Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite landscape architect or an immersive read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2019, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:
These are two useful and beautiful books on how to design with trees. The Architecture of Trees — first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982 and now reprinted in 2019 — features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. The Tree Book, written by arboreal guru Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren, director of product development for the tree nursery J. Frank Schmidt and Son Co., includes images, botanical and common names, and the range and climate adaptability of some 2,400 species and cultivars. Read the full review of The Architecture of Trees.
This vivid collection of comparative maps and tableaux from the 19th century, organized by French researchers Jean-Christophe Bally, Jean-Marc Besse, Phillipe Grande, and Gilles Palsky, show how explorers, scientists, and artists imagined fantastical landscapes in order to better understand the true scale of the natural world. Their drawings and paintings laid the foundation for today’s geographical data visualizations.
Jeffrey Peterson, who was recently senior advisor responsible for climate change policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s office of water, has written a comprehensive new national policy approach to dealing with sea level rise, a roadmap for reforming the U.S.’s broken flood insurance system and steering development away from increasingly risky coastal areas.
At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy argued that telling the story of the dangerous health impacts of climate change will motivate greater public action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution, which causes the premature death of 7 million people worldwide each year, will only worsen with climate change. As Tim Smedley explains in Clear the Air and Beth Gardiner in Choked, the solutions to the climate and air pollution crises are largely the same: renewable power, clean cook stoves, electric vehicles, and green infrastructure.
Design with Nature Now is an accessible and well-designed companion book to the University of Pennsylvania’s Design with Nature Now symposium and exhibition, which marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s seminal book Design with Nature. Edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, Richard Weller, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, and Billy Fleming, ASLA, this collection of essays and projects should inspire any environmental policymaker, planner, or landscape architect to forge broader coalitions and act regionally and globally to save our fragile ecosystems and protect the future of humanity.
Designing a Garden, written by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is a lucid and candid examination of the process of designing and constructing a single intimate project. Van Valkenburgh intends the book as a sort of how-to guide to landscape design, not unlike a cookbook in terms of detail and clarity. Read the full review.
An expanded and updated new edition of a now-classic book that launched the New Perennials movement, fundamentally changing landscape design. Edited by Noel Kingsbury, the book features the works and writings of High Line plant designer Piet Oudolf and late plantsman and designer Henk Gerritsen.
Journalist Tony Horwitz’s book on Frederick Law Olmsted is difficult to classify. It is a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted and a history of his America. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times. Read the full review.
Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.
Revitalizing post-war plazas requires a deep understanding of the historical significance and degree of integrity of the existing conditions, which to Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, can then “guide the level of intervention and level of surgery that one is applying to the bone structure.”
Birnbaum provided a framework for how to measure success that operates on two axes: historical significance and integrity.
Historical significance relates to the importance of the plaza culturally, both locally and within the landscape architecture canon, while integrity focuses on the condition of the original design and implementation.
To demonstrate how the graph works, Birnbaum located three plazas within it: Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis (high significance and high integrity); Boston City Hall Plaza (medium significance and medium integrity); and Love Park in Philadelphia (low significance and low integrity).
Birnbaum then defined seven aspects of integrity for plazas:
Location: Place where the plaza is constructed. Setting: Physical environment around the building. Design: The form, place, materials, and structure of the plaza. Materials: What the plaza is constructed with. Workmanship: Physical evidence of the construction and craftsmanship of the plaza. Feeling: Quality and often intangible elements that constitute a place. Association: Historical and cultural ties to the plaza.
Birnbaum used his methodology to categorize Mellon Square in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (high significance and medium-high integrity); Lever House Plaza in New York City (high significance and medium integrity); Time-Life Building in Chicago (medium-high significance and medium integrity); and Nollen Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa (medium-low significance and low integrity), prefacing the case studies Rademacher and Smith detailed.
Rademacher explained how Mellon Square had maintained its integrity for many years after its construction but lost its character after an integrity-reducing reconstruction in the 1980s.
