by Wade Graham, May 13, 2016
On Thursday, Los Angeles got some good news. Pershing Square, the park at the heart of a revivifying downtown, has been handed over to Agence Ter, a French landscape architecture firm, for its next big makeover. The plan, which was chosen from among four finalists in the Pershing Square Renew design contest, won with a stratagem of simplicity and a modicum of good sense. It has at least a chance of re-establishing the five-acre square, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, as a great urban public space.
The odds weren't in the park's favor.
Long ago, Pershing Square (once known as Central Park and even earlier, Plaza Abaja, or lower plaza) was Los Angeles' premier civic gathering place, a grand city refuge. But in the 1950s it was remade as the lid of an underground parking garage. Then urban renewal widened its surrounding streets into raceways meant to move as many cars as possible away from downtown. Ever since, the park's been an arid and frustrating conundrum, cut off from potential users by walls, ramps and the massive one-way thoroughfares on its borders.
Attempts at remedying the square's ills in the 1980s and '90s proved unsatisfactory, leaving the city with the current arrangement of patchwork grass and pavement, punctuated with inexplicable architectural ornamentation: rows of standing pink stucco tubes, huge metal spheres placed here and there, and a strangely looming purple stucco tower.
In 2015, when Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership, announced its redesign competition, its first decision was a puzzling one. The competition wasn't open to all comers but instead cut straight to the stars: Only A-list architects and landscape designers were invited to enter, cutting down on the chances that a truly out-of-the-box solution to the park's problems would materialize.
Submitted “starchitect” resumes were whittled down to 10, and then to four finalists: James Corner Field Operations (designer of New York's High Line and Santa Monica's Tongva Park), working with local architect Frederick Fisher; Thom Mayne, of Morphosis, working with landscape architects SWA; wHY + Civitas, a joint effort of firms in L.A. and Denver, and Agence Ter, with its own cast of local supporting players.
What emerged was predictable: bright, shiny, starry sameness. All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's “landscape urbanism.”
Even the winning Agence Ter design is busy, just not quite as busy as the other possibilities. They were all crammed full of what's known in the design business as “program, “ a nearly identical laundry lists of amenities: “flexible” spaces for farmers' markets, theater and music performances, cafes, dog runs, edible gardens and splashy fountains for kids. There were biomorphic canopy structures, plots of thatchy native plants, and themed nooks labeled to accommodate “tai chi,” “moonlight,” “sun” and even “thinking.” The three that were passed over also featured a passel of too-familiar design tics and gimmicks: oblique paths, squiggle shaped planting beds, built up berms and manufactured hills and valleys.
All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's 'landscape urbanism.'
Sustainability was de rigeur: Several plans included rainwater harvesting for irrigation, which is a good idea. But water treatment wetlands, included by SWA/Morphosis and wHY + Civitas, are purely didactic exercises in infrastructure that ought to be left to the Department of Sanitation. Taken to an extreme, the green impulse yielded this absurdity: SWA/Morphosis' solar-powered hydroponic farm tower, meant to grow organic salad greens for an onsite restaurant and to provide “green” job training, making the square a “net-positive ecotopia” that would prove Los Angeles was a “global leader in green technology and sustainability.” That's design aimed at pleasing political impulses of the moment, not creating a park for the ages.
Worse, three of the four plans fundamentally failed to redeem the square from the Original Sin committed in 1951, when parking-lot access ramps and walls severed it from the city on all four sides. Each of these designs left one or more of the park's edges cut off from the street by a raised structure in order to accommodate access to the garage. The Corner/Fisher scheme was the biggest failure in this regard, almost entirely blocking access from 5th and 6th streets with two grass-covered slopes, their low points at the center of the park and their high sides looming over the sidewalks on the north and south sides of the park, creating a sort of tennis-stadium effect, where visitors would face inward, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen, instead of interacting with the neighborhood.
Agence Ter's plan succeeds because it is the least like a post post-modern amusement park. It is all on one level, connecting directly to slimmed-down and repaved streets (Olive is reduced from five lanes to three), and accommodating just two perpendicular driveways into the underground garage. Most of the square is left open, either studded with trees or as an unprogrammed Great Lawn. A block-long shade canopy extends along Hill Street, like a 19th-century open market, topped with solar panels, ready to shelter farmers' stands, restaurants, performances, or kiosks that pop up by design or happenstance.
This plan comes closest to realizing the holy grail of good public squares, which is providing people a place to stage their own programs, spontaneously and unpredictably, without micromanagement by designers. The best such spaces, such as the typical Italian piazza, may have nothing in them at all, just four streets edging a wide-open, shared commons, where life may play out according to its own plans.
Now the winning Pershing Square scheme has to navigate the journey from heavily photo-shopped architectural renderings to a real, built, physical space. If in that process the plan becomes even simpler, downtown Los Angeles will regain a dignified, functional and lovable public space at its pedestrian heart.
Wade Graham is a Los Angeles landscape designer and author, mostly recently, of “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World.”
Los Angeles Times
by Wade Graham, March 6, 2016
Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for “sustainable” buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature. This year, two marquee examples are set to open: Bjarke Ingels' Via 57 West in New York, a 32-story luxury-apartment pyramid enfolding a garden, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Jean Nouvel, a complex shielded from the harsh climate of the Arabian Peninsula by an enormous white dome. The dreamers' goal is even bigger: “eco-cities” that will leapfrog the last century's flawed development patterns and deliver us in stylish comfort to a low-carbon, green future.
In part, the dream reflects a pragmatic push for energy efficiency, recycled materials and lower carbon emissions — a competition rewarded with LEED certification in silver, gold or platinum. But it also includes a remarkable effort to turn buildings green — almost literally — by covering them in plants. Green roofs are sprouting on Wal-Marts and green walls festooned with ferns and succulents in Cubist patterns appear on hotels, banks, museums — even at the mall, as I found on a recent trip to the Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles.
Today's green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking ... deeper.
All of this is surely a good idea, at some level: trying to repair some of the damage our lifestyle has done to the planet by integrating nature into what have been, especially in the modern era, wasteful, harsh, alienating, concrete urban deserts. But, despite the rhetoric of reconciling the city with nature, today's green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking at the deeper causes of our current environmental and urban discontents.
