Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Sometimes mazes work, sometimes not

Cheekwood is an odd duck sort of institution, part botanical garden, part museum, with a limited collection and floor area, as you should expect given the facility’s origins as a private home. Some of the best things Cheekwood does take advantage of its hybrid nature, like the Sculpture Trail that is part walk in the woods, part sculpture garden. They also have a great summer series where they get teams of architects to design interactive environments for the grounds that kids can play on. Last year it was tree houses. This year it’s mazes.

Of course the mazes and treehouses are just for fun, but they let the architects show off and sometimes it’s much more an artistic statement than a playground facility. Last year one of the treehouses was an oversized Chinese carryout box on its side – not much for a kid to explore, but a fun piece of pop art.

This year there is one maze (they are up through the end of October) worth talking about here. Called “Signs of the Times,” and designed by Emilie Taylor and Luke Tidwell, it is constructed from plastic sheets printed with bright images from advertisements, blown up to a very large size. The sheets are hung to form a series of square, concentric walls that have a ziggurat shape. You work your way around each ring, go through a gate into the next level, with the walls getting bigger all the time, eventually surrounding you with supersized images. Just from a patch of color and a couple of words you can identify some things, like a Southwest Airlines ad, others are harder to place. Sometimes snippets of sensitive topics like healthcare come out.

This maze does not offer much challenge in terms of finding the correct path – you circle the wall until you find the one gateway to the next layer. But like any maze it has a payoff. Some mazes lead you to the other side, some take you to the center. Sometimes you find something in the center, like the Monkey Puzzle Tree at the center of the maze in a botanical garden in Vancouver. In this case, you end up in the tallest section of the ziggurat, in a narrow space with blank, white walls, open to the sky. That’s what you get – a break from the overwhelming sales images bearing down upon you from all sides, and these planes that lead your eye up into the sky. Maybe the reward is being given a moment’s piece, the chance to extract yourself from all that. Maybe this space is a kind of death, where activity ceases. At any rate, the transitions, circling around one layer and passing into the next, getting deeper into a field of vision dominated by marketing pictures, and then the break from it has a clear motion, and a sequence upon to interpretation. This one has layers that seem a lot more designed for the adults.

Like I said before, these summer projects give the architects a chance to play and show off. I have assumed that a lot of the designers are younger architects when they are listed with an affiliation with a firm. Well, anything that gives you a chance to show off also has some risk of maybe not looking so good. Three architects from Earl Swensson and Associates did a maze that consisted of colored plastic fabric stretched on wood frames (like signs) that were planted in the ground parallel and at right angles to each other to make a geometric pattern that you could pass through a number of ways. This late in the display’s run, a number of the frames had shifted, with many of the ones that were placed perpendicular to the ground’s slope tilted over, and a season of weather had left the plastic stained. Maybe this decay was intended, but it didn’t seem like it. The tilting looked like the architects hadn’t quite figured how well the ground could hold the weight of the frames against gravity, given the depth to which the legs were stuck, their anchoring, soil conditions, slope. It’s just a maze, but it doesn’t scream technical precision. The architects here are associated with the firm that brought Nashville the Bat Building (and as I understand it has a good reputation as a designer of healthcare facilities), but the more unfortunate association is with the renovation of TPAC, which included a floor inlaid with quotations that included misspellings and misquotations which had to be corrected after installation.

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