As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.
First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”
Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social environment that led to them being built. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with new “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue. The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to replace the dysfunction of the old with a modern urban world.
And these landscapes were the result of innovation. Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).
Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of the most ambitious renewal-era projects. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”
As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.” These Modernist places are designed as forms first, he argues, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind.
So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small urban spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”
Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.
And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.
Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.
For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”
Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.
Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now wind swept and barren.
After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”
And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees arranged in allees and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.
The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Preservationists, like The Cultural Landscape Foundation, have worked with the National Park Service (NPS), to promote case studies, develop standards, and create models for adaptation. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.” Meanwhile, residents of cities decide with their feet where they want to be, and, at public meetings, use their voice to make clear what they want in public spaces.