For Darwina Neal, FASLA, the first woman president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), it made perfect sense that the inaugural Cultural Landscapes lecture at the National Building Museum — a lecture series Neal sponsored and created — would feature a new documentary on Beatrix Farrand, the only woman to be among the 11 founding members of ASLA. The 40-minute documentary was created by six-time Emmy Award-winning film maker Karyl Evans.
Beatrix Farrand, who was born in 1872 and passed away in 1959, designed over 200 landscape commissions over 50 years. The film features her most celebrated works, including Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden; and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Bar Harbor, Maine.
According to Neal, Evans deeply researched “Farrand’s life and work — as many of her gardens are being rediscovered and restored — and visited over 50 Farrand sites from Maine to California and Washington, D.C. to photograph the gardens and talk with curators, scholars, professional gardeners, and volunteers.”
Evans also “conducted research at the Beatrix Farrand archives at the University of California at Berkeley, where she discovered never-before-published materials now included in her film. The resulting documentary is an inspiring film about Beatrix Farrand’s challenging life and her stunning 50-year career as a landscape architect.”
Evans tells us this is the “first documentary ever created about the most successful female landscape architect in 20th century America.” It’s the story of “the daughter of one of American’s most elite families, and how her undeniable talent for garden design propels her onto the national stage.”
In the film, Evans interviewed the late Farrand scholar Diana Balmori, FASLA; landscape historian Judith Tankard; and landscape architect Shavaun Towers, FASLA.
Halprin’s Heritage Park Plaza in Texas Will Receive Complete Restoration– The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/19/17
“Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin loved cities, so it was only fitting that his cliffside Fort Worth, Texas, commission, Heritage Park Plaza (HPP), was the first-ever item on the National Register of Historic Places designated solely as landscape architecture.”
Preparing Trees to Go From Green Pastures to the Concrete Jungle– The Washington Post, 12/19/17
“The rolling hills of the Casey Tree Farm in Clarke County, Va., seem a million miles and a distant age from the real estate bustle of the District of Columbia and its constant reinvention, but these pastures offer the city future relief in a climate-changing century.”
Urban Planning Has a Sexism Problem – Next City, 12/19/17
“Take a moment to look around you. Really look. See the city — the streets, the buildings, the spaces between them — and realize for a moment that virtually everything you see has been designed and shaped by men.”
Good Design Is a Public Good– CityLab, 12/26/17
“If you asked 100 random people or even 100 designers, ‘What is design?’ you would get approximately that many different answers. In the most positive sense, this explains the pervasiveness of designers working in and touching every imaginable aspect of our lives.”
Miami Puts It All on the Line with New Park Project– Travel Weekly, 12/27/17
“When Miami unveils the first three of its 10 planned linear miles of parks and trails in 2020, the Underline will join the ranks of New York’s Highline, Atlanta’s Beltline, Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and Chicago’s 606.”
A New Leader for Central Park – The New York Times, 12/12/17
“Elizabeth W. Smith grew up in Rye, N.Y., about an hour north of Manhattan, and said her earliest memory of Central Park was from when she moved to the Upper East Side after college.”
Changing Houston, One Little Fix a Time– The Houston Chronicle, 12/12/17
“Using colored duct tape, spray chalk and stencils, we were done in 10 minutes. The results were just as immediate: Cars stopped well in advance of this modified intersection, and pedestrians walked with new confidence.”
Why Are We Wrecking Our Best Modernist Landscapes?– The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/14/17
“If you’ve seen the movie Columbus, you’ll remember, among all the nerdy dialogue about modernist bank branches and James Polshek’s buildings, that scene where the two protagonists passionately discuss the Dan Kiley landscape outside the Eero Saarinen–designed Miller House.”
The C&O Canal National Historic Park is at a crossroads — it can either be subtly restored, enlivened by the local ecology, and made more accessible, or dramatically re-imagined and redesigned. Earlier this month, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented preliminary conceptual designs to revitalize the canal — offering a spectrum of alternatives, ranging from the understated to the bold.
