Should Landscape Architecture Be Preserved as Art? The Case of Athena Tacha's "Green Acres"

Should Landscape Architecture Be Preserved as Art? The Case of Athena Tacha's "Green Acres"
Athena Tacha's "Green Acres" (1986)
(Courtesy Athena Tacha)

Every day, employees of the New Jersey Department for Environmental Protection walk across a concrete plaza on their way to work. Most have no idea that underneath their feet is a celebrated piece of landscape architecture. But that might change soon. The fate of the plaza is the subject of an ongoing dispute between its creator, prominent sculptor Athena Tacha, and the New Jersey government. The conflict is emblematic of the challenges facing urban landscape architecture across the country, experts say. The crux of the problem? No one can agree whether or not to preserve these aging works as art or redevelop them as raw land.

In May, Tacha received a letter from the New Jersey Department of the Treasury stating that the plaza, located in Trenton and known as “Green Acres,” would be destroyed after August 1 unless she paid to have it removed. It had fallen into disrepair, the state wrote, but there were limited funds to restore it. The Treasury Department plans to replace it with a self-sustaining rain garden.

There was just one problem. Moving the work, according to Tacha, is tantamount to destroying it. “It’s not removable,” the artist told ARTINFO. “It was made for the site. It took two years and $400,000 to execute. It has foundations like a building.”

Tacha’s predicament, which parallels that of many outdoor sculptors and landscape architects from the 1970s and '80s, begs the question: How can a work of landscape architecture be preserved in a rapidly changing urban landscape? “This discussion really moves people out of their comfort zone,” Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, explained. His organization is currently lobbying the state government on Tacha’s behalf. “When people think about preserving landscape architecture, they think about Frederick Law Olmsted and the Monroe County Park System. They don’t think about the recent past.”

But even historic landscape architecture has few devoted supporters. Arts advocates are occupied with the (admittedly worthy) task of preserving land art like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” Architecture preservationists are busy protecting Brutalist monuments from the wrecking ball. Environmental activists have their hands full with deforestation, oil spills, and the like. Urban designs like Tacha’s that fit seamlessly into the cityscape “are, if you will, invisible works,” according to Birnbaum. 

With this fight, Tacha hopes to change that. Half a dozen of the 40 public commissions she has made throughout her career have already been destroyed. She designed “Green Acres” in 1985 after winning a competition held by the Jersey State Council for the Arts’ “Percent for Art” program. On the ground level, the design looks fairly ordinary: It’s got granite tile, tan brick steps, and a bit of greenery in the planters. From above, though, the sinuous design comes into view. The steps and planters create a swirling biomorphic pattern; the tiles contain sandblasted images of state landscapes and endangered plant and animal species.

Back in the 1980s, Tacha’s work was praised by legendary critic Lucy Lippard for its ability to involve the spectator, an antidote to “art based on art, feeding on other art, taking itself as a subject.” Three years after the “Green Acres” commission, Tacha was the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Her work was presented as characteristic of the socially conscious direction of public sculpture in the 1980s. Now 76, Tacha has stopped working on a large scale. “We can bracket her career now,” explained Birnbaum. “And when we do a critical assessment of her role in the environmental art movement, this work really floats to the top.”

The New Jersey government feels less committed to the work. “It’s not that we don’t like it,” said Larry Ragonese, a representative from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, who noted that the replacement rain garden would be designed by in-house staff. “The intent is just to do something different, something that would characterize what we are preaching and set an example for others.”

Now that the battle lines have been drawn, Birnbaum and Tacha are petitioning the National Register of Historic Places to assess “Green Acres.” If it is not eligible for inclusion, their options to save the work are limited. Under federal copyright law, visual artists are granted a “moral right” to protect their artwork from being destroyed or mutilated, but it is unclear whether “Green Acres” would qualify.

“The problem here,” said New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts president Peter L. Skolnik, “is whether or not a work of landscape architecture is going to be recognized as a work of visual art.” (In a similar case, artist Chapman Kelly sued the Chicago Park District in 2007 for removing half of a garden he designed. The court determined that the flowerbed was not eligible for the same legal protections as a work of art.)

Even if Tacha’s work were considered a work of art, Skolnik said, it may not survive. Under the statute, the owner of the artwork can destroy it so long as he gives the artist ample opportunity to remove it beforehand. In this case, “that’s a catch-22. They’re saying you can remove it, but as a practical matter, it almost certainly could not be removed and have its integrity maintained.”

Ragonese disagrees. “Paintings are moved around museums all the time,” he concludes. “This isn’t so different.”