Smithsonian’s Ambitious South Mall Masterplan Clears Major Hurdle

Smithsonian South Mall campus / Smithsonian Institution

Today, a revamped master plan for the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus cleared one of the last remaining hurdles — approval by the Commission on Fine Arts. First released to the public four years ago, the original plan by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and landscape architecture firm Surface Design, among other firms, was criticized for eliminating the beloved Enid A. Haupt Garden in favor of a more contemporary landscape. After years of refining the plan with significant public input, a revitalized garden, which is the legacy of the great philanthropist and horticulturalist Enid A. Haupt, is back at the centerpiece of the quadrangle framed by the Castle, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Ripley Educational Center, National Museum of African Art Museum (NMAAM), and the Arts & Industries building.

Enid A. Haupt garden / Smithsonian Newsdesk

The updated master plan is smart: it proposes using a series of fully-accessible entrances to bring visitors down to a unified underground space that will seamlessly connect museums. This will also stop tourists and visitors from having to ascend and descend each time they want to visit a museum, going through security and checking bags over and over. The master plan will guide the 20-year-long $2 billion project.

Underground connectivity and infrastructure enhancements / Smithsonian Institution , BIG

Major updates made to the plan over the past four years:

The Castle acts a front door to the south mall campus, a portal into the more secluded quadrangle. According to Smithsonian Undersecretary Albert Horvath, more than 80 percent polled by the Smithsonian see the Castle as the central symbol of the museum and research system, so its enhancement as a hub is the first major project of the master plan.

BIG reduced the proposed excavation under the Castle by 50 percent, while still expanding the public space within the building and connecting it underground to the rest of the campus.

Underground connector / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

The 37-feet-tall Sackler and African Art Museum pavilions, which line Independence Avenue and hem in the south side of the quadrangle, will be removed in favor of smaller 26-foot glass pavilions at the north edge of the quadrangle. The pavilions were moved to the north end because “70 percent of the traffic” to the under-visited Sackler and NMAAM comes from the National Mall.

Entry pavilions for the Sackler Gallery and National Museum of African Art / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

In a presentation to the CFA, BIG project manager Aran Coakley said: “the Sackler and National Museum of African Art lack a presence on the National Mall. Moving the pavilions, so they can be seen from the Mall, will elevate their visibility.” Despite the criticism about the contemporary peeled-up glass pavilions found in early proposals, they make a re-appearance here, but in a more subdued form.

View of the Sackler Gallery Entry Pavilion from across Jefferson Avenue / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

The landscape is also poised for a major overhaul, but not for another decade. The Enid A. Haupt garden will be re-made because it rests on a green roof structure that needs to be rebuilt.

But perhaps more importantly, with the removal of the pavilions, the scale of the garden has changed and therefore the experience of the landscape needs to be re-considered.

As CFA Commissioner and landscape designer Liza Gilbert, ASLA, explained: “Everything has changed. The gardens are so much more open now with an expanded street presence.”

View of the landscape from Independence Avenue / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

Furthermore, given new skylights will stream light deep into the museums from the edge of green roof that holds up the Haupt garden, there is a new design opportunity to “show how this all works. Visitors will be able to see the landscape layers, so it’s important to make them apparent.”

Expanded skylights / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

Gilbert called for a rigorous “landscape investigation” along the lines of what has occurred with the campuses’ structures, in order to turn the current plan’s “notional ideas” into a design that enhances the intimate scale of the gardens, improves resilience and sustainability, and illuminates how landscape architecture works.

Other elements of the plan: a new entrance for the Freer Gallery on the west side of the museum; an integrated underground circuit for trucks delivering and picking up art works; a revitalized Hirshhorn building and landscape and new design for a new sunken sculpture garden and subterranean exhibition spaces on the north side of Jefferson Avenue; clearer surface connections between all the buildings and museums and down to the new Eco-District that will line L’Enfant Plaza; redesigned connections between galleries underground and reconfigured spaces for artworks; a fully-restored Arts & Industries building; expanded events and educational spaces in the Arts & Industries building and Castle; and, lastly, an expanded the Mary Livingston Ripley garden.

Next up for the Smithsonian: finalize the programmatic agreement, which concludes the Section 106 historic preservation consultation process, and discuss in one last public meeting. And in the early summer, take the final version of the master plan to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) once more.

