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While even the most coldly Brutalist buildings have found their proponents, the modernist landscapes that were built in plazas and public space in the mid-century have been slower to be embraced for preservation. Yet there’s an increasing dialogue of how, and why, modernist landscape architecture should be preserved.
In an interview published this week on Planetizen, Charles Birnbaum, the founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) which has been the major muscle in promoting the preservation of modernist landscape architecture, said:
“With all of the projects we’re involved in, we look at how to bring back a historic designed landscape, but also respect current sustainability and environmental goals. In order to do that, you have to understand the DNA of that landscape. So in the case of a place like Boston City Hall or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, which are unique examples of what might be referred to as Modernist twists of an Italian piazza, how do you guide change in these two rare extant examples in such a way that it doesn’t completely compromise the landscape’s historic design intent? These should not be an either or — preserve or tabula rasa, but should aim for sympathetic change.”
This statement touches on what makes preserving this modernist landscape architecture hard: the use has often radically altered. Modernist architects weren’t necessarily thinking of their broad plazas of concrete leading up to their buildings as being community gathering points so much as part of the visual design, and these landscapes can often feel unfriendly. Looking at the modular concrete approach with its hard geometry in a place like Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, for example, which was designed by M. Paul Friedberg in 1975 and was just this month saved from demolition, it can seem sort of the antithesis of what contemporary landscape architects like Michael Van Valkenburgh with his firm’s design for Brooklyn Bridge Park are doing, where there seems to be nothing but never-ending green and recreation areas.
Currently, TCLF is co-producing a series with Princeton Architectural Press called Modern Landscapes: Transitions and Transformations, with the first book — Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park — published last year. The book is really as much a eulogy as a documentation, though, as the Denver park completed in 1976 by the influential landscape architect with its layered stone went from a successful community component to what felt like an outdated, rundown throwback to when bold geometry was favored over lush naturalism. And ultimately, it was demolished in favor of redevelopment.
Yet for those who love these experiments with material and form that rethought what an open space could be, there is some hope for at least some of them existing through the 21st century. This year, several modernist landscapes including four of Halprin’s fountains in the Portland Open Space Sequence were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a major shift from them almost being shut down entirely in the 1990s due to the major expense of running the series of monolithic abstract waterfalls.
However, even with the designation, for their ultimate survival these modernist landscapes have to serve some purpose, and that means adapting rather than just being preserved as some unwieldy acreage of sculpture. And there’s often a lack of open discussion around these places about what they mean to architectural history and even the city’s story that could make them more meaningful for a community to preserve. As Birnbaum noted in the Planetizen interview, this was one issue in the redevelopment of Lincoln Center, with details like the resizing of the reflecting pool that had been overseen by Henry Moore specifically for his sculpture having “no [public] discourse about the role of Henry Moore and the change of that basin.”
Maybe there’s also just a lack of name recognition for landscape architects. Aside from Frederick Law Olmsted, often cited as the father of landscape architecture, the names of its 20th century leaders like Garrett Eckbo, Lawrence Halprin, and Dan Kiley, aren’t exactly well-known, the architects of the indoors enjoying a much higher profile than those of the outdoors. But this might be changing, and next month a retrospective on Kiley is opening at the Boston Architectural College, and the next edition in the Modern Landscapes book series will be on Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, which is also in the midst of a redevelopment. Perhaps there’s hope for the old modernist landscapes in the new cityscapes after all.