A Tree-First Exhibition Space in Beijing

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

Instead of chopping down 10 fully-grown poplar trees and 8 gingko trees to make way for a new glass-box pavilion in front of the Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University, Bo Zhang, ASLA, and his colleagues convinced the university to create an open, canopied exhibition space that works around the trees.

Zhang, a landscape architect and assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Oklahoma State University, partnered with Zhongzhong Zeng, associate professor of architecture, and Yongquan Chen, also on the faculty of architecture at Beijing Jiaotong University, to create a tree-first pavilion that both preserves nature and creates a charming space for exhibitions and events.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

The tight site along the glass-fronted wall of the college is just 21 feet wide by 183 feet long. Within these challenging parameters, Zhang and his colleagues developed a set of hexagonal structural units made of Douglas Fir, carefully siting them to avoid hurting the trees and their roots.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng and Bo Zhang

At top, gaps between the forms allow trees to penetrate through; and below, spaces in the elevated wood floor covering the trees’ roots enable stormwater to permeate into the ground.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng
Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

Other gaps between the forms are covered in glass, creating more usable spaces.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

Zhang tells us the hexagonal forms were prefabricated and trucked into Beijing, where they were assembled onsite. “The whole process of construction took only ten days.” In that short time, the design team also avoided using heavy machines and vehicles that would compact the top soil.

Zhang and his colleagues purposefully kept the space open so it can be configured for multiple uses, such as lectures, meetings, or exhibitions. Removable wood exhibition panels and chairs give the university flexibility.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

College administrators have also opened up the space to the surrounding neighborhood: residents use the space to teach classes, practice Tai Chi, dance, or just relax.

“Our vision was achieved by blending architecture and landscape, civility and nature, people and space. We hoped to create a model relationship between educational institution and surrounding community.”

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

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.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2019

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

While we are always looking ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what grabbed our attention last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2019.

Readers were most interested in how to plan and design universally-accessible landscapes; how communities are increasingly looking to landscape architecture as a solution for the climate crisis; examples of inventive multi-use infrastructure, like the Jewel Changi airport terminal in Singapore and Amager Bakke in Copenhagen; and the on-going debate about the changing roles of landscape architects and urban planners.

ASLA members: send us your original op-eds on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

Singapore’s New Garden Airport

International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.

Landscape Architects Must Become Planners

Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession’” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.

Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

Nature-based Solutions Are Our Best Defense Against Climate Impacts

Today in New York City, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit to, in his words, “hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.” This Summit comes on the heels of the Youth Climate Strike last week, and kicks off Climate Week in which people in New York and across the country will demand action to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.

We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like it Or Not

This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Nature and was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.

In Copenhagen, You Can Ski Down this Power Plant

Eight years ago Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came up with a fantastical idea — build a ski slope on top of a power plant. Well, now, it has actually happened — the $660 million Amager Bakke is preparing to welcome adventurous ski bunnies in Copenhagen. Known to locals as Copenhill, this cutting-edge renewable energy system converts waste into energy while giving sports lovers access to a 2,000-feet-long ski slope, a 295-feet-high climbing wall, and hiking and running paths. The project is the most visible demonstration yet of Copenhagen’s determination to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

ASLA Publishes Guide to Universal Design

ASLA’s guide provides a comprehensive view of which communities are underserved by the built environment. It also offers a set of new universal design principles that address the needs of deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, autistic, neurodevelopmentally and/or intellectually disabled, and mobility-disabled adults and children, as well as concerns for older adults. These include: accessible, comfortable, participatory, ecological, legible, multi-sensory, predictable, and walkable/traversable.

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

Gallaudet University Designs for the Deaf Community, But Everyone Benefits

At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., DeafSpace, a concept developed by campus architect Hansel Bauman, is now guiding the development of buildings and landscapes in order to better address the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing people, which also results in better spaces for everyone. Gallaudet University — the oldest university for the deaf community in the country and the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed with deaf and hard of hearing people in mind — is creating a new 2020 campus master plan that expands DeafSpace beyond the buildings and into the historic campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the surrounding neighborhood.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

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Millennium Park in Chicago / Photo Credit: Jakob von Raumer

Weiss/Manfredi’s ‘Loops and Lenses’ Concept Wins La Brea Tar Pits Redesign CommissionKCRW, 12/17/19
“One of LA’s most beloved sites is the La Brea Tar Pits, consisting of a park, pools of asphalt in which are trapped fiberglass mammoths; and the 1977 George C. Page Museum, embedded in a raised mound, or berm, that children love to roll down.”

