Urban wheatfield / by britton shepard

Landscape artist Agnes Denes

Recently, I have been designing a research project exploring the possibility of revealing and rediscovering the earth in the urban context. With a focus on urban sites in transition, the idea is simply to dig down into the earth, to create deep perforations through the urban grid, to enter and inhabit, however briefly, the terrain that is otherwise hidden beneath the city. The goal is to reestablish--through the refamiliarizing process of excavation work--an intuitive, human connectedness to the vast scales of time and place in the city. (More on this later.)

Wheatfield, Battery Park City--A Confrontation

Wheatfield, Battery Park City--A Confrontation

In looking for precedent projects I came across the amazing work of landscape artist Agnes Denes, and was especially struck by her wheatfield installation in New York City, just a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. This was done in the summer of 1982 when I was going into eighth grade.

On a 4-acre abandoned landfill near Battery Park, Denes cleared debris and brought in over 200 cubic yards of topsoil. With the help of some friends and volunteers, she planted and cared for a 2-acre wheatfield and saw the grain through to an early autumn harvest that yielded almost a thousand pounds of wheat.

When I first saw the above image I thought it was photoshopped and had to find out more. The narrative of this wheatfield really pulls apart and shows us the different scales of time involved here: the harvest cycle, the life cycle of human settlement, the impermanence of "permanent" things we build on a city block, not to mention climatic and geologic time. I was perhaps most struck by the fact that these two acres, worth billions of real estate dollars, set aside as a wheat field seems about right to me.


Aerial view of abandoned landfill site near Battery Park.


Debris to be cleared before grading, topsoil, and planting of wheat field.

To learn more about Agnes Denes and her work as an earth artist and creative disrupter, check out the link below or look for the book Fragile Ecologies at your library.