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California Cruisin': Enjoying the Viewpoints
LASN December 2016 Hardscapes

By Alli Rael, LASN


Along California's Pacific Coast Highway, four granite animals were installed in the pavement at scenic viewpoints. The California Department of Transportation, led in this project by landscape architect Corby Kilmer, contracted Iowa-based Creative Edge Master Shop and senior project manager Ron Blair to fabricate the animals, which were designed by artist Alice Taylor. The California condor with its ten-foot wingspan was installed in the Big Sur area.

California's Pacific Coast Highway stretches over 650 miles from Leggett in Mendocino County (181 miles north of San Francisco) to Dana Point in Orange County (63 miles south of Los Angeles International Airport). Stretches of it run concurrently with the 101 freeway, notably in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and across the Golden Gate Bridge. The route is popular for its scenic beauty, which was recently enhanced at several vista points along the highway.

Landscape architect Corby Kilmer from the California Department of Transportation worked with designer Alice Taylor and senior project manager Ron Blair from the Iowa-based Creative Edge Master Shop to design, fabricate and install four life-size granite animals to inform and entertain visitors traveling Pacific Coast Highway. Kilmer came up with the idea for the project, inspired by an artist who had painted a life-size gray whale in the parking lot of a scenic viewpoint. After seeing a children's play area with animals made of cut stone inlaid into pavement, she saw the possibility of relocating and enhancing the whale.


Each of the animals was cut from 3 cm granite with a high-pressure stream of water mixed with an abrasive material. State biologists worked with the design team to ensure the physical structure and coloration of the animals was accurate. The grizzly bear is located in the San Marcos pass.

Kilmer's preliminary drawings were handed over to Taylor, who transformed them into computer artwork suitable for cutting from stone. State biologists contributed to assure the authenticity of each animal's physical structure, size, and coloration. Three-centimeter thermal granite was the base material chosen for each of the animals. The granite was cut with a waterjet - a tool used to cut a wide variety of materials using a high-pressure jet of water or a mixture of water and an abrasive substance, depending on the material to be cut. For hard materials including granite, water with an abrasive substance is used. The use of special software and 3-D machining heads allow the production of complex and precise shapes.


In addition to the animals, new signage, boulders and protective bollards were installed at each of the viewpoints. The informational signage was placed with the intention of making the experience optional - the information is there for those who seek it, but positioned in such a way that it complements the landscape without compromising the view. For example, the signage above, at the sea otter mosaic located off of Highway 101 near Gaviota, explains how the animals were hunted to near extinction for their pelts, but is low enough to allow a view of the ocean.

Each animal, which have in common their extinction or threat of near-extinction, was installed in the paving at a viewpoint. The California condor, which has a 10-foot wingspan, was installed at a viewpoint in the Big Sur area. The 50-foot long grey whale with calf was also installed in this area. The sea otter, about 3 feet in length, is surrounded by granite seaweed on Highway 101 near Gaviota. The California grizzly bear, the same species that adorns the state flag, was installed in the San Marcos Pass, a backroad of the 101. The animals are life-sized to enhance the understanding about that animal and its place in California's ecology and history: for example, seeing how big the grizzly bear actually was may heighten the understanding of what it was like for the native people and earliest settlers to experience the animal as part of everyday life.


The whale was the starting point for the project: years ago, an artist painted a life size gray whale in the parking lot of this vista point in the Big Sur area. While popular, it was not in a very safe location. After seeing a park with cut stone animals inlaid into pavement, Kilmer came up with the idea of relocating the whale to a safer location, and creating mosaics at other viewpoints. It took three years to plan and design the mosaics, and another year to install, with a total cost of $699,000.

In addition to flamed and polished granite, polished stone, quartz, stainless steel and more were added as accents. For example, the otter whiskers and grizzly bear claws are stainless steel.

The stone mosaic animals are accompanied by interpretive displays mounted on boulders as well as protective bollards. The goal of the placement of the displays was to make them an optional experience - to place them in such a way that the information was there without disrupting the purpose of the viewpoint, which is, of course, to enjoy the view. The biggest challenge was finding free or very low cost images to use in the displays, acquiring copyright permissions, and getting permission for Caltrans to fund the mosaics.

The project took about three years of planning and design, and a year to build, with a budget of $699,000.

As seen in LASN magazine, December 2016.

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