Commission of Fine Arts Approves Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Design

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

After a free-wheeling three-hour review, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in Washington, D.C. approved the latest design of the Hirshhorn sculpture garden from a team led by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese artist, architect, and landscape designer. The contentious revamp of the garden, which has gone through two years of review and refinement, features reconfigured outdoor sculpture galleries, a diverse and rich tree and planting design, a new central pool — and the most controversial element, stacked stone walls. The landscape design brings a contemporary Japanese sense of space and materials to the National Mall and will be only the second Asian-inspired design after the Moongate Garden found next to the National Museum of Asian Art. The new design further diversifies the multicultural experience of the National Mall, which now includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture that incorporates African design motifs.

As ASLA and the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) have recently highlighted, the CFA is currently without a landscape architect for only the second time in its 112-year history. Just a few years ago, three landscape architects, academics, and designers — Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, and Liza Gilbert, ASLA — were among the commissioners. But with the new set of four commissioners appointed by the Biden-Harris administration, the CFA is also one of the most diverse in its history, with three commissioners of color, including the first woman and Asian American chair, architect Billie Tsien. The lack of representation of landscape architects on the CFA is a source of concern as the CFA frequently reviews proposals that impact historic landscapes.

Melissa Chiu, the Chinese Australian executive director of the Hirshhorn, introduced the presentation by the design team, which is led by Sugimoto and includes Felix Ade, an architect from YUN Architecture; Faye Harwell, FASLA, a landscape architect and founder of the D.C.-based firm Rhodeside & Harwell; and Alyson Steele, an architect with the D.C.-based architecture firm Quinn Evans.

Chiu argued that the design by Sugimoto and team is a “natural evolution” of the current garden, because Gordon Bunshaft, the original Hirshhorn museum and garden architect, was deeply influenced by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi and traveled to Japan, where he appreciated stacked stone walls.

Bunshaft’s Brutalist design for the sculpture garden, which opened in 1974, was without trees so became a “hot micro-climate” in the punishing Washington, D.C. summer. In 1981, landscape architect Lester Collins, also a “student of Asian design,” completed a redesign of the garden, creating smaller rooms; adding ample maples, pines, and plants; and a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the National Mall entrance to the park, an advance in accessibility years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. Prior to Collins’ redesign, the central underground pathway leading from the sunken sculpture garden to the museum was closed. The passageway was viewed as dark and perhaps unsafe and was reconfigured as an educational center.

Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden / Hirshhorn Museum

The new design includes three outdoor gallery experiences that will provide greater curatorial flexibility for the Hirshhorn, Chiu argued.

A new central gallery is a flexible garden space designed for performance art. Responding to feedback from consulting parties as part of seven Section 106 reviews, the Hirshhorn has kept the form of Bunschaft’s original rectangular pool, which mirrors a window above in the Hirshhorn facade. An additional pool has gone through many revisions.

Central Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

The design team ultimately landed on a U-shaped pool immediately to the south of the original rectangular pool, separated by a new five-foot-wide central walkway and stage. The pool can drain for events, providing tiers of seating. Harwell argued that it will be a much-needed respite in D.C.’ s brutal summers, helping to cool the space.

Central Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

A west gallery will provide space for newly commissioned, large-scale sculpture, with a lawn. The area can be used for “site-specific works, film festivals, and school groups,” Chiu said.

West Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

A new east gallery will create smaller rooms filled with trees that offer more intimate spaces for the Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures now found in the garden.

East Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

Responding to feedback from the CFA’s first review in 2019 that approved the general concepts, there is now a more fleshed-out landscape design. Harwell explained that the new design preserves much of Collins’ work by protecting the large elms that ring the garden and continuing to feature the pines and maples he planted. But to combat the “sameness” of the current landscape, Harwell is adding nine tree and 40 ground cover species, 70 percent of which will be native. Plants were selected for texture, and colors include whites and cremes, with hints of red. The landscape is designed for seasonal change and to create a sense of “stylized naturalism.”