Greening the city is not a new ideal. Ancient Romans waxed lyrical about Arcadia, a mythical bucolic escape from the ills of urban life: money-making, crime, pollution, disease and, of course, luxury and the moral turpitude that goes with it. City-dwellers have always been sensitive to the charge that the metropolis is guilty of a special kind of iniquity, which bars it from grace, and must be cleansed. (Remember Sodom and Gomorrah.) The corollary belief that the green countryside fosters all that is pure and wholesome is a foundational myth of Western culture. It is why, when most people amass enough filthy lucre, they move to the suburbs and cultivate a large, useless lawn, as if the greensward alone could buy them salvation.
Since Plato's Republic, visionaries have described the ideal human community as something less like a city and more like a big, well-ordered farm. Think of Charles Fourier's utopian phalanxes, the Shaker settlements, Frank Lloyd Wright's proposed Broadacre City, Soviet collectives, Israeli kibbutzes or the innumerable 19th and 20th century “garden cities” strewn around the American and European landscapes. A more modest contemporary form is perhaps the Brooklyn Grange, the hipsterish but messianic urban farm outfit that grows bespoke salad greens hydroponically on several rented New York City rooftops for environmentally conscious urbanites. It is undoubtedly a beneficial enterprise, but, given the realities of high urban land values and labor costs, such a model is unlikely to replace the world's nearly 6 million square miles of horizontal farms.
Today's signature eco-building, Apple's “spaceship” campus now under construction in Silicon Valley, designed by the British architect Norman Foster, is a good example of the shortcomings of the green dream. Though we are assured it will be sustainable, energy efficient and “slim” — preserving 80% of its 175-acre site for landscaping, it is by any measure a huge, complex, massively resource-intensive and incredibly expensive ($5 billion) folly, achievable only by one of the richest corporations on Earth. What is more damning is that, at the end of the day, it will be just another appendage of suburban sprawl, a white-collar workplace located next to a freeway, dependent on vast garages (even if most of them are tastefully buried) for its 13,000 commuters — and thus with no smaller environmental footprint than a conventional office park.
A look at the green dream's origins is revealing. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, Apple's spaceship and another new Silicon Valley “campus,” Google's planned complex to be covered in transparent tenting that it says will “blur the difference between our buildings and nature,” are direct descendants of the work of the American visionary R. Buckminster Fuller and his Japanese partner, Shoji Sadao. In 1960, Fuller and Sadao proposed building a two-mile-wide, transparent geodesic dome over Midtown Manhattan. It would eliminate bad weather and the cost of heating and cooling separate buildings. It wasn't built, but other, lesser domed environments were, all over the world, and these helped spawn a global epidemic of drawing-board futuristic eco-cities.
Among the movement's avatars were Paolo Soleri, whose projected Utopia, Arcosanti, only amounted to a few, odd concrete structures in the Arizona desert, and the Japanese Metabolists of the 1960s and '70s, whose plans for massive floating city-farms and modular megastructures in the sky were outlandish. (They nevertheless directly influenced the development of undersea exploration modules, offshore oil platforms and the International Space Station.) Indeed, Foster was a student and later a collaborator of Fuller and Sadao, and his masterpieces — the Gherkin in London and the remade Reichstag in Berlin, to name just two of scores — are essentially climate-controlled domes, carefully modeled on his teachers' earlier work.
Like driving a $85,000 Tesla, designing a perfect green building or eco-city isn't enough to save the world.
These projects are, then, really the fulfillment of a set of blue-sky dreams from the Dr. Strangelove era — where every cinematic space colony contained a domed conservatory and keeping the plants in the greenhouse alive was all that stood between humans and disaster. In the end, those dreams are not about reintegrating society with nature, but leaving Earth itself behind for an
engineered habitat under the dome, in the sky or at least on the roof.
Like driving an $85,000 Tesla, designing a perfect green building or eco-city isn't enough to save the world. Although our buildings, like our cars, have been woefully inefficient environmentally, architecture isn't responsible in any meaningful way for humanity's disastrous environmental impacts, nor can it hope to solve them alone. An economic system based on the destruction of nature and the shifting of real costs onto those less fortunate and onto the future, is the real problem. No dome can protect us from our own profligacy and improvidence, nor can any number of hydroponic lettuce farms blunt the damage being done to real nature, or what is left of it, on planet Earth.
Instead of making “nature” into an urban lifestyle accessory, architects and planners must work to design better relationships between the parts of our cities and nature, and to promote just relationships between the people in them. The work of this year's Pritzker Prize winner, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, is a case in point. He is less interested in making technologically impressive buildings than in collaborating with residents themselves to design low-cost, efficient housing solutions for the urban working class, especially in the wake of natural disasters. It is a more productive path forward than planting shrubs on skyscrapers.
Wade Graham's latest book is "Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World." He is a landscape designer as well as a historian and adjunct professor of public policy at Pepperdine Unversity.
October 27th, 2015
Segment with Frances Anderton on KCRW 89.9 re remaking Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles:
By Wade Graham, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, September 27, 2015
It would seem to be just in the right place for a city park: a five-acre square in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, with the elegant front of the Biltmore Hotel on one side, the busy office towers of Bunker Hill on another, and the lofts, restaurants, and nightlife of our newly vibrant urban core on the others. It is clean enough, and well-enough patrolled, and it offers a children’s playground, a dog run, and benches and grass to sit on.
And yet it feels all wrong: the rows of standing pink stucco tubes the size of water heaters, the huge metal spheres placed here and there, and the strangely looming tower are inexplicable. A maze of proliferating walls chop its expanses of concrete into odd shapes, and block access from the surrounding streets. In spite of ample lighting, past sundown the square feels unsafe. Outside of weekday lunch hours, and weekend special events, it is mostly given to the homeless.
In the midst of downtown’s extraordinary revival, Pershing Square remains a perplexing failure.
