Sponge-Worthy Design for the Gowanus Canal– The Architectural Record, 11/1/16
“A tiny new park in Brooklyn has a big job: absorbing and filtering a million gallons of stormwater each year that flows into one of the most putrid waterways in the United States.”
Our New Urban Oases – The New York Times Magazine, 11/10/16
“Just a few blocks north of Philadelphia’s Center City, with its immaculate grid designed by the city’s founder, William Penn, the landscape turns hardscrabble.”
Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes there are mysteries in our landscapes that defy explanation. In an otherworldly session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he bypassed the usual scientific explanations, delving into mythology, mysticism, conspiracies, and irrationality. “Have you been alone in the woods and felt some strange presence? What the hell is that?,” he asked.
Sullivan wants to find out where these ideas about the landscape come from. In the early 1920s in the United Kingdom, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins came up with the theory of ley lines, which he believed were underlying alignments of landscape forms. And in 1969, author John Mitchell revived the idea in his New Age book The View Over Atlantis, which explored the “hidden currents of the landscape.”
These ideas aren’t new. Chinese Feng Shui practitioners in the East have long associated the landscape with unseen energy flows. In ancient Western mythology, nature’s power has a prominent role. “The woods were once the sacred domain of the gods and goddesses. Apollo had a sacred grove, and Zeus, a prophetic oak.” The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece sat on a tripod stool over a crack in the earth, “breathing fumes from the earth’s core” when issuing her prophecies. In Ireland, there were sacred wells, which were portals to the underworld. “Today, we throw coins into wishing wells. Why is that?”
Like Australian aborigines — with their “dream time that enables them access to a parallel reality” — landscape architects can use dreams to tap into another world of design. For example, Michelangelo apparently came up with his unique steps in the Laurentian Library in Florence in a dream. And Sullivan pointed to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who would dream and then quickly paint his visions.
With Robert Hewitt, ASLA, associate professor at Clemson University, Sullivan put together a group design project that unearthed his students’ dreams. He thinks landscape architects can “integrate dreams into the design process.” As an experiment, he asks designers to “put a sketchbook next to your bed and before you go to sleep focus on a a design problem. Upon waking, replay your dream, record the sequence, catalogue ideas.”
Landscape architects need to once again connect with the spiritual side, the alchemy of landscape. “Landscape architecture doesn’t turn lead into gold, but it’s the ultimate transmutation of one element into another.” With nature as a guide, landscape architects can make their studios like an alchemist’s library, divining new ways to “sublimate, bio-remediate, and distill” natural elements into new forms and substances.
Like Voodoo priests in Haiti, landscape architects can “use the genius loci, the spirit of a place,” to maximum effect. For example, he believes the crescent shape of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans delta is a sort of amplifying device, like out of Ghostbusters. “There is a reason deltas are a symbol in alchemy. They are the birthplaces of civilization.”
And he then expanded his discussion to the powerful role mythological figures can play in landscapes, given they are an ever-present undercurrent. In the early renaissance-era Nymphaeum of Italy “woodland deities were brought out into the landscape.”
Muses can be brought back to play a modern role in linking the conscious and subconscious. Today, “we need to put gods and goddesses back into the landscape. Where is the spiritual aspect?”
This well-edited exhibition is perhaps the best of NBM’s recent triptych of landscape architecture exhibitions, which included a survey of the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, and a retrospective of Oehme van Sweden’s work. The curious flow of the exhibition enables discovery. Around each corner are Halprin’s surprising drawings and dioramas, and photographs graciously donated by some of the country’s leading architectural photographers.
The exhibition moves through 35 sites chronologically, from his early residential work through to his first forays into the public realm, from the hallmarks of his Modernist designs to his post-Modern work in the late 70s and early 80s, and, finally, his capstone projects before his death in 2009.
Some themes emerge. Throughout his career, Halprin enjoyed partnering with artists. He purposefully created room for art works, knowing they add rich, pleasing layers. Gould Garden in Berkeley, California, created from the late 50s to 1960, shows one of his early partnerships with artist Jacques Overhoff, who molded bas-relief panels in concrete around Halprin’s pool.
Halprin believed in cities. When many people abandoned the urban cores after the race riots, Halprin saw opportunities for regrowth. His Portland open space sequence, with its three-part necklace of Modernist parks, was created from 1965-70 and demonstrated his early commitment. Moeller argued “it changed perceptions of downtown Portland.” And New York Times architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable, who was not generous with the compliments, called the sequence “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” (The sequence is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is in need of major repair. A $4.5 million rehabilitation effort begins next year).
