Battles Ahead: Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign

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Proposed Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hirshhorn Museun

The conceptual design for a new Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, designed by photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, was recently approved by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), following an approval from the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in May. This comes amid concerns from The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) that the current design, which was created by landscape architect Lester Collins in 1981 to significantly modify the original 1974 design by architect Gordon Bunshaft, is a masterwork of Modernist landscape architecture and should be preserved. The organization included the garden, which displays some 60 sculptures, in its “landslide” list, which aims to raise awareness about threatened culturally significant landscapes.

There are three major components of the redesign: reorganizing the spaces of the garden to meet the need for more event space, reopening the underground tunnel that connected the garden and the museum under Jefferson Drive, and creating new stacked stone walls. The reorganization and stacked stone walls would greatly shift away from Collins’ design.

Sugimoto’s design breaks the garden into three distinct sections, which the CFA called “lawn, pool, and grove.” The West Garden, or lawn, and the pool will house new forms of sculpture and provide spaces for performance art, while the East Gallery, or grove, will showcase the museum’s existing collection of bronze sculptures.

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Major zones of the redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, thinks this will allow the museum to better accommodate the increasing scale of 21st century art and growing popularity of performance art.

The reflecting pool, which was in the original design for the site by architect Gordon Bunshaft, will be enlarged to accommodate a performance platform. The design team proposed four options for the pool. NCPC vice-commissioner Thomas Gallas preferred alternative option 1, which integrated the existing pool, at a depth of 6 inches, with a larger pool, at a depth of 3 inches, and the performance platform. NCPC also asked for an option that retained the original dimensions of the reflecting pool found in Bunshaft’s design. CFA had reservations about the new design of the pool as well, critiquing the “generic quality and functional limitations in creating a flexible performance space.”

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Alternative 1 for the pool’s redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Restructuring the garden with a reworked system of ramps will allow for greater accessibility for wheelchair users and families with strollers. In Collins’ redesign, the only accessible entrance from the National Mall is on the north side of the garden. A visitor needing the ramp entrance coming from the museum would have to go around to the other side of the garden.

The new plan creates a ramp system that starts from Jefferson Drive, greatly increasing the accessibility of the garden. The ramp system would snake around the West Gallery before providing access to the rest of the garden. Many NCPC commissioners thought that increasing accessibility was important.

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Sketch of new accessible route from North and South sides / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Reopening the tunnel running between the museum and the garden contains its own set of challenges. The passageway still exists, having been turned into ARTLAB+, a learning center for teens to engage with the latest technology. The tunnel was closed, in part, because it felt unsafe to visitors, who subsequently didn’t use it. The original opening into the plaza wasn’t large enough to light the length of the stairs.

The new design proposes enlarging the opening to the edge of the historic plaza stairs, an option NCPC commissioners thought was an appropriate balance to make the space feel safer and retain the historic character of the plaza. Based on solar angle studies, this would allow light to reach the bottom of the stairs and, when paired with a new stainless steel wall cladding, will brighten the length of the tunnel. Sugimoto based the shape of the wall cladding on a mathematical formula, a technique he has used before for sculptural work.

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Proposed entryway to connecting tunnel / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

The introduction of stacked stone walls received the most push back from the commissioners, although not for historical reasons. Sugimoto seeks to create a hierarchy of walls so that all of the proposed or reclad walls will be shorter than the existing exposed aggregate concrete walls. Almost all of these walls are meant to define rooms in which sculptures can be exhibited.

Commissioner Mina Wright felt that, although the new walls were successful in creating display rooms, they would be too busy and potentially distract from art work displayed in front of them. Vice-commissioner Gallas mirrored these concerns, although directed at the largest wall that would serve as a backdrop of the performances of the reflecting pool. He expressed concern that the wall was over sized and less successful at creating a room because it spanned across multiple sections of the redesigned garden.