It wasn’t always like this: Set aside in 1866 as La Plaza Abaja, “the lower plaza,” it was L.A.’s indispensible civic space for more than 80 years, with grass, palm trees and lush tropical vegetation. It was a place to meet, stroll, muster troops, and argue a cause, with its speaker’s corner like London’s Hyde Park. And, like New York’s grand urban refuge, it was even called Central Park for many years.
After the turn of the century the square was redone in the formal Beaux-Arts style by John Parkinson, the architect of City Hall a few blocks away. In 1918, it was renamed for John “Black Jack” Pershing, the victorious American general of World War I. His statue still stands, next to a monument to the 7th California infantry regiment that fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. From the 1920s to the ’60s, the square served as the center of what was known as “the run,” a gay cruising corridor along 5th Street, stocked with nearby drinking establishments.
Social disapproval of the run, along with the general perception that downtown was “blighted,” might have been a factor in the decision to prescribe the open-heart surgery of Urban Renewal for much of downtown, including Pershing Square and Bunker Hill.
In 1951, the park was ripped out to make way for a three-level, subterranean parking garage. Access ramps and stairwells replaced the greenery, but for a thin layer of turf atop the concrete. Some of the palms that were dug up were moved to brand-new Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise —a fittingly ironic fate, as, like Disneyland, the new square was part of the machine of suburbanization remaking Southern California, built around the private automobile.
Widened, one-way streets — like racetracks around the park — connected to the new regional freeway system, speeding white-collar workers from office towers that replaced bulldozed apartment buildings to their homes in suburbia. Once bustling at all hours, downtown became a ghost town after 5 and Pershing Square became the resort of drug dealers and the homeless.
Before the 1984 Olympics, an embarrassed city spent $1 million trying to clean it up, but the mostly cosmetic changes didn’t help much.
Nearly a decade later, in 1993, cash from the developer of Gas Company Tower, which rises kittycorner from the square on 5th Street, paid for a remake by the Mexican modernist architect Ricardo Legorretta, aided by landscape architect Laurie Olin and artist Barbara McCarren. They decided on the symbolism of the region’s old citrus empire: big oversized orange spheres and a little bosque of actual orange trees, a stylized earthquake fault, and the oversized tower, meant to symbolize the San Gabriel mountains from whence water flows to the city. Few visitors to the square have any idea what it means.
Now, another downtown developer, AEG, has put up $700,000 to study the problem of Pershing Square. According to the area’s City Council member, José Huizar, “Everything is on the table.” That’s good, because even without spending a dime on a study, it should be clear that no amount of landscape-architectural creativity can turn the roof of a parking structure into an integrated part of downtown’s urban fabric.
Parks work because they welcome people, not cars. The city’s Original Sin at Pershing Square was sacrificing public space on the altar of the automobile, cutting it off from the pedestrian life of the street grid in favor of parking lot access and confusing and off-putting walls and changes in grade. It is useful to remember that New York’s Central Park succeeds because its designers blocked most streets from the park, and placed the few major crossing streets below grade, out of sight. Walkers, cyclists, and even equestrians there experience a place scaled to people, mostly undisturbed by car traffic.
Any real attempt to return LA’s “lower plaza” to its former liveliness and relevance must first reverse the historic mistake of the parking garage. It would inconvenience a some drivers, yes, but it would also begin to redeem Los Angeles from its century-long car-and-asphalt binge.
A solution short of that would require putting the square’s car circulation on a radical diet, slowing streets and slimming ramps. Most important, it would mean removing the maze of walls that block the space from passerby’s eyes as well as their feet, signaling that the park is open and welcoming, its first priority to support the rich pedestrian civic life of downtown—not commuters.
Give Pershing Square back to the people.
January 9th, 2012
Wade Graham is a Los Angeles, California -based garden designer, historian, and writer whose work on the environment, landscape, urbanism and the arts has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and other publications. This year, he authored two distinct works about gardens – American Eden, a beautiful volume that takes a sweeping look at the history of America’s gardens and the visionaries behind them; and Jesus Is My Gardener, a little gem released as a Kindle Single that offers a consciousness-raising view of the laborers who tend today’s gardens. Here, introduced by some of his recent musings, is an excerpt from Wade Graham’s Jesus Is My Gardener.
By Wade Graham
I have often wondered what it is that I’m doing—what we are doing—when we make gardens. I wrote a book, American Eden, to explore that question and its flipside, what our gardens say about us. By us, I tended to mean the designers and owners of gardens. The book says too little about the third party at the garden party—the people who work in our gardens, who frequently build them and more often than not maintain them. It is remarkable how little we think about these others, our partners in the garden transaction. Because the business of gardens is a transaction, with economic, political, psychological, and ethical dimensions.
Who are these people? Where do they come from? They have always been there: Jefferson’s slave labor force at Monticello, the Irish and Italian laborers in the gardens of the Vanderbilts and Goulds, the Japanese who built the great California estates, and now, the Mexicans with their powertool-burdened pickup trucks. How do they experience their side of the garden transaction?
To get at the mechanics of this murky transaction we’re all parties to, I wanted to write about it from the third party’s point of view, as well as I could grasp it. I’ve spent time with the gardeners, as they call themselves, in my own garden and in those of my clients. We are all good people, well-intentioned; all of us have our own unresolved contradictions, even if not always as gaping as those who leave two Priuses in the (well-manicured) driveway while taking a private jet to Aspen for the weekend. And I’ve spent time with the gardeners, in their homes, at their celebrations: riding horses in a dry river bed, and barbequing chicken and chivos in a huge, dome-shaped wood-fired oven made from cinder blocks, chicken wire, and horse manure-reinforced adobe. We should all be invited to one another’s tables.
I don’t claim to have found the solution, or a template for perfect communication, much less trouble-free garden maintenance. But in telling some of the stories, I see a real possibility for a better transaction, for all parties, in the garden and out of it, and the possibility of knowing, at least some of the time, what it is that we are doing when we make and keep gardens.
People pay me to design paradise for them, however small: a private Eden with trees, flowers, maybe a small fountain with just enough water noise to “wash” off the city as the owner returns home, and some vista, no matter how small the allotted space, to beckon one inside. A garden need be little more than this to salve the soul. Here in Los Angeles, even just a few doors away from the lurid billboards and crawling traffic of the Sunset Strip, where some of my most successful clients live, one can step through a garden gate as if through a kind of navel into another world of miraculous tranquility, where one can almost imagine that the roar of the city is drowned out by birdsong and the breeze moving through the leaves.
