California Wash, 1996

California Wash is a narrative work of landscape sculpture combining a garden that portrays the former wash ecology, light, pathways, mural and sculptural forms that address the transformations of this site that are the inevitable outcomes of urbanization. A drainshed mural, drawn on the new Pico-Kentner outfall cover, represents the current human settlement pattern with the California Wash garden as a reasonable reflection of, or memorial to, that which once existed. The mural also contains bronze plaques inset into the concrete, images of certain of the original fauna of the area. It is a reminder of the original life web of the Pico watershed, and of the disappearance of bio-diversity and the region’s most precious resource, its water.

California Wash is a reflection of the path waters took to reach the sea before the development of a city replaced the natural washes with storm drains. Thus it is a narrative art work and a memorial to the vanishing ecology of the area. For this work, the terminal 18,000 square feet section of the Pico Boulevard is re-designed to reflect the visual and formal structure of a California coastal wash. Thereafter, a combination ramp and stairway take a serpentine path through a landscape that echoes the original wash ecologies from Mandeville Canyon to the beach.

The serpentine path crosses the Santa Monica beach promenade. The path continues on the surface of the outfall, extending halfway to an existing bridge. The cover prevents the outfall from making direct confrontation with the serpentine walk, allows beach access for the handicapped and generates a new urban public place at the intersection. At the mural’s furtest edge, Wave Fence, structured as a theoretical reflection of the outfall, both doubles the presence of the outfall and subsumes it.

The work was criticized for aestheticizing the Santa Monica outfall, which had a deleterious effect on the bay. In practice, however, California Wash intentionally highlighted the problem in such a way that observers became acutely aware of the pollution’s unpleasant odor. In response to public pressure, the city later set up a purification system for the effluent waters coming from the outfall.

Standing at the top of Pico
Looking toward the ocean and the sand
In a rare heavy rain
We flashed back to a moment before history
Before the building of cities and towns
When waters
Flowing down from the mountains
And mesas above
Bringing seed
Cut a course to the ocean
And in the process
Formed ecosystems.
Where: Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica
When: 1989-1996
Who: Artists: Helen Mayer Harrison, Newton Harrison
Designer/Project Managers: Gabriel Harrison, Vera Westergaard
Landscape Architects: Spurlock/Porier, Leslie Ryan, Robert Perry
Commissioned by: Cultural Affairs Division, City of Santa Monica