Professor Invents Wearable Garden Fertilized by Human WasteThe New York Post, 12/18/19
“Aroussiak Gabrielian, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Southern California, has created the world’s first wearable farm, which can grow a variety of fresh produce using fertilizer supplied by your own human waste.”

Thomas Woltz CLAD, 12/22/19
“Thomas Woltz, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, leads one of the most revered landscape architecture firms on the planet. Kath Hudson caught up with him while he was on a fact-finding mission, camping on the Montana plains.”

Column: Rating Chicago’s Latest Wave of Parks and Public Spaces by the Three ‘E’s: They’re Better on Entertainment and Ecology than Equity The Chicago Tribune, 12/24/19
“Beginning with the triumphant opening of Millennium Park in 2004, a remarkable collection of new public spaces has sprung up, like spring blossoms, in Chicago.”

Mikyoung Kim and DiMella Shaffer Will Design Boston’s First LGBTQ-friendly Senior Housing Facility The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/14/19
“Boston will get its first LGBTQ-friendly senior housing facility, designed by Boston-based architecture firm DiMella Shaffer and landscape architecture by Mikyoung Kim Design.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 1 – 15)

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The fountain of Bartholdi Park in Washington, D.C. / Sdkb [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Next to the Botanic Garden Is Another, Tinier Green Refuge – DCist, 12/3/19
“Bartholdi Park isn’t exactly hidden. Located at a busy intersection next to the Botanic Garden (which is celebrating its bicentennial this coming year) and mere steps from the U.S. Capitol, it’s got prime real estate. And that’s kinda the point.”

2019’s Notable Developments in Landscape Architecture – The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 12/6/19
“In 2019 landscape architecture’s greatest impact continued to be in the public realm.”

On the Rooftops of Paris, a New Kind of Urban Garden – The New York Times Style Magazine, 12/7/19
“The landscape architect Arnaud Casaus is creating green spaces wilder and warmer than those found at street level.”

MVRDV Unveils Plan to Transform Seoul’s Waterfront with ‘the Weaves’ – Designboom, 12/10/19
“MVRDV has won a competition to redesign Seoul’s Tancheon Valley and waterfront with a network of pedestrian and bicycle paths, natural landscapes, and public amenities.”

The Floating Utopia of Salesforce Park – The New Yorker, 12/11/19
“San Francisco’s newest public space reflects Big Tech’s influence—and a city’s anxieties.”

The Architect Who’s Confronting Climate Change – Curbed, 12/13/139
“Pamela Conrad is out to restore nature to our cities—and help them face future ecological disasters.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 1 – 15)

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Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington / Photo Credit Brianc333a [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Seattle’s Brutalist Freeway Park is Reviewed for National Register and Approved for RenovationThe Architect’s Newspaper,11/5/19
“The gorgeously staggered concrete elements of Jim Ellis Freeway Park, one of the most significant architectural spaces in Seattle, are scattered across a thickly forested hill atop an intersection of Interstate 5 between the neighborhoods of Downtown Seattle and First Hill.”

East Baltimore Redevelopment Project Moves Forward As Construction Begins The Baltimore Sun, 11/7/19
“With construction of the first building in an $889 million revitalization project in East Baltimore already underway, developers and architects have presented city officials the latest design plans for another building.”

Presidio Tunnel Tops Project Kicks Off With Pelosi In Attendance, Completion Due in 2021SFist, 11/7/19
“The official ‘groundmaking’ ceremony was held Thursday to kick off the process of building and landscaping what will create 14 acres of parkland over the top of the 101 freeway tunnels near the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting the Presidio to Crissy Field.”

Parkside Project Created to be ‘Uniquely Birmingham’ AL.com, 11/7/19
“The Powell Avenue Steam Plant powered Birmingham’s growth for more than a century. Now an ambitious plan hopes to resurrect it to connect a revitalized Magic City.”

Fall in Storm King Washington Square News, 11/15/19
“But despite the trek, there is an incredible institution upstate that will be worth your time: the Storm King Art Center.”

