To experience Alan Sonfist's Time Landscapes, visit the "Native Forest Landscape" (1978) located at the corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street,
and use this site to explore nearly 100 additional sites across Manhattan that the artist proposed in 1965.
The foundation of Time Landscape: Alan Sonfist's sketch of Manhattan Island and its varied natural topography, based upon a British survey map from 1782 (1965).
In his 1968 essay “Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments,” Alan Sonfist envisions a new genre of public art in which aspects of the natural landscape would take on many of the traditional roles associated with memorial sculpture. Drawing upon important precedents for investing a particular landscape with commemorative functions such as the time-honored tradition of hallowing the grounds of a significant military battle or the more modern practices of historic preservation and archeological excavation, Sonfist’s reconsideration of the monument would memorialize “the history of the natural environment at that location” rather than the location’s relation to “events in human history.” Yet by emphasizing the public function of the monument Sonfist sought to retain the form’s collective mode of address along with its frequent instructive and even moralizing aims. Just as “war monuments… record the life and death of soldiers,” Sonfist declared, “the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered.” Investing “non-human elements” like rocks and rivers with a sense of mortality and historical significance, Sonfist’s endeavor to “monumentalize” the environment affirmed the imbricated relationship between the natural and human realms of the Earth (note 1).
Such an appeal to remind modern city dwellers of “natural phenomenon” that have been either obliterated by the force of time or, more likely, the will of humans, or remain mostly invisible due to the congested and fast-paced urban environment, was no doubt motivated by the emergent ecological consciousness of the 1960s and 70s which brought newfound awareness to humanity’s precarious yet inescapable interdependence to the natural world, as well as the routinely detrimental consequences of industry and technology upon the natural landscape. While a preservationist impulse, if not a certain romantic melancholy impelled by the threat of loss, inspired Sonfist’s interest in the monumentalization of natural phenomena, an equally strong commitment to the essential mutability of nature was likewise crucial to the artist’s environmentalist aesthetic. Drawing upon the growing discipline of ecology which sought to understand how “living organisms and their non-living (abiotic) environment” operated coextensively in complex, self-regulating networks, Sonfist expanded the traditional form and subject matter of the monument in order to propose a model of community in which “non-human elements” such as rivers and trees as well as soil and rocks were understood to share a common history—and future—with other living entities, human and non-human (note 2).
Besides serving as a foundational aesthetic statement for the artist (the text was written when he was only 22 years old) “Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments” was also the first public declaration of Sonfist’s conception of a new artistic genre: the Time Landscape. Neither a park nor a wilderness preserve, the Time Landscape would exist as a discrete plot of land in which “the natural environment before colonial settlement” would be restored through the recovery of native flora as well as the geographic topography of the landscape itself, so that the typically uniformly flat surface of the city would be replaced by undulating mounds, small streams and banks, boulders, and springs. Less a “true ecological model” than what he would later describe as a “romantic forest,” the Time Landscape would be a fundamentally artificial space which would nonetheless document actual environmental conditions of the past. Like a work of art (which it was) the Time Landscape sought to engender a space for reflection and heightened sensitivity amid what seemed to be a cluttered and overly rationalized modern world, drawing the public’s attention to humanity’s coexistence with “non-human elements” (note 3). Like a traditional public monument—or for that matter, a natural history museum display or even an object in an art museum—the Time Landscape would present viewers with an artifact that was simultaneously historical and fabricated and which ideally could stimulate an altered sense of one’s place within the world.
Using the gridded streets of New York City as a compositional framework for his original proposal of nearly 100 Time Landscapes, Sonfist identified small pockets within the dense urban fabric that could be returned to a moment in time prior to European settlement, revealing hidden forests, springs, streams, and marshes that had been covered over, diverted, and outright destroyed due to the rapid growth of the city. Through careful research of early maps and diary accounts by Dutch settlers in the early seventeenth century Sonfist endeavored to recreate the sort of landscape encountered by the original European immigrants. In certain instances, as in his proposed Time Landscape at the corner of Spring and Lafayette Streets in downtown Manhattan, natural phenomenon whose presence had been transformed or even obliterated by human intervention would be reconstituted, so that a spring that once surfaced from the wetlands at this very location would reveal the basis for the existing place name. In many others, species that become extinct or endangered in the region would be replanted. In each example a recreation of a past moment in the history of the city would be set amidst the bustling streets and changing architecture of its location, juxtaposing not only past and present but more importantly two models of temporality, one slow and gradual the other fast and erratic. The Time Landscape would itself be mutable and dynamic, allowing the complex networks of nature to continually modify the space, albeit on a slower pace than the rest of the city. While Sonfist would propose excavating soil from construction sites to procure samples which contained spores and microbes from the pre-colonial era, he welcomed the fact that birds and the wind would inevitably carry new—and notably non-native—species into the site.. Rather than a time capsule of a discrete moment in history or a fragment of nature excised from the external world and resituated in the white box of the gallery (or the specimen box of the natural history museum or laboratory) the Time Landscape would be a paradoxical monument to the flux of nature of which humans were a central if all too often overbearing component.