But this calm is maintained by a storm, once a week: men dressed in green chinos and battered boots pile out of a dinged pickup, fire up machines, and fan out like soldiers, trimming hedges, mowing grass, sending clouds of smoke and green confetti flying. Mostly silent amid the racket, occasionally barking something in clipped Spanish, they move determinedly, sure in their well-practiced choreography, yet also swiftly, as though they know their time will soon be cut short. This is the agony in the garden. When the cutting is done, one man will strap onto his shoulders a leafblower, la sopladora, its one- cylinder motor whining like an angry, fifty-pound mosquito, gas sloshing in a dirty plastic tank on his back, and, by expertly swinging the plastic air tube in circular motions, will herd a rising column of clippings, leaves, trash, dust, and acrid blue exhaust ahead of him in a stutter-step waltz, as if he were backing an unruly animal into a corral.
In the eye of this cyclone stands Jesus, my gardener. Jesus comes from a small city in Zacatecas, where the state motto is “Labor vincit omnia,” work conquers all. He and his men, who he calls muchachos, many of them cousins or nephews, are—or once were—horsemen, having grown up on family ranchos. They still wear cowboy hats and put stickers of bucking broncos and horseshoes on their American pickup trucks, the metal steeds of an immigrant cavalry now earning its frijoles by keeping the yards of Los Angeles orderly, green, and clean.
Just as “everyone” now has a gardener, everyone has a nanny, a housecleaner, and a handyman—and almost all of them speak Spanish; most are Mexican. Each morning, they infiltrate entire districts of the city, and each evening they withdraw to their own—a rhythm as regular as the tide. As with the bees and birds that pollinate flowers, there can be no gardens without gardeners. After many years of experience, I know this with scientific certainty. Once upon a time, the districts where the garden owners and the gardeners lived were thought to be well removed from one another. They were never as distinct as some believed, and now they bleed into one another, mix and meld, as the demographic fabric of the region continues to change. Of California’s 36,961,664 people, as of 2010, 37 percent are Latino. Of Los Angeles County’s nearly 10 million (9,848,011), 48 percent are Latino.
“They still wear cowboy hats and put stickers of bucking broncos and horseshoes on their American pickup trucks, the metal steeds of an immigrant cavalry now earning its frijoles by keeping the yards of Los Angeles orderly, green, and clean.”
Somebody has to do the dirty work. If we don’t do it ourselves, then we have to be careful not to treat those who do as mere machines, leafblowers, because, along with the dead leaves, la sopladora blows away life, all in the service of a perfect, unchanging, Arcadian image. That image—the American landscape as we know it—was, as it happens, invented in a cemetery, Mt. Auburn in Massachusetts, in 1831, where horticultural entrepreneurs mated the aristocratic British estate garden of endless, laboriously tended lawns with the labor-saving lawnmower, invented that same year by Edward Budding in England, to be pushed more often than not by an Irish immigrant laborer—Pat O’Shovelem. The peaceful, green repose of Mt. Auburn may have seemed like the afterlife, the ultimate balsam, but it sent us toward the loss of connection to vitality—ours and the land’s.
I must confess that I’ve made bad gardens: though lush, expansive, and expensive, thoughtlessly destructive, requiring too much water, gasoline, chemicals, and labor, all for the illusion of fecundity, but giving nothing back. I resolved, not for the first time, to make better, more-conscious gardens, to relearn and rethink the vocabulary and purpose of the garden. Is it a series of symbols, of lawn and flowers, signifying productivity? Or is it a place of real productivity? A place where dead leaves aren’t a cause for mechanized war but might be tolerated, or even, like the Zen gardens of Japan, exalted, as are gingko leaves falling on gravel? Is there a way to reconcile our American ethics with our aesthetics, our convictions with our desires? I’m not sure, but I’ll make the effort to return some small amount of natural process, and agriculture when it fits, to our backyards and front yards, without them ceasing to be gardens and turning into vacant lots or, worse, in some people’s estimation, into farms. I start with a big advantage: We can grow the same things in this climate as in the garden of Gethsemane: olives, figs, and grapes, plus some new additions, in the same spirit—kumquats, limequats, loquats, guavas, persimmons, pomellos, Buddha’s hand citrons, kiwis, pineapples, artichokes, and always the indispensable, ever fruiting Mexican cocktail limes. In Spanish, the verb “to enjoy” is disfrutar, literally to pick the fruit, and eat it. And why not? ¿Porque no?
Published June 14th, 2011 by Wade Graham
When the second section of the High Line Park opened this month between 20th and 30th streets along the West Side, it marked roughly a century and a half since the opening of Central Park in 1857. There are obvious differences between the two: covering 700 acres, Central Park is a landscape-scale facsimile of an ideal countryside, built when there was still open land on the island of Manhattan, while the High Line is a mere ribbon–not even of land, but elevated railbed strung between buildings, the only vacant space left on which to make a landscape. Yet their underlying similarities reveal that the essential dynamics of property and money in New York City have changed very little in 150 years.
Like Central Park, the High Line proved an instant hit: when its first section opened in 2009, from Gansevoort to 20th streets, it was filled with people strolling, enjoying its plantings, carefully-curated to resemble the weeds once blown onto the abandoned freight tracks by the wind, without distracting from the views of the New Jersey skyline across the Hudson, of the buildings that jostle around and even over it, and mostly of one another.
And, like Central Park, the High Line is a testament and monument to the power of rising Manhattan real estate values. In 1853, when the New York State legislature paid more than $5 million for the land for the park, from which were forcibly evicted 1,600 or so poor homesteaders, mostly free blacks and Irish, from their shantytowns, it didn’t do it out of the goodness of its heart. Just as in the 20th and 21st centuries, New York City was forced to compete with outlying garden suburbs that beckoned well-to-do city dwellers with naturalistic landscaping, open space, and cheap commuter steamer and train service.
