Blair Kamin, architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune, said Chicago has greatly benefited from its recent high-profile landscape architecture commissions, including Lurie Garden in Millennium Park and the plaza at Trump International Hotel and Tower. While Lurie Garden created a “stylized prairie” in the midst of the city, the plaza evoked a “lush riverbank at the base of an enormous steel and glass skyscraper.” Now, the Trump skyscraper’s managers (with Donald Trump’s approval) have dug up most of the plaza’s plantings and replaced them with a “far more conventional design.” While a number of visitors to the plaza have been upset with the changes, the landscape’s original creator, Peter Schaudt, FASLA, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, was apparently “aghast.” He told Kamin that his mouth just dropped when he first heard, in part because he wasn’t even notified of the changes.
The original landscape featured a “rich palette and sophistication,” which were even more startling given the usual glitz (some say tackiness) of Trump’s buildings. Kamin says: “People flocked to this public space. So did birds who sang from the branches of its trees.” In addition, Mayor Daley even recognized the plaza in his annual landscape awards program. The city also praised the plaza as a “magnificent new civic landscape that is a poetic interpretation of native Illinois.”
T. Colm O’Callaghan, the skyscraper’s managing director, said that the landscape wasn’t dug up to save money but to “enhance the plaza” (and perhaps to boost condo sales). “While the plaza was just finished last year, the tower’s hotel has been open for four years now, said its manager Philipp Posch, and ‘we needed a change.’” So Trump’s team hired the landscape firm McFarlane Douglass and Chicago landscape architect Daniel Weinbach, ASLA. Weinbach’s new design, which O’Callaghan said has its “avid supporters,” keeps the plaza’s trees but changes the understory beneath them. “He’s stripped out Schaudt’s richly-textured mix of small sumac trees, ferns and native grasses and replaced them with what he calls ‘a series of very soft curvilinear bandings.’”
The abstract bands are comprised of “evergreens like junipers and boxwoods, pieces of gray stone, and purple perennials (catmint and salvia) whose cool hues differ markedly from Schaudt’s yellows, oranges and reds. The idea is to create year-round visual appeal–not everyone is a fan of dried winter grasses.” Weinbach told Kamin that there will be “strong patterns of color that ‘will be really interesting when seen from above as well as at ground level.’”
Kamin, who seems partial to Schaudt’s original design, does say that Weinbach’s landscape has not fully grown in so it’s hard to critique. In addition, what he calls the original “plaza’s greatest gift–its tiered swath of riverfront open space, with great views of nearby skyscrapers and the water” is still in place.
While landscape architecture is created and recreated often (see a recent redesign of Martha Schwartz’s Jacob Javits Federal Plaza), it’s rare that a major landscape is redesigned just one year after completion. Kamin believes this shows how landscape architecture is prey to the whims of clients, perhaps more so than other design fields, concluding: “The plaza was well on its way to becoming one of downtown’s great public spaces. The passions this change is generating speak to how much people had come to care about it. Yet what the revamp also reveals is just how vulnerable landscape architecture can be, no matter how much praise it garners from critics or the public. It is far easier–and far less expensive–to tear up a garden than to tear down a building.”
However one feels about the new and old landscape designs, perhaps this revamp indicates that in this era of conspicuous consumption, even carefully designed landscapes are becoming disposable commodities.
In other Chicago landscape news, The Architect’s Newspaper reports that plans are moving forward to turn the elevated Bloomingdale Trail into a bike trail connected to many of the city’s parks. While the Bloomingdale Trail is “not the High Line in Chicago,” says Ben Helphand, President of the Friends of Bloomingdale Trail, it could serve as an “archipelago of green space” and offer a new way for bicyclists to commute to work.
Image credits: (1) Trump Plaza. Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects / Scott Shigley, (2) New Trump landscape by Daniel Weinbach / Antonio Perez