Beth Meyer: Natural Beauty Has a Ripple Effect

Beth Meyer / National Building Museum

Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.

Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”

In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”

“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”

“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”

“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”

“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”

On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”

“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”

“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”

On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”

On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”

On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”

“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”

On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”

Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.

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

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The Oakland A’s Citi Field /  Dicklyon, Creativecommons

As Waters Rise, So Do Concerns For Sports Teams Along Coast The Washington Post, 10/16/19
“A number of American pro sports venues could be vulnerable to rising waters brought on by climate change.”

The Gentrification Effect of Urban Parks Planetizen, 10/21/19
“New research finds that different types of parks correlate with different gentrification effects, adding to the complexity of urban change.”

The Parks That Made the Man Who Made Central ParkThe New York Times, 10/30/19
“Frederick Law Olmsted’s tours of English parks shaped his vision of landscape design. You can see his inspiration in three dimensions by touring five of them.”

Pier 55’s Thomas Heatherwick-Designed Park Is Taking Shape Curbed NY, 10/30/19
“The futuristic Pier 55 park designed by Thomas Heatherwick and financed by billionaire mogul Barry Diller is taking shape on the Hudson River.”

Columbia Pitches $18 Million Plan to Overhaul Finlay Park The Free Times, 10/31/19
“Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and other city officials announced on Thursday an $18 million plan to revamp battered, aging Finlay Park.”

The Reach at the Kennedy Center Blends Architecture and Landscape

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Richard Barnes

For landscape architect Edmund Hollander, FASLA, the monumental form of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1971, evokes images of former First Lady “Mamie Eisenhower wearing pearls and a mink stole.” The towering white marble facades architect Edward Durell Stone created represent “architecture for the wealthy elite.”

That imposing building is now complemented by perhaps its opposite: a lyrical new extension, The Reach, which architect Steven Holl’s firm designed with Hollander after winning the competition for the project six years ago. Defined by its curving white titanium concrete walls and open lawns and gardens that also host performances and events, “it’s not for the elite; it’s for everyone.”

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

In a tour organized by the American Institute of Architect’s DC chapter, Chris McVoy, a senior partner at Steven Holl’s office, and Hollander, explained how the building and landscape were designed as one. “The experience is inside and outside simultaneously.” The buildings shape the landscape and vice versa; their forms riff off each other. “There is music, dance, theater in the building and the landscape,” Hollander added.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Richard Barnes

The Reach has seven entrances and five stairways, creating multiple ways to access the 10 interior stages, performance spaces, and practice areas, which are buried under sloping green roofs. McVoy and Hollander said the goals was to create a sense of “porosity” or openness to the surrounding landscape.

And indeed almost all the performance spaces within The Reach have massive windows that not only pour in light but provide views of the gardens and Potomac River beyond. McVoy said it has taken the opera and ballet performers some time to adjust to all the light, as they are used to practicing in black boxes. But they have taken to the windows that face into hallways and allow visitors to peer in. “Performers love to be seen.”

Steven Holl is from Seattle and is inspired by the Puget Sound, so all of his projects incorporate water in some form, Hollander said. As visitors descend the terraces into the landscape, either through steps or paths, or meander down the lawn through the buildings, they discover a fountain meant to be a “mirror to the sky” that also connects visitors to the experience of the river just below.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander
The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

Hollander believes his role was to “help Steven Holl’s vision grow.” That vision was to use the landscape to create a “living memorial to Kennedy,” who was assassinated in 1963. Through seasonal change, the landscape itself gives a performance imbued with meaning.

For example, a grove of 35 prehistoric Gingkos trees — 35 because Kennedy was the 35th president — at the far end of the landscape turn a bright yellow in autumn and drop all their leaves at once around the time that Kennedy was assassinated.

Aside from that poetic arboreal piece, there are redbuds that burst out in spring; waist-high, immersive meadows of perennials, such as verbena, echinacea, rudbeckia and heptacodium that attract bees and butterflies in the summer; and red maples, gingkos, and sweetgums that overlay warm layers of color in the fall. The meadows are perhaps the most effective draw, pulling you into the landscape and out of the city. In the winter, the trees and grasses “keep their form.” Sprinkled throughout the gardens are works of public art.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander
The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

To keep The Reach as accessible as possible, there are no obvious security elements. McVoy said the space is open to the public from 10AM to midnight year-round, and ample use of cameras means the security is largely invisible. “The goal is to make an open and inviting space that reflects Kennedy and his ideals.” Any issues identified by camera result in a drop-by from one of the Kennedy Center’s red jacketed ushers or the nearby patrols of the National Park Service and DC Metro police.

