Landscape Architect Kathryn Gustafson, Going With the Flow

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Gustafson hoped visitors would contemplate the metaphors. Instead, they danced in conga lines, washed dogs and left diapers in the turbulent river of Diana's life. In crowds, people do things they normally wouldn't, the designer says. And they just kept coming.

"People loved it to death," she said. "There were 5,000 people an hour."

Nature behaved badly, too, clogging drains with storm water and downed leaves. The British press called it "Diana's mud bath."

In May, after months of redesign and reconstruction, the memorial reopened with granite surface roughened, safety bars over the drains and new drainage systems under the lawn, which was relaid with sturdy soccer rye. A gravel path has been created around the perimeter to provide solid footing in any weather. It spoils the seamless quality Gustafson strives for. So does an unsightly crowd-control fence.

Hilderbrand characterized the saga as "a moment of controversy in the long life of a good memorial." Injuries have occurred before in public parks, he pointed out. Designers rely on codes, but there is no checklist of do's and don'ts.

"If engaging the water is part of an undergirding conquest for meaning, you have to find ways for people to engage the water," he said. But designers are not responsible for "all the inventiveness of human behavior."

The Diana memorial appears to be an anomaly in Gustafson's career. Born in Yakima, Wash., in 1951, she studied art and worked in fashion. After studying at the Ecole Nationale Superieure du Paysage in Versailles, she set up an office in Paris in 1980. A historical garden theme park in Terrasson, France, is part of her portfolio as a finalist for a National Design Award, which the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum will announce in October.

In 1997, she shifted her base to Seattle, establishing the Gustafson Guthrie Nichol partnerships. Projects have included the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park, which in photographs holds its own next to Frank Gehry's band shell. A broad hedge honors Carl Sandburg's city of "big shoulders," and lapping water acknowledges Lake Michigan.

She is also a partner in the London firm of Gustafson Porter. A Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, at the epicenter of Lebanon's civil war, was a centerpiece of the Museum of Modern Art's recent "Groundswell" exhibition. The firm also designed a 50-acre park on a reclaimed industrial site in Amsterdam. It includes urban beaches, bike bridges and an "events lake" in which children can play.

Water is a central feature of recent landscapes around Seattle's city hall and at Seattle Center, where the Kreielsheimer Promenade at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall offers operagoers an opportunity to dip their Manolos in a quarter-inch sheet of water, which shimmers like glass, except when the water is turned off as a conservation measure.

The promenade has won an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Hilderbrand served as jury chairman. Shelly Yapp, director of redevelopment at the Seattle Center, says she is not worried about injuries.

"People here are used to walking through puddles," Yapp said.

Washington Canal Park promises a puddle with boulders for benches. Private and federal funds have already been pledged or allocated for what will be the District's first new civic park in decades, and planners are ecstatic to have a designer of Gustafson's stature involved. She does not see any risk that Canal Park will suffer the problems encountered in London. The Diana memorial was "the destination" of its inaugural summer, she says. "Canal Park is not by definition a destination place."

Though, with the right design, she agreed, it might become one.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company