Controversial WWI Memorial Charts Narrow Path Forward

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Aerial view of the approved conceptual design for the National WWI Memorial at Pershing Park / World War I Centennial Commission

In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.

The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.

The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”

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Pershing Park (looking south) / Image courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.

The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.

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Perspective view of the proposed viewing platform / World War I Centennial Commission

In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.

Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.

The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.

In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.

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The original proposal by Joe Weishaar would have replaced the central pool with a turf panel, enclosed on three sides by bronze walls / World War I Centennial Commission

The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.

The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.

In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.

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Perspective view of the “in-the-round” alternative favored by The Cultural Landscape Foundation / World War I Centennial Commission

Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”

However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.

CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”

“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”

In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”

The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.

New Mariposa Grove Protects Fragile Giant Sequoia Ecosystem

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Mithun

In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.

Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.

“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Susan Olmsted

This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.

The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.

“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”

“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”

To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.

One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”

In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.

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New paths and boardwalks have replaced asphalt roads in the lower grove / Susan Olmsted

“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.

Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.

“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”

Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.

“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”

Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”

In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.

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Rendering of the new shuttle bus terminal / Mithun

While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.

“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”

For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”

Remnants of Oglethorpe’s Utopian Vision Survive in Savannah’s Squares

James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green
James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green

James Oglethorpe, founder and planner of Savannah, Georgia, was educated during the height of the Enlightenment. Influenced by John Locke and Isaac Newton, he was a visionary who sought to use “scientific laws to establish the ideal city,” explained Steve Smith, with the Massie Heritage Center, during a tour at the Congress for New Urbanism.

Upon the approval of his petition to create the colony of Georgia, named after King George II, Oglethorpe set sail for the American south with 100 settlers, with the goal of establishing an “anti-urban settlement, a low-density, agrarian community,” said David Gobel, an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Oglelthorpe thought cities were the root of all social ills. Removing people from a productive relationship with the land and a healthy connection with nature resulted in bad morals, crime, and debt. He sought to create a new colony for people who had suffered in urban debtors’ prisons, but ended up attracting many merchants, artisans, and others to his venture.

In his new colony of Savannah, established in 1733, Oglethorpe organized the community along an unusual layout — now known as the Oglethorpe Plan — characterized by wards made up of 40 60-feet-by-90-feet lots on either side of a central square, framed by “tithe lots” where churches and civic centers were found. At no time in history has there been an urban plan like this.

Original Oglethorpe plan / Connect Savannah

In this village format, each colonial family would get a lot, which included a garden and a 50-acre farm outside the town center. Ogelthorpe originally envisioned four wards, with a maximum of 240 families.

According to Gobel, the utopian plan of Ogelthorpe was a failure. “He took people from the urban core of London and told them they will become farmers — in clay soil in the southern heat.” Oglethorpe was also very restrictive — alcohol wasn’t permitted; families were restricted to the property they were allocated; lawyers and Catholics weren’t allowed; and due to his moral opposition to slavery, that evil practice was banned.

As we heard from Vaughnette Goode-Walker, a local historian who gave a tour of the African American history of Savannah, Oglethorpe eventually succumbed to the slave culture established in nearby South Carolina. “The first settlers were lazy, drinking, and didn’t do anything. Oglethorpe had to borrow slaves until 1741” to clear the land and construct the city. By the time Oglethorpe returned to Georgia in 1752, his utopian vision was in ruins; he had been “overwhelmed.” And the reality was that “slaves built the city.”

By 1750, “slavery arrived with a vengeance.” Between 1761 and 1771, some 10,000 slaves were sold in the markets near the wharfs, where boats loaded with suffering human cargo would arrive from the Caribbean and Africa. The first slaves worked rice plantations and then later cotton fields. By 1810, some 44 percent of the workforce was enslaved. In 1860, the population of the city was 22,000, with some 17,000 enslaved people and 700 free blacks, many of whom owned slaves themselves.

The anti-materialistic, equitable vision Oglethorpe had for the city wasn’t realized; and the physical form of his idealism was corrupted as well. Oglethorpe envisioned a maximum of four wards, but beginning in the 1790s, the ward system was replicated and eventually expanded to 24 wards (there are now just 22). “Savannah became a city filled with squares; it’s almost ridiculous,” Gobel said. But these squares are now what helps draw millions of tourists to Savannah every year.

