Moving through the pristine vastness of the Great Hall at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. is like being inside a monument on the National Mall. But the museum’s new installation and permanent foray into the woods offers a different experience.
Just beyond the structured lines of the architect Phillip Johnson’s Modernist residence-turned-museum are “the woods.” Far from wild, this curated, yet un-manicured portion of the sculpture garden is found in the forested back area of Kreeger’s 5.5-acre property in the residential Foxhall neighborhood north of Georgetown.
Here are a series of mirrored columns clustered among the oak, maple, tulip poplar, and beech trees, and scattered along a wood chip path. These are the Portals.
Artist Sandra Muss designed the piece specifically for the Kreeger as it expanded its sculpture garden into the woods. Muss’ piece is a series of seven ten-foot mirrored steel rectangular columns, wound with rusted wire and vines.
Despite the size, the columns are unassuming and easy to gaze over, reading as green foliage when viewed from the concrete walkway that wraps around the museum.
But once down in the woods, the scale of the column becomes more palpable, and what appears from above to be a carefully-curated placement of columns becomes a more compelling maze of reflections. Moving through the mirrors distorts the carefully-orchestrated sculpture garden experience — reflecting, and at times framing, bending, and pulling images of the museum and other sculptures down into the woods.
The woods are a welcome juxtaposition to the hushed, untouchable quality of the building above and offer a more organic component to the museum’s sculpture garden.
“In general, the planting is pretty simple, because it’s the art that wants to be the focus,” said Julie Patronick, landscape designer with McHale, who designed the forested sculpture garden expansion and worked with Muss to incorporate vines on the columns from the surrounding area.
Ultimately, she said, as new pieces are added to the forest, the intention will be to let the art decide its surroundings — be it exposed with only ground cover underneath, or more hidden, and seamless like Portals.
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.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, want the city’s massive park system — which covers 30,000 acres, some 14 percent of the city’s land — to be fairer. For too long, some neighborhoods have had wonderful, high-quality public spaces, while others have had parks that don’t meet contemporary needs and have fallen into disrepair. As Silver said in an interview with The Dirt: “Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.” The park department’s Community Parks Initiative (CPI) — which rebuilds or significantly improves parks that have not seen any capital investment in 25 years — is one of the central efforts for achieving this goal. At the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, Silver and others explained how the city’s already improving park equity — and setting a new model for other cities to follow.
Exploring all of NYC’s five boroughs, Silver has discovered people want the parks department to “break up all the pavement and add more green. They want more spray showers, dog runs, adult fitness equipment, and colorful places.” Communities also want “multi-generational social seating,” with benches for older residents and playgrounds for kids.
The CPI uses a “data-driven methodology” to identify the parks it will redesign or improve, explained Alyssa Konon, with the NYC parks department. They have identified 215 parks, plazas, and playgrounds in areas with high levels of poverty and inequality that especially need help. Some 56 comprehensive park redos have been started, and 11 more will start this fall. There have been targeted improvements in another 86. To date, some 55 neighborhoods, which are home to half a million NYers, now enjoy improved park space.
While about $1 billion in capital is needed for all 215 spaces, they also need “support, partnerships, programs, and maintenance.” Konon said NYC Parks is also ramping up programmatic support for these parks, partnering with other city departments and non-profits. NYC residents have already benefited from 130 outdoor exercise classes organized by the parks department. There are 15 staff members who just focus on partnerships, helping to coordinate the 33,000 volunteers who donate their time in hundreds of parks. There are now some 48 parks friends groups.
Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLandStudio, a landscape architect who is a consultant with the parks department, believes “every community can have an incredible park.” She is redesigning a few older parks and playgrounds in Staten Island, working with communities to explore the “ecology, history, culture” of these spaces and strike the right balance between “passive and active uses.” She said parks department-led public planning sessions are particularly “humane,” as they schedule them when single parents can attend and also offer good food, so those parents can bring their kids along. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.”
So that communities don’t get “park fatigue” waiting forever for changes to happen, Silver and his team have “transformed the capital development process,” Drake said. “Parks now happen a lot more quickly — in just two years,” instead of the typical four-to-five year cycle. “Whereas before we had five community design meetings, now we have two.” Silver said his goal has been to “streamline the process, because there are just too many regulations.”
New York City Council member Mark Levine explained how many of the city’s parks got into such dire straits in the first place. “In the 70s and 80s, the rough years in the city, the parks budget dropped and never recovered.” Now, parks only get 0.5 percent of the city budget, just $344 million out of $70 billion.
Levine thinks the CPI is a great initiative, but parks overall just need more money, particularly in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx, which have been up-zoned and are becoming more dense, and, therefore, need more high-quality public spaces. “Parks need to be considered part of new infrastructure.”
With 843 Acres Buffed, Central Park Leader Will Step Down– The New York Times, 6/6/17
“It is easy to forget what Central Park looked like in the 1980s. But Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, can see past the lush meadows and fresh streams to a time when the 843-acre park was more beaten-down wasteland than urban Eden.”
