Superkilen: Global Mash-up of a Park

The nearly mile-long Superkilen park in Denmark is a bold attempt to create a new identity for an “ethnically diverse and socially challenged” neighborhood in Copenhagen, Denmark. An in-depth community outreach process organized by the city has led to a place like no other, with a sequence of plazas that honor different ethnics groups living in the area. Designed by Bjarke Ingels’ firm, BIG, landscape architecture firm, Topotek 1, and artists’ group, Superflex, the massive project also accomplished a lot with a little budget: at just $34 per square foot, the landscape “packs a lot of bang for the buck.” The project, which has recently been all over the design press, also just took home the AIA Institute Honor Award for urban and regional design and an annual design award from Architect Magazine in the “play” category.

The AIA jury, which included Ellen Dunham Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, Mark Shapiro, Mithun, and Tom Luebke, U.S. Fine Arts Commission, wrote: “This is not only original, but stunning to behold. It is noteworthy for its aesthetic approach, which is straightforwardly artificial rather than pretending to be natural. One of the project’s most exciting dimensions is its inclusion of the diverse community of users. Its bold use of color and public art in spaces that promote social interaction and engagement all exude a high level of excitement and energy through what once looked like residual space. Superkilen shows what can be done with an open, inventive approach within severe cost limitations. It demonstrates the value of powerful visual and spatial moves while keeping connected to the realities of a contemporary multicultural context: the condition of many European cities.”


AIA writes that the design of Superkilen was driven by two over-arching ideas: “First, that the park would become a vehicle for celebrating the neighborhood’s multicultural heritage, and, second, that it would serve as a giant exhibition of urban best practice.” Beyond this, the park would also work for the neighborhood, with new trails for pedestrians and bikers, local transportation connections, outdoor recreation areas and playgrounds, and space for markets.

Three zones provide both hard plazas and green areas: the red square, the black market, and the green park, which serves as a “giant exhibition of urban best practice,” writes AIA. Urban best practices are defined as a “global collection of found objects” that come from the groups represented in the residential areas surrounding the park, some 60 nationalities. Arch Daily says these objects range from “exercise gear from muscle beach L.A. to sewage drains from Israel, to palm trees from China and neon signs from Qatar and Russia.” All the urban objects are identified by small stainless plates.

The objects, they write, are a “sort of surrealist collection of global urban diversity that in fact reflects the true nature of the local neighborhood – rather than perpetuating a petrified image of homogenous Denmark.”

Local diversity is also represented in the landscape architecture that frames all the unique objects. “Superkilen re-attributes motifs from garden history. In the garden, the trans-location of an ideal, the reproduction of another place, such as a far off landscape, is a common theme through time. As the Chinese reference the mountain ranges with the miniature rocks, the Japanese the ocean with their rippled gravel, or how the Greek ruins are showcased as replicas in the English gardens. Superkilen is a contemporary, urban version of a universal garden.”

Apparently BIG and team started with three different colored zones as their starting point, but ended up expanding the green section due to community demand. “The desire for more nature is met through a significant increase of vegetation and plants throughout the whole neighborhood.” Nature is found in “small islands of diverse tree,” sorted by color, type, and bloom period. The origins of the plants also match those of the found objects nearby.

To extend the sports and cultural activities at the Norrebrohall outward, a new Red Square, which looks a bit fascist or playful depending on your mood, was created. “A range of recreational offers and the large central square allows the local residents to meet each other through physical activity and games.” A large section of the square is covered in “multifunctional rubber” to enable ball games, parades, and farmer’s markets.

Also included is an outdoor fitness area that is also a global mix-up, with Thai boxing equipment; a playground that includes a slide from Chernobyl,  Iraqi swings, and Indian climbing playground; a sound system from Jamaica; and benches from Brazil, Iran, and Switzerland. Of course, the trees in the neighborhood all bloom red, too.

Mimers Plads, the black component of Superkilen, offers the main gathering spot. This is “where the locals meet around the Moroccan fountain, the Turkish bench, and under Japanese Cherry trees.” There are tables, benches, and tables for backgammon, chess, BBQing, and hanging out. Humorously, there’s a big dentist’s sign from Qatar, “Brazilian bar chairs under the Chinese palm trees, a Japanese octopus playground next to the long row of Bulgarian picnic tables and Argentinean BBQ’s.”


Lastly, there’s the Green Park, where everyone can speak the language of games. There, BIG and team built a hockey field with an integrated basketball court but surrounded these spaces in green. “The activities of the Green Park with its soft hills and surfaces appeals to children, young people, and families.”

The neighbors has asked for more green so BIG and team ended up making the green park completely green, “not only by keeping and exaggerating the curvy landscape, but also painting all bike- and pedestrian paths green.” Monochromatic landscape in three colors.