The 2007 update, led by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and implemented by Heritage Landscapes, aimed to restore Mellon Square to its original design, eliminating several of the changes that occurred during the 1987 reconstruction.
Rademacher laid out a few of the problems that came up with the restoration. Fountain function was dependent on a worker being present. Planting was overgrown or dead. And “most egregious was a redesign of the fountain” that led to a new double crenelated edge, which divorced the timing of the water feature from the original design and its intent.
Many of the materials were preserved in the 1987 reconstruction, but recreating the major elements of the plaza would be central to the 2007 reconstruction. The fountain was the most difficult piece to return to its historical character, with the original slow contemplative rhythm of the fountain being at odds with contemporary thought about how fountains should perform. Ultimately, the team decided on a flashy program on the hour and the slower contemplative program for the remainder of the time.
Returning the plaza to its original design was important for it to retain its integrity and to maintain its historical significance for the City of Pittsburgh.
Smith elaborated on three projects that his firm has worked on, each project approaching the historical legacy of plazas in different ways.
First, and the most historically significant, was the Lever House in New York City (see image at top). Smith’s team relied on a set of photographs by Ezra Stoller to recreate the plaza in lieu of many architectural drawings for the plaza space.
Stoller photographed the project during construction, upon completion, and for several years after the project was finished. This helped Smith to understand the changes throughout the first few years of the project, particularly in planting and usage. The analysis resulted in a near-identical reconstruction of the space.
The Time-Life Building plaza features a distinct terrazzo patterning that carries through into the building’s lobby, which is the only part of the building complex that is part of the historic registry. The tile patterning was then paramount to the design of the plaza. Smith’s team recreated the terrazzo look in concrete. The major change was relocating the fountain to “reframe the plaza relative to the sidewalk,” creating a connection between the Avenue of The Americas and the plaza.
Cowles Common’s, formerly Nollen Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa received the most change while retaining the tilted orientation of the plaza in relation to the street grid.
Major changes included eliminating a wall separating the north and south sides of Des Moines, the addition of a new fountain feature in the center stripe of the plaza, and the installation of a new sculpture by Jim Campbell.
Each of the plazas hold some level of historical significance as post-war plazas, but as Rademacher and Smith noted, the measure of the success is not dependent on the funds spent on the projects, but on identifying and enhancing the spirit of the places.
There has been an evolution in public education about historic landscapes where people were once enslaved. Just a few decades ago, the story of African American slaves would have been brushed over, sanitized, or, even worse, left blank. Now, a few brave public educators, academics, photographers, and historians are showing how complicated, layered stories can be told that honor the truth and dignity of those who were enslaved. They show that landscapes can tell the story of American history in all its beauty and horror.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architects, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the reality of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind.
The colloquium, which was held in preparation for a two-day symposium in spring 2020 on the legacy of segregation on cities, delved into studies and projects related to landscapes of enslavement in the U.S. and Caribbean. Way explained these academic conferences are part of a broader three-year investigation financed with grants from the Mellon Foundation.
The Daily Life of Enslaved People in Jamaica
Jillian Galle, project director, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, is coordinating a collaborative research study on 85 sites in the U.S., Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Kitts, and other countries that have yielded 4 million artifacts.
Through her archeological research, Galle found that the global trade in sugar, cocoa, spices, and coffee resulted in a “new material culture” of luxury products. Excavations of slave dwellings in Jamaica yielded fragments of porcelain from southern China. “Slaves were active participants in the consumer revolution.”
Analyzing 33,000 artifacts from Stewart Castle in Jamaica, Galle and her team found “costly objects from Europe” while excavating slave structures, including “glass beads, metal buttons, furniture ornaments, iron pots, shells, and utensils.” Machetes and hooks, which were used by slaves as weapons during rebellions, were also found.
