Bing Thom is the subject of a new full-color book by Princeton Architectural Press. Prominently featured in the collection is his new Arena Stage, which has helped catalyze redevelopment in southwest Washington, D.C. (see earlier post). The book, however, also goes way beyond his recent critically-acclaimed D.C. work and explores his earlier large-scale cultural projects in his native Vancouver along with his serene residential projects. For anyone inspired by nature, Thom’s biophilic, environmentally-sustainable, and socially-conscious built sculptures are worth delving into.
Thom sees architecture as playing a critical role in society. He tells students in his introduction: “Architecture is more than art. We have a social responsibility as architects; we affect people’s lives; and we can change the nature of society, but only after digging deep and asking tough questions. With the majority of the world’s planet now living in cities, the possibility – and urgent need – have never been greater for the planet.” Furthermore, he wants to engage young design professionals in a dialogue through the book, showing photos and then including behind-the-scenes details on the projects.
Thom has been deeply influenced by his local place: Vancouver, a city he says that is at the “edge.” For Thom, Vancouver is primarily at the edge of Asia. As a result, Asian concepts of space in architecture, “where the negative is as important as the positive,” also drive his designs. He believes Asian concepts influence the “way we design our buildings, the whole idea is open plan, open flow. We don’t think of walls and structures, we think of circulation and rhythms. There is no concept of outside and inside, no separation between man and nature.” Vancouver also regularly tops livability rankings so great skill is required to create projects that can further contribute to that city’s already rich cultural and social fabric, while being accessible in the unique climate and environment.
In one example, Surrey Central City (see image at top and below), Thom focused on how to build a new city center in the midst of suburban sprawl, at the “suburban edge.” Surrey is a “young sprawling city of highways, parking lots, and shopping malls that is frequently the butt of jokes. It struggles with lower education and income levels that elsewhere in the region.” In an attempt to limit the ever-expanding sprawl, metro Vancouver developed a “livable region plan.” A key part of this plan was a set of new town centers that would take pressure off Vancouver’s central downtown, creating a new set of constellation hubs for the many spokes leading out from the city. Unfortunately, none of this really worked, writes Thom. “There was no ‘downtown Surrey.’ It was Nowhere, North America.”
Thom thought a large mixed-use development could help. In the “bleakest part of the city,” Whalley, his complex project includes a new campus for Simon Fraser University, offices for a major insurance company, and new real estate. One key ingredient in the project was a shopping mall, financed by the insurance company. Thom decided to create lots of shared spaces between the university and shopping mall. “By combining the energy of the shopping center and the university, we also saved both capital and operation costs.” To organize the building, Thom created new atria made up of wood-space frames constructed from peeler-cores (a plywood waste).
There’s also a new civic plaza, the first “truly urban, civic, and open space in Surrey.” It has become the entrance to the mall and university and a zone for commuters heading into the city via Skytrain. Thom adds that overall the project has been enormously popular: “The new generation of students, many working part-time, like being integrated into the community; it’s more like real life.” A library and city hall are being planned for next door, helping expand an area that has truly become “Downtown Surrey.”
In the end though, Thom believes each project is judged long after it’s completed. “Does the building have depth? Poetry? Does it capture spiritual values and satisfy more utilitarian needs? Can the building withstand the test of time? Have we made a difference? Did the building deserve to be built?” These are questions every designer should ask themselves when evaluating their own projects.
Genius of Place: the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a new biography by Justin Martin, illuminates Olmsted’s major achievements as a visionary artist, social reformer, pioneering environmentalist, and founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture. Olmsted is best known for creating several noteworthy landscapes, including New York City’s Central Park. Martin, a journalist who has written two acclaimed biographies on Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, paints a portrait of Olmsted as a preeminent American figure, revealing that “as a park maker, environmentalist, and abolitionist, Olmsted helped shape modern America.”
Martin’s interest in the great landscape architect stems from the fact that he lives in Forest Hill Gardens, New York, a suburban neighborhood designed by Olmsted’s son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Intrigued by the man who created Central Park, Martin consulted letters from five different archives to piece together a broad picture of Olmsted’s life and legacy. His book does not disappoint in the totality of its coverage, but where it may do so is in the lack of focus given to Olmsted’s work after Central Park. The author does, however, give some sense of the significance of Olmsted’s role in shaping the profession of landscape architecture.