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Rendering of stacked stone wall with bronze sculpture / Hiroshi Sugimoto

CFA also directed the design team to continue to study the stone stacked walls to ensure they acted as a backdrop for the work rather than a distraction. TCLF opposes the stacked stone walls because they believe they would diminish the legacy of Collins’ design.

The existing plan is subject to a Section 106 review, a stipulation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). Every federal agency has to assess the effects of proposed changes to historic resources. Furthermore, public values need to be considered when determining the historical significance of a project. In the case of the Sculpture Garden, this is complicated by a classification called the period of significance (POS), which for the Hirshhorn complex ends in 1974. The POS is set by the Smithsonian and determines the explicit time frame that should be considered for historical significance.

Gordon Bunshaft was the architect of the Hirshhorn building and the original designer of the Sculpture Garden, which was completed in 1974. The garden was entirely exposed aggregate concrete, making it miserably hot during the D.C. summer. The sunken garden was only accessible from a series of stairs, making it inaccessible to visitors in a wheelchair. Public backlash was harsh, and a redesign of the garden was committed to by 1976.

Bunshaft’s Sculpture Garden as built in 1974 / Smithsonian

Enter Lester Collins, who at this point was a well-known D.C.-based landscape architect. He worked with the character of the garden, incorporating plants and trees for shade as well as introducing a ramp from the North entrance, off of the National Mall, that was the beginning of an accessible route through the entire garden. As TCLF puts it, “the redesign aimed to afford every user a dignified arrival and a comparable spatial experience.” The space became enjoyable to spend time in, a place to contemplate art and the gardens relation to the larger museum. At the time of its unveiling in 1981, even Bunshaft felt the redesign was “sensitive and well-proportioned.”

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Collin’s 1981 redesign greatly increased green space in the garden / The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C. photo: OLIN

But the POS doesn’t extend to include this addition, only the original Bunshaft design. The Section 106 review only has to account for designs within the POS. The TCLF has two fights ahead of them, extending the POS set by the Smithsonian and then ensuring the new design doesn’t interfere with the cultural resources of Collins’ design.

Because of the limitations of the POS, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and by extension the Smithsonian, currently has every legal right to change the garden to better meet its perceived needs. Both NCPC and CFA found that the configuration of the garden has been subject to changes based on use and accessibility concerns throughout its lifetime. The proposed redesign is a new layer in its history. Neither commission took the Section 106 review as a limiting factor during the conceptual design phase of the review process.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of TCLF, who is a strong advocate for Collins’ original design, posits that “if the Smithsonian deems a work of landscape architecture that is part of its material collection culturally insignificant that sends a dangerous message about the worth of landscape architecture more broadly.” Others have joined TCLF in opposition to the redesign, including Docomomo DC, a group aimed at promoting Modernist works, and District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO), who were a part of deciding the POS time frame for the Hirshhorn.

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Current state of the sculpture garden / Smithsonian

Only the conceptual phase of the project has passed the CFA and NCPC, meaning there are at least two more rounds of approval with each commission. During the intervals of this meetings the Section 106 battle will continue, as only the first step out of four has occurred. The second consultation meeting for the Section 106 review is tentatively scheduled for July or August of this year.

All parties involved agree that something needs to be done to revitalize the garden, but the debate focuses on what and how much should be changed. The Hirshhorn museum currently holds the upper hand. But the debate is far from over and will only become fiercer the closer it comes to a close.

Rooftop Dunes Bring the Beach to the City

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Groenmarkt dune roof / Buro Harro

The beach is 15 miles from the center of Amsterdam, but a small piece of it will soon exist among the windy rooftops of the city. Buro Harro, a Dutch firm co-led by landscape architect Harro de Jong, in conjunction with Ronald Janssen Architecten and Bastiaan Jongerius Architecten, are building a dune roof on one building of the Groenmarkt complex. The team won the competition for the project in 2015 and construction is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

Groenmarkt (Green Market) was a fruit and vegetable market that occupied the block from 1898 to 1934. Today, the complex consists of a 35-unit apartment building, four private town homes, and a small urban square linking the buildings. The complex sits along the Singelgracht, a canal that once marked the outer limit of the city.