Historians in Savannah have long wondered: why squares? The Massie Center is a believer in the “Turin theory,” posited by Cornell University professor John Reps, which contends that Oglethorpe modeled the squares after the Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy. But Gobel believes Oglethorpe instead modeled them after squares created in London in the 17th century. “London was square-crazy then. There were more than 20 in the West End, where the trustees of the colony had homes.”

Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy / @rtisan Traveler, Pinterest
St. James Square, London / Eric Parry Architects

Still, the Savannah squares aren’t like their possible Italian or English inspirations. “The Savannah square is nothing like an Italian piazza, because there are lots of openings. There is a porosity to the squares, with all the streets that come off them, which breaks down the sense of an enclosed space. And unlike the squares of London, the Savannah squares are open, with no fences.” (Gramercy Square in New York City is more like an old English square, with its private key for residents who live beside it).

Porosity of the squares of Savannah / Jared Green
Fountain in square / Jared Green

The squares were originally completely utilitarian. “They were used as pasture, marketplaces, for exercise or as military encampments. They started as left-over, residual spaces.” The primary feature of many was simply a well. According to Goode-Walker, African Americans certainly weren’t allowed in the squares — “slaves stayed in the lanes behind houses.” And back then, the lanes and streets were filled with mud and horse excrement, which is why most whites lived in the upper levels of the homes they built.

But slowly the squares evolved into important spaces of public beauty. By 1810, there were mentions of “how lovely the squares were,” said Gobel. Curbs separated them from the streets; trees were planted; and north-south and east-west pathways were established. In between this matrix of paths, the city erected giant monuments to heroes of the American Revolutionary War.

Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green
Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green

There have been “many changes to the squares over the years. They have been gussied up; today, they are more like garden parks.” Landscape architect Clermont Lee renovated and restored five squares from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 2010, EDAW (now AECOM) restored Ellis Square to the original plan, after the old City Market built over it was torn down. Today, a team of landscape architects — who work for the city government in a group distinct from the parks department — maintain the squares.

In their beautification, the squares have transitioned from places of recreation, commerce, and civic action into places to relax and commune with nature and the community. “The goal today is to prevent any active use. Monkey grass was put in to keep out kids,” Gobel fretted.

Not play-friendly Savannah Square / Jared Green

The squares wouldn’t be the draw they are without the amazing Live Oaks that were planted more than 150 years ago. The original trees of the squares — the Pride of India or “China berry” tree, a relative of the Mahogany — were all killed off in a hurricane in the 1850s. A towering canopy of Live Oaks, Palmettos, Magnolias now oversee the squares, which feel heavy with history, but where, today, all ethnicities can be seen together.

Live Oak in a Savannah Square / Jared Green
Magnolias and Live Oaks in a Savannah Square / Jared Green

According to Gobel, there is a history that still needs to be more deeply explored: “a landscape history of the city has never been done.” A story needs to be told about the horror of the landscape of East Upper Factors Walk, which was created by Irish sailors with ballast from ships, where slaves who had just been purchased were kept, a haunted place Goode-Walker said she doesn’t bring tours.

East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green
East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green

And the story of the amazingly resilient natural and cultural communities that define the character of the city — the diverse trees that shade the city, and people who built Savannah and shaped its evolution.

How War Has Shaped the Landscape

Border wall prototypes, along the southern border with Mexico / Archinect

“The wall is a military structure that has gained new resonance today,” said Anatole Tckikine, the organizer of a two-day symposium on military landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. But walls aren’t the only military structures that have shaped our landscapes. From the U.S. Interstate system, which was designed to facilitate evacuations from cities in the event of atomic strike; to the utopian, star-shaped forts of old Europe; demilitarized zones that separate warring lines; and commemorative memorials that demand our awe, like the imposing Motherland Calls in Stalingrad, Russia, military landscapes are not just empty spaces but “landscapes of people.”

Motherland Calls / i09

And as war has evolved over the ages, these landscapes of people have evolved, too, said Antoine Picon, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Up until relatively recently, military landscapes were about creating fortifications or gaining control over the conflict by achieving some physical advantage. Generals sought higher ground for their artillery. Rivers, hills, and other natural features would be used to hem in armies. The landscape of a battle ground was critical to reducing the number of variables and achieving military success.