Halprin was all about “animating the landscape through choreography,” particularly the movement of water. The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition is a 10-foot-tall watercolor drawing of water moving around rocks. But if you look closely, you will see Halprin drew arrows to indicate the currents’ directions; he was mapping the choreography of a shore eddy.
Moeller thinks Halprin was deeply influenced by his wife Anna, who was a dancer. “He adapted her ideas by ‘scoring’ for human activity.” In his UN Plaza in San Francisco, he applied a design approach he called “motation,” which is described in the exhibition as “scoring how perception of the environment changes depending on the speed and motion of the observer.”
The exhibition, of course, includes beautiful photographs of his masterpieces: the Frankin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is a culmination of his life-long collaboration with artists; Freeway Park in Seattle, which creates a sense of movement through water and sculpted concrete and initiated a new landscape type — the park over a highway; and Sea Ranch in California, which showed how ecological community design should be done.
Sea Ranch in particular is made fresh by new photographs that show how Halprin ingeniously used berms reminiscent of military forts to both hide buildings and pools and create wind blocks. As Birnbaum explained, “Halprin was one of the first to think of landscape as infrastructure.”
Many of Halprin’s landscapes are under threat of demolition or a slow death from a lack of maintenance. Birnbaum hopes this exhibition will help “raise awareness of their value.” It’s a bit ironic given Halprin’s influence can be found in so many contemporary projects. Birnbaum even sees his impact on the High Line in New York City, where James Corner choreographed a continual dance between observer and observed.
We’ve all heard about complete streets — streets that provide access to everyone, with ample space for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and buses. But, at GreenBuild in Los Angeles, a group of landscape architects argued they are really just the bare minimum. Streets can become public spaces, taking on park-like qualities. In our increasingly dense urban world, streets can be redesigned to provide environmental benefits and create a sense of community.
Jennifer Packer, ASLA, associate principal at Melendrez, a Los Angeles-based landscape architecture firm, sees great opportunities in Los Angeles county’s 20,000 kilometers of roadways, the vast majority of which are neither complete or green. She pointed to one example showing the way forward: the $20-million MyFigueroa (MyFig) project, which re-envisions a major corridor through downtown Los Angeles. There, a 4-mile stretch is being redeveloped to include separate bus platforms and shelters, bike lanes and racks, more accessible crosswalks and clearer signage, and lots of greenery. It’s a key first step in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative.
Monrovia, a foothill community in Los Angeles, just got a new transit village for the new station along the new metro line that heads east from downtown out to Santa Monica. There, AHBE Landscape Architects created a “complete street neighborhood,” multiplying the benefits, said Evan Mather, ASLA, principal at AHBE. A multi-modal transit center now connects bikes, cars, and pedestrians to the rail. Plants native to the foothill eco-tone were re-established and set within stormwater management systems. Around the station, there’s a new mile-long loop trail dotted with bioswales and planters. The new streets help further define a new downtown Monrovia.
For Nate Cormier, ASLA, director of landscape architecture at AECOM downtown L.A. Studio, Bell Street Park in Seattle is a prime example of what it means to go beyond complete streets: the street as a park. MIG|SvR and Hewitt designed a 4-block-long “woonerf,” which is Dutch for a street that has no curbs and purposefully creates an ambiguous zone where cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists mix. Due to this constant intermingling, everyone is more vigilant, so the street actually becomes safer. “Everyone is negotiating the street; jay walking is the norm.” Textured concrete helps send the message this isn’t a speedway for cars passing through. Trees shade small parklets with cafe tables that “act like a front porch.”
In high-density, expensive environments like Seattle, where cities can’t afford to buy up properties to create parks, Bell Street Park may offer a model. The community made the street-park happen by tapping the parks department’s “levy opportunities,” but, through a memorandum of understanding, the city’s department of transportation maintains some aspects of it.
“We can’t achieve sustainability without considering the landscape. Performance happens there,” argued Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) at GreenBuild in Los Angeles. By performance, Deutsch means just that — achieving concrete, measurable goals through sustainable and resilient landscape design: capturing stormwater, raising property prices, reducing the urban heat island effect, or improving biodiversity.
Deutsch complained that too many landscape architects still offer a laundry list of sustainable features when they discuss their work instead of focusing on real benefits. “We need to move to talk of benefits. For example, we can say a landscape captures this percent of stormwater, sequesters these many pounds of carbon, or saved thousands in energy use.”
