M. Paul Friedberg’s Journey of Ideas

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“I didn’t enter the landscape architecture profession in the normal way,” said M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, one of the most innovative, even “radical,” landscape architects, at a lecture at the National Building Museum. “I bypassed the traditional education. I came to it as a layperson. I have seen landscape architecture as a journey of ideas.” An interesting statement for a designer who is known for his bold, designed forms. But it turns out Friedberg thinks these forms “have no intrinsic value in themselves, it’s just about what they make us feel.” He has always been interested in the social side of design — how people use his spaces. As he explained, “everyone has a bit of a spectator and actor in them.” The key is to make spaces where these daily plays can be performed.

“Every morning I get up and look at my blank computer screen. I have no notion where ideas come from. I can’t wait to see what will manifest itself. I don’t go in with any preconceived notions.” Friedberg treats his creative process with such respect because he believes that “ideas have power, they can create beauty and content, and they can affect our lives.” The process of coming up with new ideas about how people will use spaces is “an endless and enjoyable process.”

Friedberg studied ornamental horticulture at Cornell University (because his dad made him). Moving to NYC in the late 1950s for a “romantic attachment,” he had no idea what landscape architecture was but heard that was a way to get a job. “Being uneducated, uninitiated, un-introduced to any profession was a great opportunity.” This is because a “massive redefinition of urban America” was about to happen in the early ’60s. That era was the “perfect platform for change.” After World War II, people had “lots of money, mobility with the car, free time. People had choice.” Manufacturing was leaving cities, and urban cores were transforming into service centers. Young people were moving into the cities because “they couldn’t take the passivity of the countryside.”

Having “no predispositions,” Friedberg took his slim portfolio, which featured a tennis court, around with him to potential employers. “They must have thought I had dementia,” he laughed. He was eventually hired over the phone, sight unseen, by a landscape architecture firm in Hartford, Connecticut. The best work around then was with the New York city housing authority, but there were many rules about getting gigs so he eventually partnered with an architect to bid and win some early social housing projects. That work tee-ed him up for his Riis Plaza project, where he really made his name. The project, which made it on to the cover of Time magazine in the mid-60s, was financed by the Astors’ foundation. Brooke Astor wanted to break the mold on public housing projects by creating spaces for the community. Financing this city housing authority project, she told the city the designers had to have total free reign to experiment.

Friedberg said prior to Riis plaza, social housing developments were characterized by their fences. “People living there were treated like criminals. They had to stay within their boundaries.” He treated his plaza as a “self-education project.” Fences were taken down in favor of a series of human-scale areas where both old and young could hang out.

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A new playground was created as a “whole environment,” not just “a set of swings.” He put benches near the playground so parents and caretakers could watch the kids playing, “creating an audience” for their antics. Play was transformed into an “interconnected series of events.”

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Looking back on the Riis playground, Friedberg said it was “static,” given “the most enjoyable environments for kids are the ones they can shape,” but it was a crucial learning experience for the landscape architect who basically invented play environments and went on to found one of the first play set companies. “There, I discovered that linkages to play are key. Going to play spaces is as important as being there.” For example, an igloo form was accessible via tunnels underneath, which were special for kids because they were their “own domain.” (Unfortunately, that igloo was later closed because older teens were using it for “trysts.” Riis plaza was eventually demolished).

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Following this project, Friedberg created the Central Park playground, another wondrous play environment, and, much later, a new play space on top of the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. He said the key lessons from that project was to “expand play beyond segregated areas” and to really incorporate play into all aspects of design. A hand rail is also a sound tube. Sundials are built into benches. Walls display the metric system. “There are tons of opportunities to teach through the environment.”

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Friedberg is also know for his urban park plazas, hybrid spaces that are both park and plaza. One well-known example is Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, which is still under threat — despite a recent lawsuit to prevent its destruction by Minneapolis city and the nearby symphony and the fact it just made it on to the National Register of Historic Places. “The city didn’t want a traditional European plaza,” so Friedberg created a “bowl, with the exterior lip of the bowl green space.” It’s both a park and plaza because the center pool of water was designed to be drainable. The space can then easily transform into a hard plaza space.

