The Economics of Building Art to Last

City_ArtMichael Heizer, the large-scale sculpture artist, has been building City, a sculpture in the Nevada desert since 1972. City is reputedly on the scale of the Washington, DC’s National Mall and something like Teotihuacan but no one knows for sure since “Visitors are explicitly not welcome, and due to its orientation away from the road and system of earthen berms no part of “City” can be viewed from the ground without trespassing on posted property.” A few photos have been smuggled out.

The New Yorker has an interesting article on Heizer. Naturally I appreciated his thoughtful consideration of the economics of building something for the ages:

“City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that Heizer has mined and mixed on site. The use of valueless materials is strategic, a hedge against what he sees as inevitable future social unrest. “My good friend Richard Serra is building out of military-grade steel,” he says. “That stuff will all get melted down. Why do I think that? Incans, Olmecs, Aztecs—their finest works of art were all pillaged, razed, broken apart, and their gold was melted down. When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”


"When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”

Keeping America Great

Markets in: Making Something Too Big to Fuck Up (art category). Bonus: may work for government, too.

Did I accidently get redirected to Zerohedge?

That quote has me rethinking my disgust with modern artists

Well, a little

Have a little Godwin with your coffee:

See "Ruin Value"

What if they tunnel into it and live inside of it, like, you know...a city?

He's prepared to accept that, I guess. If he just wanted to keep people out of an area, he could sprinkle something dangerous throughout. Like mercury. Or beets.

Build on top of Yucca Mountain.

Why don't he make it a repository for nuclear waste? It will live forever then. BTW, seems like he's trying to reinvent "Teotihuacan", which I have visited, and whose language is still undecipherable. I've visited every major pyramid in the world, including some in China and Korea, except the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt.

"I’ve visited every major pyramid in the world, including some in China and Korea, except the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt" [SNIP]

Visited Monk's Mound, Ray? The largest in North America:

ps btw, that Giza one is a biggie, too

From the Wikipedia article: "The proposed Yucca Mountain Repository... would have included a new railroad line across Garden Valley, and would have come within its sightline. Heizer reportedly considered burying City if this line was built."

This is not a man who wants his artwork to stand the test of time. This is a man who wants his artwork forgotten forever. What use is a work that exists, but no one knows about?

'What use is a work that exists, but no one knows about?'

Maybe he is creating an artistic koan.

It's not for us. It's forever. The idea of how awesome that is *is* for us, and good art in itself.

"“Visitors are explicitly not welcome, and due to its orientation away from the road and system of earthen berms no part of “City” can be viewed from the ground without trespassing on posted property.” A few photos have been smuggled out.",-115.4442622,1010m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

In the Google Maps shot, you can see the 3 slabs from the article's picture. They are in the south east corner of the site.

The same can be said of Nazca Peru structures: you can only view and completely understand them from high in the air. Did these ancients invent a lighter than air craft (my choice, a hot air balloon built out of goatskins is doable), or were they visited by Chariots of the Gods? There's no other options.

Or maybe they were just smart enough to have the imagination to know what they would look like from above, even if they never had the ability to view them from that angle.


That's impossible. The primitive, low IQ people of ancient Peru would not have been capable of creating such elaborate structures.

I'm not saying it was Aliens was Aliens.

They probably assumed the intended audience was in outer space, like these people.

So what the heck is this other bit of monumental architecture going on here?,+NV+89043/@38.4659933,-114.3300171,1259m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x80b6a52c81cc2167:0x2603fe31a4c10b1!8m2!3d38.4651488!4d-114.3312836?hl=en

interesting pyramid find. Note there used to be bodies of water over to the left, but now they look filled in. (compare the "map" view with the google earth view.)

I think the green farm across the road from the "City" is far more interesting.

Is it part of the "City" and where are they getting all the water for it?

The article says Heizer is building City on his ranch, so it could be his home.