At the public review session in Georgetown, Alison Greenberg, head of the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, and a partner of the National Park Service in the revitalization efforts, said: “the goal is celebrate and respect the park’s historic character and sense of place” while also making the one-mile stretch of the 182-mile park that runs through Georgetown “sustainable, maintainable, ecologically-sensitive, safe, and accessible.”
Asking the community and visitors what they love about the place, James Corner, ASLA, discovered they most appreciate the “rocky aqueduct, the views of the river, the shade trees, the ability to stroll and have a quick escape to nature, the water, and the serenity.” He described the canal as a “corridor of melancholic charm where you can immerse yourself in pleasure.”
Still, he thinks the canal is also “sadly derelict, feels abandoned, and is unsafe” in places, which is debatable. “There’s no seating, lighting, and the narrow paths create safety issues.” Furthermore, there is a lack of access.
The dilemma for Corner is “how to maintain the heritage — the authenticity — while also promoting new social uses.”
There are concerns, though, that Corners’ proposals are perhaps over-designed for such a historic site. Darwina Neal, FASLA, former past president of ASLA, told us: “Rather than responding to the concern that ‘first and foremost, we have to respect the history that’s here’ — as stated by Kevin Brandt, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the C&O Canal — it seems like the designers are trying to turn this into an on-grade ‘High Line.’ As a landscape architect for the National Capital region of NPS, I worked on many projects along the canal from 1964 until I retired in 2009, and it is possible to improve the safety, accessibility, and functionality of this section of the canal without adversely impacting its historic integrity, as many of these proposals would, if implemented.”
Corner walked the 100-plus members of the community who attended the public review meeting through key aspects of his firm’s concepts.
He reiterated that his firm’s ideas are “not fixed or final; we want to use these to evaluate how people feel, and then shape the design.”
Towpath: Now a narrow gravel path with some opportunistic plants, the towpath could be kept the same width as it is now (7 feet) but paved over to improve safety; expanded to 11 feet, through the use of a cantilever, in order to provide space for seating; or widened out to 14 feet, which would also offer opportunities for more plants along the edge, but shrink the profile of the canal itself, also at great cost. A few members of the community noted that limiting the width of the towpath would help keep the space from becoming over-crowded — and help prevent the canal from turning into “Georgetown’s High Line.”
Mile Marker Zero: Many people who live in D.C. haven’t even been to this spot, the start of the 182-mile-long canal. Here, Field Operations offered options that will improve access for both pedestrians and bicyclists, with option B offering the easiest connections with existing networks.
Rock Creek Landscape: According to Field Operations, “This is the missing link between the C&O canal that we know in Georgetown and that area around Mile Marker 0. The challenge here is connecting the towpath with the plethora of bridges and overpasses created by the Whitehurst Freeway. We imagine a boardwalk under K street, and along a carefully-restored creek landscape; an immersive walk through nature and a critical connection for D.C.” The boardwalk path through the forest in Alternative B is far more intrusive into the Rock Creek landscape.
Rock Creek Confluence: Here, Corner presented some of the most transformational proposals. Where the canal turns the corner and heads west, Field Operations wants to introduce paths and bridges to improve connectivity and extend the canal’s towpath and also clean up what is an overgrown, neglected area and turn it into an picnic spot or amphitheater. “We can restore the visual corridor to all the locks.”
Locks: When one of the canal locks is finally restored later this year, at a cost of $6.5 million, there will be a canal boat pulled by mules. One of the main tourist draws for the canal, the mule yard, which is found between 29th and Thomas Jefferson Streets, is also the location of the current NPS office. Field Operations offered different options for the NPS office, boat ticket area and launch, and mule staging area.
The Walls: These proposals could really change the feel of the space and have major implications for preservation: Where the canal meets Wisconsin Avenue, Corner proposed cutting into the stone wall to create “more generous access” — a considerable length of stairs and terraces — while also offering wheelchair access with a new elevator. Along Potomac Street, he wants to unify the spaces on either side of the canal — Fish Market Square and Market House Plaza. One option brings in a High Line-like step seating. These options really open up the canal to downtown Georgetown; it will be the decision of the community, historic and design review boards, and NPS if that degree of access is what’s needed.