But today, the ground for action has greatly expanded, Picon explained. “With our sprawling military geographies, the rise of boundless violence, and the infinite energy of atomic weapons, there has been a globalization of the landscapes of conflict.” One result is “that the landscape can no longer regulate military action. Fortifications no longer work.”

War now creates expansive environments, not just landscapes or territories. Imagine the drone flying overhead; war is like a video game. “Before the landscape contained the military event; now, the event generates the landscape.”

Predator drone / Intercepts Defense News

During the symposium, lectures zig-zagged through historical eras and regions, each making points about how the military has shaped our landscapes over time.

John Dixon Hunt, professor emeritus of landscape history at the University of Pennsylvania, delved into how military fortifications inspired peace-time landscapes in the 17th and 18th centuries in the United Kingdom. He explains that the “earliest use of ha-has in landscape dates from 1695, and then at Castle Howard and at Stowe in the 1710s: the ha-ha sought to distinguish the garden from the non-garden, but gradually worked to confuse the status and significance of each.” Beyond the ha-has, peace-time castles put in elaborate walls and other military-inspired fortifications. Dixon Hunt asked: “Why fortify a garden?” Protections could “keep out thieves and cold drafts,” creating micro-climates beneficial to growing food.

Grimsthorpe Castle’s walled gardens / Pinterest

Fortified landscapes ended up falling out of favor with the rise of picturesque view espoused by landscape architect Capability Brown and his contemporaries. Everything was opened up for the eye to enjoy.

For Finola O’Kane Crimmins, a professor at University College Dublin, the Battle of the Boyne, the only time that “Ireland was an arena of European War,” is a source of great interest. In 1690, protestant successor King William III vanquished the Catholic deposed King of England James II. Later, the battle ground became a designed focal point among the families who built great manors there in the battle’s aftermath, with the Boyne Obelisk serving as the dominant reminder of victory. “The obelisk is the most concentrated architectural form for power.”

Boyne Obelisk / Imleach Iseal

Topographical features of the landscape were highlighted in paintings as well, always from the point of view of the victor.

Moving forward centuries and to Southeast Asia, Pamela McElwee, an anthropologist and ecologist at Rutgers University, gave a fascinating tour of a military land use — the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was used to convey soldiers and supplies from the Communist North Vietnam to Viet Cong insurgents in the US-backed South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The trail wasn’t a singular pathway or even a set of trails, but a “plate of spaghetti or a spider web within a spider web.” Known as the Truong San supply route to the Vietnamese, the “porous, creative, and innovative” trails were “the lifeblood of the insurgency,” which some 33,000 North Vietnamese soldiers died to defend.

Ho Chi Minh trail map, 1967 / Wikipedia

Armed with new Vietnamese scholarship on the trail, McElwee was the first American scholar to gain access to the region of some of the most important trail heads. She discovered the trail was formed out of a balance “working with and against nature.” Soldiers created tree bridges to hide the trail and protect it from aerial bombardment, and they purposefully kept a light footprint, cooking and eating in constantly-changing locations, so that American soldiers wouldn’t be able to discover their whereabouts. But they also had to hack their way through jungles with machetes, fight off deadly snakes, build bamboo ladders to climb ravines, and carry their own pontoons to forge rivers. Some 80 percent of the soldiers and workers traveling the trail, and passing through places like the Gorge of Lost Souls, got malaria.

In the early 60s, routes through Laos multiplied with the help of indigenous ethnic minorities who had the most-intimate knowledge of the landscape, and by the early 70s, many trails had widened, so that more than 10,000 people were using it each day. Later, President Nixon ordered the widespread spraying of Agent Orange, a herbicide, in order to reveal the trail to bombers. The end result was to kill the tall trees, giving light to rapacious bamboo, which would form large masses that further hid the network of paths. For McElwee, the endless labyrinthine quality and “impossibility” of the trail, and the deep inhospitality of the jungle had an impact on Americans, perhaps weakening their resolve and contributing to their defeat.