The Desert Gardens of Steve Martino

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Desert Gardens of Steve Marino / Monacelli Press

The work of landscape architect Steve Martino, FASLA, derives its interest and relevance from a simple notion: the desert landscape should be celebrated, not ignored. This notion is expertly manifested in the 21 gardens featured in the new book Desert Gardens of Steve Martino, edited by Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, and photographed by Steve Gunther.

Gunther’s photographs give great insight into how a desert garden can not only be robust but even lush. It’s Martino’s brisk and charming introduction, however, that provides the book’s greatest insight into the catalogued projects.

Martino came to landscape by way of architecture, which he studied at Arizona State University in the 1960s. It was through this education that Martino says he experienced a set of epiphanies.

The first epiphany was that landscape was mostly eyewash. A client could spend tremendous amounts of money and achieve a sub-par result.

Another was: why weren’t all architects also landscape architects? It seemed irresponsible to leave the site design to someone else. Martino pursued this instinct, working for architectural firms on their site designs.

And, lastly — as for the native desert plants he was told to avoid using — Martino suspected they held more potential than expected.

This suspicion was confirmed by Ron Gass, a nursery-owner with an encyclopedic knowledge of native desert plants, whom Martino holds in great esteem. Martino, out of a job at one point during the 1970s, went to work at Gass’ nursery and learned as much as he could.

In the meantime, Martino marketed himself as a designer of “outdoor space,” a term many of the architects he interviewed with found unnerving. Much like the desert gardens Martino wished to promulgate, outdoor space seemed an oxymoron.

Martino persisted and received opportunities to expand the use of desert plants in his work, “connecting a project to the adjacent desert.” Their use did much more, Martino soon realized. They lent his projects an ecological intelligence and environmental stability that only proved more prescient in the following decades.

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Many of Martino’s projects reinforce the connection between the garden and their larger landscape context, like this example from Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

Martino’s work often juxtaposes desert vegetation with architectural structures, a relationship he describes as “weeds and walls.” One such example is the Palo Cristi garden, where the heavy influence of architect Luis Barragán, as requested by the garden’s owners, can be seen. The simple, clean lines of Martino’s walls frame and complement spindly, spiky plants that seem like colorful guests at a garden party. Sun is a design material that Martino deploys or limits in turn.

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The Barragán-inspired walls of Palo Crisit Garden / The Monacelli Press

Martino often plays up the space demanded by desert vegetation — the effect is to put certain specimens on display. And sculptural works are used to reinforce the character of these plants. In the Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona, steel rebar evoking woody desert plants crowns a fireplace.

Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

In other instances of Martino’s work, the hand of the designer is adroitly hidden behind a more naturalistic planting scheme. The Greene-Sterling Garden, also in Paradise Valley, Arizona, features desert trees that were allowed to grow to the ground, much the way they would grow in their natural habitat. This also did away with the need for understory plants.

When Martino started out, he had to argue for the incorporation of environmental intelligence such as this into his design work. The ensuing decades have proved Martino right.

Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice


The stories of loss and destruction that have emerged from extreme weather events and natural disasters illustrate the catastrophic damage that American families are dealing with today.

The numbers are staggering. Last summer, Hurricane Harvey alone caused an estimated 32,000 to lose their homes in the metropolitan Houston area and as many as 82 deaths. Damages are expected to cost between $70 and $108 billion.

Yet not all families suffer equally from these calamities. In Louisiana, those seeking affordable living spaces find them in lower elevations. Low-lying areas are seen as less desirable and, therefore, less expensive. A prime example is New Orleans, which is almost entirely below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005, the lowest elevations received the most damage. And—no surprise—lower-income minorities lived there and saw the most damage.

Cities like Seattle and Atlanta are becoming more popular places to live, and the price of living there continues to increase. Poorer families, by necessity, get pushed to the outskirts of such cities — outskirts that happen to be located in vulnerable areas often close to industrial lands and cut off from the rest of the community. Physical barriers, which include highways and buildings, create a divide between the wealthier city areas and the poorer areas on the outskirts.

Smart urban design policies can help bring people together as one community—and protect their communities during times of calamity.

