Monday, 27 February 2017
November / December 2011
Abstract and Concrete
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The Plantations sculpture garden gets a face-lift

Near the pond in Cornell Plantations' Newman Arboretum, eight pieces of modern art loom amid the lush scenery—concrete structures standing in rigid contrast to the rolling hills and flowering trees. But when art professor Jack Squier, MFA '52, acquired space for the sculpture garden in the early Sixties, the area was little more than a trash heap. "When I got ahold of it," Squier recalls, "the land was full of old railroad ties, fifty-five-gallon drums, and piles of chicken manure as big as cars."

Outdoor art: The arboretum's Sixties-era sculptures have been restored.

The sculpture garden took root as an extracurricular project by eleven fourth- and fifth-year architecture students. In the winter of 1961, the group worked in the studio with Squier on sketches and scale models. When the ground thawed, the figures—varying in size, shape, and style—were sculpted on site and hoisted into place. Of the original eleven pieces, the largest weighed ten tons. "After we hooked the crane to the first piece, we lifted it off the ground about three inches and jiggled it a little," says Squier, now a professor emeritus who splits his time between Florida and Ithaca. "We had to make sure the crane wouldn't collapse." The University donated the concrete, the crane, and a cement mixer, but the students financed the rest. A number of them—including Alan Chimacoff '63, BArch '64, who designed Cornell's North Campus and Lab of Ornithology— would go on to distinguished architecture careers.

In the years following the installation, three of the pieces were found to be structurally unsound and had to be taken down; last year, the Plantations completed a restoration of the eight remaining works. The pieces were cleaned, minor repairs were made, surrounding trees were trimmed, and an informational sign was installed. "The sculpture pieces represent another aspect of human culture and artistic endeavor," says Plantations director Don Rakow, MPS '77, PhD '87. "The trees and the sculptures play off one another, enhancing the beauty of each."

While the sculptures have their share of critics—who argue that their industrial look detracts from the arboretum's bucolic atmosphere—they've gotten at least one high-profile endorsement. Squier notes that shortly after their installation, Walter Gropius, the legendary German architect and founder of the Bauhaus movement, called to congratulate him on the project. "He thought it was one of the best devices he had ever seen for training architects," Squier recalls. "It was very public. If the students succeeded, they succeeded publicly. If they failed, they failed publicly."

— Heather McAdams '14

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