Rethinking Urban Renewal

Landscape architects were implicated in misguided urban renewal schemes, said Thaisa Way, PhD, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington at The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Before Jane Jacobs and the many urban activists she inspired put a stop to the most egregious errors, habitats and landscape were destroyed, leading to the mass alienation of urban residents. Renewal was a horror, but then again, “people love the view of the Coloseum” in Rome (which really was one of the original urban renewal projects). Way said in some cases we still may have to refrain from harsh judgements on big urban renewal projects  because “rarely are these projects all good or all bad.”

Now, with a broad public process, communities are renewing their cities, but this time remaking the urban image in their own form. “There are now broad, complex narratives.” One new approach is to “renew, not replace works of modernism” that still pervade most cities. Old urban renewal projects are now being re-intepreted by today’s dynamic, sustainability-minded landscape architects, creating very different projects in the process.

Raymond Jungles and Herzog + de Meuron Renew Miami

Raymond Jungles, FASLA, said he was “born as a Jungles in Nebraska.” As a kid, he was deeply inspired by nature. Trips to a Sequoia forest “made a huge impact.” Later, he discovered Luis Barragan in an architecture magazine in a doctor’s office. He was so enamoured with the work, he stole the magazine. Attending the landscape architecture program at the University of Florida, he was then awed by Roberto Burle Marx, who would later become his friend and mentor up until that great Brazilian landscape architect’s death.

Jungles relayed a set of inspirational ideas that have guided him: “Study nature, stay close to nature, it will never fail you” (Frank Lloyd Wright). “Always do what you say you are going to do” (his mother). Also, “do right, fear not.” For him, another inspiration is nature in Florida. Even in his urban, man-made projects, he tries to project this view of nature, adding that “gardens are for man, they are not natural, but should be complimentary to nature.”

In Miami, Jungles collaborated with Herzog + de Meuron on their 1111 Lincoln Road project, creating a new streetscape, plaza, and two lush interior courtyards inspired by Modern sidewalk designs planned but unrealized in Miami (see image at top and below). For his new streetscape, Jungles created combined platforms that serve as benches, house bioinfiltration and silva cell system to keep the islands of rich vegetation healthy, and feature plants from the Everglades, bringing native Floridian landscape back to the city.

He called the project “bringing back the mangroves.” He added that “kids love it” and he’s really happy about that.

Charles Renfro on the Role of Glass in Contemporary Urban Renewal  

Charles Renfro, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, largely veered away from Modern landscape architecture, instead talking about glass. He said it’s a material that has “transformed cities,” creating a “new level of engagement,” so perhaps we need to “rethink what glass is about.” He said glass can be used to frame a new relationship with the city, just as James Corner Field Operations and his firm have done to great effect in segments of the High Line park.

“Glass performs best when you least understand its presence,” said Renfro. In the case of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the absence of structural elements – just walls of glass – bring nature right into the house.

Unfortunately, he added, with post-modernism, “glass, minimalism, functionalism had fallen off the map.” Post-modernism grew up because many architects thought “architecture had lost its meaning.” Modern buildings were no longer embodied with meaning but dull and characterless.

Rem Koolhaas then brought a focus on “seeing,” making the process of seeing “layered and complex.” One of his preoccupations then became “looking at looking.” For Renfro, glass could become about “manipulation, turning things on its head.” As an example, in the High Line, glass holes in the girders provide views. The 10th avenue overlook turns the city into a theatre. Glass helps accomplish this.

In their revamp of Lincoln Center, Diller Scofidio + Renfro also used glass to try to “undo much of the damage” of that massive urban renewal project. In that case, “a thriving neighborhood was turned into a stark, unfriendly place.” The great modern architects who worked on Lincoln Center didn’t see the dense brownstone-filled streets as a neighborhood, merely a slum ready for a new concept. To remedy their errors, his firm “stripped the base from the buildings” of Alice Tully Hall, creating a new sense of “inside/outside” urban appeal. By blurring inside and out, he hopes they helped “correct urban wrongs.” One important piece of the project was the Illumination Lawn, a new slanted public green roof park on top of one of the area’s most pricey restaurants.

In contrast with the rave reviews of the new Alice Tully Hall and their work on the High Line park, The New York Times didn’t give the firm’s landscape work in Lincoln Center a positive review, arguing that famed Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley had done a better job with some of the original, challenging plaza spaces.