The Grove: The most straight-forward and constrained of Corner’s proposals. Field Operations simply proposes planting some more trees and stabilizing the path.
The Bend: A stretch between Potomac Street and 34th Street, could be a space for “verdant, garden-like setting with shade” and High Line-like chaise lounges. Field Operations also wants to redevelop the 34th street bridge to make it more accessible. This proposal would dramatically change the vibe of this now-rustic stretch.
The Aqueduct: Another set of bold proposals for a strange space now covered in graffiti, but with its own charm. Corner wants to rehabilitate the structure and create a series of “stepped terraces” to an overlook, potentially framing the views within a trestle. Also in this section of the landscape, Field Operations proposed creating better pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Capital Crescent trail and towpath.
Planned WWI Memorial Will Have a Ceremonial Groundbreaking on November 9 – Curbed, 10/2/17
“Originally, the plan was for a brand new WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C. to complete by November 2018, during the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, but due to a final design approval yet to be had, that won’t happen. Even so, there are still plans for a ceremonial groundbreaking on November 9.”
Landscape Architect Explores Nature’s Role in Urban Development– 9/18/17, Rhode Island Public Radio
“If you’ve made your way to the outskirts of downtown Providence lately, you may have noticed thousands of sunflowers growing on empty plots of land by the riverfront. The pop-up garden is highlighted in this year’s “Design Week RI,” a series of events showcasing the state’s design sector.”
Behind the U.S. Botanic Garden There’s … An Architect? – 9/20/17, The Washington Post
“Much of the same planning that goes into a building’s architecture applies to a garden’s architecture, especially one as large and detailed as the fragrant, pleasantly humid, lush-as-can-be United States Botanic Garden.”
Future Uncertain for Rare Public Landscape by A.E. Bye in Brooklyn– 9/26/17, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Brooklyn’s first park may be getting a new entrance that some say would open up the green space to the neighborhood, but opponents contend the renovation would erase significant historic fabric, including a rare public commission by the late modern landscape architect Arthur Edwin (A.E.) Bye, Jr.”
10 Lessons From Chicago’s New Landscapes– 9/28/17, Urban Milwaukee
“The opening of Millennium Park in 2004 in downtown Chicago is widely credited with launching a renaissance of public spaces—not just in the Windy City but nationally and even globally.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has announced its 38 professional award recipients for 2017. Selected from 465 entries, the awards recognize the best of landscape architecture in the general design, analysis and planning, communications, research, and residential design categories from the United States and around the world.
The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles on Monday, October 23, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The following is a complete list of 2017 professional award winners:
General Design Category
Award of Excellence
Klyde Warren Park – Bridging the Gap in Downtown Dallas, Dallas (see image above)
by OJB Landscape Architecture for the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation
The Entrance Garden, Sao Paulo, Brazil
by Alex Hanazaki Paisagismo for Eliane Revestimentos
Windhover Contemplative Center, San Francisco
by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture for Stanford University
Owens Lake Land Art, Inyo County, California
by NUVIS Landscape Architecture for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
SteelStacks Arts + Cultural Campus, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
by WRT for the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Bethlehem
Central Seawall Project, Seattle
by James Corner Field Operations LLC for the City of Seattle Department of Transportation and Office of The Waterfront
The Yue-Yuan Courtyard, Suzhou, China
by Z+T Studio Landscape Architecture for Avic Legend Co. Ltd.
