Black Landscapes Matter: Q&A with Landscape Designer Walter Hood — 11/02/20, Metropolis Magazine
“The forthcoming collection, co-edited by landscape designer Walter Hood, examines a past, present, and future of the Black American experience as spatially archived in cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, California, and Charleston, South Carolina.”
Contemporary memorials can be powerful tools for resetting historical narratives around racism in our country. Embracing our true past — the horrors and the triumphs — will give us the space to accurately frame the American story, so that we might accept a more accurate accounting of where we really are on the path to equality.
Americans must create new memorials that are deep and resonate and omit the hyper-simplified token gestures of the past. Let us show the world, through new places of honor and memory, the maturity of a nation that has taken ownership of its past and is resolved in stamping out inequality. Only then can our nation’s core value — that all men are created equal — be held in truth in the hearts of all of its citizens.
Denying the truth enslaves us. Accepting it sets us free.
It might be said that the problem of addressing issues of racial equality in America in 2020 is as much a matter of refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions and changing them as it is racism itself. We struggle to move past our own legacy of hatred and discrimination because we have never fully accepted the truth of it.
Instead, we have rewritten the most vile, the most evil chapters of our past, carefully molding them into neat packages that one could argue resemble scary bedtime stories rather than the graphic and horrible truth. We know the narrative: slavery to freedom, oppression and inequality to the civil rights movement. Civil liberty and voting rights to President Barack Obama and the myth of a free and just America that we live in today; and along the way, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, maybe John Brown, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy brothers. This may be an oversimplification, but it is far less than our chosen selective collection of right-sized stories portrays.
Most everyone will know the names above. They have been memorialized countless times across our nation, revered (and in some cases reviled) for their contributions in the fight for equality. But how many of us know Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, or Anne Lowe? How many of us know the horror beset upon the slaves known only as Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy?
Some of us might know the name of Emmett Till. But how many know Jesse Washington or the unimaginable horror visited upon the thousands of blacks that were lynched from the late 19th century to the 1960s? I’d wager that comparatively, very few of us do. And that is by design.
This is because the stories of these people and places were never meant to be examined. The events were never meant to be revealed. The names, like so many other notable Black figures who gave of their lives and talents either willingly or by violent force snuffed out, remain all but omitted from our nation’s history. Their stories are erased, so the favored narrative might prevail.
This narrative states that our forefathers committed regrettable acts, but acts from which we have, through a long and drawn out, reluctant, and only partial admission finally “moved on” from. In minimizing our past, we have all but absolved ourselves of any responsibility we might shoulder today for the inequality that exists from the lowest gutters of our main streets to the highest reaches of our government. As a result, we remain mired in a past that will never truly be past unless it is reckoned with in our collective attitudes and actions.
This denial of the truth threatens to tear the moral fabric of our nation. Today, I see a benign indifference to inequality and the fallout of our continued legacy of racism as much as I do the proliferation of neo-racist ideas or beliefs. In so many cases, that indifference to inequality can be attributed to the lack of will or ability to find the hard reality of our past so that we might understand who we truly are as a nation. Our history has been so carefully cleansed of the truth — so tangled in webs of deceit and distraction, misdirection, and mis-characterization — that a person seeking to understand why Black wealth, incarceration, or education levels are what they are would require a degree of investigative rigor reserved for scientific research.
Some might say to not put in the effort to understand is simply lazy. I don’t disagree, but it also shouldn’t be as hard as it is. Amid the blaring voices and opinions of the multitudes, who share their own takes on social media, and the doubling-down on old racist tropes by some of those in power, it is no surprise that some 155 years after the abolition of slavery, we are as divided as we have ever been. At times it seems a hopeless fight, but it’s one we must have.
Our footprints mark our past, but also point in the direction of our future.
The land upon which we walk marks the footprints of our history just as surely as our history books. And like those books and the stories within them, the tales we read upon that land contain only the degree of truth we choose to till into it.