Over three centuries, some 9 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean to plant and harvest sugar, citrus, lumber, cocoa, and other products on plantations overseen by white workers. Due to the incredible violence of slavery, “there was no natural increase,” meaning slaves weren’t able to have children. As the enslaved Africans were worked to death, one million new slaves were imported.
Instead of feeding slaves well, portions of plantations were given over to them as “a system of Negro provisioning grounds.” So in addition to their work, there was the stress of having to “cultivate gardens, fish, grow livestock to meet their own food needs.” Famine was a regular occurrence and constant threat.
Unearthing shellfish shells, fish bones, and other food remains from these sites gave insight into their diet. While slaves often sold fish they caught in markets, clams and other shellfish made up a large portion of their diet, which was partially foraged. Galle hypothesized that African slaves who were stolen away to Jamaica brought their “Gold Coast fishing culture,” which has been passed down to Jamaicans who live there today.
After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, the life of enslaved people in Jamaica improved somewhat, at least on a relative basis. Some gained access to island-wide Sunday markets where they could purchase or trade those luxury consumer products. With the ability to participate in commercial life, “they achieved a margin of economic and reproductive success in a brutal environment.”
Telling the Story of Slavery at the Whitney Plantation
Dr. Ibrahima Seck, director of research of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum and a member of the faculty at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Senegal, said the 2,000-acre Whitney Plantation, which is about a one hour drive west of New Orleans, Louisiana, is dedicated to explaining the history of slavery in the South. The museum opened to the public in 2014 and receives around 100,000 visitors annually, a number growing 10-15 percent each year.
Attorney John Cummings purchased the land for $8 million, spent 15 years restoring the site, and commissioned life-sized clay sculptures of enslaved Creole adults and children that humanize them and breathe life into the history. Many of the sculptures, which were created by artist Woodrow Nash, are found within the historic African American Antioch Baptist Church, which was moved to the property.
Over a 90-minute tour, mostly outdoors, visitors get a sense of what life was like for the enslaved laborers, “who spent most of their lives outside, whether it was very hot or cold.”
Seck said some 13 percent of the slave population in Louisiana died each year. “There were also large numbers of children who died — either stillborn or due to disease.”
What makes the Whitney different from other Southern plantations is the Wall of Honor, where Seck and his team have listed the names of enslaved people they discovered lived there over the 18th and 19th centuries. “There are 400 names, African names.”
Also, Rush more recently created an art piece to honor the slaves who led and participated in the German Coast uprising on January 8, 1811. By June 13, the slaves had been defeated by the local militia. “And they had to pay the price of failure.” Those captured were shot, decapitated in front of their families, and then their heads were put on spikes. “The artwork represents this but also presents them as an army.”
Ashley Rogers, who is the executive director of the museum, said “many visitors have an idea in their mind of what slavery was like that doesn’t line up with reality. It’s a bucolic, beautiful setting, with cypress swamps and egrets, but the landscape is deceiving — it obscures the hard labor and violence.”
Rogers emphasized the industrial nature of the plantation. “The fields were like factories.”
Starting in the 1820s, steam-powered mills and conveyor belts led to a “methodical division of labor.” Then, beginning in the 1840s, field work became mechanized through machines first sold as “iron slaves.” These machines were marketed as “better than human, the ideal slaves.”
After slavery was abolished, a system of bonded labor developed that “was similar to slavery in so many ways.”
Many of the plantations along the Mississippi River were later purchased by oil and chemical companies, which were attracted by easy access to water and transportation. On top of the violence and trauma came “toxicity and environmental degradation.”
Today, St. John the Baptist Parish is the most polluted in Louisiana. “And the energy and chemical companies still receive tax-free status.”
A Bold Re-Interpretation of Slavery at Montpelier
Elizabeth Chew, executive vice president and chief curator at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Virginia, which is about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., said Madison owned enslaved people, who grew tobacco and grain on his property.
