The Active Edge

Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Brooklyn Bridge Park seems destined to become New York’s third great urban landscape.

If you are looking for a sense of what’s to come with Brooklyn Bridge Park—the great 85-acre park soon to take shape along 1.3 miles of the Brooklyn waterfront—then Teardrop Park is a good place to start. Nestled into only two acres between apartment buildings in Battery Park City, it has a small sloping lawn, a tiny marsh, and a pathway that winds up to the top of a stone wall, which in wintertime glistens with dripping ice. Completed in 2004, it’s a romantic, adventurous place that abandons Modernist landscape architecture’s single crisp layer of meaning in favor of something moodier. The landscape architect of both parks, Michael Van Valkenburgh, likes to think Teardrop has what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls “psychological immensity.”

But Teardrop had a princely $17 million budget and a generally agreeable site. Brooklyn Bridge Park is landscape architecture under live fire, with a complicated site (already occupied by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Brooklyn Bridge, and a quartet of five-acre piers supported on 12,000 wood piles), a strict budget ($150 million for 85 acres), and a democratic imperative heightened by its size and inherent status as a symbol of the “New Brooklyn.” Still, it is easy to imagine that when it’s completed in 2012 it will be New York City’s third great park, after Central Park and Prospect Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted would be pleased. Van Valkenburgh and his firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), share the old master’s emphasis on the park’s role as a democratic equalizer for the city; they share his technical sophistication and imperative for a sensitive layering of the constructed landscape upon the natural one; and they recognize the need for range, for varied and multitudinous landscapes rather than singular compositions. But what Olmsted’s Arcadian vision symbolized in the urbanizing America of the nineteenth century—the agrarian ideal at the core of the nation’s democracy—would be hopelessly historicist amid the expressways, warehouses, and industrial piers of the Brooklyn waterfront. Van Valkenburgh knows that landscape architecture needs a new model attuned—like everything else—to a world in which the real and the simulated, the past and the present, the natural and the man-made are fluid.

This is landscape architecture’s new paradigm. “Nearly every significant new landscape designed in recent years occupies a site that has been reinvented and reclaimed from obsolescence or degradation as cities in the postindustrial era remake and redefine their outdoor spaces,” noted then Museum of Modern Art Architecture and Design curator Peter Reed in a brochure accompanying last year’s exhibition Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape.

“So many of the sites we’re handed today are leftover, never-would-have-been-looked-at-twice-thirty-years-ago kinds of places,” Van Valkenburgh says to me one morning last December in a conference room at his office, located in a loft building half a block from Union Square. At 54 years old, he is intense, passionate—momentarily hot-tempered even—and informal, dressed in a sweater, flannel pants, and Merrell slip-ons. The window boxes outside are filled with Japanese skimmia, an evergreen shrub. Principal Matthew Urbanski, a former student of Van Valkenburgh’s at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and his closest collaborator for the past 15 years, sits across from him. Both speak in the language of ideas, thinking things through together as they go and often finishing each other’s sentences. “Landscape is so much about the circumstance of the found condition,” Van Valkenburgh says. “It’s a lot more ‘I asked the landscape what it could be’ rather than the other way around,” Urbanski adds.

So much of their work—like Brooklyn Bridge Park—has been defined by water. In 1989 Van Valkenburgh won the commission for Mill Race Park, in Columbus, Indiana—the Midwestern town that industrialist J. Irwin Miller turned into an architectural mecca with buildings by everyone from Eliel and Eero Saarinen to Cesar Pelli and Carlos Jimenez. It was a turning point for Van Valkenburgh. Six months earlier, after seven years of teaching, he was granted tenure at Harvard. As he recalls, “A friend of mine said to me, ‘You just got handed an eighty-three-acre park, you’re not even forty years old, and you never did anything in your life. They had no business picking you. Do you want a little boutique practice or do you want to be a real landscape architect?’ So I just basically realized, shit, I gotta give up this Harvard tenure thing.”

He didn’t quite do that—he was chairman of Harvard’s department of landscape architecture from 1991 to 1996 and retains tenure as the Charles Eliot professor in practice—but Van Valkenburgh did grow the firm, becoming a “real landscape architect.” Today there are nearly 40 designers (about ten of whom work full-time on Brooklyn Bridge Park) split relatively evenly between offices in Cambridge and New York. For everyone in the firm the cool self-assurance typical of architects seems weighted with the public responsibility of park building. Brooklyn Bridge Park’s public planning process (it has just completed its environmental review) has been particularly vituperative, with a steady stream of community activists, developers, and politicians all staking their claims on the design, represented in a 31-foot-long model that was on display in an office workshop until it was moved to an exhibition at the Architectural League of New York. As a result the architects exude a palpable sense of public imperative, making the place feel more like a nonprofit than a fancy design studio. None seems eager to wave a hand and have it their way.

