Last summer, Ching-Fang Chen used a hula hoop to place 249 cylindrical hay bales as a sound wall and art installation at a large but little-known park near Clarksburg, Md.
Stacked four high at their tallest, the year-old bales softened these past few sultry months, and some began to lean. Worried that they might be collapsing, Chen tried to push one over. “I couldn’t budge it,” she said.
This may not be a surprise: Each bale weighed hundreds of pounds, and Chen stands 5-foot-3. But don’t let her size or her tilting at hay bales fool you: The landscape architect has spent the past six years focused on a singular vision — transforming a 66-acre tract of Little Bennett Regional Park.
You might call Chen a stranger in a strange land, a high-concept designer in the traditionally low-rent aesthetic of suburban park development. In the depths of the Great Recession of 2009, then in her early 40s and the single mother of three young children, she left a prestigious private landscape architecture firm for the radically different culture of the Montgomery County Parks Department. What hasn’t changed in the intervening six years is her uncompromising passion for imaginative design in a world where imagination is not normally imagined. On official reports, the pastoral terrain of meadow and woodland is known dryly as the Day Use Area.
Chen’s work seems to buttress the idea that suburban parks can achieve design that is of high quality without being gold-plated. “Ching-Fang would be right at home if she were to create a great urban park in New York or London or Tokyo,” said county Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson. “The fact we have her in Montgomery County, where she’s relatively anonymous, that’s a story people need to know.”
Anderson sees Little Bennett as an exemplar. “One of the things we need to do is elevate the quality of design at all our parks,” he said, “especially in urban areas.”
The bales formed part of a newly finished four-acre pilot area foreshadowing the full evolution of an adjoining 62 acres of rolling grassland and sylvan creeks next to Route 355. Little Bennett is named for one of those streams, but at 3,700 acres, the park is anything but small — it’s the largest in Montgomery County’s 420-park system.
Nature lovers know it for its campground and hiking and equestrian trails, but the meadow and woods promise to become its heart and soul, allowing broad access to a serene landscape shaped by American Indians and, later, agrarian settlers. Ghostly white sycamore trees fill the stream courses, which extend like fingers into the meadow.
The finished four-acre section, known in classic bureaucratic lingo as Phase 1, began with the removal of a nondescript house in January 2013 and ended this June when New York environmental artist Mark Parsons took bamboo stalks harvested in the park and turned them into 15 large, spiky globes. A picnic area has been established in the shelter of two enormous oaks, using handcrafted benches assembled in the Netherlands. The parking lot is bounded by a clean, minimalist seat wall laid of rich western Maryland stone salvaged from an old barn.
Completion of the remaining acreage is years away, but Chen wanted the first phase, which was originally to be a temporary entrance off Route 355, to set the tone for what is to come.
Now 49, Chen grew up in Taiwan and studied civil engineering in Taipei and landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the waning days of the great iconoclastic guru Ian McHarg, the father of ecological landscape design. Chen still speaks with a strong Mandarin accent and, arriving with limited English skills, “had to listen hard” to comprehend McHarg’s Scottish brogue, she said.
She came to Montgomery County after 13 years at the Washington landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, a style-setting atelier with an international reputation and a portfolio of clients who buy into the firm’s high-design, plant-driven gardens. (Full disclosure: Oehme, van Sweden designed my garden in the mid-1990s, before Chen joined the firm.)
Chen said she left because of the downturn in the economy and because her mentors at the firm, the late founders James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme, were at the end of their careers.
The shift to a public bureaucracy has kept her on her toes, and as innovative as she has been in getting the design advisers and contractors that meet her standards and share her dream, some hurdles have been higher than others.
In early summer, Chen found herself scrambling to save the hay bales from a maintenance staff that didn’t so much see an artsy installation as a huge pile of decaying organic matter beckoning rats and snakes. For Chen, the bales’ process of decay, their temporal procession, was an essential part of placing them there. But after some of the bales tumbled, they were all carted away over two days in July.
“Park staff removed them as they were becoming structurally unstable and providing a breeding ground for mold and unwanted wildlife,” said Melissa Chotiner, a parks department spokeswoman.
Chen said she thought the hay bales would last longer, but also would have been content to watch them decay. Their sudden removal — she heard about it from her stonemason — clearly distressed her.
“I think I just got ahead of them,” she said, adding, “I had a chance to try something. It’s been there for a year, so I’m grateful.”
When Chen arrived at the parks department, her first task was to rework the previous master plan for Little Bennett. The plan she inherited checked all of the boxes. There was the paved road snaking through the meadow, a large adventure playground, a full-blown visitors’ and nature center, a 1.3-acre lake, a series of display gardens and parking for almost 500 cars.
But Chen said she realized the concept would smother what it sought to honor — one of the last large areas of pristine piedmont field and forest in county hands.
She went back to the drawing board.
Chen’s plan moves the proposed road out of the meadow and onto the ridge that runs parallel to the highway; it replaces, reduces and relocates both the playground and the visitors’ center; and it eliminates the lake, the display gardens and an amphitheater.
The development footprint has been reduced by half, as has the project cost, now $14 million. The glacial pace of capital budget programs means the park won’t be completed until the early 2020s even if funding stays on track.
Chen structured the bids so she could hire separate entities for the hay bale installation, the stone-wall construction and the road grading rather than rely on a generic site contractor for the whole job, allowing her greater control over each critical element.
For the stonework, she turned to Rob Page, a Takoma Park master mason who had worked on projects for Oehme, van Sweden.
“She told me about this whole thing with the hay bales and the sculpture, [and] I said, ‘This looks crazy, but it looks great,’ ” Page said. “I had to put in a low bid so they would take me, but it wasn’t about the money. It was about creating something special.”
The reworked plan for the remaining 62 acres envisions many other environmentally minded elements, including an overlook that doubles as a shaded picnic area, a series of boardwalks and mowed paths that take the visitor gently into the meadow, an “organic” playground, a sledding hill and trails.
The sycamore trees inspired another design feature — a series of six large rain gardens to capture runoff. Each will be 40 feet across and marked by a ring of sycamores, which, 50 years from now, may seem like graying elders in a convocation.
Perhaps the single most exciting element is a demure structure named the Underlook. This arrow-shaped, multipurpose pavilion is small — 2,000 square feet of concrete, steel and wood — but it recedes even more in the way it’s set into a slope.
The Underlook structure was designed by architect Jim Cutler, who is based near Seattle on Bainbridge Island and whose most famous commission was for Bill Gates’s compound in Medina, Wash.
To stay under the parks department’s $10,000 threshold for contract bidding, Chen offered him a modest amount to initiate the design. “I think this is one of the prettiest site plans I have done,” said Cutler, whose oeuvre includes more than 300 projects.
Lanshing Hwang was one McHarg’s teaching assistants at Penn and instructed the fresh-faced Chen. But she has remained through the years her enduring friend and adviser. Together they walked the site with Cutler on several occasions.
“Ching-Fang learned from the world’s foremost experts,” Hwang said over coffee in downtown Washington, “and now you can see how passionate she is.”
As for Chen, for all the hurdles of working in the public sector, “the impact I can bring to the community is much greater than if I do an amazing garden only a few people can see.”