See more photos of this global mash-up of a landscape.

Image credits: (1) copyright Iwan Baan, (2) copyright Torben Eskerod, (3) copyright Jens Lindhe, (4-7) Iwan Baan, (8) Torben Eskerod, (9-10) Iwan Baan, (11) copyright Mike Magnussen

In the Shadow of Farrand

“By exploring the history of designers, we find out who we are as designers,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, at a conference on Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. For Van Valkenburgh, who is well-known for his ecological and contemporary campus, park, and residential projects, “standing in the shoes of Farrand and trying to figure out what decisions she would make in new circumstances is both a responsibility and a great pleasure.” He did just that in restoring and expanding upon Farrand’s original landscape architecture at Princeton University.

To understand Farrand’s work at Princeton, he dug into old photos, seeking out “anecdotal photographs of historical precedents.” He found that Farrand, a consulting designer at Princeton, organized the campus around ecology. Partnering with Ralph Adams Cram, the architect of Princeton University’s old stone campus, she created “passages through sequences of courtyard spaces.” Within the courtyards, she orchestrated a “close relationship between building and planting; there was a taut ground plane, no thickets.” Farrand said her goal was to “adapt one’s self to nature’s way.” She was a “lady intolerant of discords and “evoked effects that were subdued.”

Farrand took on a real “trial and error approach,” trying out plants and trees here and there. While “sexist” critics of her day would view this approach as “ding-batty,” Van Valkenburgh said her way was spot-on. She had a way of “going over things again and again.” Through trial and error, Farrand also perfected her “signature practice: training shrubs on building facades.”

She emphasized seasonality. By testing things out, she also sought to understand what a landscape looked like in “autumn, winter, and spring.” She was “big on palettes.” An early trend-setter, she showed a distinct preference for native plants.

“She had a strong interest in the different maintenance capabilities of plants.” Farrand oversaw the creation of tree and plant nurseries on campus and “actively managed what was grown there.”  Van Valkenburgh said Farrand knew that “grounds people aren’t stupid. It really takes a gardener to raise a landscape.”

Working in Farrand’s shadow, Van Valkenburgh tried to figure out what she would do. Blair Walk, the central grand promenade through the campus, was in disrepair. His firm replaced the stone walkway and used “new old plantings,” an act of preservation, which also involved “restarting elements of the design.”

Because the university wanted to widen the walk in some places due to heavier foot traffic, Van Valkenburgh, in his sensitive historical approach, simply kept the original path width, but tacked on permeable pavements at the edges. “She would have gone for this because she was into stormwater management.”

In another project, he pushed the woodlands into the campus. Because the campus had expanded to such a degree – “Farrand would have been shocked by its size” – his team wanted to recreate the original campus’ woodland feel, which had disappeared with its later expansion. “We re-asserted the presence of the woodland at the edge of the campus,” in effect recreating Farrand’s original relationship between campus and environment. (Apparently, some alums didn’t really get this).

For another campus project, he created a subtle new bridge that weaves through nature. There, Van Valkenburgh said, his goal was to “preserve the beauty of the landscape.” Unveiling his design philosophy, he said landscape architects “have made a big mistake by trying to be modern. The beauty of a landscape is in its fragility. If you remove the fragility, you take out the beauty.” Farrand really understood this, and even went one step further, incorporating “irregularities into her designs as a complement to Cram’s buildings. There was a complementarity through contrast and distinction.”

Other speakers at Dumbarton Oaks spoke about Farrand’s legacy: Dennis Bracale, landscape architect and historian, discussed Farrand’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, an oriental garden in Bar Harbor, Maine, that is a mix of Western, Chinese, and Japanese landscapes. She had worked closely with the Rockefellers — who amassed an amazing collection of East Asian art that would later became the founding collection at the Asia Society — creating a garden that traced paths through priceless stone sculptures. The landscape design was based in Chinese spatial relationships and a Japanese appreciation for using found, natural materials. Mrs. Rockefeller had wanted a “spiritual retreat,” which she got. Farrand studied gates and wall designs from Beijing’s Forbidden City and replicated these designs to a tee. The garden, and its surrounding natural landscape made accessible via paths — which Bracale said also mirrors East Asian landscape patterns – was meant to evoke the maxim, “God is in nature.” So we understand yet another side of Farrand’s versatile practice.

Judith Tankard
, a landscape historian, then covered Farrand’s final years in Maine, where she created the Reef Point arboretum and amassed an amazing collection of plants and trees (and tens of thousands of books, which were later donated to U.C. Berkeley). At its prime, the arboretum had some 4,000 visitors a year, but Farrand complained that most visitors were tourists and not real lovers of plants. By the mid-1950s, Farrand realized the arboretum had no future, so she decided to “obliterate” this part of her life by destroying the buildings and landscape, as opposed to letting it fall apart through mismanagement. Forever the perfectionist, Farrand would destroy things that didn’t live up to her standards.

