Governor’s Island Park will be Developed by New York City.

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Governor David A. Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Daniel L. Squadron today announced an agreement on the long-term development, funding and governance of Governors Island in which New York City will have primary responsibility to develop and operate the island. As a part of the announcement the City […]

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The Most Important Urban Square You’ve Never Heard Of

Why Rotterdam’s Theater Square Represents a Turning Point for Urban Design

Art history rarely recognizes a masterpiece in its time. And neither does urban design and landscape architecture. So it’s time to pay homage to a groundbreaking urban square that changed the way designers approach urban sites.

Situated in the heart of Rotterdam, Schouwburgplein, or Theater Square was built in what was formerly a large blank space without character. Surrounded by nondescript lowrise towers that were built after the Nazi destruction, Schouwburgplein is built on top of underground parking. Designed by the landscape architecture firm West 8, the square is an interactive urban space, flexible and adaptive to the user’s needs.

In the tradition of Italy’s medieval squares, the design for Schouwburgplein emphasizes the importance of void, creating a panorama which opens to the skyline. The entire concept of the design revolves around the idea of adaptability. Lead designer Adriaan Geuze prefers the “emptiness” to overprogrammed urban spaces and argues that urban dwellers are capable of creating their own meaning in environments.

While traditional European squares are a representation of civic and religious power, Schouwburgplein empowers the public to determine their uses. Though the square is mostly flat and open, the secret to its effectiveness is the design of the urban surface. To emphasize the square as a stage, the entire surface is raised above the surrounding streets. In addition, the square’s mosaic of surface materials encourage different uses. The west side of the square is a poured epoxy floor containing silver leaves. The east side (with more sunlight) has a wooden bench over the entire length and warm materials including rubber and timber decking on the ground plane. The change in materials inspire different uses: children play a game on one surface, while skateboarders ride on another.

The surface of the square is embedded with connections for electricity and water, as well as facilities to build tents and fencing for temporary events. As a result, the surface is active and dynamic, a living field that allows the square to change day by day, hour by hour. This idea of urban surface as a living agricultural field is a departure from the philosophies of both classical and modern design. The urban surface is no longer a realm of fixed objects, but a living connective tissue capable of supporting indeterminate uses.

Like all good stage design, lighting is everything. The crane lighting designed for this project may be the most iconic element of the design. Coin-operated handles allow users to determine the height and placement of the lights. During the day, the shadow of the four crane lights move across the square like a clock, perhaps a reference to the Campo in Siena. At night, the dramatic lighting narrows the scale of the space as it casts a playful and theatric mood across the square.

Good design has alway prompted contempt from institutions dedicated to neo-traditional. The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has added Schouwburgplein to its Hall of Shame, claiming that “this is a perfect example of how a design statement cannot be a great square.” The site goes on to say the square is often underused during certain times of day, a clear indication of its failure. PPS unfairly blames the design of the square for problems of the fragmented and under-utilized urban context. Of course, the PPS has always been a bit critical of anything built after the Victorian era.

History remembers projects that mark a turning point. The design of Theater Square represents a shift from the square as fixed object to the square as dynamic field; from a site of representation and power to a site of democracy and openness; from overprogrammed public space to an enabling territory. The shift in thinking represented in this design is already percolating through universities and cutting edge design firms. 

The Urban Wilderness: The Poetics of Industrial Ruins and Untamed Nature

The Schoneberger Sudgelande Nature Park in Germany

Parks in America are the latest casualty to interest-group politics. The park designer must not only satisfy its municipal client, but must carefully redistrict the space to meet the demands of citizen advocates: the dog park people, the kiddie playground mommies, the bikers, the rollerbladers, the garden clubs, and the birders. Like a diplomat in the Balkans, the designer’s role is to gerrymander a site, parceling off piece by piece to the urban consumers. Parks today have more in common with theme parks—a ride for every user—than their pastoral predecessors.

The Schoneberger Sudgelande Nature Park is the perfect antidote to interest-group parks. Located just south of Berlin, Sudgelande is the site of a former railway switchyard. Abandoned after World War II, the site sat fallow for the past fifty years. During that time, a richly-diverse grassland and forest crept over the site, covering the industrial site in a green patina.

Thanks to the foresight of a local citizens group with the financial backing of an environmental alliance, this wild space was preserved and turned into a park. The former repair shop for locomotives was turned into a hall for artists and performers. The tangle of rail tracks move through forest and meadow, hinting at a structure that is dissolved by the wildness.

The park’s dystopian beauty engages the imagination in a way that most “designed” spaces fail to do. The ruins of the industry and technology are a profound expression of transitoriness, an intimation of mortality that is at once haunting and uplifting. Like Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, the ruins of Sudgelande present the visitor with an ontological gap that stimulate the imagination rather than constrain it.

I love this park precisely because I believe in mystery. The way a rail track appears in a forest only to disappear into the brambles. Or how a tower emerges out of the canopy only to be eclipsed in vegetation. Mystery speaks to our souls before our intellect comprehends. Mystery has the power to radically de-center us, to pull us out of ourselves and ground us in a deeper reality.

My good friend, mentor, and visionary landscape architect, Ching-Fang Chen, first brought my attention to this park after she visited it in 2007. Fortunately for those of us in the Washington, D.C. area, Ching-Fang now works with Montgomery County (M-NCPPC) and is promoting sustainable park development based on the concept of managed succession and spontaneous vegetation.

Sudgelande offers a model for the future: a park that allows the layers of history to coexist with the spontaneous movement of nature. At the intersection of culture and wilderness, we behold mystery.