To achieve performance and then collect these kinds of numbers, more landscape architects need to “integrate measurable performance metrics into the front end of the design process.”
To promote this approach, the LAF has built up the robust Landscape Performance Series, which includes a fast fact library, with data pulled from various credible journals; a set of benefits calculators; and, lastly, an inventory of over 100 case studies, which offer comparative before and after images, benefits data, and, to be transparent, information on how that data was collected and measured. “We also include information on lessons learned — what didn’t work.”
Deutsch and her team spend upwards of six months with landscape architecture firms and clients to put together a case study. Developing metrics and collecting and synthesizing data is a time-consuming process. “Choosing the right metric is important.” Deutsch called for using “defensible metrics, not necessarily peer-reviewed or published.”
The case studies offer a range of environmental, social, and often economic benefits. For example, the client and design team for Uptown Normal’s Circle and Streetscape in Normal, Illinois, a highly successful new town square and traffic circle, found that “104 new trees planted on site sequester 10,790 pounds of carbon.” And also, they found that the new landscape “increased property values in the Uptown tax increment financing district by $1.5 million (or 9%) from 2009 to 2010, a 31 percent increase from 2004.”
In another case study, the client and design team for the General Service Administration (GSA)’s new Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. found the landscape’s set of terraced green roofs “retains up to 424,000 gallons of rainwater, which is equal to the 95th percentile storm event.” The site’s new social spaces are being used: “336 distinct individuals observed using the courtyard over a 6-hour period.”
But she admitted some of the data is preliminary at best. And it’s easy to conflate causation with correlation. For example, one could say that a new park reduced neighborhood crime by 50 percent if one looked at crime logs before the park was created and then after the park launched and found crime went down 50 percent. But that’s leaving out many other potential causal factors that perhaps weren’t well studied. The park could have come with additional security guards, or the police could have increased their patrols in the area during the construction process, or the buildings around the park could have been redeveloped as pricey condos. Deutsch said “misusing data is possible. But we have to start somewhere. And it’s important to always cite the specific context of the data,” rather than generalizing it.
In the coming decades, Deutsch thinks even better data will come. She sees every landscape architecture degree program teaching landscape performance as part of an integrated design process, and performance calculations included in licensing exams. “I see this approach integrated into practice and the standard procedure.”
To make the case study development process easier, LAF will release a guidebook in 2017.
Gardens by France’s Most Revered Landscape Designer – The New York Times, 10/12/16
“Gardens are ‘an expression of faith’ and ‘the embodiment of hope,’ wrote the revered English landscape architect Russell Page in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener, in 1962.”
How to Remake San Jose’s St. James Park– The Mercury News, 10/12/16
“San Jose will host one of the more fascinating design competitions in its history: The ambitious goal is to try to remake downtown’s most gaping urban sore, St. James Park.”
Certifying your landscape project with the Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®)* can seem like an expensive, onerous process. So why bother? For Jamie Statter, vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), SITES gives landscape architects the “opportunity to do it right” and have an impact in the fight against climate change. In a session at GreenBuild in Los Angeles, she and two SITES consultants working with landscape architects on the first SITES v2 certified projects explained why it’s worth the extra effort.
In the face of sprawl, which is helping to speed climate change, “we must better value land as a resource. Sprawl is not about buildings; it’s about the landscape,” argued Statter. In too many places, sprawl happens because “land and water resources are undervalued.” With SITES, she said, “we can value the elements of the landscape that provide benefits that haven’t been monetized.” Through incorporating an ecosystem services-based approach, land owners can save crucial natural resources, reduce carbon emissions, and even make money.
Under SITES, landscape architects and designers can create broader impact through a range of projects: playgrounds, parks, university campuses, water reclamation projects, transportation systems, military facilities, and others. The site just must be a minimum of 2,000 square feet and must be new construction or a major renovation. The rating system tops out at 200 points, but it only takes 135 to reach platinum. SITES enables many kinds of approaches that fit local climates.
With the recent launch of SITES Approved Professional (AP), landscape architects now have “the chance to get ahead and further differentiate themselves,” she added.