When we scrape the land to create a hollow within which to build a fire, the action is recorded, unless we meticulously erase all traces of the action and allow the passing of time to heal the wound. The ground is pitted, the coals remain after the fire is spent, the ashes scattered across the ground.
But the how, the who, and for what of the fire: those are facts left for the author (or victor) to record. Such as it is for the roads we’ve built: Highways and their legacies of connection but also division. So it is with the buildings and railroads that sprang from the virgin beauty of native American lands. Land scraped of one history so that another could be written. Structures erected and hailed as symbols of American might. White houses built by Black hands — hands which belong to a people for which the ideology of a nation carried not hope and freedom, but pain and despair. The darkness was often deliberately forgotten, leaving only triumphant stories of struggle, regret, and perseverance over the land, our enemies, and ourselves.
We have achieved remarkable feats as a nation but also created fairy tales from horror stories. What we have done to the land and built upon it is in a way a memorial to who and what we are as a society. The land records only part of the story. The rest, we script to our needs.
Who we are is evident in what we build.
We erect markers to commemorate the actors and moments of our history. There are monuments and memorials that record battles won and lost that honor lives and hallowed grounds. And as with the land we’ve marked in America, the stories we choose to tell in these places speaks to who we are and what we believe in as a people.
Those stories that speak to us from bronze and granite become solidified in our individual and collective conscious. They become symbols of our belief system. But when truth and fact are not the priority of the memorial designer, what becomes made concrete in our conscious is little more than myth. Myth informs a set of beliefs that inform attitudes and dictate actions. These actions result in policies that chart the path for our future. Recalling the past is necessary to accurately feel our present and chart our future.
The ongoing controversy over what should become of the nation’s many confederate monuments highlights that struggle. We must now design a new foundation upon which we might write a new narrative about who we are, where we have been, and with a proper accounting of those things, the path we might walk in the future. But this task is not as easy as it may seem.
Following the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh acted quickly to remove the Confederate monuments in the city. It was a decision that was largely applauded for preventing violence and unrest. In the months following the removal, design charrettes and community-based discussions were held to discuss what stories should replace the old racist confederate narratives.
In March 2018, there was a re-dedication of the most significant of the four locations. The space that was once the home to a Confederate memorial to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee would now be designated Harriet Tubman Grove. If the goal is to take down a symbol of an evil and replace it with one of good, Harriet Tubman is a universal symbol of all that that word describes.
However, taken in context, in a country that counts sincerity and simplicity as two of its of its greatest virtues, one might also argue that despite the seeming sincerity of actions like the dedication of another Tubman memorial, or the 1,000-plus streets and boulevards named after Martin Luther King Jr, we are oversimplifying the story of our past — a story of overcoming prejudice and succeeding in spite of it.
In fact, as a society, we are in a way complicit in upholding the illusion that there were but a few Blacks of note throughout American history. Or worse, we may be minimizing the atrocities and oppressive policies pushed onto Blacks from the inception of the slave trade through slavery, failed reconstruction and the Antebelum South, segregationist policies of the early 20th century, and race-based housing and lending practices through modern day poll taxes.
To acknowledge a select few individuals while ignoring the complete picture of the marred historical record relegates the suffering and contributions of so many Blacks who fought for the advancement of our nation to the most remote corners of our history — the place they were designated by the flawed beliefs of previous generation to remain.
Today, in the midst of a worldwide movement to bring awareness to the validity of black lives, when all the eyes of the world and the nation are watching, we must assure that what they see and what we show ourselves — the stories and the images of our past — are more reflective of our truth. Like the pages upon which we have documented our American history, our American landscape can serve as a place to document story.
Our public spaces are a means to tell our true story.
Landscape architects, planners, artists, and policy makers must take part in and, when we can, lead dialogue around the way in which we tell our nation’s story.
