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.

Is There a Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

Nonetheless, Treib answered his own question with resounding affirmation. In organizing the symposium, Treib’s goal was to focus on planting and landscape design that surpasses function and landscape ecology alone and brings in beauty. Addressing the concerns of ecology in landscape architecture has become nearly (and arguably) required. Accordingly, all of the speakers’ designs, or the projects discussed, are sustainable “to a greater or lesser degree.”

But building from the constraints created by location and environmental conditions, how can aesthetics and art inform design? And what level of beauty can be attained? Given we are in an environmental crisis, Trieb audaciously questioned the “narrow ambition” of designs that solely address ecological function, and the idea “that good morals automatically yield good landscapes.”

Speakers from around the world also explained how planting aesthetics are tied to histories. For example, Laurie Olin, FASLA, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked: “In design, one is never truly free of earlier sense of form, particularly those found in nature. Everything you do refers to everything else, whether you mean it to or not.”

Speakers employed the vocabulary of plant selection and form to connect to cultural, natural, and formal histories, deepening the discussion on aesthetics. Below are highlights from the weekend:

Planting to Illuminate Cultural and Natural Histories

Kate Cullity, a founding director of Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) in Adelaide, Australia, seeks to respect and illuminate cultural histories through her designs. These histories are brought to light through the selection and placement of plants. At the Uluru Aboriginal Cultural Center at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the design encourages the visitor to respect the Uluru’s culture and their right to the land (see image above).

Before the start of the project, Cullity relocated to the desert for one month, slowing down to learn the landscape and recording stories from the Aborginal people. In a rare rain event, she learned “how water moves in a dendritic way over the desert.”

Her time at the site influenced the ultimate design of the project: the cultural center was sited to give guests a meditative walk through the landscape before arriving. No change in grade was made across the entire site, as doing so would have altered the way water flowed, and consequently the growth of the existing plants. “Sometimes,” Cullity noted, “designing is not the answer. This was the answer here.”

In similar theme, others also referred to the importance of water, and lack thereof, as defining their planting habits. Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, an architect and landscape architect in Mexico City, discussed botanical geography, and the variations determined by “latitude and altitude.” He discussed designing in a subtropical climate and the importance of retaining stormwater.

Working primarily in the deserts of Arizona and Texas, Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA, is guided by the aesthetics of “Plant what will survive!” and “Own your own geography.” These tenents translate into: use native and drought-tolerant plants; pay attention to runoff and permeability; evoke the natural landscape features, such as arroyos; and look to where native tribes have found meaning in the landscape.

Landscape architects Thorbjörn Andersson of Stockholm, Sweden; Cristina Castel-Branco of Lisbon, Portugal; and Erik Dhont of Brussels, Belgium expressed the influence of their respective cultural histories in their planting practices. Andersson noted the poverty of the Swedish landscape as influential in his own career. His design of the Hyllie Plaza in Malmö, Sweden used one single species, the beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) to create a stylized beech forest. The tree’s architectural form, smooth silk trunk, the near-sterile understory: “It already looks designed in nature,” Andersson noted, adding, “plants become part of what signifies our culture.”

Beech trees in Hyllie Plaza, Malmö , Sweden / Thorbjörn Andersson

Dhont credits Belgium’s strong cultural heritage with defining his own body of work. “When you know heritage, it’s impressive to go in the footsteps of history.” He re-employs that heritage in his own work to new ends, such as using the topiary to guide and provoke encounters in a garden.

Topiaries at a chateau in Geneva, Switzerland / Erik Dhont

Castel-Branco, too, has merged the historic and the new in her own work. In a historic garden of exotic plants, she provokingly planted more exotic Sequoias after witnessing their success. She reminded the audience that the garden is an “eternal laboratory of adaptation,” which will grow in importance as the climate changes.

Planting as the Arbiter of Form

Other speakers focused on the formal abilities plants can offer a place. For Peter Walker, FASLA, his approach to planting has been a fifty-year journey to achieve what he experienced at the Parc de Sceaux, outside of Paris, France: the power of a landscape to instill a Gothic-cathedral sense of awe in the visitor. Walker has attempted to make architecture from plants, concentrating on the instant trees meet the ground on a flat surface. “I will not talk about a region or ecology—we’ve had enough of that,” Walker said.

Parc de Sceaux, France / Pinterest

Nonetheless, he admitted the relevance of place in his designs. In Japan, regarding subtle changes in the landscape is habitual, and his proposal to populate a landscape solely with a field of trees was easily accepted; in New York City, a similar design required thorough explanation to city stakeholders.