And, finally, Astrid Eckert, a historian at Emory University, took us to the Iron Curtain, which began as a figure of speech Winston Churchill used to describe what he saw as the dark influence of the Soviet Union falling across eastern Europe at the start of the Cold War, but soon became a real presence once the borders between east and west became a walled and fenced-in no mans lands fatal to cross. While the Communists were known for degrading the environment — for example, the Aral Sea was desiccated to grow cotton — the borderlands became de facto protected landscapes teaming with biodiversity. When the walls came down and the borders opened in Germany and other eastern European in the late 80s and early 90s, conservationist rushed in to save these landscapes. Some 85 percent of these former borderlands are now preserved as the 7,700-mile-long European Green Belt.

The “ridiculously photogenic” green belt, where nature was granted a “40-year vacation,” serves as a “happy end to partition” and is a new ecological symbol of unification — the belt grew together and so former foes can come together again. Well, at least that is the prevailing narrative, Eckert said.

European Green Belt / Wikipedia

The reality is that constructing the border over the 1950s and 60s was an act of environmental destruction: marshes and wetlands were drained, hydrological systems were destroyed, and canals and trenches created gaping scars. Minefields killed so many deer that eastern Germans determined deer to be a nuisance — because they exploded so many mines. Except for bird populations, which benefited from the protections, especially Winchats, which enjoyed nesting on fence posts, “the borders meant the end of biological exchange.” Due to the work of conservationists, Eckert said, ironically, the borderlands are once again inaccessible, at least to development. But the green belt is now seen as the “flagship of German conservation.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 16 – 30)

The Frick’s 70th Street Garden / Photo credit: Navid Baraty, 2014, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

A Minneapolis Landscape Architect Creates a Picture-Perfect Party Garden The Minnesota Star Tribune, 4/21/18
“When Frank Fitzgerald feels like socializing during the summer months, he has the perfect Instagram-ready venue right out his back door.”

Letter to the Editor: the Frick’s Viewing Garden Is Worth Preserving The Art Newspaper, 4/25/18
“Brian Allen’s opinion piece about the revised expansion plans for the Frick Collection—The Frick’s expansion is a sensitive, elegant plan—starts off on a high note: ‘The first order of business in a building project involving so lovely a setting as the Frick Collection is do no harm.'”

Who Benefits When a City Goes Green? Next City, 4/25/18
“Going green is a cornerstone of contemporary urban policy planning — and cultivating a green identity has become vital in boosting a city’s economic profile.”

A Mexican Pavilion Offers Space for Post-Earthquake Renewal and Reflection The Architect’s Newspaper, 4/26/18
“At MEXTRÓPOLI, temporary built environments activated Mexico City’s public spaces to promote reflection of those events and fuel sustainable future building.”

LOVE Park Was Supposed to Be the People’s Park. How Did it End Up as a Granite Sahara? The Inquirer, 4/26/18
“Parks aren’t called refuges for nothing. A great urban park can make you forget you’re in the city.”

Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle (Part 2)

Rendering of North Carolina Museum Park expansion / North Carolina Museum of Art, Civitas

At Leading for Landscape IV: Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and invited speakers showcased three public park projects that represent the region’s aspirations and suggest that — at least in design of the highest-profile public parks in Raleigh — there is mainstream acceptance of parks as cultural landscapes with the potential to bridge histories, promote democracy, and serve pluralist communities.

Daniel Gottlieb is director of planning and design at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which in the 1980s moved from downtown Raleigh to a 164-acre tract a 15-minute drive away. He has overseen the development of the Museum Park, which began with unplanned use of the campus open space by people who found their way there by car or greenway. It has since become an intentional effort by the museum to welcome and engage the public.

Gottlieb described the pre-museum history of the site, which most recently held a violent and segregated youth prison. He said his goal has been to use “ethical design” to transform the site into a place of gathering, diversity, ecological restoration, and public benefit. “The narrative arc for the North Carolina Museum of Art campus is one, you might say, of redemption — from incarceration and decay, from racism and segregation, to one of a cultural campus and of healing.”

Mark Johnson, FASLA, founding principal at Civitas, has overseen the latest addition to the Museum Park, a designed landscape that pulls visitors into the site and makes connections between the road and the park, between the museum and the park, and within the park itself (see image at top). Johnson described the firm’s use of precision in the landscape — perfect lines, a perfect ellipse, all softened by a native plant palette — to create spaces “that would support the idea that this was museum space. This is an outdoor gallery, but it’s also nature, but it’s also open-ended for you to experience however you want.”

