Neighbors Group Pitches in on Caring for Washington Square Trees– The San Francisco Chronicle, 9/29/16
“Trees maintenance is technically the city’s responsibility, but Friends of Washington Square Park spent $10,000 in 2010 to prune and assess the canopy. Now, the group is working with the city’s Recreation and Park Department to update that assessment with HortScience, a horticulture consultant.”
Is City Ready to Fulfill Broken Pledge for ‘World-Class’ Park at Miami Marine Stadium?– The Miami Herald, 9/29/16
“Almost a year after the city of Miami hurriedly spent $18 million to accommodate the Miami International Boat Show at the historic Miami Marine Stadium’s vast parking lot, administrators said they will seek to hire a “world-class” design firm to develop a blueprint for a long-promised public “flex-park” at the site.”
Driving Sustainability Beyond the Building – USGBC, 2016 September-October
“Can landscape architecture help save the world? The way Christian Gabriel, the national design director for landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), describes the federal agency’s recent work in the field makes a compelling case for the affirmative.”
“There is no way of overcoming the visual boredom of big plans. It is built right into them because of the fact that big plans are the product of too few minds. If those minds are artful and caring, they can mitigate the visual boredom a bit; but at the best, only a bit. Genuine, rich diversity of the built environment is always the product of many, many different minds, and at its richest is also the product of different periods of time with their different aims and fashions. Diversity is a small scale phenomenon. It requires the collection of little plans” — Jane Jacobs, Can Big Plans Solve the Problem of Urban Renewal, 1981.
In Vital Little Plans, a new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s compelling arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people.
In essays and speeches that range from the 1940s — years before she became famous for TheDeath and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 — to 2004, just two years before her death, we learn how her thinking evolved and grew more ambitious, but was always rooted in what she learned from watching people interacting on the streets.
In 1958, a few years before she published Death and Life, she writes a thoughtful piece for Fortune magazine, contrasting her experience walking through the liveliest parts of cities with the deadening urban renewal projects to come, the projects she saw as killing organic, small-scale diversity through a homogenized, imported model. Early on, she identified the faults of those vast Modernist urban design projects: “They will be spacious, park-like, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. And each project will very much look like the next one.”
To fight these projects, she then called for urban citizens to empower themselves by thinking critically about cities and then making their thoughts heard and influence felt. “Planners and architects have a vital contribution to make, but the citizen has a more vital one. It is his city after all.” Citizens must go out and really study their city. “What is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.”
For Jacobs, walking, and later biking, were central to experiencing that attractive diversity of city life. As such, any transportation plans that undermined walkability, that downgraded the status of the pedestrian on the street in favor of cars, were anathema to her, as we would later see in her committed advocacy to stop New York City planner Robert Moses’ effort to put an expressway through her beloved Greenwich Village. Her writings in the 60s also made the case for architectural preservation, which she viewed as central to the aesthetic diversity that makes cities a visual adventure. For Jacobs, diversity in the built environment was not only an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.
After leading the assault against urban renewal for multiple decades, beginning in the 1980s, she began to write more ambitious, theoretical essays that explore the “ecology of cities.” For her, this was less about urban ecosystems, but the intricate dance of systems that drive innovation, that make cities the place to be not only for social and cultural life, but also make them critical economic drivers. “A natural ecosystem is defined as ‘composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.’ A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethnic processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.” She again relates the importance of diversity: “Both types of ecosystems — assuming they are not barren — require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihood in either kind of ecosystems, the greater its capacity for life.”
Her speech in 1984 on the need to enhance diversity through specific policies that support multiculturalism, which in turn supports innovation, is just as important today. Analyzing her adopted city — Toronto, Ontario, which she moved to in the early 70s — she says: “The Canadian ideal is expressed metaphorically as the mosaic, the idea being that each piece of the mosaic helps compose the overall picture, but each piece nevertheless has an identity of its own. As a city, Toronto, has worked hard and ingeniously to give substance to this concept.”