We can view our landscapes, plazas, monuments, and memorials as opportunities to re-educate current and future generations about the truth of who we are and how we came to be. We can do this in a way that is reflective, honest, and accurate, so the tragedy of our past is not repeated. On our own, we can’t retool the civics and history curricula in schools across our country, but we can assure that the narratives that people take away from the experiences they have in the landscapes we build are informative, enlightening, and ultimately encourage others to think more deeply about our place in the world and the inequities they might see in it.
Pedestal and statuary will always have a place in the act of memorialization, but if what we seek is a gesture that ultimately brings about togetherness, we should try to embody that aspiration in the fabric of the spaces we create.
If the historical intent of Confederate memorials and the empty spaces they have left behind was in large part to remind Blacks of their low position in American society, should not the opposite action be to create spaces that remind us that we SHOULD all be equal but have not been treated so, extinguish the myth that we are not, and shine a light on the realities that in our past and present contribute to ongoing inequality?
Would not a better use of the spaces that once held figures in granite and bronze be to not simply replace one figure with another or one name for another but to create spaces that evoke powerful emotion, teach lessons of “never again,” enhance the public realm, and encourage us to question contemporary life experiences?
Shouldn’t they assure that heroes and victims are appropriately cast and engage the public in a broader ongoing dialogue about racism and inequality?
And shouldn’t they also serve as a vehicle to tell stories that to date have been omitted from the pages of our history? It is not difficult to make the case that the answer to all of those questions should be yes.
We cannot veil the horror of the atrocities we have committed in our past. To understand the suffering of others, we must ourselves get as close as we can to the pain they have endured. It must be there for us to see, touch, hear, and feel. Truth. Clarity. Awareness. Change.
Contemporary memorials abroad and here in the U.S. are striking new chords. They offer a new way of shaping not only how and what we remember, but also assure that the emotions we draw from them and the awareness they create deeply resonates.
Too little has been documented of the facts and scope of the lynchings of Blacks in our history. For 88 years between 1880 and 1968, there were more than 4,700 documented cases of lynchings, which equates to approximately one Black life taken per week. One murder per week for 88 years. And those are only the murders that were recorded.
Yet, until the completion of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, there were no sites that provided a means to interpret these atrocities so they might be appropriately set in the context of our history and serve as a sobering warning for future generations to stamp out the embers of hatred and violence. Located on six acres within the city of Montgomery, the scale of the memorial is impressive, and the experience is varied, employing a range of powerful interpretive methods.
Inspired by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the focus of the memorial is a large, central court with 805 suspended boxes, roughly the size of coffins, suspended from steel rods. Each box represents a county in the U.S. in which a lynching was recorded. Visitors slowly descend to the courtyard floor, the boxes suspended above them. The simple descent is a powerful design move, meant to evoke the unsettling feeling of walking among the dead. The boxes list the names of those souls whose lives were taken and whose stories, until now, have been all but lost.
It is an experience that is powerful; one that is free from any veiled attempt to mute the reality of what it memorializes. The horror one might feel is intentional, and one might argue, necessary in order to make one more aware of contemporary acts of social injustice and crime. The pain is one that should touch all of our souls, for there is a clarity in our tears that is unaffected by the color of the cheek upon which they fall. A clarity that can create unity and awareness, without blame or fault.
We should all remember those who have gone before us. To let the memory of the names and places of suffering fade into darkness is to allow the evil that brought it about to be reborn.
There are times when a story is meant to be told in a designated place, one that either has an inherent significance, or one that is assigned. With experiences like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is a power in the symbolism bestowed upon the place that is rooted in the act of honoring and remembrance. As a result, they become the destinations for school and family trips. They are the holiest of destinations in our religious pilgrimages. However, when the stories are few and locations fewer, the challenge of maintaining awareness derived from the physical connection to the experience can be difficult to overcome.
