The Long View: James Corner & Landscape’s Postindustrial Potential

By embracing the city’s industrial past—reclaiming landfills, remediating brownfields, developing neglected waterfronts—James Corner has helped reinvent the field of landscape architecture.

As a 20-year-old intern in the London office of Richard Rogers, James Corner could barely contain his frustration. It was the early 1980s, and they were working on the first pieces of the transformation of the London docklands from derelict industrial port to stylish commercial district. But at that scale, on so complex a site, Corner saw only limitations. “All the architects knew how to do was put awnings on existing buildings,” he recalls. “All the landscape architects knew how to do was put trees everywhere. And all the traffic engineer knew how to do was to optimize getting cars in and out of the development.” Over pints at the pub, Rogers and his partners “would complain that they didn’t have the conceptual or imaginative tools or techniques to do the whole thing synthetically.” Corner, who grew up outside of Manchester, left soon afterward to study at the University of Pennsylvania—where he is now head of the landscape-architecture ­department—but he never let go of the lesson: “There is a desperate need for a different kind of professional who isn’t so Balkan­ized, who is capable of seeing a bigger picture and choreographing a bigger team.”

Corner has spent the last 25 years becoming that guy in a deliberate attempt to reinvent the field of landscape architecture by pushing aside its second-fiddle status and antiurban tendencies and claiming a more ambitious agenda: to design the postindustrial city. Rather than wielding bushes and trees—the proverbial parsley around the roast of proper ­architecture—landscape architects are, as Corner sees it, the best prepared to tackle the complex, large-scale, often environmentally damaged sites that have become the hallmark of urban regeneration. He approaches them with the intellectual assurance of a philosopher and the political bravado of a pow­er broker. “I don’t want to be embarrassed to be a landscape architect because we’re thought of as tree people who come in at the end of the day,” he says.

The first built example of that ambition is just now being realized with the opening next month of sections of the High Line, the elevated-freight-railway-turned-park on the West Side of Manhattan. The project has been charmed from the beginning, blessed with astute neighborhood activists, strong political will, and plenty of private money. And yet Corner has constantly had to battle the misconception that the architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro—his subcontractors—did the heavy lifting while his team merely chose the shrubbery. “In every project we’ve initiated, we’ve led, we’ve had architects and engineers and other experts be part of our team,” Corner says. “Professionally speaking, that’s a big advance for a field that’s normally reticent.”

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Corner’s design, with his firm, Field Operations, maintains the memory of the abandoned railway’s magical wildness while leaving no doubt that it has been tamed by art and culture. There are high-wattage plazas ready for stylish hordes, but I think the big­­gest thrill will be picking up a bit of speed—like a locomotive—and traversing the city at treetop height. The pathway’s long, skinny concrete pavers alternately stretch out like carpet, and peel back and up like logs across a stream. The whole thing is a sharp-witted reflection of who we are now as a city: strolling on the wreckage of the industrial past while basking in the cultured and moneyed present. The High Line will be a sensation. For Corner, it is prelude.

At their sleek West Side studio, Field Operations’ 36 designers—more than half of them Corner’s former students at Penn—are working on five more major public landscapes and a handful of private ones, a total of more than 10,000 acres evolving slowly over the next quarter century: the 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Park, on Staten Island; a 995-acre waterfront park in Toronto; a 42-acre park in Paterson, New Jersey; a 4,500-acre park in Memphis, Tennessee; a 127-acre park in South Korea; the pool deck of the new MGM Mirage CityCenter resort in Las Vegas (opening next year); the ground plans for Colum­bia University’s Manhat­tanville campus and the Con Edison site near the United Nations (both with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill); gardens for private clients; and large master plans in Baltimore and Puerto Rico. For the 46-year-old, it is a major (albeit slowly gestating) pile of work, all the more remarkable for the fact that none of it is completed. Corner’s talent is, so far, rhetorical.

As a graduate student at Penn, Corner studied with Ian McHarg, a Scotsman famous for an ecological and regionally scaled approach to landscape architecture, which at the time was otherwise consumed by a sterile and static Modernism. But by the time Corner graduated, the recession of the late 1980s had sunk in, and as he puts it, “practice sucked.” So he went back to teach. If the work at Richard Rogers’s office had underwhelmed him, Corner was equally disenchanted by the way landscape architecture was being handled by the academy. “Architecture throughout the eighties had this burgeoning of theory and intellectual debate and ­discussion,” Corner says. “I just felt whenever I was in an architectural setting the level of discourse was higher, and the issues on the table were more compelling. I wanted to bring landscape up to the same level.” He turned to research and writing.

