This guest post is the third in a series on planting design by my friend Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect working in London for Gillespies, a large landscape design firm. He has always had a deep interest in plants and their use in landscape architecture to create meaningful places with emotional power.
I first met Giacomo just before the Chelsea Flower Show, several years ago, as he was giving some friends a tour of the south bank of the Thames. I’ve always remembered his taking me aside on entering the Jubilee Gardens to show me a gracefully rounded seating edge on a low granite wall. I was impressed, first, that Giacomo was so observant of subtle design details and, second, that he wanted to share what he saw. Giacomo’s passionate interest in plants and well-executed design, and his desire to share ideas are continuously expressed in his writing and in his teaching. He is a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich in London.
Giacomo will continue to write about his findings and insights on various plant and landscape topics on this site from time to time. James Golden
Is change in the air?
Planting design has not been a priority in the profession of landscape architecture for many decades. Fortunately, this period of neglect appears to be changing, as evidenced by several prominent practitioners in the field who are writing about the importance of innovative planting design in landscape architecture and using plants as an intrinsic part of their work. Landscape architects such as James Hitchmough (UK), Thomas Rainer (USA), Christine Ten Eyck (USA), Nigel Dunnett (UK), Ton Muller (NL) and Cassian Schmidt (Germany) all show a deep interest in plants and seek to find sustainable and resilient ways to create plantings that require low inputs while achieving appealing compositions. Marc Treib, noted professor, writer, architect, and architectural historian and critic, organised a major Symposium dedicated to the exploration of planting design in landscape architecture last year at the University of California, Berkeley. Treib argues that the interest in planting design as an essential element of study, and research has been sidelined in the profession of landscape architecture due to issues such as sustainability, resilience and social justice (https://ced.berkeley.edu/events-media/events/laep-symposium-the-aesthetics-of-planting-design).
Yet another landscape architect, Australian Julian Raxworthy, in his recent book, Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening, criticises the discipline of landscape architecture for distancing itself from gardening, and proposes a new way forward that integrates garden and planting design with landscape architecture. In the Foreword to Raxworthy’s book, Fiona Harrisson writes that landscape architects should engage more with plants by “getting up close and dirty rather than flying above the landscape we seek to transform” (Raxworthy 2018, p xi, foreword by F. Harrisson).
As a landscape architect, I believe plants are necessary for creating characterful and meaningful landscapes and I’ve been concerned that many landscape architects continue to show indifference toward the use of plants. Are plants not given sufficient attention because landscape architects have a need to distance themselves from gardeners? Why are so few landscape architects writing about their experience with plants? This undervaluing of the importance of plants in landscape design demonstrates a lack of interest in elements that can be extraordinarily important to making landscapes of power, landscapes that appeal to emotions.
One example: Paley Park
Let’s consider the example of Paley Park in New York City.
What would this park be without the careful selection of the Gleditsia spp. trees, a species with a very light canopy that filters the light and with slender trunks creating a delicate, vertical element within the pocket park? There is no doubt that the firm Zion Breen Richardson Associates must have known the qualities of this particular tree species when designing this public space in the 1960s, and it would be interesting to speculate whether the designers anticipated that the light conditions in the park would cause the trees to develop the narrow and elongated forms that have helped to create a tranquil, almost chapel-like atmosphere.
This aspect of Paley Park also brings up another significant issue. The growth of plants in a landscape is difficult to anticipate decades in the future. Landscape architects need to be aware that changes in growth pattern might introduce unanticipated spatial changes in relationships between plants and other landscape features. Such changes can create serendipitous effects, as in Paley Park. Regardless, they must be foreseen, attended to, and managed.
The work of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
To demonstrate why plants are essential to landscape architecture, I have chosen to focus on the work of one landscape architectural firm whose work I have been observing for several years, going back to my time as a student in the MLA program at the University of Greenwich, when I became interested in the Tahari Courtyards by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). I was particularly intrigued by how plants and materials were used to simplify and amplify an ecology that creates a specific experience for human users.
The Tahari Courtyards are two small rectangular courtyards of less than 100 square metres each within a warehouse complex in Millburn, New Jersey, commissioned by fashion designer Elie Tahari.
