We Need a Broader Vision for Visionary Postwar Developments

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We Need a Broader Vision for Visionary Postwar Developments

We Need a Broader Vision for Visionary Postwar Developments
Jun 03, 2017

New York’s Battery Park City and Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, America’s Main Street, are two examples of ambitious, civic-minded urban planning that employed landscape architects, architects and allied professionals in the creation of contiguous projects. Moreover, they are significant works of modern and postmodern landscape design. Another characteristic the two share is that they are collections of individual projects that have separate identities, but are also part of larger, symphonic narratives. Lastly, they both have sites that are under threat.

Landscape architecture at this scale does not happen in a vacuum; it requires the leadership of strong patrons – in these instances, Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) and the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA).

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John Marshall Park, Washington, D.C. - Photograph © Jerry Howard, 1991

The genesis of efforts in Washington, D.C. began in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, which was ultimately followed by the creation of the PADC a decade later. The PADC commissioned major practitioners including Dan Kiley, Hideo Sasaki, M. Paul Friedberg, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, George Patton, Carol Johnson, Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden to create a contiguous collection of parks and open spaces that stretched 1.2-miles in length. It was a unique and pioneering effort for all of these practitioners, particularly the landscape architects, to work alongside each other.

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Pershing Park, Washington, D.C., 2012 - Photograph courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Today, these parks and open spaces fall within the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site and are maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). Over time, in-depth site documentation and scholarly analysis has been undertaken to assess the historic significance of this ensemble of cultural landscapes. In 1965, the Avenue was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with what’s called a “period of significance” starting in 1791. Subsequent NPS-commissioned Cultural Landscape Inventories, the most recent issued May 10, 2016, and covering the period 1976-1990, have certified the importance of the Avenue. Moreover, the Friedberg-designed Pershing Park, arguably the jewel in the crown of this collection, has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a designation usually applied to sites that are at least 50 years old – Pershing opened in 1981.

Pershing, as I’ve written before, has been selected as the site of a national World War I Memorial. The initial proposed design essentially called for the eradication of Friedberg’s creation, a park-plaza with a waterfall and pool as its focal point and a planting plan by Oehme van Sweden. New construction in the so-called Monumental Core of the nation’s capital requires approvals from numerous agencies, most notably the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The significance of Pershing being determined National Register eligible is that efforts are required to mitigate adverse effects to the park. The CFA recently approved a design concept for the new WWI Memorial, but threats to its central pool and plaza remain – its basin would be reduced in scale and disconnected from its cascading water source, and a 65-foot-long bas-relief bronze sculptural wall that is still too long for the space would be inserted, fundamentally altering the visual and spatial qualities of the park. 

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Rockefeller Park at Battery Park City, N.Y. - Photograph © Mick Hales, 2015

Battery Park City, by contrast, is a very different animal; it was created on landfill built off of the lower west side of Manhattan. The Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), established in 1968, “is a New York State public benefit corporation whose mission is to plan, create, coordinate and maintain a balanced community of commercial, residential, retail, and park space within its designated 92-acre site,” according to its website.

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Master Plan of Battery Park City, New York, N.Y., 1979 - Image courtesy OLIN

In 1979, Cooper Eckstut (as lead planners) with Hanna/Olin as landscape architects (Laurie Olin lead) prepared a masterplan. It was revolutionary and influential for its time, and resulted in 26 parcels each designed independently by different developers. This continuous and contiguous neighborhood fabric emulated the city’s mixed character and design leadership. This unrivaled collection includes Rector Park, designed by Innocenti and Webel in 1985; South Cove, a collaboration with artist Mary Miss, Child Associates (with Susan Child and Doug Reed) and Stan Eckstut, opened in 1988; Nelson Rockefeller Park, by Carr, Lynch, Hack and Sandell with Oehme van Sweden as landscape architects; and the Esplanade, opened in stages by Hanna/Olin in the 1980s and 1990s. Olin’s Robert F. Wagner Park, Jr. opened in 1996, and Teardrop Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, debuted in 2004. In 1998 architect Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center was completed, with a Winter Garden and waterfront plaza by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners (it was restored in 2002 by Balmori Associates).

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South Cove at Battery Park City, N.Y. - Photograph © Charles A. Birnbaum, 2012

Unlike the high level of scholarship around Pennsylvania Avenue, which is essential in informing stewardship decisions, there is not a similarly comprehensive research foundation underpinning decision making at Battery Park City, as evidenced by current proposals that put the 3.5-acre Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park at risk. The collaboration of Laurie Olin (with Hanna/Olin), horticulturist Lynden Miller, and architects Machado and Silvetti Associates resulted in a significant work of postmodern design. This park is simultaneously a gateway to Battery Park City and an exclamation point at its end.

[In the video below, a portion of a video oral history with landscape architect Laurie Olin, Olin discusses the creation of Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park]

The BPCA wants to replace Wagner Park with one that better aligns with resiliency measures following the impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which resulted in extensive flooding in lower Manhattan and sections of the East Coast. Significantly, while water did reach the park’s lawns, the buildings at Wagner Park did not flood during Hurricane Sandy because the park was built to withstand a 100-year flood – it did the job it was designed to do. By contrast, adjacent sites were flooded and critics of the proposed redesign, such as landscape architect Laura Starr, suggest that low-lying areas should be BPCA’s higher priority.

The other major difference between Pennsylvania Avenue and Battery Park City is that the latter has a conservancy (now known as Battery Park City Parks), which provides an excellent level of care and maintenance. Pennsylvania Avenue, under the resource-starved NPS, is not doing well. Consequently, perhaps now is the time for a conservancy to be formed to provide the care and maintenance that America’s Main Street deserves.

The threat to Wagner Park has landed the site on The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s Landslide list of nationally significant works of landscape architecture that are threatened and at-risk. We strongly urge the State of New York and BPCA to pursue a Determination of Eligibility (DOE) for listing the Battery Park City landscape ensemble (for the period spanning 1979-1996) in the National Register of Historic Places. There are adequate precedents for National Register determinations and listings for works less than 50 years old, and they apply in this situation.

When Wagner Park opened in 1996, Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times that Battery Park City had become “a national model of civilized urban planning.” Eight years earlier, Goldberger observed in the New York Times: “Most large-scale developments in the postwar age have been designed in accord with the modernist notion that there was little to be learned from the past, that looking back was weak and sentimental.

“In contrast, the master plan for Battery Park City ... emerged from the premise that it is wise, not weak, to be willing to learn from what has come before.”

It is also, like Pennsylvania Avenue, a remarkable nexus of modern and postmodern landscape architecture and design worthy of well-informed and enlightened stewardship. It appears that when it comes to wise stewardship, both of these places could learn from each other and would do well to value their own histories.

NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post on June 5, 2017.