Relocating families to safer areas is one option. But it isn’t always the optimal choice. We must respect the deep and historic ties people have with their communities. Relocation would mean taking them away from their established homes.

One of the best solutions is rebuilding neighborhoods through sustainable design. We can use landscape architecture and creative urban design to adapt vulnerable areas to the natural habitat and changing climate conditions.

A great example are the 100 houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These homes were built by the nonprofit Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by Katrina due to its geographic location. Through innovative, resilient design, families were able to return to live in safe housing in their already established communities.

Make It Right Foundation home / MusicforGood.tv

Areas not redeveloped for housing can be turned into parks or natural areas that also protect against natural disasters. To make either of these changes happen, communities need to call on their legislators and members of Congress. They can work with landscape architects to turn these locations into a bridge to bring together wealthy and low-income residents. This kind of unification will help us create a sustainable population.

Over the long term, something called “transactive design thinking” needs to take place—when citizen scientists, or community members who know the area the best, work with lawmakers to get an outcome that is appealing to everyone. Lawmakers must enact laws to create more sustainable areas. To come full circle, citizen scientists must be receptive to these changes and provide feedback to ensure their voice is being heard. They and their fellow community members must also agree with the reconstruction of their green spaces in order for it to be successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project to rebuild and transform land damaged during Hurricane Katrina and never restored. I worked with the Sankofa Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a local nonproject, to build the Sankofa Wetland Park.

Sankofa Wetland Trail and Nature Park / Sankofa CDC

SCDC founder Rashida Ferdinand, who is committed to creating an environmentally sustainable community, received a grant from New Orleans to transform two acres of a deteriorated natural area in the Lower Ninth Ward into an educational assimilated wetland park. This site provides the area with many environmental benefits, including restoring habitat for plants and animals as well as cleaning stormwater runoff. In time, we hope that the city sees the benefits of creating this wetland and will allow Ferdinand to expand her project into the intended full 40 acres of vacant land.

As the landscape architect, I visited the proposed site as the first step of our project. A citizen scientist from the neighborhood accompanied me–John Taylor, who has lived in the area his entire life. He not only helped me navigate through the land, but also showed me an underground water channel that I would have never known existed had he not been there.

This is a prime example of why landscape architects need to work with the local residents, who share their extensive knowledge of the area. Their voices ensure we build and rebuild in a way that’s not only right from an environmental and social equity perspective, but that’s also respectful of longstanding local communities.

Natural disasters may be increasing in frequency, but it’s not the number of disasters we should worry about. Instead we should focus on how each disaster continues to get more costly. Families are facing life-changing disasters and despite contrary belief, there are actions we can take to mitigate some of the damages that they face. We must call on policy makers, landscape architects, and communities that are affected the most to enact change.

To this end, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a jump start on making these changes a reality. In the first quarter of 2018, the panel will release comprehensive public policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat social injustices that occur when natural disasters hit. These recommendations are just the first step with many more to go. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This guest post is by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who has 30-plus years of experience in professional practice focusing on land planning and varied scales of open space and park design, including community development work. Jones Allen is currently the program director for landscape architecture at the college of architecture planning and public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. She participated in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience held September 21-22, 2017.

Landscape Architecture in the Next Highlights (April 1 – 15)

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ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas / Thomas McConnell Photography

More Cities Are Banishing Highways Underground — And Building Parks on Top Stateline, 4/2/18
Cities looking to boost their downtowns, or to improve downtrodden neighborhoods, are creating ‘highway cap parks’ on decks constructed over freeways that cut through the urban center.“

Pittsburgh ‘Cap’ Park Plans to Honor Neighborhood History Next City, 4/3/18
“A new park in Pittsburgh will attempt to reconnect the Hill District to downtown, while striving to honor the past and future of this historically black neighborhood.”

Don’t Just Rebuild the Collapsed Pedestrian Bridge in Miami City Lab, 4/4/18
“It’s been three weeks since a pedestrian bridge that had been billed as an engineering feat collapsed over a busy Southwest Eighth Street in a Miami suburb, killing six motorists.”