Echoing Walker, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, a landscape architect based in San Francisco, commented, “plants can shift how people think about environment. It’s about re-calibrating what is beauty.” Her landscapes, most notable for their edited, sculptural forms, nonetheless are determined by the California climate that lacks rain for six months of the year.

Richard Hindle, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, asked the audience to consider how plants and structures unite by examining vertical gardens, which bring together architectural and the garden-making approaches and allow for new paradigms, such as extending the anatomical and physiological possibilities of plants.

On a broader scale, Alexandre Chemetoff, a landscape architect and urbanist based in Gentilly, France, offered a similar point: “a tree is not an isolated subject,” and neither is landscape architecture. In his work that spans architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture, he works with the three disciplines in tandem, the design of one informing the others. “This is quite different than the idea of having things separate, one from the other,” he explained, demonstrating the example of a thicket of trees that serve as a natural cooling system to a cocooned building.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

The Case for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park

Eight months after former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama revealed their vision for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, on the south side of Chicago, the Obama Foundation has released more detailed plans and designs, which they say are the result of thousands of comments. The new plans are perhaps also a response to criticism that the Presidential Center “confiscates” some 19 acres of the historic, Olmsted-designed 543-acre Jackson Park, and, therefore, a parking structure planned for the nearby Midway Plaisance would further undermine the park’s integrity. The Obama Foundation has since scrapped plans for the parking structure in favor of adding parking underneath the Center.

Amid new calls by park advocates and a faculty group at the University of Chicago to move the Presidential Center out of Jackson Park, the design team — which is led by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and includes Interactive Design Architects (IDEA), Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Site Design Group, and Living Habitats — continues to move through the process, honing the plans and designs, with the goal of building the $500-million project by 2021.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, lead landscape architect on the project, told us criticism that the Obama Presidential Center destroys the landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. is incorrect. “There is a complete failure to recognize the history of the 19 acres in question, particularly with respect to Olmsted and Vaux. The Jackson Park — as designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux — was never actually fully realized. Then, the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition came in, and Jackson Park was nearly destroyed. The design evolved with guidance from Olmsted Sr., but not Vaux. One of Olmsted’s successor firms, headed up by his sons, created a revised plan for the park in 1895, the same year FLO Sr. retired from practice. Olmsted Sr. kept the lagoons intact as did the sons in the 1895 plan. Many of FLO Sr’s big ideas persist in that version of Jackson Park, but given the history, you have to be misguided to argue the landscape between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue is in any way an intact Olmsted Sr. landscape. Or that its current configuration and character is fundamental to our ability to appreciate Olmsted Sr’s. vision for a very large, very watery park.”

Jackson Park aerial view / Chicago Construction News

Furthermore, Van Valkenburgh argued, the Obama Foundation’s plans will yield usable new landscape. “With the new Presidential Center, we will remove the 6-lane Cornell Drive, which, today, horrendously cuts off part of the park where the OPC is proposed, leaving it as an isolated triangle. The removal of Cornell Drive is a major restoration of the 1895 plan— and makes connections through Jackson Park towards the adjacent Lagoon and on to Lake Michigan. Also, the OPC will create accessible new park land, as part of the MVVA site strategy that embeds two of the new buildings entirely under new landscape on the east and south sides towards Jackson Park.” The design team contends there will be a net-gain in park land.

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

Van Valkenburgh believes the landscape design realizes the goals of the Obamas: to make the Center as green and open as possible, so the entire experience feels like an urban public park. “Again, the organizing idea was to cluster the three Center buildings and embed two of them in park land, so we can keep the amount of paved surfaces to under a couple of acres.”

Obama Presidential Center embedded in the landscape / Obama Foundation, DBOX

The Obama Foundation and the design team want to create a new woodland walk, sledding hill, playground, athletic center, lawns, and community vegetable garden for school kids to grow and eat fresh produce. The garden helps continue “Mrs. Obama’s mission of food and wellness.” These new features are set within a landscape designed to sustainably manage water.

Woodland Walk / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Sledding hill / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Playground / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

“The Obamas were married in the park. And they lived a few blocks away from it for years. They are committed to opening up the Center into the civic and public realm.”

For more perspective, read the take of Blair Kamin, The Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic, who largely supports the approach of the design team, but calls for the designs to further evolve, that of Jackson Park Watch, which calls for slower and more comprehensive planning with deeper community involvement, and that of Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who calls for moving the Center out of the park (and also disagrees with Kamin). Lastly, read more on demands that the Obama Foundation sign a community benefits agreement, which they have so far refused to do.

New Film: The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand

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.

Purchase the DVD or request a screening.

Also, Farrand was the subject of a two-day symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. Read more from the series of lectures: Beatrix Farrand Gets a Fresh Look and In the Shadow of Farrand.