spirit of collaboration full circle, since the impetus for Bayer's Earthworks was King County's groundbreaking Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture symposium in 1979. The Kent Arts Commission is currently partnering with 4Culture (previously the King County Arts Commission) on a restoration project.
Research and Video
The Kent Arts Commission is committed to honoring the physical and conceptual aspects that comprise Herbert Bayer's original design. To this end, links to articles, the landmark nomination and technical drawings are available on our research page. The video documentary A Place for People provides an overview of how the Earthworks came to be built and how it has evolved over time.
Essays and Studio
With tongue firmly in cheek, the channeling herbert exhibition provided contemporary comment on Bayer's design in the face of change. As part of the 25th Anniversary Earthworks Celebration, the Kent Arts Commission invited renown artists, landscape architects and historians to participate in this exhibit. Images and essays by over thirty-five participants allow for a deeper understanding of Herbert Bayer's influence.
As much as Herbert Bayer created a physical place, he also created a model for interdisciplinary collaboration. In this spirit, the Kent Arts Commission asked a University of Washington Studio to collaborate with Kent Public Works to address new storm water regulations and vegetation management. The Studio also reviewed archival documents to clarify Bayer's vision for his project, as it was designed and as it has aged. The City of Kent Public Works Department hopes to incorporate some of the students' design solutions into future projects along the canyon.
Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park is located at 742 E. Titus, Kent WA . The park includes the Earthworks and an amphitheater. Adjacent to the amenities of historic downtown Kent, it is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk. Please link to our tour page for more details.