With Alex MacLean, an aerial photographer, Corner began flying around the United States in a Cessna, looking at how the land had been shaped by humans. The resulting book, Taking Measures Across the American Land­scape (Yale University Press, 1996), was a crossover success, garnering attention from Newsweek and the New Yorker and winning the American Insti­tute of Architects International Book of the Year Award. It had in it a single big idea: Landscapes arise continuously out of the particular characteristics of their places. They grow. And their forms be-come embedded in that process.

The aerial photographs in Taking Measures vividly show how this plays out in places from farms to parking lots. “It was a lot about trying to look at beautiful landscapes in terms of their form and pattern and materiality and geometry and tactility, but to understand that as the product of their performance, of what they’re doing,” Corner explains. He envisioned the role of the landscape architect as nurturing those changes, working a place into existence over time like (yes) a gardener. A landscape is never really done. The park not busy being born is busy dying.

By the mid-’90s, Corner was getting antsy in the academy. “I didn’t want to turn out to just be a scholar,” he says, so he started entering competitions. The Van Alen Institute, in New York, solicited ideas for the redevelopment of Governors Island. Out of more than 200 entries, six prizes were awarded: one went to Corner, three others to his students. “So I thought, We must be on to something!”

Corner’s big break came a few years later, with Fresh Kills, the massive landfill on Staten Island. In the fall of 1999, the Municipal Art Society (MAS), along with a long slate of city departments—Sanitation, Parks, City Planning, Cultural Affairs—began organizing an international competition to solicit ideas for the site. Not that there appeared to be many options. Its size alone—nearly three times the footprint of Central Park—makes it difficult to conceive of bringing in bulldozers to carve out any sort of traditional landscape of rolling lawns, curving paths, and crooked lampposts. Even if you had the billions of dollars needed, that wouldn’t solve the ­technical hurdles: You can’t dig into the trash, which covers about 45 percent of the site (the rest is mostly wetlands). And you can’t rush its decay, meaning that—no matter what any architect came up with or who funded it—it would take decades to become a park. The competition entrants, even the finalists, seemed flummoxed by the situation. “The shifting nature of Fresh Kills confounds interpretations, predictions and conviction necessary for end or phased scenarios,” wrote a team led by Mathur/da Cunha and Tom Leader Studio, all but acknowledging conventional landscape architecture’s impotence. “We have a situation that is really before design.”

Corner saw it as a proving ground—not just as a park but for landscape architecture as a whole. It stacked up all the challenges he had been wrestling with: contaminated lands, exhaustive environmental reviews, competing community interests, glacially slow (if not totally absent) funding, and the opportunity to create an aesthetic unencumbered by Romantic landscapes. (In all of this, Corner was influenced by the landscape architect Peter Latz’s Land­scape Park Duisburg-Nord, which was mostly completed by 1999.) “It was: Look, this is a landfill, it’s a regulated landscape, the soil is atrocious, how can you imagine a park here?” Corner says, describing his initial thought process. “It’s not an exercise of trying to design a fantastic park; it’s an exercise of trying to design a method to get from what it is now to something that is green, public, and safe. And that process would then produce a park that had very unique spatial and aesthetic experiences and properties.”

Corner called his scheme Lifescape, and the notion at its heart, part ecological and part poetic, came out of the earlier thinking: to grow the park, to reengineer the site as a “self-sustaining ecosystem,” an “autopoetic agent”—like a cell. One of the biggest challenges at the site was covering the mounds with at least four feet of soil, to make them safe for picnicking; Lifescape imagined the park growing that soil. “It’s easy to sit and dream up fantastic things,” Corner adds. “The trick is to dream up fantastic things that are smart with regards to the realities at stake.”

The MAS competition, which played out in the fall of 2001, just as Fresh Kills was reopened to receive debris from Ground Zero, never sunk in with a public distracted by the debate over the World Trade Center’s rebuilding. But “it was a big moment for landscape architecture,” says Linda Pollak, an architect and scholar who has written about the scheme. “It marked something that was already happening, which was the emergence of a sort of thicker way in which the practice was working, in terms of dealing with brownfield sites, taking on the social as well as the natural, and using the ecological processes to arrive at form.” She adds, “Fresh Kills wasn’t just a moment for parks for the twenty-first century, but it was a moment of arrival for the profession of landscape architecture.”

