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The Ungreening of America

We asked Charles Birnbaum to point us to five unique landscapes that we can still take a peek at. He explains: “I’ve chosen places that are either at risk or lesser known. They don’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen, and once viewed they’re unlikely to be forgotten.”
Freeway Park, 1976, Seattle, WA, Lawrence Halprin, Of recent efforts to declaw the park by ripping out a third of the waterfalls, Birnbaum says, “It’s like removing two of the Burghers of Calais! This was the first park built over a freeway in America. It’s magical and confrontational. Today you have to squint to get the impact; they’ve added garish plantings, removed benches to deter the homeless, and have plans for a sculpture garden, when the whole place is a sculpture.”

To spend five minutes chatting with Charles Birnbaum is to hear about dozens of tantalizing gardens—historic parks, regional estates, public plazas, private modernist gems—that, like Shangri-La, you’ll never lay eyes on. Landscape architect and founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation—a repository of everything from oral histories to panoramic comparisons of places like Dan Kiley’s Miller Residence and Thomas Church’s Donnell Gardens—Birnbaum is a walking ency-
clopedia of landscapes both extant and extinct. Describing a full-on assault on open space, the passionate preservationist explains how unique places once created for contemplation are being paved over or
redesigned into “a pupu platter for the ADD generation—with dog walks, spray fountains, cafés, skateboard ramps,” and other distractions.

Of the more than 80,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, fewer than 1,900 are directly related to landscape architecture. And while a thousand of the buildings are less than 50 years old, maybe a handful of modern landscapes are similarly protected. Hence, at Kiley’s NationsBank Park Plaza in Tampa, Florida, for example, the dry, crumbling fountains remain as a kind of memento mori. “It’s ironic—the classic modern design blurred the boundaries between indoors and out, yet we’ll trash the landscape that was conceived as part of the whole,” muses Birnbaum, explaining that when a building makes it onto the registry, its surroundings usually don’t. It’s not that Neutra houses don’t get bulldozed. But with landscapes, the process is even more insidious, as years of overgrowth, lack of maintenance, and added features slowly but irrevocably transform the original.

Yet Birnbaum is no knee-jerk preservationist. “It’s not about maintaining landscapes under glass—places do and must evolve—but about intelligent rehabilitation that looks through the lens of the original designer. With a house, it’s understood you should know the history before you start overlaying features.” Nor is every project worth preserving. “[Lawrence] Halprin’s Nicollet Mall was totally unsuited to the Minnesota climate. But look at Fulton Mall in Fresno [California],” he says excitedly, referring to one of the first outdoor pedestrian malls in the United States, the 1964 collaboration between Garrett Eckbo and Victor Gruen that’s in need of restoration. “Or Sasaki and Dawson’s Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park in Boston—one of the very first revitalized waterfront parks in America. And it’s gone!”
 

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