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Modern Landscape Designer Breaks New Ground

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Margie Ruddick
With a wild approach, award-winning designer Margie Ruddick pushes the boundaries of landscaping.

The Urban Garden Room brings nature inside—in this case to the lobby of the Bank of America Tower in midtown Manhattan. Inspired by the lush fern canyons in Humboldt County, California, Ruddick collaborated with her mother, the artist Dorothy Ruddick, to create imposing, monolithic sculptures that then were covered with ferns, mosses, and vines. “When you go there, people are very quiet,” Ruddick says of the space, which was completed shortly before her mother died in 2010. “If they’re talking, all of a sudden they stop. It smells like ferns and earth, and it’s a little humid. It’s a very quiet place, and it feels very healthful.”

The near-comic absurdity of the situation was not lost on Margie Ruddick, one of America’s most celebrated landscape designers, as she stood before a judge and tried to talk her way out of a $75 fine for letting the weeds in her front yard grow taller than ten inches.

Ruddick had come prepared. She pa­tiently walked the judge through the Latin species name for each plant and seedling as images flashed across a computer monitor. Satisfied that there was a method behind what, to many of Ruddick’s neighbors in Philadelphia’s East Mount Airy neighborhood, appeared to be a tangle of untended weeds, the judge dropped the fine, and Ruddick set about planting asters and other colorful plants in her yard “to make it look more intentional.”

The episode, from 2011, is a source of amusement to those who know Ruddick, 57, and admire her work. But it also is illustrative of an unconventional approach that earned her a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture in 2013—a philosophy that Ruddick neatly sums up in the title of her forthcoming book, Wild by Design.

“I think that I have a very strong, formal hand, but I like a certain amount of mess,” she says. “That’s where life happens. That’s where birds can have habitat, where they can find shelter and food and water. So for me, having a landscape that is mani- cured and clipped to within an inch of its life isn’t as interesting because there’s not a lot of life there.”

When she was in her mid-20s, Ruddick traded a promising career in publishing for a low-paying job on the horticultural crew in New York’s Central Park after reading Common Landscape of America, 1580–1845, by John R. Stilgoe. She parlayed that experience into a job drafting management strategies for the city’s forests and wetlands, and a degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. 

Two of her most visible commissions have been overseas. She worked with the environmental artist Betsy Damon on the Living Water Park in Chengdu, China, where a system of ponds and sculptures naturally cleans polluted river water. And she teamed with the New York architect Steven Harris—a frequent collaborator—on the design for the Shillim Institute, a 2,500-acre ecological retreat in India’s Western Ghats mountain range.

Ruddick collaborated with the New York architect Steven Harris on a master plan for the Shillim Institute in India’s Western Ghats mountains. “It took us about ten years,” Ruddick says. “There were a lot of environmental issues that we had to deal with, and there’s this very healthy, diverse forest where we said, ‘Don’t do anything there.’ It had a big sustainability component.”

But it’s in the landscapes that Ruddick has crafted closer to home in her native New York City that her wild-by-design ethos arguably is on its fullest and most vibrant display. At Queens Plaza, Ruddick worked with Marpillero Pollak Architects and the artist Michael Singer to transform an uninviting jumble of traffic medians and parking lots beneath an edifice of elevated tracks into a lush, welcoming greenway for rest and respite.

Median plantings and permeable pavers filter storm water into a subsurface wetland. Above ground, ironwood trees grow in an arc as redbuds, magnolias, and other drought-resistant trees and plants huddle beneath them.

Here, as she has elsewhere, Ruddick playfully flouts landscaping convention, including the unwritten rule that gardens be composed of repetitions. Queens Plaza is, by design, a slightly unkempt space, and an attempt to redefine what an urban park can be.

“There’s an ethic and an aesthetic to it,” Ruddick says of her approach. “There’s the practical part of it, which is that it’s easier and better for the planet, and then the aesthetic of it is just having things be more blowsy—a little more let out, a little less trimmed. I like gardens that are a little more ample, a little more productive, a little more fertile, a little more ungainly—like things that happen that you don’t plan. It’s way more interesting to me.” 

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