The design team transformed the notion of the green roof. Much of the development in Amsterdam is similar in height, approximately 14 meters (45 feet), which de Jong describes as a place where “the wind blows as in completely open landscapes.” The unique rooftop micro-climate inspired the team to draw from a similar windswept landscape that Dutch people enjoy, even during stormy weather: the beach.

The roof will be complete with sand, beach grass, and a salt water pool. De Jong believes “the sounds of Amsterdam in the background will be like the murmuring of the sea.”

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Saltwater pool situated within the dunes / Buro Harro

Accomplishing this feat is not as simple as it sounds. Beach ecosystems are fragile, with each layer of dunes playing a vital role. Dunes rely on colonizing species, usually grasses to help secure the top layer of sand from blowing away. Eventually layers of dunes develop, from primary, closest to the water’s edge, to tertiary. Tertiary dunes are more stable, because of decreased wind exposure, which allows more plant growth and even some small trees to grow within them. Buro Harro plans to use this kind of dune for the Groenmarkt roof.

In order to do this, the firm will transplant part of the dune onto the roof. They used this technique for Bartokpark, but now face the added difficulty of trying to move a dune on to the roof.

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Transplanted dune in Bartokpark / Buro Harro

Ultimately, the effect will be a fully-formed tertiary-like dune, with a variety of grasses and a few small trees to provide shade and further stability. The transplantation method provides an ecological base to work from, but the team will consult with ecologists to ensure the dunes are able to thrive.

Typical dune fencing will establish the boundary of the walking space on the roof, with walking paths keeping people off the grasses.

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Beach fencing seen from the pavilion / Buro Harro

Other elements of the project: trees will be introduced in the plaza, encouraging residents to use the plaza throughout the year.

Typically, residential blocks in Amsterdam are formal and flat on their public facade, while the interior courtyard is a collage of balconies and greenery.

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Typical block in Amsterdam / Photo by Liene Ratniece on Pexels.com

The team decided to invert this relationship so that, according to de Jong, “the outside of the building becomes very irregular and very green.”

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View of Groenmarkt from the Singelgracht / Buro Harro

The decision to turn the social space outward gives the project an identity from the river and improves connectivity with the plaza. De Jong also created pre-fabricated nesting spaces in the facade for bats and birds. Holes in the floor slabs allow vine growth.

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Vine structures spanning multiple floors / Buro Harro

Buro Harro has plans for other kinds of roof environment — for instance, orchards or wet landscapes that contain stornwater runoff. De Jong has found people will pay extra for integrated architecture and landscape. This allows his firm to “multiply landscapes through architecture,” creating spaces for both people and biodiversity.

Democratizing New Urbanism

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Building Local Strength / Congress for New Urbanism

New Urbanism has been around for nearly 30 years. The movement promotes the neighborhood as a livable unit, prioritizes walkability in communities, and seeks to end sprawling suburbs. With these goals, new urbanists have developed entirely new communities with multiple types of residences, shops, and cultural centers. Lots of money is needed to develop these projects, which often results in a high cost of living, fueling criticism that the movement is only able to serve the social and economic elite.

A new report, Building Local Strength: Emerging Solutions for Inclusive Development, produced by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), highlights eight projects across the country that seek to improve existing communities that are economically disadvantaged. The methods explored in the report focus on “smaller, more gradual change,” allowing the character of the existing neighborhood to remain intact.

Through the examination of eight projects, CNU identifies fourteen tools to implement New Urbanist policies, which include: acquiring and aggregating vacant land, respecting local history, creating philanthropic funds, using tactical urbanism, promoting incremental development, and creating an active and beautiful public realm. Each of the strategies is explained in detail, followed by a matrix at the end of the report showing what tools each project used.

