Urban Nature

Presidio Habitats: Big Art, Made for Wildlife “Clients”

May 14, 2010

You could pass them on Park Boulevard in the Presidio a dozen times and not see them. When you finally take a good look, three statements unexpectedly jump out in 3-D, but embedded within a sinuous grove of 100-foot cypress trees: “adapt to change,” “nest from the inside out,” and “resolve conflict with song.” The aphorisms, inspired by the wisdom of the robin, are spelled out using steel frames filled with straw. As you take in the sight, the sounds of robins surround you.

This art embedded in nature is Philippe Becker Design’s “Winged Wisdom” installation, part of the year-long Presidio Habitats site-based art exhibition celebrating Presidio wildlife and nature. The exhibit officially opens this Sunday, May 16. It is the first exhibition of its kind held in a national park and is a result of a partnership between the For-Site Foundation and the Presidio Trust.

It started with the vision of Cheryl Haines, executive director of the For-Site Foundation, who wanted to work with international artists and architects interested in “art about place.” She had an idea to create habitats for “animal clients” in the park.

Out of 25 proposals, eleven were selected for installation. Those are scattered around the park (see map), and the proposals are also on display in the Exhibition Pavilion, located in the Fort Scott District of the Presidio, at Storey and Ralston Avenues (Wed-Sun, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., free admission).

Photo by Monique Deschaines.

As part of the concept of “re-use” that pervades the project, the solar-powered pavilion was built out of three joined shipping containers, a reflection of the area. From here, you can grab a map and go on a self-guided interactive tour of installations and Presidio wildlife through the park. At each stop, a cell phone audio tour and interpretive signs provide information on the art and the “animal client” that inspired it.

You can experience Jensen Architects’ “Patience” by sitting in one of its ten bright yellow chairs that circle the meadow and echo the bright wildflowers now in bloom. Here’s what the artists say in the accompanying sign: “Assuming the position and attitude of the blue heron, lightly hovering above the grasses, silently peering at the landscape, the observer becomes part of the secret theater of the site.”

Photo by Monique Deschaines.

Other exhibits include Amy Lambert’s “Pollen Balls Project,” in which “stories about the bees are manifest in inscribed wax pollen ball forms installed among native plants at the Presidio’s native plant nursery;” and Taalman Koch Architecture’s Owl Dome, which “consists of a wood-frame geodesic dome perched atop a tall tripod structure … an ideal hunting platform for its owl resident.”

“This was a huge undertaking,” says Monique Deschaines of the For-Site Foundation. Each installation had its challenges: “The ‘Winged Defense’ piece weighed over 800 pounds and it was tough to get it into the area surrounded by trees.” Deschaines says that it took three hours to get it down the path and the team then had to use a pulley system to hoist it about 100 feet up.

Photo by Kris Vann.

Nathan Sammons, foreman of landscape design and build firm Goodscapes, said that a lot of planning was required to ensure the protection of trees and the natural environment. For example, steel fabrications and retractable tie-down straps were used to secure the heavy blue and white porcelain vases of Ai Weiwei’s “Western Screech Owl Habitats” exhibit high up in the trees, all without damaging the tree structure.

“Up until now, we’ve just seen artists’ proposals and sketches, but now that we’re really seeing it in life, it’s amazing,” says Deschaines. “The reality is even better than the original vision.”

There will be an opening celebration on Sunday, May 16 from noon to 4 p.m., with a ribbon cutting ceremony, open house at the exhibition pavilion, self-guided hikes, and learning stations featuring naturalists and artists. Admission is free. For more information see www.presidio.gov/habitats and www.for-site.org.

About the Author

Kris Vann is a Bay Nature editorial volunteer.