Landscape Architect Tends Ideas for Major City Projects– The Chicago Tribune, 6/8/17
“One of the keys to better creative ideas is first knowing what problem your client needs to solve, says Terry Guen, principal, president and founder of Terry Guen Design Associates in Chicago. But that isn’t always clear or simple.”
Seoul is the latest cities to reclaim a piece of aging infrastructure for public use. Last month, South Korea’s capital city opened Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, an inner-city freeway transformed into a pedestrian artery and botanical garden.
The elevated public park was designed by Dutch architects and urban designers MVRDV as a series of gardens with 24,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers. Fifty plant families and 228 species and sub-species are organized according to the Korean alphabet along the pedestrian-only walkway.
Ben Kuipers, lead landscape architect on the project, said the unique arrangement highlights plant nuances. “The species are organized by genus and family. So people can experience the differences between species,” he wrote in an email. “There are small, themed gardens, like the maple garden and the pine tree garden, and a surprising contrast walking from family to family, in Korean alphabetical order.”
Over 600 concrete planters dot the approximately 3,000-foot linear park, which stretches across the city’s central train station and connects the Namdaemun market area to the east and neighborhoods to the west. Each pot has nameplate identifying the plants in both Latin and Korean. At night, the pots are illuminated in blue and white.
“The trees are the stars,” Kuipers said. “We turned the bridge into a ‘walk of fame’ with every tree in a pot like on a pedestal. And every season shows different features.”
With over one million visitors in the first 10 days, Kuipers said the high volume shows the concept resonates. “We wanted to create not just a pedestrian connection, but also a place to visit, be, and meet people. Therefore, we also added ‘activators,’ such as little shops and cafes.”
MVRDV won an international competition in 2015 held by the Seoul Metropolitan Government for the design of the park with their entry, The Seoul Arboretum.
The original freeway, known as the Seoul Station overpass, was built in 1970 at the heart of a city undergoing rapid economic and population growth. The structure was slated for demolition after a 2006 safety assessment determined it would soon be unsafe for vehicular use. Officials ultimately decided to recycle the freeway, incorporating the structure into its plan to make the city more walkable.
“This overpass has special meaning because it represents Seoul’s modernity,” Kim Joon Kee, deputy mayor of safety management for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told CNN in 2016, as construction was underway. “It was built to relieve traffic congestion and, after 30 years, it became worn down, so we saw an opportunity for the city’s development.”
The name, Seoullo 7017, pays homage to the transformation of the freeway over time. The word Seoullo means “Seoul road,” and the numbers 70 and 17 reference its original constructed and when it reopened to pedestrian traffic, according to The Korea Times.
Implementing such a diverse planting design on an aging freeway structure came with a unique set of challenges. Kupiers explained there was little space for soil for the roots, given the load-bearing limitations and the inclination of the bridge destabilizes the soil. Designers also considered the safety of pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring no branches or trees would fall on the road or railway tracks below.
Furthermore, in a region with hot summers, cold winters, and typhoons, Seoul’s varied climate also posed a challenge. “We decided to create the right conditions for trees, shrubs and plants [by] making huge tree pots. These pots are isolated to prevent freezing and have a drainage, irrigation, and aeration system,” Kuipers explained.
The arrangement of over 600 pots, in varying sizes and depths, adds a distinctive, constructed quality to the design, a departure from the more organic style seen in many landscape designs in Asia, Kuipers said.
MVRDV’s design envisions the skygarden as an “urban nursery.” Kuipers said they plan to use the bridge in combination with the city’s own tree nursery to grow new trees and species, eventually distributing the pots along pedestrian routes in additional neighborhoods.
Seoul is hardly the first city to build an elevated urban walkway. Many have drawn connections between this project and New York City’s High Line. In fact, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was inspired by the famous James Corner Field Operations’ project, according to the The Korean Times. Still, the projects differ in their relationship to the surrounding urban fabric and the way they use plants.
“Although the High Line is a great example, Seoullo is different in many ways,” Kuipers said, noting the Seoullo Skygarden’s elevated views of the city and central location at Seoul Station in the heart of the city.
The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.
There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.
As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.
Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”
In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”
Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”
The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”
Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.
The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”
Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.
Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.
“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.
What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.
Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.
“We’re still fighting for equal pay. And there are a million cracks in the glass ceiling, but we haven’t broken through yet,” argued American Planning Association (APA) President Cynthia Bowen, at a session at APA’s annual conference in New York City, which featured a group of women design leaders with a total of 100 years of experience between them.
Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, ASLA president; Carol Loewenson, partner at Mitchell | Guirgola Architects and former president of AIA NY; and Wendy Moeller, a planner who started her own consultancy and is a board member of APA, talked in very personal terms about their important early influences, their efforts to overcome obstacles and achieve a work/life balance, and how to find “meaningful” professional fulfillment.
Some highlights from their wide-ranging, one-hour conversation:
Loewenson: “After World War II, my grandmother Edith started her own construction business. She wasn’t out there asking for favors, just doing it. I learned from her how to get things built, and that hard work pays off.”
Rinner: Back when I started as a landscape architect (in the 1970s), “I was one of two women at an engineering firm of 1,000. They didn’t like having me there. They didn’t like how I dressed. I was not prepared to be a pioneer. I experienced extreme sexism.”