Stolpersteine (Stumbling stones) designed by German artist Gunter Demming provides a decentralized, daily reminder of the ever looming threat of racism. Commissioned in 2001, the memorial consists of more than 75,000 bronze blocks set within the sidewalks of towns and cities across Europe. The blocks, placed in front of the homes of murdered or exiled Jews, read simply “Here lived…” followed by the name of the individual or family.
This form of expression creates a moment of recognition that endures the passage of time, for as long as the streets and homes remain. In this way, Demming’s stumbling stones have brought awareness and the space to remember to anyone who sees its markers. The experience is impactful and is observed both in its intimate, direct connection to the individual honored, and the enormous scale of the atrocities committed against so many Jewish citizens. One cannot discount the power of connection through time and place such a memorial creates.
Such a memorial, if it were to be installed in the U.S., might provide a means to bring awareness to many of the crimes committed against Blacks that are seldom brought to light. Acts like the bombing of homes belonging to Black citizens in the first half of the 20th century. These attacks, meant to terrorize Black families, so that they were discouraged from moving into more affluent, White neighborhoods, were an unsanctioned partner to the practices of redlining and racial covenants. The records of these acts are few or often discounted, but the marks they have left on the land and in our society are evident. Evident, but without a true accounting of how they came to be.
One might argue that the invisible boundaries that have resulted from these actions in America have been every bit as effective in restricting the freedom and mobility of those behind them as the Berlin Wall in Germany and other literal barriers we have chosen to memorialize. Imagine for a moment how less coherent the fabric of the city of Berlin might be if the story of the Berlin Wall was treated as though it had never existed? To what would a lay-person attribute the differences and disparities that existed from East to West if they were not provided the truth? How will future generations in America attribute racial disparities that are often starkly evident in our cities if they not offered new markers that provide insight into their root cause? New methods of recalling this past can embed the opportunity to reframe attitudes around racial injustice into the fabric of our daily experiences.
History is not the past; it is the present.
One of the obvious challenges in telling the story of racism in America is that even when we are successful in accurately capturing the truth of our past, the belief among many persists that the past is just that. The reality that the legacy of systemic racism lives on in this country is often lost.
The challenge then becomes one of telling a story that enlightens through a lens that is contemporary, nimble, and tethered to the zeitgeist; a story that seeks less to explain what “has occurred,” than what is occurring every day, or that sets historical fact in a contemporary context. Spaces that can tell these stories have the potential to bridge the divide between the wrongs of the past and the effects of those wrongs on contemporary society. They are also important in bridging the generational gap so that the stories are presented in a way that resonates with current generations.
One example of such a memorial space is the recently unveiled Society’s Cage, which was initially installed in August, 2020 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and is intended to travel to multiple locations across the country. The memorial, which was designed by a team of mostly Black architects at SmithGroup, asks the question: “What is the value of a Black Life in America?”
The memorial’s perfect cube form symbolizes the aspiration of our American values. However, the internal volume of the cube is constructed of uneven conduit pipes that protrude from the ceiling and floor, symbolizing the uncomfortable and fractured reality that many Blacks in society are greeted with on a daily basis.
Visitors are invited to move through the cube’s aesthetically violent interior. Through symbolism, text, and audio, they are offered a glimpse into an all-to-real and all-too-common Black experience in America via four statistical datasets representing different forms of racism and state violence: mass incarceration, capital punishment, police brutality, and lynching.
Society’s Cage uses unique and artful execution and its temporary nature to deliver a lesson on racial injustice within a must see experience. In doing so, it pulls at the levers of our viral social media culture to shine a powerful light on the often brutal realities of racism today. Hopefully, Society’s Cage and memorial experiences like it also push our society forward — better informed, more aware, more united.
Let us now create the spaces to remember the names, places, and events we might have forgotten, and tell those stories we have yet to hear.
Richard Jones, ASLA, is CEO and founder of iO Studio, Inc. and former president of Mahan Rykiel Associates.
