Landscape Architect Kathryn Gustafson, Going With the Flow
Saturday, June 25, 2005
Long before she tackled the memorial fountain to Princess Diana -- or it tackled her -- landscape designer Kathryn Gustafson was on the trajectory that would bring her here.
Her first Washington project will be a 1.8-acre oasis in near Southeast, between the freeway and the future Nationals ballpark. The design process is just beginning for Washington Canal Park, a $6.4 million public-private initiative, and construction is two or three years away, officials say. Gustafson's competition-winning concept shows boardwalks, a lawn and children wading in ripples of water. The renderings won praise from the jury for "impressive conceptual and visual elegance."
As for the promise of splashing in the shallows, that's a scenario that helped turn the Diana memorial in London's Hyde Park into a high-profile muddy mess. As a case study in public design disasters, the episode ranks with such embarrassments as the John Hancock Tower in Boston, by I.M. Pei partner Henry N. Cobb, where windows exploded off the facade during construction, and Norman Foster's wobbly Millennium Bridge for pedestrians over the Thames. In both instances, shortcomings were resolved and reputations flourished.
The Diana fountain, which had to be turned off during much of the past year and redesigned, is now functioning, with no more paddling allowed.
"It's really beautiful," Gustafson maintained on a recent visit to Washington. "It's so beautiful."
But Charles Jencks, a leading landscape architect who competed for the fountain commission, complains that the solutions required to appease health and safety concerns have destroyed the impact of Gustafson's work.
"In every way they've compromised and brutalized the poetry of her idea," he said by phone from Scotland. "It's a wading pool that you can't wade in, steppingstones you can't step on."
Making rocks less slippery is "not rocket science," he says. Municipalities need to understand that designs may fail "in the first instance," but "artists have to dream, and if they get the first dream wrong they should get a second chance."
Gustafson's hallmark is sculptural form. She has been perfecting her artistry over 25 years, first from Paris, and now Seattle and London. She is widely admired for pristine compositions of earth, grass, stone and water.
"Sensuous, beguiling, serene," says Gary Hilderbrand, an associate professor of landscape design at Harvard Design School, who puts her work in a category with the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi.
Gustafson hoped the memorial to the "people's princess," which opened last July, would be serene. The fountain is essentially a granite ring filled with water in a field of grass. Streams of water, one turbulent, one calm, provided a narrative of the princess's life.
The memorial was to be as accessible as Gustafson perceived the princess to be. Whether the designer actually said she expected people to wade has been the subject of public debate. But the impression was created that children could play in the ripples. On opening day, the site was mobbed. Before the month was out, three people had been taken to the hospital with injuries. The fountain was turned off, on and off again.