The group calls for a holistic approach to revitalization. As the report notes: “A well-functioning neighborhood requires that employment and recreation opportunities, neighborhood-serving retail, schools, public gathering space, and affordable housing are all available within a walkable transit-oriented environment.” In the report, refurbishing existing housing or developing new homes are the primary medium for revitalization (Grow DeSoto Market Place in DeSoto, Texas being the exception).

All of the projects have merit, but two stood out:

The Anacostia neighborhood sits across the Potomac river from the Navy Yards in Washington, D.C. The predominately African-American neighborhood has been economically disadvantaged for years and is now facing a gentrification threat from the development of the new 11th Street Bridge Park, which will span the Anacostia River where the 11th street bridge stands. The nonprofit organization creating the park, Building Bridges Across the River, led the creation of an equitable development plan, which aims to help renters within a one-mile radius of the park buy their homes at a discounted rate, limiting displacement. If they choose to sell at any point, homeowners agree to return 75 percent of the equity earned on the house to the trust. This will help ensure the trust’s longevity and homeowners create wealth.

The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

A million dollar grant given by JP Morgan will go towards growing small businesses on either side of the Anacostia River, further helping to strengthen the neighborhoods. The combination of efforts to ensure residents can stay within their homes — and in many cases own them — along with the development of the local economy is crucial to improving the quality of life of residents of the neighborhood.

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A typical home in Anacostia / Wikipedia

In Portland, Oregon, Jolene’s First Cousin, developed by Guerilla Development, is a mixed-use project with a social mission. Construction has already begun, with completion scheduled for 2019. Combining retail space and housing, the project includes single occupancy rooms that are meant for the recovering homeless population. There are nearly 4,000 people on the streets of Portland on any given night. Oregon ranks second for the highest percentage of unsheltered people, behind California, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report.

The development was partially crowdfunded by pools of smaller investors. In this case, $300,000 was raised by 43 investors, which built upon an additional $1.5 million construction loan. Many of the investors were from Portland, “showing a strong market for this type of investing,” writes CNU. The report leaves out that many of these investors had invested in a previous project by Guerilla Development, Fair-Haired Dumbell, which was already producing returns. Still, crowdfunded opportunities give everyday people a stake in the success of a neighborhood.

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The first Guerilla Development crowdfunded project, One + Box / Guerilla Development Company

Many of the strategies outlined in the report focus on the economic side of sustainable urban development. While these are important, they are only one part of the holistic approach CNU calls for.

The report highlights strategies for producing positive incremental change in underprivileged communities — approaches also designed to prevent displacement. This is an important step in eliminating CNU’s elitist reputation.

Ace Idea: Transforming Defunct Golf Courses into Parks

Orchard Hills Park / KaBOOM!

There are some 16,000 golf courses in the U.S. In the last decade, about 800 have closed. In 2009, about 30 million Americans played golf. In 2016, just 20 million did, a 30 percent decline in less than a decade. Americans are simply too busy to play 9 or 18 holes. And the demographics for golf and the culture surrounding the sport have fundamentally changed.

Since 2010, around 20 defunct golf courses have been transformed into public parks. According to Eric Bosman, an urban designer at Kimley-Horn and Associates, who organized a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, underused courses were once entirely converted into subdivisions. But now, more “communities want them to become nature parks or preserves.”

“In the 90s and 00s, there was the Tiger Woods effect. Golf became ‘every man’s sport.'” Despite Woods’ recent amazing win, that effect has dissipated. The average age of viewers of golf tournaments on TV is older than 55, and the audience is 87 percent white.

“The demographics for golf is fading away. Golf courses are no longer the place for business deals. This is because people have to practice or they will embarrass themselves” on the fairway — and not many people have time for that. For younger generations, “golf is now about social, interpersonal connections.” But they are less tied to the sport because “they didn’t grow up with it.”

So many communities suffer from a dearth of green space. The average golf course is 150 acres. Problem meets solution. And “where else are you going to find so much open space?,” Bosman rhetorically asked.

