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A novel juggling act at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, OH, where its museum expansion by architect Raphael Vinoly boasts more parks, gardens and parking. Photo: courtesy of TCLF




Holistic Landscapes?

By Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR

Museum consultant Randi Korn, whose work is dedicated to using visitor studies to guide museums in improving their practices and achieving their missions, recently noted that many museums today "work within a cycle of intentionality that has created an inclusive, process-oriented infrastructure so it can write a purposeful mission and measurable intentions, and can demonstrate the value of the museum in people's lives and in its community through repeated assessment, while offering continuous learning opportunities for all staff." Is the same goal for "holistic intentionality," to use Korn's term, achievable in our nation's historic parks?

If so, was I daydreaming in a museum café sipping a dopo macchiato when someone decided that the way we measure success in our public parks and open spaces is based on head count? When did we stop placing a value on strolling under the dappled light of mature canopy trees casting long winter shadows over a sloping lawn; the calming, rhythmic sound of a gurgling water feature; the humanizing scale and tactile texture of naturalistic understory plantings (see the related story about TCLF's Heroes of Horticulture on page 150, which aims to make these often forgotten jewels visible); the antiquity of authentic, historic fabric as reflected in moss-decorated walls and stone washed paths; or, unique site-specific, regional responses to a place, as reflected in a designer's original handcrafted furnishings? Sound familiar? Perhaps, the delicious eye candy found in a crowd-pleasing blockbuster museum show of impressionist paintings dedicated to the works of Monet, Van Gogh or Seurat?

Well, step outside of the new museum big boxes by such architects as Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava and Rafael Vinoly for a moment and move out into their contiguous public landscapes and cityscapes. Today, if you want to spend Sunday in the Park with George, more times than not, as pioneered in our museum environments, our nation's public open spaces are becoming increasingly more programmed and filled-up with destination-dedicated new uses. Aside from the café with movable chairs, these outdoor activities reflect such "check the box" wish list requests as dog parks, sculpture gardens and splash pools. For those interested in balancing management decisions in our historic parks, it is precisely these new uses that are bringing about change, which is usually not sympathetic to a landscape's historic significance and surviving character-defining fabric. Where have I heard these challenges before? Where have I seen this play out?

Can quantity (people) and quality (design) go hand in hand? If you build it will they come – is that enough? I found myself considering this question during a recent visit to MoMA (Musuem of Modern Art, NYC) where a small number of visitors were actually looking at the art. I have been to MoMA many times since they reopened and every time I go it is packed. Does this mean that MoMA is successful as a museum experience? If so, how do we measure success for a museum or a park? Is it density, numbers, richness of experience, adjacent real-estate values, good coffee, people watching, playgrounds for dogs and kids, the feeling of being renewed and refreshed? Opportunities for reflection? All of these, some of these, or does it depend on the location, audience and program?

Within this dilemma, where are those who care about change and continuity – a holistic systems approach to park analysis – to turn? What is the role for those history, historic preservation, and design professionals who are often marginalized and deemed irrelevant by the debate "spin?" Well, here we go again – it appears that the only role landscape architects and historians who are concerned with change and continuity can play in this often controlled debate is to assume the stereotypical role of those "standing in the way of progress" and "being out of touch" with what people want. So we call in the troops and the battle cry is sounded. But aren't we tired of this? I know that I am.

Perhaps, for insight we can look at the challenges museum curators and directors have been wrestling with in recent decades. The evolution of museums has been on a parallel track with the urban park renaissance in big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and which coincidentally, parallels smaller ones too, such as Milwaukee, WI, Toledo, OH, and Beacon, NY. The debates playing out in the museum world can inform this present-day discourse between park managers, stewards and their often-empowered vocal communities.

Consider these parallel trends: Stephen Weil, a noted museum and art law expert told The New York Times in 2002 that museums "used to be primarily about things and defined by objects" and "now they're often about processes, including historical processes." Thanks to the scholarship of Weil and many others, the myriad opportunities afforded museum management and social responsibility research at a graduate and post-graduate level reflect a generational shift and maturation of the discipline. A similar pattern and opportunity is mirrored in the landscape history and landscape management professions. In the landscape arena, such educational explorations are part of a welcome surge in PhD programs dealing with landscape history, landscape preservation and landscape ecology – not to mention the essential burgeoning scholarship that is readily available from university presses and scholarly journals. The essential foundational research and best practices knowledge is now accessible to guide change and can result in educated management decisions for our nation's historic parks.