After being purchased by the Montpelier Foundation in 2000, the home was restored to near-original condition as part of a $24 million multi-year effort. As the restoration neared completion, one member of the community of descendants of Madison’s slaves asked Chew: “where are my people?”
The realization that the story of the enslaved had been largely omitted led to archeological excavations, architectural studies of slaves’ quarters, and the eventual recreation of their quarters in the south yard of Montpelier. A $10 million gift from David Rubenstein made that work possible.
Montpelier Foundation made a concerted effort to engage the descendant community in the creation of new interpretation program and telling personal stories about Madison’s slaves. “Their advice was to emphasize the humanity of their ancestors, and don’t leave slavery in the past.” The main message the Foundation wants to convey now is: “slavery happened to one person at a time.”
Through inventive exhibitions, the forms of slaves are projected on walls while recordings of oral histories of descendants play in the background. “You feel human presences in the spaces.” Chew said they hoped to convey the “psychological torture of slavery; that loved ones could be sold and stolen away at any moment.”
With support from multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the Montpelier Foundation has also created new curriculum for teaching slavery in schools and engaged visitors and descendants in the excavations and discovery of the past. Chew seemed proud that the descendants are now a “major stakeholder.”
Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, who moderated the session, said Montpelier, through its thoughtful interpretative work, powerfully expresses “the magnitude of loss and horror, and the persistence of the intangible and invisible impacts” of slavery.
Chew said once visitors “see the evidence and experience the spaces with their own bodies, it overrides any concern” that the reinterpretation is too threatening to “white fragility.”
There are growing numbers of visitors of color. For many, “Montpelier is a pilgrimage; it’s a stand-in plantation.” And about “40 percent of our visitors thank us every day for what we are doing.”
Their concern now is remaining relevant amid declining visitor numbers. “Older white folks make up the largest demographic of visitors, and that has to change.”
At a day-long colloqium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies, assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architect, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the truth of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind. (Read Part 1 in this series).
Monticello: Liberty and White Supremacy
Before moderating the discussion on Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Eric Avila, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, took at tour there. He said his guide started with a joke: “Monticello, it’s complicated.”
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., is considered a founding father but he also owned 600 slaves at his 5,000-acre estate. His beliefs and writings helped lay the foundation for American liberty but only for white males. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence but fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, one of his mixed-race slaves.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation manages Monticello and employs Fraser Nieman, who is head of archeology. At the historic estate, “the landscape of slavery has vanished.” Instead, he and his team have had to deduct what the past looked like from available data, in this case, oral histories, documents, and layers of sediment.
Jefferson grew both tobacco and grain, but they required “radically different” agricultural methods. To grow tobacco, enslaved workers would kill trees, leaving the stumps. Then, they would abandon a plot 4-5 years later and cut down more trees starting the cycle over again. “Tobacco required a gang labor system; everyone was at the same time at the same place.”
In contrast, wheat production required all tree stumps to be dug up and removed so that fields could be plowed by livestock. Wheat production demanded an elaborate divisions of labor: slaves to manage livestock, fertilizers, mills, and then blacksmiths to make the plows. “Wheat production required spatially-dispersed task groups.” Nieman thinks the experience of slavery may have differed based on what was being grown. “Tobacco production required more control, while there was slightly more freedom with wheat.”
Without any physical remains of slave dwellings or farmland, Nieman and his team decided to investigate the accumulated layers of sediment, which are an “encapsulation of history.” Pollen samples from those many layers tell the story of the transition from tobacco to grain.
Branden Dillard is an anthropologist who oversees interpretation and the instruction of tour guides at Monticello. While he said “no one can recreate the landscape of enslavement at Monticello,” which was a “forced labor camp in a botanical garden,” his job is to convey “an understanding of what it was.”
Interpretation involves bringing historical data and facts to life for diverse, contemporary audiences, making information relevant on a personal level. One important way the foundation does that is by using facts from documentary records to tell the stories about individual slaves.