To learn more about Farrand and other women landscape architects in the early twentieth century, check out these books: Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes by Judith Tankard; Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century by Thaisa Way, ASLA; and Women in Landscape Architecture: Essays on History and Practice by Louise Mozingo, ASLA, and Linda Jewell, FASLA.

Image credits: (1) Princeton campus / DLand Studio, (2) Farrand facade / Princeton University, (3) Blair Walk / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (4) Woodland expansion / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (5) Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden / Fine Art America

Beatrix Farrand Gets a Fresh Look

One conclusion came out loud and clear from a day-long conference on Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.: Farrand was of one the most versatile landscape architects of her age and perhaps any age. A fresh review of her work by leading landscape architecture professors, graduate students, and practitioners unearthed fascinating aspects of this “perfectionist,” who was described as a scientific-minded experimenter, an early proponent of native plants, a leader in “pre-ecological design,” an expert in stormwater management, and a flexible and innovative designer who mastered numerous styles. Farrand, who designed hundreds of landscapes in her multi-decade career before her death in 1959, set the bar high for her successors, both female and male.

According to Thaisa Way, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington, Farrand, the only women among the 11 founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), is an important “transitional figure” in ecological design, occupying a central spot somewhere between the founder of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Ian McHarg, author of Design with Nature. Way said “ecological practices have always been a part of humans’ approach to the environment” yet some still think that “anything that came before McHarg was ‘unscientific.'” The designs of Farrand and other women landscape architects at the turn of the 20th century weren’t just “focused on aesthetics” but “offered important approaches that experimented with adoption and adaptation to ecological values.”

Ecology and Landscape Architecture

Ecology was becoming a cohesive profession around the same time of landscape architecture so there was lots of cross-pollination between the two fields in the early days. (Though, at times since, landscape architects have seemed at one with ecologists, and at other times, the two fields seemed to have diverged). Some of the early roots of landscape architecture were in gardening, botany, and planting design, which included studies of native plant groups and classification systems. But from the 1930s on, when “modernism and the suburbs reduced the value of native plants in favor of lawns and exotic plants,” a real knowledge of plants and native planting design fell out of favor, being viewed as “feminizing the profession.” Indeed, Way said one of McHarg’s goals with his rational, mechanical, scientific Design with Nature was to “dis-empower the scale of plants” (and the women landscape architects who worked with them), so that ecological design could become a large-scale process that could be applied just about anywhere.

Interestingly, though, those early “pre-ecological designers” weren’t all women. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the first, who used “naturalistic design” approaches for his Ramble in Central Park, and the Back Bay Fens, which also provided enormous stormwater management benefits to Boston. With the growth of the natural style came the “wild garden movement,” which “grouped plants and saw nature as a source of design.” Gertrude Jekyll, an English landscape designer, said “each country should use its own landscape.” Other women landscape architects in the U.S. also picked up on this concept, with Ellen Biddle Shipman planting her Tregaron with native plants, “creating a distinctly American style focusing on the visual composition of plants.”

Arnold Arboretum was one the first world-class plant science center in the U.S. There, both “the scientific and picturesque aspects of plants” were highlighted. “The design fit the land, not the other way around.” Charles Sargent, the first director of the center, was a leading botanist and later brought on Farrand as an apprentice. His approach was to “present the plant material correctly from a botanist’s point of view, but also to make the living collection pleasurable,” said Way.

This mixing of science and pleasure seemed to be a focus a generation of upper and upper-middle class “Lady Botanists” also took up. By the early 20th century, “half of all botanists in NY were women.” Way discussed a number of leading women botanists, garden designers, and landscape architects of that time, including Marian Cruger Coffin, who designed naturalistic landscapes and wrote books about horticulture. Other early leaders in presenting native plants beautifully in naturalistic designs were Martha Brooks Hutcheson, who sought to “introduce habitats in designed landscapes and expand the reach of native systems,” and Marjorie Sewell Cautley, who created “self-sustaining landscapes” in urban areas, with her Radburn development.

Farrand Applied Ecological Principles

Farrand, then, worked in an era buzzing with ideas about how to use native plants and “design with nature” — even if the terms used weren’t the same as the language in today’s sustainable or ecological design — and was a leader in applying some of these concepts. As Betsy Anderson, landscape historian and MLA candidate, University of Washington, described, Farrand “anticipated the role of science in landscape architecture” by her willingness to partner with scientists and experiment with ecological design principles.

