The New Wave of Modern Landscapes

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, argued that Modern landscape architects no longer start projects with the idea of a site as blank slate, ready be transformed by an artist’s vision. Now, it’s about “complexity and transformation.” Landscape architects must now work with complex systems, including cultural and ecological systems, and have been transforming early modernist sites into more functional, people-friendly spaces that also enhance the natural environment.

Moving from small-scale residential and urban projects up through large-scale urban redevelopment projects, the conference sought to explore the “legacy of Modernism and how it drives landscapes types today,” and how “this generation of landscape architects are responding to sites with modern histories,” said Jane Amidon, ASLA, Professor and Director, Urban Landscape, Northeastern University, School of Architecture. For her, the demands of public health and new information and communication technologies, along with changing social morays, are changing how landscapes are created and used.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and Founder, of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, added that it was important that the conference, which is a follow-up to a 2008 conference in Chicago, was held at MoMA in New York City, where innovative parks projects are “propelling landscape architecture in this city and worldwide.”

The first panel dealt with how today’s landscape architects are transforming Modern residential landscapes:

Revitalizing Richard Neutra’s Kun 2 House

Lisa Gimmy, ASLA, Lisa Gimmy Landscape Architecture, explained how she created a new landscape for famed Modern architect Richard Neutra‘s Kun 2 house in Los Angeles. The building, created in 1950, has large windows with unobstructed views. However, oddly, vines were hung down blocking views, which she found “puzzling.” In addition, in 1997, a landslide lead to the failure of one slope, meaning work was needed to shore up the building, which is perched on a steep site.

“Neutra approaches every project from the landscape perspective,” said Gimmy. His more famous projects like the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs almost recede into the landscape. To preserve this effect here, Gimmy applied an elegant, modern, but also ecologically sound approach to ensure that the house was also safe from landslides. A “dry-stacked bolder wall” was created at the base of the house and the side of a re-graded driveway. At the base of the house, the rough granite borders and succulents, which Neutra used to great effect with his partner landscape architects, Lockwood de Forest and Ralph Stephens, were put in place to “contrast with the sleek building.” Korea grasses, rich and lush, look like waves lapping against the house (see image at top and below). An impact wall was put in that will be increasingly hidden as shrubs grow in. Gimmy’s work revitalizes the project while preserving Neutra’s unique Modern vision.

Bringing Ecological Science to Norman Jaffe’s Work

Christopher LaGuardia, ASLA, principal, LaGuardia Design, spoke about Modern architect Norman Jaffe, who designed contemporary residential beach houses in eastern Long Island that included evocative sculptural forms made of wood. An early proponent of using natural materials, he also explored passive design. His porfolio, LaGuardia said, was more varied than people realize, and included a synagogue in the Hamptons, which many architecture critics thought was his greatest work.

According to LaGuardia, Jaffe thought every building “did violence to the landscape” so he used the earth to bring down the scale of the home and make his homes “closer to the ground.” His sleek “barn forms,” which started his career, were the ones he also returned to later in his life.

In one restoration of a degraded landscape around a Jaffe home, LaGuardia quietly re-set the grade moving towards the house so it slightly rises. Meadow grasses “highlight the sculptural qualities of the gradings.” The use of a single native material – beach grassses – is elegant, in keeping with Jaffe’s use of simple forms and woods. In addition, LaGuardia actually created a pond from scratch to the building recede further into the landscape. All native plantings now surround a vital man-made ecosystem.

Renewing Philip Johnson’s Beck House

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, of Reed Hilderbrand said the Philip Johnson-designed Beck House in Dallas, Texas, was highly degraded, and the “latent spatial power of the trees” was largely invisible. An aging Mrs. Beck had abandoned the site for two decades. In 2002, the home was sold to a young family of four, who undertook the renewal process the site needed.

Hilderbrand said Johnson and Mrs. Beck got on famously. He “brought his theatricality to Dallas,” which Mrs. Beck loved. The Texas work of his period, which represents a sort of Texas – New York exchange, was a “significant departure from the international style and a move towards more figurative work.” A “faberge glamour” pervades the stairway within the home, but there’s also a “deliberate dettachment” in the procession of landscape views.

The recovery process was “disruptive and require the removal of dozens of trees,” including invader plants. The trees cleared actually helped the canopy, giving space for hearty trees to grow. “There was an amazingly tough crop of trees to work with.” A whole new “drainage regime” was created, addressing soil structure and moisture issues. It took three times for the biological reserve created on the sites’ river banks to take hold.

For the ecological recovery, Hilderbrand also had to get deeply involved in “Johnson’s spatial structure,” and “revive, transform, and tamper with Johnson’s procession of views.” The young family who purchased the site wanted to “make this domestic, but also an outdoor space for sculptural works.” Hilderbrand and his team redid the driveways, created a new garden passageway through one part of the house, and altered the stairs to the landing in the rear of the house. The “larger order to us” was the creek so new plinths were set in parallel to the water. He said the new work simply “added a layer on top of the existing work.” The site is now in a place of “active stewardship, and hopefully will be more enduring and beautiful.”

Learn more about this ASLA award winning project.

Also, learn more about some of the pioneers of American Modern landscape architecture through a recent book by Charles Birnbaum and Stephanie Foell: Shaping the American Landscape: New Profiles from the Pioneers of American Landscape Design Project.

Read the next post in this series on the conference: Rethinking Urban Renewal.

Image credits: (1-2) Kun 2 House, Los Angeles / Deniz Durmus, (3-4) Beck House / Alan Ward

One thought on “The New Wave of Modern Landscapes

  1. Lisa Gimmy 11/23/2011 / 12:37 pm

    Great summary, thank you. Please credit the photos of the Kun 2 Landscape to photographer Deniz Durmus.

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