Dillard acknowledge that tours can become very tense, particularly when visitors hear things they perhaps don’t want to. “Staff have been yelled at; fights can break out among visitors.” He said “about 15 percent of the reviews of the tours basically say ‘how dare you;’ another 15 percent accuse us of white washing; and 70 percent say we are doing a good job.”
For Niya Bates, who manages the oral history projects at Monticello, it’s important to have “up-front conversations with visitors who have been miseducated on the history of slavery and its legacy.”
She said Jefferson was “obsessive about taking notes, marking the weather twice a day.” From all these records, they were able to piece together the names of the 600 slaves who lived there, and then trace descendants, who have become critical stakeholders in Monticello.
Oral history interviews with descendants about the lives of their ancestors at Monticello and after slavery, and the after-shocks of slavery among the descendants themselves, helps enrich the story of this historic landscape. “Monticello is really a black space, even though it is not thought of as such. We can re-frame it as a black history site.”
The foundation has organized events where descendants plant trees to honor their ancestors. Visitors can sleep overnight in rebuilt slave quarters. Through the incredible Getting Word project, they can hear the stories themselves both online and in exhibitions. And there are also grants available to descendants to pursue their own projects and development.
The Legacy of Slavery in East End Cemetery
Introduced by landscape architect Sara Zewde, Brian Palmer, a photographer, journalist and professor gave a heart-felt talk about his explorations in the South, both photographing white supremacist rallies and exploring abandoned African American cemeteries.
In 1892, Jim Crow, which was a system of laws and regulations that enforced racial segregation across Southern states, “followed people to the grave.” African Americans had to be buried in their own cemeteries. The fact that many of these places are so neglected today plays into “our community’s residual shame.”
East End Cemetery, which is near Richmond, Virginia, is a historic 16-acre site where an estimated 17,000 African Americans are buried. It was one of many neglected African American cemeteries in the South.
After discovering the site through a photography assignment, Palmer and his wife later returned to volunteer, clearing out invasive plants, making the cemetery more visible and accessible, and posting images of gravestones on “Find a Grave” in an effort to identify descendants. Palmer went on to become the president of the non-profit managing the clean-up.
Reviewing microfiche of old newspapers, Palmer also discovered some of the famous African Americans buried at East End, including a doctor who became a bank president. “Reclaiming the cemetery is about reclaiming the history there.”
He called out the injustice that continues today in Virginia, noting that the state has provided over $9 million over the past 100 years for the upkeep of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, where many Confederate figures are buried, but exactly zero for the maintenance of African American cemeteries. “There’s affirmative action for Confederate cemeteries.”
Through a number of grants, East End Cemetery has been able to create a community for descendants and an ambitious preservation plan. Palmer said it’s slowly becoming a tourist destination, along with Evergreen and Woodland cemeteries nearby, which are also being restored. Read more in Palmer’s op-ed in The New York Times.
Uncovering the Truth of Slavery at Universities
Nathan D.B. Connolly, a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University moderated a discussion on how universities are dealing with complicated pasts intertwined with slavery. Given we now know that “slave money built many American universities,” including Ivy League institutions, how can universities create an inclusive community? Donnolly believes that “racism is still rampant in higher education,” adding to the challenge.
Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University, has worked to uncover the full story of slavery at his university, which has been in the news because Jesuits sold some 275 slaves in 1838 for $115,000 to get out from under “crushing debt.” While this information was publicly known at least since the 1960s, it has been “rediscovered” and taken on a new life.
To date, the university’s official response has been to offer a formal apology, institute a new process for engaging descendants of those slaves, and give descendants privileged position in admission considerations. However, current students recently found this didn’t go far enough and voted for giving reparations to descendants, arguing that one dormitory paid for with proceeds from the sale of slaves generates more than $1 million in revenue annually.
As the Georgetown Memory Project calls for more research and students demand reparations, Georgetown is “seriously wrestling with the facts of history.”
