The history of landscape architecture in America goes back to the writings and activism of Andrew Jackson Downing and, of course, Frederick Law Olmsted. While there has always been a segment of the profession that focuses on estate gardening and horticulture, there are other firms who have a more socially engaged and expansive view of the profession. One thinks, for example, of Thomas Church, Dan Kiley, Lawrence Halprin, and Garret Eckbo, who all brought new ways of thinking and transforming the built landscape but primarily focused on the public nature of their practice and commissions.
Perhaps the most famous of these figures was Ian McHarg, a Scotsman who founded the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, but who more importantly brought a renewed emphasis on urban planning and what he called “natural systems” (with his 1969 book Design with Nature) into the profession. Today, landscape architecture combines McHarg-influenced environmental awareness, city planning, storm water management, and aesthetic concerns of the in-between spaces we inhabit in the city. This public nature of the profession is the focus of many firms today—no more than at the New York office of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, who work almost exclusively on public, state, and institutional projects. More than nearly any other firm, they have transformed the postindustrial landscape of New York. It is very important, Signe Nielsen said, “that our work is publicly accessible and as a result we don’t generally do private residential projects or we don’t do green field sites, i.e. commissions to transform farmland into housing or forests to shopping centers.” Improving the life of everyone in the city is important, and if there is a social justice component, then all the better.
The 30-member firm (approximately 60 percent are licensed landscape architects) believes that “designers are public intellectuals” and as such they teach, are engaged in professional societies, and lecture around the country on their profession—one that Kim Mathews writes, “embodies hope and requires a longer, larger vision.”
Signe Nielsen has also served as president of the New York Public Design Commission for four years and claims that “we don’t just work in challenged neighborhoods, but our work has to be publicly accessible and leave the city better than before we were engaged.”
Food Center Drive
South Bronx, NY
This transformation of Food Center Drive takes one of the least pedestrian-friendly and polluted boulevards in the South Bronx and makes it a public amenity. This mile-long route serves as an entry into the city’s Food Distribution Center for its 16,000 employees and those who live around the center. The design evolved out of Mathews Nielsen’s earlier South Bronx Greenway Master Plan and creates a shared pedestrian vehicle path by reconfiguring the traffic pattern to a one-way loop, thereby reducing the road from six to five lanes. But even more it incorporates innovative storm-water capture and biofiltration strategies to contribute a significant new biomass. Within the median and new greenway buffer, there are over 700 trees in addition to understory grasses and shrubs. The project is scheduled for completion in October.
Industry City Courtyard
The redesign of Brooklyn’s long-derelict Industry City courtyard is a model of how to take an impressive, but slightly oppressive interior open area and make it desirable. The space divides two 600-foot-long buildings (and a shorter third side connecting structure) with 33,000-square-feet of courtyard space open toward Gowanus Bay, the sunset, and a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. To complement the large mass and immensity of the overall space, they used a plant palette of ferns and various monotone greens laid out in large directional swaths. Further, the form of the columnar maple trees plays off of the repetition of the building columns as well as the industrial smoke stacks and ventilation pipe remnants. Trees were chosen for the beautiful red fall color that will inevitably complement the weathering steel forms in the courtyard. The schedule of the project from concept to construction was condensed into just ten months.
New York City
In 1993, the firm began designing what would become the most complete (and badly maintained) contemporary park and infrastructure in Manhattan—Hudson River Park. Now, they have been chosen to add to the park with the creation of a new freestanding Pier 55 that sits off the shoreline just north of the new Whitney Museum. The Pier, which they are designing with the English Heatherwick Studio, is meant to be a 2.4-acre public park and performance space on the Hudson River. The form is conceived as a “leaf floating in the water,” and contains “an unexpected topography” of four lifted corners, each manifesting a landscape typology derived from their solar aspect, slope, and relationship to paths and performance venues. A variety of paths and stairs create circuits throughout the pier to maximize engagement and convenience for event-goers. The project is largely funded through a private donation of the Diller–von Furstenberg Foundation and is scheduled to begin construction in May 2016.
Randall’s Island Connector
South Bronx, NY
Mathews Nielsen seems to be single-handedly transforming the South Bronx into a borough of green boulevards, parks, and pathways. Taking off from their South Bronx Greenway Master Plan, they have created a brilliant connecter from the area to the recreational facilities on Randall’s Island. It not only creates access to badly needed recreational facilities, but also increases the area’s green infrastructure by treating all storm water on site and using native, drought-tolerant plants to avoid irrigation.
The quarter-mile connector runs from 132nd Street in the Bronx, underneath the Hell Gate Bridge viaduct piers, through a historic railway facility still in use, and over the Bronx Kill waterway to Randall’s Island. It includes a sustainable landscape, an at-grade rail crossing, pedestrian-bicycle improvements, and a pedestrian-bicycle bridge. Pedestrians and cyclists have a powerful landscape experience as they pass through the massive Hell Gate Bridge viaduct piers. The project will be open to the public fall 2015.