In her early years, Farrand actually managed the riparian system at The Mount, the estate of her aunt, famed author Edith Wharton. There, she “established a high-performance landscape in stages.” She called for leaving leaves and plant waste, arguing that it was “nature’s way to create great soils.” As a consultant to her aunt, Farrand “reforested the landscape” at the Mount over the years, creating a dramatic woodland drive that featured plant ecologies designed to be viewed at different speeds. Farrand “examined ideal climatic and soil conditions for plant communities” and conducted expeditions to learn more. She would use her time there to “create a meticulous understanding of northeast New England ecology, which she would then apply elsewhere.”

At Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the naturalistic companion to the Italianate gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, she “studied the site from the ground up.” She created dams in spots, forming a new brook, which was used to “make a movement through the landscape” but also “manage stormwater.” There, “stormwater was deployed aesthetically and effectively.” By the new brook, Farrand also extended existing native plant communities so there was simply a continuation of the plant habitat.

Anderson said while McHarg was “seeking certainty in ecological design,” Farrand was “looking for patterns in nature” and emphasizing long-term maintenance. Her approach was scientific, but based in “experiment, not observational methodologies.” While some may dismiss her approach as simply part of that naturalistic style, Way added that “this wasn’t just a visual style, but about using native plants and collections of plants to transfer habitats. Farrand used aesthetics to portray natural processes.” Clearly, sustainability or sustainable design then “wasn’t born in 1981.”

And Designed for People

Patrick Chasse, ASLA, a landscape architect who has worked with landscapes designed by Farrand, told the story of Chiltern Estate in Bar Harbor, Maine. He said Farrand’s family had been coming to the area since she was a child and eventually built an estate there. Maine provided space for young Farrand to go out and learn about native plants. Later in life, after she had spent time at the Arnold Arboretum with Charles Sargent and set up her own practice in New York City, she came back to work on many of the big natural estates, including Edgar Scott’s Chiltern Estate.

There, Farrand managed 100 laborers herself, creating new gradings and plantings. She designed a “naturalistic water garden,” set within an organic shape some 265 feet long. “This was the first great non-formal garden in Bar Harbor,” said Chasse, but perhaps more importantly, it played a central role in the lives of the family who lived there. Plays were enacted in the gardens, creating memories that stayed with the Scott children for their whole lives. The house has been pulled down and the landscape no longer exists, but old plans and plant lists still retain historic value.

Farrand may have also experimented with “kinesthetic” or “physiological aesthetic” design, creating spaces people love to be in at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. According to Robin Veder, associate professor of humanities and art history / visual culture, Pennsylvania State University, Farrand used a “rhythmic design” approach that was rooted in the ideas she was exposed to by Wharton’s friend Vernon Lee, who wrote Lie of the Land and was an early theorist on kinesthetics. 

Kinesthetics is about understanding “bodily experience” that goes beyond the 5 senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell). It’s about “motion through 3-D space,” said Veder, the “muscular feel of movement” that unites all senses. While physical environments “don’t determine movement,” they do offer up opportunities for how people interact with spaces. A garden then is an “assembly of affordances” in which bodily movements are choreographed. “It’s the lay of the incurable land.”

Farrand seemed to have understood these theories, so she created “terraced garden rooms,” and choreographed the movement between the terraces through steps, making sure they would be comfortable and create a feeling of safety. There are now four terraces that create a “sequence of experiences,” with a middle section acting as an intermezzo before the busy rose garden. To avoid a “wearisome continuous climb,” Farrand almost obsessively analyzed tread patterns to determine the ideal shape and set of steps and breaks. “The same starting foot was used on ascending or descending,” which, Farrand figured out, meant that sets of steps needed to be all odd or even. Farrand ended up creating a “whole set of rules for stairs” to make sure the garden “paced the walker.”


Given her considerable time spent with Wharton and Vernon Lee around this time, it seems more than plausible that she was influenced by the ideas Lee and others were promoting, said Veder. These concepts were also out there: Early Landscape Architecture Magazine articles from the 1910s and 1920s examined the best proportion for stairs (and actually found that ramps were preferable to stairs). Others examined stairs and found that it was hard to design the universal stair given how the different heights and gaits of people. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. said that “people perform with their feet,” and if they don’t like the stairs, they will go up the side banks. In 1901, Harvard Graduate School of Design also taught its landscape architecture students about physiological aesthetics. Farrand, with her rhythmic design, may have been an early innovator in this field then, too.


Image credits: (1) Beatrix Farrand / Princeton University, (2) Dumbarton Oaks Park Brook / Dumbarton Oaks Park, (3) Dumbarton Oaks Park Brook / Flickr, (4) Dumbarton Oaks Park stairs / Flickr, (5) Dumbarton Oaks Park stairs / Elin’s Photo Blog.