New broad stone pavers, which are being evaluated in a test area of the garden, will replace the current brown squares. New handrails will be bronze, as they are now. Throughout the landscape, stormwater will be managed on-site, with the help of two underground cisterns that will capture water for irrigation.

New paver design at right, with existing brown square pavers at bottom left / Jared Green

At the south end of the garden, the passageway linking the museum with the garden will be re-opened and sheathed in mirror-like panels that bring light to the tunnel. Commissioners were universally positive about the feature, with Commissioner James McCrery calling it “brilliant.”

View of the new staircase leading to the Museum at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

At the north end, where the garden meets the National Mall, the width of Bunshaft’s original entrance — 60-feet — is restored in the new design. The concrete wall that visitors now see when they enter will also be replaced by a much shorter 42-inch-high stacked stone wall. The accessible ramps at the north entrance will be moved to the west side of the garden, and a new entrance will be created on the east side.

North entrance at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum
View from north entrance at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore argued that ramps on just the west side of the garden don’t go far enough to create a universally accessible experience for all wheelchair users at various access points. All commissioners agreed that an additional custom-designed elevator was required and needed further study.

New access points, with accessible ramp at left, at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

The perimeter concrete walls, which are now “inherently unstable,” will be rebuilt, but within the space, new stone stacked inner partition walls will change the character of the space, softening its Brutalism with a more naturalistic feel. The design team has been testing prototypes of the wall within the garden.

Prototype stacked stone wall at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden / Jared Green

According to Ade and Steele, the new stacked stone walls, which will be comprised of stones sourced from a quarry in Pennsylvania, will offer better acoustics, as the walls will be rough, have open joints, and be subtly angled towards the sky, bouncing sound upwards. Chiu said the walls will be critical to supporting performance artists’ work. Ade and Steele confirmed that extensive acoustic studies were conducted to confirm they create a better sound environment than the current concrete walls, which apparently reflect sound directly back to its source.

In a video, Sugimoto said Bunshaft was inspired by Japanese Zen gardens and his goal is to simply “restructure Bunshaft’s design in spirit.” Throughout the review process, Sugimoto has vehemently defended the stacked stone walls as central to his overall design, arguing that they bring an “ancient spirit to a modern garden.” He said “the pre-modern stone stacked walls will make the modern sculpture stand out,” and through contrast will highlight their modernity.

In a break from tradition during the pandemic, organizations submitting comments on the proposals weren’t allowed to speak directly to commissioners; instead Thomas Luebke, secretary of the CFA, read summaries of feedback.

Since the sculpture garden concept design was reviewed two years ago, there have been vocal opposition to many design elements, including the walls and pool and the general shift in the character of the design away from the Brutalist landscape that is in unison with the building. One over-arching concern is the lack of consideration of Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the garden, which has recently been deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; two years ago, when the CFA first reviewed the proposed re-design, it hadn’t been.

TCLF, Committee of 100, and Docomomo have all raised concerns throughout the Section 106 review process. In a comprehensive set of comments and questions sent to the Commission, TCLF stated: “We are supportive of the revitalization efforts but have serious concerns about two design interventions that would fundamentally alter Gordon Bunshaft’s artistic vision, which was respected by landscape architect Lester Collins.” Those interventions are the new pool and stacked stone walls.

They also raised concerns about how the Smithsonian will maintain the new, more complex pool; whether enough research has been done on the acoustic benefits of the proposed walls; and why a reconfigured central galley is even needed, given the expanded western gallery.

Furthermore, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and former vice chairwoman of the CFA, sent a clarification regarding her past statements, arguing that they have been used by the Hirshhorn “without context, leading to the impression that I endorse the current designs. I do not.” She outlined that the “period of significance” in the National Register of Historic Places nomination shifted to 1981 in February 2020, after the CFA last reviewed the conceptual designs, and this should trigger an important reconsideration of the changes to Collins’ designs.