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In a similar way, Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., has bold forms, stair-step patterns that lead down to a central pool, with surrounding trees, but that central pool also becomes an ice-rink in the winter. A fountain hides the “Zamboni’s inner sanctum.” There are also underground changing rooms accessible via a pavilion. While Friedberg admitted that the park isn’t in great shape these days, it’s one of the more memorable spaces in D.C. (and hopefully someone will form that “Friends of Pershing Park” group and get the restoration going).

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Moving through other projects like Battery Park City Park, which was the first “urban plaza in New York City,” a fascinating canal project in Arizona, and a sculpture park and amphitheatre for the employees at Honeywell in Minneapolis, Friedberg came to his recent work at the Yards Park in Washington, D.C., which has gotten all-around great reviews. In fact, it kick-started a total transformation of a derelict area around D.C.’s Navy Yard. There, his firm “packed as many activities as we could” into four acres without “being chaotic.” The bridge that is one of the signature elements of the space is the result of a “collaboration with engineers.” Under the bridge, Friedberg symbolically brought the Anacostia River into the park, creating another vibrant watery play space in the process.

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Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine then ably drew Friedberg out with a set of questions about his life and career that show how many things have changed since the ’50s, but some issues remain. Asked why he started the landscape architecture program at City College in NYC and eventually ran it for 20 years, Friedberg said in the ’60s, the landscape architecture profession was “very white. There were a few Asians, no blacks.” At the time, ASLA wanted to boost diversity so they formed a committee focusing on the issue. Friedberg thought that the field lacked diversity because “there were no landscape architecture schools in major cities.” City College was basically a “free school” then, so he asked to start a program and got it through. Though he soon wondered, “Why would African Americans want to become landscape architects when they could become lawyers or doctors?” The program attracted some diverse students but mostly “second-degree women.” Friedberg ended up making it a dual-degree program. Now, landscape architecture is a profession that basically requires a “graduate degree,” so the issue perhaps remains the same. “Why would minorities do this — spend four years and then two years in a graduate degree program — only to make $30,000 when they graduate, when they could be a lawyer or doctor? We’re down there with social work. We’re at the bottom of the ladder.”

On all the controversy surrounding Peavey Plaza — whether it should stay or replaced with something new — Friedberg complained that “we don’t have a mechanism for determining the value of a landscape. We don’t have an intelligent mechanism.” The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which has done an “amazing job,” is one of the few groups that step in and defend Modern landscapes from the wrecking ball. If not them, “we’ve left it up to functionaries to make decisions.” Friedberg argued that he wasn’t being self-serving and just focusing on his legacy — “that’s the farthest thing from my mind” — but believes that “elements of Peavey have value.” These elements “serve as reference points. They have educational value. Students can see and observe how people use them. They are markers for the future, for progress.” Peavey Plaza isn’t “the greatest thing that ever happened,” but “new isn’t always better. Let’s save what’s left.” McKee added that the National Register of Historic Places has a “dismally low number of landscapes,” so it’s a major win that Peavey made it. Efforts by Friedberg and Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of TCLF, to prevent the destruction of the site through a lawsuit and presenting options for updating the design, continue.

On the future? Friedberg is worried about “our increasingly conservative culture.” The landscape architecture profession is “paying homage to marketability, sellability.” Landscape architects are “losing some of the values of the ’60s.” In the same vein, Friedberg said his Yards Park, which was financed with a $20 million grant by the District of Columbia and created a key amenity that spurred hundreds of millions in residential and commercial development, wasn’t an example of this. There, “the developer had a willingness to experiment with the economics of the space and improve use instead of income.” Still, he believes that “landscape has no intrinsic economic value. Its social value accrues over time.”

Technology is also something he’s really interested in, despite the fact that he “can barely use a cell phone.” Social media is “reconfiguring our relationships. No one talks anymore. It’s all text messages.” How to design for social interaction in public spaces in an era when park-goers are all sitting there with their iPhones or iPads is “the next big challenge.” Friedberg, wisely, said, “it will take more than one generation” of technology-enabled designers to find a solution. This progressive, open-minded designer says he wants to leave that one for the next generation.

Image credits: (1) M. Paul Friedberg / M. Paul Friedberg and Partners, (2) Riis Plaza / The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), (3-4) Riis Plaza / James Trainor, (5) Peavey Plaza / M. Paul Friedberg Partners, (6) Peavey Plaza / TCLF, (7-8) Pershing Square Park / TCLF, (9-10) Yards Park / Carol Joynter

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