Loewenson: “It’s not my experience that the architecture world is chauvinistic or male-driven. You need to find a place where you are appreciated. If you find yourself in a male-dominated firm, you can either try to change it or decide that it’s not the right fit. If you have opportunities to prove yourself, then you can take off. But construction — that’s a tough industry.”
Rinner: “It’s very important that we be ourselves and break the stereotypes. We must challenge what is typically male or female behavior. I’ve heard from many people that the worst bosses they’ve ever had were women. This is because women in middle management are put in a position where they must compete with each other. They are set up by men. Collaboration is everything. If we can be ourselves, we can support, not compete with each other.”
Rinner: “In a large group of men and women, men tend to dominate. Women can help other women be heard. Women may raise a great point, but have it co-opted by a man, then people forget where that idea came from. Women don’t get credit and don’t get heard. Through sponsorship and support, women can get heard.”
Loewenson: “It’s important to educate elementary and high school girls to give them confidence. So many amazing women draw the line at public speaking — they can’t get over that fear.”
Moeller: “When speaking in front of crowds, you have to read your audience and adjust your approach. Sometimes I can be very forward and sometimes just be myself. Creating a comprehensive plan for an Amish community, where the audience was all male, took lots of effort. They were very skeptical. But we persuaded them we knew what we are doing.”
Moeller: “When I set out on my own and created my own consultancy, it was frightening. I had to have hard discussions with my husband, who had to learn some ‘women’ work at home. It’s important to be confident about what you want.”
Loewenson: “If you are angry or scared, figure out what you really want. If the clarity of what you want is there, you will be clear-headed.”
Moeller: “Professional mentors in offices and associates are great. We didn’t have those when I was growing up. I seek out women in mid and upper levels as resources. It’s very informal, but there is a support structure.”
Loewenson: “As for work/life balance, everyday is a challenge. Some businesses are high-pressure and you won’t change them. Find a pace you are comfortable with.”
Rinner: “If you are working at a place where you can’t be who you want to be and can’t have a flexible schedule, you don’t want to work there.”
Moeller: “I work for myself. It’s very flexible. My personal support is my family, who are always around. It’s not a good situation without that support structure though.”
Loewenson: “Overcome your fears. Don’t be held back by them. Do it anyway. There is not another option. There will always be more challenges to overcome. Challenges are motivators.”
Planned WWI Memorial in D.C. to Use Pool Concept, Restore Park – Curbed DC, 5/19/17
“This Thursday, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) evaluated the concept plan for the planned WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Pershing Park, a memorial plaza only blocks from the White House that for years has been neglected.”
MVRDV’s Elevated Skygarden Opens on Former Highway in Seoul– Designboom, 5/22/17
“Weaving its way through the urban landscape of Seoul, South Korea, a new sky garden realized by MVRDV has been built on a former inner city highway. Named ‘Seoullo’, the public 983-meter-long park has been planted with 50 families of greenery, including trees, shrubs and flowers displayed in 645 tree pots, collecting around 228 species and sub-species.”
West 8’s Proposal for NYC’s Largest Private Garden at One Manhattan Square– 6sqft, 5/23/17
“The proposal, designed by urban planning and landscape architecture firm West 8, includes more than an acre of garden space for residents to both work and socialize, boasting indoor and outdoor grilling spaces, ping-pong tables, a putting green, children’s playground, adult tree house, tea pavilion, and an observatory made for stargazing.”
Mud Makes a Comeback in Suburbia– The Houston Chronicle, 5/30/17
“Generations ago, vast swaths of wetlands were tilled for space to grow rice, and a few generations later those rice fields were turned into posh sprawling suburbs, like Riverstone in Sugar Land.”
Take a Look at the Renderings for First and Broadway Park in Los Angeles – Archinect, 5/30/17
“Back in June of 2016, Mia Lehrer + Associates won the competition, beating out Eric Owen Moss Architects, Brooks + Scarpa, and AECOM, to design the two-acre park at First Street and Broadway. After winning the competition, the firm has taken suggestions from the Downtown community, altering their plans for the design.”
ASLA is extremely concerned with President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which makes draconian cuts at a time when our country should be making increased investments in the resilience and health of our communities.
The President’s recommendation to slash the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) by nearly 85 percent from current funding levels—from $400 million to $90 million—is devastating. Such a reduction decimates the nation’s most important conservation and outdoor recreation program that landscape architects access to plan and design community parks.
We are extremely concerned about the proposed 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget. It is the most dramatic rollback in the agency’s 47-year history. The proposal purports to allocate $2.3 billion to the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving fund programs, a $4 million increase. However, the budget also eliminates $498 million from the Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater loan and grant program and instead recommends that rural communities access EPA’s State Revolving Funds, thus leaving State Revolving Funds with a $494 million reduction in funding.
The Trump administration’s budget proposal includes significant cuts to key climate change programs and activities across all agencies, including ceasing all payments to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund and eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program.
ASLA and its members call on Congress to reject this budget proposal and protect programs and resources that protect our nation’s infrastructure and environment. As the long legislative process continues, we will continue to advocate on behalf of our members and their stewardship of the natural environment.
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.