Abstract Expressionism and Planting Design: A Visual Analogy

I have always been drawn to abstract expressionism, both artistically and philosophically.  Art critic Harold Rosenburg described the genre in terms of its action, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”  In the same way, I am drawn to planting design which is muscular and gestural.  It speaks to the viewer at an emotional and spiritual level, and arranges plants in an ecologically sympathetic geometry.  Here, I’ve set Joan Mitchell’s After April is set next to a Piet Oudolf composition:

And it is not just the bold use of color that makes this analogy; it is the philosophic stance of the artists that resonates with me.  Painter Barnett Newman described the drive to paint, “What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Garden of Eden? For the artists are the first men.” Likewise, if the design of landscapes is not fundamentally a humanistic endeavor, then it fails.  Naturalistic design is not about imitating nature, it is an interpretation of nature that expresses the human condition.  Both the painter and the architect create space for dwelling.  Here Newman’s painting declares space in the same way the birch grove does:
What was liberating about this style of painting was that in communicating a pure emotion, in expressing space, or in holding a void, the painting was liberated from the canvas.  Great planting design likewise liberates a space from the confines of the site or property line. It gives the site a feeling of expansiveness by recalling a larger moment of nature.  Or better yet, it arouses a longing for nature that is embedded in each of us.

Helen Frankenthaler once said, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in it. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.”

So in looking at the paintings I love, it becomes increasingly clear: the only planting worth doing is big, bold, and gestural.  Strive for expansive, moody, luminous design.  And remember that best naturalist design is first humanist. 

Loosen Up that Landscape!

An Earth Day Challenge to Gardeners and Designers

“Do gardens have to be so tame, so harnessed, so unfree? What’s new about our New American Garden is what’s new about America itself: it is vigorous and audacious, and it vividly blends the natural and the cultivated.” James van Sweden

My former boss and mentor, James van Sweden was always quotably evangelistic about the need for American gardens to loosen up. Founder of the New American Garden style, James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme created a legacy of projects that presented a beautiful and lush alternative to the typical American garden scene: a sea of lawn with overgrown evergreens stuffed under foundations.

James van Sweden is hardly the first or only voice advocating for an alternative to the typical American yard. Organizations like Lawn Reform, writers like Rick Darke, and landscape architecture firms like Andropogon have all offered compelling alternatives to the typical American landscape. But forty years after the first Earth Day, I have to ask: has the American garden style really progressed?

For home gardens, there are small signs of progress. In the last two years, there has been an increase in vegetable gardening, a renewed interest in native plants, and the occasional person getting rid of their lawn. Despite these glimmers of hope, there is little indication that the style of gardening has actually changed. The basic ratio of lawn (~90%) to planting bed (~10%) remains the same. And what makes up the paltry planting beds are mostly stiff evergreens.
What’s worse is how many professional landscape architects or garden designers still perpetuate stiff and formulaic designs. In the name of modernism, how many urban plazas or institutional sites arrange evergreens in rigid stripes? Or how many self-trained garden designers fill backyards with uber-wavy lawns (because curves are natural!) only to dot in twelve perennials and four shrubs?

Instead, let me present a case for a radically different landscape, a departure from the traditional obsession with fixed forms. My humble advice to gardeners and designers for Earth Day is:

1. Invert the Relationship of Lawn to Planting Bed: Think of your lawn as an area rug, not as wall to wall carpeting. Lawns are best when they are defined on all sides by hardscape or planting beds. This gives them legibility and definition and gives you an opportunity to show off loose perennials, grasses, and shrubs around it. If you’re lawn is more than 50% of your yard, it’s probably too big.
2. Use a Majority of Plants that Change Seasonally: There’s nothing more satisfying in gardening than watching a landscape change through the seasons. Watching plants emerge out of the ground in spring, fill up in volume and color in summer, and then dry in winter connects you with the cycles of the seasons. Dedicate a large percentage of your yard (at least 1/3) to perennials, grasses, and deciduous shrubs—mostly native—and enjoy the drama of the seasons.
3. Think Winter Interest, not Just Evergreens: While every garden or landscape needs some evergreens, most American landscapes use far too many. Most ornamental and native grasses dry beautifully in the winter, and many perennials yield stately seedheads that look stunning in the snow. Include native deciduous shrubs like Itea virginica, Cornus alba, or Ilex verticillata for colorful stems and berries in the winter.
4. Bulk up that Biomass, especially for Pollinators: The amount of native biomass (the total mass of living matter in an area) is in severe decline thanks to development. But gardens represent one of the best opportunities to reclaim it. Carve out areas dedicated to wildness in your yard. Plant your borders with a loose mix of native shrubs; allow part of your lawn to convert to meadow; or let that low area become a rain garden or biofiltration zone. University of Delware professor Doug Tallamy has proven that native plants support an exponential number of more pollinators than do exotic plants. Plants that support butterflies, bees, and other insects invite birds and other wildlife into the garden. Check out Doug’s list of the most effective plants for Lepidoptera.

5. Have fun: One of the first reactions I get when I tell people I’m a landscape architect is an immediate moan about how terrible their yard is. People don’t know what to do and are overwhelmed by the maintenance required of mowing lawn and clipping shrubs. While I believe in principles of design, and in the need for landscape professionals, I believe more strongly in people having a joyous engagement with their garden. No matter what that looks like. So get out there, start with a manageable project, and create the change that loosens up your yard. Be daring, be bold, and have some fun, for crying out loud.