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Vanishing Vistas

Modern landscapes are suffering – and disappearing – due to a general lack of appreciation and neglect.
By Kim A. O'Connell

When the 630 ft., stainless-steel Gateway Arch was completed in 1965 – the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial – it forever changed not only the St. Louis, MI, waterfront, but also the conventional wisdom about monument-making in America. To architect Eero Saarinen, who had submitted the arch design for a 1947 competition and died of cancer before construction was completed, it was important that the arch be a "landmark of our time…. Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right." Furthermore, Saarinen worked to ensure that the arch was not simply a stand-alone sculpture, but part of a dynamic designed landscape stretching across 91 acres of Mississippi River frontage. For this, he turned to landscape architect Dan Kiley.

Over the course of their careers, Kiley and Saarinen would collaborate on a range of projects, most notably the J. Irwin Miller House and Garden in Columbus, IN, (completed in 1957) and Washington Dulles International Airport (completed in 1962). Having worked with Warren Manning, a founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and later with Modernist Louis Kahn, Kiley brought a deep-seated understanding of both classical antecedents and modern sensibilities to his work. At the Gateway Arch, his talent is evident in the site's open lawns, curving walkways and undulating ponds, and particularly in the carefully organized planting scheme that shapes views of the arch and the landscape.

In their respective fields, both Saarinen and Kiley are hailed as masters, with Kiley having completed more than 900 projects at the time of his 2004 death at the age of 91. While Saarinen has been the subject of several recent books and an ongoing traveling exhibition, however, Kiley remains far less widely known. Furthermore, several of Kiley's landscapes have been threatened or destroyed in recent years. His designs for the Capitol Park Apartments courtyard in Washington, DC, and the Nations Bank Plaza in Tampa, FL – the latter of which the St. Petersburg Times recently dismissed as "an arty little spot gone to seed" – were rendered unrecognizable in recent renovations. His reflecting pool at Lincoln Center in New York City has been targeted for significant alteration. The issues afflicting these sites – neglectful or nonexistent maintenance, a general lack of appreciation from site managers and the general public, and modification or downright demolition – are the same ones threatening modern landscapes across the country every day.

Even under the gleaming Gateway Arch, preservationists have been fighting to save Kiley's iconic landscape. Last fall, a developer was seeking to remove land from the purview of the National Park Service to erect a museum, restaurants and shops in the park. The proposal would downgrade the status of the grounds – now designated, along with the arch, as a national historic landmark – to allow such a development to occur. "Modern landscape architecture does not get as much visibility as modern buildings have," says Hugh C. Miller, FAIA, the former chief historical architect of the Park Service, who is active in landscape preservation. "We need to develop guidelines on how to preserve and maintain these landscapes. It exists in very limited areas, but generally, the guidance isn't there."

Currently, the depressed economy has forced the developer to temporarily shelve his plans, but the issue may come up again, and the Park Service is expected to stage a competition to solicit new designs to update Kiley's landscape in the future. In the meantime, with mounting pressure on this and other modern landscapes, preservation advocates are continuing to raise awareness among academics, the general public, and yes, even traditionalists, about the significance of these designs.

"An Alarming Rate"
In the worlds of architecture and art, the advent of Modernism occasioned what critic and author Marc Treib has described as a "cataclysmic breach with the past." By contrast, Treib asserts, modern landscape design mostly retained "the materials and many of the conceptual structures of previous eras: the site as the point of departure for the design, for example." One of the earliest examples of modern landscape architecture in this country – and of Treib's characterization of it – is Fletcher Steele's plan for the grounds at Naumkeag, a circa-1885 country house in Stockbridge, MA, that is now a national historic landmark.

Working there over a 30-year period beginning in the 1920s, Steele brought a modern aesthetic to his design of the lawn's curving berm, which mimicked the site's hilly topography, and the famous Blue Steps, an outdoor staircase whose unfussy swooping handrails are painted white. "The old axis," Steele said of modern design, "is retained in spirit, but changed almost beyond recognition. It is shattered and its fragments removed, duplicated and bent, as is the theoretical axis of any bit of good natural scenery."

