A Singular Creation

The unusual choice of pine trees turns an urban rooftop into a virtual forest.

Five stories above the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan, a small, unlikely forest is taking root. Planted atop the podium of a new mixed-use building by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Thomas Balsley’s undu­lating stands of Austrian pines deliberately avoid the usual sedum carpets and overly manicured containers of roof greenery. Instead, the New York–based landscape architect, a self-described “country boy at heart,” created a monoculture of evergreens that emulates northern forests. The goal was to achieve a tranquil place rather than a pretty or functional one.

“It’s a different idea of what an amenity could be,” says Balsley, the principal of Thomas Balsley Associates. “It’s not always something you can use.” A floating forest, however, is not exactly what the client, Edward Minskoff, initially requested. “The developer asked me to design a roof garden,” Balsley says. “But when I heard about his love of art and the architect’s commitment to Modern design, I decided to look past doing a busy roof garden.”

Even so, this arboreal landscape in the sky proved useful. The podium of the tiered building includes ground-level retail spaces topped by affordable apartments. Luxury units, with semienclosed terraces—many overlooking the forest—are located in the 31-story tower. All residents have access to the tree-covered roof, but the views it creates became a major selling point for the high-end condos, which helped to justify the installation costs. “The mature trees have tremendous aesthetic appeal,” Minskoff says. “I felt it was something that would continue to add value over time.”

Completed in the fall of 2008, the landscape includes more than a hundred 25- to 35-foot-tall trees set in mounds of earth, which are concealed by low shrubs of dwarf mugo pine. Simple river-stone paths divide the swells of greenery. The adult pines had to be lifted onto the top of the building by crane before being set into the new four-and-a-half-foot-deep soil bed. That’s significantly deeper than most green roofs in order to accommodate the unusually deep root systems. In addition to the standard benefits of storm-water retention and insulation for the building, the trees improve air quality.

Beyond the environmental gains, Balsley believes that everyone can relate to the restrained palette. “Modernism was intended to be universal, but it didn’t always succeed at that,” he says. “There is something about the simplicity of these elements that seems to speak to people of all walks of life.” Though Balsley sees the design within a Modernist tradition, it is far from the rigid austerity of, say, a Dan Kiley landscape; it’s more reminiscent of an unspoiled patch of nature.

The roof forest is barely visible from the street. “It’s kind of a surprise when you get up there and you first see it,” Balsley says. “It just brings a smile to your face. It’s a place for people in the building to escape their busy lives.” But the project’s low profile may not last: the trees could eventually grow as high as 60 feet.

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