In the last years of her life, she became increasingly concerned about the future of urban development, about whether diversity, enabled by the many, many “vital small plans,” would win out or be trampled by the forces of gentrification, homogenization, and governmental centralization. In the Vincent Scully Prize lecture at the National Building Museum in 2000, she identified future threats to that diversity. For example, she saw that immigrant communities could no longer afford to take root in downtowns, thereby enriching cities from within, but often landed farther out in sprawled-out suburbs that limit their positive cultural and economic impacts.
She was also fearful of the World Bank and other international development agencies, along with national and metropolitan governments, that intervene in the intricate economic life of developing world cities by investing in major infrastructure projects that can wipe out diversity on the ground. She seems to equate the “comprehensive planning efforts” of the World Bank with Robert Moses. In a talk at the World Bank in 2002, she tells their leadership that it’s best to do no harm — and not invest at all — rather than inadvertently upset the dynamics of a balanced urban ecology. “The minute you begin to prescribe for cities’ infrastructure or programs comprehensively, you try to make one size fit all.”
To the end, she stayed true to what she knew: successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few.
Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed Military Medical Center, in Maryland.
In the middle of the vast medical and university campus, the Green Road takes patients, nurses, and staff down a zig-zaging path to a healing woodland garden, a beautiful 2-acre valley, which used to be a golf course, but now feels wild. The restored forest and stream are at the heart of the experience.
And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.
The landscape was designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA, and his students at the University of Maryland.
The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at TIIH. His vision was to bring back an ancient idea: using nature to heal. As Foote explained, four different teams of scientists — from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Tucson; Benson-Henry Institute of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and National Institute of Health Clinical Center, Pain, and Palliative Care Services — will undertake in-depth studies in the Green Road to “isolate where nature has the most effect.” Some $1.1 million in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $3.2 million project.
Walking down the path, one of the first things visitors notice are the massive logs strewn through the garden. At first, I thought their intention was ecological: to regenerate the soil and create habitat for small creatures. But, as Foote explained, the dead trees are also symbols of fallen soldiers. Often, soldiers experience PTSD because they have lost a close friend in battle. The logs are opportunities for those suffering with PTSD to remember those they’ve lost in a more gentle, natural way and connect death with the positive cycle of regeneration.
Throughout, the garden brings in elements that veterans, both with PTSD and without, identified were important to them. As Sullivan explained at the opening ceremony, design charrettes were conducted with 30 veterans to figure out how the natural beauty of the stream and forest could be enhanced to create a healing effect. “They wanted both a solitary place where they could get away and find solace nature, and a special place to meet others to commemorate those who had fallen, a place to get together with family and comrades.”
The landscape restoration was extensive. Invasive plants were removed and 58 new trees were planted, including river birch, pin oaks, and magnolias. Summersweet shrubs, which will bloom in summer, were planted in abundance. Still, the restored stream, done by Angler Environmental, is perhaps the major attraction. One bank was stabilized, trees were cut back, and the other eroding bank will be restored next.
Foote explained that “the Green Road features stone, water, trees, and animals. Through design, they are paired in new ways. We believe these paired natural systems can help heal PTSD.”
Foote looks to nature for solutions, perhaps because he has spent decades witnessing the failings of modern medicine to solve PTSD in wounded warriors. “We have been trying to heal people one organ at a time with pills and surgery.” But the problem is that PTSD “doesn’t respond to those treatments, so we need to try holistic approaches.”
That move towards holistic medicine — which the Greeks of ancient times and the Chinese of today still practice — has been a slog. “Our cultural obsession with technology means we underestimate holistic therapy.” Mainstream medical practitioners undervalue it, because, to date, it has been impossible to measure “whole body effects, mathematically.” They can only measure with confidence that this treatment or that pill yields results on this or that organ.
Foote sees the future in creating proof of the benefits of holistic approaches: a set of “whole body metrics” that could be used to test and measure the effect of these treatments for PTSD and other disorders. Foote wants to apply many technologies and approaches to forge these new metrics: genomics, which would look at which genes are turned on during PTSD and what can turn then off; artificial intelligence-based textual analysis of patients’ writings to categorize and diagnose their disorders; integrated biometrics of stress to measure physiological effects of suffering and also treatments; and big data analyses to find more accurate sub-groups for evaluation. Foote hopes the Green Road can help test these nascent “whole body metrics,” at least for the metrics and potential treatments related to exposure to nature. “I hope this becomes the national laboratory for studying how humans interact with nature.”