The legislature expected a return on its investment, and it got it: the park immediately became the fashionable place to be seen in one’s carriage, and adjacent property values skyrocketed, as the wealthy abandoned lower Park and Fifth avenues and moved uptown in droves. It was one of the most financially successful episodes of slum clearance in history.
This has long been the logic of urban parks: the blueprint was established in 1820 by Great Britain’s Prince Regent (later crowned George IV), who, with a keen eye for a good investment, hired the architect John Nash to subdivide one of his hunting parks near London into elegant terrace houses surrounding a picturesque park. Regent’s Park made the prince a mint, and it was followed by Holland Park, St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens, transforming London’s West End from marshy pastureland into the most sought-after address on the planet. Like a golf course at the center of a modern Sunbelt resort development, the parks were the amenities used to sell the bricks and mortar.
Ever since, a fine park has been the bellwether of residential fashion. Hitherto a byword for muggings and rapes, the renovation of Central Park in the late ’80s and ’90s by the private Central Park Conservancy signaled the restoration of New York City as a place the upper middle class and the truly rich could again be proud to call home, after the city’s nadir of near-bankruptcy and blackout in the 1970s. Replanting the grass and flowerbeds was a horticultural case of applying the “broken windows” theory of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, who argued for cleaning up the subways and fighting graffiti as a means of civic revival (and, after Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, of arresting “squeegee men”).
It is tempting to dismiss such costly park-making as gentrification. But the renewed flower beds are best understood as a marketing investment in the battle between central cities and suburbs for customers–tax-paying residents as well as tourists–a battle in which only recently have the cities begun posting a few victories.
The High Line is the jewel in the crown of a spectacular transformation of a section of Manhattan that was as recently as the mid-’90s known for transvestite hookers in stilettos traversing sidewalks coated in blood dripping from the meatpacking houses. Now, through the alchemy that turns industrial lead into postindustrial real estate gold, it is one of chicest urban scenes anywhere, packed with trendy galleries, restaurants, hotels, and supremely self-conscious condominium buildings by the world’s biggest name-brand architects. The High Line didn’t cause the changes–Chelsea and the West Village had been rapidly gentrifying for decades–but it ratifies them, and announces their ascendancy to the world, like the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Meeting its cost–$152 million, or an impressive $30,000 per lineal foot–required $44 million from corporate and private sources, many owning property nearby, including $10 million from Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg. Maintaining its intricate plantings and high-design fixtures will require more money, likely to be raised with a tax on area property owners. They will more than recoup their investment: a further rise in values is all-but inevitable, with big-time developers moving in, like the Whitney Museum and Related Companies with its gargantuan Hudson Yards development at the park’s northern end. The real estate gravy train has left the station.
And, like Central Park, which was intended by its designers to be “a specimen of God’s handiwork” in nature brought into the city to relieve the anxieties and stresses of urban life, the High Line is also about recalling the nature that the city has obliterated. Instead of bucolic scenes of lawns and lakes, the High Line’s studiously weedy plantings help 21st century New Yorkers, many of them new colonists to the central city, see themselves as akin to the scrappy flora that once recolonized the rusting rails, thriving in an optimistically romantic and yet still satisfyingly, if superficially, gritty setting. No less than Central Park before it, the High Line is a triumph of America’s urban culture, and proof of the old saw of real estate: it’s about location, location, location.
Published July 4th, 2010 by Wade Graham
This July 4th, Americans celebrate the 234rd birthday of the United States and the 184rd anniversary of the death of one of its founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. We revere the 3rd president for his statesmanship and for the ringing prose of the Declaration of Independence, which he authored. Less well-known is the fact that Jefferson was also America’s founding home and garden addict, a detail-obsessed improver who designed the perfect dwelling at Monticello, then endlessly remodeled it. He sank huge sums into landscaping his grounds in the latest styles and entertained a constant stream of guests with spreads of heirloom vegetables and fine French wine so lavish as to make Martha Stewart blush.
In doing so, Jefferson set the standard for the irresponsibly over leveraged American homeowner, mortgaged to the hilt to enjoy the good life. At his death on July 4, 1826, Jefferson was so deep in debt to foreign creditors that everything he owned—including his slaves—had to be sold off.
It’s hard to square such luxury and self-indulgence with the stern defender of the common man we know from history textbooks. As chief executive, he fought bitterly with Congress to cut the national debt. He famously disliked pomp and circumstance. once receiving a British ambassador who was in full military regalia, wearing only his dressing gown and slippers. It caused an international incident.
Yet Jefferson himself couldn’t resist the temptation of the finer things. As minister to France in the 1780s, he lived in a three-storey house on Paris’ Champs Elysées, with three suites, stables, a full-time gardener, maids, cooks, and a coachman. The rent on the whole lot cost more than his annual salary.
As president, he entertained like a power hostess, inviting even his enemies to his dinner table. He spared no expense. The White House wine bill alone was $10,000 in his first presidential term. Not even patriotism could keep him from splurging on a choice item, like the solid mahogany piano he had shipped from England in 1771 in defiance of the Continental Congress’ non-importation resolution against Britain.
He designed his splendid house while barely out of college, then, after his sojourn in Europe, decided to rebuild it, continuously. Monticello was a construction site for decades. He installed French three-part stacking windows, alcove beds, and a dumbwaiter sized specifically to lift wine bottles from the ellar to the parlor. He took down the second story and added a dome to complete the perfectly-proportioned façade that looks out at us from the nickel.
In the garden he banished unsightly wooden slave quarters to improve the view, laid out winding scenic drives, and built a charming pavilion with arched windows and topped with white painted Chinese railings. From his pavilion he could oversee the progress of his gardeners, who tended 150 fruit trees and up to 350 types of vegetables at one time, including some 50 varieties of peas, 44 varieties of beans, and upwards of 30 varieties of cabbages. It was an organic cornucopia to make Alice Waters green with envy.
This was Jefferson’s real project as a statesman retired to his farm—not farming, but building and rebuilding his dream of perfect elegance. To the extent that he could pay for it—through credit—cost was no object.