Recent projects have transformed links that either follow a traditional layout, which means they flow in a linear or L shape over 18 holes, or a modern layout, with “big rectangular blocks of land, where golfers play 9 holes up and then 9 holes back.” Whether traditional or modern, homes are often found on the edges or even middle of courses.

The 237-acre Orchard Hills Park in suburban Cleveland was transformed from a golf course into a park with a 3.6-mile walking trail and restored streams, meadows, and wetlands. “It’s picturesque and now a popular wedding destination” (see image at top).

In Belgium, Wisconsin, a 116-acre course was purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and transformed into the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. Its club house became a community center. Trails through the habitat areas, which include five constructed wetland ponds, range from 0.25 miles to 1.5 miles.

Forest Beach Migratory Preserve / Blog for Wisconsin Land Trusts, Kate Redmond
Forest Beach Migratory Preserve / Ozaukee Washington Land Trust

The Highlands in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 121-acre course co-managed by the Land Conservancy of Western Michigan and Blandford Nature Center, offers hiking and cross-country skiing along with looped trails ranging from a half mile to 10 miles.

The Highlands / Land Conservancy of Western Michigan

The focus of the rest of the panel was on the Milton Country Club in Milton, Georgia, a wealthy suburb of about 40,000 people with a strong equestrian culture. In 2017, the city purchased the bankrupt 137-acre club for $5 million, a major piece of the $25 million green space bond the city issued, which is also financing an expansive 52-mile-long trail network to connect schools and parks. Remodeling the former golf course, which will include removing golf cart trails and adding new amenities, will likely cost $17 million and take up to a decade.

Milton Country Club / Mike T., Yelp

Bosman and landscape architect Mack Cain at Clark Patterson Lee approached the challenge of remodeling the course by first working with community leaders to establish guiding principles: “honor the rural character, build off existing plans and studies, design safe and attractive spaces, and value all voices.”

Before hosting any public meetings, they met with the homeowners around the former course, who will now have a public park in their front yards; the equestrian community; and the green space and trails committee of the city government in order to identify primary “divergent opinions.”

Through a series of open houses and public workshops, they found the community was most concerned about increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic to the new park. Most of the residents around the course purchased their lots for the view. “Only about 35 percent of golf club homeowners typically play golf,” Bosman explained. These residents are concerned about finding the public in their yards. A draft plan calls for spending $960,000 on fences and planting walls of trees in other areas to protect privacy (and property values).

Cain said that beyond the increase in public and vehicular traffic, the community was focused on maintaining existing programs like the pool and tennis courts at the club house; celebrating and restoring nature; balancing trail, horse, and bicycle use in the new park through extra-wide paths; ensuring safety at the trail connections with roads; distributing access points and moving parking off-site; and building partnerships between the landowners and the city.

A draft master plan for the park, which was recently presented to the city council, will offer two loop trails far enough away from nearby homes, with one trail connecting to a nearby school. “People like loops — they don’t want to start and then have to go back.”

Trails will be designed for different purposes: a 2.2-mile-long trail made of porous granite will offer access for pedestrians, those in wheelchairs, and road bicyclists, while another trail for equestrians and mountain bicyclists will be made of soft, natural surfaces.

Wetlands and meadows will be restored. Cain said there will also be an environmental education component, using the landscape as a “lab for natural succession.” The tennis courts and pool are now open to all local residents, while the club house is being redeveloped as a community center and more sports amenities are added.

Jan Hancock — an expert on designing spaces for horses, and a primary author of the Federal Highway Administration-produced Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads, and Campgrounds — is also part of the planning and design team for the Milton Country Club.

She said former golf courses are an “equestrian’s dream come true,” but much work was done to make these trails friendly to horses and reduce conflicts with neighbors. Riders on horseback can look over most fences, so trails will be moved away from homes to maintain privacy. “Horses can slip and fall on paved surfaces and curbs,” so they are creating natural surface trails for them. Steep inclines will be regraded to reduce accidents.