His plan is that a group of 50 veterans, some suffering from PTSD and some not, will be studied in the Green Road. Their physiological response to the place will be measured in detail. “We could ask a group to spend an hour in the Green Road on a scavenger hunt, and then the next day, they could do the same on the streets and we could measure the differences in their responses.”
While the Green Road is a major success, the only criticism is that it’s hidden behind buildings and parking lots, and there is no signage to explain how to get there. It’s a good 15 minute walk from the medical facilities. For patients, it’s a destination, not a place to simply wander into. Walter Reed will need to further promote to ensure it’s well-used by the people who need it. Asked whether Walter Reed will actually prescribe patient time there or conduct horiticultural therapy sessions there, Foote seemed a bit pessimistic, pointing to limited budgets. “We need $2 million, $5 million to do everything.” But he does see the Green Road hosting events and therapeutic exercises.
His grand vision for sometime in the near future is beautiful: sufferers of PTSD will wear a device like a Fitbit that would measure whole body responses and would let them know when they are getting stressed and alert them to go spend time in a park. A fascinating mix of ancient wisdom and new technologies.
Green Business Certification Inc.™ (GBCI) announces a new credential for landscape architects and sustainability professionals launching Oct. 1, 2016. The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®) Accredited Professional (AP) establishes a common framework to define the profession of sustainable landscape design and development and provides landscape professionals with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, expertise and commitment to the profession.
The SITES rating system is a comprehensive program for developing sustainable landscapes that aligns land development and management with innovative sustainable design. SITES defines what a sustainable site is and, ultimately, elevates the value of landscapes in the built environment.
“As LEED® has undeniably transformed the built environment, SITES has the power to transform land development and use to help reduce water demand and improve air quality and human health while also connecting people to nature,” said Mahesh Ramanujam, president, GBCI and chief operating officer, USGBC®.
“The introduction of the new SITES credential signifies the growing understanding that a sustainable built environment is not just what is inside the four walls of our homes or offices, but also includes a holistic approach to site selection and landscape development. The SITES AP will designate the leaders in sustainable landscape design and will be an important tool for professionals looking to grow their careers and impact the direction of land development and management.”
SITES provides a metrics-based approach to important concepts like ecosystem services and green infrastructure so that developers and owners can make informed decisions about their land use. Used by landscape architects, engineers, architects, developers, policy makers and others, SITES aims to transform the landscape development and management practices by enabling the creation of regenerative systems and fostering resiliency, ensuring future resource supply and helping mitigate climate change through careful land planning and development practices.
The rating system can be applied to development projects located on sites with or without buildings and draws on the experience gained from a two-year pilot program involving more than 100 projects. Today, 47 projects have achieved SITES certification under the pilot, including landscape projects at corporate headquarters, national and city parks, academic campuses and private homes.
SITES was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.
The first sponsored testing opportunity for the SITES AP exam will be held on Oct. 3, 2016, during the annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo at a testing center in Culver City, California. The exam is open to both Greenbuild attendees and those who are not attending the conference. Register for the SITES AP exam.
If one were to pen a history of landscape architecture, who would emerge as the central hero? Or would it be a person at all? Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, proposed collaboration as landscape’s protagonist in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Collaboration, according to Woltz, “is the only way to realize incredibly complex and layered projects.”
“We live in a society that wants chest-beating heroes,” Woltz said. But the practice of landscape architecture offers little room for excessive pride.
“Your project is only as good as the next tsunami, hurricane, or flood. Landscape straddles horticulture, civil engineering, culture, storm water management, and all these systems have to work together. It is a very humbling profession.”
For that reason, Nelson Byrd Woltz actively engages with experts from a number of fields – conservation biology, soil science, ornithology, cultural history, and archaeology, to name a few – as a means “to tell the story of the land.”
Richard Weller, ASLA and chair of the School of Design’s landscape architecture department, noted that the resulting design work is “intrinsically of its place, evidently beautiful, and poetic without lapsing into spectacle.” It marries ecological restoration with highly-composed and relevant designs. In other words, it has integrity.