Van Valkenburgh likes to compare the firm’s approach to that of Alice Waters, the godmother of organic food, who trumpets the connection between how food tastes and the honesty and social responsibility with which it’s produced. “Landscape operates on that level for us,” Van Valkenburgh says. “Great scenery, but, oh my god, you’re looking at a purification system for eighty-two acres of runoff.” Mill Race Park is designed to be submerged by annual flooding. So is Allegheny Riverfront Park, which stitched downtown Pittsburgh back to the Allegheny River essentially by reclaiming a highway median. An as yet unbuilt segment of Hudson River Park in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood is layered on top of existing marine piers. And MVVA’s master plan for the Wellesley College campus, as well as their subsequent reimagining of a utility parking lot there as Alumnae Valley, demonstrate the firm’s insistence on combining environmentally technical solutions with aesthetically driven ones.

These projects were all perfect preparation for Brooklyn Bridge Park. In 2000 MVVA worked as a subconsultant on the initial master plan, led by Toronto planning firm Urban Strategies. Yet as the architects tell it, winning the commission for the park—awarded through a public proposal process in July 2003—was a fluke. They had shown the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation the nascent possibilities of the site, but they didn’t expect to be asked to explore those possibilities themselves. Their experience with the technicalities of waterfront construction and marine engineering enabled them to recognize the richness of what existed there already—such as the well-maintained massive pier structures. Their plan would stretch the budget further than the others—but more crucially their proposal for the park wouldn’t depend strictly on the formal.

Van Valkenburgh bristles at even the implication of the question “What are your forms?” He insistently defines himself in opposition to Modernist landscape architecture—the style of work made famous by designers like Peter Walker, George Hargreaves, and Kathryn Gustafson, with its preference for the neat and photographable. Along with his Watersian focus on honest ingredients, he prefers Tom Stoppard’s aphorism in the play Arcadia: “The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.” Van Valkenburgh glosses, “It’s an essential underlay of what landscape is as a medium: the combination of understanding the things that are givens and then setting it up in a way so that the occurrence of the undeterminable is a welcome consequence.” Olmsted once described his plans for Mont-Royal in Montreal by saying, “It would be wasteful to try to make anything else than a mountain of it.”

But nobody ever mistook the Brooklyn waterfront for a mountain. Saying the site is defined by its givens is like saying Shaquille O’Neal has a height advantage. The park’s $150 million budget leaves little room for major structural changes, so from its first proposal MVVA adopted a strategy of matching the park’s program with existing conditions: lightweight playing fields go out on the massive piers while heavy noise-abatement mounds (the sound from the BQE, Urbanski says, “will make your ears bleed”) and treed areas stay on real ground. The site’s isolated location, cut off from surrounding neighborhoods by the BQE, is countered by playgrounds placed near three key entrance points, with draws such as an indoor sports complex and a boat marina set deeper inside the park. Additionally—in a move met with public outcry—a few condominium buildings and a boutique hotel are planned at the edges of the park, both to fulfill its mandate of being economically self-sufficient and to build in a 24-hour-a-day constituency.

Last summer Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times, called Van Valkenburgh to ask him about his design ideas for the site. He responded with a five-page letter that reads like a manifesto for a new landscape architecture. “Tapping into the intellectual power of Olmsted parks does not come from a desire to imitate the past in the stylistic sense,” Van Valkenburgh wrote. “Rather, it comes from recognizing common interest in transforming sites into purer versions of themselves, thus sublimating an extensive public program.” For Van Valkenburgh, landscape architecture is at least partially reductive: it’s about “subtracting to reveal.” It doesn’t impose ideas; it inseminates them, often literally, by spreading seeds. It is an “in vitro” act—the artificial occurrence of a natural process. Accordingly, the design of Brooklyn Bridge Park does not scrape away “the unpredictable and the predetermined.” It celebrates them.

“Basically, the BBP project is about restoring complexity to the urban river edge that was lost when the piers were built,” Van Valkenburgh wrote in the letter. The architects call this the rich edge, an ecological term that describes the heightened biodiversity at the interfaces between ecosystems. This is meant metaphorically, in that the experience of the park is to be defined by shifting encounters with that edge. Visitors will always be negotiating it: the pathways will frame their views of the skyline and the bridges, and they’ll be constantly faced with a choice of paths to walk—close to the water, up on higher ground, or on bridges and piers somehow in between. “We respect the democracy entailed in park users’ being able to make their own experiential choices,” he adds.

But it is also metaphorical since the architects intend to create wildlife habitats and build in (or reclaim) a variety of edge conditions such as rocky beaches and floating walkways. In this way the park will choose its own path as well: “The occurrence of the undeterminable is a welcome consequence,” regardless of whether it’s something preserved from the site’s natural or industrial past or something made in vitro. “If we’re talking about something that reached a static state, then maybe we could dwell a little more on the significance of what’s preserved and what’s made. But in fact they’re both dynamic, they’re both allied; they’re both different each day forward in time,” Van Valkenburgh says. “Brooklyn is a lot about this,” he adds. “There’s hardly a speck of nature left. But to sprinkle a bunch of seeds around and fix the soil in a way so that it can—through its own resources—generate a new landscape is pretty exciting.”

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