Back to the Land

Back to the Land

Modern architecture has captured the public imagination, making fashionable magazine fodder of names like Paul Rudolph and Pierre Koenig, and spurring reverential awe toward masterpieces like the Mies van der Rohe–designed Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. But admirers of America’s midcentury legacy may not be aware that across the nation, modernism’s other great body of work is going to seed. In some cases, literally.


Recognizing and saving icons of landscape design will be modernism’s next big battle, and the challenges are likely to be tougher than the rescue of buildings. Daniel Kiley, John Ormsbee Simonds, Hideo Sasaki, and Lawrence Halprin, who passed away on October 25, are not the all-stars that Mies, Alvar, Eero, and I.M. are. And living, land-made designs, by nature more subject to the vagaries of change than the fixities of structure, are harder to defend and easier to destroy.

No one talked about knocking Eero Saarinen’s Beaumont Theater flat during the recent rehabilitation of Lincoln Center, but its companion piece—Kiley’s plaza, which offered theater-goers a sweeping stroll of London Plane trees and Schwedler maples—was sliced, diced, and decimated by half. There’s a restaurant there now: Ca-ching.

“Our environment is our most complex and diverse, at times diffuse, cultural product,” Laurie Olin, the landscape architect, told an audience at a landscape preservation symposium at the New York Botanical Garden last month. “Some parts are splendid, and some terrible. Knowing the difference matters.” The event was sponsored by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, an 11-year-old, Washington-based organization whose mission has been to bring the issues and importance of America’s created landscapes to public notice, and in the process help protect the field’s achievements through preservation. Charles Birnbaum, the group’s founder and president, calls it “stewardship through education.”

Birnbaum, who delivers a passionate, well-reasoned message, also strikes the tone of a man for whom fires are breaking out everywhere. In a recent conversation, examples of critical landscape situations leapt out as he talked: the renovation of Washington Square Park in New York; the Cranbrook Academy campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; and the Emerald Necklace greenway in Boston. Of the National Register of Historic Places’ approximately 80,000 nominations, 2,180 have identified landscape architecture as an area of significance. “Architecture is often designated,” Birnbaum said of a project’s recognition. “Landscape is not. We need to elevate the value of those places.”

Political to the core, Birnbaum travels incessantly, speaks with instant authority, and acts in person like a juggler who understands that if he doesn’t keep the balls in the air, they’ll hit the ground. Despite 35 years of promoting the idea, acceptance of landscape preservation—in a nation that still believes there are frontiers, somewhere—is far from secure.

Since its inception in 1998, the foundation has become the most visible ally for preservation efforts across the country. Primarily using the medium of its ambitious website—along with an expanding roster of books, an awards program, and symposia like the one held at the Botanical Garden—the foundation continues to proselytize for landscapes, rally support among stakeholders, and provide technical assistance to other advocacy groups. These efforts include a video oral-history series—including a recent interview with distinguished designer M. Paul Friedberg—and an annual list of sites at risk, “Landslides,” launched in 2002, that has become a widely cited wake-up call for landscape aficionados.

On last year’s list was Parkmerced in San Francisco, a large-scale, World War II–era residential community landscaped by 20th-century A-listers Thomas Church and Robert Royston. Hoping to expand and update it, the complex’s newest owners called in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to redesign Parkmerced, and in the process touched off a tug-of-war typical of aging landscapes under threat from new development. Craig Hartman, the respected SOM architect leading the project, has acknowledged the historical importance of its designs, but current plans to raze and revamp some 116 acres of Church’s distinctive, pie-shaped blocks and carefully planted grounds have, the foundation reported, made “even the seasoned professionals gasp.”


The legacy of modern landscapes is particularly complex. There are uncontested masterworks like Dan Kiley’s garden for Joseph Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana (Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche did the house, Alexander Girard the interiors), and a superb corporate picturesque, like the 1,400-acre park for the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois, designed by Stu Dawson of Sasaki Associates. But that legacy also includes failed pedestrian malls and public plazas of the age of urban renewal, often designed by the very heroes the foundation and fellow preservationists aim to celebrate.