They were created by subtracting two volumes from the building footprint in order to bring light into the indoor space. These courtyards show that a limited palette of hard and soft materials, namely Betula nigra, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, Dryopteris erythrosora, Helleborus orientalis, a carpet of moss Plagiomnium spp. and a path of black locust slabs can create a strong atmosphere and an elegant look.
All these elements are carefully selected to achieve a calm, moist, woodland setting, bringing light and a feeling of nature into a dark, windowless space.
Last November, while visiting the Princeton University Campus in New Jersey on a beautiful sunny autumn day, I was again reminded of my desire to write about the importance of planting design in landscape architecture. As a friend and I were walking through the Wilson College we smelt from a distance the sweet scent of the trees planted along the Lourie-Love Walk.
Although we both knew the walk was planted with Cercidiphyllum japonicum, a species known to smell like burnt sugar in the autumn, we were surprised by the pleasant intensity of this scent and its effect at a distance. This experience was full of emotional power.
It made clear that the intent of the landscape architects in choosing this species went beyond the aesthetic materiality of the trees. It was also about creating an emotional experience. This project is one of several at Princeton University by MVVA, which I’ll discuss briefly below.
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to visit several projects by MVVA in the northeast US. Clearly, as a practice, the firm highly values the use of plants for creating public spaces and shows a strong commitment to planting design. In a lecture Van Valkenburgh gave in 2012 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, he spoke about his love for plants and his interest in materiality and how materials make people feel, which is a defining aspect of MVVA’s work (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAaWGYh7QP8). Their projects are emblematic examples of the importance of plants in landscape architecture.
A look at several MVVA Projects
I will look at several examples of projects by MVVA that demonstrate how plants can be used to create character and sense of place.
The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton is a relatively new building complex, consisting of several architectural forms varying in size and height, with a number of integrated courtyards and open spaces nestled around and within the buildings.
The open spaces bring light inside while providing settings for outdoor activities. The Center was completed in 2015 and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
It is sheltered on two sides by tall brick walls, part of a former building designed by McKim, Meade and White, that partially hide, and expose, the landscape surrounding the Center.
The plantings within these spaces are simple and highly varied at the same time, giving a different character to each of them. In this project, architecture and landscape are not disconnected entities but they work together, in dialogue.
In the largest sunken courtyard weeping Fagus sylvatica trees are juxtaposed with evergreen Cryptomeria japonica and exposed aggregate concrete walls; the combinations are appealing because they show how vegetation juxtaposed to hard materials can create a subtle drama and interest.
The low plane is planted with Polystichum acrostichoides, Dryopteris spp., Vinca and Panchysandra terminalis, which convey a fresh, simple, modern look that contrasts sharply with the straight lines of the high-tech academic buildings.
At ground level above this courtyard is an informal garden characterised by a sinuous path unfolding among areas extensively planted with Liriope spicata and Hemerocallis fulva as ground-cover species, topped with multi-stem Amelanchier lamarckii, Rhododendron spp., Hamamelis x hybrida, Ilex verticillata and Fothergilla gardenii.
Between the buildings is a small and shady cul-de-sac, which is almost hidden, and which you enter through a narrow, constricted space.
It is planted with Fagus grandifolia for structure and predominantly Carex pennsylvanica filling the ground level. In the summer the space provides a welcome, sheltered and shady oasis. This little garden shows how fruitful the collaboration between the architects and landscape architects can be in maximising the opportunities for natural light and meditative outdoor space surrounded by planting.
Within this complex two sunken courtyards can be accessed only from the inside, creating a feeling of anticipation because you have to discover a way to enter them. These have a similar design, with a central paving area of gravel surrounded by plantings, which create a buffer between the enclosing building walls and the open internal spaces.
Although similar, these two spaces feel very different because of the distinctive atmospheres created by the plantings. The first one is defined by large multi-stem Stewartia pseudocamelia trees underplanted with Vinca, Polystichum acrostichoides and blue-leaved Hosta sieboldiana.
The second courtyard is characterised by large multi-stem Hammamelis x hybrida, Parrotia persica and Nyssa sylvatica. Because these two courtyards have different exposition, the first one being more surrounded by the buildings and therefore more shaded and the second west-facing and catching more afternoon sun, they have very different feelings, the first, secluded and cool, the second, sunny and warm.
