Art Nodes: A Lynchian Wander through Storm King

Art Nodes: A Lynchian Wander through Storm King

After many years of working with architects, I read Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City. Paths, edges, landmarks, nodes, and districts: these concepts inform almost every design charrette I’ve been in. The paths and nodes garner particular attention. For anyone who didn’t grow up on architecture, Lynch’s 1960 book is a seminal text of urban planning and design. Its focus on how we perceive and connect with our environments though cognitive mapping and memory—how we personalize and inhabit space psychologically—influenced generations of architects and urban designers to think about how it feels to be in a place.

Cover image of Kevin Lynch’s seminal urban planning and design book, The Image of the City.
Left: Mark di Suvero, Pyramidian, 1987/1998 (steel). Right: Sol LeWitt, Five Modular Units, 1971, refabricated 2008 (painted aluminum). Image at top: Menashe Kadishman, Suspended, 1977 (foreground, weathering steel) and Martin Puryear, Lookout, 2023 (background, brick, concrete, cobblestone).

Right around the time I was reading The Image of the City, I visited Storm King Art Center. The web site describes it as “a 500-acre outdoor museum located in New York’s Hudson Valley, where visitors experience large-scale sculpture and site-specific commissions under open sky. Since 1960, Storm King has been dedicated to stewarding the hills, meadows, and forests of its site and surrounding landscape.” Its vision is to nurture “a vibrant bond between art, nature, and people, creating a place where discovery is limitless.”

Coincidentally, Storm King opened in 1960, the same year Lynch’s book was published, during an historical inflection point that prefigures our own. I was curious to experience Storm King through a Lynchian lens. Might an outdoor museum offer cues for urban design? A vibrant bond between art, nature, and people has never felt more needed, at least not in my lifetime.

My kids and I took a train from Grand Central to Beacon Station where we boarded a bus to Storm King. The underground darkness and urban ruins of New York City unfurl to a quiet, bucolic journey that parallels the serene Hudson River and winds through leafy towns.

The Hudson River. Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich

Alighting from a bus at Storm King, we found ourselves on a paved road surrounded by acres of low rolling hills and landscaped areas punctuated by large art. Our fellow visitors shuffled uncertainly, looking around. A guide handed us maps, indicating we were free to roam. The disorientation and expanse of nature made me think about wide-open days from another time.

For Lynch, paths are key to shaping one’s experience and memory of a place. Clear, continuous, and distinctive paths help us navigate comfortably, while creating a coherent and memorable cognitive map. A diversity of paths enriches the experience.

At Storm King, the paths are paved, graveled, and landscaped. Some are clearly demarcated while others are more open and interpretive. In many cases, the pathways at Storm King filter into an open field or lawn. From there, you make your own way to the artwork. Some pass right through the art itself.

Right: Menashe Kadishman, Eight Positive Trees, 1977 (weathering steel).

For me, the paths were a version of choose-your-own-adventure. Sometimes the art was the destination; sometimes the path itself felt like art. I noticed that people were particularly playful and friendly on the grassy and self-defined paths, both of which are ubiquitous.

If paths take us places, edges help us perceive where we are and where we’re going more clearly. These linear boundaries and transitional zones separate and connect distinct areas and uses. According to Lynch, the more diverse, noticeable, and distinct the edges are, the stronger our psychological response to a place.

Left: Alexander Liberman, Adonai, 1970-71, refabricated 2000, (steel).

The edges at Storm King are largely porous and natural, or composed of materials found in nature, like stone. While edges often serve a largely functional purpose, such as separating different uses, the natural beauty and welcoming nature of the rock walls and tall grasses at Storm King invited discovery and repose. If edges are transitions, do those that appear natural create authenticity and foster engagement?

Landmarks and Nodes
While the paths and edges at Storm King are beautiful and welcoming, it is the art—visibly salient and monumental—that defines the experience and memory of this place. The artworks draw the eye, making canvases of land and sky. They beckon the visitor to follow well-worn paths or make their own. The landmarks at Storm King pulled me into some merged state with both art and nature.

From left: Mark di Suvero, E=MC2, 1996-97 (steel, stainless steel) and Frog Legs, 2002 (steel)

It almost goes without saying that the installations at Storm King are both landmarks and nodes—focal points and intersections where pathways join and people come together. Unlike indoor museums, where nodes can often feel claustrophobic, the nodes at Storm King made me want to lie down in the grass. I found myself talking to strangers. Why not? They too had “entered the canvas.”

David von Schlegell’s Two Circles, 1972 (aluminum and stainless steel).
Left: Menashe Kadishman, Suspended, 1977 (foreground, weathering steel) and Martin Puryear, Lookout, 2023 (background, brick, concrete, cobblestone).  Right: Alexander Liberman, Iliad, 1974-76 (painted steel)

Image and Memory: The District
Widening the Lynchian lens to the concept of district—a city segment with a cohesive character and distinct sense of identity—might we take urban design cues from Storm King? There was mix of clearly defined and interpretive paths, porous edges composed of natural materials, a diversity of landmarks doubling as nodes. For me, these characteristics worked together, inviting discovery, play, and communion with art, nature, and people. I was certainly living the Storm King vision.

Extending the experience of a rural outdoor art museum to the larger built environment is perhaps a stretch. So be it. I’ll take hope where I can get it these days; places like Storm King give me hope.

Mark di Suvero, She, 1977-78 (steel with wooden swinging bed).