The book covers the extent of Olmsted’s life, with lengthy portions devoted to his early achievements as well as his work on Central Park and subsequent career as a landscape architect. It also provides an intimate account of the personal tragedies and illnesses that plagued him throughout his life and fueled his near obsessive work ethic. Martin gives detailed accounts of Olmsted’s early forays into scientific farming and gold mining, as well as his more significant accomplishments as a journalist and abolitionist. Later he reveals how these experiences shaped Olmsted’s sensibilities as a landscape architect, his most successful professional occupation and one he essentially fell into at age 35.
Despite his lack of formal training, Olmsted proved a worthy collaborator when architect Calvert Vaux asked him to partner on a competition to design Central Park. Central Park was the first of his great successes and his “grand passion.” He used the park as an opportunity to further his agenda for social reform, creating a place celebrated for its formal aesthetic qualities that was also “intended to furnish healthful recreation, for the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous.” Martin gives a compelling account of the 20 years Olmsted devoted to the park’s construction and maintenance, highlighting it as the centerpiece of his career.
Olmsted went on to design an array of other notable landscapes, including more than thirty public parks, the U.S. Capitol Grounds, several planned communities and university campuses, and the grounds of various private estates and asylums. Martin chronicles many of these achievements, for which Olmsted entered into the role of pioneering environmentalist along with social reformer. Unfortunately, he does not extend quite the same coverage to these projects as he does to Central Park. He provides enough detail to reveal their importance though he does not quite indicate their true value: Some of these landscapes have become equally, if not more, relevant to the profession today than their famous predecessor.
Included among these projects is Olmsted’s most ambitious park system, the Emerald Necklace, which connected several parks into an integrated system of open spaces covering 1,100 acres near downtown Boston. One of the parks is the Back Bay Fens, the first wetland restoration project in an urbanized area of the United States. The idea of creating a continuous swath of green spaces that provided social benefits and performed ecological functions in a rapidly urbanizing city was visionary. Figuring out how to carve out similar spaces in cities today has become one of the profession’s major challenges.
Chicago’s lakefront is another important example. Olmsted wanted to create a public waterfront to connect the city to its most notable natural feature and provide open space for its residents. The city government shelved the project due to inadequate funding, but he capitalized on an opportunity to resurrect it while designing the grounds of Chicago’s 1893 World Fair. It was an incredible success and remains one of the city’s best assets. Many cities today are investing in similar projects, reclaiming valuable land along post-industrial waterfronts to create public spaces that provide social, economic, and environmental value.
Olmsted was also a visionary in defining the aims of landscape architecture, including resource conservation and the preservation of places like Yosemite and Niagara Falls, though he often had to fight popular trends with varying success to do so. His initial proposal for Stanford University’s campus recommended a scheme suited to native plantings for an arid climate, rather than one mimicking the popular aesthetic found on New England campuses that would require extensive watering. Unfortunately, much of the scheme was omitted in the actual construction. However, at a time when only a few Americans were concerned with the clear-cutting of trees on huge stretches of land, Olmsted convinced financial mogul George Washington Vanderbilt to showcase one of the earliest forest management projects on his Biltmore Estate near Ashville, North Carolina.
Regardless of the measure of success he enjoyed during his lifetime, Olmsted has since achieved his overarching endeavor: an enduring legacy. In a letter urging his son, Fred Jr., to become his successor, he wrote, “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no results to be realized in less than forty years. Now in nearly all our work I am thinking of the credit that will indirectly come to you.” He need not have worried. His work has endured and continues to influence all landscape architects today. Martin may have missed an opportunity to express the full extent of this great landscape architect’s achievements, but his intriguing account of Olmsted’s life nevertheless captures the significance of his legacy.
Sometimes your education, training, and experience cannot prepare you for a project, no matter how much expertise you believe you may have. Such was my circumstance when I first encountered the barrio of La Moran in Caracas, Venezuela. Instead of being the professional, I became the student who learned that a place with makeshift dwellings and an apparent chaotic fabric can actually be a functional and congruent neighborhood.
I arrived at the barrio with the goal of applying my urban design skills to upgrade it. What I found was a slum where 100 percent of the population lives in makeshift houses, perched on steep topographies.
There were upwards of three houses stacked practically on top of each other, directly above a ravine filled with sewage waste.
The houses were literally floating because a landslide is threatening everything they owned, not that there was much of that.
The community was plagued with many of the same problems as other slums. The reality was a maze of houses where everything is shared not because the residents want to, but because there is absolutely no more space on which to build or spread out.
I learned quickly that local knowledge is what becomes the norm, because all notions of street, sidewalk, park, home, and stairway have a different meaning than what is taught in books.
