Diana Balmori: “The Important Thing Is the Space”

In a talk at the National Building Museum, Spanish-born Diana Balmori, FASLA, a leading landscape designer famous for both her projects in Spain and the U.S., made the case for focusing on our shared landscapes, arguing that they are increasingly the “terrain for discussing our issues,” much more so than buildings. Her goal, actually, is to “diminish the importance of objects (buildings) in our landscapes” and make “primary the expression of our spaces.” Her team at Balmori Associates in New York City has created a laboratory focused on finding out which things have the greatest “primacy” within landscapes. “We’re still experimenting.”

The results of her experiments can be breathtaking. From creating a new city from scratch in South Korea to revitalizing left over transportation infrastructure or completely revamping a public plaza with a temporary garden installation, Balmori shows how landscape architects can use “ecological tools” and “artistic interventions” to create and remake spaces.

Balmori, who also teaches in Yale University’s School of Architecture and School of Forestry, said landscape architecture used to be one of the most important art forms. The landscape architect of Versailles was the “most esteemed” of the many artists working on that site. In the 19th century, the “sublime, beautiful” landscapes were shaped by painters, who were in turn shaped by what landscape architects were doing. However, by the late 19th century, “landscape architects were relegated to planting, shrubbing up an architect’s building.” Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back again? 

A Landscape Manifesto, Balmori’s book from a few years ago, outlines 25 points. Here, in her talk, she linked some of those ideas with projects she’s done.

We must put the city in nature, not just nature in the city.

To illustrate this idea, Balmori discussed Long Island (Green) City, an ambitious concept for Long Island City, NY, which offers a low-cost way to make an urban community more sustainable through the roll-out of acres and acres green roofs. She found that without even buying up land to turn into open space – really, just using rooftops, there were some 700 acres (a plot the size of Prospect Park) available out of some 1,200 acres to green.

As for projects, an actual green roof for Silvercup Studios was the “largest green roof project at its time” in New York City (see image at top). There, a mix of sedum and engineered systems were used to create a green roof that could be studied for its environmental benefits. Sensors were set up to capture data on how the new roof was storing stormwater, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and reducing air particulates. The data “exceeded our expectations.”

Landscape is not just a destination.

The linear park is a major “invention of the 21st century.” In New Haven, Balmori worked with a community group to transform 14-miles of an old rail line into not just a destination but a “connector, stretching out to the sides, with feet” into the communities that line it. She created a master plan outlining possible landscape projects over 50 years, while remaking four blocks of the Farmington Canal on Yale University’s campus. The space is now heavily used by the community.

We must create a new urban identity from the nature underlying cities.

Prairie Gateway, a suburban development Balmori designed in Minneapolis, created both a livable community and a system for “moving and storing water” utlizing the existing ecosystems. The system became a park that is always well-used and even now accomodates canoes. Importantly, the system Balmori stewarded “worked beautifully during a 100 year flood event we had soon after it was created.”

This project may be important because it shows that “you don’t need a whole city’s worth of infrastructure to deal with water.” Communities can just set aside an area. She called for preserving any open space though because once a community develops the space “it’s nearly impossible to get it back” to use for stormwater management.

Landscape bridges the line between ourselves and the river.

While little known in the U.S., Balmori was as central to the cultural rebirth of Bilbao as Frank Gehry was with his Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, which is the “Detroit of Spain,” took down its industrial waterfront, freeing up a “very valuable piece of land” along its riverfront, which would eventually be the site of the new museum. The city wanted all the transportation infrastructure – buses, trains, and a new subway – to meet in the central part of the city, and connect more closely with the river.

Balmori won an international competition for Abandobarra to create the master plan, particularly the open space component. Her team created a linear riverfront park, a green boulevard for the light rail line, a series of paths to bring residents down to the water, and a central park and pathway from the center of Bilbao to the waterfront. Over the past decade, she’s been designing and implementing the multiple parks in the master plan.

Landscape has leapt the fence to the city.

A new public administrative city is in the works in Daejeon, South Korea, showing how the landscape can guide the development of a city from scratch. The project is an effort to free up congestion in Seoul by moving the many government workers out to a new community. A total of 13 ministries are moving to the new development laid out by Balmori, which will include seven buildings set under a continuous roof, connecting all the buildings and employees in one grand project. Balmori wanted the buildings to be capped at six stories to create the sense that “government is accessible.” The prime minister moves in later this year, but this bold project won’t be fully completed until 2050.

Landscape is an art with multiple dimensions.

A winner of an urban gardens competition in Bilbao, Balmori was assigned a tough public plaza site to show what landscape, as an artform, can do to transform conventional spaces into something exciting. Given a 30 by 30 plot, Balmori decided to transform the dimensions into a garden that climbs the stairs. While the project was temporary, she believes these types of projects can have major impact on how we see the built environment.

Groundwork, Balmori’s recent book with architect Joel Sanders, focuses on how to break down the artificial divisions between landscape architecture and architecture. See a review.

Image credits: Balmori Associates.

One thought on “Diana Balmori: “The Important Thing Is the Space”

  1. Blake Tirado 04/20/2015 / 8:05 am

    Okay, the picture featuring the tram is in Strasbourg, France…. You should mention that, or not use that photo

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