A blanket of fine, dry snow greeted the wallers on their first morning of work in Kansas City. It was the beginning of March, and Andy Goldsworthy, with the help of a select crew led by four veteran U.K. wallers and two handfuls of local stone movers, was conjuring up his latest site-specific installation, Walking Wall, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The first order of business was to unpack many dozens of pallets of weathered stone quarried long ago. Facing something like a magnificent scattering of puzzle pieces, the crew began the process of sorting individual chunks of Kansas Cottonwood limestone by size and color, ranging from buttery yellow to Trumpian orange, to lichenized black and creamy white.
“This is a work I’ve wanted to make for years,” Goldsworthy explained. The affluent neighborhood surrounding the museum, which is built on the former estate of newspaper magnate William Rockhill Nelson, features block after residential block bordered by low-stacked stone walls. Goldsworthy has been fascinated by stone walls for his entire career. When he finally visited Kansas City at the invitation of the museum, he was intrigued to find them playing such an important part in the built environment. “They’re good honest walls,” he observed. “Walking Wall connects into a network of existing veins feeding into it.”
The long-awaited opportunity came about when the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Hall Family Foundation decided to honor two important supporters of their sculpture park, Morton and Estelle Sosland, with a special commission. In the early 1990s, the Soslands had commissioned Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen to create four enormous Shuttlecocks for the lawn of the museum campus. Though initially met with derision and hostility, the Shuttlecocks have become beloved public artworks, even serving as an iconic symbol of Kansas City. The challenge for Goldsworthy, then, was to design something of similar scale to the Shuttlecocks, preferably without public protest.
He also had to engage the extraordinary group of sculptures placed within the undulating topography of the grounds. Bronze warhorses like Rodin’s The Thinker and an impressive array of Henry Moore sculptures coexist with late 20th-century works by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Judith Shea, and Ursula von Rydingsvard. More recent additions include installations by Roxy Paine (Ferment, 2011) and Kansas City native Robert Morris (Glass Labyrinth, 2014).
What does it mean for a wall to walk? “Creating a wall that inches its way through a place,” Goldsworthy explained. “It’s as much about human energy as about stone.” After exhaustively studying site plans, he shifted to walking the place, engaging the landscape and architecture with his body—a process that, for Goldsworthy, becomes a proxy for drawing in space. Equipped with a line of string, he walked a perpendicular line from one of the bordering neighborhood walls that quickly veered into a question-mark curve, followed by serpentine bends and folds as it approached the divided four-lane Rockhill Road next to the museum. His initial drawings-by-walking were hardly definitive. “I don’t think I’ve ever made a project with so much change and movement. I’m learning about the wall as I go, what it can do,” he admitted. “The wall is uncharted territory. It’s uncomfortable that I don’t know where it’s going to take me.”
Walking Wall was conceived in five consecutive four-foot-high sections. Stones used in the first section were moved to the next section, piece by piece, with the rear end feeding the beginning, 100 yards at a time. Hence, the slow walk of the wall along its perambulation over a nine-month gestation period.
A memory of each section has been left behind as part of the permanent work. Goldsworthy’s long investigation into wall making goes back to the agricultural walling of his native Northern England. He’s always been interested in this type of construction. It is done quickly, 10 yards a day, with very little thought and lots of experience. “Always been tension in walls,” Goldsworthy quipped—the tension of permanent versus ephemeral, of not being too aesthetic, of acknowledging the inherent rawness and roughness of the material, which is also mobile by design. He speaks about walls in biological terms of layered growth, insisting that what’s inside is as important as what’s outside: “It has heart.”
The tensions of wall building are acute of late in the United States, where the wall has become a divisive political symbol around the issue of immigration. The coincidence was not lost on Goldsworthy, who has deeply considered the differences between British and American perceptions of wall making. In Britain, with its longstanding tradition of public rights of way, walls have a permeability that allows human access to the landscape, while the American attachment to private property implies that walls are barriers that keep in or keep out.
