A couple of things occur to us about this artful structure in the woods, which is, as its dedication plaque reads, “ a public amenity designed by artist Martin Puryear.” First, that the word “amenity” is not in common usage these days, perhaps since so much of what we are exposed to is not just for the purpose of being pleasant or agreeable, but rather has underlying motives in most cases. This lovely pavilion, however, was designed to exist purely for our enjoyment. And it does. And, second, that in a more perfect world this lofty, hidden crow’s nest of an observation tower would not have to be so caged, so protective against our worst instincts – but this is humans we are dealing with.
It is hard to describe the visual imagery suggested by the work. Of course, it is architecture since it is self-supporting, has a floor and roof and walls. And, absolutely, it is a kind of treehouse: in the trees, built of trees, observing and being observed by the surrounding trees. As architecture, too, it has resonances of African or Native American grain- or corn-storage huts – cute sheds supported on stilts to keep out vermin. Too, there are echoes of boat-building: on piers above the water table, the ship’s gangway that connects it to dry land, the rounded shape of the ribbed frame of an overturned vessel. But there are animal-like references, too, in the leggy supports that are avian: flamingos, stilt sandpipers, herons. Mostly though, there is something elephantine about the form and stature of this forest-grazing giant: the grayed color, the scale, the curving “back,” the thick legs and the long trunk-like access ramp as it extends to lift you up.
Locating it is not easy since it blends so well into its site, no directional signs or pointers offered as aids to guide you, and seeing its back through the woods, if even possible, doesn’t really clue you in on how to get to it. As it stands in a basin and rises two and a half stories to about midway up the tallest trees, it is of human-scale, a platform in among the arboreal high-rises. The entrance ramp is a bridge that goes halfway across the gorge, its termination point is this viewing station, the pavilion. The ramp and its destination are enticing, seductive, a kind of inviting chute leading you up, offering a ceremonial approach that lends its own views of the environment around and below as you make your ascent. There is a sensation of entering an amusement ride as you climb up to the waiting “car,” a kind of cage with bench seating all around. You feel as if, when you sit down, there will be an announcement to buckle yourself in before takeoff.
Inside, the pavilion has contained but open space, a series of grids in wood and steel, like an open weave of a basket or nest – it does offer, after all, a bird’s-eye-view – and a domed open-grid roof that reflects the curvature of the sky above the Earth. All around are bird sounds, rustlings in the reeds below and a faint trickle of a tiny creek. It is a feast for the senses, being surrounded by nature at this height. Light, filtered by the canopy of trees, is all around, the breeze enters and exits the room with ease. The experience is exhilarating. Your view is 3-dimensional; up, down, north, south, east, west. It isn’t that you can see for miles – that isn’t the point: it is total immersion in the park, in nature, seeing and feeling what is real and immediate and being a part of it, in fact, losing your sense of self to it and becoming attuned. It is a wonderful ride.
The structure is well-crafted but it is so much more: it is not just about the structure, but, rather, what the structure enables you to experience – a skeleton of inner space and, mostly, a vast yet intimate outer space. It has very much the same effect on the beholder, too, if you allow it to happen – a wonderful framework for viewing both in and out. An amenity, really.