For the university’s centennial celebration, they revamped their 11-acre, greyfield campus covered in parking lots, spending some $14 million to transform it into a landscape that not only reflects the beauty of the native Chihuahuan desert ecosystem, but also rebuilds the ancient arroyos (rivers) that were once covered over by parking lots. Due to all that asphalt, the campus had major flooding problems. After those arroyos were restored, the water collected and infiltrated through the campus, managing water from up to a 95th percentile storm event. Any excess now flows out to the Rio Grande River instead of inundating the campus.
Before, the campus was filled with parking lots; now, it has outdoor seating for 1,800. “Spaces for mental respite went up 64 percent.” At night, many of these social spaces have gas fire pits, so students can hold events outside under the starry desert sky. “The campus now helps students’ cognitive abilities, creating spaces for healing nature.”
The transformation led to a 61 percent reduction in water use, with a 60 percent increase in vegetation, and a 98 percent increase in the native plant palette. Some 90 percent of demolition materials were diverted from the landfill and recycled on site. Venhaus said, “let no one tell you it’s hard to recycle asphalt. It’s the easiest thing to do.”
According to Venhaus, they lost points with SITES because they weren’t able to incorporate much recycled local materials. “We just couldn’t get recycled content, because the local market in El Paso didn’t have it.”
But the process was ultimately worth it, and the costs were relatively low. She said it’s possible to “use SITES and stay within budget if you start with the rating system from the beginning, using the pre-design assessment. You may have spend more on materials and documentation, but it’s typically less than 3 percent of the overall budget. About 1-3 percent.”
In an email, Ten Eyck wrote: “We are glad that we mentioned going after the certification at the beginning of the project to Diana Natalicio, the president of UTEP. She was all for it and gave us the back up for pursuing the certification, so we were able to incorporate the SITES strategies from the beginning of the design process. We learned that it can be difficult in remote areas, such as El Paso, to meet all of the criteria, because it is so far away from many manufacturers. The campus is thrilled to have received the certification, and the project is helping to convey to the El Paso region and beyond the importance of connecting people with each other and the beauty of their unique desert regions, away from cars. Campuses of the southwest do not have to copy British or ivy league approaches. Instead, we can celebrate the beauty of the people and the places of the southwest in our own special way.”
Bryan Astheimer, an architect and sustainability consultant at Re:Vision Architecture, worked with James Corner Field Operations to achieve SITES Gold certification for the transformation of the Chicago Navy Pier. For its bicentennial the Chicago Navy Pier put out an international design competition to reimagine the pier landscape, which Corner’s firm won.
The pier is the only one of the five Chicago architect and planner David Burnham envisioned as part of the 1919 comprehensive plan for Chicago to actually have been built. For decades it was used by the Navy, and then, in 1995 it was revamped as a “festival pier,” with a convention center, children’s museum, Shakespeare theater, restaurants, and amusement park. For decades, it has been the “number-one tourist destination in the Midwest,” Astheimer said. But the city found that the pier had begun to look “tired, not contemporary.” For many Chicagoans, it’s really a place only for tourists.
The first phase of the pierscape project, some 9 acres, redesigned the entry — the Polk Brothers Park and Headhouse Plaza — and the south dock, the long spine that connects the various rooms of the pier. Field Operations more fully integrated the entry plaza into existing transit systems, adding bike racks, bike share stations.
The spine itself is a marvel of landscape engineering. Before, stormwater would simply run right off into Lake Michigan. Now, expansive tree tanks cut right into the pier with giant saws are large enough so they can store any excess water that falls on the pier. “Water is stored in the tanks where it’s used to irrigate the landscape. Any excess is filtered and then discharged.”
The number-one cost item on the project were the thousands and thousands of herringbone-patterned pavers needed to cover the pier. “We ended up custom specifying a paver with UniLock, but they couldn’t meet the SITES specification for 40 percent recycled content. They ended up creating a paver with 30 percent copper slag. It’s now on their website as part of their eco product line.” What began as a limitation ultimately resulted in market transformation.
Astheimer said “SITES makes you think through the site before you begin design. It forces you to use a quantifiable framework that creates learning opportunities” for all the designers and contractors involved. All the challenges that came out of this new process “were all opportunities for learning. Challenges create growth and ultimately value.” He believes that “SITES will drive the industry to become more sustainable and transparent.”
Sarah Weidner Astheimer, ASLA, principal, James Corner Field Operations, wrote in: “We are excited to celebrate the gold SITES certification of Navy Pier’s South Dock, the first phase in its complete renovation. SITES informed much of our design process, from access and circulation studies to plant and material specifications. It was an important tool that kept our client, our contractor, and design team accountable to a high standard of best practices and resulted in an unprecedented project—the transformation of Chicago’s Navy Pier into an authentic and green destination reflective of the city’s identity.”
