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Lost Highway 

by Ann M. Colford


Eastern Washington is a minimalist's landscape. Endless horizons, blocks of color, the interplay of light and shadow - these are the delights that await the traveler in the land east of the mountains. Yet after the gaudy natural splendors of the West Side, many visitors - and residents - fail to see the subtle beauty of this open, arid land. It becomes fly-over country, nothing more than a monotonous pattern of fields and coulees and rolling hills of sagebrush -- terra incognita, a no-man's-land between departure and destination.


Our culture sees certain landscapes as beautiful scenery - perhaps drawing upon 19th-century ideas of the sublime and the picturesque - while valuing others far less. WSU architecture professor Paul Hirzel calls this "landscape bigotry," the privileging of one form of landscape over another, and a few years ago he took up the challenge of opening his students' eyes to the wonders of the Palouse farmland around Pullman.


"I have this idea that there are fast and slow landscapes," Hirzel says. "We're living in a fast-paced culture, with fast food and fast cars. If you look at a landscape and don't 'get it' immediately - if there aren't spectacular mountains or dramatic valleys - then you miss it, or it's dismissed. Here, with the more abstract landscape of Eastern Washington, you have to take time to really see it."





With the assignment to look more closely at the Palouse, one student examined unusual events occurring along State Route 26, the highway linking Colfax and Vantage that serves as a frequent shortcut for Whitman County residents to the west side of the state. Fascinated by his students' relationship to the road, Hirzel focused future assignments on the land around SR-26 and a multi-year project was born.


Since 1999, Hirzel's students have produced books, postcards, posters and an audio CD based on SR-26. Now, following up on the success of the books, Motion Pictures and 133.53 Miles, the most recent students' work has been gathered into an exhibition, The SR-26 Project: Imagining A 133-Mile-Long Museum in Eastern Washington, which opens Jan. 24 at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. Despite the multimedia output, Hirzel says the projects are solidly based in architectural experience.


"I teach a course in site design, and I have found that architecture students generally aren't as interested in landscape as I think they should be," he explains. "There are parallels between understanding landscape and understanding architecture. When architects aren't sensitive to the landscape, they import a non-specific architecture, what I call 'parachute architecture' - it looks like just got dropped in from anywhere. I think if the students can come to know a place better, something they've seen initially as banal and boring, they'll be better architects."


Like an abstract painting, the landscape of SR-26 does not reveal its narrative overtly. This is not a land of jagged mountain peaks, towering evergreens or glacier-fed streams. It is sky and earth, a land formed by explosions and cataclysms, and yet a place where every drop of moisture is precious and change happens at a geological pace.


To capture the highway's essence, students shot thousands of images, researched the construction and maintenance of the roadway, ate in every restaurant and stayed in every motel along its 133.53-mile length. They studied land use patterns, traffic patterns and the patterns inscribed on the earth by cows as they meander the range. They discovered that long stretches of SR-26 run on a precise east-west axis, meaning that at the equinox the sun rises and sets at either end of the road. They learned other amazing facts: the stripes of the center line are ten feet long, with a 30-foot gap between stripes; about 90,000 pounds of trash are removed from SR-26 annually; the roadway is constructed with a maximum slope of seven percent from the center line to the shoulder.


Beyond the raw statistics, however, the students began to see the country of SR-26 as a place with a distinct personality rather than simply empty space to be traversed as quickly as possible. As they interacted with the landscape, it became more real.


"I talk about fascinating the world with this project, but in a way it's a selfish act," Hirzel says. "To me, driving SR-26 now, as an experience, is filled with wonder. It's a delight. The geologies and the political layers are there, and it's very much enriched. If you're driving it anyway, why not turn the drive into something stimulating?"


The history of any landscape is formed through human engagement, and the students' ideas demonstrate new ways that visitors could connect with SR-26 and its environs. For the exhibition, Hirzel asked his students to imagine new ways of seeing the highway, to design enhancements or aids that would capture the attention of a traveler passing through. One student proposed illuminating the paths trod by cattle, an idea that seems whimsical at first blush but, as Hirzel explains, can reveal as much about economics in the region as about the peregrinations of cows.


"There's an 80,000-acre ranch out there, and about eight to ten thousand head of cattle cross back and forth through a culvert under the highway," he says. "Most people don't realize the magnitude of ranching in the area. Lighting the cow paths would have an aesthetic appeal, and it would also demonstrate the significance of ranching here."


Another proposal uses the features of the road itself to create a soundtrack to the movie that rolls past while driving the highway. Each windmill and farm building would have its own solo melody, while center lines, power poles, guard rails and mile markers contribute a percussive rhythm in the background. The resulting musical composition would be broadcast from a frequency on your car radio.


"The primary emphasis [of the project] is to take something that people find common and to amplify its characteristics," Hirzel explains. "It's about finding what is unique about the landscape of Eastern Washington. We're called the Evergreen State, and that's the image that people know, but only about half of the state is tree-covered."


The exhibition also features a two-screen video presentation that allows the viewer to experience the scenes to the north and south along the highway's entire length at 600 miles per hour. Exquisitely detailed scale models of grain elevators and towers capture the spirit of the vernacular architecture along the highway, while full-size furniture pieces illustrate the depth of water during the great floods that scoured the region more than 10,000 years ago.


"The students have put forth an enormous effort for these projects," he says. "The ideas are very diverse. I see it as a win-win situation - the students learn to be sensitive to landscape, and the eastern Washington communities are happy that anyone's paying attention."


Much of the world's finest architecture relates organically to its surroundings, seeming to emerge naturally and effortlessly from the land and the culture that produced it. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright created buildings that appear to be married to the landscape, not simply set down upon it. This is the kind of architecture that Hirzel wants his students to produce, rather than generic buildings with no relationship to the land.


"People can sense that indifference between the human-made object and the landscape," he says. "Sadly, a lot of architecture now is a marriage of convenience."


Although none of the students' ideas have been constructed, Hirzel remains hopeful that someday an astronomical observatory or wind kites or illuminated cow paths could grace the landscape of SR-26. In the meantime, he sees the exhibition at the MAC as a way to open a few more eyes to the aesthetics of the austere geography of Eastern Washington.


"Hopefully, people will think differently about the highway and the landscape the next time they drive it," he says. "If that takes place, then the show will be a success."





Publication date: 1/22/04

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