At street level, near the main entrance to the Center, is a garden with a sinuous path of gravel, a long bench and an unexpected planting featuring a large number of Buxus shrubs in different sizes with masses of Liriope spicata planted among them.
The contrast in forms and textures and the simplicity of the planting make this composition utterly refreshing and unconventional.
While walking across another part of the Princeton campus, I encountered a sunny square filled with the noise of skateboarders. Because there was minimal vegetation, my attention was drawn to the dramatic pool at the centre of the square called the Fountain of Freedom and the Robertson Hall building by Minoru Yamasaki across the water. Passing through, I glimpsed a small green courtyard to the left side, which surprised me because it was so green and different from the adjacent square. This courtyard garden is located between the Shapiro Walk and the Department of Economics. It is open to one side, to the south, and surrounded by buildings on the other three. It has a central path which descends from the walkway level trough the garden and connects it to the building entrance.
This garden is planted in a naturalistic way. Several multi-stem trees and shrubs such as Amelanchier lamarckii, Magnolia virginiana, Exbury Azalea hybrids and Viburnum nudum are underplanted with a herbaceous palette composed of a matrix of Sesleria autumnalis with groups of Carex muskingumensis and Hemerocallis ‘Gentle Shepard’, which with their white flowers bring light into the space.
The feeling of isolation in this little courtyard, of moving into a space different in character from surrounding spaces, recalls a similar feeling I also encountered in the Monk’s Garden in Boston. I visited the Monk’s Garden, outside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, two years ago in late October on a warm sunny day.
The garden is located between a tall boundary brick wall to one side and the main museum building to the other, creating a feeling of shelter and seclusion. Although the museum was rather busy on the day of my visit, the garden was not crowded at all; in fact it felt like a peaceful oasis far away from the crowd. The garden unfolds along sinuous winding paths that allow users to meander, and explore the space in different ways without a defined trajectory.
These walkways also evoke the paths that monks might walk in a medieval cloister while meditating and praying. The paths are paved in dark grey, shiny, and opaque tiles that contrast with the fallen leaves and adjacent plants.
The planting features several multi-stem and single-stem trees that add stature to the composition, create a setting for people to stop, escape and observe nature, and divide the garden into many small intimate rooms.
The tree layer features deciduous species such as Betula populifolia, Stewartia pseudocamelia and Acer griseum, and evergreen Thuja occidentalis and Camelia oleifera. The ground plane is covered with a rich selection of woodland floor perennials and grasses. Asarum canadense, Dryopteris , Polystichum, Helleborus, Euphorbia amygdaloides, Hosta and Cimicifuga spp. are some of the most prominent members of this shade plant community.
The garden has an elegant simplicity appropriate for the museum and it offers a welcoming alternative to the interior experience.
Brooklyn Bridge Park is an extensive, long waterfront park along the Brooklyn shore facing Manhattan. It was formerly the site of large shipping piers, most of which were demolished and repurposed for the park. The park offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn side of the East River just as it widens into New York Harbor and it extends northward beneath the historic Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. It was redeveloped into a park in the past two decades.
Unlike the previous projects, this park offers many opportunities for observing planting schemes in larger and more public projects. The park is more than 2 km long and it consists of many different uses and habitats. Nevertheless, the richness of the planting is ubiquitous throughout.
A small area within the park in front of Pier 3 captures in a small space the importance of plants for creating a refuge in the city. This space is surrounded by trees, which are planted to frame the view of the Manhattan skyline, using the concept of prospect and refuge.
The planting features several conifer trees and some deciduous shrubs such as Rosa spp., Lindera angustifolia and several Carex species to fill the ground plane. This terrace is elevated above the surroundings so it provides a vantage point to observe the Manhattan skyline and the river. The soft and hard material palettes are simple but at the same time robust and appropriate for a public space.
Beautiful reclaimed granite slabs are used to pave the space and large granite blocks are used to create a seating wall, helping to create a feeling of seclusion and intimacy.
Throughout the park are many varied features such as viewing platforms, lawn areas, beaches, playfields on top of the recovered piers, kids playgrounds, all amid an array of different designed plant communities.
Particularly toward the north end of the park, near the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, are many more intimate areas, such as the Max Family Garden in front of the St. Ann’s Warehouse Theatre.
Further south, on Pier 6, is a perennial meadow that attracts many insects and wildlife in the middle of the summer, while providing a very colourful background for park activities and a stunning view of the lower Manhattan skyline above the naturalistic vegetation of the meadow, a striking juxtaposition.