Hilary N. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, who runs the Hallowed Grounds project, a walking tour of slave history on campus, said her university has a “dismal retention rate for diverse students and faculty” perhaps in part because the past there hasn’t been fully acknowledged.
While the university created a marker honoring slaves and their legacy on the campus, Green decided to dig deeper, looking into the archives, and uncovering personal stories of slaves on campus. All this information has been presented in a walking tour to over 4,300 people, in rain or shine.
Her efforts have yielded progress: the university has formed a new commission to study race, slavery, and civil rights. Green has also created a pop-up museum on racial history at the university and is seeking a dedicated space.
And Elgin Cleckley, assistant professor of architecture and design thinking at the University of Virginia, described how he brings his empathetic design approach to complex sites on campus and in Charlottesville.
He said the walking tour on enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia inspired him to work with students to create a new project and exhibition called Mapping, which is now on view in the Rotunda until 2020. The project features documentation from the University of Virginia president’s commission on slavery and an orientation model laser-etched in slate roof tiles that enslaved workers on campus created.
UVA recently commissioned Howeler+Yoon to create a new monument to enslaved labor on campus, which will feature 973 names. (Some 4,000-5,000 workers were enslaved on the campus). Cleckley participated in the monument’s planning and design, stating that it adds an African form that contrasts with axial structure of the traditional campus. The monument is expected to open in 2020.
Cleckley said UVA is a complicated place to work because it “has produced both white supremacists and African American civil rights leaders.”
In the Q&A, conversation veered towards what to do with the Confederate statues that still take center stage in many Southern parks, plazas, and streets, serve as daily reminders of the “Lost Cause,” and are major flash points in race relations.
Some cities like Baltimore and Austin have removed all Confederate monuments, while other cities are moving cautiously, deliberating over whether to reinterpret the sites for a contemporary audience. The conclusion seemed to be to go slowly in removing them and focus on building new monuments to enslaved people first, rather than tearing down the old.
Another question arose about how to represent the influence of African slaves in historic American places like Monticello through design. The landscape isn’t just a white landscape, but also a black one.
Bates at Monticello said one way would be to contrast the “Western, rigid, grid forms” with something antithetical and African, “with movement, color, asymmetrical and curvilinear forms.” Intervening in the symbolic Western forms can “disrupt the landscape of white supremacy.”
Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA), has produced a series of five educational short videos, featuring conversations with 18 notable landscape architects on topics such as how to design with nature and time.
According to Gabriel, “the primary aim of the conversations with this informal industry advisory group was to educate the agency’s design and construction staff, thus enabling the agency to deliver higher-achieving projects,” which the “GSA plans, designs, builds, and manages on behalf of the American public.”
Material and Perspective explores the “world view” of landscape architects (see video above).
Designing with Time addresses the “unique temporal issues” that come with using trees and plants that change over seasons and as they grow.
Ecological Infrastructures explores how landscape architects design with natural systems to improve human and natural health and support biodiversity.
Site as Security shows how landscape architects can meet tough security requirements while also creating accessible, beautiful places.
Preservation and Design Evolution shows how historic places can be rehabilitated and re-purposed to fit contemporary needs.
Videos include interviews with:
Jose Alminana, FASLA
Diana Balmori, FASLA
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
Shane Coen, FASLA
David Fletcher, ASLA
Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA
Mikyoung Kim, FASLA
Tom Leader, FASLA
Patricia O’ Donnell, FASLA
Laurie Olin, FASLA
Marion Pressley, FASLA
Chris Reed, FASLA
Ken Smith, FASLA
Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA
Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA
Thomas Woltz, FASLA
And projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Columbus Circle, and Hunters Point South Waterfront in New York City; Rose Kennedy Greenway and Harvard University Plaza in Boston; Yards Park, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, D.C.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was bestowed on six buildings and landscapes across the world that show the power of design to revitalize cultural heritage and strengthen community identity but also improve quality of life and enhance natural resources. These include: the Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit in Senegal; the Arcadia Education Project in Bangladesh; the Palestinian Museum in Palestine; the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia; the Revitalisation of Muharraq in Bahrain; and the Wasit Wetland Centre in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1977, His Highness the Aga Khan, a progressive spiritual leader of some 10-15 million Nizari Ismaili Muslims, who has prioritized religious pluralism, women’s rights, and cultural preservation, created an architecture award to honor projects that “successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.” Since then, some 122 projects around the world have won the prize.