This is real urban design because it emerges from the hands and aspirations of thousands of people striving for a better quality of life without any education or professional background in the art of house-making, let alone city-making. While at first the homes seem erected based on the need for shelter, little glimpses of coherent social life, prosperity, and longing for a more normal community start appearing directly embedded in the built fabric. It is as if, unconsciously, this need for urbanization, for shelter, for home is reflected in countless imaginative solutions to housing and social life, and the construction methods of poor people.
But then come what people do not see: the opportunities for small interventions within the context of what already exists. This is a view of a local community that can come together with stairwells and walkways that connect to different areas of the barrio.
Perhaps there can be a small plaza where dancing and music enliven the whole scene and misery is quickly forgotten. Perhaps there’s a system of pedestrian streets that gives identity to the community, even agriculture patches, sport fields, and recycling centers.
A goal is to try to highlight the social aspect of the place by providing spaces for people who live there. With this vision, that word “slum” truly becomes “neighborhood.”
Nothing has ever taught me more than seeing and working in a slum in person. Everything I had learned or applied up to that point became flawed. I arrived thinking I was here to help with my arsenal of knowledge, and that I could not but improve people’s lives in this situation. Yet I was wrong. I became a beginner, almost like an intern, and instead had to let the slum teach me. While urban design gives you a perspective from which to truly see these areas; in reality, nothing prepares you for it.
In the case of the Caracas barrios, the landscape and the process of urbanization have become more than intertwined — they are now co-dependent. Yet, sometimes, the landscape becomes a force that destroys the process of urbanization.
Having studied landscape urbanism and urban design, I arrived at the barrio ready to contribute. While I remain confident that landscape interventions and urban design can help give the residents here a sense of community, I am also sure that this slum already has a unique urban essence. This is something that other urban designers could appreciate if they experience it.
Leonardo Robleto, Affiliate ASLA, works for Enlace Arquitectura and is on temporary assignment in Caracas, Venezuela.
Peter Zumthor, considered one of the world’s great architects and a recent winner of the Pritzker Prize, recently partnered with Dutch horticulturalist and garden designer Piet Oudolf to create Hortus Conclusus, an enclosed garden, for the Serpentine Gallery in London, which sponsors a pavilion from a leading architects every summer.
DesignBoom says the project realizes Zumthor’s vision of “a synthesized experience between architecture and vegetation.” Constructed of a lightweight timber frame wrapped in scrim and coated with a black “paste and sand mixture,” the pavilion’s stark exterior invites visitors in through a “matrix of dark hallways with intermittent streams of natural light.”
Then, visitors finally reach the secluded interior rich with Oudolf’s plantings, which are designed to attract insects and birds.
Zumthor described the ideas behind the design: “A garden is the most intimate landscape ensemble I know of. It is close to us. There we cultivate the plants we need. A garden requires care and protection. And so we encircle it, we defend it and fend for it. We give it shelter. The garden turns into a place. Enclosed gardens fascinate me. A forerunner of this fascination is my love of the fenced vegetable gardens on farms in the Alps, where farmers’ wives often planted flowers as well. I love the image of these small rectangles cut out of vast alpine meadows, the fence keeping the animals out. There is something else that strikes me in this image of a garden fenced off within the larger landscape around it: something small has found sanctuary within something big.”
UK newspaper reviews were almost entirely glowing, saying Zumthor and Oudolf’s approach was one of the most successful in the last ten years of pavilions. The Telegraph‘s architecture critic said: “What I love most is how generous the design feels. It celebrates everything within and around itself: Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s centerpiece, a meadow of cow-parsley and mixed wild grasses (he was given free reign by Zumthor) becomes the focal point.”
Sustainability in America’s Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis, edited by Matthew Slavin, founder and Principal of Sustaingrϋp, is a collection of case studies that chart the progress of sustainable urban development in eight cities across the United States. The case studies explain how these cities have applied innovative strategies and invested in climate change mitigation and adaptation, clean energy, green buildings, sustainable transportation and infrastructure, and urban forestry among others. Chosen for their size, regional diversity, and capacity to implement their wide-ranging sustainability plans, the cities include Portland, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Honolulu, Philadelphia, and New York City. These eight offer “ample evidence of the role innovative and forward-thinking policy and planning, leadership, stakeholder engagement, and mobilization by coalitions of the willing play in sustainable development in America’s cities.”
The evidence these case studies offer is valuable because it leans more toward “clear empirical arguments concerning what works and what doesn’t in cities’ actual experiences” than “outright advocacy” for what should be done. Proven efficacy is critical to launching new initiatives in the U.S., particularly given the lack of a comprehensive national strategy for climate change has left cities with the daunting task of addressing the issue themselves. Many cities also lack the appropriate resources so can’t make mistakes financing ineffective programs.