How could Jefferson reconcile his love of luxury with his democratic ideals? As a patriarch and landowner in a Virginia society that was profoundly pro-aristocratic, he was disinclined to renounce the refinement that advertised his status. In just the same way, the economic underpinnings of that status disinclined him from freeing his slaves—in spite of the fact that he was an early and harsh critic of slavery. His own penchant for the finer things didn’t stop him from denouncing the habits of luxury in others or of warning young Americans traveling to Europe not to spend too much time looking at European art and architecture because it distracted from the corruption of the rich and the poverty of the masses.
This seems like clear hypocrisy, but it also points to the deep ambivalence in the American mind between our professed ideals and our economic imperatives. We mistrust wealth, but we simultaneously worship it. Like Jefferson, we idealize the supposed simplicity of rural life, but like him we want our country weekend houses well-stocked with all the modern comforts. And, like him, we’re not willing to sacrifice what he called “the pursuit of happiness,” embodied in nothing so much as our national pursuit of real estate, to balance the checkbook.
We can recognize ourselves in Thomas Jefferson, because his contradictions, and his addictions, are our own.
Published March 5th, 2009 by Wade Graham
As for the actual remains, these palaces now become convents, condominiums, and asylums, surrounded by copies of Western European and Far Eastern landscapes grown up in briar and poison ivy, what is their ultimate value? They were built on the crassest piles of American loot, and the cultural history they reveal is one of frantic borrowing and adaptation of every available garden model. Yet running through their owners’ lives, and implied by every casino, pagoda, and tumbling rambler rose, is a more wistful sense of appropriation: a desire to re-enter the old garden of delight. – Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller, The Golden Age of American Gardens, 1991.
Looking back on growing up in Santa Barbara in the 1970s, I remember life as a kind of endless ramble through one big garden. I remember climbing in giant avocado trees in old orchards not yet subdivided, and I remember standing still, arms extended, in the 100-year-old Blue Gum grove on Eucalyptus Hill, covered in dribbling gobs of mating Monarch butterflies, and skateboarding by the Bird Refuge past banks of aloes blooming coral red at Christmastime. But the endless ramble also included more mysterious, hidden adventures, such as roaming through neighbors’ lots (today it would be called trespassing) and discovering secrets behind old stone walls and towering pittosporum hedges. There I found sagging pergolas draped in wisteria and ancient, untended bowers, benches covered in ivy, bits of colored tile glinting on old pavings, and a reflecting pool seemingly forgotten in a bright clearing in a dark grove of Araucarias and cedars.
I especially remember exploring the gardens at El Mirador with my best friend in sixth grade. With its lake, Japanese garden, 500-foot-long Italian formal garden lined with cypresses along a staircase set with water rills, and its subterranean grotto complete with glued-on stalactites and stalagmites, the old Armour family estate on Cold Spring Road was a magnet for our wandering. Mind you, we didn’t just go there for the gardens, but because of a woman. My friend’s father’s girlfriend rented an apartment in one of the houses on the property. She was an occasional substitute teacher at Montecito Union School, and to us she was unimaginably, irresistibly attractive. We would go all the way up there just for a glimpse, before she shooed us away like gnats. It was then that we would roam the grounds of El Mirador, which were rendered magical not only by their exotic, dilapidating follies, but by the afterglow of our encounter with a preteen obsession. It would be five years before Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” but was in fact the year their first album was released-and believe me, we knew the words to “Ice Cream Man” and “Jamie’s Cryin’.”
What does the ardor, however humid, of sixth-graders have to do with gardens? Perhaps it illustrates that even at this crude level, what grows in gardens is passion and desire. Ask a flower, which is, after all, a plant’s sex organ, doing everything it can to seduce a bee. Ask Adam and Eve. Or ask Thomas Jefferson, who spent much of his term as the new United States’ Minister to France in the summer of 1786 avoiding his official duties, to which he often sent an underling instead, in order to spend his days in gardens around Paris in the company of one Maria Cosway, a blonde, 27-year-old who was the Italian-born wife of a prominent English painter. In one garden, a frisky Jefferson vaulted over a fountain, and broke his right wrist, an injury that made writing difficult for the greatest prose poet in American history. But Jefferson’s passion for gardens never ebbed, and drove him for the next 40 years to make and remake his estate at Monticello, putting his family deep in debt, yet managing to create one of the most personal, complex, and continually surprising American gardens.
The great California horticulturist Charles Glass contributed many of Lotusland’s extraordinary succulents.
After the exhilaration of Maria Cosway and France, Jefferson sought his gardening destiny at home. But other distinguished American intellects continued to range abroad in search of horticultural bliss. In Italian Villas and Their Gardens, Edith Wharton wrote about an elusive “garden-magic” that she found in only the best Italian gardens. Astute as she was, Wharton found the quality hard to define. She knew it lodged somewhere in the interplay between nature and art, in the sequencing of spaces, or in the subtle architecture of transitions from the house, to the garden, to the wild or agrarian landscape beyond. In spite of her relentless analysis, Wharton never succeeded in boiling down garden magic to a set of rules of style. Italian gardens vary widely by region and era, yet garden magic might be visible in any of them, but not in all. That imponderable something that delighted her, which fed her passion for Italy and brought her back to the hunt over and over, was evanescent. The romance of Italian gardens has everything to do with age, with patina, and with the deep time of the Mediterranean that has transfixed English speakers for centuries.
As we enter the 21st century, the great gardens of Santa Barbara occupy a curious place in American culture, at once part of Thomas Jefferson’s monumental effort to build paradise here, on this continent, and of Edith Wharton’s endless search for Mediterranean garden magic. Indeed, for an American city, Santa Barbara has banked up a fair coating of patina, not all of it ersatz; occasionally it can even smell ancient. It seemed that way to me as a child when my family built a house on the subdivided grounds of the old Peabody estate, Solana. When we dug under the rank ivy that covered the yard, we found an elaborate series of stone-walled terraces and fountains cascading down the hill in consummate Italianate style. This kind of inadvertent garden archaeology is something that many Santa Barbarans will recognize.