Walking Wall, however, intentionally disorients cultural and political narratives in favor of a communal consciousness grounded in nature and time. The mobile and cooperative aspects of the project and its construction recall the practices of the Great Plains tribes, who traveled for millennia on seasonal pathways in search of food and trade. These connections came across as Goldsworthy talked about sourcing material as close to the site as possible. His search led him to abandoned quarries in the distinctive Flint Hills bioregion of Kansas. There, “the landscape has a flow to it,” with rolling tallgrass prairies above a thick layer of chalky limestone bedrock deposited some 300 million years ago when the Central Great Plains were a shallow sea. The disorientation of Walking Wall further comes into focus with its meandering character, closer to the course of a river or lava flow, and completely responsive to place rather than its implied function as a partition. It is quite useless in this regard, thus earning its status as a work of art.
After the first section of Walking Wall was complete and the crew had established a rhythmic rapport between hand and wheelbarrow, the public-engagement component of the project began to increase with warming weather and curiosity about its route. Groupies, casual looky-loos, and chatty storytellers were inevitable and entirely welcome, though not at the expense of the goal—at least 10 yards a day. The next major obstacle was crossing Rockhill Road to reach the museum grounds. Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins, made the suggestion to stop traffic, sanguinely calling it a “poetic disruption” to stop four lanes of traffic for a fortnight in May. Walking Wall then pursued its course as straight as a waterfall, hopping over a neighborhood wall, into the roadway, and over a grassy median to confront the museum itself.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art consists of two very different buildings—the original 1933 Beaux-Arts building and the Bloch Building, an addition designed by architect Steven Holl and completed in 2007. The five glass pavilions (“lenses,” as Holl calls them) that top the underground Bloch Building cascade down the campus like a series of illuminated freight cars. Their tight placement next to the neoclassical building provided Goldsworthy with a complex aperture through which to wind Walking Wall—right between the museum’s past and future.
After the wall climbed up and around the northern edge of the Bloch Building, moving beneath some trees and passing a Mark di Suvero sculpture, it had to contend with the institution’s most public spaces—sidewalks, entrances, school bus drop-offs, and the artisan coffee shop. Was this meant to be an intervention? Goldsworthy took it all in stride, calling it a “gentle-vention.”
The inconvenience became an irresistible opportunity to engage with the wall-building process, to appreciate the dignity and skill of its labor force while encountering something familiar, yet unexpectedly beautiful. As each section was unbuilt, a ghostly chalk line or a muddy path remained—an ephemeral memory of the wall left to dissolve back into the elements.
In July and September of last year, sections three and four proved to be the most technically challenging, as Walking Wall hugged the main Bloch building and navigated down the center of a narrow stairway between the buildings onto a terrace. The crew required access to the interior of the museum, carefully piloting well-worn wheelbarrows of material down a series of ramps in full sight of visitors, foregrounding the collective importance to the project of legs, backs, hands, and brains. By November, perhaps in reaction to the architectural constraints of its recent route, the final section of wall went wild, writhing in unruly intestinal bends back into the uneven grassy borders of the Bloch building, drawing strength from its interaction with the earth.
As Walking Wall approached the large glass lens of the Bloch addition, the crew went into precision mode. One could scarcely slide a piece of paper between the end of the wall and the exterior glass. The illusion of seamless passage outside-in created a “through the looking-glass” moment for visitors when the wall continued, millimeters away, through the interior of the museum. Once inside, this last tail of wall effectively blocked the main visitor passageway, which quietly amplified its circuitous journey, rustic textures, and handmade aesthetic.
“Working with a wall is like handling a nerve,” Goldsworthy mused. Walking Wall was conceived and realized by a shaman-scientist, part Dr. Seuss and part Sisyphus, who builds, unbuilds, and rebuilds with remarkable sensitivity to the power of people and place.