“We get that all the time,” said Christine Madrid French, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s new director of the Modernism and Recent Past Program, of unsympathetic reaction to contemporary landscape preservation. “It’s still a hard sell.” French works with Birnbaum, who advises the Trust. Her newest worry is not outdoor malls like the Lawrence Halprin design for Charlottesville, Virginia’s Main Street—a notorious mid-’70s flop that killed businesses downtown and was finally righted 30 years later by a renovation that Halprin complained about—but the original wave of indoor malls, which French called “endangered.”

Landscape, distinct from architecture, has its own set of preservation difficulties. Maintenance costs can be inordinately high for municipalities; liability can plague them too. In 2004, four people drowned in the steeply terraced Active Pool at Fort Worth Water Gardens Park, designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, when a child fell in and three people, including her father and brother, tried to save her. Suction pumps recycling its cascading waterfalls pulled them under. The pool was closed and reopened three years later, its depth changed from nine to two feet and warning signs posted to prohibit swimming.

Facing troubled public spaces, some cities have scrubbed the slate clean again rather than renovate or revive. In 2003, Denver scrapped Skyline Park, another Halprin design—an act Birnbaum likened to the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. The park’s three-block-long, canyon-like promenade carved a much-needed ribbon of open space into the city’s downtown when it opened in 1973. Three decades later, its fountains dry and trash-strewn, its grass replaced with wood chips, the site was turned over to Thomas Balsley Associates for a redo.

Even relatively successful spaces can meet indifference, like the lack of regard for Kiley’s design at Lincoln Center. Similarly, at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, there is talk of development in the spacious setting that surrounds the Louis Kahn building, Birnbaum said. In an arts-administrative age of “programming,” where everything must be a visitation magnet of some kind, contemplative spaces like the Kimball’s green outdoor “galleries” of lawn, hedge, tree canopy, skylight, and shade could become an institutional extravagance. Even Frederick Law Olmsted—landscape’s Our Lord the Father—is under siege in Rochester, New York, where there is talk of new building in the Olmsted-designed park system.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation is not alone in its work. In addition to the National Trust, others like the Garden Conservancy in Cold Spring, New York have lobbied for sites including the prison gardens on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay—a revelatory cultural landscape in its own right—and the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington, considered a landmark of modernist garden design in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, the Library of American Landscape History in Amherst, Massachusetts is a strong advocate, with publications and touring exhibitions.

Landscape preservation is still relatively new, and scholarship on landscape design recent. As Laurie Olin told the audience at the New York Botanical Garden, when he started college at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1956, he had never heard of landscape architecture. When he got interested in it, there were few books his teacher, Richard Haag, could direct him to in the school’s library. “The story of the history of America’s built environment was all around us and almost completely unwritten,” he said.

Now, with cocktail-party talk about “infrastructure,” and television series and books like Ken Burns’ dramatization of the creation of the National Park system, much has changed. The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s definition of what constitutes a defensible landscape now includes cemeteries, industrial sites, farmlands, and college campuses, in addition to the estates, parks, and public plazas that galvanized its first round of awareness.

It was Haag, in fact, who helped write a prescient chapter in recent landscape history with his design of Gas Works Park in Seattle, opened to the public in 1975. The park and its buildings—a Seattle Gas Light Company plant that ceased production decades earlier—were a pioneering example of brownfield reclamation and recreational reuse of an industrial site. With “cleaning and greening” that included bio-phyto-remediation and a coat of bright paint, the plant’s exhauster-compressors became play barns, while boiler houses became picnic groves.

At the High Line in New York, rusted railway tracks again prove transporting, but this time to destinations inconceivable when they were laid. Such successes of landscape design, unarguably popular, appropriate to the past and pertinent to the future, may be the most eloquent voices in the debate of what to cherish culturally, why, and how.