Building Public Places for a Covid World — 09/11/20, The New York Times
“Walter Hood’s landscape architecture firm, Hood Design Studio, has created major parks and museum gardens in Oakland, San Francisco and New York. He is also doubling down on the work he has been doing for 20 years: helping historically African-American communities rediscover history that’s been erased through abandonment or demolished by urban renewal.”
Nine Fall Gardening Tips From a Texas Landscape Architect — 09/10/20, Texas Monthly
“Dallas-based landscape architect David Hocker says the coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge increase in demand for his work, as public health guidelines have pushed us out into nature for safer socializing, dining, and exercise.”
Beyond Complete Streets: Could COVID-19 Help Transform Thoroughfares Into Places for People? –09/07/20, Planetizen
“By changing the way we traditionally use streets, people are expanding the way they think about cities in real-time. In a relatively short period of time, cities have announced plans to permanently close some of these ‘COVID streets’ to create new recreational spaces in combination with mobility corridors—essentially, linear community commons, or places for people.”
The Case for Making Virtual Public Meetings Permanent— 09/02/20, Governing
“The question, as has been asked in many contexts through 2020, is why can’t this COVID-19-era innovation become permanent? Rather than return to the hassle of holding most public meetings in person, why not continue to make them remote?”
Statue Suggestions Roll in for Trump’s National Garden of American Heroes — 09/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Suggestions for ‘lifelike or realistic’ representations of ‘historically significant Americans’ that could potentially populate the Trump administration’s planned National Garden of American Heroes have now been submitted by officials in various states, territories, and counties.”
Bogotá Is Building its Future Around Bikes — 08/10/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“In February, López announced that the city’s development plan for the next four years would add a total of 280 additional kilometers of bike lanes to the existing 550-kilometer network.”
Trump Signs Landmark Land Conservation Bill — 08/04/20, The New York Times
“President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, a measure with broad bipartisan support that guarantees maximum annual funding for a federal program to acquire and preserve land for public use.”
Miami Is the “Most Vulnerable” Coastal City Worldwide — 2/4/20, Scientific American “Several major tourist attractions, including the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Miami Beach, are largely situated on land less than three feet above the high-water mark and may become permanently submerged by the end of the century.”
OLIN Receives Design Approval for D.C. Desert Storm Memorial — 2/6/20 The Architect’s Newspaper “Once the site was secured (a location just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam War Memorial) adjustments needed to be made to the design. The new design has lower walls that meld into the ground and includes a central water feature, which symbolizes a desert oasis as well as the international coalition that participated in the operations.
National Indigenous Landscape Architecture Award Announced — 2/9/20, Architecture & Design “Planning for the [National Arcadia Landscape Architecture Award for Indigenous Students] has been in progress for almost twelve months, but the recent [Australian] bushfires brought a renewed focus on how Indigenous knowledge and traditional land and fire management practices can prevent fire damage and enable the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.”
A Native Plant Guru’s Radical Vision for the American Yard— 2/12/20, The Washington Post “The idea of planting gardens for wildlife and shrinking the lawn isn’t new, but [entomologist Doug Tallamy] wants to enlist every home garden in the battle to address the loss of biodiversity. The need has never been more urgent, he says.”
Abandoned Amusement Park to Gain New Life as a Nature Park in Suzhou— 2/13/20, Inhabitat “In Suzhou, China, an abandoned amusement park is being transformed into a 74-hectare nature park that will include a decommissioned roller coaster transformed into a habitat for birds. … Named ‘Shishan Park’ after its location at the foot of Shishan (Chinese for ‘Lion Mountain’), the urban park will provide a variety of family-oriented recreational amenities to cater to a rapidly growing, high-tech hub.”
A Daughter’s Disability. A Mother’s Ingenuity. And the Playground That’s Launching a Revolution — 2/14/20, Palo Alto Weekly “Magical Bridge was inspired by [Olenka] Villarreal’s daughter, Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.”