For Hollander, perhaps the toughest design and technical challenge was creating a lawn that essentially continued up one side of the main pavilion. As the “warped plane” becomes more vertical it turns into a sedum green wall that had to be carefully structured and planted. Creating an irrigation system that keeps both the upper and lower parts of the swoop well-hydrated year-round was challenging.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Richard Barnes
The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

Hollander writes that “the irrigation system has an advanced web-based system with the ability to confirm water flow, water pressure, water temperature, ability to self-empty prior to frost, and refill right after temperatures warm up, so that the irrigation can effectively run 24/7, 365 days a year.” The swoop has been there about a year now and is “acclimating well.”

The team behind The Reach also addressed major connectivity issues as well. A much-needed pedestrian and bicycle connection between the upper levels of the Kennedy Center and the Potomac River below has finally been forged. Bicyclists can now wind through the new landscape and use the bridge to connect to Georgetown.

But there are few issues: the new bridge is perhaps too narrow, and there was an absence of bicycle parking anywhere in The Reach. I doubt the design team wants bicyclists locking their bikes to the beautifully-crafted handrails in the gardens, which is now happening.

To note: BNIM Architects partnered with Steven Holl Associates to design and build The Reach. And architecture firm KieranTimberlake is now working on a new master plan for the Edward Durrell Stone building that also seeks to make the now-dated center more open and democratic. This shift is already reflected in the new Kennedy Center logo, which adopts the curved forms of The Reach.

Security Is a Design Problem

Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Office in Jackson, Mississippi, Schwartz/Silver / Tex Jernigan, copyright Zahner

Equitable access to public spaces is central to our civic life and democracy. We can’t let the threat of terrorist attacks or mass shooters turn our public spaces into inaccessible fortresses. To protect our people and economy, cities instead need thoughtful, designed security solutions that balance the need for openness with the management of risk.

At Open to the Public: Rethinking Security & Access in Public Space, an event organized by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) at the Navy Memorial museum in Washington, D.C., Roxanne Blackwell, co-interim CEO of ASLA, said “it’s important that we live safely yet still feel free.”

In a presentation, Susan Silberberg, an urban designer and lecturer at MIT, said there is ample research on what makes good public spaces — they are designed for the human scale, beautiful, create connectivity and access. “So how does the need for security impact that?”

With her graduate urban planning students at MIT, Silberberg decided to find out. Undertaking a study of security measures in the Boston Financial District in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, she found “there was loss of use of some public space.” Slowly, “temporary, permanent, designed, and ad-hoc” security barriers accrued over time to “erode movement through public spaces.”

Silberberg said there were mass shootings in 253 American cities in the first 8 months of 2019 alone. Most of these occurred in “third places,” which are defined as neither home or work. These are the public and private places where people congregate.

One result of these attacks is a growing security arms race among cities. There is the perception that “if New York City is more secure than Boston,” for example, companies may be more likely to move operations there. “There is a sense of peer pressure.”

Lawyers want to reduce any liability, so more and more security measures go in. Security is also “big business.” Public and private entities are “blitzed with security products,” and the message from them is “if you don’t do this for your clients, you are at fault.”

For Silberberg, the issue is there are many actors working on securing the public realm but not in a coordinated way. The result is a hodgepodge of private and public measures that reduce access.

Instead, she called for “all security measures to improve the design and experience of public spaces.” As an model, she pointed to the Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Office in Jackson, Mississippi, which is both safe and aesthetically appealing (see image above).

Other recommendations included: pedestrianize the public realm to reduce car access, so that terrorists can’t drive vehicles or vehicular bombs into crowds. Use street ambassadors, like you find with some local business improvement districts, who can keep an eye on things, rather than unwelcoming security or police officers. Design spaces that invite engagement through public art and technology, which encourage people to notice their surroundings and other people more.

Richard Cline, principal deputy director, Federal Protective Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of guarding one million federal employees across the federal government. Cline said in the past year there have been some 130 attacks on federal buildings, resulting in more than 100 injuries. Some 50 serious plots have been averted.

