It’s easy to miss. It looks like a normal storm drain, a patch of fresh asphalt the only signal that something has changed recently at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. From the driveway, the view appears as if it had always been this way: The landscape gently slopes from the cut of the drive to the pond below, with trees scattered continually. The small stone hut partially buried in the hillside speaks the language of New England outbuildings of the past few centuries. A modest footpath is tucked off to the side.
Follow that footpath to the stone hut, and you’ll find the open doorway to Watershed, a new installation by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy and his first publicly accessible work in New England. Straight ahead, you’ll look directly at a circular hole in the hut’s back wall—the outlet of that storm drain—surrounded by a radiating pattern of concentric arcs of granite stone. It’s a drainpipe framed, an unusual gallery created for a singular purpose. When it rains, or as snow melts, water flows into the storm drain and out this hole, over the arced granite pieces and onto the gravel floor. From the granite floor, the water disappears, presumably headed for the pond at the bottom of the hill.
Watershed blends in with the New England landscape around the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
Photo by Gretchen Rabinkin
Watershed is activated by water, at times dripping, other times still, occasionally torrential. Simple stone benches embedded in the hut’s side walls invite visitors to sit, watch, and listen. It’s like having a front-row seat inside a most exquisitely crafted catch basin. Depending on the season, mineral deposits or bits of leaves or ice leave traces on the granite, a record of the water’s path that will grow over time.
Watershed is the latest chapter in Goldsworthy’s exceptional body of work that embraces and dances with the forces of nature, encouraging viewers to look anew at their everyday world. Much of his early work was fleeting: brightly colored leaves, arranged in a pattern (until they blew away); icicles, stuck together end to end (until they melted); sticks, hung in a lattice (until a twig snapped and it all collapsed). Those pieces rested lightly on the land and endure only through photographs. In Rivers and Tides, the 2001 film that documented the making of these early installations, Goldsworthy speaks of his fascination with processes in nature connected to the sun, the tides, and growth. His art makes visible natural and ongoing change, enabling viewers to see something they never noticed before. These natural processes were always there, but people were blind to them.
The beautiful, concentric, granite arcs rippling out from the drain’s mouth were hand-carved on site last summer by Goldsworthy and his expert team of wallers. The granite stones hide a thick concrete retaining wall that holds back the hill. The gravel floor covers deep blocks of drainage mats, each many feet thick, which serve to store and filter the water before it flows through an underground pipe to the pond. New trees were meticulously selected and placed to fill in the forest in a way that makes it appear that the trees have grown up around the hut over decades, not weeks, while the slope was carefully graded to make access for all visitors feel as “natural” as the undisturbed landscape nearby. The engineers of Arup and landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand collaborated with Goldsworthy on this installation. Ironically, the delicate, masterful touch of their work makes it seem as if they were never there.
Watershed offers an extraordinarily special moment along an extremely ordinary path. Across the Commonwealth, our neighborhoods are littered with storm drains that send excess water into our ponds and lakes, rivers and streams, and, ultimately, the ocean. Storm drains are part of that white noise of infrastructure that gets overlooked unless there’s a problem, unless they’re blocked by leaves or ice, or—as in Boston’s Seaport District during those storms of early 2018—unless water flows back out through them the other way.
Once storm drains swallow our rain and our melting snow, the water becomes invisible. David Macaulay’s 1976 book, Underground, gave an imaginary, illustrated view of the tapestry that drainpipes (and water supply and electric lines and foundations and more) weave below the surface. Watershed pulls out one of these underground strands for a brief, glorious, tactile moment. And then the water flows back into the gravel, and all is hidden again.
The moment in the shed is extraordinary. And yet I find myself wishing that the infrastructure could be more transparent and that the entire journey of Watershed’s water could be celebrated.
Andy Goldsworthy, Watershed, 2019
Installation at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA. Video by Gretchen Rabinkin
Our era calls on designers to deal with excess—excess water, excess heat—and adapt our environment to accommodate the effects of climate change. Embracing the interconnectedness of systems and flows, both above- and belowground, across boundaries, and through changes in season, flow rates, and time, is critical to good design. Doing so artfully, in ways that invite inhabitation, offer beauty, and inspire curiosity and delight will define the best work in the decades to come.