Monday, November 24, 2008

Corner Redux

It seems that James Corner is basking in the glow of design press recently... with another feature in New York Magazine that investigates (in depth) the evolution and potential of Fresh Kills Park. While I have yet to see the movie, Wall-E Park by Robert Sullivan alludes to the idealogy implicit in the movie and it's message of restoration. He comments: "On giant piles of trash left by a generation of New Yorkers, landscape architect James Corner is building a park that has the power to change the way we see the past and the future of the city."

:: Fresh Kills circa 1990 - image via New York Magazine

The barren landscape is evoked from the start: "Let’s start at the peak of what was once a steaming, stinking, seagull-infested mountain of trash, a peak that is now green, or greenish, or maybe more like a green-hued brown, the tall grasses having been recently mown by the sanitation workers still operating at Fresh Kills, on the western shore of Staten Island. Today the sun dries the once slime-covered slopes, as a few hawks circle in big, slow swoops and a jet makes a lazy approach to Newark, just across the Arthur Kill."

The savior... of course is James Corner and his firm Field Operations. While known in NYC primarily for the High Line, the 2000+acre landfill renovation will be the life's work: "But as celebrated as the High Line will probably be, it is Field Operations’ other New York park—the one that’s bigger than lower Manhattan, and currently about the height of Mexico’s Great Pyramid of Cholula—that may change people’s ideas of what a park is all about."

:: image via New York Magazine

And the potential to change people's perceptions of parks is perhap Corner's greatest contribution. Sullivan evokes the pastoral baggage that has accumulated over the past century plus from the time of Central Park. The new aesthetic is derived from a new model, as Corner mentions: "Parks all start to look the same,” he says, “and that sameness is either the pastoral model or the modernist formal model, and this is my problem with style. We try not to have a style.” When Corner and his team began to think about Fresh Kills, they knew that the site was so large and technically demanding that it would be distracting to think in terms of design the way Olmsted did. So they have opted instead to “grow” the park."

The idea of palimpsest is mentioned, with is perhaps a good metaphor for Corner's work at Fresh Kills... a product and a referent to the history of this site's illustrious use. This may be a question of necessity rather than planning, due to the sheer immensity of the space, and the requirement to keep certain elements and prepare 'fields' in others... a broad brush and more passive design process that yields spaces that unfold over time.

:: image via New York Magazine

While allusions to historical large parks put's him in illustrious company, Corner is: "...more like Olmsted as modern-literature professor, a designer who sees the landscape as text, a place where stories are written and rewritten, one on top of the next, sometimes getting all smudged up. At Field Operations, he is attempting to expand the idea of ecology to include not just rivers and streams but also subway lines, movements of capital, and weekend traffic. “To me, a city is an ecology—it’s an ecology of money, an ecology of infrastructure, an ecology of people,” he says. “Everyone thinks ecology is about nature, and it is, but there are so many other systems.”

While dealing with the historical remnants of shifting subgrade, methane offgassing and toxic leachate, the park design builds on this systems approach to protect and restore - no small feat on this scale. But alas, the beauty perhaps comes from the realistic and truthful approach that Corner took during the competition: "Every contestant ended up emphasizing so-called green ideas like recycling, native planting, and the use of sustainable-energy sources. Hargraves Associates featured Olmsted-sounding names like “The Meadows” and “The Preserve”; John M. Caslan and Partners proposed “ecospheres,” or giant domes that housed various American climates; and Rios’s plan featured an intrapark amphibious shuttle bus. But none of the competitors addressed the trash hills as explicitly as Corner."

:: image via New York Magazine

The beauty of the competition is that it acknowledges time as a major component of the design process. This requires some definite patience, but with a potential that pivoted on a simple idea posited by Corner: "Keep the views, which he knew would blow away every New Yorker who will, 40 years from now, take a hybrid bus or solar-powered ferry to the place. “I said, ‘Look, whatever we do we’ve got to keep the big and green. These are views and vistas that most people in a city would have to drive three or four hours to see.’ "

:: image via New York Magazine

This broad view doesn't discount the details... at least in terms of regeneration, evoking the broadness of a forest and the biomimicry of a lichen to explain the process: "Corner relates the architecture of the place to something more along the lines of forest and landscape management than typical park development. “You start with nothing, and you grow, through management, a more diverse ecology,” he says. “You take a very sterile or inert foundation and move something in. It’s like lichen. They quickly grow and die, grow and die, creating a rich soil that something else can grow onto. And that’s how ecosystems grow.”

Continuing on to explain the Lifescape concept and it's distinct phases: Moundscape, Fieldscape, Openscape, and Eventscape - gives some indication, at least in verbal form of the evolution from primitive state to usable park - with constantly expanding occupation over this time period. This evolution is conceptual but realistic - and perhaps difficult to comprehend when looking at the scale and current state of the park.

:: image via New York Magazine

With criticism of the glacial timeline, as well as the idea of 'erasing' the landfill thrown out via critics - the plan is responsive of site constraints and opportunities. Versus Duisberg Nord - a specific post-industrial ruin in which Peter Latz built a large scale park, Fresh Kills is a whole different monster: "As much as Corner admired Latz’s achievement, Fresh Kills doesn’t offer him the same opportunities for romantic decrepitude. For starters, most ecologists argue that we can’t just leave a place like Fresh Kills a broken dump. “If you left it alone,” says Handel, “it would change, but it would change in a depauperate way.” And Corner can’t imagine exposing, say, leachate streams for teaching-moment purposes, especially in a city where parents sue if their children’s feet burn on hot playgrounds. “I think landscape should be edifying, but there are joyous and optimistic ways. It doesn’t have to be so apocalyptic.”

This positivity in the face of amazing constraints is the hallmark of a long-view - which is perhaps the definition of the design. Change is inevitable in landscape architecture, yet we seem to look at design as a 'product' that has a finite timeframe and beautiful ending - not as something that evolves along sometimes unknown ways. "The most complicated part of the design is the idea that it is designed to change. “Large parks will always exceed singular narratives,” Corner wrote in a recent essay. “They are larger than the designer’s will for authorship.” He added, “The trick is to design a large park 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.”

"Fresh Kills is like forest succession on a simultaneously human and industrial basis, like a nurse log in the woods, where one plant moves in on the back of another, where one use is superseded by another, one layer of ideas on top of the last." In the end, is the park on it's way to potential success, using this pliancy and flexibility? Is this something we can even begin to ascribe potential meaning, or are we caught up in the pastoral baggage of our perceptions of parks that will not allow us to comprehend something different. Or, as Sullivan mentions, does this offer a potential teaching moment, both on a site scale and as a society - about our relationship with trash, it's dirty heritage, and our way of dealing with it?

This, perhaps, is the question at the root of modern landscape architecture. And Corner deserves this moment in the spotlight, with us all following him into the breach.

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