As the many contributors to his volume argue, the profiled cities have been successful because they have demonstrated a unique ability to forge innovative strategies based in non-traditional approaches. Much of their success is attributed to embracing new technologies, achieving partnerships between business and environmental interests, and creating coalitions among government agencies, the private sector, and non-profit and educational institutions. The book explores the significance of these strategies and provides a useful resource guide that demonstrates “the mechanics and efficacy of the implementation of contemporary urban sustainability initiatives in U.S. cities.”
The case studies cover a broad range of situations. Two of them come from cities with long traditions of environmental activism and sustainable planning. In Portland, a commitment since the 1970s to sustainable planning has led to the development of an extensive light rail and streetcar system as well as an ambitious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building program. In San Francisco, the effective mobilization of Grassroots movements and social entrepreneurs helped launch and scale up the city’s bicycle transportation program and a citywide car-sharing service. These cities contrast with Phoenix, whose recent foray into the “green economy” faces uncertain electoral politics and short-term economic cycles.
There’s value in employing both vetted techniques and new strategies. In Milwaukee, the implementation of a “triple bottom line” mechanism helped transform the Menomonee Valley from a 1,400 acre blighted industrial district into a center of sustainable employment. In Washington, D.C., a commitment to implementing the U.S. Green Building Council’s green building rating system has resulted in 1,730 LEED-certified buildings and developments. Initiatives in New York City, however, are employing less established techniques for improving urban forestry and food security campaigns. The MillionTreesNYC program, though not the only urban tree campaign in the U.S., is notable for establishing a research and evaluation subcommittee to determine the actual economic, ecological, and social effects of planting a million new trees in the city. In addition, newer initiatives to improve food security have gone beyond previous efforts and widened food options for about three million people with previously limited access to nutritional food and healthy alternatives.
The case studies also look at how cities are using technology. Honolulu, for example, stands to gain energy independence from a significant investment in new technologies like wind farms, green buildings, electric vehicles, and sea water air conditioning. The city has committed to having 70 percent of energy use come from clean energy sources by 2030. Philadelphia is embracing environmentally-friendly green infrastructure over more intrusive and capital-intensive grey infrastructure. However, the city is focused on implementing integrated watershed management planning using low-tech storm water management strategies to protect drinking water supply and address infrastructural capacity issues.
The book clearly demonstrates that the sustainability movement in the U.S. is gaining support. However, progress is slow. In 2005, under the Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, 141 city mayors committed to a 7 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2012. As of 2009, Portland, Oregon was the only city to have reduced overall CO2 emissions from the 1990 baseline levels. Suffice to say, many sustainability initiatives are still in the early stages of development and face significant obstacles.
Slavin is nevertheless optimistic in light of what the case studies have shown. He concludes with a brief analysis of what other cities can learn from these models and summarizes a few initiatives already underway in large municipalities like Boston, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, and smaller cities like Akron, Boise, and Flint.
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
In a recent TED talk, Natalie Jeremijenko, an innovative professor and artist who runs the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, explains how to use “collective action” to build awareness about the importance of healthy environments. Through a set of creative and often funny urban experiments, she shows how neighborhood activists, researchers, and designers can demonstrate to people that “health is not just internal or pharmaceutical.”
First off, Jeremijenko argues that the external environment does have significant health implications. She points to a survey of New York pediatricians that found they spend a bulk of their time on a few health issues directly tied to the environment: childhood developmental delays, asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Indeed, for most health issues, the “environment is radically implicated.” Health is shared and not entirely “genetically predetermined.”
Jeremijenko is all about making public health education and colllective action engaging and fun. The idea is that healthy wildlife are indicators of healthy environments, which are needed to create healthy people. She also points to a few projects that frame health in an external way and focus on the importance of improving water quality and fighting climate change.
In one of her projects, she named tadpoles after local water policymakers and bureaucrats. Fashioning a sort of “tadpole walker” for them, researchers and neighborhood activists then took their tadpoles out for a stroll, using them to discuss water quality issues. “Tadpoles are very sensitive environmental sensors. They are meaningful sensors for endocrine disrupters.” Once a neighbor asks “why are you walking your tadpole?,” there’s an opportunity to engage in a discussion about why tadpoles are important and how endocrine disruptors are implicated in many health issues. Those into the idea can even set up Web sites for them: “People can do social networking with their tadpoles.”