Woltz prefers the word authenticity. He described authenticity not as a byproduct of a design, but rather the result of an intentional process on the part of the designer.
“We research events, traces, and artifacts of the specific place, then find ways through the design process to reveal and celebrate those narratives.” It just so happens that the history of a site serves as an inventory of rich design ideas.
Asked for a recent example of this pursuit of authenticity, Woltz offered his firm’s work on the daylighting of Cockrill Spring in Nashville’s Centennial Park.
“In early traveler’s letters there was repeated mention of returning to Nashville along the Natchez Trace and knowing you were home when you ‘drank the cold waters of Cockrill Spring’.” So Woltz and his team worked with archaeologists to locate and excavate the spring. They then designed a contemporary fountain that celebrates the water and tells the story of an important but relatively unknown early settler, Anne Cockrill. The spring now supplies much of the park’s irrigation.
Isn’t examining early maps and historic artifacts the natural thing to do when beginning a project? “In my opinion, it’s the responsible thing to do,” Woltz said. “We owe it to every site to look carefully at what was there before we showed up.”
One would think this method is perhaps less applicable on a site as developed as Manhattan. But Woltz received a laugh from the crowd when, presenting his firm’s recent work on the eastern Hudson Yards, he shared that his firm’s research began with the examination of maps of Manhattan island from 1609. This research clued them into the existence of several streams underneath the train yards. During early talks with the project’s civil engineer, Woltz asked, “How does all of the water underneath the site get out to the Hudson River?” “How,” the civil engineer responded, “did you know there’s water down there?”
Collaboration was an integral part of the Hudson Yards project from the beginning, Woltz said, as the project deals with enormous complexities in sewage, transportation, irrigation, and engineering systems. Initially, there was no one entity coordinating those elements. But Woltz emphasized that landscape architects can inhabit this coordination role, as his firm has done.
In concluding the survey of his firm’s work, Woltz touched on humility once again. “I’m showing you the successes,” Woltz said. “I would love to give a lecture on all the failed things we’ve tried.”
ASLA recently released its annual graduating student survey, which was completed by graduating students from 46 accredited undergraduate and graduate landscape architecture programs, up from 38 in 2015. A total of 329 students responded. The purpose of this survey is to gather information on post-graduation plans.
While the average age for undergraduates and graduates remained consistent with previous years, 24 and 29 respectively, and the male to female ratio also remained consistent, there was a considerable change in the race of respondents: just 66 percent indicated they are Caucasian, down from 68 percent in 2015 and 70 percent in 2014. The percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students remained unchanged at 20 percent. The number of Hispanic students decreased to 6 percent from 8 percent in 2015. For the first time since 2005, the number of African American students reached 3 percent, or the highest percentage in the survey’s 17-year history. Native American students remained consistent with previous years at just 1 percent.
Students enter graduate landscape architecture programs with diverse educational backgrounds. Those mentioned by two or more respondents include: architecture; art history; communications; environmental design and biology; environmental planning; environmental science; fine arts; geography; graphic design; horticulture; economics; landscape architecture; psychology; and urban planning.
For the second year, the survey asked respondents about how they were funding their education and any education-related debt. 69 percent of undergraduates indicated their parents or grandparents paid or contributed to their education. Graduate students indicated scholarships, federal loan programs, and family funding as the top funding sources. The average amount of debt carried by undergraduates increased slightly from $19,800 to $20,400 and rose from $36,600 to $40,600 for graduate students. The percentage of students with more than $20,000 or more in debt increased to 49 percent from 47 percent in 2015.
90 percent of respondents indicated they plan to seek employment in the profession, which is consistent with the previous two years, while the number of respondents planning on pursuing additional education remained consistent with last year at 5 percent. Of those looking for a job, 69 percent plan to seek employment in a private sector landscape architecture firm and 9 percent in the public sector. 84 percent intend to seek state licensure.
Respondents were asked to rank a variety of attributes, based on their importance to them in selecting job. The top two rated factors by respondents were geographic location and type of organization, which is consistent with previous years, and the third most important factor, indicated by respondents, is reputation of the organization.