Merging Culture and Ecology at The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina
by Surface 678 for the North Carolina Museum of Art
Chicago Botanic Garden: The Regenstein Learning Campus, Chicago
by Mikyoung Kim Design and Jacobs/Ryan Associates for the Chicago Botanic Garden
Workplace as Landscape – Facebook MPK20, San Francisco
by CMG Landscape Architecture for Facebook
Analysis and Planning Category
Award of Excellence
Storm + Sand + Sea + Strand — Barrier Island Resiliency Planning for Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas
by Studio Outside for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
The Olana Strategic Landscape Design Plan: Restoring an American Masterpiece, Hudson, New York
by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects for the Olana Partnership and The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Waterfront Botanical Gardens, Louisville, Kentucky
by Perkins+Will for Botanica
Positioning Pullman, Chicago
by Site for the National Parks Conservation Association
Conservation at the Edge – Prototyping Low-intervention Conservation in the Patagonian Wilderness, Cambridge, Massachusetts
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture for Victor F. Trahan III, FAIA
Fitzgerald Revitalization Project: Landscapes as the Framework for Community Reinvestment, Detroit
by Spackman Mossop Michaels for the City of Detroit
Texas Capitol Complex Master Plan, Austin, Texas
by Page and Sasaki Associates for the Texas Facilities Commission
Award of Excellence
Digital Library of Landscape Architecture History
by Benjamin George, ASLA
Ecology as the Inspiration for a Presidential Library Park
by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. for the George W. Bush Presidential Center
The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin
by The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Toward an Urban Ecology
by Scape, published by The Monacelli Press
‘Jens Jensen The Living Green,’ A Feature Documentary
by Viva Lundin Productions and the University of Michigan
Championing Connectivity: How an International Competition Captured Global Attention and Inspired Innovation in Wildlife Crossing Design
by ARC Solutions
Award of Excellence
Fluid Territory: A Journey into Svalbard, Norway
by Kathleen John-Alder, ASLA, Rutgers University, Tromsø Academy
Climate Change Impacts on Cultural Landscapes in the Pacific West Region, National Park System
by Cultural Landscape Research Group, University of Oregon for the Pacific West Region, National Park Service
Seeding Green Roofs for Greater Biodiversity and Lower Costs
by Richard Sutton, FASLA, for the Sandhills Publishing Inc., Arbor Day Foundation, Tetrad Property Group, LPS NRD, and Lincoln Urban Development
Rendering Los Angeles Green: The Greenways to Rivers Arterial Stormwater System (GRASS)
by Lee-Anne Milburn, FASLA, for the City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Sanitation
The Ecological Atlas Project
by Studio Roberto Rovira
Residential Design Category
Award of Excellence
Birmingham Residence, San Francisco
by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture for Linda Dresner
Telegraph Hill Residence, San Francisco
by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
Northeast Harbor, a Restoration on Mount Desert Island, Hancock County, Maine
by Stephen Stimson Associates | Landscape Architects
by Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture
Casa Las Brisas – Formation of a Coastal Retreat, Las Condes, Chile
by C. Stuart Moore Design
Proving Grounds – A 20-Year Education in American Horticulture
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture for Adam R. Rose and Peter R. McQuillan
Agrarian Modern – The Recovery and Renewal of Manatuck Farm
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture
by HOLLANDERdesign | Landscape Architects
Northpoint Apartments, Orinda, California
by JETT Landscape Architecture + Design Inc. for Aline Estournes, Northpoint Apartments LLC
The Landmark Award
The J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles
by OLIN for the J. Paul Getty Trust
The professional awards jury included:
Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, Chair, National Capital Planning Commission, Washington, D.C.
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, DesignJones LLC, New Orleans
Maureen Alonso, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.
James Lord, ASLA, Surfacedesign Inc., San Francisco\
Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, Janet Rosenberg Studio, Toronto
Glen Schmidt, FASLA, Schmidt Design Group Inc., San Diego
Todd Wichman, FASLA, Stantec, St. Paul
Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
For the selection of the Research Category, the jury was joined by M. Elen Deming, ASLA, University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois, on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., on behalf of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).
Concepts for the proposed World War I memorial at Pershing Park, located just two blocks from the White House, continue to evolve. This month, the team designing the capital city’s first national memorial commemorating WWI took comments from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which pushed for keeping more of the nearly two-acre park created by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, in 1981.
