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Landscape Architects Stake Their Reclaim

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK -- Architects grab more attention with their imposing skyscrapers. But landscape architects are emerging as the heroes of modern urban existence.

They reclaim the wastelands.

"Groundswell," the Museum of Modern Art's first serious look at urban landscape design, includes its own rooftop "camouflage" garden.

The evidence unfolds powerfully in "Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape" at the Museum of Modern Art. Remarkably, the exhibition is the preeminent design museum's first serious commentary on landscape design in its 76-year history.

Traditionalists, take note: Boxwood doesn't grow here. "Groundswell" springs from the grit and failures of 20th-century urbanization. Putrid landfills, derelict industrial plants, boarded-up buildings, seedy waterfronts and barren rooftops have scarred neighborhoods and degraded potentially vital public spaces. War and terrorism have left their own rubble-strewn legacies.

Curator Peter Reed seeks to make a case that visionary design arises from just such situations. He canvassed the world and culled 23 earth-moving, pollutant-defying and only occasionally contrived projects, represented in this show by supersize photos, models and video. All were undertaken in the past 20 years. They represent what Reed calls "new urban public landscapes," strategically created places that did not exist as such only half a generation ago.

Cities everywhere are grappling with growth, decay and change. "Groundswell" shows how those in the vanguard are converting forlorn real estate into significant public assets. Reed calls it "revaluing and reprogramming." The energy devoted to the phenomenon and its potential for almost any setting in need of a fix make this exhibition all the more crucial.

"Because of the role public space plays as a catalyst for urban development and in the quality of civic life, how these palliative spaces are treated is ultimately a reflection of our culture," Reed writes in the catalogue.

After 53 years, mountains of garbage piled 225 feet high on New York's Staten Island have begun a slow transition to parkland. The elaborate plan by designer James Corner of Field Operations will transform the 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill into an urban haven of grassy swells, bike paths, recreational waterways and wildlife habitat. Polymer liners and 30 inches of soil will cap the mounds of refuse, while hydraulic systems will re-create wetlands, we are told. It may take 30 years -- the intended span of the project -- before kayakers and sunbathers flock to "Fresh Kills Lifescape," but that's the plan.

For sheer drama, there's Olympic Sculpture Park, planned for Seattle's downtown waterfront. (The exhibition doesn't say so, but it will cost the Seattle Museum of Art more than $80 million.) The defining feature is a grassy aerial plank, broad as a fairway, that will zig and zag from the museum to a new waterside park 40 feet below. The site at the edge of Elliott Bay was home to a fuel storage and transfer station. Soil remediation is a major but unexplained factor. Computer images by Weiss/Manfredi Architects focus on the 2,200-foot-long expanse of lawn that will bridge a four-lane highway and rail tracks on its way down to a new beach. The project's planting of forests and installation of electronics for multimedia art seem prosaic by comparison.

In Duisburg, Germany, a derelict iron mill was reborn three years ago as a sort of theme park of the Industrial Age. The hulking blast furnace and other structures are incorporated into a maze of sports fields and bike paths on the 570-acre site. The steep walls of an ore bunker provide practice for rock climbers. How designer Peter Latz handled the environmental cleanup is not explained in the exhibition. But photographs show flowering trees in the one-time Thyssen steelworks yard.

An IRA bomb destroyed more than 1 million square feet in the old center of Manchester, England, in 1996. The blast became a catalyst for a master plan that included a revitalized public garden, pedestrian walkways and an attractive public plaza. Fountains and benches can't erase the tragedy. But the designs by EDAW and Martha Schwartz offer new focal points.

In Beirut, a Garden of Forgiveness (Hadiqat As-Samah) is being constructed on a 5.7-acre site that was reduced to rubble by Lebanon's 16-year civil war. Seven places of worship overlook the setting at the intersection of Christian east and Muslim west. Remains dating to ancient Greece and Rome were found under the rubble. The design by the firm of Gustafson Porter seeks to reflect the many layers of history and the multiplicity of cultures through structures and plantings. Whether or not conciliation blooms because of a new visitors center, Beirut will get its first public garden.

"Groundswell" includes a few elegant plantings. In Saitama New Urban Center, a development on a former rail yard outside Tokyo, a grove of more than 200 zelkova trees casts a neat grid of shadows across a plane of steel and granite. The design reflects the minimalist interests of its creator, Peter Walker, in concert with Yoji Sasaki. The greenery, planted on the roof of Keyaki Plaza, a commercial building, serves to soften the hard-edged architecture in the new town.

MoMA is practicing what it preaches. A second roof garden in the exhibition belongs to the museum. A mid-rise outcropping of the West 53rd Street museum building sports a "camouflage" garden instead of the usual tar and gravel coating. Designer Ken Smith created a swirl of olive, green, tan and white, using lightweight artificial rocks and plantings. Though not visible to museumgoers, they improve the view from neighboring skyscrapers. Other rooftops look unfinished by comparison.

Over lunch just steps from a newly restored Philip Johnson garden, curator Reed had no precise answer to the question of why landscape design had not been deemed worthy of discussion during Johnson's pace-setting years as MoMA curator of architecture and design in the 1930s and '40s. By the time Reed began work on "Groundswell," many dozens of projects fit his criteria.

For all its strengths, the exhibition skips lightly over the waters. It serves as a welcome introduction to a field still little understood by the broad public, but the examples are not explained in depth. There are three projects from one designer, Kathryn Gustafson, and none from other notables.

Professionals have other concerns. Dorothée Imbert, associate professor of landscape architecture at Harvard Design School, welcomes MoMA's interest after such "a long history of denying" the discipline's existence. But she points out that the theme of reclamation is not groundbreaking. "That's what Frederick Law Olmsted was doing with Central Park," she says.

Although she found Reed's choices puzzling, she sees broad relevance for city planners. "Architecture has failed in urbanism," she says. "Landscape architecture has become more central to the reshaping of cities." One reason is that landscape design offers a gentler approach with almost limitless flexibility.

But Imbert cautions, "It's more than just the greening of streets or what looks like Olmsted, with iron lampposts hung with baskets."

That is the essential message of "Groundswell."

Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape, through May 16 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York. 212-708-9431. A public symposium will be held April 15-16 at Cooper Union, 7 E. Seventh St. For information, call 212-708-9781.

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