Up from last year, 60 percent of respondents had been on one or more interviews during their final semester. Respondents expected starting salary decreased slightly to $46,400 from $46,600 in 2015. The number of respondents that had one or more job offers decreased to 47 percent from 50 percent in 2015. The average starting salary increase for the second year in a row is $43,600.
The number of respondents who have already started a job dropped slightly to 43 percent from 50 percent in 2015. Three-quarters of respondents who have accepted a job offer indicated the position is with their preferred type of employer, up from two-thirds in 2015.
On benefits: the percentage of respondents reporting that they will receive major medical insurance was up to 93 percent from 82 percent in 2015. The percentage of respondents who will receive 401K retirement benefits decreased to 67 percent from 72 percent in 2015. The percentage of respondents who have employers who pay their professional dues increased for the second year in a row to 29 percent. Other benefits provided by employers were continuing education stipend, Landscape Architecture Registration Board Exam (LARE) reimbursement, and bonuses.
And how did the survey respondents get hooked on landscape architecture? They were most likely to have first learned about the field from talking to a landscape architect or from reading about the field online or in a book, newspaper, or magazine. The number of respondents reporting that a landscape architect visited their school to talk about the profession was only 1 percent. However, 20 percent of all graduating students made at least one visit to an elementary, middle, or high school.
The winner of the Memorials for the Future competition, which was sponsored by the National Park Service, Van Alen Institute, and others, offers a depressing vision: a monument to our collective failure to stave off climate change. Climate Chronograph by Erik Jensen, Assoc. ASLA, and Rebecca Sunter, Assoc. ASLA, of Azimuth Land Craft envisions a living landscape in East Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. that slowly dies as water levels rise. The landscape is the canary in the coal mine. Here, the canary educates the public, slowly, over the decades, about what happens to our landscapes when carbon dioxide pollution warms the planet.
The designers are inspired by the Egyptian nilometer, which was “both a temple to the sacred indeterminacy of water and a meter for predicting seasonal flood potentials of the Nile River.” Only priests in ancient Egypt could use this sacred tool, because its forecasts were so critical. “The prosperity of the kingdom hinged upon a few cubits of river height: a mere 18 inches could mean the difference between famine, abundance, or disaster.”
Jensen and Sunter’s memorial would function as the nilometer of climate change. They see an opportunity to send their message, in landscape form, in East Potomac Park, where deferred maintenance has left the sea walls in near ruins. Millions are needed to rebuild them, but “funding and philosophical questions remain and no design or financing plans have been finalized.”
And instead of rebuilding, the space could just be opened up to climate change, becoming a “public record of rising sea levels, a living observatory for an emergent process. Nature will write our story, our choices, into the landscape as we face this most vulnerable moment.”
Their sad, brilliant idea subverts the iconic Washington, D.C. landscape — the jubilant groves of cherry trees. In their proposal, rows of them become soldiers, sent into a futile battle. “As waters rise, tides encroach on the land and the trees die in place, row by row, becoming bare-branched rampikes delineating shorelines past. With every fourth row of trees marking one foot of elevation, the composition becomes a processional tidal gauge—a record.”
Beyond the dying cherry trees, the rest of the memorial would help the public understand what it means to return to the tides. The memorial would cede control “to natural succession and decay.” Instead of beleaguered sea walls, the water edge would become a “fecund place for exploration, observation, and learning, sheltered cove for discovery and research of an emergent wetland ecosystem.”
They ask for $2.5 million to build this. Artful, educational, and ecological transition appears to be far cheaper than shoring up defenses.
Also worth exploring are some of the findings the National Park Service and Van Alen Institute pulled out of their Memorials for the Future process. A few great ideas: create memorials with the public as well as for the public; and consider ephemeral, mobile, and temporary forms.
A new online guide launched today by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) explains how communities can better protect themselves from natural disasters through resilient landscape planning and design.
According to the guide, the goal of resilient landscape planning and design is to retrofit communities to recover more quickly from extreme events, now and in the future. In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multilayered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often the more cost-effective and practical solutions.
The guide includes hundreds of case studies and resources demonstrating multi-benefit systems as well as small-scale solutions. It also explains landscape architects’ role in the planning and design teams helping to make communities more resilient.
