Prairie Ladder

Prairie Ladder is an ongoing research project and site installation work exploring the physical and psychological meanings of human settlement on the archetypal American landscape of the western prairie. The project consists of five related structures, each dealing with primal aspects of human experience on the vast horizontal prairie, all related by the element of a ladder with its human scale and equally human defiance of the horizontal limitations of the earth.

The Prairie Ladder project began as a commission from the Connemara Conservancy, an organization with large land holdings in central Texas, with the stated purpose of preserving, protecting, and honoring the prairie landscape. Each year a few artists are selected and given funding to produce an installation on the land, which supports and brings attention to the foundation’s mission. We spent a great deal of time on the site, synthesizing our own experience of this place with the larger tradition of human settlement on the archetypal landscape of the western prairie.

As the project developed, we envisioned a series of big, ladder-related objects spread out all over a large swath of Texas, each focusing on a singular, pure experience of the prairie as a trinity of horizon, earth, and sky. We became intensely interested in this fundamentally American landscape in which human beings have no particular place, where physical and conceptual space can only be understood as a line between the sky, which is no home for human beings, and the below-ground, which is no home for human beings.

The selection of the ladder as an element common to each of the works introduces a vertical axis, marking a departure from the natural horizontal axis of the prairie. The ladder also provides a human scale, and proclaims human defiance of the horizontal limitations of the earth. This real or implied activity of vertical movement on the prairie, whether up into the sky or down into the earth, is the defining characteristic of placemaking—of human settlement or intervention in the existing primal environment.

In EarthPlane/SkyBarge, we dug down into the earth and built up into the sky and thought about the human ambition to penetrate and possess the earth and the sky and always to stare at and aspire towards the distant line in between. The transparent SkyBarge points into the wind and provides for the climber an oculus focused on the horizon from whence the winds of memory and aspiration blow. EarthPlane cuts open the freshness of the earth and places the inhabitant at eye level with the ground plane. Buried, the viewer is one with the horizon. These vehicles of imagined flight are arrested by the emphatic ladder, which interrupts their flowing motion across the placeless prairie. As always, we had a lot of fun with backhoes and cranes and steel and cable and fiberglass and perforated aluminum and lots of people scratching their heads and wondering what on earth we were doing as they cheerfully pitched in with hard work and all the experience and wisdom of their trades.

WeatherStation provides a pure and minimal focus on the rotation of the changing/changeless sky. Existing as an object when approached from the exterior, once entered, it becomes an instrument of observation, providing a vantage point and false horizon to facilitate the understanding of the sky as a separate element, without its earthbound delimitations.

SunCellar empties a vast cube of earth cut to just below the level of the groundwater. Human access is provided by a heavy lidded ramp and a ladder suspended by cable in a bottomless well. Angled lenses focus sunlight into the depths of the cube to reflect from the floor of water onto the steel-restrained earthen walls and ceiling. The inhabitant stands suspended on a catwalk in the center of this storehouse of aqueous, rippling light, blinded, following a dark descent away from the sky.

Terminus provides a rail-thin line across the prairie, turning upward to form a ladder cabled into the sky. Terminus refers to infinite passage across the prairie and to the nameless, placeless endpoint imagined only as a terminus to travel rather than as a place of arrival: the mythic railroad serving as a metaphor for life on the prairie.

WaterBridge brings the subterranean aquifer to the waterless surface of the prairie in the form of a horizontal bridge of suspended water. The span traverses at horizon level the full length of a narrow incision in the earth, with steel plate walls cutting down to the water table and the life blood of the prairie.


1996 Southwest Washington AIA Honor Award – Prairie Ladder