But even Solana, a 1917 neoclassical temple built for an heir to the Arrow shirt fortune, was once new, blindingly white and naked before the landscape grew in around it and softened it. Worse, it might have once seemed garish in its ostentation, like an early 20th-century McMansion. In truth, every bit of built California no matter how seemingly august was concocted out of the residua of other places by immigrants bringing their baggage. In Santa Barbara, this began with the Mission itself, a baroque mirage from Spain erected on a frontier plain to impress the Chumash Indians into submission before its fluted pink columns. Architecture, and by extension, garden design, in America has until very recently always been imported from somewhere else, with the specific intention of wowing the less-savvy locals. Like Jefferson at Monticello, Americans have forever been searching for a useable past on which to construct a new identity. It is an ironic fact that we, so convinced of our exceptionalism, have never escaped the spell of other, older traditions, whether Italian, English, Japanese, or something else. Intoxicated with new styles from Europe that he invested with the liberatory promise of the Enlightenment, Jefferson paired a rigid and symmetrical pseudo-Roman architecture with the latest naturalistic English landscape garden, all flowing lines and poetic incidents-an odd pairing, but it stuck, and for 100 years became the national style. By the late 19th century, Americans had spread over the continent, and the neoclassical buildings that looked right in Virginia or New York didn’t sit so well in Idaho or Arizona or Southern California. A hunger for distinct regional identities resulted in a mishmash of regional styles: the Northeast settled for Italian Renaissance and English colonial, with gardens of box hedges and axial paths; the Midwest, newly flush with industrial money from railroads and meatpacking, tried to gin up a “Prairie” style, a variant of the English Arts &Crafts Movement, and matched it with landscapes expensively edited to look like innocent woods and meadows.
In California, Americans arrived in force just as the actual Indians and Mexicans had been brutally swept under the rug by the American pioneers, freeing the newcomers for a bout of guilt-free, romantic nostalgia. In Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson’s bestselling 1884 novel about persecuted Mission Indians, the crumbling missions themselves provided an iconography for what became the Mission Revival style, an architectural idiom that allowed California to set itself apart as a romantic, beguiling, warm idyll. People from less salubrious climes the world over bought the myth greedily and came in droves.
Prehistoric cycads are among the world’s rarest and most valuable plants.
Eventually, the Mission Revival grew tiresome: It was too bulky, low, thick, and plebeian for the aspirations of a new set of immigrants, this time patrician Easterners rich from banking and Midwesterners rich from meatpacking, who all came to winter in the sun. They needed a more exalted version of Mediterraneanism, and found it in the notion that California-similar in climate, terrain, ecology, and Latin history to the original-was America’s Riviera, and had to be made to look like it. So architects, landscape architects, and clients mounted a concerted, deliberate, and lavish effort to bring Italy and Spain to Southern California-nowhere more so than in Santa Barbara. The New York stockbroker-turned-gentleman-architect George Washington Smith traveled to Europe with his client Ralph Steedman, documenting Spanish models, then came home and built Casa del Herrero, with gardens by Lockwood de Forest, another genteel New York transplant, made up of a sequence of garden rooms linked by exquisitely tiled fountains and rills and lush with subtropical plantings. From Hope Ranch to Montecito, astonishingly well-executed versions of Mediterranean villas and gardens popped up, some spectacular in their scale, like Las Tejas, by Mrs. Oakleigh (Helen) Thorne; El Mirador; or La Toscana, an endless Roman fantasy villa, also by Smith and the Los Angeles landscape architect A.E. Hanson.
Santa Barbara wasn’t unique-a few sister cities embarked on the same project of making themselves Mediterranean paradises for the well-to-do at about the same time: Pasadena, Carmel, and
Holmby Hills in Los Angeles. Yet they followed her lead, and didn’t go all the way-not all the way to adopting a Spanish Colonial Revival architectural code as Santa Barbara did, at George Washington Smith’s urging, before and after the 1925 earthquake, guaranteeing that Smith’s austere, Andalusian-derived, unornamented version of the Hispanic metaphor now sets the city apart from the others. (And the rest of state went the way of progress, welcoming modern ideas, modern scale, modern machines, and modern expanses of developer ranch-burger houses and oceans of asphalt.)
In retrospect, Smith, Hanson, and the other talented historicists could with some justice be accused of being no more than skilled copyists. What they made was beautiful, and it often reeked of money-an occupational hazard when your clients are would-be modern Medici-but just like in Edith Wharton’s Italy, it might or might not be invested with the elusive quality of true garden magic. For some, re-creating Renaissance palazzi for nouveaux riches in the American West was an empty exercise, indulging the privileged in a fantasy world, and was ultimately frustrating as an aesthetic path to an American identity: dressing up as someone else, in an over-the-top Renaissance costume, when what we are looking for is ourselves.
Within the Mediterranean Revival tide of the early-20th century was another current, cutting deeper, in some ways concealed below the surface, and leading to something new. A key figure was the architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, credited with jumpstarting the Spanish Colonial Revival style with his ensemble of Mexican baroque buildings at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, but whose more interesting contributions started much earlier. From a wealthy New York family, like most of his clients, Goodhue spent the 1890s as a young partner of Ralph Adams Cram, the famous Boston architect who converted to Catholicism as a student in Rome and espoused medievalism as the answer to modern life. It was Cram who brought us the Collegiate Gothic of Princeton, Notre Dame, and countless other crocketed and gargoyled college campuses. He and Goodhue were also lovers, until the latter went out on his own. In 1898, Goodhue and J. Waldron Gillespie, a rich New Yorker invariably referred to as a bachelor, traveled together through Spain and Italy, then rode 400 miles on horseback through Persia, visiting ancient gardens during the day and returning at night to watch the play of moonlight and shadow. On their return, Goodhue immediately began planning El Fureidis on a piece of Montecito land that Gillespie owned. The first of many houses, El Fureidis was a mix of styles: Persian, Italian, Spanish, and Mexican, the whole simple and little-adorned, like Smith’s best work, but not beholden to one region-a new, Californian synthesis. The elegant gardens he designed, with foursquare pools, rills, fountains, and palms, were straight out of the Persian desert, but also belonged to the late Victorian Orientalist fascination with Saracens and Moguls, Sheiks and Pharaohs. It was, to be sure, movie magic (a silent costume drama was shot there in 1915), but no less magic for that. Historian Kevin Starr wrote of California in that era: “In a very real sense the entire society was a stage set, a visualization of dream and illusion, which was, like film, at once true and not true.” That building of dreams on the ground is what California was then all about, and what it struggles to remain about today: the ability to remake oneself and one’s vision of paradise within the forgiving, enabling embrace of a like-minded culture and a beneficent climate.
