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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 1, 2005
Byline: Inga Saffron, Architecture Critic


Changing Skyline: The new industrial parks

If pressed to identify an important landscape architect, many Americans would probably summon the name of Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park in New York and other beloved city parks. Olmsted treated 19th-century urban landscapes the way Hollywood plastic surgeons handle today's starlets: He improved on nature without telltale marks.

Of course, his contemporaries knew that Olmsted's shady glens and romantic outcrops were as stage-managed as the clipped boxwoods at Versailles. What mattered was that his landscapes looked as if they were formed by nature.

You can now put aside those scenic visions. Over the last few years, Olmsted's heirs have turned the field of landscape architecture on its head, exploding conventional notions of what's considered natural, picturesque and beautiful.

Today, landscape architects such as Peter Latz of Germany and James Corner of Philadelphia would rather build parks around a rusted blast furnace or a mountainous landfill than plant another row of London plane trees.

If you want to understand where the new industrial aesthetic is taking landscape architecture, head to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has organized two related exhibitions featuring videos, models and maps. The bigger show, "Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape," is a newsworthy survey of 23 urban parks from around the world. Its companion show focuses on a single project: New York City's effort to turn an abandoned elevated railway called the High Line into a floating strip park.

Both shows are particularly relevant to Philadelphia, which is trying to find meaningful uses for a vast inventory of factory relics, depopulated neighborhoods, and its own decommissioned high line, the Reading Viaduct. Virtually every park featured in "Groundswell" was intended to heal an urban site that had been damaged by industry, pollution, war or simple abandonment.

When Olmsted began work as a landscape architect after the Civil War, cities were being overwhelmed by belching factories and crowded slums. They built parks to provide their citizens with some breathing room, places where they could experience an approximation of nature.

Now that industry is gone and cities are stuck with acres of unproductive land, parks play a different role, says Corner, chairman of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The job of designers, he believes, is to give urban wastelands a second life by turning them into engaging public spaces that attract visitors and help cities brand themselves. The trick is to create such parks without erasing the city's past. Germany's Latz did that most dramatically when he transformed an old steelworks in Germany's rust belt by landscaping around its crumbling concrete, filling filtration basins with lily pads, and adapting an old retaining wall for rock-climbing.

Corner is using a similar approach to reshape two high-visibility New York wastelands, the High Line on Manhattan's West Side and the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. Both are featured at MoMA. His proposal to transform the inhospitable landfill into a recreation and nature park begins with a modest step: planting grasses that will decompose and produce clean soil over the dump's plastic cap. It will take 30 years to complete.

Corner created a plan for the Delaware waterfront, north of Penn Treaty Park, that also would have used plants for remediation. Released in 2001, his ambitious program offered step-by-step instructions for reclaiming the river's industrial edge for amenities and housing. It is sad that the plan was largely ignored by the Street administration. Now, developers are erecting gated communities in the area.

Looking at the many innovative projects featured at MoMA, it is hard not to be struck by Philadelphia's rote approach to its landscape problems. The city administration has not yet begun serious planning for the Reading Viaduct park, which is the brainchild of volunteers. Yet, an elevated park could be a catalyst for repopulating the fledgling Loft District north of Vine Street and North Philadelphia.

The MoMA show also revives painful memories of the LOVE Park tragedy. That dead urban space was redeemed by skateboarders. But instead of embracing the skateboarders as a unique attraction, the city drove them out. Several projects in the show, such as Rotterdam, Netherland's Theater Square, were designed specifically to reproduce the kind of energy that existed in LOVE Park (JFK Plaza).

It's worth noting that LOVE Park and its two sibling plazas near City Hall have long been urban Saharas, underused despite being at the hub of the mass-transit system. Why? One explanation is that these urban spaces were designed by architects, not landscape architects, and they serve as pedestals for the surrounding buildings. It would be interesting to see whether a thoughtful landscape architect could transform these building forecourts into living landscapes for people.

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