She set up an experiment on mice living in Manhattan apartments and found that they have similar health issues given they share the same diet and same stressors as many of the people whose apartments they are living in. Her research found that “mice in Manhattan apartments would also self-administer anti-depressants.” In addition, given the choice, “they drank as much vodka as plain water.”
Another project focused on restoring wildlife to urban environments. Bronx OOZ “aims to reinvent our relationship with natural systems” by offering “wild animal safaris” within cities. She says this type of development is inevitable. “Animals are moving in. Wild animals are now in urban centers. Coyotes are in central park. Whales are now in harbours.” However, to date, people have lacked imagination about how to create habitat for animals in cities. At the Whitney museum on the Upper East Side, she developed a communications system that can be triggered by bird landings. Pigeons were able to test which message elicted the best behavior from humans. 100 to 1 birds chose one message on bird health that also asked humans to share their lunch. Another commission for the Architectural League of New York involved setting up buoys in the rivers around Manhattan used for communicating with fish. The buoys display water quality but were also used to send text messages to the visiting fish.
On water quality, Jeremijenko thinks it’s important to focus on street runoff pollution, now the “source of most water pollution in cities.” She calls for removing asphalt in favor of green streets or rain gardens that create a “micro-landscape” and offer infiltration opportunities. She sees emergency vehicle parking spaces turned into rain gardens. If an ambulance or fire truck needs to use the space, they can simply drive over the plants. “We can flatten the plants and they can regenerate. No big deal.” Also, she says if we use use every emergency parking space, we can “redefine the emergency.”
With the climate crisis, there is also a “secondary, more insidious crisis” — a “crisis of agency.” Meaning: people feel as if they have no control over how the climate changes. During the Cold War, the fall-out shelter served as an “icon of civic response.” But “what is the fall-out shelter for climate change?” Jeremijenko thinks it should be intensive urban agriculture facilities set up on rooftops. Each farm would consume the CO2 emissions emitted by buildings’ HVAC and boiler systems (In NYC, 80-90 percent of CO2 emissions are created by buildings). The CO2 would be funneled through “solar chimneys,” which would also be designed to catch the worst black carbon soot (grime), the result of “inefficient combustion.” She has school kids setting up these systems on roofs and using the grime to fashion black soot pencils.
Today, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) announced Rogers Marvel Architects has won a design competition for a new President’s Park South, a 52-acre historic site located between the White House grounds and the Washington Monument. Redesigning President’s Park South, which is one of the most-visited landscapes in Washington, D.C., is a challenging brief for a designer. The site, which includes Sherman Park and the Ellipse, a number of monuments, and a closed through-street (E Street NW), is home to the national Christmas tree and also filled with tourists, local joggers, and sports teams year round. Any new design must meet the tough security requirements of the U.S. Secret Service but be more easily accessible for the thousands of tourists and locals who use the space. In addition, a new design must accomodate both bicyclists and those driving into work at the White House every day, and offer an “attractive environment” for visitors while maintaining the site’s “historic integrity.” Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design and an advisor to the competition, said “it’s a challenging, intriguing project” with issues that only “some of the most creative minds in the field of design” can solve.
Rogers Marvel Architects(winner): Rob Rogers, the only architect presenting out of the five finalists, partnered with Quenell Rothschild & Partners, a landscape architecture firm, to create a proposal that “separates out layers of public space and security to improve the visitor experience.” Rogers, who has lots of experience implementing high-security projects for the Pentagon and other government organizations, said “security is very expensive but part of the public realm for the long-term and here to stay” so his team’s proposal invests heavily in security. In addition, his team’s design would balance the need to maintain the site as a “compelling place” given Marine One lands there, along with a “playground” for local residents. A reopened E street would become a “public gathering place,” a pedestrian plaza framed by a seating wall on the south side. Through E street, there will be “traffic-calming textured crosswalks with clear pathways.”
The Ellipse’s lawn would be replaced with super robust “turf grass” so it would function like Sheep’s Meadow or the Great Lawn in NYC’s Central Park. “It would be designed for heavy use.” Rogers would also add a formal paved promenade all the way around the Ellipse to provide easy access for strollers. Managed parking would be kept in place but new “native-planted, vegetative swales” would be set within walkways between the new promenade and parking spaces. The grade of the Ellipse would be subtly regraded to camoflauge the views of the cars from some viewpoints.
Interestingly, Rogers would move the security barriers to the far south end of the Ellipse, enclosing the entire park in a new set of security measures. Perhaps there’s one downside though: it cuts the Ellipse off from the Washington Monument, severing the freeflow of people between the sites.
