In the summer of 2012, I arranged a time to meet Diana Balmori, FASLA, for an interview. Looking for her in the hotel lobby, I bumped into a figure wearing gigantic bright-red glasses, a tutu, and punk-rock sneakers. There she was smiling, equal parts incredibly inventive and generous.
Balmori, who passed away this week at age 84, was a passionate advocate for rethinking the status quo. Her 2011 book Groundwork with Joel Sanders, called on designers to “overcome the false dichotomy between architecture and landscape.” Rather than perceiving buildings as isolated objects floating in a natural landscape, designers can see buildings and landscapes as “linked interactive systems that heal the environment.”
In 1993, she published Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, which Edward O. Wilson called a “manual for improving a large part of the American environment.” Since then, the calls for re-envisioning our residential mono-cultural landscapes have only grown louder and more widespread.
Years of thinking about landscape and teaching at Yale University School of Architecture and Forestry culminated in her 2010 book, A Landscape Manifesto, which outlines 25 ambitious ideas. She presented these ideas to a packed crowd at the National Building Museum a few years ago. My favorite of them: “we must create a new urban identity from the nature underlying cities.”
Beyond her writing, Balmori also saw many important projects built. Married to architect Cesar Pelli, she was partner in charge of landscape architecture at his firm. She then struck out to create her own firm, Balmori Associates.
Spanish-born Balmori was perhaps as central to the rebirth of riverfront Bilbao as Frank Gehry was with his Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, which is the “Detroit of Spain,” took down its industrial waterfront, freeing up a valuable piece of land that 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 the district, Abandoibarra, 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 multiple parks in the master plan.
Her other major projects included a master plan for Sejong, a new city for the national government of South Korea; the master plan for the 9-mile-long Farmington Canal linear park, which cuts through Yale University’s campus in Connecticut; the Rebuild by Design landscape plan and design for Hoboken, New Jersey; and the realization of deceased land artist Robert Smithson’s vision, Floating Island Traveling Around Manhattan.
Of her projects, she said: “I think this sense of invention, of not knowing how my landscapes are going to be used is exciting. People use spaces in ways I hadn’t imagined. I love that.”
In addition to teaching at Yale and running her own firm, she served on the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and was a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Learn more about Balmori in this interview.
A memorial for her will be held in New York City in January 2017. All are welcome to attend. To receive an invitation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.