In the Pacific northwest, political demonstrations turn violent. “Some 30-plus climate change related protests have resulted in demonstrators throwing rocks at windows of federal buildings.” In the Northeast, the primary threat comes from foreign terrorist organizations. And across the country, there is a threat from lone shooters who are angry with the government for some reason, perhaps for a denial of benefits.

For each federal government facility, which are managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), his team will conduct a threat assessment and determine the appropriate security needed. Level 5 security is reserved for facilities like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, while level 1 could be applied to a local Social Security Administration or postal office.

Cline said particularly in Washington, D.C., “we can’t help people by just setting up more jersey barriers; we need better solutions. People are coming to D.C. to see democracy.”

Jersey barrier / Wikipedia

Landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, principal at Reed Hilderbrand, and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, presented some of those smart design solutions that both ensure access and create safety.

Working with architects at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and artist Maya Lin, Reed Hilderbrand has been designing a new 14-acre site for the GSA, which will be used by the U.S. Department of Transportation: the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The security assessment called for a 75-foot set-back for the building, which had the effect of creating a suburban campus-like environment. Reed Hilderbrand is using that ample space to create a welcoming park. In addition to a range of “clever tactics” and hardened access points, security comes through undulating mounds that depict the Doppler Effect, crafted by artist Maya Lin. The mounds were in part designed to block anyone trying to attack the building with a vehicle.

John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore Owings Merrill, Reed Hilderbrand, Maya Lin
John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore Owings Merrill, Reed Hilderbrand, Maya Lin

Hilderbrand said the landscape is purposefully “multi-functional.” And the stringent security requirements, which he couldn’t discuss in much detail, were accomplished through a two-year multidisciplinary design process.

Another project of Reed Hilderbrand’s that artfully integrates security is a new master plan for The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, an important site that is a center of civic life in a city of 1.5 million, receives some 7 million tourists annually, is a place that is “central to Texans’ creation myth” and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Alamo is currently “compromised and unwelcoming.” Half of the original mission complex has been “eroded” by surrounding development; the historic core itself has been “mistreated over the years.” A 20-year process involving many stakeholders with competing interests has finally culminated in a plan that has been approved by the San Antonio City Council and Texas General Land office.

The new plan for The Alamo will expand the boundaries of the historic precinct, ban vehicle traffic in front of the mission and garden, instead turning Alamo Plaza Street into a pedestrian-only plaza. Pedestrian traffic will be channeled via the surrounding streets and Riverwalk. A gate at the north edge of where Alamo Plaza Street now is will be closed during the day but open at night.

The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand

Behind the garden, Reed Hildebrand calls for 4-feet-tall walls that will be hidden amid greenery to lessen their visual impact. Crossing the streets and buildings surrounding The Alamo, the boundary of the original Mission will be preserved through a slight depression that lowers the entire historic landscape. Access will be provided through sloping walkways and steps. For Hilderbrand, the visitor experience came first and security is designed to enhance that experience.

The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand
The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand

In a Q&A moderated by Jess Zimbabwe, principal at Plot Strategies, conversation veered towards the now-ubiquitous use of cameras, as well as the growing use of artificial intelligence-based facial recognition technology, and what these technologies mean for privacy in the public realm. As protesters in Hong Kong use face masks, hats, projectors, and other tactics to evade identification by street and building cameras, the question is how to balance security with personal privacy.

According to Kline, the department of homeland security isn’t using facial recognition technologies in federal buildings. But that doesn’t mean that isn’t coming sometime soon. The United Kingdom and Israel are currently leaders in “sophisticated invisible security,” and other countries are studying how they do it.

In some cases, the technology-based security measures are integrated into other systems. For example, London’s congestion pricing system, which uses cameras to track vehicles that enter into London’s inner core and then charge vehicle owners for access, is really “about monitoring vehicles” and tracking people, said Zimbabwe.

Silberberg then made a final point worth highlighting: “we must stop reacting to the last threat.” Many cities design and implement security solutions for what crisis has just happened, perhaps overreacting and reducing freedom of movement in the process. As communities navigate a world of changing threats, public and private partners must work together to create “flexible and adaptable public spaces” that can meet shifting security requirements.