Weiss/Manfredi: Chameleon Territory

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi think of themselves as designer-chameleons. Among the traits they share with that species, they claimed at a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design entitled “Evolutionary Infrastructure,” are the ability to change color and excellent peripheral vision. Both have served the practice of Weiss/Manfredi well in the uncertain and interdisciplinary environment of design today. Claiming the whole of the built environment as the territory of architecture, Weiss and Manfredi have a fair amount of blending-in to do as they traverse a “hybrid terrain” and bridge the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, infrastructure, and fine art. While such a varied terrain provides all sorts of challenges, for Marion Weiss, “it is in these intersections where the heart of design lies.”

No matter what color its skin, the chameleon is always a chameleon, and within their expanded field of pracitice, Weiss/Manfredi remain architects, with a vision of a larger territory for architecture, which “rather than simply occupying a site has the capacity to give shape to it.” The shapes their projects take are what link architecture and landscape. Weiss and Manfredi discussed a number of recent projects at a variety of scales which go far beyond an architectural object on a site, and are concerned instead with forging their own topography.

At the smaller scale of operation, they explore the concept of the path. A Visitor Center for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, currently under construction, mediates between the Olmstedian garden and its highly urban setting with a building that forms a path between the two, providing a space of “transition between the reality of the city and the magic of the garden.” As it leads visitors from the city to the interior system of paths, the building disappears into the garden. Similarly, the recently completed Campus Center at Smith College has as its spine a pathway that connects from a Main Street to the heart of the campus. The path defines the Center’s shape and is inscribed on the building in the long skylight that illuminates the gathering spaces inside.

Weiss/Manfredi has been very productive in academia and two other recent projects demonstrated how the architects have resolved conflicts at more complex sites. At Barnard College, the design of a student center became the opportunity to connect the public spaces of the campus and public thoroughfares of New York City on a difficult site, with a building once again serving as a pathway—now vertically—between Barnard’s two quads and Broadway. A Museum of the Earth at Cornell is part building, part landform, and part ecological process, as it accomodates parking and exhibition space on a steep site, which it manipulates to collect and treat stormwater and provide lake views. In both cases the solution is highly sectional. Weiss and Manfredi have clearly never met a steep site they didn’t love, even at larger and far more complex scales. The master plan for Taekwondo Park (see image at top), a much larger site in South Korea now under construction, uses a series of water terraces in a procession from a dramatic stadium up through a valley where landscape becomes more prominent, and a retreat. The landscape also has a symbolic dimension, with a series of bridges and oaths through the site alluding to the journey of taekwondo practice, a symbolic touch that is frequent—but subtle—in their work.

Weiss and Manfredi revisited their award-winning Seattle Art Museum, reinterpreting it as “a chameleon landform.” That project for a sculpture park bridging a highway and railroad tracks and descending to the water’s edge resolves art, architecture, infrastructure and ecology—even a salmon habitat and Richard Serra’s precise demands for the placement of his sculptures are folded into the site’s layers. That project fundamentally connects the city and nature.

That was also the goal of their complex and interesting proposal for the competition for the re-envisioning of St. Louis’s Gateway arch and park. The architects make room for human and ecological history and the natural ebb and flow of water and people. The park’s connection to overlooked East St. Louis across the Missisisippi River marks a new direction in their “evolutionary” thinking. The project’s treatment of water, accomodating the rise and fall of the erratic river speaks to the passage of time embodied in the Native American landforms across the river which are also integrated with the site. The passage of time and history has been alluded to by landforms and natural growth in the architects’ earlier projects, but the thoughtful and dynamic treatment of these themes points to how Weiss/Manfredi’s practice is evolving, too.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Image credits: (1) Taekwondo Park / Weiss/Manfredi, (2) Seattle Art Museum, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, WA, 2007 / Weiss/Manfredi. Photo: Ben Benschneider

One thought on “Weiss/Manfredi: Chameleon Territory

  1. Barlow 10/18/2011 / 4:41 pm

    Why an article about architects designing landscapes???

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