Another part of the debate about museums and parks is relevancy (e.g. do we value pastoral open space or does it have to be filled with stuff?). Weil suggests the ultimate goal of a museum is to improve people's lives, describing the shift in the museum world as "being about something to being for somebody." This foundational concept of being part of a larger community was recently echoed by David Brooks in The New York Times: "The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today." What better places to consider this idea of holistic, interconnected networks and systems than at our community centers of energy: our public museums and parks.

Today, art museums are becoming less event-driven and more focused on enlarging their audiences and providing them deeper, richer services – and on becoming places where all people, not simply those who are knowledgeable about art, gather to learn, discuss and debate, share experiences, socialize and be entertained.

While many museums strive to creatively enhance the quality of the visitor experience by expanding their service to their communities, they often ignore their physical and historical context. For example, what is interesting about many of these new museums is that they are often adjacent to distinctive, authentic historic parks and open spaces, and yet their planning, design and management does little to reconcile or address the potential this contiguity offers.

For example, Loring Park in Minneapolis, MN, one of Minneapolis' first parks, is across the street from the Walker; the Denver Art Museum in Denver, CO, is next to the city's Beaux Arts Civic Center (a potential National Historic Landmark and currently contested terrain); and the Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, like Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, is adjacent to the Back Bay Fens, part of the Emerald Necklace Parks – the first urban greenway in the world and as such, a potential World Heritage candidate. Therefore, if these museums strive to act holistically, the time has come for present-day stewards to embrace their landscape legacy by acknowledging and embracing their contiguous historic designed landscapes, significant works of art in their own right.

Some museums, such as at the Walker, the Denver Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum aspire to, and are succeeding in, becoming community centers – places where learning, flexibility and innovation are integrated parts of their organizational culture. This central concept, put forth by Bonnie Pitman and Ellen Hirzy in New Forums: Art Museums and Communities (2004), tells the story of how a diverse group of 11 art museums (including the three noted above) underwent this transformation. The work, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, is not only essential reading for the community-minded museum professional, but for those ideas surrounding change being juggled and balanced by the museum leadership community.

Outside of the museum environment, this same idea has been echoed in the writings and built works of landscape architect Laurie Olin, who refers to many significant public parks and open spaces on which he has worked, like Bryant Park and Columbus Circle in New York City and Fountain Square in Cincinnati, OH, as centers of energy. Olin says these urban spaces should be reclaimed and revitalized to serve the community.

Olin's own quest for sympathetic change and continuity can also be evidenced in present-day projects in cities including Chicago and Louisville, KY. These cities' extraordinary legacies of historic parks and boulevards by pioneering landscape architects Jens Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., and the Olmsted Brothers are not only being reclaimed, celebrated (e.g. listed as National Register and National Historic Landmark properties), and serving as community centers, but like the holistic museums of the present-day, are engines for neighborhood revitalization, pride and energy centers.

Randi Korn notes in The Case for Holistic Intentionality that museums today "appear to be searching for themselves, presenting a range of public programs to see which ones might bolster attendance and attract new audiences while also retaining existing ones." Korn sees these actions as haphazard and unfocused, rather than deliberate, and her quest illustrates the bottom-up planning of the "me-first" generation – who, like park users, want to "check the box" and tell us what they want. This too mirrors Weil's ideas that museums are about something for somebody.

The results playing out in our parks: plop and drop destinations are splayed throughout former open-spaces, resulting in disconnected and disjointed visitor amenities and a degradation of park character. This situation is all the more perplexing when numerous park user analysis studies over the past two decades have concluded that 70 to 80 percent of American park users visit public parks for passive, reflective, introspective experiences. In addition, a recent analysis undertaken by real estate and economic development consultant Donald Rypkema for the National Trust for Historic Preservation conclusively demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of people want places that possess "authenticity."

Perhaps our nation's legacy of historic parks, like our museums, can work within a cycle of intentionality – one that balances natural, scenic and cultural values. In the process, present-day stewards could not only affirm the unique value of these dynamic resources, but also create an inclusive, process-oriented infrastructure that revisits their purposeful missions and measurable intentions, and in the process demonstrates the value of these great civic places in people's lives and their affiliated communities. And maybe, just maybe, we can all work together in the future to create a symphonic whole.  

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, is the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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