Steele inspired many landscape architects, but perhaps most notably a trio of Harvard University students – Garrett Eckbo, Dan Kiley and James Rose – who coauthored several important articles on modern landscape design in the late 1930s and 1940s, and who would each produce landmark landscapes over the course of their careers. With his seminal 1950 book Landscape for Living, Eckbo in particular threw down the gauntlet for his profession to use science and technology to meet contemporary human needs, rather than rely on historic and traditional styles that had served earlier generations.

To these early influences in their own profession and to the modern zeitgeist at large, a generation of landscape architects responded. Modern landscape design is now reflected in a wide range of places: private gardens, public plazas, corporate campuses, earthworks and so on. Any sampling of the nation's best-known modern landscapes would likely include the Fulton Mall, a pedestrian plaza in Fresno, CA, designed by Eckbo and Victor Gruen; Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, by Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, and William Wurster; Halprin's Forecourt Fountain and Lovejoy Plaza in Portland, OR, the Dewey Donnell Garden in Sonoma, CA, by Thomas Church (also with Halprin); the John Deere Headquarters in Moline, IL, by Sasaki Walker Associates; and Gas Works Park in Seattle, WA, by Richard Haag, FASLA – but there are many more.

Despite this, modern landscapes may be the most underappreciated aspect of the built environment. "We've been losing buildings and landscapes from the recent past at an alarming rate," says Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, founder and president of the Washington, DC-based Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). Part of the issue is a general lack of awareness about these landscapes and their designers. Of the more than 80,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, Birnbaum says, less than 2,000 have significance in landscape architecture, and of those, only a handful could be considered Modernist. (Birnbaum cites the lamentable fact, for example, that the Register does not include any work by Lawrence Halprin, a winner of the National Medal of Arts awarded by the president of the United States.)

The very nature of landscapes also makes them vulnerable to an insidious kind of neglect – creeping overgrowth, lack of maintenance, gradual additions and alterations. The relatively young age and often novel materials of many modern buildings and landscapes can also pose challenges. Architectural historian Richard Longstreth has written that the modern landscape "frequently is cast as one of errors, functional and aesthetic, before it has had the time to acquire a substantial past of its own."

The public's general disdain for modern landscape design may even stem from basic human instincts, Birnbaum says. He cites Painting by Numbers, a fascinating study by Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who created their vision of the world's "most wanted" and "least wanted" paintings based on scientific polling about people's tastes in art. America's "most wanted" painting, like that of most other countries surveyed, is a blue-green pastoral landscape, with mountains in the background, a body of reflective water, and ample foliage – something Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted might have created. America's "least wanted" painting, by contrast, is abstract and flat, a geometric clash of red, ochre and gray – with a cold and calculated Modernist feel.

The reality of modern landscapes, however, varies widely from this two-dimensional perspective. As Birnbaum and his colleagues would assert, these places are many things – historic, striking, beloved, and most of all, significant and worth preserving.

Marvels of Modernism
Among all the public landscapes in America, Boston's City Hall Plaza may very well be the most reviled. Designed by the then-new firm Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles in the 1960s based on a master plan by I.M. Pei & Partners, this broad plaza covers nearly ten acres in front of City Hall, a hulking Brutalist structure that Mayor Thomas Menino hopes to vacate in favor of another location. If this happens, it is very likely that the existing building and plaza would be demolished, which the majority of Bostonians would probably cheer. For years, critics have assailed the plaza for lacking intimacy and nuance.

"The Plaza is at its best hosting ice cream and chowder fests, political protests, concerts, and sports celebrations," writes Boston architect Gary Wolf, AIA, in the modern advocacy group DOCOMOMO-US's Winter 2008 newsletter, which was devoted entirely to modern landscapes. "It is at the everyday level that the Plaza falls short," Wolf states. "Critics observe its inadequate response to the climate, the absence of mid-scale structures and spaces, too little nature, and an overall lack of activity." Wolf believes, however, that design improvements could emphasize and revive the plaza's original intent as a grand civic forum.

