Softening Modernism's Hard Edge

Softening Modernism's Hard Edge

Inserting a work of contemporary landscape architecture into the context of a mid-century modernist complex is a challenging proposition. Many of the most prominent plazas, pocket parks, and courtyards from the modernist era feature stark and austere designs that were intended to complement the buildings they were built to serve.

Some renowned modernist spaces such as the Spartan granite plaza in front of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building were not even designed with the intention that people would linger. “When Mies van der Rohe saw people sitting on the ledges, he was surprised,” Phillip Johnson is said to have commented. “He never dreamed they would.”

Certainly the sensibility of the typical mid-century modernist urban landscape is at odds with contemporary tastes and activities. The greenery was designed to be sparse and ordered. Restrooms, cafes, and shade structures are nowhere to be found. Nowadays, however, urban open spaces are designed for people to linger. The reigning design approach calls for populated plazas, a variety of seating options, cafes, shade trees, and lawns where people can relax.

Indeed, many public plazas from the modernist era, such as Dan Kiley’s North Court at Lincoln Center in New York City and Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park in Denver, Colorado, have been redesigned to conform to the contemporary program. And although nobody has proposed inserting a lawn and trees into the Seagram Building Plaza, some say that the current open space redesign juggernaut is threatening to eradicate an important part of the country’s architectural history.

“We have a thing now about using every square inch, which is not an awful idea, but it might not always be necessary,” said Frank Sanchis, program director of United States Programs at the World Monuments Fund.

In 2004, when Sanchis was vice-president of New York City’s Municipal Art Society, he helped organize a high-profile competition for the redesign of a dilapidated one-acre elevated plaza at 55 Water Street in lower Manhattan; the plaza originally was designed in the early 1970s by landscape architecture firm M. Paul Friedberg & Associates. The winners of the competition, Rogers Marvel Architects and Ken Smith Landscape Architect, completely redesigned the place with an artificial lawn and a diverse selection of plantings.

However, in retrospect, doing away with the Friedberg design may have been a mistake, said Sanchis. “Simply replacing its original design, rather than reinventing it, might have worked perfectly well,” Sanchis said. “I don’t think that we ever looked to see what Paul Friedberg’s design originally looked like—it might have been perfectly fine.”


Much of the credit for the reawakening of interest in the preservation of modernist landscape architecture can be tied to Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). In 2008, TCLF came out with a Marvels of Modernism list to call attention to dozens of significant post-war landscapes that had been allowed to fall into disrepair and were threatened with destruction.

Birnbaum says that his campaign was created to encourage sensitive renovations that respect the original design intent of landscape architecture masterworks. “So it is not just about people lying on the lawn, it is not about having a space with a dog park,” Birnbaum said. “We are trying to give people the information so that we can manage change. It is about understanding how a particular masterwork fits in with the history of design.”

Many New Yorkers were introduced to the thorny issues surrounding the preservation of works of modernist landscape architecture several years ago, when a controversy erupted over the renovation of the North Court at Lincoln Center.

The North Court was considered a masterwork by renowned landscape architect Dan Kiley. This outdoor temple, situated in front of Eero Saarinen’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, was once one of the most serene sites in the city. It was a geometrically-ordered place that featured half a dozen benches surrounding a shallow reflecting pool that contained sculptor Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure. The landscape’s geometry complemented the surrounding exteriors of Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera Building and Max Abramovitz’s Avery Fisher Hall.

Although aspects of Kiley’s design remain, thanks to a redesign by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, today it is an altogether different setting. The size of the reflecting pool has been reduced and the distinctive travertine planters removed. In keeping with the contemporary agenda of activating urban spaces, the court is bounded by a restaurant that features a sloping green lawn on its roof where people can sunbathe in the summer.

Preservationists such as Birnbaum and Sanchis were appalled by the North Court’s redesign. “By designing a simpler restaurant than the one that Diller designed with the sloping roof, they might have been able to keep the severe aspect of the landscape that goes with the severity of the Beaumont Theater,“ Sanchis said. “They could have downplayed the spirit of Dan Kiley’s design, but they wiped it out—which I think is happening with a lot of landscapes from that period.”

The design community is still divided over whether Kiley’s design for the North Court could have been updated in such a way as to appease the preservationists and accommodate Lincoln Center’s programming. However, the conditions at other modernist-era plazas certainly call for substantial overhauls.

One example is the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building Plaza in Cleveland, originally designed in the 1960s atop an underground parking garage. For more than four decades, the place was an elevated windswept plaza that did not connect with the rest of the city and was largely devoid of human activity. The plaza was comprised of geometrically-ordered planes of grass interspersed with paving. Most of the design intent was oriented toward complementing the 32-story office building that it serves.


As happens with many modernist plazas built atop garages, this one developed severe drainage problems. A 2004 renovation by the landscape architecture firm OLIN fixed the leaks and used the opportunity to better connect the plaza with the rest of the city. The architects made the plaza more comfortable, with bosques of trees and grading that help block the 30-mile-per-hour winds that frequently assault the place. Rather than eradicate the plaza’s original composition, the designers incorporated it into a new, sinuous landscape that they laid on top of the old one.

