Making the Past Present: How a Site’s History Can Shape its Future

How architects can mine a site’s story to craft solutions specific to its context

While landscape architects sometimes look to future technology for influence on their design, as Lisa DuRussel previously discussed, the flip side of this method, of course, is to look to the past. When starting a new project, many landscape architects approach understanding a sitethrough the lens of history. This is especially important in the urban environment, where a site has had a lifetime of identities before the designer has even stepped onto it.

At the outset of design, a landscape architect must make a conscious decision—will the proposed landscape be shaped by its past, or will it be aunique contemporary space set apart from it? When aspiring to recognize a site’s legacy in a proposed design, the designer should ensure that there is ample support for this decision and present the site’s story in an informed manner. Once an accurate assessment of the site is completed, there are myriad opportunities and built representations that can expose and/or celebrate a landscape’s past.

One of our firm’s projects currently in design, Pier 42 in Manhattan, uses both historic site remnants and interpretive elements to reflect the site’s former life as an industrial pier. The pier was originally constructed as a newsprint terminal in the 1960s. It was then converted for use as a cargo pier by the Dole Fresh Fruit Company for the distribution of tropical fruits, including bananas, imported from South America. In deference to this industrial past, a portion of the storage structure will be retained on site and used as a frame for a proposed pavilion. Visitors, however, will need to bring their own bananas.

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Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ masterplan for Pier 42 in Manhattan that hopes to “restore a healthy ecology” to the site.

The repurposed shed of Pier 42 is integrated into the overall site design, situated among contemporary landscape elements including a bikeway, children’s water play areas and a kayak launch. To a lesser extent, a portion of the site’s waterfront edge will include habitat restoration with marsh areas and a riparian upland, common to New York Harbor prior to the industrialization of the city’s waterfront. The latter is more of an effort to restore a healthy ecology to the site than to be reflective of its industrial heritage, yet still returns this edge to its “Manahatta” state.

The firm went to great effort to reveal the historical foundations of Buffalo’s Erie Canal Harbor with their design for the Commerical Slip.

The urban design our firm created for Buffalo’s Erie Canal Harbor provided for the reconstruction of the harbor’s historic Commercial Slip. The slip, which linked the Buffalo River to the Erie Canal, was buried in the 1950s. In an effort to reconnect the public with the waterfront and the site’s historic past, the slip was excavated, restored, and re-watered as part of an overall 12-acre site design. When our firm began working on the project, the deep cultural history of the site was deemed a defining factor in the way the inner harbor would be redeveloped. While the design provided modern amenities including a maritime esplanade, mooring for recreational boats and connections to the Buffalo Greenway, there were also significant efforts to celebrate the site’s past through the preservation of archeological ruins within the landscape, retaining the historic street grid, and creating a link to the Industrial Heritage Trail.

The architects used a series of material and atmospheric effects to recall the grandeur of the historic 125th Street Viaduct in Manhattan.

Slated for construction in 2014, the West 125th Street Streetscape and Intermodal Improvements project in Harlem uses a number of existing historic elements to complement proposed modern infrastructure and circulation enhancements. The site was a very active transportation corridor in the nineteenth century, serving ferries, streetcars, stage coaches, and trains. Current principles of sustainability, including the installation of street trees within Silva Cells and use of pervious pavements to allow for stormwater infiltration on site, work in tandem with the integration of historic site elements, providing a state of the art yet aesthetically engaging streetscape for this post-industrial neighborhood. Former electric cable car rails, per the original Fort Lee Ferry Loop, are embedded in cobblestones juxtaposed against the revamped intermodal plaza serving mass transit and excursion buses to the area. A section of existing cobblestone street is being retained to enhance the historic character of the place, complemented by the use of corten steel planter walls. The historic 125th Street Viaduct will be highlighted by modern lighting that will enhance the industrial design of the 1904 structure. Concurrent with the restoration and interpretation of the site’s history, Mathews Nielsen’s design provides a thoroughly contemporary landscape to this urban community.

While the practice of integrating a site’s history into present day landscapes is not a new design method, it does provide the designer the opportunity to uphold or enhance the cultural legacy of a site while potentially providing the framework or inspiration for its future iterations. So, while landscape architects recollect a site’s past, we must also contemplate our impact on the future.

Up next, we move from  incorporating the past into our design approach to embracing the future as we explore the digital realm in landscape design.

Terrie Brightman, RLA, ASLA is a practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City with nearly ten years of professional experience. Since receiving her BLA from the Pennsylvania State University, she has worked on riverfronts in Pittsburgh, private residences in California and Florida, a sustainable community in Turkey, and multiple public parks, plazas, and waterfronts throughout New York City. 

This is one in a series of Metropolis blog posts written by members of Mathews Nielsen’s “Green Team,” which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team will also share its knowledge on plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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