"““Visitors are explicitly not welcome, and due to its orientation away from the road and system of earthen berms no part of “City” can be viewed from the ground without trespassing on posted property.”"

That seems like an odd stance for something that's (at least loosely) art.

Well, it's incomplete. He doesn't want you to look at his sketches, only the finished masterpiece.

Oh no, it's good PR. You can't look at it, so you want to see it all the more. It's like how women dressed in lingerie can be more exciting than if they were naked.

Ok, those are good points.

I think he must hope for both a failure of the future technology of destruction and no particular fame or strong reaction to the work.
Art criticism by vandalism is something humanity has always excelled at.

I might also mention the sorry tale of Spiro mound.

He also has placed it much closer to Mormons and after the third LDS reformation the danger that some future militant form of FARMS might take offense.

Another concern is dredging since it is at the bottom of an ancient lake bed, in ten thousand years after the next several dark ages the whole thing will be defaced during the expansion of the steamship terminal at New Onihah.

I would add that due to the presence of large radioactive sources, the mystical treasure vaults of Nye Air Force Base, and the fabled ruins of Vegas with its major satelite complexes spreading in a widening cone north from Reno to West Wendover that he picked a very poor place for his project's longevity. There is no way a future Stephen Lekson would not tear that crap up.

Linton, Indiana or Wallace, Nebraska however....

Concrete and cement are not "valueless". Well, at least they wouldn't be to some future surviving human beings after a colossal calamity crashed civilization. The great buildings of antiquity were not destroyed by vandalizing barbarians. They were systemically raided for building stone by the survivors of the demographic collapse of the 6th century whenever they needed to build something new. This is why there are very few "ancient ruins" in China too.

Do share your technology for cost-effective recycling of concrete at scale.

Standard stone crusher after broken into rubble that can be handled and moved.

But this art is safe until climate change turns the region into lush grass land and cities are built over it. Some future Trump will hire some illegals to jack hammer it so he won't be blocked from building on the land by some landmark commission.

'Do share your technology for cost-effective recycling of concrete at scale.'

I am confident that there are a number of German suppliers, as concrete is recycled here, after removing the rebar, which is also recycled. And since this has been going on for decades, you could probably pick up some used equipment cheap.

The Nevada desert is unlikely to have large population centers in a post-apocalyptic world. Las Vegas will be a ghost town if the water disappears.

Unless climate patterns shift: the Southwest was a lush grassland in times past. A permanent El Niño could recreate those conditions.

Umpteen ancient palaces were well situated quarries. (Diocletian's palace was kept fairly intact: the walls served as walls for new housing.)

Most buildings that weren't turned into churches were used as quarries. The Colisseum, due to its size, was only partly dismantled. Hadrian's Tomb survived because it made a good fortress for the Pope to hide in when things got to rambunctious in Rome.

I didn't know ancient astronaut was a possible career choice.

"I didn’t know ancient astronaut was a possible career choice."

There is no Great Stagnation!

OK, he's wasted his life on this rubbish heap. I'm vaguely interested in knowing who has been financing this 'endeavour'.

There is historical precedent for this, of a sort. The great Moorish castles / palaces of Spain, such as the Alcazar and the Alhambra, featured marvelous artwork as craftsmanship in ordinary materials. They have survived much better than ones which featured gold and rare stones.

When he's 'done', anyone who's been a trustee of a foundation which patronized this project should be arrested, transported to the site, and made to watch while the Air Force bombs the thing into smithereens.

For a Catholic, you've got a huge reservoir of puritan fire and brimstone. I mean, I feel the sentiment but it'd never inspire me to publish.

He's a childless old crank in upstate New York. We are his outlet.

Yeah, I'm vaguely interested in where the money is coming from. Is this a tax dod----I mean tax-exempt "foundation'?
Don't Nevada counties have property taxes? I am not sure how to asses property taxes on the "art" but clearly there's cultivation going on and associated buildings. This is a giant money sink. Where is it coning from?