But there are also supporters. Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture OLIN, offered his opinions in an extensive memo that concludes “the project as currently proposed by Sugimoto, Harwell, et al, is far superior to what has existed adjacent to the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Mall until now, and if implemented will add a worthy layer to those that will inevitably remain embedded in the situation. The sculpture garden will become a sequential and combined work of Bunshaft, Collins, and Sugimoto, created through time, one far more interesting than any of them could have done alone.”

Perhaps only Olin’s comments were decisive in influencing the Commission, as the commissioners expressed an openness to what Sugimoto’s team proposed and didn’t call for sending the design back to the drawing board to reconsider Collins’ contributions to improving the original landscape.

Instead, the focus of the Commission was on how to rethink the accessibility, safety, and security of the sculpture garden and National Mall buildings and landscapes for the 21st century. And it seemed more than an hour of the conversation returned to these topics, as the commissioners repeatedly questioned what the experience would be like for a wheelchair user.

New Biden-appointed Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore, a transdisciplinary designer, urbanist, and program officer for the Humanities for Places program at the Andrew Mellon W. Foundation, who initiated the focus on accessibility, said the project was an “opportunity to explore what public landscapes should be and mean” for a contemporary Washington, D.C. We can expect to see a greater focus on moving universal design forward with this Commission.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16-31)

Spotfire training at the Oklahoma State University / T. Johnson, via The Architect’s Newspaper

Friendly Fire: It’s Time for Designers to Embrace Fire as the Ecological and Cultural Force That It Is — 10/29/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In Tulsa, Oklahoma, controlled burns will soon be part of the maintenance regime for a massive urban wilderness preserve master-planned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).”

“Once-in-a-Generation Project”: Memphis Landscape Architect Honored for Big River Crossing — 10/27/20, Commercial Appeal
“Four years after it opened, the landscape architects who helped design Big River Crossing have won a statewide design award for the project, receiving praise for the way the project ties into the area’s relationship with the river.”

Trump to Strip Protections from Tongass National Forest, One of the Biggest Intact Temperate Rainforests — 10/27/20, The Washington Post
“President Trump will open up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development, according to a notice posted Wednesday, stripping protections that had safeguarded one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests for nearly two decades.”

Cities Are Pledging to Confront Climate Change, but Are Their Actions Working? — 10/22/20, Brookings Institution
“A team of scholars organized by the Brookings Institution has built and analyzed one of the most comprehensive statistical evaluations of just what’s happening in a cross section of diverse cities on emissions reductions.”

The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”

Landscape Architects Unveil Plans to Save the National Mall’s Tidal Basin – 10/21/20, NPR
“Five landscape architects unveiled proposals Wednesday to save the sinking Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The plans run the gamut from a conservative approach to radical reimaginings.”

Thanks to a Design Coalition with Community Ties, Philadelphia’s Graffiti Pier Will Live on as a Public Park — 10/19/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal from Studio Zewde walks a tightrope: Make the area accessible to a wider public and protect it from climate change, but don’t erase the pier’s offbeat spirit in the process.”

Interview with Patricia O’Donnell on Revitalizing Cultural Landscapes

Patricia O’Donnell / Heritage Landscapes, LLC

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, Fellow, US/ICOMOS, is founder of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners, winner of the ASLA 2019 Firm Award. Her works and contributions sustain and revitalize our shared commons of public historic landscapes and advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2030 Agenda, and the New Urban Agenda.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

Over your career, you’ve worked on more than 500 cultural landscape projects. You have highlighted Pittsburgh’s $124 million investment in revitalizing its public spaces, such as the Mid-Century Modern Mellon Square, which you restored, as a model. What does Pittsburgh know that perhaps other cities need to learn?