Reed Hilderbrand Associates: Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, said President’s Park South is an “open space that symbolizes American democracy,” but has been plagued in recent years by barriers. As a result, the visitor experience is highly frustrating: “People don’t understand why they can’t get a view.” To remedy the lack of access and maintain the security, his team’s proposal would rely on a system of bollards and “existing historic fences” to create sets of zones that can be secured. A new pedestrian plaza would appear where the southern end of the White House grounds meets the top of the Ellipse, the “pinch point” that causes so many problems now. E street would be open to pedestrian and bike traffic but the system of sallyports to check cars would remain in place.
Returning the tree canopy to its former glory seems to be a key element of his design approach. “We want to reconnect the president to the people by making the Ellipse people-friendly.” A central part of that effort is rebuilding the tree canopy depleted 15 years ago. This process would include diversifying the trees, restoring the soils, and capturing and using water on site. “The landscape needs to be built to last and built sustainably.” Overall, Hilderbrand said his firm’s proposal was an “urbanistic” one, which enables “promenading” and will help create a “diverse, strong, honorific, well-populated place.”
During Q&A, NCPC members zoomed in on the bollards. Harriet Tregoning, director of D.C.’s planning department, wondered if bollards are the way to go given there are new security measures that can be built into the landscape like granite benches or curves. Other NCPC members wondered how “procurable” the elements were if they needed to be replaced after a bomb attack.
Sasaki Associates: Alan Ward, FASLA, sees an opportunity to “reconnect the White House to the city and reconnect the Ellipse to the city” through a “simple and economical design.” Ward would move the sallyports up north and open up E street to pedestrians and bicyclists. On a new E street, only limited car traffic would still be allowed. A long narrow wall that also act as seating would provide a new security barrier along the northern end of the Ellipse, offering a “usable edge and security within the design.” In front of this bench-wall would be a “significant plaza space” in the center of E street, which would open up the park for visitors angling for photos. Additional seating areas on the side would enable pedestrians to stroll and relax, while a new cafe would also be added in one of the shaded, tree-covered side groves. Within the revamped E street zone there would be a separate bicycle lane driving through east to west.
For views, Ward proposed “subtle grading changes” to block views of parked cars along the southern ends. A stage for event space would also be created with a lawn with seating.
Tregoning wondered if a delineated bicycle lane was the best idea. She found the idea “hazardous” and called for a blended space where bicyclists and pedestrians would have to navigate more carefully, like a Dutch woonerf. Other NCPC members wondered about the “purposeful geometry of the paving” and whether it’s necessary to create pathways with different styles.
Hood Design Studio: Walter Hood, ASLA, recent winner of the National Design Award, thinks President’s Park South is a “hybrid landscape” because it “has to do many things for many people,” namely serve as a residence, public recreation site, and forum for democratic expression. It’s also a “palimpsest,” something that can be wiped clean and used again. In that vein, Hood proposed “moving forward towards a new future a new place” that would reference earlier designs by Andrew Jackson Downing but also feature “articulated urban spaces” and ha-ha walls to offer subtle security measures. Hood emphasized the need for “squares” at either end of E street along with “garden circuits” that would tie together the landscape and paths.
On the other side of the proposed ha-ha wall, which would separate car traffic from a new pedestrian plaza near the southern end of the White House grounds, would be an undulating granite bench. Near the benches, a set of 50 glowing, interior-lit bollards would represent each of the 50 states. “People could get their photo taken in front of their state.” Porous pavements would be made up of Potomac river stones, and create a bold visual presence around the fence of the White House grounds. The overall planting scheme would feature native plants and bioswales would be built on the park’s side panels. The goal is to create “something familiar yet quite different.”
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, recently completed a project to revamp the north side of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. As a result, he’s already got an experienced team in place that can do work on politically-sensitive, secure, historic landscapes. For President’s Park South, Van Valkenburgh prioritized the need to create “permanent and appropriate security infrastructure that clearly separates vehicles from pedestrians” and “creating a sense of one continuous landscape” featuring big new trees and low plantings. He said his firm would help restore the site to President Jefferson’s original vision of the landscape as a “garden” so that the entire White House landscape could be “seamlessly experienced as a romantic landscape.” He also believed his plan for adding lots of lush vegetation would help “diminish the visual impact of security.”