Since first presenting their concept to the planning commission last year, the team — led by architect Joe Weishaar, landscape architect Phoebe McCormick Lickwar, ASLA, and sculptor Sabin Howard — has continued to adapt their proposal in response to feedback. The original concept, The Weight of Sacrifice, which won a competition last year held by the WWI Centennial Commission, sought to replace the sunken pool basin with a lawn to improve access and visibility and install a bas-relief commemorative wall depicting images of the war.
At this month’s meeting, the planning commission reviewed an iteration of the concept that got rid of the lawn, expanded the existing pool, and combined the site’s signature water feature with a 65-foot-long commemorative wall.
Considering the many changes to the original proposal, council member Evan Cash questioned whether the entire scope of the project had changed. He noted people liked the new concept because it preserved open space, but with on-going edits “…the project has changed to rehabilitation.”
“What started out as a project to look for a new WWI memorial has actually turned into a preservation project of the existing park, with some additional elements,” he said. “I just think all the problems we’ve been talking about are linked to the fact this has been a design that has been so overworked.”
The planning commission approved the concept, with many qualifications, and the team will now move further refine the proposal and incorporate requested elements. Changes to the existing park will also need to be approved by the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) and the National Park Service (NPS).
The park was originally designed by Friedberg, who is also known for Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis. Friedberg’s views on the new concept were shared with the commission by Margo Barajas, a representative of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), a group that has advocated for restoring, rather than redesigning Pershing Park, which has beendetermined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This means there is a case for preserving and restoring the park.
After the latest iteration was presented to the CFA in May, Friedberg noted he was disappointed with the new concept, taking particular issue with the commemorative wall, saying it is being “forced into the space and obliterating the scale.”
Friedberg’s original design is a multi-level space with a sunken pool and water feature with a fountain that housed a Zamboni to maintain the pool as an ice rink during the winter. The site’s planting was later revised by Oehme, van Sweden. The site also includes a small, presently-unused kiosk structure that once doubled as an ice-skate rental station; movable furniture; and a statue of the WWI hero.
The new concept replaces the kiosk with a flag pole and adds a walkway across the pool to allow visitors more intimate access and a more tactile connection to the commemorative wall.
Debate has waged on over the aesthetic and functional merits of Pershing Park and the addition of a WWI memorial. The site has been poorly maintained and fallen into disrepair over the years. Many also find the park difficult to access. Critics of the new plans, including TCLF, have sought to reduce changes to the site and instead restore the park to its original intent.
The addition of a national WWI memorial was hard-fought by advocates on the WWI Centennial Commission who originally wanted the commemoration on the National Mall. Met with opposition from Congress and the National Park Service, the Centennial Commission eventually settled on Pershing as the selected site. Once approved by Congress in 2014, the Centennial Commission held an international design competition for the memorial. Last January, they announced Weishaar’s design as the winner of five finalists among hundred of entries.
Unlike World War II and the Vietnam War, World War I is the only major US conflict of the 20th century not commemorated with a national monument in Washington. There is a World War I memorial on the Mall, but not a national one (it is specific to local DC soldiers who fought in the war). And some critics say, that’s OK.
As The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott argues, DC’s many smaller WWI memorials embedded throughout the city offer another form of remembrance. The monuments are specific and distributed, and, as such, Kennicott writes, “there is no one-stop shopping, no simple, quick way to ‘pay respects’ and move on; but there is a rich history lesson, not just about the war itself, but about how memory and monuments have changed over the past century.”
Regardless, plans for the memorial will continue to move forward, with hopes for a final dedication on November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war.
Like so many national parks, the C&O Canal National Historic Park has been loved to death. Some 4.8 million people visited the park last year, more than the number of visitors to Yellowstone or Yosemite. Partnering with the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, the local business improvement district (BID), and D.C. department of planning, the National Park Service (NPS) has initiated a new comprehensive plan to revitalize the one-mile stretch of the canal running through Georgetown, which is just one segment of the 184-mile-long canal that goes all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. The year-long process will result in a final plan identifying the costs of improvements.