Sonfist’s desire to “roll back the clock and show the layers of time before the concrete of the city” reveals the archeological imagination that crucially informs his artistic project (note 4). In an interview with the art historian Robert Rosenblum in 1989 Sonfist would in fact explicitly describe himself as “a visual archeologist” who is able “to bring the past into the present” through the literal and metaphorical excavation of the urban environment (note 5). This archeological basis of his vision was deeply informed by the work of Reginald Pelham Bolton, an amateur urban archeologist who published a series of books at the turn of the century concerning the early history of New York City, from the Native American settlements and trails that in many ways determined the later development of the city’s major thoroughfares to the buried artifacts of soldiers from the Revolutionary War (note 6). Like Sonfist, Bolton was a Bronx native who was interested in uncovering the strata of history beneath the ever-changing surface of the “great metropolis.” While the portfolio of maps included in his 1923 book Indian Paths of the Great Metropolis, which juxtapose historic Indian trails upon the urban grid of New York, present an authoritative precedent for Sonfist’s sketches of his proposed Time Landscapes (fig. 1 and 2), the author’s description of how contemporary urban dwellers may still access aspects of the Native American experience of the Island through the persistence of “the same natural features” into the modern “metropolitan area” suggest the fundamental contrast between the two urban archeologists. Bolton’s decidedly romantic, if not primitivist, conception of the collapsing of temporal distance through the continuity of nature so that “we may find flourishing the successors of the trees and vines under which the native walked” and “may still look upward through the leafy canopy to the same sky and stars he saw above him,” differs from Sonfist’s more fluid conception of nature and culture. “As the city renews itself architecturally,” he wrote in the “Natural Phenomenon as Public Monuments” essay, “it will re-identify its own unique characteristic natural origins and its own natural traditions” (note 7).
(fig. 1) from Richard Pelham Bolton's Indian Paths of the Great Metropolis
(fig. 2) from Richard Pelham Bolton's Indian Paths of the Great Metropolis
Sonfist originally delivered the essay in 1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he proposed to create an initial Time Landscape in the grounds behind the museum. At that time, the Museum’s director Thomas Hoving, was particularly supportive of Sonfist’s vision, having previously served as Parks Commissioner for the City of New York. Situating what Sonfist described as an “ancient forest” within Frederic Law Olmstead’s highly fabricated parkland would have been a rich and somewhat paradoxical first arrangement for Sonfist’s Time Landscapes. Ultimately the challenges of securing land within Central Park proved too difficult and the Met chose not to pursue the project leaving Sonfist to look for other possible means of materializing his vision, a quest that would take nearly ten years. After once again coming close to implanting a small forest in the Upper East Side, this time at Finch College, a private women’s college whose art museum, under the direction of Elayne Varian, became an unexpected node in the emerging conceptualist practices of the late 1960s, Sonfist began to explore more truly public avenues, working with members of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and community activists to locate a possible site of his Time Landscape in downtown Manhattan. Sonfist’s first realized Time Landscape appeared in 1978 within 900 square foot plot at the corner of LaGuardia Place and Houston Street. Located adjacent to the Silver Towers apartment complex (1966), this plot had been left undeveloped as part of Robert Moses’s plan for a possible expansion of Fifth Avenue south of Washington Square. Time Landscape’s reception of landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988 was, to the great relief of many residents of Greenwich Village and Soho, the ultimate security against any sort of future construction, ironically stabilizing certain aspects of the urban environment.
This circuitous and notably protracted trajectory from the original sketches from 1965 to the ultimate completion of the first Time Landscape ten years later (as well as its transformation into the sort of conventional monument the original propositions sought to expand and complicate in 1988) speaks not only to Sonfist’s persistence in the face of securing a plot of land for non-commercial use in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world but, perhaps more importantly, the sensitivity and understanding of different temporal registers that motivates all aspects of Sonfist’s artistic practice. While no further Time Landscapes have emerged within New York’s increasingly monetarized landscape, its germinal influence can be discerned in the ways that various community gardens have arisen in adjacent lots, and on a global scale, in the increasing awareness of sustainable gardening with native flora that has largely determined the rise of “pocket parks” throughout the city, epitomized in many ways by the High Line, a renovated elevated train line on the West End of Manhattan. Like a traditional monument, then, Sonfist’s Time Landscape points not only backwards in time, recalling lost natural phenomenon, but towards a future of continued awareness of humanity’s place within the natural environment.
1. Alan Sonfist, “Natural Phenomenon as Public Monuments,”  in Natural Phenomenon as Public Monuments, exh. cat. (Purchase, NY: Neuberger Museum, 1978), 2, 6.