The Ellipse today is a “dispirted public public,” which he found “visually disconcerting.” The security constraints and the original structure of the site help to create the “pinch point” where the Ellipse meets the southern end of the White House grounds. Van Valkenburgh’s team would undertake a “very straightforward reconfiguration” reducing E street from four to two lanes and using walls and gates (not bollards) to separate pedestrians from cars safely. “Gates indicate passage and make clear which areas are restricted.” Pedestrians would be offered a range of paths along E street and through a new central pedestrian plaza, creating a mix of different visual experiences amid the gardens. Security would be hidden by low plantings in places. Because the budget is not being spent on major changes to the structure of E street or other infrastructure, more funds would be available to “move in big trees” around the Ellipse. The current landscape, which is just a “skeleton,” could be “wonderful quickly” and help “connect the President’s landscape to the people’s.”
Van Valkenburgh, who seems to have been through the ropes before with the Pennsylvania Avenue re-do, left some design elements open to discussion. He said that “the materiality is very sensitive” and he’s open to being “flexible.” This may be smart given he said First Lady Laura Bush didn’t like any of the pavements he chose for Pennsylvania Avenue, so these were all changed during that project’s design process.
On the overall process and next steps: the National Park Service led an inter-agency process that resulted in a “Comprehensive Design Plan for the White House and President’s Park,” which created a vision for updating this historic landscape. According to NCPC, the winning design will go on to “inform the development of alternatives” for the new park, which will then be completed through a larger process run by the National Park Service and the U.S. Secret Service. Any ideas from the five finalists’ proposals could be included. These final designs will be reviewed through a “federal and local review and approval process,” which also includes an environmental assessment, over the course of the year.
In some parts of the world, urban environments are being transformed into playscapes, sites for new creative expression, exercise, or games. Some of these new forms of interaction are amusing or exciting but also risky as well. Also, in some cases, these new ways of interacting with the built environment are outright illegal or at least frowned upon by local authorities.
As an example, take parkour, perhaps the most widespread of these new urban activities (see image above). Parkour, also known as “free running,” started in France and involves non-competitive running, climbing, and jumping through the urban landscape. A “traceur,” a practitioner of parkour, runs along a set route, navigating obstacles using his or her body. Participants can vault, swing, scale walls, and roll. Despite the obvious dangers like concussions or broken arms or legs, there’s now an official “Urban Freeflow” site with more than one million users and a magazine called “Jump.” Parkour also now has a rich history in pop culture. Watch “My Playground,” an introduction to a Danish film that explores how parkour is “changing the perception of urban space and how the space is changing the traceurs and freerunners.” Also, check out other videos on YouTube.
Perhaps more a flash in the pan than parkour, planking, or the “lying down game,” recently went viral worldwide, with The Wall Street Journalstepping in to track its development. Planking involves lying down in an unusual and often heavily populated location with arms pinned to your sides. To play, a photo must be taken and posted online. According to Wikipedia, to date, more than 315,000 images of plankers have been uploaded to Facebook and other sites. Two guys from northeast England claimed to have come up with the idea in 2007. The fad took off in the UK in 2010 and spread globally this year. Before attempting, it’s important to note that one Australian man just died trying to plank.
Another urban game to have popped-up and gone viral: urban golf, which is becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. and U.S. Urban golf courses are streets and neighborhoods. Wikipedia writes: “As in normal golf, many holes include hazards, but these are natural to an urban environment and are not bunkers (or sand traps), but street furniture and drains. Often many unexpected situations can arise from the environment such as dogs not kept on leashes tend to chase balls, players dropping clubs down drains, traffic, etc.” There are different sets of rules, but one group has tried to create a set of somewhat sensible ones, including playing away from people in less populated areas. In another example, Australian urban golfing apparently involves playing to the beach or pub. The player with the lowest strokes wins. Bonus points go to those who can pop a ball around a corner or bounce one off a tree “freestyle.” Helmets required for all unless tennis balls are being used.
Lastly, the least dangerous of these new urban forms of play, but perhaps the one with the most vivid artistic impact is “yarn bombing.” The New York Times recently reported on this form of “artistic vandalism,” which involves making street art out of yarn. “Yarn bombing takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape. Hydrants, lampposts, mailboxes, bicycles, cars — even objects as big as buses and bridges — have all been bombed in recent years, ever so softly and usually at night.” Seattle even has a “YarnCore collective,” called “Hardcore Chicks with Sharp Sticks.” Etsy gone bad. See a slideshow of “grandma graffiti,” and what this one Parisian yarn bomber did with cracks in the pavement (see image above).
Image credits: (1) Parkour / Live Journal, (2) Planking in Taiwan / Reuters, (3) Chicago Urban Golf tournament / Broken Bat. Flickr, (4) Yarn Bombing / Juliana Santacruz Herrera. Flickr.