Landscape Prize Honors Cornelia Hahn Oberlander – The New York Times, 10/3/19
“Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is widely regarded as the grande dame of landscape architecture. Now she is the inspiration for a new biennial $100,000 international landscape prize established by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. The prize is named in honor of the 98-year-old Ms. Oberlander.”
Amid the Smoke of a Burning Amazon Rises the Specter of the Artist Roberto Burle Marx – The Washington Post, 10/3/19
“He was a landscape architect, a painter, a ceramist, a textile artist and more. But it was his other and lesser-known incarnations, as a plant explorer and conservationist, that came sharply into focus as the exhibition played out in the botanical garden’s grounds, conservatories and galleries in the Bronx. The reason: The Amazon is on fire.”
8 Notable NYC Projects Designed by Latino Architects – Curbed NY, 10/4/19
“A principal at James Corner Field Operations, Puerto Rican landscape architect Isabel Castilla worked as the lead designer and project manager for the High Line at the Rail Yards, which opened in 2014.”
Student, Landscape Architects Create 1967 Fire Memorial – Cornell Chronicle, 10/8/19
“A new memorial in the center of campus, created this summer and designed by a landscape architect student, serves as a contemplative reminder of eight students and a professor who died in a tragic fire in 1967 at the off-campus Cornell Heights Residential Club.”
AN Rounds Up the Best Landscape Architecture Lectures Nationwide– The Architect’s Newspaper, 10/10/19
“America’s top architecture and design schools are filling out their lecture series line-ups with leading thought leaders in landscape architecture and design. Coast-to-coast, AN has selected six of these can’t-miss lectures that delve into issues such as climate change, urban beautification, the ecology of memory, and more.”
2019 ParkScore Rankings Now Available – Planetizen, 5/22/19
“Washington, D.C. has the highest ParkScore among the 100 largest U.S. cities, according to an annual ranking announced today by the Trust for Public Land (TPL).”
“How can we make maintenance sexier and more fun?”
This was the question moderator Joey Hays, ASLA, posed to the crowd at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, in a session entitled “the disturbing pleasures of maintenance: audacious strategies for public parks,” which sought to address the increasingly-fraught issue of public parks maintenance and inspire creative, aesthetic, and ecological approaches to what can often seem a decidedly-mundane topic.
Tim Marshall, FASLA, was quick to respond to Hayes’ question. “Sexy and fun–those are not two things I’ve ever heard in the same sentence regarding maintenance,” he said to knowing laughs.
Maintenance may not be something that excites designers, clients, or the public, but its implementation–or lack thereof–can make all the difference in the success or failure of a project.
Marshall, who formerly served as deputy administrator and senior vice president of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, said maintenance has become more problematic on a national level. Many parks and recreation departments have expanded their portfolios of amenities and facilities in recent decades, but operations funding has not kept up.
“We have more things to maintain, and at the same time, resources are going down.”
Recent trends in ecological design have not made things easier. Designs that rely heavily on meadows and other designed plant communities require specialized knowledge to maintain, knowledge often not held by maintenance crews accustomed to the “mow and blow” approach.
“Put in a lawn, you know exactly what to do right away,” he said. “A meadow changes year to year. It’s not a project, it’s a process.”
One of the biggest obstacles facing parks departments is what Marshall called the “silver tsunami,” the looming wave of retiring experienced staff who will take with them institutional knowledge, relationships, and experience.
Loss of funding and staff can lead to deferred maintenance, which inflates capital costs and depresses park use.
According to Marshall, public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy have been key to filling the operational gaps left by budget cuts and staffing shortages. However, those partnerships come with their own challenges.
“There has to be an understanding that we’re in this together,” he said, adding “it probably took ten years before the Central Park Conservancy was firing on four of its six cylinders.”
Tim Netsch of the Metro Nashville Parks Planning Division has experienced these dynamics first hand. “There’s so much happening in Nashville that parallels some those national trends. There is something unsustainable about our current park system.”