Resilient design involves working with nature—instead of in opposition to it. It provides value to communities, including:
Risk reduction: As events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, communities must adapt and redevelop to reduce potential risks and improve ecological and human health. It’s also time to stop putting communities and infrastructure in high-risk places. And communities must reduce sprawl, which further exacerbates the risks.
Scalability and Diversity: Resilient landscape planning and design offers a multi-layered system of protection, with diverse, scalable elements, any one of which can fail safely in the event of a catastrophe.
Multiple Co-Benefits: Resilient landscape design solutions offers multiple benefits at once. For example, designed coastal buffers can also provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; urban forests made up of diverse species clean the air while reducing the urban heat island effect; and green infrastructure designed to control flooding also provides needed community space and creates jobs.
Regeneration: Disruptive natural events that are now occurring more frequently worldwide harm people and property. Resilient design helps communities come back stronger after these events. Long-term resilience is about continuously bouncing back and regenerating. It’s about learning how to cope with the ever-changing “new normal.”
In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multi-layered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often more cost-effective and practical solutions. In an age of rising waters and temperatures and diminishing budgets, the best defenses are adaptive, like nature.
The guide to resilient design has been strengthened through the expert guidance of Alexander Felson, ASLA, assistant professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale School of Architecture; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design, University of California at Berkeley; Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, graduate program director and associate professor, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning; Nate Wooten, Associate ASLA, landscape designer, OLIN; and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean, Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape and Turenscape.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a breathtaking new presence on the National Mall. Found just northeast of the Washington Monument, the museum, which opens September 24, makes accessible the almost-unimaginable journey of African Americans over the past few centuries: from the horrors of slavery, to the long fight for equality, and, finally, transcendence through spirituality, and extraordinary cultural and artistic achievements.
Over 100 years in the making, the museum cost $540 million, with half of those funds raised from over 100,000 contributors. And some 40,000 Americans contributed works that will be included in the museum’s permanent collection, explained museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III at the media preview.
The museum opens at an opportune time, when race relations are at a new low. As Bunch said, “race and cultural differences now dominate the national discourse. Racism is not a thing of the past. But we believe this museum can be a place that brings people together. This museum can help advance the conversation and be a beacon of what America can be.”
The building itself makes a richly symbolic statement. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, together with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, created a dramatic 200-feet-by-200-feet box, topped with a corona inspired by the “three-tiered crowns used in Yoruba art from West Africa,” where many African American slaves came from. The corona is covered in an “ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice” inspired by the ironwork created by American slaves for estates in New Orleans, Charleston, and other Southern cities.
The building is well-served by a thoughtful and somewhat understated landscape by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN). Designed by Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, and Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape treats the building as a pavilion in the broader landscape of the National Mall and aims for maximum circulation.
Walking the site with Abela, he explained how visitors can find African American themes of “resilience, spirituality, and hope” symbolically represented in the landscape. On the north side, visitors enter off Constitution Avenue, where they will see a black granite wall that provides the visual base of the site and doubles as a secure barrier. The granite wall is thick here — about 6-feet-wide — and is black to represent the canal water that once flowed through the site. Another possible interpretation of the material: African Americans’ labor is the foundation upon which was built the National Mall. Abela explained how Rugo Stone highly polished the edge of the granite so that it glimmers in the light, creating a horizon that underlines the building.
As you walk up the paths on the north side, you will find they are like arms extending out in an embrace. Where the arms meet in a central point, Abela highlighted, is the place where visitors can either decide to veer right and head to the Washington Monument, or veer left and enter the building’s north entrance.
Within this embrace, there’s an oculus, which shines a shaft of light into a “contemplative court” set in subterranean galleries that delve into the darkest times of slavery. “It’s a lantern, a welcoming and safe place.” As such, the landscape gently leads you up to the oculus on the surface.
And near the embrace, there is a symbolic reading grove, a place where a group of school kids or a few families could gather and talk about the experience about the museum. GGN designed this grove to mimic the “brush arbors,” the community gathering places, many early slave and African American communities would create, even before they had built a church.