Preservation-Minded Renovation of Halprin’s Freeway Park Moves Forward The Architect’s Newspaper, 4/10/18
“Even as SOM bulldozes Lawrence Halprin‘s Los Angeles atrium (the only atrium he ever designed), officials 1,000 miles to the north are gearing up to preserve Freeway Park, the eminent landscape architect’s highway-capping park in Seattle.”

Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Why It Should be Easier to be GreenWallpaper, 4/12/18
An early proponent of rewilding, community consultation, pedestrian-friendly accessibility and creative playgrounds for children, her projects span the globe from the Canadian embassy in Berlin, to The New York Times building, and Erickson’s Robson Square and Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.”

Point Cloud Models Uncloak the Hidden

According to Christophe Girot, point clouds instill panic in politicians and architects. They reveal and expose a city from all vantages, enabling one to move behind, around, and through the whole spectrum of the built environment. The backsides of buildings, a filthy alleyway, a secret roof garden—all are equal opportunity to the virtual visitor. Though this technology has been available for ten years, the only city whose entirety exists as a point-cloud model is Zürich, Switzerland. And why is that? “It’s not the cost or the big data,” says Girot, “but the fear of being unveiled.”

Girot, who is professor and chair of landscape architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), spoke at the college of environmental design at University of California at Berkeley on large-scale landscape design and modelling, investigating topological methods, and experimenting with new media.

The potential of his point-cloud modelling has been written about; this new vein of visualization is one which Girot is known for advancing. Though Girot did discuss the technology in his work, at this talk, he set point cloud models in the context of siting, clearing, and planting—components of the process inherent to landscape design, which centered his talk on the particularities of a site.

At the ETH, Girot and his team have garnered attention for point-cloud modelling of projects at the territorial scale. The technology is also relevant at the human scale, owing to the level of detail that it elucidates.

A precise engineering technology that is now used for modelling, the point-cloud model creates a depiction of the site by congregating billions of pixel points, all of which carry position information gleaned by drones, Lidar, and 3D-scanning.

As a viewer moves through the model, the minute points slowly push by you in a way that is less like you’re walking through the space than like you have become the camera floating through it, seemingly any detail available for close observation.

By sharing an abundance of information, the models evoke what it is like to be in a place. In spite of appearances, Girot asserts these models counter the “tech-y,” “plan-y,” and mapping-focused vein that dominates contemporary landscape architecture by bringing focus to the site.

For instance, Girot shared a series of garden models from Kyoto, which were created to illuminate the aural, visual, and textural qualities of each site (see video above and image below).

Sampling Kyoto Gardens / Christophe Girot

Interestingly, Girot calls the models “still-lifes.” This telling moniker illustrates what Girot wants the viewer to cull from the scene: the emphasis on detail, the attention to the haptic, and the ability to know the infinite variations of texture.

Beyond the capacities of the still-life—and equally important to Girot—is the model’s ability to disclose the place’s ambient sound. All of these details accumulate to a highly accurate version of the site’s sensory experience.

There are implications for the designer in point-cloud modelling: The information captured in a half-days’ worth of 3D-scanning can yield an infinite number of drawings and simulations that explain the site. “This is a mode of empowerment,” he said.

The exposure of so much detail can offer clarity, and can also uncloak the hidden—that which is concealed intentionally or not. And while he remarked that he did not want to mention politics, his insinuations about the power of this technology were made clear.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

For a New Cultural District, the Detroit Institute of Arts Seeks “Exceptional Design Flair”

Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) / Wikipedia

The Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) and Midtown Detroit Inc have launched a design competition to find a landscape architecture firm with “exceptional design flair” to create a new “DIA plaza,” which can better connect DIA with nearby institutions and form the basis for a coherent, accessible cultural district. Back from the brink of nearly having to sell its art holdings to pay off Detroit’s debtors, the DIA aims to remake its four-acre front plaza and grounds as a destination in themselves, perhaps like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s iconic grand staircase and fountains. They also want the designers to forge greater neighborhood connections through urban and landscape design, so visitors are encouraged to explore.

The current landscape around the museum doesn’t help the DIA achieve its goals. According to the design competition organizers, “The Wall Street Journal hailed the DIA as ‘the world’s most visitor-friendly museum’ in 2015. However, despite the success inside the museum, visitor experiences on the exterior spaces that surround the museum tell a different story. Potential visitors have described the exterior and grounds as ‘impermeable’ and ‘standing separate from our community.'”