The landscape architect Laurie Olin, who was Corner’s teacher at Penn (“Jim was one of the crankiest students I had”), was on the Fresh Kills jury and recalls how “rich” Lifescape seemed in its approach to ecological and sociological issues. “These ideas had been incubating at Penn for the past twenty years, but here was the scheme that put it all on the ground in a coherent way that was economically and politically viable at that moment,” Olin says. “It was a kind of transcendent moment for ecological design.”

With a $3.38 million contract from the city to prepare a draft master plan, Corner moved his office to New York and increased his staff to 15. A year later, the High Line competition was announced. With that job in hand, Field Operations’ run was established. But so too was the reality of building public parks (tied perhaps with mountain carving as the slowest art form known to man). As Corner wrote in his foreword to Large Parks, a 2007 collection of essays edited by Julia Czerniak and George Hargreaves: “Large parks are no longer under the purview of kings or single powerful agencies. Instead, large parks today must deal with huge and multifarious constituencies, comprised of many contradictory and opposing parties, often steered by complicated and conservative bureaucracies.” But Corner didn’t mean (merely) to complain, but rather to prescribe for large parks a design based on process, on a “framework that is sufficiently robust to lend structure and identity while also having sufficient pliancy and ‘give’ to adapt to changing demands and ecologies over time.”

And yet: all those acres are an albatross around Corner’s neck. As Marilyn Jordan Taylor, a consulting partner at SOM and the new dean of Penn’s School of Design, explains: “Somebody who shapes the land really has to have a long-term view.”

How long? The first 38-acre sliver of Fresh Kills could open by the summer after next, and nearly 300 more acres will be completed by 2015. (Then, only 1,900 to go.) The second section of the High Line is on target for 2010. And in Memphis, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy has already raised $80 million of the $100 million needed to design and construct the first 650 acres of the park, slated to open in 2012. But the slowness grates on Corner. “I think I may have become less patient,” he says. “You go all out, you put a lot into this, and it’s frustrating to see the way and not have it followed.” He went on, “It’s a great profession, a great medium, but I tell you, it’s such a difficult medium to move.”

On a blustery Friday afternoon, Corner drives out to Staten Island. In the parking lot of a nearby mall, we meet up with Ellen Neises, associate principal at Field Operations, who leads the project, and then follow a garbage truck through the Fresh Kills gates. (The Department of Sanitation still has a garage there.) Inside are hissing gasworks and giant cranes, busy loading fresh soil from barges into dump trucks. The garbage mounds themselves, as tall as 150 feet, rise steeply from the tidal creeks to flat-top hills, pocked by pipes connected to the system that collects the gas produced during decomposition. Fresh Kills is not a landscape that conforms to any conventional understanding—and Corner’s scheme does not strain to normalize it. The master plan imagines mountain-biking courses and picnicking fields on the remediated trash mounds. But it also suggests turning garbage barges into floating gardens and a storm-water-retention basin into a “sunken forest,” a swampy grove set within concrete retaining walls. “We think these kinds of things are very beautiful and extraordinary,” Corner says as we pass the spot. One of Field Operations’ first projects for Fresh Kills is to repurpose the retired trash diggers—giant, dinosaurlike cranes—to hold signs, announcing the site’s future as a park. “This tension between the engineered landscape and the naturalized landscape, and what people’s expectations are of beauty, is part of the ongoing discussion here,” he says.

But the biggest challenge of his longest project is deciding what to do when. If landscape architecture is to be reinvented as a broad synthesis, a choreography of disciplines and topographies, before the process of design must inevitably come the design of process. They sometimes feel more like epochs than phases. As Neises pilots us up a steep embankment on the section known as the South Mound, Corner’s attention is piqued. “This mound isn’t bad! Why are you against this mound?” he asks.

“I’m not against this mound,” Neises replies gently, “it just wouldn’t be my pick for something that you have to get built in two years.”

“It wouldn’t be bad to get at least to this ledge,” Corner presses.

“I want to do one face of the mound. I just don’t want to do the full thirty acres, because that’s the whole budget,” she says. “I’d like to do one face, this area here, and part of the lowlands.” Corner looks out the window across the wheat-colored hills, swollen with 150 million tons of moldering trash, and sputters.

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