In the 19th century, Pittsburgh had a vision of setting aside major green spaces in order to shape the city. Neighborhoods grew up around the green spaces. Since Pittsburgh is still today a neighborhood-based city, everyone cares deeply about their green assets. Pittsburgh has a history of understanding the value of parks.

Pittsburgh looked at their historic parks and said, “This has value for the city.” The revitalization effort was initiated by the very bright Meg Cheever, a lawyer by education and a publicist by application who founded the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She knew she needed to grab attention so she built up the Conservancy as a real partner to the city. She was very savvy about not having an adversarial relationship with the city, instead creating a true partnership. We’ve worked in a number of conservancies, and that coin can flip both ways. The first thing is you need to be a partner; the second thing is you have got to recognize value.

When I started my firm in the late-80s, we did a project in Gilford, Connecticut. I told them there are four groups of tools for improving the public realm: community engagement, plans or advisory tools, law or regulation, and finance. As landscape architects, we’re good at community and planning, not necessarily so good at legislation or finance. If we recognize those are the four things we need, we can figure out who to partner with and what skill sets and mindsets are needed to move forward.

Pittsburgh started with its 19th century legacy. They had three big parks: one that was gifted to the city in the early 20th century by Henry Clay Frick; Mary Shenley’s property, which the city had bought and then added to Shenley Park; and Highland Park, which was around a reservoir and then grew into a park. So each park had a different vector. Then, they focused on the Mid-Century Modern pieces: The Point and Mellon Square, which were the two iconic public spaces built in the 50s and part of the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. Those spaces became elements of a national model for urban renewal. They knocked down 25 percent of the core of the city in a 10-year period and rebuilt it.

Restored Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, originally designed by John O. Simonds / Ed Massery
Restored Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, originally designed by John O. Simonds / Jeremy Marshall

Now there’s good and bad there. There was some environmental injustice and other problems, but they also renewed the core of the city and rebranded Pittsburgh. A number of other cities followed that path of renewal. (We called it urban renewal but often it was urban destruction). But the initiative worked for Pittsburgh. They were able to lift up what was a gritty steel city where industrial workers had to bring a minimum of two shirts to work because the air quality was so bad.

Your firm, Heritage Landscapes, partnered with HOK on the restoration of the National Mall in Washington D.C. What was involved in that process?

We were asked by the National Park Service (NPS) to track the history of Mall, which they framed as from L’Enfant’s 1792 plan to the present. The NPS asked us to framed it by the plans, but the plans did not reflect what the Mall actually was. We carried out this project as part of a NEPA compliance process.

Through a mapping effort, we overlaid all the soil disturbance over time — deep subsurface, shallow subsurface, surface — in CAD and made this very fun color map that showed probably a couple of teaspoons of the Mall were not altered over time. While we met NEPA compliance, we also now had the background, understood what the design was, and how the design of the Mall evolved to what we love today.

That evolution happened because of the strength of the personality and the stature of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.. He served on the McMillan Commission, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), and what is now called the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (NCPC). He persuaded the NPS to do the plan for the Mall. The linear quality of the green panels was key.

We focused the HOK team on getting the grading right. The Mall had been slightly domed and tipped northward because the Tiber Creek and the Washington Canal — the drainage — were to the north. The Capitol, the White House and the Smithsonian were set on three hills, and so the Mall, the space in between, was kind of mushy. The new shape of the Mall needed to respond to that topography. The original lawn panels had a vertical curve to help drainage.

The NPS wanted the new panels accessible, under a five percent grade and, if possible, under two percent. We had to balance access, sustainability, and history. In addition, the soils were as hard as concrete. And as a result, the most common plant was a small knotweed. Soil experts, James Urban, FASLA, and others, and I thought that grading it under 2 percent wouldn’t work. The lawn panels would continue not drain well and tend toward compaction. We got the NPS to go with at least 1.8 percent, but at the edges we were up at about 4 percent and then 3 percent and then domed, but tipped northward.

