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Boston Society of Architects

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Trip the flight fantastic

New Horizon’s balloon voyage heightens nature’s magic—and its vagaries

Trip Doug Aitken New Horizon4 Courtesy of Doug Aitken Workshop and The Trustees

New Horizon, Doug Aitken

Courtesy of Doug Aitken Workshop and The Trustees

Happy birthday, Apollo. How poignant to spend the 50th anniversary of the moon landing immersed in a collective experience, hundreds of heads turned together toward a futuristic, shiny aircraft, watching and listening in shared wonder, sweltering in the still air of a heat wave. The spontaneous applause as the audience at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, watched the balloon inflate, the quiet awe as it seemed to sway with the sounds, the reflections of the trees and sunset and taillights—it felt as if we were simultaneously looking backward and forward in time.

Commissioned by the Trustees of Reservations, New Horizon is a 100-foot-tall reflective hot air balloon (two, in fact—one with lights, one without) activated by a series of “happenings.” Contemporary artist Doug Aitken’s ambitious, site-specific installations defy simple categorization, often involving projection and performance, transforming architectural forms with light, material, and motion, inviting many to participate in the art making.

At the deCordova's nighttime happening.
Photo by Gretchen Rabinkin

Aitken conceived of New Horizon as “a modern road trip—a journey through the Trustees’ natural and cultural sites by air, reflecting the landscape and navigating the edge of society.” As curator Pedro Alonzo explained to me, “The metaphor of this balloon that goes up into the air and shows us this new horizon, this future that we’re apprehensive about—that’s what is so cool about this piece.”

From Martha’s Vineyard to Plymouth to the Berkshires, the deCordova to the Crane Estate to Naumkeag, the balloon appeared at various Trustees’ sites to instigate an extraordinary array of speakers, discussions, musical performances, and activities along the way. I’ve interacted with it so far on three occasions: as a passenger in a test flight at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts; with my children at the deCordova’s family day on July 20; and at the same site that evening.

New Horizon’s greatest strength is also its biggest challenge: If it’s windy or raining, the balloon doesn’t go up. The microclimate of the coast and vagaries of New England weather mixed with larger continental patterns of midsummer storms have meant that more often than not, the balloon remains on the ground. The still air of this past Saturday’s heat wave, on a protected inland site, allowed the balloon to be fully inflated and even, briefly, rise. The 50th anniversary of the lunar landing—human mastery of gravitational forces and air currents—served as a spectacular reminder that even with all our invention, we’re still at the mercy of weather conditions.

Watching the balloon inflate and deflate (even partially) is one of the best parts. It’s a moving, fluid sculpture that photos fail to fully capture. Even grounded, it’s mesmerizing.

And grounded, it serves as a catalyst of artistic activity, bringing dozens of performers and thousands of participants together to talk about the future—or, for families, to explore art, experiment with materials, and play. I had visited the deCordova two weeks earlier, and though the grounds were quietly humming with activity then, it was nothing compared to the flocks of families wandering the grounds this steamy Saturday. A giant kid magnet, the balloon was inflated and securely grounded, tethered to cars, as pilot Andrew Richardson and his good-humored crew invited young and old to climb into the gondola, ask questions, and peer up in delight. Yet it was also only one stop on a larger scavenger hunt of the sculpture park and the inspiration for collective art making in the forest with strings and mirrors. The unique properties and programs of the Trustees are an equal partner in this piece.

Family day activities at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.
Photo by Gretchen Rabinkin

In flight, it is spectacular. When the test flight launched from Fruitlands, we could hear a few shouts of “Wow, look at that!” from the ground. As we floated in the air currents, most striking was the gentleness of the ride. The shifting breeze determined our course, taking us over wetlands, Route 2, the state prison, and lots and lots and lots of trees. We were fastest when we were floating just above the tree canopy. From that vantage point, most beautiful were the patterns and textures of the leaves, a dancing carpet below. A curious mother and daughter (and an official vehicle, lights flashing, from the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Shirley) followed us to our landing.

Doug Aitken's New Horizon

Video by Gretchen Rabinkin

Alonzo reminded me that “balloons were the first means that humanity had to really look at the landscape, other than climbing a mountain or a really tall tree.” With the first manned flight in France in 1785, “Our perception of the world and of ourselves changed.” As balloons took us up, maps were amended and our thinking of these expanses shifted. This perceptual transformation, from singular site to larger vista, bears relevance to landscape architects, planners, and designers today. As we embrace the challenges of designing for climate change, we need to look ahead and think regionally, beyond individual sites and across property boundaries and town lines.

Two hundred years after humans first floated above the Earth, and 50 years after man walked on the moon, climate matters more now than ever. And the experience inherent in New Horizon reminds us that Mother Nature has the true starring role. This is, perhaps, New Horizon’s most important and enduring lesson.

Yet I also remain in love with the promise of this piece: a mirrored orb floating across the Commonwealth, connecting our landscapes while highlighting their uniqueness—field and forest, marsh to beach to mountain—inspiring awe, joy, and curiosity, ticket or no ticket in hand, sparking the imagination of the next generation of stewards, artists, and innovators. In that test flight, for a moment, I glimpsed this magic.

Experience New Horizon firsthand. The balloon is visiting Trustees sites through July 28, including Naumkeag and Field Farm. For information and tickets, visit