[Landscape Northwest]
March 31, 1998

Art and infrastructure

Landscape NW editor

Faced with the reality of a prison or a sewage treatment plant in the neighborhood, the public is likely to think "out of sight and out of mind" when it comes to design. Without the intervention of an artist, a plant in Renton and an institution in Kent might have had few visitors and even fewer admirers.

Instead, one part of the expanding sewage treatment facility in Renton has become a regional attraction, and the new King County Regional Justice Center is linked to the community through a beautiful garden.

What these two places have in common is support from the county's one-percent-for-art program and landscape installations by artist Lorna Jordan.

Although she works with landscapes, Jordan describes her background experience as "installation art -- sculpture, artwork, theater ... room-sized environments."

Plait braid

Reminiscent of classical ornament called a ``plait braid.''

When she was studying at the University of Virginia, Jordan had a very broad range of interest, from urban planning to chemistry.

"Art becomes a way to express how these elements work together," said Jordan.

One of her first landscapes was decidedly unnatural. Through a computer simulated installation at the Boise Art Museum in 1993, she created a surreal, floating virtual landscape to evoke "the beauty and the terror of the ordering of nature."

In her work on real places, she seeks a balance of natural, cultural and industrial systems. In Renton, she was able to bring them all together in an parklike "earthwork/waterwork" that has drawn national attention and acclaim.


Waterworks Gardens in Renton consists of eight acres of publicly accessible space that is interlinked with the treatment of stormwater for the region. It was completed in 1996 as part of an ongoing expansion, designed by Brown & Caldwell Consulting Engineers, of the regional sewage treatment plant there. It is a project of the King County Public Arts program and the county Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the City of Renton. Jones & Jones was a subconsultant for the final design of The Waterworks.

When design for the 10-year expansion project began, there were plans to mitigate the presence of the plant by walling it off with fencing and rows of trees. Instead, even before its completion it has become an attraction and a part of a regional trail system.

When Jordan joined the project through Metro's 1-percent-for-art program, she helped to convince the community that "it would be good for people to understand why the plant was there and take responsibility for it."

Waterworks wetland

Wetlands designed for walking make the final "room" of Waterworks Gardens.

"There was a small budget -- just to get me into the project," said Jordan. "We were a design team within a design team for Waterworks Gardens."

With the support of Carol Valenta at King County Metro and Jack Warburton and Dave Voigt of Brown & Caldwell, she brought part of the storm water treatment design budget into the "art" budget."

In its two-year life, Waterworks Gardens has become a mecca for public art enthusiasts, an attraction for nearby neighborhoods, and an example for the nation of the transformative potential of public art.

As Jordan intended, there are "all sorts of levels of access" to the project. It attracts birdwatchers, families and landscape conceptualists. And "There are people two just like to walk through there," said Jordan.

She describes it as an earth-water sculpture and a living landscape that integrates esthetics, infrastructure and ecology.

Five garden "rooms" tell the story of water's cycle through the chain of human use and disposal. Stormwater flows under a grate below "The Knoll," a paved overlook dominated by a basalt column colonnade. "The Funnel" consists of a series of terraced leaf-shaped ponds connected by the path, or stem. A the bottom of a hill, stormwater cascades into "The Grotto," which is shaped as a seed pod. Undulating shotcrete walls covered with a richly patterned mosaic provide a place for repose. "The Passage" provides a calming experience as the path passes by a row of Lombardy poplars and three circular ponds that symbolize the fruit of the plant. In "The Release," cleansed water flows from the last stormwater treatment pond to the ribbonlike islands and channels of a wetland and then to Springbrook Creek. A path meanders through all and connects to a regional trail system.

The garden path

While she was completing the design of Waterworks Garden, Jordan joined artist Paul Sorey to help make a prison part of a larger community. They won a design competition for an outdoor installation at the new 6,000-square-foot Regional Justice Center designed by TRA and HOK, which opened last year after a successful five-year effort to gain local approval for the site. It contains courts and county offices in addition to a jail.

How to get there

The Regional Justice Center is located at 401 Fourth Avenue in Kent. The Waterworks can be reached by taking the Interurban Avenue exit from I-405. Then go right (east) on Grady Way and left on Oakdale Avenue Southwest. Continue about one half mile, then turn left on Monster Road Southwest.

Prior to the commission, the community and design team were focused on creating a front entry where people would not be encouraged to linger. However, the artists wished to continue the long tradition of the courthouse lawn as gathering place.

Completed last year, the Justice Garden Path consists of two intertwining paths, circular perennial gardens, trees and a vine-covered pergola. The two pathways form a braid, linking the large government building to the downtown Kent community. Reminiscent of a classical ornament called a "plait braid," the pathways are designed to complement the formal architecture of the Regional Justice Center. The main brick path symbolizes the "tame," or civilized side of human nature while the flagstone path represents the "wild," individualistic side. The paths converge in a series of circular garden spaces. They are surrounded by fragrant, flowering plants.

Waterworks Garden

Approaching ``The Grotto'' at Waterworks Garden.
Photo courtesy of Lorna Jordan.

Over time, Jordan has watched as families follow the paths.

"The kids are running up and down the wild path and parents are taking the tame path," said Jordan.

The ties between the justice center and the community are now confirmed every time people gather in the front garden. It is a popular spot for weddings.

Encouraged by response to Waterworks Garden and The Justice Garden Path, Jordan wants to change the "conceptual infrastructure" for public projects, by "deepening the role for art."

Sponsored by the Seattle Arts Commission, she is now artist-in-residence for the City of Seattle Utilities Department. In this position, she is charged with looking for opportunities to integrate art into utilities infrastructure and developing a master plan for realizing those opportunities.

"After you get the (design) team on board, a lot of the opportunities have already been lost," said Jordan.

Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.