Thu, Aug 30, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Mad Max meets Watts Towers

Bob Cassilly has been working for seven years to turn a derelict cement factory in a gritty part of St Louis into a giant art installation/park filled with his sculptures

By MATTHEW SUMMERS-SPARKS  /  NY Times News Service, ST LOUIS

The future site of Cementland, which its creator, Bob Cassilly, envisions as a place for visitors to do "things they're not supposed to," in St Louis, Missouri.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In an industrial area here known for truck yards, not art, a sculptor and entrepreneur named Bob Cassilly stands on a 30m-tall hill, created from some of the 182,000 truckloads of dirt that have been unloaded and applied to the skeleton of a former cement factory.

Construction companies have dumped dirt here since before he bought the property on which he is standing. But Cassilly, who has made use of others' castoffs since the 1970s, is happy to continue the dumping arrangement. It means free sculpture material; just as important, the companies pay him to unload. Without that, he said, "this is basically an unaffordable project."

The project, which he calls Cementland, resists easy categorization. Imagine a park peppered with Cassilly's lively animal sculptures, but also with obsolete cement-making machinery grinding away, industrial silos and other remnants of the 22-hectare former factory. Then add navigable waterways, waterfalls and beaches atop dirt hills.

After seven years of work and with at least two more to go, it sounds like a quixotic vision, but Cassilly, 57, has been down that road before: He is the chief creative force behind the energetic St Louis City Museum, which in its early years was nearly shuttered during internal strife, but which is thriving today.

"In St Louis, no one has the confidence in their creativity and intelligence" to make projects like the museum or Cementland work, said Tim Tucker, a developer who worked with Cassilly in the 1990s. "Lots of people conceive things, but very few can implement them as well as Bob."

Before Cementland can open, Cassilly and his crew have significant work to do. There are plans for a staircase spiraling in and around a 76m-tall chimney, and a 46m-tall Mayan-style pyramid topped by a "skywalk" made from a tower crane.

"You'd walk on the walkway and it'd be slightly uphill, so it's like you're walking up into the sky," Cassilly said.

Pointing south, he rhapsodized about how downtown St Louis would look from Cementland: "In the afternoon, when the sun shines on the city, you get this nice reflection. You don't see all the trash and stuff. It's the best view of the city."

It's also a shimmering image of a city in need of shining visions. In October 2006, in a study that critics called simplistic, Morgan Quitno Press, a private research firm, called St Louis, which has about 350,000 residents, "America's most dangerous city." An FBI report showed that violent crime rose 14 percent in the last five years.

Yet Cassilly remains optimistic about his hometown, and he has come to specialize in reinvigorating some of its overlooked jewels. He started in the mid-1970s with a home in Lafayette Square, a neighborhood that at the time was a collection of mostly run-down Victorians. Some people thought they should be torn down, said Barbara Geisman, a former resident of the neighborhood and now St Louis' executive director for development, but "Bob was one of the people who believed in the neighborhood and helped turn it around."

After that, his career went off in a few directions, all of them somehow related to the master's degree in art that he earned from Fontbonne University in St Louis.

In 1983, he and his second wife, Gail Cassilly, also a sculptor, founded an architectural carving and casting company. They specialized in playful jumbo-sized sculptures for public spaces, like hippos for a playground in Riverside Park in Manhattan and the denizens of Turtle Park in St Louis. The works, made of concrete or fiberglass and largely created by Cassilly, capture energetic poses: a giraffe reaching for a high leaf, a turtle stretching its mouth wide. Although a few critics have weighed in, the public - particularly children, including the ones who climb the statues at Turtle Park - loves them.

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