2. Eugene Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology, Third Edition (Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing, 1971), 8.
3. Alan Sonfist, “Interview with Robert Rosenblum,” in Alan Sonfist, 1969-1989, exh. cat. (Bronxville, NY: Hillwood Art Museum1989), 8.
4. Alan Sonfist, “Natural Phenomenon as Public Monuments,” xx. For a discussion of the archeological imagination in contemporary art see, Dieter Roelstraete, The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art, exh. cat. (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013).
5. Alan Sonfist, “Interview with Robert Rosenblum,” in Alan Sonfist, 1969-1989, exh. cat. (Brookville, NY: Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, 1989), 3.
6. See, for instance, Richard Pelham Bolton, Indian Paths of the Great Metropolis (New York: Museum of the American Indian, 1922) and History Written with Pick and Shovel: Military Buttons, Belt-plates, Badges and Other Relics Excavated from Colonial, Revolutionary, and War of 1812 Camp Sites by the Field Exploration Committee of the New-York Historical Society (New York: New York Historical Society, 1950).
7. Alan Sonfist, “Natural Phenomenon as Public Monuments,” 5.
"Sites, Specificities" Timothy Anderson
Time Landscape is a work of geographic imagination, adamantly concerned with knowing one’s location. Accordingly, the centerpiece of this website is a map overlaid with the full array of Time Landscape's proposed extent, created in CartoDB. Traversing the built environment of Manhattan reveals the immense manipulation of space and form that urban development entails. The Time Landscapes catalogued here offer a glimpse into ecological preconditions of civilization buried beneath the modern city. In coordination with the exploration encouraged by the project mapped in its prospective entirety, these pages are built upon Bootstrap and its responsive architecture to facilitate translation of content across the array of screen sizes from desktop monitor to mobile phone.
Traversing the built environment of Manhattan reveals the immense manipulation of space and form that urban development entails. Confronted by language printed on surfaces throughout the built environment—addresses, announcements, advertisements—we read our way across the city. Time Landscape proposes similarly nuanced inscriptions of the natural environment upon the metropolitan grid. Look closely at the content and titles of Alan Sonfist’s proposed interventions. See the trees for the forest when parsing the possible “Oak Hill,” “Mix Oak Hill,” “Mix Hill Forest,” and “Forest Hill.” Such precise description of the varied ecosystems that would punctuate our understanding of the city quietly redefine the natural past as inimitable features of the cosmopolitan present. Put simply, it takes time to fully appreciate the texture of the landscapes that underwrite our urban scrawl.
The Cooley Gallery at Reed College: Alan Sonfist Retrospective, Spring 2016
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: Time Landscapes (1965-2015), Fall 2015
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: Time Landscape (1978)
"Landscape artist Alan Sonfist (1946- ) created Time Landscape as a living monument to the forest that once blanketed Manhattan Island. He proposed the project in 1965. After extensive research on New York’s botany, geology, and history Sonfist and local community members used a palette of native trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks, and earth to plant the 25' x 40' rectangular plot at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in 1978. The result of their efforts is a slowly developing forest that represents the Manhattan landscape inhabited by Native Americans and encountered by Dutch settlers in the early 17th century.
"The surrounding neighborhood, now known as Greenwich Village, was once a marshland dotted with sandy hills that the Canarsie Indians called the Sapokanican and that the Dutch called the Zantberg. The trout-filled Minetta Brook ran to the west and made the area a favorite spot for fishing and duck hunting. Over the course of three-and-a-half centuries, agricultural, residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial development replaced the natural marshland with an urban landscape. While numerous manmade features (such as buildings and streets) preserve the history of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century Greenwich Village, Time Landscape serves as a natural landmark of the 17th and prior centuries. This forested plot invites city-dwellers—including insects, birds, people, and other animals—to experience a bygone Manhattan.
"When it was first planted, Time Landscape portrayed the three stages of forest growth from grasses to saplings to grown trees. The southern part of the plot represented the youngest stage and now has birch trees and beaked hazelnut shrubs, with a layer of wildflowers beneath. The center features a small grove of beech trees (grown from saplings transplanted from Sonfist’s favorite childhood park in the Bronx) and a woodland with red cedar, black cherry, and witch hazel above groundcover of mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, and milkweed. The northern area is a mature woodland dominated by oaks, with scattered white ash and American elm trees. Among the numerous other species in this miniforest are oak, sassafras, sweetgum, and tulip trees, arrowwood and dogwood shrubs, bindweed and catbrier vines, and violets.
"Time Landscape is on city-owned land, assigned to Transportation. It is maintained by Parks under Greenstreets, a program inaugurated in 1986 and reintroduced in 1994 to convert paved street properties, like triangles and malls, into green lawns. Funded through Parks and Recreation’s capital budget, Greenstreets plants trees and shrubs in the city’s barren street spaces. The assistance of volunteers keeps these areas clean and their plants healthy."