Gillespie sold a piece of land next to El Fureidis to his cousin Henry Dater, a businessman, who hired Goodhue to design a house, called Dias Felicitas, in 1915. For Dater, he made another mixed-Mediterranean house, with long terraces descending a hillside to a reflecting pool at the bottom, on a bench above Montecito Creek. Apparently Dater and his wife never used the place; author Robin Karson has suggested that he was “nonplussed by his cousin’s fervid love life.” Instead, he rented it to Goodhue until his death in 1924, when it was sold to Charles Ludington, a wealthy New York art collector, who died two years later, leaving it to his son, Wright Ludington, who happened to be a cousin of “Lock” de Forest, with whom he had done a European Grand Tour, studying buildings and gardens. The two immediately set about remaking the estate, which Wright renamed Val Verde (“Green Valley”). De Forest added outbuildings and a parking court and slowly began transforming the gardens: running low-walled paths through woods that he thickened with oaks, leading to “keyhole” rooms-round, walled enclosures where two paths met at angles. He replaced the lawns that flanked the house with shallow pools framed by lemons and olives and dominated by classical statues. Statuary was everywhere, and pieces of bas-relief, all from Wright’s serious and expanding collection of antiquities.
On the top terrace, de Forrest built a massive colonnade, antiqued with different colors of paint and made simultaneously grand and eerie by the fact that they had no pergola on top. He complicated Goodhue’s staid grass terraces with hedges of box and black acacia, and balanced dark oaks with silvery olives to give a play of chiaroscuro to the whole. He turned an unused water tower into a study and built a colonnaded courtyard for more Roman art, and turned the old reservoirs outside into pools. Paths and allees knit it all together into a stage set for Ludington’s lifestyle, which bears describing: Hollywood actors, set designers, and musicians mingled with the odd European royal at lavish, louche parties. Ludington liked the idea of himself as a Roman emperor holding court, Hadrian in his villa: He threw toga parties no doubt, with young men in the baths (there are pictures to prove it) and liaisons in the garden, one can only assume. The garden seems quite clearly made to induce love: the keyhole rooms beckoning through traceries of oak branches, hedges and columns offering tentative sightlines and privacy for moonlit walks down the garden path. One may approve or disapprove of such goings-on, but must allow that the garden is perfectly of its place and time, based in traditional forms but modern in its eccentricity, and perfectly fit to the mind of its owner.
What de Forest did at Val Verde and in his other gardens owes much to Santa Barbara’s tradition of exuberant, world-embracing horticulture: an outright obsession, amounting to a love affair with plants. From the 19th century onward, a fraternity of nurserymen, imports themselves-Peter Riedel from Holland, E.O. Orpet and Kinton Stevens from England, Dr. Francesco Franceschi from Italy-imported hundreds upon hundreds of plants from the four corners of the globe, giving the town the character of a slightly surreal botanical wonderland, with probably more species than anywhere else on Earth. And this love of plants and flowers has managed a nice miracle: buffing off the hardest edges of even the most combative Modernist interventions and rooting them into the common landscape. Richard Neutra’s Tremaine house of 1948, built up Cold Spring not far from El Mirador, is a prime example: de Forest helped site it, focusing north on a view of mountain peaks, as he always did if he had the chance. When he died before the garden was finished, Ralph Stevens, son of the nurseryman Kinton Stevens, laid out a carpet of wild and woolly succulents, with textures and colors so unbridled they could be described equally well as psychedelic or Victorian. The effect is to make a rather clinical box of a modern house into a sensual garden pavilion-and to effortlessly bridge that sharp historical polarity.
At about the same time, just down the street from Neutra’s masterpiece and up the road from Val Verde, de Forrest was engaged with Madame Ganna Walska at Lotusland, remaking an estate grounds originally settled by Kinton Stevens in the 1890s, who peppered it with stands of palms, araucarias, and dragon trees. Walska, a Polish-born ingenue and sometime opera singer, with great beauty and apparent seductive force, had lived a novelistic life moving between St. Petersburg, Russia, Paris, New York, Chicago, and eventually Montecito, first collecting men-six husbands, most of them rich-before settling down and collecting plants and making gardens. To the formal gardens laid out by Paul Thiene around the Spanish house by Reginald Johnson, Madame Walska added unique, themed gardens throughout several decades, some organized around collections of exotic plants like cycads or bromeliads, some around a quality, like the color blue. She brought to her work a true passion (likely more than she ever allowed her husbands), amassing rare things and staging them in whimsical, theatrical, often bizarre ways-like the hedge theater populated by garden gnomes. Along the way, she collaborated with a series of men to help her with parts of the garden. With several of them she had to ask, cajole, or demand participation, and her working relationships with them were often fraught with dramas of resistance and acquiescence; each garden space had its own partnership, which ended when the project was done-just like a love affair, I would suggest.
Intricate stone work lines the various paths of Lotusland.
Walking through Lotusland is remarkably like walking through the insides of someone’s head, each garden room a fantasy or a dream, a mental space. Unlike most Santa Barbara gardens, which fetishize the views of distant peaks, Walska’s look down or in, not up, as she carefully framed not mountains but intricate, surreal compositions of light and color and textures of plants and stones. The sum is beyond category, in the sense that it transcends canons of style or period and rejects anxieties of influence, borrows from many sources, and recombines them into something utterly new, because each moment is utterly passionate and personal. The result is garden magic; it suffuses the place. Here, in a garden made by a Polish immigrant in a long-running opera of self-creation, is a fully formed, completely American style: free, individuated, and intelligent, relentless in its gathering of bits of everything in the world, botanical and cultural, immersed in history but ultimately free of it, garden magic untethered.