The two other parks celebrated at the conference are City of Raleigh projects. Stephen Bentley, assistant director for Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department, said Red Mountain Park in Birmingham and the Atlanta Beltline offer lessons in the promise and challenge of dealing with histories of racism, segregation, and gaping divides between haves and have-nots.

“Everything is not hunky-dory,” Bentley said of the cultural and economic divides in the Triangle. “We have a lot of success and a lot of great projects in the Triangle, but with great success comes great challenges. We have a lot of great momentum, and I think we should constantly be clear about the decisions we make, who we want to be, and where we want to go from here.”

The City of Raleigh hired Sasaki in 2015 to redesign Moore Square, one of two remaining downtown public squares of the four that were set aside in Raleigh’s original 1792 plan. (The loss of the public open space provided by the two other squares has been decried for more than a century; TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, suggested in his opening remarks that Raleigh’s world-class greenway system is a 20th-century realization of its earlier, abandoned vision of accessible public space.)

Raleigh’s 1792 Christmas Plan / State of North Carolina Archives

Moore Square had become cluttered and underused over time; its newest iteration is currently under construction. Gina Ford, FASLA, formerly of Sasaki and now principal at Agency Landscape + Planning, traced Sasaki’s work redesigning Moore Square to an exhibit the firm had created to explore how legacy park systems were adapting for the 21st century. She said that lens — understanding the original plan, and how it might fit into a downtown Raleigh defined by growth and aspirations of equity — was key to their vision for an updated Moore Square. The design team included historians and local experts. They analyzed historical view sheds and relationships, the material nature of other historic downtown spaces, and the well-being of the square’s heritage oaks, some of which were more than 200 years old.

Redesign of Moore Square / City of Raleigh, Sasaki

“Through all of this scalar exploration of Moore Square, from understanding its role in the district to understanding its role in the city, the park, all the way down to its material quality and its programmatic overlay, we hope that people who come to this new place see themselves through this landscape as part of that historic stream,” Ford said.

The biggest park project in the Triangle is Dorothea Dix Park, a 308-acre site of rolling hills and heritage oaks right on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The site was home until 2012 to Dorothea Dix Hospital, a mental health institution named after the 19th-century advocate who founded it. The City of Raleigh purchased the site in 2015 and hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) in 2017 to oversee a two-year master planning process.

Dorothea Dix Park site / The News & Observer

Kate Pearce, senior planner with the City of Raleigh for Dorothea Dix Park, hopes Dix will become a world-class park that “redefines what it means to be making pubic space in our communities.”

“I feel like we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something that is going to impact lives for years to come,” Pearce said. “And we have the great opportunity but also the great challenge to ensure that as we create this park, the entire community believes that it is of and for them.” Pearce said the city was getting creative in reaching people who don’t usually come to planning meetings.

Adult egg hunt at Dorothea Dix Park / Dorothea Dix Park

Adrienne Heflich, ASLA, associate at MVVA, gave an update on the firm’s attempts to pull a coherent and world-class park design from an enormous tract that still holds remnants of a landfill, a cemetery, and a hospital, including dozens of intact buildings.

The MVVA team has conceptually divided the site; about half of it would be inspired by the ideas and values of 19th-century American landscape architecture, “to embody the feeling of boundlessness, evince a lack of discernible edges, and support restored Piedmont habitats that have been erased or obscured or not celebrated previously.”

The rest of the site, including most of the buildings and the connections to downtown, would evoke a 21st-century activated park, “where there’s a successful juxtaposition of program, art, building reuse, interpretation of historic landscapes — and those are all blended together to create a new expression of urban and civic space really relevant to Raleigh and to the region.” Heflich cited Millennium Park in Chicago as an example.

At the end of a day of presentations that featured stunning but largely stand-alone landscape architecture projects around the Triangle, a final panel weighed in, offering additional and complementary visions for what it could mean to lead with landscape in the Triangle.

Andrew Fox, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, shared a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, who remarked on a trip in the 1850s that “the country for miles about Raleigh is nearly all pine forest, unfertile and so little cultivated that it is a mystery how a town of 2,500 inhabitants can obtain sufficient supplies from it to exist.”

