“Portals” Blends Curated with Organic

Portals by Sandra Muss at the Kreeger Museum / Colin Winterbottom

Moving through the pristine vastness of the Great Hall at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. is like being inside a monument on the National Mall. But the museum’s new installation and permanent foray into the woods offers a different experience.

Just beyond the structured lines of the architect Phillip Johnson’s Modernist residence-turned-museum are “the woods.” Far from wild, this curated, yet un-manicured portion of the sculpture garden is found in the forested back area of Kreeger’s 5.5-acre property in the residential Foxhall neighborhood north of Georgetown.

Kreeger Museum / Pinterest

Here are a series of mirrored columns clustered among the oak, maple, tulip poplar, and beech trees, and scattered along a wood chip path. These are the Portals.

Artist Sandra Muss designed the piece specifically for the Kreeger as it expanded its sculpture garden into the woods. Muss’ piece is a series of seven ten-foot mirrored steel rectangular columns, wound with rusted wire and vines.

Portals by Sandra Muss / Colin Winterbottom

Despite the size, the columns are unassuming and easy to gaze over, reading as green foliage when viewed from the concrete walkway that wraps around the museum.

But once down in the woods, the scale of the column becomes more palpable, and what appears from above to be a carefully-curated placement of columns becomes a more compelling maze of reflections. Moving through the mirrors distorts the carefully-orchestrated sculpture garden experience — reflecting, and at times framing, bending, and pulling images of the museum and other sculptures down into the woods.

Portals by Sandra Muss / Colin Winterbottom

The woods are a welcome juxtaposition to the hushed, untouchable quality of the building above and offer a more organic component to the museum’s sculpture garden.

“In general, the planting is pretty simple, because it’s the art that wants to be the focus,” said Julie Patronick, landscape designer with McHale, who designed the forested sculpture garden expansion and worked with Muss to incorporate vines on the columns from the surrounding area.

Ultimately, she said, as new pieces are added to the forest, the intention will be to let the art decide its surroundings — be it exposed with only ground cover underneath, or more hidden, and seamless like Portals.

Finding Opportunity in Leftover Urban Spaces

Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities / (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.

To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.

Flow diagram of proposed interventions, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Additional proposals, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.

De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.

Intervention for vacant parcel, New York City case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.

Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”

Vacant alley at 1717 Lincoln Place, New York City case study / From Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.

These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.

To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.

Seoul Turns Aging Overpass into Botanical Promenade

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Seoul is the latest cities to reclaim a piece of aging infrastructure for public use. Last month, South Korea’s capital city opened Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, an inner-city freeway transformed into a pedestrian artery and botanical garden.

The elevated public park was designed by Dutch architects and urban designers MVRDV as a series of gardens with 24,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers. Fifty plant families and 228 species and sub-species are organized according to the Korean alphabet along the pedestrian-only walkway.

Ben Kuipers, lead landscape architect on the project, said the unique arrangement highlights plant nuances. “The species are organized by genus and family. So people can experience the differences between species,” he wrote in an email. “There are small, themed gardens, like the maple garden and the pine tree garden, and a surprising contrast walking from family to family, in Korean alphabetical order.”

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Over 600 concrete planters dot the approximately 3,000-foot linear park, which stretches across the city’s central train station and connects the Namdaemun market area to the east and neighborhoods to the west. Each pot has nameplate identifying the plants in both Latin and Korean. At night, the pots are illuminated in blue and white.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden at night / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

“The trees are the stars,” Kuipers said. “We turned the bridge into a ‘walk of fame’ with every tree in a pot like on a pedestal. And every season shows different features.”

With over one million visitors in the first 10 days, Kuipers said the high volume shows the concept resonates. “We wanted to create not just a pedestrian connection, but also a place to visit, be, and meet people. Therefore, we also added ‘activators,’ such as little shops and cafes.”

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

MVRDV won an international competition in 2015 held by the Seoul Metropolitan Government for the design of the park with their entry, The Seoul Arboretum.

The original freeway, known as the Seoul Station overpass, was built in 1970 at the heart of a city undergoing rapid economic and population growth. The structure was slated for demolition after a 2006 safety assessment determined it would soon be unsafe for vehicular use. Officials ultimately decided to recycle the freeway, incorporating the structure into its plan to make the city more walkable.

“This overpass has special meaning because it represents Seoul’s modernity,” Kim Joon Kee, deputy mayor of safety management for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told CNN in 2016, as construction was underway. “It was built to relieve traffic congestion and, after 30 years, it  became worn down, so we saw an opportunity for the city’s development.”

The name, Seoullo 7017, pays homage to the transformation of the freeway over time. The word Seoullo means “Seoul road,” and the numbers 70 and 17 reference its original constructed and when it reopened to pedestrian traffic, according to The Korea Times.

Implementing such a diverse planting design on an aging freeway structure came with a unique set of challenges. Kupiers explained there was little space for soil for the roots, given the load-bearing limitations and the inclination of the bridge destabilizes the soil. Designers also considered the safety of pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring no branches or trees would fall on the road or railway tracks below. 

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Furthermore, in a region with hot summers, cold winters, and typhoons, Seoul’s varied climate also posed a challenge. “We decided to create the right conditions for trees, shrubs and plants [by] making huge tree pots. These pots are isolated to prevent freezing and have a drainage, irrigation, and aeration system,” Kuipers explained.

The arrangement of over 600 pots, in varying sizes and depths, adds a distinctive, constructed quality to the design, a departure from the more organic style seen in many landscape designs in Asia, Kuipers said.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

MVRDV’s design envisions the skygarden as an “urban nursery.” Kuipers said they plan to use the bridge in combination with the city’s own tree nursery to grow new trees and species, eventually distributing the pots along pedestrian routes in additional neighborhoods.

Seoul is hardly the first city to build an elevated urban walkway. Many have drawn connections between this project and New York City’s High Line. In fact, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was inspired by the famous James Corner Field Operations’ project, according to the The Korean Times. Still, the projects differ in their relationship to the surrounding urban fabric and the way they use plants.

“Although the High Line is a great example, Seoullo is different in many ways,” Kuipers said, noting the Seoullo Skygarden’s elevated views of the city and central location at Seoul Station in the heart of the city.