The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes


“The first wave of modernism was about beauty and sensuality, but the second wave may be about confrontation – confronting the mistakes of the past,” said Brad McKee, Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine, 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. McKee described the changes that have overcome American cities: the rise of global competition and the decline of large-scale manufacturing, the mass number of companies and people who fled industrial waterfronts, leaving toxic wastelands. “This is the industrial legacy designers confront.”

He added that toxic brownfield sites have proliferated over the years with devastating but often undiagnosed effects on families. The idea that human health and the built environment are linked has only been gaining steam in the past 10 years. But now at least, “obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression, anxiety can all be attributed to factors in the environment.” For McKee, the public is also now skeptical about “big ideas”, grand concepts imposed by policymakers and designers. Urban dwellers can see the damage these ideas can cause so the next waves of Modernism in cities may focus more on “places for people,” and integrating public health and ecological sustainability into design.

Some high-profile landscape architects described how they are tackling some of these challenges:

The Beauty of Derelict Landscapes

Julie Bargmann, ASLA, Founding Principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, said Modern architects and landscape architects thought of their starting point as a cleared site or site that was “not a site at all.” All the better to build their idealized forms on top of a blank slate. Now, thinking has changed: site matters. “Site specificity has become important for those not caught in formalism.” 

Bargmann grew up in New Jersey. “The turnpike was my landscape.” Industrial sites form a specific landscape, a landscape shaped by machines. These landscapes are the effects of the “ambitious imprint of labour” as represented by Diego Rivera’s murals of labourers, which exemplify the romance of industrial labour. Because of this, “we can’t clear these embedded histories.” They are important.

With Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Bargmann worked on River Rouge, helping Michigan understand that this industrial riverfront is actually a “cultural landscape, and not a landscape to be wiped clean.” Her team helped “add a layer with restraint, being respectful of the contradictions” in the site. Another well-known project is the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, which she transformed into a new corporate home for Urban Outfitters. The challenge: half of the site is still an active Navy base. Taking cues from the site’s rugged productive history, she said the site had to be “built like a motherf**cker.” Site elements, like the dramatic ship crainways, were unearthed and used to inform the new design, forming a new promenade. The “arabesque” pattern of the old railways helped create the paths. Within the water-filled crainway, she added ecological floating wetlands, spelling out the word “URBAN,” which she noted are viewable by planes flying overhead (see photo above). She stockpiled all debris piled up on the site, all the dug-up asphalt, and reused as pavers she lovingly named “Barney Rubble.” Then, she put “pink flowery trees over the tough stuff, just for fun.”

As many speakers described their early influences, Bargmann said she always admired Eva Hesse, and the post-minimalists. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, her teacher at Harvard Graduate School of Design, instilled in her a “passion for the specifics of a landscape.” She also talked about public artist Mel Chin and her work with him on making the problem of toxic soils more transparent. Chin is focused on raising awareness and funds to deal with the massive soil lead problems in New Orleans (see earlier post).

Lastly, Bargmann made a powerful case for the derelict “urban voids” that are a “byproduct of urbanization but are vital to contemporary culture.” She said these “left-over places,” the space abandoned near waterfronts and highways in cities, which are so often featured in Jim Jarmusch films, “can’t be designed with a capital D.” These “orphan, wild landscapes with no author or title” are valuable, as they represent growth and decay. She wondered if a new form of urban park could be created out of these places, basically leaving them as they are, but removing the toxicity.

A Rational, Systems Approach

James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, designer of the High Line, and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania revealed his influences and inspirations. Growing up in Manchester, an industrial city, “I had a tough environment.” The counter-culture was raging, with bands like The Smiths at center stage. It was a place where “you had to be tough to survive.” But now, as then, it was also a “city of fashion, art, music.” The industrial center was dramatically different from the North lake district Corner went on the weekends. There, he would “mess around in nature,” and was awed by the “weather-bound atmospherics” of the landscape. “It was a very strong pairing with the city, with the scale and weather.”

Corner fell into landscape architecture. “In the UK, there’s a matrix that tells you what to do.” He said he “didn’t know what he was getting into,” but three years of being at art and design school pushed me into “conceptual thinking, thinking outside the box.” His first project as an intern was with Richard Rogers & Partners, where he worked on the Royal Docks project, a huge urban redevelopment project. He said no one could orchestrate the entire scheme – each discipline was narrowly focused on their own concerns (see an earlier post on these ideas). The result was a project that had no public realm, no one was representing the “environmental, infrastructural point of view.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, he was blown over by Ian McHarg and his Design With Nature. Then, he began to understand that “landscape architects could play a stronger role at a bigger scale and could do regional scale work.” He learned how to nest local landscapes in urban ones and regional ones, a “layering approach.” Corner then became inspired by theories and models that didn’t just view layers analytically, but offered “projective layers” that came from “future programs.” The intelligence of these types of layers could form a “montage.” As an example, he pointed to Peter Eisenman’s work, which deals with “archeologies, not analytic layers or projective layers, but archeological layers – the thick matte network of spaces and milieu.” Other influences and inspirations included Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, a “fantastic vision,” and Robert Rauschenberg’s “flat-bed canvases,” which were important because they “didn’t represent anything, had no top or bottom; they were just paintings as work” (see image below). Rome, the city, also inspires him because its “fabric grew in an organic way. There was no big city put down.”

Corner then explored the idea of aggregate forms that can be “bottom up or top down, easily grown or replicated.” As an example, he pointed to beads of sweat on skin, arguing that the surface of skin is “biologically living, self-regulating. It’s a surface whose formal properties are limited by its process.” In the same way, a forest is “something that grows up out of small aggregates.” These aggregate forms can come together as different types of systems – some are “super pragmatic engineering monoliths,” while others are “inter-relational layers” that allow for blending and folding and new situations and programs. The big idea: form and process are inter-related, “intrinsically connected.” He added that this isn’t “a sidebar or conceptual; it’s a way to deal with problems.”