Dia Art Foundation. They fund large-scale art projects like this one. Richard Serra (of the "military grade steel" mentioned above) is another artist funded by Dia. You can see some of these works in the Hudson Valley and Hamptons.

When viewed from above, it will read "TRUMP".

"...they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”

What if they decide that wrecking it is performance art?

Drop a rock on it.
(The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)

Well, I'll go on record as saying I think the City art project strikes me as pretty cool. Maybe not Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Pyramid at Giza, or Carhenge - but cool none-the-less. I'd visit it if I was out there.

Large scale land artworks of a quarter-square mile or greater are easily visible out an airliner window while taking off and landing from any American metropolis: they're called golf courses.

For example, in the Nevada desert there's Shadow Creek golf course. A half-square mile hole in the ground 60 feet deep was dug in the flat desert. Using the dug up dirt, a giant berm was built around the property to keep anyone from looking in and to keep those on the inside from seeing the desert. Within the hole in the desert, huge hills and valleys were built and planted with 21,000 trees to look like the foothills of North Carolina.

I've always been struck by how vastly more talent, effort, and money goes into land art in the form of golf courses than in these kind of "Spiral Jetty" type academic examples of land art, but golf course architecture is rarely noticed to be an art form.

But is an aerial of Augusta National really art? Its an entire different thing from walking Amen Corner.

I presume you can see this guy's land art on Google Earth (unless he built it in the middle of Area 51), but he'd probably say an aerial isn't really the same thing as walking it, but he won't let you in to walk it (unless you donate to his foundation or whatever). Not too different from Shadow Creek.

You can see "City" from above on Google Earth by searching for

City Heizer Nevada

And then just zooming in.

It looks like an airport for aliens.

Fun stuff.

Similarly, you can see on Google Earth

Shadow Creek Golf Nevada

Anyway, I like land art, whether abstract or golf courses. I'm just amused that the people who like one kind usually have never even thought of the other one as an art form, even though both have well-documented histories.

"Covering a space approximately one and a quarter miles long and more than a quarter of a mile wide (2 km by 0.4 km, roughly the scale of the National Mall), City is one of the largest sculptures ever created."

So, "City" is about 200 acres, which is about average for new golf course, and considerably smaller than Augusta National Golf Club or nearby Shadow Creek.

Shadow Creek: Built from empty desert flatland on a 350-acre (140 ha) site, it cost a reported sixty million dollars.[citation needed] During construction, over three million cubic yards of dirt was dug up from the desert floor and pushed around the perimeter, creating a berm that blocked any view from the outside. An estimated 21,000 trees of more than 200 varieties were then planted around the sides of the course and in and around each individual hole, providing a sense of seclusion and intimacy.[citation needed]

Maybe that's why he doesn't want people to see it. It's actually a golf course. But it's all sand trap.

People like grass.

And that's why he didn't do it in grass. It's art. It's supposed to hurt.

The Indians built the big mound complex at Cahokia near East St. Louis during pre-Columbian times:

"The original site contained 120 earthen mounds over an area of 6 square miles (16 km2), of which 80 remain today. To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an "estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high."[4]"

So, the overall amount of dirt moved at Cahokia appears to be a little less than Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn moved at Shadow Creek, but pretty comparable. Of course it's easier to do it with modern machinery. Pre-WWII golf courses were built without bulldozers, but they had mules, which the Indians did not.

No one suggests he bury himself in it, and trick the future into thinking it is all his tomb?

If he did bury himself in it, wouldn't it be his tomb in actuality?

A few hundred terra cotta soldiers would be a good finishing touch -- future archeologists' heads would explode.

What's the difference between sculpture and architecture in this case?

"When I get old and start wetting myself I will have left my Sisyphean heirs a gigantic and narcissistic pile of shit to clean up"

The giant narcissistic pile of shit comment is even more true of Richard Serra's massive steel walls, which occupy prime real estate in major cities. How they gonna get rid of those things when tastes change?