Walking along the western edge of the building, there is a lawn and rows of trees, which are reflected in the building’s wall of windows. Abela said over 100 trees were planted, including elms, oaks, beeches, magnolias, gingkos, sassafras, and cherry trees. “The Smithsonian wanted as much diversity as possible.” In coming decades, those trees will grow to enshroud the building, softening its boldness. And throughout the lawns, some 400,000 crocuses were planted. One of the first plants to bloom, they represent hope for the future.
On the eastern edge of the building, there is a staircase leading down to the lower level, which is an emergency exit for the auditorium, a separate entry into a loading dock, and bicycle parking for staff.
The southern entrance of the park, right off the National Mall, is where the Smithsonian expects about 70 percent of visitors will enter. There is a grand porch, another reference to African American culture, with a striking overhang providing shade over a fountain, which wasn’t working for the media preview, but will bring another cooling aspect during D.C.’s sweltering summers.
Multiple paths invite visitors in from Madison Avenue. Once they pass through the gates, there is a sense of passing through a threshold into a new environment.
The southern edge of the park is richer with small plants and shrubs, which form a rain garden that mute the effect of the stark black granite walls.
A note on sustainability: More than half of the LEED Gold building is buried below ground, which means lower energy use. And below the structure, there are two large cisterns that collect rainwater that hits the building, so that it can be reused for irrigation.
Through the landscape architecture, Abela explained, “the story of African Americans are made part of the national story,” as represented by the expansive National Mall. “It’s a site that’s connected to the greater landscape beyond.”
“The social and spatial manifestations of power are directly relevant to the design and use of public space,” explained Tatum Hands, editor-in-chief of LA+, the University of Pennsylvania school of design’s interdisciplinary landscape architecture journal. Tyranny, the third issue of LA+, delves into the complex relationship between abuses of power and public spaces.
The issue devotes much of much of its first half to the split identity of spaces of tyranny. For example, public squares can benefit peace protestors and goose steppers, revolutions and counter-revolutions alike. Steve Basson, associate professor of architectural history and theory at Curtin University, exhumes the more disturbing historical uses of public squares in the opening essay, citing examples from Robespierre’s beheadings to Soviet oppression and Nazi torchlight parades.
Perhaps more sinister than tyranny facilitated by physical threat is tyranny facilitated by camera lenses. Pontifical Catholic University professor of urban management Rodrigo José Firmino explores the effect of the ubiquitous security camera and “see something, say something” posters on public spaces in his essay. In the security camera’s eye, movement arouses suspicion, José Firmino writes, and “must be controlled.” Military dominance has come to depend on these eyes on the ground, in the sky, and in your inbox. Buried in José Firmino’s essay is a question that perhaps deserves its own LA+ issue: Are landscape architects enabling or challenging this militarization of the globe?
In another essay, University of Pennsylvania lecturer Nicholas Pevzner documents landscape-based efforts at reconciliation in a country just 22 years removed from genocide. In that time, the Rwandan national government has instituted a tree planting week and monthly civic holiday in which all able-bodied persons contribute to civic improvements, such as wetland restoration and erosion control. The effect of these efforts has been to help develop a national identity that is “neither Tutsi nor Hutu, but simply Rwandan.” This essay raises other questions: What is the role of landscape in the aftermath of tyranny?
If landscape helps form national identity, then displacement abets its erosion. Nowhere would one expect to find this more than in refugee settlements, where residents are consigned to unfamiliar, informal living conditions. But what shines through in shelter and reconstruction professional Jim Kennedy’s essay is the resilience of the displaced. Kennedy offers the example of Dorniz Camp in Northern Iraq. The camp has sadly tripled in size from its initial population of 15,000 in 2013, but has also seen its residents replace tents with concrete and mortar, develop their plots of land, and install commercial structure. The work of residents has had unforeseen consequences, however, as economic stratification has emerged; concrete barriers installed by the “wealthy” divert water onto poorer plots. Political tyranny begets informal settlements begets economic tyranny.
Some of the issue’s essays require especially strong powers of association to discern their relationship to landscape and tyranny, but it’s worth the effort. Only by probing such fields as immigration and securitization are potentially significant relationships to landscape uncovered. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with bucking the tyranny of the journal topic.