For example, FreshKills park, a project Corner has been working on for some time, is four square miles, a “massive project.” To deal with the massive scale of the project, Corner and his team “designed a process, a series of techniques” that can “self-evolve, emerge” to address the difficult ecological restoration challenges within the site. “Then, we make more places within it,” places that can bring people in. For the QianHai Water City, a new city for two million people Corner is designing outside of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, there are “five streams that serve as a big armature for organizing the site” (see image below). The only problem is that the water is highly polluted so the water is now “retained and processed” before it reaches the central bay. This is green infrastructure at a massive scale – central parks, which also provide aesthetic public spaces, become a key part of the city. Corner is also organizing a city grid with smaller blocks (the Chinese, he said, like mega-blocks), and a schematic for how new mixed-use buildings and density can be layered in over time. But, he said, the “landscape infrastructure is being built first.” Lastly, Corner also sees the High Line park in New York City as a big system. “We were concerned with the organization of systems. Of couse, we pay attention to places, detail, craft, but it’s really about how to build a system.”


Give People a Sense of Discovery

Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, Founding Partner and Director, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, grew up in Yakoma, Washington, where there are “some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” There, the “natural hues of the desert” were contrasted with the canals and water-intensive fruit orchard and agricultural landscapes. Her upbringing gave her a “love of water, channelized water.” Gustafson went to Versaille, France for landscape architecture school, where they “did teach me monumentality.” One of her early influences was “little known French landscape architect Jaques Sgard, who was a master at creating place.” He created contemporary, sculptural, playful spaces for leisure “but they weren’t defined by that.” Isamu Noguchi’s small scupture also inspired her because even within the small shapes, “your imagination soars.”

“I also work in layers,” Gustafson said, refering to Corner’s earlier presentation. She said over the years, more layers have been added for landscape architects to deal with. “Landscape architecture is becoming complex. Just providing the program is not enough. All the layers need to come together.” She added that where all these layers need to come together is in “urban parks, which are what is important.” She added that “it may sound boring but it’s not all about systems”: it’s all about public health and environmental sustainability. “Parks are key to urban sustainability.”

Gustafson introduced her own theoretical approach, “contemporary picturesque,” to describe what she’s trying to accomplish. She said contemporary picturesque landscapes are “places that pull you through the landscape. This is landscape as theatre, creative journey.” Within this are views, scales, principles and hierarchies. She made a point of saying that hierarchy is very important. For her, the forefather of the contemporary picturesque is Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of NYC’s Central Park). Nowadays, Gustafson added “nature is the program. Landscapes are becoming functional; they are cleaning things up.”

One of her new large-scale projects is the 130-acre Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee. “Over time, it had become a non-functional park.” There’s a beautiful lake, a replicated Parthenon, and places to go but now it’s filled with cars. “It’s totally stuck in the 1960s.” She said it was politically challenging to get the parking lots out but she managed to do this. Also, her team is creating a new plan for both formal and natural areas, a glass house winter garden, restaurants, and experimental gardens, along with a stormwater management plan. “Some spaces will be very intimate, natural, while others will be formal. It’s about creating a place to be in. Parks can’t just be one thing. Some like flowers and meadows,” while others want sports spaces. She added that “lawn will only be used for programs, for festivals.”

In Valencia, Spain, she’s managing a 125-acre urban redevelopment project (see earlier post). Train tracks are moving underground, freeing up an enormous amount of space. She said the challenge here was “how to create a park that feels like it is of that place.” She can’t “bring in a system from somewhere else.” Using the concept of a bowl, which is about “food, giving, growth,” she aims to connect multiple elements. She wants to create place there “that you want to go to.” There will be six bowls within the park, all providing different functions. Within, there will be “poles of attraction” drawing visitors through the park so there’s a “constant experience.”


Gustafson concluded that “it’s important to have systems but people need to have discovery.” Landscape architects need to “create what people need in cities, need to create poetry.”

Image credits: (1) Urban Outfitters Headquarters / Bloomberg News (2) Urban Outfitters Headquarters “Barney Rubble / D.I.R.T. Studio, (3) Untitled (formerly titled Collage with Horses) by Robert Rauschenberg / Wikipaintings, (4) Qianhai Water City / Field Operations. Shenzhen Daily News, (5) Centennial Park Master Plan / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, (6) Valencia Parque Central / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

2 thoughts on “The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes

  1. Keith Bowers, FASLA, PWS 12/02/2011 / 1:50 pm

    Healing urban landscapes is sorely needed and the projects/practices highlighted above are bring much needed attention to this issue. And doing it in an inspirational and educational way will pay huge dividends in the future. But we also can’t loose track of the fact that without sound science informing these projects, we are potentially missing huge opportunities. If we are really serious about healing urban landscapes, then we need to also give serious consideration to regenerating ecological processes (nutrient cycles, hydrologic cycles, trophic ((energy)) flows, etc.), restoring biological diversity (habitat, connectivity, invasive species management, etc.), eliminating toxic materials/emissions and empowering local people/communities. Let’s make sure we are doing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  2. Storm Cunnningham 11/02/2013 / 10:35 am

    I agree with Keith that far more attention needs to be paid to restoring ecological functions when revitalizing urban waterfronts.

    But sometimes the presence of multitudinous environmental stressors makes urban environments less than ideal locations for such investments of time, money, and effort.

    This is why comprehensive regional renewal efforts can be so valuable. The money generated by redeveloping an urban waterfront can be channeled into restoring an area of far greater potential ecological value, such as restoring a riparian farm to wetland.

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