Soft, natural trail for horses / Wikipedia

Trails will be 8-feet-wide because that is the minimum width for two horseback riders to pass each other. Paths will curve because that gives visual cues to users. “They can see if a bike is coming up.” Bridges will have at least a 54-inch rail and be able to support over 1,000 pounds of weight.

Lastly, Hancock designed “poop zones” at the beginning of trail. “Horses mark their territory and use smell to figure out if they have come back to a spot.” Knowing this, horse parking and staging areas will be separate from where pedestrian and bicyclists enter the park.

Combating Alpine Sprawl with Gondolas

Urbanizing the Alps: Strategies for the Densification of Mountain Villages / Birkhäuser

Beyond the 14 million residents of the Alps, the region receives nearly 120 million visitors a year. Continued sprawl into mountain ecosystems, which are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change, threaten their long-term environmental health as well as the communities at lower altitudes that rely on their snow melt for water.

In her new book, Urbanizing the Alps: Densification Strategies for Mountain Villages, Dr. Fiona Pia rejects the picturesque chalet, set apart in nature, as a model for Alpine development, instead calling for walkable, compact villages accessible via gondolas. Graphic analyses offer visual insights into the planning strategies (or lack thereof) in five alpine villages.

An inspection of the immense sprawl of Verbier, a Swiss town that began expanding in the 1930s with the rise of recreational skiing, provides the basis for Pia’s critique. The town has nearly 3,000 residents, a number that swells to 35,000 during the winter season. Some 90 percent of the properties here are categorized as residential. Many are designed as chalets despite their uncharacteristic proximity to one another. Verbier has expanded from its core up the mountainside. Pia likens the expanding roads to a “principal network onto which are grafted a multitude of capillaries.” Matched with a disconnected pedestrian path system, the result is overcrowded roads.

Collection of individual chalets in Verbier / Wikipedia

Some 64 percent of residential property in Verbier is classified as second homes. At the beginning of 2016, the Foundation Franz Weber Second Homes Initiative went into effect, denying construction of new second homes in communities that already have over 20 percent second homes. This limits the economic model on which many Swiss alpine villages, including Verbier, were developed.

Pia states: “Verbier is reaching its limit of sustainability” due to the “depletion of building plots, major mobility problems, climate disruption, and the prohibition to build new second homes.”

Four other towns — Zermatt, Switzerland; Avoiraz, France; Whistler-Blackcomb, Canada; and Andermatt, Switzerland — are studied in a similar fashion.

Sprawl of Whistler Blaccomb, Canada / Google Earth

Sprawl found in four of the villages is countered by the hope of a new, sustainable approach to development in Andermatt, a village of around 1,500 people about 75 miles south of Zurich, which is undergoing a significant redevelopment project to improve walkability and create new social spaces. The Egyptian billionaire-led, 1.8 billion Swiss Franc redevelopment of the village, which began in 2007 and will run through 2030, is adding new cultural and sports centers, six high-end hotels, and vehicular and gondola transportation capacity to the city core. The architecture and plan of the new development mimic the existing feel of the village.

Using the ideas developed through these analyses, Pia returns to Verbier, proposing a series of chair-lift nodes that could form a ring around the city to alleviate traffic congestion and offer access to nearby housing and cultural spaces. Each of the five chair-lift bays are located on land owned by the city. The two eastern-most bays would connect to the surrounding landscape, establishing a network of towns along the mountainside. Although certainly an expensive investment, the result is a feasible plan that creates a village accessible without a car.

Under current conditions, chair-lifts connect sprawled-out communities / Birkhäuser
Proposed ring of transportation nodes surrounding Verbier / Birkhäuser

The balance of clear and consistent graphic diagrams accompanied by explanations of their social, economic, environmental viability leaves the reader aching for a solution to these towns’ plights. While Pia offers a specific solution for Verbier, accompanied by a series of guidelines, these could be used to increase density for alpine communities across the globe.