Canal ally Georgetown Heritage hired James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects who designed the High Line, to find out what people who love and use the canal want and craft a new vision. For some, the canal is a place to stroll and relax or exercise, a restorative respite from the busy commercial corridors along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. For others, it’s a tourist destination and a place to eat a cupcake and chat with friends. Improving the experience for these different types of users and reconciling conflicting needs, all the while maintaining the canal’s historic character will be tricky.
Last week, nearly 200 community members met in small groups, debating how to update the canal while preserving its character. The canal is a significant piece of transportation history and an engineering marvel, explained Kevin Brandt, NPS superintendent. The 184-mile-long canal, which was was constructed from 1828 to 1850, was primarily used to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains to waterfront mills found in Georgetown. The canal required building more than 70 locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major rivers and streams, and 240 culverts to traverse smaller streams. After the mills closed in the early 1900s, the canal fell into disuse. In Georgetown, a $6.5 million effort is already underway to restore just one historic lock as a tourist attraction.
James Corner, ASLA, offered insights from his team’s analysis of the one-mile stretch under consideration. He wants to “build on the canal’s innate personality, and concentrate the poetics of the found experiences.” The canal is now used for “strolling, romantic promenades after dinner, biking and jogging,” depending on the time of day. The canal also has a “broader constituency” than just the residents of Georgetown, including the millions of tourists who visit and residents from nearby states who walk or bike the trail.
He was taken with what he called the “beautiful mineral nature” of the canal, the stone walls and large rocks that line the towpaths, along with the water lines, the “visceral” expressions of water found in the rock.
He was also intrigued by the vegetation that has grown in over time — “the moss, lichens, and ferns that have moved in,” and the “trees, meadows, and habitat” that slowly greened the site over the past century.
The relatively-narrow towpaths present challenges — in some stretches there’s just one towpath — but there are open areas, such as the fish market, overlooks, and aqueduct that can be enhanced as public spaces. Corner organized spaces with unique spatial characteristics into zones, which together “form a rich sequence of experiences.” Throughout these zones, there are real accessibility issues — many of the bridges and paths only offer stairs, not ramps.
At the public planning session, groups explored what to preserve and enhance or what new uses could be incorporated. Our group wanted to preserve the canal’s rustic, chill vibe; re-introduce the local ecosystem and create gardens with native plants; clean the water; make the canal more accessible by adding ramps, seating, drinking fountains, and restrooms; enliven it with high-quality public art; create new educational opportunities with better signage and tours; and perhaps open up the canal to recreational boating and kayaking on weekends.
What was also heard from many groups: don’t turn the C&O Canal into High Line, which has become a tourist destination and is crowded at almost all hours. To allay those fears, Corner said the NYC park, built on an old rail line, “is not a useful comparison, because the context is very different.”
And as Alison Greenberg, head of Georgetown Heritage, explained, “our goal is not to overhaul the canal, but to enhance its essence.”
However, just improving access to the C&O and creating shiny new amenities like gardens or plazas will likely increase the number of visitors. How can people enjoy the restorative experience of the canal amid mobs of people? Let’s hope this special place maintains its low-key charm.
As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.
First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”
Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social environment that generated them. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with new “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue. The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to replace the dysfunction of the old with a modern urban world.
And these landscapes were the result of innovation. Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).
Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of the most ambitious renewal-era projects. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”
As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer and planner Lucio Costa: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.” These Modernist places are designed as forms first, he argues, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind.
So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”
Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.
And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.
Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.
For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”
Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.
Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now wind swept and barren.
After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”
And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees arranged in allees and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.
The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Organizations like The Cultural Landscape Foundation advocate for the preservation and adaptation of Modernist landscapes. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.” Meanwhile, residents of cities decide with their feet where they want to be, and, at public meetings, use their voice to make clear what they want in public spaces.