Fox reminded the audience of issues facing the Triangle today — the degradation of local ecosystems and loss of farmland to sprawl; record-breaking heat; record-breaking drought; record-breaking deluge rainfalls; and projected population growth, among the largest and fastest in the country. Olmsted’s question of capacity remains, Fox said: “New issues are in many ways amplifications of old issues.”

Alexandra Lange, Curbed‘s architecture critic who grew up in Durham, was one of several final panelists to lament the absence of discussion regarding regional public transit and broader regional connectivity. “Maybe if this conference comes back here in 10 years, should it all be about paths and not parks?” Lange proposed.

Rendering of proposed light rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill / GoTriangle

Randolph Hester, FASLA, Durham resident and director of the Center for Ecological Democracy, pushed the audience to pursue democratic design, to foster authentic and open-ended public dialogues, and to advocate for their communities with vision and courage. “We have talked a lot about special places today. I think the real challenge is about the neighborhood. Most people live in neighborhoods. There are some really great stories and some really terrible stories about neighborhoods, and we need as we move forward to keep those in mind. The neighborhood is our closest and dearest public landscape.”

He brought up Chavis Heights, a neighborhood that he had helped to protect from urban renewal in the 1960s and that had declined due to a lack of public investment. “If we can do a Dix Park, we should be able to revitalize Chavis Heights as one of the unique black communities of this country.”

Mitchell Silver, Honorary ASLA, former director of planning in Raleigh and now commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, reminded landscape architects to look beyond the history and transformation of the land.

“There’s stories to be told in our land, but there’s also stories to be told by the communities that inhabit them,” he said. Change that will result in greater regional connectivity and density will require a broader approach: “It’s not just about transforming the place; it’s also transforming ourselves. We’re going to have to ask ourselves some difficult questions.

Walter Havener, ASLA, founding principal at Surface 678, asked the audience to remember the vital contributions of local design communities and institutions in leading with landscape through daily practice. “And I think that NC State has been integral to that process of promulgating those people and putting them out in the society, and I think that is one of the legs of the stool which holds up the Triangle. It is a remarkable story, and I think that it has been just as transforming as any other phenomenon that we’ve seen today.”

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

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 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.

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.”

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.”

Michael Sorkin: Eleven Theses on the Obama Presidential Center

Proposal for Barack Obama Community Library on 63rd and South Cottage Grove Avenue, a bird’s eye view from the South, with Jackson Park at the south edge of this rendering / Michael Sorkin Studio, 2013

1. Jackson Park wouldn’t have been my first choice as a location for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). Better right on 63rd, half-way down to South Cottage Grove Avenue, where the public draw and ground floor commerce would have breathed life back into that dull, desiccated, yearning street. There might have been direct goals to shared vitality: the archive above, and clubs, cafés, and community facilities below to spark the lively commerce of strollers to and fro, equidistant from Metra and El.

2. But the Jackson Park site can still engender happy knock-on effects if the OPC meaningfully disaggregates by, for example, providing artifacts and art works to the Du Sable Museum of African American History, agriculture to vacant lots, a high school of governance and community affairs nearby, neighborhood nutrition centers, and a stimulating array of distributed community benefits, including many not yet imagined. 63rd Street should be the spine, and there’s plenty of vacant “adjacent land” in Woodlawn.

Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017
Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017

3. The OPC can enhance the park, activating the shabby streetscape of Stony Island, closing Cornell Drive to commuter traffic, converting acres of pavement to green space, improving accessibility for pedestrians. Even the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive can be a wise piece of public work that would otherwise never happen. Getting rid of the proposed garage on the Midway is a real victory that offers hope for future influence and suggests that the OPC is open to serious negotiation about making itself better and more transparent.

Cornell Drive and proposed site of Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park / The Chicago Tribune

4. The argument from expense against these roadway improvements might have merit if the cash were truly fungible, assuredly going instead for rent-support or day-care. But does anyone actually believe in this zero sum? This is an opportunity to leverage major improvements in local infrastructure and it shouldn’t stop with roads. Restore the El anyone?

