How did They do it?

It has always amazed me that very large masses of stone were quarried, shaped, and moved several miles (often over rivers) during antiquity. A couple of examples are a few of the stones at Saqsayhuaman that are nearly 300 tons and the foundation stones at Baalbek that exceed 800 tons. Consider what it took to recently move a 340-ton rock down paved roads as follows

How Do You Move a 340-Ton Artwork? Very Carefully

A granite boulder at the Stone Valley Quarry will be transported to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 60 miles away over the course of nine nights, traveling through the crowded metropolis at six miles an hour. Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times

By Adam Nagourney

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — It is just under 60 miles from the Stone Valley Quarry here — an expanse of dust, boulders, roaring bulldozers and cut granite hillsides — to the lush campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Museum Mile. Behind a pile of rocks the other afternoon, out of sight from the road, workers scurried around a 340-ton, 21-foot-high solid granite boulder, trussed with red steel girders, gleaming under the desert sun. If all goes well, this boulder will be hovering over a cut in the earth on the grounds of the museum, and be open for viewing, by the end of November.

The piece, known as “Levitated Mass,” by Michael Heizer, a California-born sculptor known for huge outdoor installations that make extensive use of earth and rock, is by any measure an ambitious and brash use of outdoor space. But more ambitious might be the logistics of moving Mr. Heizer’s rock, which was dynamited out of a hillside, from here to there. It is a trip that will take the boulder through the heart of one of the most congested urban centers in the country: nine nights at six miles an hour, through 120 miles of roads, highways, bridges, overpasses, overhead wires, alarmingly low-hanging traffic lights and sharp turns.

The effort, nearly five years in the planning (though Mr. Heizer has been making sketches of it as far back as the late 1960s), feels nothing short of a military movement: an incursion through a bewildering thicket of state, city and county regulations and a region with a notoriously difficult street grid. Even the matter of where to pull over each day is a challenge; this is not a Motel 6 kind of trip.

“You can’t cowboy this through,” said Rick Albrecht, the project manager for the move, leaning against a ladder, his sunglasses and hard hat covered in dust. “You have to be meticulous about this.”


The artist Michael Heizer, left, at a quarry in Riverside, Calif., examining the boulder he’ll use for his installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.Credit…Los Angles County Museum of Contemporary Art

Michael Govan, executive director of the museum, offered a hint of the bureaucratic obstacles involved, and never mind the technical ones.

“A million permits,” he said. “And the State of California is always reviewing the state of its bridges and roads. So a route plan that would have worked a couple of days ago doesn’t work today.” He compared the project to erecting the Great Pyramids of Egypt. “The Egyptians didn’t have rubber tires or diesel engines,” he said. “But they also didn’t have weak streets.”

Yet Mr. Govan raised his hand when asked, in an interview in his office last week, if the oft-delayed move would be put off again. “This is going,” he said. “It’s going. It has to come before the rainy season,” which begins in November. (Two days later the move was put off another week; it is now scheduled to begin the week of Oct. 17.) Mr. Albrecht’s company, Emmert International, makes a business of moving very large objects, like the Hubbell Telescope and building here and there. But this is the first time he has been asked to oversee the relocation of a giant rock. “That’s what the artist wants,” he said. “So that’s what the artist is going to get.”

How do you do it? The rock has already been raised off the ground by hydraulic lifts and put in a cradle; steel trusses were built around the cradle, all part of a modular tractor with 22 axles, each with its own set of brakes, and 196 wheels. It will weigh 1,210,900 pounds, including the rock. “That’s a lot,” Mr. Albrecht said. “But the weight per axle should be about 349,950 pounds. That’s not so bad. You’ll get more on some of these rock trips coming out of this quarry every day. We’re not worried.”

Construction workers prepare a long slot to guide the boulder to its location for the Levitated Mass Exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of

The rig will be about 295 feet long and 27 feet wide and require a crew of 12 people to operate it. The modular assembly means it should be able to turn, like a caterpillar, and thus navigate corners in Los Angeles that can challenge more conventional rigs. Door to door the distance is 60 miles, though the actual drive is going to be closer to 120 miles, as engineers plot a route that can accommodate the huge size of what is known as the Prime Mover, and one that steers clear of low bridges and wires. Any route must have stopover spots to park the rock as it waits for the night. “The last thing we are trying to figure out is where they are going to park it in South Central the night before,” said John Bowsher, the director of special installations at the museum, referring to the Los Angeles neighborhood.

Teams of workers will be deployed to lift telephone and power lines, swing traffic lights to the side, and lay down steel plates on suspect patches of roads or bridges. Once the rock arrives at the two-and-a-half-acre lot at the museum that will become its home, another process will begin: disassembling the transporter and sliding the boulder so it is centered over a 456-foot-long slot that has already been slashed into the ground and covered with concrete. The rock will be moved with a gantry system of pulleys, and positioned at the direction of the artist, Mr. Bowsher said, to make certain the final angle is exactly right. That will take another two weeks.

The rock is to rest on two lips that extend partly over the slot from each side of the cut, to help create the illusion that it is hovering in space. Viewers will be able to walk under the rock and peer up 15 feet at its underside.

Mr. Govan said the sculpture fit into his vision of trying to expand the museum beyond its walls and described it as both “super ancient and super modern.”

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“It fits into a grand tradition of using public space,” he said.

He said Mr. Heizer had long been drawn to the Stone Valley Quarry because of the nature of its granite. “Black-and-white speckled with a little bit of rust in it,” Mr. Govan said. “He saw the rock and asked the quarry not to touch it.”

Steve Dumont, a heavy-equipment operator at the site, said rocks like that normally don’t last long at the quarry. “We usually blow them up because we don’t want them this big,” he said. “This has been here a long time.”

The whole project will cost close to $10 million, and Mr. Govan said he has drawn criticism about the wisdom of such a project at a time when California is reeling from cuts to everything from colleges to parks.

“I get these letters and telephone calls: ‘I can’t believe you. The economy is so bad, and you’re moving a rock?’ ” he said. “People have this image that we are buying it and spending money on a rock. But we are putting more people to work here in L.A. than Obama. I mean, all the money is going to have an economic impact in California.”

Mr. Govan left little doubt when asked if this work was to be a permanent exhibition at the museum. “Try to move it,” he said.