Teardrop Park is the last project I will discuss. This park evoked a strong emotional response in me the first time I visited and it continues to do so every time I return. I have made many visits in the last few years, observing the park’s users and trying to understand how it functions. I only want to mention a few important elements.
The park is a relatively small space surrounded by tall buildings and located in lower Manhattan, in Battery Park City. Teardrop Park embodies an important lesson: how careful design can bring character and atmosphere to a featureless landscape lacking any views out.
The park is divided by a large, artificial stone wall which runs diagonally across the middle with a south facing lawn to the north and playgrounds to the south. This stone wall, literally cut apart, imported from the Catskill Mountains north of the City, and reassembled in the park, is the ‘tour de force’ feature that largely creates a sense of place within Teardrop Park.
Plants are used here to bring a feeling of nature in this very dense part of the city and to give users a green stage for their activities, helping them turn away from the city to the centre of this calm green space. Tree species within the park are arranged in a naturalistic way, often in groups to create little groves. Betula nigra next to the stone wall, Sassafras albidum at the edge of the lawn, Rhus typhina close to the playground, and Hamamelis virginiana on the side of the lawn, are all placed in specific areas and they define a particular character within each small vignette.
Apart from these species that define the mood of certain areas, other species are used throughout to connect and unify the park, species such as Viburnum sieboldii, Hydrangea quercifolia, Corylopsis glabrescens, Asarum canadense, Mertensia virginica, Mitella diphylla, Iris cristata, Carex eburnea, Carex appalachica, Juncus tenuis, Carex pennsylvanica, Aquilegia canadensis, Lilium canadense, Deschampsia flexuosa, Danthonia spicata, Chasmantium latifolium, Waldstenia fragarioides, Liriope spicata, Hosta sieboldiana and Heuchera americana.
The large stone wall and the vegetation, and their changes throughout the year, give visitors an opportunity to witness seasonal change in the city. In the summer, lush green foliage and water dripping from the wall convey a feeling of vitality and growth, while in the winter the ice oozing from the wall and barren trees amplify a sense of winter stillness, strongly evoking a natural, wild landscape.
These gardens and landscapes show that landscape architecture can be far more than an aesthetically appealing means to meet such utilitarian needs as space for sport, play, movement in complex areas, sustainable infrastructure, and stormwater management. Plants are a key to moving beyond the utilitarian to make places people need and respond to emotionally. The intrinsic characteristics of plants can define the essence of a space—a wetland, meadow, or other ecological type, for example, or a certain kind of setting for human interaction, social engagement, or even for solitude. I think that knowing plants and their appearance and characteristics is fundamental to creating meaningful spaces for people. One could argue that one of the most important goals for landscape architects is to create spaces, gardens and landscapes where people want to be and where they can experience the full range of human emotions.
What do we ultimately want to do by using plants? I offer a quote by Dean Hole from Rory Stuart’s What are gardens for:
“… For visions of the invisible, for grasping the intangible, for hearing the inaudible, for exaltations…above the miserable dullness of common life into the splendid regions of imagination and romance.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I would like to acknowledge the help of Tyler Krob from MVVA who has shown me several MVVA projects and talked to me about their work in New York City, and Scott Streeb and Chris Matthews for showing me their offices in New York City and Cambridge. Thanks also to my colleague Stephen Richards, Partner at Gillespies in London, who put me in contact with MVVA, and to Rebecca McMackin, Director of Horticulture of Brooklyn Bridge Park, for showing me practical and maintenance aspects of cultivating the park.
This essay is dedicated to all my current and previous passionate colleagues at Gillespies in London, students and colleagues at the University of Sheffield and Greenwich, and plant friends across the globe who have inspired me, shared with me their passion for plants and supported me in spreading the word, advocating and believing in our profession. – Giacomo Guzzon
In writing this post, I want to acknowledge the work of Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Birnbaum argues for the importance of writing about landscape architecture and sharing ideas to increase understanding of our work and its benefits, to gain professional standing as a highly valued discipline, and to achieve increased visibility among other allied professionals and clients (https://www.dezeen.com/2018/09/05/opinion-charles-a-birnbaum-landscape-architecture-recognition-promotion/).