To reduce compaction, soil must have open air pores. The team found the best soil for defending against compaction is sandy loam. Investigations addressed whether or not there should be additives in the soil; these little crunchy things that spring back and keep the soil open. The NPS didn’t want to go down that road, so they approved a very good sandy soil mix. The first phase they decided they had a little too much organic matter. They changed it up a little bit on the second phase. We achieved what L’Enfant and Frederick Olmsted, Jr. were after: the long green corridor.

Restored National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Adam Fagen, Flickr

You just completed a cultural landscape report for Woodstock and have begun design work to reinterpret the landscape, so its story becomes more accessible to future generations. What did you unearth through your research? Where has that led your planning and design work?

The Woodstock project is a lot of fun because it’s such recent history. We developed the Cultural Landscape Report by looking at the main field where the concerts happened. We found information digging into the archive at the Museum at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. They had been gathering material for years, including all these low-flown, oblique aerials from a plane and ground photography.

It turned out that just barely digging into the research we found the envelope is a lot bigger. There’s the main field, Filippini Pond, where everybody went skinny dipping, and Bindy Bazaar in the woods between the main field and the hog farm where food was made. The hog farm tells the story about the commune movement. They provided the food at Woodstock, so everyone saw how a commune worked.

Hippies enjoying Filippini Pond / C. Alexander, 1969, Bethel Woods Archive

In opening up the land base envelope, we compared what we saw being used to what was actually leased to the concert organizers by the farmer Max Yasgur. The event was held on an alfalfa field, which was mown for the event. I happen to have an old alfalfa field and know what they look like. So when I saw the photos, I thought: “Oh, this is an old alfalfa field with people in Indian prints striding across it.”

There was a guy in one of the trailers who was drawing plans. He drew one plan of the Bindy Woods with the trails, so we used that to figure out that interesting area. Hippies had set up 20 something booths to sell tie dye, Indian prints, roach clips, or whatever. They put up hand-painted signs on the trees naming the paths — highway groovy path, etc.

Woodstock’s organizers planned very well for 100,000 people. They had medical officers and police; they were actually well-organized. But when the crowd hit 400,000 or 500,000, they didn’t have enough bathrooms or food.

The cultural landscape report investigation has informed where design interventions might be. The stage configuration was very interesting. The 60 by 70-foot stage was warped because of the plane of the slope of the hill. They made a turntable so they could swing the acts. When it rained, the platform wouldn’t turn anymore. They never finished the fencing but had this gorgeously shaped batwing fence.

Woodstock stage and batwing fences amid the crowds / Pinterest

We developed schematic designs of the footprint of the stage; the batwing fence; the performers’ bridge, which went over the road; and the posts at the height where the bridge occurred. We have a series of design options in front of the client that are very fun. We’ve already started to build the Bindy Bazaar paths and signs to interpret the vendors.

Bindy Bazaar paths and signs / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

What makes a successful cultural landscape report? How are these reports evolving?

When we started doing cultural landscape reports, they were called historic landscape reports. There weren’t rules. We sat on committees and helped frame cultural landscape preservation and management standards and guidelines for the National Park Service and Secretary of Interior. There are a set of steps: history, existing landscape condition, analysis of continuity and change, treatment exploration and recommendations. The goal is to find out if you are going to just preserve a landscape as-found, restore it to some earlier documented time; reconstruct missing pieces; or rehabilitate the landscape, adapting to current needs. These reports help us to suit contemporary and future needs while preserving what has been inherited.

We’re now up to over 110 cultural landscape reports or assessments. The New York Botanical Garden and Longwood Gardens really wanted the history because they sought to understand how their property had evolved. That was all they wanted. So sometimes it’s just a piece. When we worked at Dumbarton Oaks, they wanted analysis as well, so they could understand continuity and change, the evolution of the designed landscape of Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand.

