Finally, Recognition for Harriet Pattison

Harriet Pattison, who just became a fellow of ASLA at age 87, is now finally being recognized for her many accomplishments as a landscape architect. Pattison — who fell in love with architect Louis Kahn at a young age and had a child with him, went on to work with famed Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley, formed her own firm, and then returned to work for Kahn and designed the landscape of the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City — tells her fascinating story in the newest 90-minute installment of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s Pioneers of American Landscape Design® Oral History Project. Just spending a few minutes with Pattison, you can’t help but be drawn in.

The documentary is broken up into bite-sized 2-3 minute pieces, organized into three chapters: her early, formative years; her design philosophy; and a selection of her projects. Each segment deftly weaves in original images, drawings, video footage, along with interviews with Pattison.

In the early biographical pieces, Pattison focuses on the positive in her life-changing relationship with Kahn, which is also explored in her son Nathaniel’s brilliant film, My Architect. The film reveals that Kahn essentially had three families that he all kept separate and hidden from each other. Instead of delving into the painful aspects of her relationship with him, she focuses on their shared “love of art, history, and even words.” She explains how Kahn approached the architectural design process, and how, later in his career, he increasingly saw buildings as not a stand-alone element, but only something to understood in relationship to their surrounding landscape.

After Nathaniel was born, it was “arranged by Kahn” that Pattison would go work with Kiley at his studio near Lake Champlain in Vermont. She wanted to become a landscape architect, but felt the only thing she brought to the table was a “good eye and sensibility” that Kahn recognized in her. There, she was immersed in the environment of a landscape architecture office. Kiley provided shelter while she worked as a draftswoman, also doing all sorts of odd jobs, including washing the floors. She called it a “wonderful place” to begin life as a landscape architect and for her son to grow up, “skating in the moonlight.”

Having already attended the drama program at Yale University, with classmate Paul Newman, Pattison decided to go back to school, getting a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with Ian McHarg, FASLA, Roberto Burle-Marx, M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and others. Upon graduation, she joined George Patton’s landscape architecture firm and then went to work for Kahn, where they designed the Modern masterpiece, the Kimbell Art Museum, along with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Working on her own, Pattison also accomplished much, creating a master plan for the 125-acre Hershey Company headquarters and designing numerous private residences, including one with architect Peter Bohlin.

The video that explains the design process that yielded the Kimbell Art Museum is particularly fascinating (see video at top). Pattison worked with landscape architect George Patton but was given “incredible leeway” to create the landscape, deciding on an elevated ground plane and a sunken building to create “different levels, facets, opportunities,” all of which allowed for “new vantage points.” She said that adding moving water, a central, unifying element of the Kimbell, was her idea. The long troughs “reflect the building’s wonderful canopies and bring light in.” The flowing water “relieves the atmosphere amid the heat of Texas.” Pattison, amazingly, designed all of this without having seen the site. She worked off photographs, maps, and drawings at her desk in Kahn’s studio for two years to envision this work of landscape architecture.

Sadly, the relationship created between the building and landscape, which she said Kahn saw as central to the work, has been severed by the architect Renzo Piano’s new pavilion. The original building was “enveloped by a canopy of trees.” As Pattison explains, “the land and building are inseparable; it’s a villa in the garden.” But with Piano’s addition, which mimics the tripartite organization of Kahn’s building, the dialogue between the building and landscape has been destroyed. “Piano’s addition diminishes Kahn’s masterpiece. The dialogue was supposed to be between building and landscape, not between building and another building.” Pattison acknowledges that Piano “thought he was being respectful,” but she wished he had seen the original 14-foot-long drawing Kahn’s studio had done that laid out the vision for the masterpiece.

Too often it sounds like Pattison had to create an “imaginary landscape,” given she wasn’t given the opportunity to travel and explore sites in person. But this may have perhaps only strengthened her impressive ability to envision new places and experiences and turn those ideas into reality. For the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the tip of Roosevelt Island in New York City, she projected herself both into Kahn’s concept — a room and a garden — and the site itself, having never traveled there.

The site was a “heap of nothing, a derelict place,” but it was also a “remarkable site that couldn’t fail to be noticed.” With the Williamsburg bridge and East River in the background, “it needed to be something strong.” To provide design direction, Kahn simply drew the Washington Monument on a piece of paper, noting that it’s 555 feet tall. This was the vision: a tall monument but laid flat, a horizontal monument that could be of equal power. Kahn sketched a triangular form that petered out into a blunt end — a garden, then a room.

Pattison said creating the mount, which leads you towards the final room at the end, was her idea. As visitors ascend a grand staircase to the mount, there are allees of trees, purposefully designed to be “orchard size,” flanking a vast lawn. In between the trees are paths that allow for promenading. Down below, at the waterfront, visitors can walk or bike.

The experience is meant to be processional, leading visitors to the final room, where instead of being confronted with Roosevelt, “you are on your own.” There, visitors face the river and they experience a place “full of questions and the future.”

Some 40 years after Kahn and Pattison designed Four Freedoms Park it was finally opened in 2013. Invited to the opening ceremony, Pattison felt a “great sense of human agreement, and a moment of grace and joy.” She was introduced to former President Bill Clinton, and as he was holding her hands and looking into her eyes, he seemed like a god who had finally recognized her. At that moment, she felt “resolved of any resentment and neglect” experienced over the years. She said: “I felt thrilled. Ah yes, it’s been done.”

Watch all the clips at TCLF’s web site and explore the other 12 oral histories in the Pioneers series.

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