*SITES was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.
“The Big U is the love child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” said Bjarke Ingels, founder of the multidisciplinary design firm BIG, to huge laughs at GreenBuild‘s finale in Los Angeles. “It’s both a holistic, contiguous project” that Moses, the master of top-down planning, would appreciate, and the result of lots of local community input, which Jacobs, the advocate for bottom-up, small-scale planning, would approve of.
Ingels was speaking of his vision for a system of green berms and parks that will protect lower Manhattan from the next Hurricane Sandy, swinging from West 54th street south to The Battery and up to East 40th Street.
In a fantastic, hybrid video and animation (see above), Ingels showed how the project will make New York City much safer while also creating more green public space. The project, which will break ground in 2017 with the eastern portion, is expected to save lower Manhattan from some $3 billion in damages from the next super storm.
Ingels believes that “resilient infrastructure is not a sea wall; it’s premeditated social and environmental infrastructure.” In keeping with his argument that designers must emphasize fun while surreptitiously improving sustainability and resilience, “the Big U will make lower Manhattan more accessible and enjoyable.”
For Ingels, it’s a no brainer: more cities need to “embrace resilience as a driver of design.”
Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed Military Medical Center, in Maryland.
In the middle of the vast medical and university campus, the Green Road takes patients, nurses, and staff down a zig-zaging path to a healing woodland garden, a beautiful 2-acre valley, which used to be a golf course, but now feels wild. The restored forest and stream are at the heart of the experience.
And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.
The landscape was designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA, and his students at the University of Maryland.
The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at TIIH. His vision was to bring back an ancient idea: using nature to heal. As Foote explained, four different teams of scientists — from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Tucson; Benson-Henry Institute of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and National Institute of Health Clinical Center, Pain, and Palliative Care Services — will undertake in-depth studies in the Green Road to “isolate where nature has the most effect.” Some $1.1 million in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $3.2 million project.
Walking down the path, one of the first things visitors notice are the massive logs strewn through the garden. At first, I thought their intention was ecological: to regenerate the soil and create habitat for small creatures. But, as Foote explained, the dead trees are also symbols of fallen soldiers. Often, soldiers experience PTSD because they have lost a close friend in battle. The logs are opportunities for those suffering with PTSD to remember those they’ve lost in a more gentle, natural way and connect death with the positive cycle of regeneration.
Throughout, the garden brings in elements that veterans, both with PTSD and without, identified were important to them. As Sullivan explained at the opening ceremony, design charrettes were conducted with 30 veterans to figure out how the natural beauty of the stream and forest could be enhanced to create a healing effect. “They wanted both a solitary place where they could get away and find solace nature, and a special place to meet others to commemorate those who had fallen, a place to get together with family and comrades.”
The landscape restoration was extensive. Invasive plants were removed and 58 new trees were planted, including river birch, pin oaks, and magnolias. Summersweet shrubs, which will bloom in summer, were planted in abundance. Still, the restored stream, done by Angler Environmental, is perhaps the major attraction. One bank was stabilized, trees were cut back, and the other eroding bank will be restored next.
Foote explained that “the Green Road features stone, water, trees, and animals. Through design, they are paired in new ways. We believe these paired natural systems can help heal PTSD.”
Foote looks to nature for solutions, perhaps because he has spent decades witnessing the failings of modern medicine to solve PTSD in wounded warriors. “We have been trying to heal people one organ at a time with pills and surgery.” But the problem is that PTSD “doesn’t respond to those treatments, so we need to try holistic approaches.”
That move towards holistic medicine — which the Greeks of ancient times and the Chinese of today still practice — has been a slog. “Our cultural obsession with technology means we underestimate holistic therapy.” Mainstream medical practitioners undervalue it, because, to date, it has been impossible to measure “whole body effects, mathematically.” They can only measure with confidence that this treatment or that pill yields results on this or that organ.
Foote sees the future in creating proof of the benefits of holistic approaches: a set of “whole body metrics” that could be used to test and measure the effect of these treatments for PTSD and other disorders. Foote wants to apply many technologies and approaches to forge these new metrics: genomics, which would look at which genes are turned on during PTSD and what can turn then off; artificial intelligence-based textual analysis of patients’ writings to categorize and diagnose their disorders; integrated biometrics of stress to measure physiological effects of suffering and also treatments; and big data analyses to find more accurate sub-groups for evaluation. Foote hopes the Green Road can help test these nascent “whole body metrics,” at least for the metrics and potential treatments related to exposure to nature. “I hope this becomes the national laboratory for studying how humans interact with nature.”