Bloedel Reserve asked for a heritage landscape study. They came to us and said: “We understand Prentice Bloedel’s words, but what do they mean?” And we said, “You have the artifact. We can interpret the artifact to get at the meaning.” Cultural landscape reports are customized for each place. For the second phase of analysis at Bloedel, we told them: “Okay, now you actually need to dig deeper.” They have an amazing landscape that has four character areas and 26 component landscapes. The genius of this landscape is the differentiation between the individual components, but part of the practices they were employing in their daily management were blurring those unique aspects. We helped them really hone in on the character of the moss garden versus the Japanese garden versus the woodland paths so they can manage by area.

Bloedel Reserve / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

For our work at Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, we made sure we researched the African American contribution to shaping the landscape. This kind of analysis depends on the place and the client, but there is a heightened sense of social justice today. That framework led us to understand whose labor actually created a place. At the Academical Village, we found the way of life for enslaved peoples did not change after the Civil War. What changed their way of life was technology. When water and sewer systems were connected to every building and lighting came, the daily life within the core of the campus shifted. These changed the back breaking labor of daily life — hauling water, chopping wood, and gardening — by enslaved peoples, who were freed at that point, but whose life and daily activities had not substantially changed from the evidence we saw on the land.

University of Virginia / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

You have said that “culture and nature are entangled and inseparable.” How did you reach that conclusion?

While we have protected areas on the planet, there isn’t place on Earth that hasn’t been influenced by humanity. We’re in an era of human influence if you look at climate change and, hopefully, our greenhouse gas draw down vectors. If we envision ourselves as a part of nature, and we see humanity as one species of many, rather than the dominant species, and we see the planet as the place where we all live, it changes our perspectives on how to proceed. Nature and culture, place and people are completely interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent.

The big issue with climate change is finding ways to draw down greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. I was fascinated with Paul Hawkins’ book Drawdown, which ranked the top hundred ways to reduce emissions. Most people would think the answer would be more solar energy or carbon sequestration. But society needs to get up to speed with its needs. Actually, some of the most effective carbon reduction solutions are the empowerment of women, education for girls, and birth control for women, so we don’t overpopulate the world, and women can take a real role in the future.

You’ve been an advocate for cultural landscape preservation, equitable access to public spaces, and inclusive planning and design in international organizations such as UN-HABITAT, UNESCO, and ICOMOS. At the same time, you have also advocated for greater landscape architect participation in these organizations. How can we bridge the gap between policy bodies and the design world?

I have had rewarding engagements with peers and related professionals in working groups that build international doctrine. You gain a broadened sense of where your work can fit because the picture is expanding for you. In my opinion, all of us can benefit from global engagement — from meeting with peers face to face and engaging in committees to participating in the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), which has a very strong new policy that they passed in September on climate change, and ICOMOS, which is a curator of world heritage, the culture advisor to UNESCO World Heritage. I am constantly contributing to ICOMOS to strengthen our global heritage.

In these international bodies, I learn from others, share what I know, and the result is we all lift ourselves up together. We also bring forward emerging professionals. I’m currently the president of the ICOMOS-IFLA International Scientific Committee on cultural landscapes. We have about 212 members worldwide. We’re strengthening and coalescing our membership in Latin America to do a better job there with cultural landscapes. We’re adding a number of emerging professionals to begin to address the wealth of cultural heritage in Africa. We gain a lot by uplifting everyone, all boats rise together.

ASLA Annual Meeting Opens with Calls to Action

audience
ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting General Session, Saturday, October 20 / EPNAC

The ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting officially commenced Saturday morning in Philadelphia with outgoing ASLA president Greg Miller, FASLA, making the case for the importance of landscape architecture in a world facing many challenges.

While the problems of climate change, inequality, strained resources, and aging infrastructure are daunting, they also create opportunities for the field to expand its influence and scope of activity. “These are exciting times for landscape architects,” who are “solving complex issues with simple solutions that meaningfully impact peoples’ lives.”

