Washington Highway Inspires Works of Art

Generations of Washington State University students know it as the Vantage Cutoff — the final two-hour segment of a long trip from the state's west side to the college town of Pullman.

But to Paul Hirzel's graduate architecture students, State Route 26 is a 133-mile-long museum of the diverse geology, biology and cultural history of Eastern Washington.

A four-month exhibit celebrating the highway between Vantage on the Columbia River and Colfax on the Palouse has just opened at Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

The display — which runs through May 2 — is a compilation of models built by students in WSU's School of Architecture and Construction Management.

"By building a meticulous model of something, it gives it a sort of reverence, or value, that many people who drive the highway don't realize is significant," Hirzel, an associate professor, said.

'An Exhibit of the Imagination'

The exhibition grew out of projects Hirzel's students have been working on the past two years.

Hirzel said he challenged his students to imagine the stretch of road as a museum and to produce imaginative proposals that would highlight its uncommon beauty.

"It's not a historical exhibit and it's not an art exhibit, but an exhibit of the imagination," said Marsha Rooney, the museum's curator of history.

Snaking its way through or near farm towns such as Royal City, Hooper, Washtucna, Lacrosse and Dusty, the road is traveled by as many as 10,000 west side students who commute to WSU every year. "SR26 is kind of like the driveway to Pullman for students who live on the west side," Hirzel said.

Meandering over the Frenchman Hills, Paradise Flats, Providence Coulee and Michigan Prairie, the highway crosses some of the most significant geological, agricultural, botanical and cultural conditions found in Eastern Washington, he contends. The balsa, glass and plaster of Paris models are as diverse as the terrain along SR26. Among them:

A scale-model of 300-foot tall floodlit balloon towers marking the water depth of the great Missoula floods that swept across the region during the Ice Age. "SR26 Road Radio" featuring sounds of the road, including solos by windmills and irrigation sprinklers and a rhythm section of passing mile markers, reflector strips and telephone poles. Pieces of clothing from people who live and work along the road: farmer's coveralls, a road worker's reflective safety vest, a flannel shirt. A vision of an imagined park illuminating paths cut throughout the ages by countless animals walking across hillsides. A fast-motion 13-minute videotape of the entire route, which takes much less time to watch than the drive requires at legal speeds. A hillside motel in Dusty Park where visitors can watch Cougars football games projected on the town's 100-foot-tall grain elevators. Then there are pieces that take what's existing and represent it in model form, such as a series of wooden telephone poles, microwave towers and grain elevators. "There are some significant agricultural storage facilities, which to an architect are some of the most beautiful structures one would find anywhere," Hirzel said.

Hirzel said he hopes the exhibit will help combat what he calls "landscape bigotry" that prefers the evergreens, water and mountains of the state's west side to the desert steppe East of the Cascades.

"In my opinion, the ability to find beauty and significance in that kind of landscape is far more provocative," he said. "Many architecture students are so focused on the building that landscape is somehow forgotten."

If You Go…

THE ROUTE: Starts at Interstate 90 milepost 137, across the Columbia River bridge east of Vantage, Wash., and ends at its terminus with U.S. 195 at Colfax. THE EXHIBIT: Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, 2316 W. First Ave., Spokane. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission $7 adults, $5 seniors over 62 and students with I.D., children under 5 free. For more information, visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call (509) 456-3931.