Nashville has seen explosive growth in recent decades, which has extended the city’s park system. Since the adoption of the city’s first parks and greenways master plan in 2002, the park system has added approximately 6,500 acres.
“Our park system grew more in this 15 year period than it had in the previous 50 years,” Netsch said. “During that same period of capital budget abundance, our operating budget has stagnated,” leading to fewer maintenance employees per acre and reduced operating hours.
“Our park system has grown, but our organization has not.”
To break out of this cycle, Nashville asked Charlottesville-based Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) to incorporate maintenance needs into the design of two new large public parks currently being planned for East Nashville.
“We wanted to build these plans around maintenance,” Netsch said. “To make it unavoidable to reckon with maintenance.”
For Thomas Woltz, FASLA, that meant diving deep into the sites’ cultural and ecological histories. On the future site of Ravenwood Park, just east of downtown Nashville, Woltz said: “an extraordinary phenomenon here is you have 8,000 years of Native American settlement in a not terribly disturbed site.”
“What if, in the cultural landscape research, you hit upon a regime of maintenance? What if the maintenance design is right there, deep within the soil?”
In the case of Ravenwood Park, NBW has proposed a mixed regime of controlled burns and grazing by cows, maintenance practices that reflect the history of the site and provide valuable ecological disturbance that will maintain broad expanses of open grassland.
For Woltz, it is here that the “disturbing pleasures”–or pleasures that result from disturbance–reveal themselves. “Part of the disturbing pleasure is the exhilaration of witnessing a fire,” he said, “and the sublime landscape of these post-fire moments when the earth surges with this chartreuse explosion of grasses.”
This aesthetic of disturbance can reframe the conversation around maintenance and even create opportunities to design powerful spaces and experiences.
To illustrate this point, Woltz pivoted to another major public project that NBW has spent many years on: Houston’s Memorial Park.
In their research, NBW found that many Houstonians were unaware of the park’s history and did not know why it was called Memorial Park. The site was used as an army camp in World War I and was the last stop for many soldiers before being shipped to Europe.
NBW’s design calls for a 90 acre Memorial Grove of Loblolly Pines planted in a strict, regimented grid, referring to the character of the military exercises and rows of tents that once defined the site. The heart of NBW’s proposal, however, lies in the grove’s maintenance regime.
“Twenty-five years is the average age of the solider that died in World War I who trained at Camp Logan. Twenty-five years is the age of maturity for loblolly pines in the timber industry,” Woltz explained.
“So, twenty-five years from the planting of the Memorial Groves, imagine one of those regiments–a thousand trees–ceremonially chainsawed down on Memorial Day. The noise, the impact, the violence, the horror of seeing a thousand trees felled at once in a city’s park will be something you will never forget. And you just might feel, in your body, the sense and the power of sacrifice and of loss of life.”
Woltz said that the timber from the felled trees would then be given to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing in the Houston area. He envisions Houstonians coming together on Armistice Day to replant the thousand felled trees for another twenty-five year cycle. Every five years, a new group of trees would be felled.
“This is a memorial, in perpetuity, connecting us to the cycles of life, connecting us to the power of life, the beauty of these trees representing these individuals who were felled far, far, too early.”
“As an extreme example, this is a maintenance regime. Maintenance has been used as the very crux of a memorial landscape.”
In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.
The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.
The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”
Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.
The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.
The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.
In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.
Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.
The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.
In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.
The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.
The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.
In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.
Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”
However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.
CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”
“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”
In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”
The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.
Central Park Love Song – The New York Times, 6/28/18 “Even though Central Park, like the rest of Manhattan, is largely man-made, not natural, it is a place to experience in person, not secondhand through images, regardless of their authenticity, nor through narratives, no matter how illustrative.”
Gateway to What?– Curbed, 6/28/18 “The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch, a 630-foot-tall catenary curve—designed by Eero Saarinen and clad in stainless steel—stands on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. But really, it stands everywhere in St. Louis.”