By Jeanine Strickland, Landscape Architect
The landscape was shrouded in an epic fog when I arrived at the Bay Area Discovery Museum on a recent morning, yet I felt giddy with excitement. After years of waiting for an opportunity to work with environmental artist Patrick Dougherty of Stickwork, I was finally, finally getting to be part of the magic of building what I consider the ultimate green architecture project!
Mr. Dougherty, with a sweet North Carolina drawl, led me inside the roughly-framed labyrinth, a whimsical nest of willow whips caught up in an ephemeral tensile structure. He parked me in an inner room, described the general idea with sweeping gestures, and demonstrated how to weave the willow whips into the frame to build sweeping walls, hobbit doors, improbable windows and an oculus to glimpse the sky. He made it look so easy…only it isn’t.
It turns out, the humble twig is a powerful teacher. Bend the willow whip one way, and you begin to feel it might flex to an impossible hairpin angle. And as it flexes, the potential energy builds and if you continue to bend it… SNAP! The twig reaches its physical limit and breaks or pops back and whacks you with a vengeance right in the face. Try to push the ends in one way, and it snags on every dang thing and gets stuck. Pull it through another way, and it weaves tightly together like a tapestry. The whips create beautiful sweeping lines that appear to rest lightly on the earth and aspire toward the light of the sky.
Hours passed in what seemed like a moment, and I became aware of this internal dialogue in the magical land of Right Brain. Is this the secret engineering of the bird or the spider? Is art a kind of infrastructure we don’t have the words to describe? Is architecture just an ordered expression of the qualities of the natural materials we use? Was the willow the artistic medium or the weaver? Oh, yeah, I think–this is what it feels like to be “in the zone”; talking to myself, imagining, questioning, creating, learning. This is what hands-on learning feels like to understand basic principles of nature intuitively.
A nest has always seemed like an architectural miracle to me, but in my brief experience, I began to learn a sort of physics too varied and unpredictable to explain. Yet, everyone participating did weave and build that sketchy architectural wonder with style and integrity. There were no classes or meetings, we just worked alongside each other with a shared vision to guide us. The structure fairly hums with a farm’s worth of individual willow whips woven so tightly that it appears as a dense, solid mass, yet at the same time ultra-light, floating, ready to spring apart or constrict like a muscle. It’s not moving, but the visual lines and physical forces feel centrifugal, like a tornado. It’s powerful and dynamic, and you can feel it.
Think about the power of combining that flexibility, artistry, craftsmanship, humility, hands-on learning and fluid collaboration together in harmony with the forces of nature. Both at the macro scale, like adapting to climate change, and the micro scale, like stabilizing a creek bank with bioengineering. We have so many lessons to learn from even the humblest twig!
Here is the link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItgLbMIFJFo) to our Installation time.