Robert Campbell, architecture critic for The Boston Globe, argues that landscape architecture is no longer just about creating pretty gardens and preserving expanses of forests and rivers anymore, but about reclaiming abandoned urban spaces and transforming them into new public spaces. “Landscape architecture is changing fast. Landscape architects are invading the arenas once dominated by architects and city planners.”
More and more, landscape architects are asked to delve into the “wreckage of America’s industrial past,” which they are now treating as a new kind of landscape with its own set of opportunities. “They’re learning how to reclaim our abandoned waterfronts, collapsing mills, and polluted river systems, sites that are littered with detritus and usually sick with the toxic waste left behind by some failed industry.”
As an example, Campbell points to the 3.5-acre Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island, which has been transformed from an abandoned steel fabricating plant into a space for artists by Cambridge-based landscape architects Mark Klopfer, ASLA, and Kaki Martin, ASLA, partners in the firm Klopfer Martin Design Group. The site, which was owned by Providence Steel & Iron, was once used to create custom ornamental features for buildings. When the company went bust in 2001, the site was left to rot.
However, much like the High Line, the derelict site also had its own charms: “Many of the constructions were stained or rusting in ways that gave them a rich visual interest. Grass grew wild to knee height. Rabbits and birds were the inhabitants. The great gantry cranes that once traveled back and forth overhead, indoors and out, remained, but they were as motionless as monuments in a cemetery.”
When two investors purchased the lot for $1.2 million and hired Klopfer Martin Design Group to redesign the space, they wanted it to be kept as an “urban wild,” with its innate “grittiness” maintained. Klopfer and Martin told Campbell that the local community appreciated the site as it was but wanted it “put back to work.”
With a $600,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Klopfer and Martin started remediating the site, dealing with the toxic soils first. “The ground was polluted with lead from paint. The Klopfer team wanted to keep this toxic soil on the site rather than dump it in someone else’s backyard. Yet they also wanted to store rainfall on site, not let it run off uselessly into sewers. How do you safely store rain on a polluted site? The paradox was solved with an ingenious system of pervious paving, with earthen ‘moats’ to take up any overflow. Klopfer and Martin restored the gantry cranes, which now again roll overhead. They replanted some of the old grasses, leaving them uncut. Klopfer says he used grass to ‘re-colonize the site’’ after its period of being ignored.” Free pieces of steel sheets recycled from other construction sites were used as a “rough but elegant trim at the edges of the grass areas.”
The local community also came out in force to help create the new space. Some 192 volunteers came to help plant and they still provide maintenance services. “College kids arrive during vacations from as far away as Ohio and Kansas. They perform clean-up jobs, sometimes leaving college inscriptions as mementos on the window glass. If you hang out enough at the Steel Yard, you get to be called one of ‘the Yardies.’”
Artists now use the space to teach classes on steel and metal work, ceramics, jewelry making, blacksmithing, glasswork, and other areas. In fact, according to Campbell, any artist can rent space and equipment to work and teach there. There’s also a summer camp for kids. One program teaches teenagers how to weld and work with steel. There are public activities as well: “There’s been a wedding and a RISD alumni gathering. Due this summer are a techno music fest and a writer’s conference.” Now established as a non-profit corporation, the new Steel Yards earns funds from fees, rentals, and grants.
Even with the redesign, the site is still on the National Register of Historic Places. However, Campbell notes that the site is not preserved in some ideal past, but is alive, working again. “The Steel Yard is a steelyard again.”
Check out another project that reused an abandoned industrial site yet preserved its industrial character: Zhongshan Shipyard Park by Chinese landscape architect Yu Kongjian, International ASLA.
Also, see a few more stories about the increasingly important role of landscape architects in remaking cities. In Planetizen, Michael Mehaffy, an urban theorist, writes that landscape architects are now best positioned to lead in a number of areas crucial to creating successful, livable cities, which, in turn, are central to creating more sustainable forms of living. “After all, while architects have often been over-focused on object-buildings, it is landscape architects who have been the champions of the best figure-ground urbanism in the past – and they can be so again.” Gwen Webber in The Architect’s Newspaper covers similar territory: “Commissions that might have been won by architect-led teams just a few years ago are now going to landscape firms. And large-scale urban design competitions are going to landscape-led teams who demonstrate the capacity to design creatively with existing ecologies, such as the redevelopment of Seattle’s waterfront by Field Operations, or urban regeneration initiatives like Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which aims to reinvigorate Eero Saarinen’s iconic landmark through improved public areas by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).”