Perhaps because the United States was a vast unexplored frontier to the Europeans who settled here, fascination with land and its design potential — for agriculture, parks, cities, playgrounds — is integral to our identity. Thomas Jefferson had an ornamental farm on his property at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. He designed the master plan for the University of Virginia, and his advocacy for rectilinear street grids has been influential in city planning. Frederick Law Olmsted, who believed the creation of parks within cities could mediate the effects of industrialization and urbanization, designed Central Park in New York City, the linked “Emerald Necklace” parks in Boston, and Golden Gate Park in Francisco. After starting as a laborer and working his way up in Chicago’s West Park Commission, Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen designed many Chicago parks (as well as the wooded drive leading to Henry and Clara Ford’s Dearborn estate) that honor the tallgrass prairie of the Upper Midwest.
The mark of these designers is felt in the landscapes they’ve left us, and ideas that, if anything, have only grown more relevant with time. As Thanksgiving approaches, we express our gratitude for America’s rich landscape design tradition and two heirs apparent, who have taken up the mantle and are forming the environment we lived in today.
James Corner is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and founder and director of the New York-based practice, James Corner Field Operations. He is the project lead on the design of the High Line in New York, which stands at the front of an emerging trend in cities: adaptive reuse of out-of-use elevated railways as linear parks. Converting neglected land into park space in cities where there is limited land left to protect, much less on which to build, almost makes too much sense. Yet it sometimes takes a visionary to see the obvious.
Inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s, the High Line includes more than 300 species of prairie plantings, shrubs, and trees along a paved path that offers expansive views of the city. As Corner says in an interview with Inhabitat editor Jill Fehrenbacher, “We wanted to make sure that every detail from the paths to seating down the trashcans, lighting, and water features would make this a generous, safe and secure space, but also give people the feeling that they’ve come across a secret, magic garden in the sky. That they’re almost surprised and delighted by how long it is, by the twists and turns it takes, by the views it affords, and ultimately that they are engaged in some of the delight in discovering these moments.”
Reclamation of unused land or industrial infrastructure for conversion to public spaces where people can go for a walk, meet for a coffee, or enjoy the sunlight, is a running theme in Corner’s work. A Public Square in Cleveland features a great lawn for shows and other outdoor events, and a plaza anchored by a Civil War monument and a café and beer garden. A 13-acre park above a freeway tunnel in the Presidio, in San Francisco, connects downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge. Corner is also working on a contemporary pierscape on Chicago’s historic Navy Pier, which will include a number of new amusements and strengthen the pier’s connection to the water.
Peter Walker is arguably one of the most influential landscape architects in the world today─and certainly one of the most noteworthy. Educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Walker has designed hundreds of projects, taught, lectured, written, and served as an advisor to numerous public agencies. His firm, PWP Landscape Architects, focuses on corporate headquarters, plazas, cultural gardens, academic campuses, and urban-regeneration projects.
One of the firm’s most publicized projects is the National September 11th Memorial commemorating the victims of the attacks at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. In a work that renders absence visible, two gigantic voids – in the footprints of the Twin Towers – are surrounded by a forest of oak trees. Waterfalls pour down the walls of the voids in a continuous stream. The design of “Reflecting Absence,” by Walker and Michael Arad, won a 2003 international design competition, with a mandate from the jury “to humanize the scheme without diminishing the abstraction that had established it.”
Another ambitious project is Bangaroo Reserve in Sydney, the redesign of a former commercial shipping port by PWP Landscape Architecture with Johnson Pilton Walker of Sydney. Inspired by historical maps and early paintings, such as the Panorama of Sydney made by Major Taylor in 1822, the 54-acre headland redevelopment on the Western side of Sydney’s business district aims to bring all parts of the archipelago city together through a 14 kilometer waterfront walkway, bicycle paths, light rail, and a new ferry terminal. As noted in a blog on Landscape Architecture Magazine’s website: “It involves practically everything that is so risky, wonderful, and artful in landscape architecture today—not least the shaping of a new stepped stone foreshore, built from gigantic slabs of sandstone hewn right from the site.”
We live in a Balkanized age in which accessible, verdant public spaces are incredibly important, not only as destinations of solace and relaxation in busy urban environments, but also as opportunities for civic engagement and historical reflection. By designing places in a way that acknowledges their former use and inhabitants but humanizes them, prioritizing people over cars and rethinking the manner by which people travel through neighborhoods and cities, Corner and Walker, like the renaissance thinkers before them, encompass a democratic and resourceful approach to design. When people come together for an afternoon walk on the High Line, when they stand in the shade of live oaks and reflect on the tragedy of September 11, they connect with each other, their history, and the physical world. And for that, in a time of great political divisions, we can be grateful.