Auction them off on eBay, of course.

This Heizer isn't hurting anybody pushing dirt around on his own property in the middle of nowhere. It might eventually turn out pretty great. And if it doesn't, so what?

But Serra deliberately vandalizes prime open spaces in the middle of crowded places. I remember in the early 2000s when Serra was going to take the only big open lawn left on the Caltech campus and put up a rusting iron wall diagonal across it so nobody could play frisbee on the lawn anymore. The students rebelled and forced the administration to fire Serra:

Serra couldn't accomplish a blessed thing if elites (like the senior administrators at CalTech) did not allow him to. Our elites are stauts-jonesing vandals.

I wasn't a student there but I played in that Ultimate frisbee game and knew many of the students. There are a couple of athletic fields on campus, but they are heavily used and with ever increasing liability concerns, have become increasingly limited only to students and staff of Caltech.

Maya Lin and just great:

But yes an update/deconstruction of a golf course.

Or more poetically "A theft of the ocean by the soil..."

Well said.

Golf courses evolved on sand dunes next to the sea in Scotland, soil that wasn't much good for anything besides sheep grazing and knocking a rock around with a crooked stick.

Here's Donald Trump's recent course in Aberdeen:

As guys knocked around rocks and then balls over what they discovered to be the best challenges, various holes slowly evolved.

I don't think it's wholly coincidental that both golf courses and the idea of the "invisible hand" evolved in Scotland. I can find no evidence that Adam Smith played golf, but Smith was famous for taking extremely long walks through the linksland during which he thought out much of The Wealth of Nations. Would he have noticed the processes affecting the playing grounds of the national sport as he walked across them? He was a perceptive man.

Cool. I like it.

But the best golf course architects are a little better than that.

What's the most important work of land art? I'd probably guess the Old Course at St. Andrews, which played a crucial role in winning acceptance for the theory of evolution even before Darwin.

Playing golf daily on the Old Course, which had clearly evolved over both geological and historical time, inspired St. Andrews author Robert Chambers to write his anonymous 1844 bestseller "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation," which won acceptance 15 years before "The Origin of Species" for the general principle that what we see around us developed over time by incremental changes.

This idea hatched on the Old Course was so influential that future Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli satirized "Vestiges'" influence in his 1847 novel "Tancred.: A society lady explains:

"You know, all is development. The principle is perpetually going on. First, there was nothing, then there was something; then—I forget the next—I think there were shells, then fishes; then we came—let me see—did we come next? Never mind that; we came at last."

Something that's relevant to Heiser's goal in "City" to construct land art that won't be deconstructed is how much work it takes to keep the Old Course from developing further due to wind and waves.

The Old Course reached more or less its modern form sometime around 1844, although new back tees have added a lot of yardage.

But much maintenance has to be done to keep the land forms (whose evident development inspired Chambers) the same. The famous Road Hole bunker has to be rebuilt periodically, and tends to change shape alarmingly ever few Opens. The undulating greens have now been measured with laser beams and presumably could be kept to their famous contours indefinitely with enough money on upkeep.

One common modern myth is that concrete is permanent. Of course, most know that concrete is a mixture of cement and various aggregates - sand, pebbles, crushed rock, stone, (or anything else you want to toss in). And many know that cement can vary quite a bit in its chemical (and physical) composition. Salt is a great destroyer of most (commercial) cements. I think there's a lot of salt to be found in the average desert... Generally, structural concrete (load bearing) can be expected to have a 50 year lifetime. (but engineers begin frequent testing & evaluation after 20 years in some regulatory areas). (Some) cements reacts with CO2, so as CO2 rises, concrete will suffer faster degradation. We all know that nothing is forever, but with the erosion (sand blasting) that this artwork will be subject to, I wonder how long it will be before it becomes difficult to tell apart from the (natural) landscape?

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