“Seeing what is being accomplished across the spectrum of landscape architecture, I’ve realized that we’re defined by our wisdom, and that is what has put us in a position to take the profession to new heights.”

Miller said this wisdom is composed of “knowledge (the easy part), experience, perspective, foresight, and judgement. When these come together, the results of our wisdom are beautiful and special. Through our actions, we can make people’s lives better, protect our lands, and craft a better world.”

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg then took the stage for a wide-ranging conversation on Olin’s influences and current work.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and Susan Stamberg in conversation / EPNAC

Olin initially studied architecture but found himself shifting to landscape after traveling in Europe and being “absolutely blown away” by the landscapes.

At the same time, Olin was beginning to bristle at architecture’s limitations. “I realized architecture really didn’t satisfy some of my concerns. The 60’s were a turbulent time. Buildings were objects and didn’t seem to involve society, the public realm, and other factors I thought were really important.”

Olin said that his travel in Europe ignited his love for and interest in cities and urban design. “I had gone off to Europe to look at one thing, and then I discovered cities, and fell in love with them. I realized there was a structure to cities, and they could be organized around public spaces. I learned that people were actually designing the streets and linking public spaces before the buildings came. I thought that’s really important.”

Olin also observed these same influences were critical for Frederick Law Olmsted, who “channeled all this energy and these ideas about health and public spaces and fresh air and parks” into his work in the United States.

In Europe, Olin discovered “you had to go see it for yourself. Part of learning is being out there and actually seeing things. The books don’t do it; the slides don’t do it. The problem with landscape is it’s diverse, big, and in lots of places. You have to travel, and it takes a while to see it. Finding the good stuff is like raisins in the pudding – it’s not everywhere.”

His work as a designer has been shaped by these early insights and grew out of the same humane impulses that animated Olmsted’s work.

In his redesign of New York City’s Bryant Park, Olin sought to highlight the park’s characteristically-French elements but also make a space for people.

“I realized looking at it that it was a very French park,” he said. “It was basically a bunch of quotes from the Jardin du Luxembourg.” So, “if it’s going to be this French park, we should have movable furniture,” a simple move that “radically changed the place.”

ASLA 2010 Landmark Award. Bryant Park, New York City. OLIN / Peter Mauss, ESTO

At Battery Park City, also in New York City, Olin worked with Alex Cooper to create a master plan to draw people to the edge of the Hudson River. “It seemed so clear that what we had to do was get people out of the city onto the edge of the river and give the entire perimeter over to the public.”

In the wake of 9/11, Olin won a competition to redesign the base of the Washington Monument to deter a terrorist attack. However, the site needed much more than just security upgrades.

“People forget, it was a kind of nasty place in some ways. It was a complete ruin of the public realm in a place that was supposed to be the most generous and welcoming.”

Olin’s goal was “to make it as if it had always been a beautiful place,” he explained. “Why don’t we make it the way people think it always was?”

To achieve this effect, Olin’s design referred to the low retaining walls used on the opposite end of the mall by none other than Olmsted and Vaux. These walls encircle the monument, directing visitors and preventing a vehicle from getting too close. “The answer was right there, except at the other end of the mall!”

Washington Monument, Washington, D,C. OLIN / OLIN

Stamberg brought the conversation to a close by asking Olin to reflect on the future of the profession.

“The future is always going to be a distorted view of the present,” he said. “We don’t know how the pieces will play out.”

He identified climate change as a uniquely-pressing issue both for landscape architects and the world at large. Olin urged landscape architects to assert themselves in important conversations on the world’s most difficult challenges.

“As a profession, we can help society find out where it wants to go. We should not wait for the phone to ring. We should be leading.”

“We have to become political in a thoughtful, non-strident, but effective way.”

“How to make the world safe for children in the next generation is your job,” he said to the audience. “It’s our job.”