In addition, in a rare public rebuke from a conference organizer, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and Founder, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, found Renfro’s reference to the Lincoln Center lawns, which he said “were for all you landscape architects,” “offensive.” Birnbaum clearly wanted Renfro to focus on how architects and landscape architects work together on urban projects, and said “we need to stop playing the game” that pits different design fields against each other.

Elizabeth Meyer and Michael Van Valkenburgh Use Nature to Renew the Arch Grounds in St. Louis

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Principal, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, teamed up to discuss the St. Louis Arch grounds restoration and redesign project now underway. Van Valkenburgh beat out many firms to win that competition (see earlier interview).

Meyer said the public focus has always been on Eero Saarinen‘s great arch, with little attention paid to the important work of his key partner, Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, who designed the grounds. Perhaps this is because the grounds took so long to complete: While the design for the grounds were completed in 1965, the design wasn’t fully implemented until 1981.

Stepping back for a moment, Meyer said many urban renewal projects were “biophysical wastelands,” featuring compacted soils, low oxygen levels, heavy runoff, and other complex ecological problems. “Parks and gardens were grafted onto guilty urban renewal sites” but little there was little thought to the biotic health of the systems. She said the sustainable re-design effort is a challenge, because “remaking some of these original elements makes no sense.” Since the park was designed, concepts of environmental sustainability have dramatically changed. “Sustainable design would remove key aspects like lawns.” On the other side, there are those who argue for the preservation of all materials to ensure the integrity of the design.

As for the design, Kiley’s “matrix of abstracted woods” and allees, boscs, and groves were set within Saarinen’s curved forms and planes. Guided by Kiley’s design, Meyer (who is a consultant to Van Valkenburgh on this project) found that there were different spatial and natural types that could be defined. These in turn can be used to create “landscape maintenance zones.” She said this will help Van Valkenburgh and the team’s environmental consultants work in zones now, which is “easier than dealing with materiality.” The lessons from her research: the site has a “complex landscape matrix,” there can be a “working urban ecosystem,” and the project was a “historical collaboration” between a great architect and landscape architect.  

Van Valkenburgh said it’s an “extremely complicated project.” His team focused on the theme of nature, naturalism, and the woods. Exploring the site, they found that “the further you go from the Arch, the less the design follows Saarinen and Kiley’s original ideas.” So they focused in on the edges and how to “hotwire this Modern masterpiece into the city.” For Van Valkenburgh, it’s critical that visitors “experience the city as part of the grounds.”

The team will remove parking lots and create “at grade” connections to make pedestrian access a lot easier. New entry ways will deepen the connection between the city and park. While nothing can be done about the train tracks framing one edge of the site (which Saarinen failed to get the railroad companies to divert), walkable pathways cut underneath the train lines will move visitors into the park. Dishing “large meadows of land,” which were the “biomorphic preoccupations of the era,” will, of course, be preserved given how central they are to the overall design. Furthermore, the park will now meet “contemporary disabilities standards.”

The landscape, which will be remade with sustainable design best practices, will put and end to the “mow, blow, and go” approach used so often. The National Park Service is eager to apply more sustainable landscape maintenance approaches, asking for new ecological management approaches for the lawns and woods. To get rid of the algae, which is due to excessive runoff, Van Valkenburgh will separate the pond from the lawns, building in intermediary wetland systems and changing the chemical balance of the water bodies.

For Van Valkenburgh and many other landscape architects during the conference, many of these projects represent literal re-makings of their idols’ works. Early on, Van Valkenburgh was inspired by Kiley’s gardens, including the Miller Garden. He said Kiley represents a “controlling idea of nature, which is very different from how we dance with nature now.” When asked what happens when one of the trees in his carefully set grids die, Kiley responded that “that’s when the bosc gets good, when chance comes in, it becomes better.” Nowadays, as a result, Van Valkenburgh said, “we are more comfortable with things we can’t control.”

Read the next post in this series on the conference: The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes.

Image credits: (1-3) 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida / Raymond Jungles, (4) 10th Avenue Overlook, The High Line, NYC / Broccoli Designs, (5-6) St. Louis Arch Grounds Redesign / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates   

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