Here in this site lie vital forces left dormant by society.
—Christophe Girot, “Four Trace Concepts in Landscape Architecture”
One day in June 2014, the single-story structure located at 1121 NE 45th Street in Seattle was demolished and hauled away. The old building, built in 1937, had been modified many times over the years; its last incarnation was a restaurant called Araya’s. With the structure gone, the site was graded flat and the concrete rubble was piled inside the remaining foundation. A chain-link fence was installed, enclosing the eroding walls of the building amid a field of bare ground where mosses, grasses, and wildflowers began to take hold.
In most cases new construction quickly replaces the old, covering the earth back up and superseding in our minds what was there before. This site, however, sat for months on end in a prolonged moment of rest. My commute through the University District often took me past this fallow site, and I came to see the place itself as an artifact, a physical transcript of the changing urban environment. I reached out to the owners of the property, WSECU, to see if they might be interested in a temporary, experimental landscape installation that could open up the site for exploration, permitting a look into the terrain beneath the city.
I modeled the resulting exhibit, Site 1121, after an archaeological dig, focusing on the landscape as a process rather than a built outcome. During the week of 21 March 2016, I coordinated an urban field study to mark and reveal the ecological and cultural richness in this overlooked vacant lot. The study had no goal but to encourage a slow interaction with the site. Boardwalks and worktables facilitated access and invited participation.
With the help of University of Washington faculty, a group of landscape architecture students began the installation by identifying and sketching more than 30 species of urban plants. This interaction inverted visitors’ perceptions of weeds and revealed a spontaneous garden. The idea of invisible seeds in the soil springing forth when the lid is removed became a metaphor for Site 1121 as a vernacular landscape.
Then, throughout the week, volunteers joined students in the careful work of excavating objects from the layers of terrain. Participants were encouraged to follow their intuition in exploring the site and revealing its character. Among the items discovered were pipe sections, a mason’s plumb bob, a railroad spike and bits of glass block from the building’s Art Deco facade. An instinctive, shared process of sorting, organizing, and curating produced an array of artifacts displayed on worktables.
The group’s presence attracted visitors from the neighborhood, and the site became a meeting place. Volunteers from WSECU served as docents who greeted curious passersby, answering questions and inviting them to share in conversations about what used to be there and what might be in the future, about shared impressions and conflicting views of how the neighborhood is changing, about memories and belonging, community design, ownership, and access to places not built upon. Revealed along with the physical artifacts was a deeper human narrative of continuity and coherence in the urban landscape.
When you take things like weeds, found materials, or an abandoned site and organize them, arrange them, and demonstrate visible caring, a transformation occurs. A few people who came to Site 1121 asked, “Did you find anything valuable?” But we weren’t thinking that way. Everything we found had at some point in time been valued then cast aside.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term for the sense of beauty we find in objects or places that permits a glimpse into the impermanence of things. It comes with a sense of recognition, of familiarity. One can experience a disclosure of truth in perceiving the wabi-sabi of the ordinary, and this was the essence of Site 1121.
While the sensitive field study of plants, terrain, and artifacts at Site 1121 did reveal the site’s ecological complexities and cultural character, it was perhaps the contemplation of the space just as it was that had the most profound effect on the groups of people gathering there.