According to the Aga Khan Development Network, the award recognizes excellence in the “fields of contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, historic preservation, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design, and improvement of the environment.”
Highlighted are winners with significant landscape and environmental aspects:
Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh. After teaching in the UK for four decades, Razia Alam returned to her home country of Bangladesh and used her pension funds to create a school for underserved children. When the lease ran out on the school’s property, Alam decided to purchase a riverside lot because she wanted the children to be close to a river. The only downside: the property is partially submerged under 10 feet of water during the four month-long monsoon season.
Instead of building a raised structure that would negatively impact the wetland ecosystem, Alam’s architect, Saif Ul Haque Sthapati, created a building that can float but also remain tethered during flooding. Upcycled steel barrels raise the school up during high waters, and bamboo planks, the sole building material, were waterproofed by “applying liquid made from boiled local gaab fruit – a traditional Bangladeshi method.”
Palestinian Museum in Palestine. Through an international design competition, the Taawon-Welfare Association hired Dublin, Ireland-based Heneghan Peng Architects along with Jordan-based landscape architect Lara Zureikat to create a new museum in Birzeit to celebrate Palestinian heritage and foster a culture of “dialogue and tolerance.”
The museum was built on an agricultural site defined by terraces formed with low stone walls (sanasil) and artfully maintained that character. According to the Aga Khan Development Network, “the zigzagging forms of the Museum’s architecture and hillside gardens are inspired by the surrounding agricultural terraces, stressing the link with the land and symbolizing resistance to the West Bank’s military occupation.”
The outer areas of the landscape are used to grow agricultural crops, while next to the LEED Gold, Palestinian limestone-clad building there are gardens that yield produce for the museum’s café. Rainwater is harvested from the terraces and amphitheater for irrigation and toilets; greywater is also reused in the landscape.
Wasit Wetland Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Part of a broader effort to restore wetlands along the Persian Gulf Coast, the Wasit Wetland Center, designed by X-Architects, based in Dubai, is an angular visitor center, slimmed down and sunken into the landscape to reduce visual and environmental impacts. School groups and visitors walk through corridors that lead to views of the surrounding water bird aviaries.
Across the nearly 50-acre site, which was once a waste dump, the Wasit Wetland Center has restored the native wetland landscape and built six shelters made out of recycled wood and plastic for bird watchers.
Revitalization of Muharraq in Bahrain. Pearl diving was once the primary industry in Muharraq, the former capital of Bahrain. With the growth of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the industry fell into decline. With the rise of the oil industry, the capital then moved to Manama.
Muharraq’s unique heritage is being preserved; it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along a new “Pearling Path,” the Bahranian government and Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research initiated a comprehensive program that included the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic buildings, creation of new museums and visitor center, and the transformation of vacant lots into a chain of 18 new public spaces.
And, lastly, the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia. The Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia has a population of some 3.7 million. During the Soviet era, churches and mosques were destroyed, leaving public spaces associated with these places of worship empty. With the end of the Soviet Union, property was privatized, and the most appealing lakeside property was purchased and became inaccessible to the public.
To remedy these issues, the Tatarstan government transformed 328 spaces across 45 municipalities, covering two cities, 42 towns, and 33 villages into public beaches, ponds, parks, gardens, plazas, and boulevards that can be enjoyed year-round, even in dark, snowy Russian winters.
Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”
NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.
NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.
An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.
At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.
The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.
The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.
Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.
Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.
At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.
Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.
Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.