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.”

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 orredesigned into "a pupu platter for the ADD generation—with dog walks, spray fountains, cafés, skateboard ramps," and other distractions.

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.”

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.

An aerial view of Washington, DC, circa 1993.

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!"

Mellon Square, 1955, Pittsburgh, PA, Simonds & Simonds

“This is the oldest surviving park over a parking garage, and the daring geometries—tricolor crushed-stone paving patterns, irregular planting beds, cascading steps—were also designed to be viewed from the high-rises. It’s a futurist plaza, celebratory of the great European plazas, without being derivative. The fountains’ white noise softens the hum of the traffic, for a reposeful experience in the middle of the city.”

Art Institute of Chicago garden, 1962, Chicago, IL, Dan Kiley “Built over a garage, it’s quintessential Kiley and another great response to the automobile culture. There’s a central fountain, raised planters on the grid, and limited plant materials—primarily locust trees and a bosque of hawthorns; Dan was all about the architecture of the trees.”

Museum of Anthropology grounds, 1976, Vancouver, BC, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

“There is a real conversation between Arthur Erickson’s building, with its soaring glass walls and sharp angles that carry you physically outside, and the grounds, designed by Oberlander. Both picturesque and modern, with these indigenous plants and full-scale totem poles that ground the building—it’s visionary.”

James Rose House, 1954, Ridgewood, NJ One of the “Harvard three”—along with Garret Eckbo and Dan Kiley—who rebelled against the stuffy Beaux Arts curriculum, Rose made his house and gardens a lifetime project. “Here’s this shaggy, eccentric little property smack in suburbia, with pavilions and roof decks and courtyards flowing into each other and incorporating found objects.”


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