Furthermore, there is a lack of connection with nearby institutions, which seem near in the map below, but Detroit’s blocks are very big. Educational and cultural institutions adjacent to the DIA include: the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Public Library, the Michigan Science Center, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.

Area to be considered in the design competition / Midtown Cultural Connections

The design team will be asked to create a “strong and innovative design vision that re-imagines the DIA’s grounds, making them highly visible, welcoming, flexible, and functional to support year-round outdoor programming.” Then, the team will be asked to extend this vision beyond the DIA through district-wide improved pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, way finding, public art, and parking.

Area to be considered in the design competition / Midtown Cultural Connections

The jury includes Salvador Salort-Pons, president of the DIA; landscape architect Julia Bargmann, ASLA, founder of D.I.R.T. Studio; and Maurice Cox, urban planning director for Detroit.

The competition will occur in three stages. Register by April 30, 2018.

In other Detroit landscape architecture news: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) just won a competition organized by Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to revamp the 22-acre Detroit West Riverfront Park, which is comparable in size to Maggie Daley Park in Chicago or Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. Award-winning architect David Adjaye joins the MVVA’s team. The conservancy’s goal is revitalize 5.5 miles of riverfront in Detroit. To date, some 80 percent of a three-mile segment is complete.

West Riverfront Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA)

MVVA’s models and renderings for the $50 million park will be on display in Detroit over the coming weeks. One model will be found in the Prentis Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts through May 6 and another will be found in the Wintergarden at the GM Renaissance Center through May 10.

In Madrid, a Green Circle in a Square

To mark the 400th anniversary of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, which was built during the reign of Phillip III, urban artist SpY temporarily transformed this hard urban place into a turf-covered green space. Over four days, some 100,000 Spaniards and tourists came to sit and chat on the circular lawn, simply named Cesped or Grass.

Cesped / SpY

According to Design Boom, the circle spans some 3,500 square meters, with a diameter of 70 meters. It’s a surprising new form for a space once used by Spanish Inquisitors to torture and execute heretics.

Cesped / SpY

SpY has done other intriguing projects using urban nature as a canvas. Grow in Besançon, France, involved pruning climbing vines into a circle. For SpY, these works demonstrate “an artist’s route through urban space.”

Grow / SpY

And SpY also playfully subverts security infrastructure. In another inventive project, Labyrinth in Ordes, Spain, the artist turned the steel barricades now-ubiquitous in cities into a fun puzzle. A parking lot temporarily became a maze kids can enjoy.

Labyrinth / SpY
Labyrinth / SpY

Ordinary materials plus design equals big impact.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16 – 31)

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Russell Square designed by Humphrey Repton in 1810 / The Guardian

What Does a Presidential Building Look Like? Curbed, 3/22/18
“On February 27, former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the sixth public presentation on the plans for his presidential center in the city’s Jackson Park, currently under city and federal review for its impact on the historic landscape and environment.”

Flood Control District Exploring Plan to Build Massive Tunnels to Carry Away Stormwater The Houston Chronicle, 3/23/18
“The Harris County Flood Control District is exploring the possibility of building massive, underground tunnels to carry flood waters from several Houston-area bayous toward the Houston Ship Channel.”

More Density, Less Parking and ‘Freyplexes’: What Minneapolis’ Comprehensive Plan Update Says About the City MinnPost, 3/23/18
“After one element of a proposed update of Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan led to an unscripted, hair-on-fire introduction to the public, city officials are looking for less drama with the official roll out of the plan.”

New Master Plan Aims to Re-Imagine How San Diego Plans, Builds, Uses Its Parks The San Diego Union-Tribune, 3/25/18
“San Diego has launched a three-year effort to update the city’s parks master plan for the first time since the 1940s.”

How Visionary Designer Humphry Repton Created the Glorious Squares of LondonThe Guardian, 3/25/18
“Exhibition celebrates the bicentenary of the ‘great improver’ who brought a taste of country life to the city.”

Women’s Safety Must Be Part of Transportation Planning Next City, 3/27/18
“A woman traveling, whether walking on the street or using public transportation faces a near-constant threat of sexual violence — harassment, assault, or rape.”