His plan is that a group of 50 veterans, some suffering from PTSD and some not, will be studied in the Green Road. Their physiological response to the place will be measured in detail. “We could ask a group to spend an hour in the Green Road on a scavenger hunt, and then the next day, they could do the same on the streets and we could measure the differences in their responses.”
While the Green Road is a major success, the only criticism is that it’s hidden behind buildings and parking lots, and there is no signage to explain how to get there. It’s a good 15 minute walk from the medical facilities. For patients, it’s a destination, not a place to simply wander into. Walter Reed will need to further promote to ensure it’s well-used by the people who need it. Asked whether Walter Reed will actually prescribe patient time there or conduct horiticultural therapy sessions there, Foote seemed a bit pessimistic, pointing to limited budgets. “We need $2 million, $5 million to do everything.” But he does see the Green Road hosting events and therapeutic exercises.
His grand vision for sometime in the near future is beautiful: sufferers of PTSD will wear a device like a Fitbit that would measure whole body responses and would let them know when they are getting stressed and alert them to go spend time in a park. A fascinating mix of ancient wisdom and new technologies.
If one were to pen a history of landscape architecture, who would emerge as the central hero? Or would it be a person at all? Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, proposed collaboration as landscape’s protagonist in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Collaboration, according to Woltz, “is the only way to realize incredibly complex and layered projects.”
“We live in a society that wants chest-beating heroes,” Woltz said. But the practice of landscape architecture offers little room for excessive pride.
“Your project is only as good as the next tsunami, hurricane, or flood. Landscape straddles horticulture, civil engineering, culture, storm water management, and all these systems have to work together. It is a very humbling profession.”
For that reason, Nelson Byrd Woltz actively engages with experts from a number of fields – conservation biology, soil science, ornithology, cultural history, and archaeology, to name a few – as a means “to tell the story of the land.”
Richard Weller, ASLA and chair of the School of Design’s landscape architecture department, noted that the resulting design work is “intrinsically of its place, evidently beautiful, and poetic without lapsing into spectacle.” It marries ecological restoration with highly-composed and relevant designs. In other words, it has integrity.
Woltz prefers the word authenticity. He described authenticity not as a byproduct of a design, but rather the result of an intentional process on the part of the designer.
“We research events, traces, and artifacts of the specific place, then find ways through the design process to reveal and celebrate those narratives.” It just so happens that the history of a site serves as an inventory of rich design ideas.
Asked for a recent example of this pursuit of authenticity, Woltz offered his firm’s work on the daylighting of Cockrill Spring in Nashville’s Centennial Park.
“In early traveler’s letters there was repeated mention of returning to Nashville along the Natchez Trace and knowing you were home when you ‘drank the cold waters of Cockrill Spring’.” So Woltz and his team worked with archaeologists to locate and excavate the spring. They then designed a contemporary fountain that celebrates the water and tells the story of an important but relatively unknown early settler, Anne Cockrill. The spring now supplies much of the park’s irrigation.
Isn’t examining early maps and historic artifacts the natural thing to do when beginning a project? “In my opinion, it’s the responsible thing to do,” Woltz said. “We owe it to every site to look carefully at what was there before we showed up.”
One would think this method is perhaps less applicable on a site as developed as Manhattan. But Woltz received a laugh from the crowd when, presenting his firm’s recent work on the eastern Hudson Yards, he shared that his firm’s research began with the examination of maps of Manhattan island from 1609. This research clued them into the existence of several streams underneath the train yards. During early talks with the project’s civil engineer, Woltz asked, “How does all of the water underneath the site get out to the Hudson River?” “How,” the civil engineer responded, “did you know there’s water down there?”
Collaboration was an integral part of the Hudson Yards project from the beginning, Woltz said, as the project deals with enormous complexities in sewage, transportation, irrigation, and engineering systems. Initially, there was no one entity coordinating those elements. But Woltz emphasized that landscape architects can inhabit this coordination role, as his firm has done.
In concluding the survey of his firm’s work, Woltz touched on humility once again. “I’m showing you the successes,” Woltz said. “I would love to give a lecture on all the failed things we’ve tried.”