Charles Birnbaum agrees. Last fall, TCLF included City Hall Plaza on its 2008 Landslide list of landscapes at risk. Unlike other annual "endangered" lists, TCLF's Landslide lists are thematic; previous years have focused on horticulture, working landscapes, gardens and designed landscapes. This year's theme, Marvels of Modernism, shines a light on 12 threatened landscapes that are icons of modern design. The sites are geographically and artistically diverse, including among them fountains, earthworks and a roof garden.

TCLF and Garden Design magazine have partnered with the George Eastman House Museum in Rochester, NY, to produce a photography exhibition of the "marvels," which have been captured by a panel of distinguished photographers. The foundation is also working with local ASLA chapters and Design Within Reach studios nationwide to further publicize these sites through signboard exhibits.

In addition to City Hall Plaza, two other well-known plazas made the Landslide list – Halprin's Heritage Plaza in Fort Worth, TX, and Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, MN, designed by M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. Built as recently as 1977, Heritage is now surrounded by chain link fencing and closed to the public. Peavey, by contrast, is still widely used but is also threatened by possible development and deferred maintenance. Two exquisite gardens are listed as well: Dan Kiley's Miller Garden in Columbus, IN, in need of a long-term stewardship framework, and the Kaiser Roof Garden in Oakland, CA, designed by the landscape architecture firm Osmundson & Staley and now threatened by adjacent development and lacking maintenance.

TCLF has created a detailed website that includes the histories of and threats to these sites and the others on the 2008 list: the Estates Drive Reservoir in Oakland, CA, designed by Garrett Eckbo's former collaborator Robert Royston; John O. Simonds' trapezoidal Lake Elizabeth in Allegheny Commons Park, Pittsburgh, PA; Halprin's Manhattan Square Park in Rochester, NY; Herbert Bayer's fascinating Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in Kent, WA; Hideo Sasaki's gardens for the El Monte apartment complex in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico; Minoru Yamasaki's Pacific Science Center courtyard in Seattle, WA, a precursor to his design for the twin World Trade Center towers; and, finally, Parkmerced, a Thomas Church plan for a postwar residential community in San Francisco.

"We wanted to elevate the stature of these places with this list," Birnbaum says. "Each Landslide site is irreplaceable; each is a unique link to the story of who we are."

Focusing on Landscapes
Even when a modern landscape is lost, however, something can now be gained. In 2003, for example, one of Halprin's best-known works, Skyline Park in Denver, CO, was demolished – but not before a team of landscape architects surveyed and documented the park for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), a heritage documentation program established in 2000 that is similar to the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and other such programs under the auspices of the Park Service. HALS was developed in close collaboration with ASLA, whose chapters continually work to document and nominate sites for the survey.

Other groups are considering modern landscapes as well. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, for example, has launched a preservation initiative focusing on modern architecture and the recent past, including the three modern sites it owns – Philip Johnson's Glass house, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey house. Although the architecture is paramount at these sites, they are all associated with their surrounding landscapes as well, and the Trust is now planning to conduct cultural landscape studies of all three properties, says Barbara Campagna, FAIA, the Trust's Graham Gund Architect. The organization also has a Save America's Treasures grant to do research on the original landscape design at Pope-Leighey (which has been moved twice), a process that will help determine which elements, if any, might be restored or reconstructed.

This May, the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation will hold its annual meeting in St. Louis, MI, in part to highlight the ongoing fight to save the Kiley landscape, says the group's president, Cari Goetcheus, ASLA. The challenge, Goetchus says, is to make not just modern landscapes but all cultural landscapes more relevant and visible to the general public – just as sustainability and green building have become, for instance. "People can be in historic landscapes and not recognize them or appreciate them," she says, "and hence they don't conserve or protect them."

Birnbaum would also make the case, finally, that modern landscapes are relevant to traditionalists. "If you were walking around Kiley's design for the Miller garden or Nations Bank, you could see a lot of classical design principles in those landscapes," he says. "The challenge is not so much about traditionalism, but that we love many traditional landscapes because they have stood the test of time. We grew up with them. Many of these modern landscapes have only been around 20 or 30 years, so there hasn't been enough time for generations to fall in love with them. They have often been much neglected, and it's hard to love something that's neglected. We have a challenge to fall in love with these places again, and to understand them and guide them into the future."  

 

 

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