5. Of course, the subtraction of public park space reflexively affronts, but this isn’t exactly Columbia ’68, not an aggrandizing and oblivious act of racial imperialism. A more apposite comparison is the construction of the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park in 1876, built on donated public land with public funds and designed by Olmsted’s collaborator, Calvert Vaux. Would anyone now want it gone? Still, the OPC should acknowledge its effect on the ground and provide, in perpetuity, a two to one local replacement of any green space subtracted from the park.

Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Map of the Central Park 1871–72 (detail showing proposed Museum at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue). From Second Annual Report of the Department of Public Parks (year ending May 1, 1872) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

6. The preservationist claim from Olmsteds’ original intent conflates precedent and exception. The OPC is the project and commemoration of America’s first black president, itself an exception many of us never thought we would live to see. Obama was from here, an activist here, lived here, taught here, and chose a place for his library here. This seems an exception worth making, a celebration of rarity. Moreover, the precedent for the museum exception in parks – including Olmsted’s – is voluminous and includes the Art Institute, the Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, the St. Louis Museum, the De Young in San Francisco, not to mention the Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Park.

7. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a formula to compel a subsidy for the distribution of public goods in compensation for both a taking and a predicted effect. CBA’s are conceptually fraught, forced to negotiate the contradictions of their dual pursuit of stimulation and prophylaxis, building and conserving. They don’t always work and Staples – the invariable Exhibit A – is the exception not the rule. Columbia University’s agreement with Harlem’s pols – a deal made behind closed doors — has not decelerated the terminal gentrification of upper Manhattan in the slightest and it was just reported that nine years after the treaty was inked, less than 1% of the promised investment in affordable housing has been made. The Atlantic Yards CBA was a total developer con, achieved by dividing the community and then negotiating with a small minority of local groups who signed on to a gag order to prevent any criticism of the miserable project for which they offered cover.

8. What’s clearly different here is that the CBA is community, not developer, driven. However, its crucial intention – building an equitable, sustainable, and beautiful neighborhood — not simply exceeds its own particular demands but is beyond Obama’s power — or obligation — to deliver alone. That doesn’t mean the OPC’s feet shouldn’t be held to the fire! But putting too many eggs in the CBA basket — and conscripting Obama as savior — downplays the equally decisive roles the city, the university, the propertied, community institutions, and the people must play and focusing investment on defensive redress isn’t nearly bold enough a strategy to truly rise to the opportunity of this massive infusion. Any development must take responsibility for its social and environmental impacts but the South Side needs more than mitigation! Communities must resist the reflexive conflation of any development with gentrification and take a longer, more nuanced view, working for something far more visionary and wonderful through coalition building and an ongoing fight for community ownership and the right to the city.

9. The hope and the promise for the OPC CBA lies is its origins in a broad community coalition, its articulate goals, and its track record, most notably its roots in the remarkable campaign that led to the university’s construction of its new Trauma Center, a win for everyone.

10. Pushback to the OPC is also a displaced expression of rage at the university’s historic role in the ethnic-cleansing and self-sterilization of Hyde Park via its massive urban renewal project and its decades of malign neglect of Woodlawn. But it’s clear that the university is seeking – as it loads its south campus with dorms, a hotel, a conference center – to efface the 61st Street DMZ and reform its relationship to Woodlawn in concert with the OPC and the municipality. How can this be made broadly beneficial? Surely, hands off isn’t the way. How about building the new University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration building on 63rd Street for the active benefit of the people it aspires to serve? How about lending some lawyers to the cause?

Other Plans: University of Chicago Studies, A Master Plan for the University of Chicago / Michael Sorkin Studio, 1998

11. The task at hand is to make sure communities are equal partners in fomenting a beneficial mix that will guarantee existing residents the right to remain and build a diverse and sharing community that especially embraces low income residents and people of color. There’s risk in an othering of Woodlawn by “protecting” it from a potentially magnificent opportunity to flourish but a greater one in giving up this amazing momentum for a just and wonderful transformation. This demands real cooperative planning.

Michael Sorkin is the Principal of the Michael Sorkin Studio, Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at The City College of New York, and president of Terreform, a non-profit urban research and advocacy center. Terreform is currently engaged in preparing a visionary urban design plan for Chicago’s South Side and welcomes collaboration.