“There are lots of games going on, which are about using the modern grid and then varying it to create a space that people can occupy,” said Richard Newton, a partner in OLIN. “It is something people can use rather than something that is only a visual complement to the building. We learned a lot from William Whyte and what he brought to design.”

For the State University of New York at Albany, Edward Durell Stone masterplanned and designed the buildings at a grand scale. Many traditional campus gathering places were omitted in favor of little-used ceremonial spaces like a mammoth motor court at the entrance. Thomas Balsley Associates is working on a landscape masterplan for the campus, and recently converted the cobble stone motor court into a new two and a half acre lawn quadrangle with an interactive fountain at the center. The lawn is flanked with over-scaled slab benches with integrated lighting to illuminate the pathways. “Many of the spaces were impressive, very modernist, but not very human,” said principal Thomas Balsley. “You didn’t feel like you were part of the story.”  Balsley respected the scale and grandeur of Stone’s design, but was tasked with creating a more inviting space for students and faculty. “We gave them the softening and flexibility they needed,” he said. “In the context of that ensemble, it does harmonize with the scale.”

Private developers are also using contemporary landscape strategies to add value to midcentury properties. Shorenstein Properties asked HM White Site Architects to create a new outdoor space on top of a setback at the 17th floor of 850 Third Avenue, a 1960s-era Emery Roth office building, which would serve as small meeting areas as well as a pleasant view for the interior offices. The landscape architects designed a false topography of native grasses and wildflowers, which is visible to most of the workers on the floor. “It creates a natural presence on the building that is a strong contrast to the midcentury architecture,” said Aaron Booher, an associate principal at HM White.

Another example of a dysfunctional modernist landscape is Boston’s vast City Hall Plaza. Known as the “brick desert,” the plaza is one of the most widely disliked places in Beantown. “The public hates this place; they just hate it,” said Birnbaum, who put the place on TCLF’s Marvels of Modernism list. “This is what happens with a lot of these landscapes when they are not taken care of.”


Boston City Hall Plaza reflects an approach to urban planning that is antithetical to contemporary notions of what a city’s center is supposed to look like. The 11-acre expanse of brick and concrete was designed in the 1960s as part of a 60-acre urban renewal scheme that centralized many of Boston’s federal, state, and city buildings into Government Center, a massive Brutalist complex of buildings.

Some older residents resent Government Center because of what it replaced: a lively, although dilapidated hub known as Scollay Square. The place once bustled with commercial activity and was distinguished by grand theaters dating from the early nineteenth century. But by the 1950s the place had become a bar-crawling nightlife district, and instead of Shakespeare, the theaters featured striptease acts and slapstick vaudeville shows.

The master plan for Government Center—by I.M. Pei—succeeded in getting rid of the riffraff. But the Brutalist-style buildings and the plaza’s severe design, which was modeled after the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy, also succeeded in getting rid of everyone else.

Today, unless one has business at one of the government buildings on the plaza or there is an event, such as the farmer’s market that moves in twice a week, there is little reason to linger there. This windswept expanse is largely devoid of greenery. There are no shade structures and no seating. When it rains, the plaza’s inadequate drainage system overflows, leaving large puddles throughout. And traversing the plaza’s 26-foot grade change involves negotiating innumerable staircases.

Over the years, a slew of proposals have suggested how to redesign City Hall Plaza. To the alarm of preservationists such as Birnbaum, many of them have called for dramatic change. One put forth in the 1990s featured a hotel in front of the federal building and a big lawn smack in the middle of the “brick desert.”

It now appears that a more viable plan is on the table courtesy of Greening America’s Capitals, a new federal initiative that is a joint program of the EPA-HUD-DOT Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The initiative led to a plan designed by Utile, Reed Hilderband, Durand & Anastas Environmental Strategies, and Nitsch Engineering. The plan is oriented toward mitigating the harsh manmade conditions of the plaza with many of the landscape strategies that society has come to demand from contemporary public spaces.

The proposed plan features bosques of trees discretely placed to provide summer shade and reduce the heat-island effect. It also improves pedestrian and bicycle access by providing grade changes in places to replace some of the many staircases. In addition, the plan calls for replacing the plaza’s decrepit drainage system with a modern one that captures stormwater runoff and keeps it on site, instead of allowing it to run into the harbor.


One of the most important aspects of the team’s vision for City Hall Plaza is that, “it is a plan for adaptation, not a redesign,” said Hilderbrand. The design embraces the plaza’s Brutalist aesthetic by preserving its vast expanse of bricks. In fact, although the plan calls for new bosques of trees at grade level, thanks to structural soils, there will be no tree grates. The bricks will come right up to the trunks of the trees.

Hilderbrand argues that the modernist aesthetic of Government Center deserves to be preserved because of its historic importance. “Government Center was conceived at a time of renewal, and we now have 60 years of legacy here,” he said. “Our cultural imprint from this place represents a mid-century way of re-conceiving a relationship between the people of the city and their government, and I am not really so keen on eradicating it.”

The plan that Hildebrand and his team have developed has won kudos from Birnbaum, who sees it as a model for resuscitating neglected modernist landscape masterworks. “The concept behind city hall and the plaza was a synergistic relationship, but it didn’t really function on a human scale,” he said, adding, “What Gary is doing with these insertions is really reinforcing the design intent, by bringing some humanity to the place.”