Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007

Walk on the Wild Side

Seattle's new Olympic Sculpture Park occupies a sloping nine-acre site that reaches down to the water's edge along Elliott Bay. It has views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. It has wild grasses, quaking aspens and a salmon habitat on the shoreline. It has a fountain by Louise Bourgeois, an Alexander Calder, a couple of Mark di Suveros and one of Richard Serra's virtuoso exercises in rusted steel. It also has freight trains.

What I mean is, every half an hour or so, a clanging, whistling length of rolling stock rumbles through on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that slice the park lengthwise along its shoreline side. And just up from those tracks, running parallel to them, the park is cut again by the four lanes of Elliott Avenue, one of Seattle's major arteries. Together they split the slope into three long stretches connected by a land bridge over the roadway and a steel span crossing the tracks. So this isn't just a park in the city. It's a park with the city in it.

Talk about the machine in the garden. Thoreau once famously complained that even in the woodland isolation of Walden Pond, there was no place he could escape the sound of the train whistle. Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, who designed the Olympic Sculpture Park for the Seattle Art Museum, have made their peace with that. "We thought the trains were amazing," says Weiss. "We wanted the park's pathways to slalom down and capture the energy of those trains." So the Z-shaped pathway that Weiss and Manfredi came up with is intended to praise the forces that shape Seattle, not to bury them. The team's $65 million park isn't just a respite from the city and its environs but a summation of them, an abbreviation for the place in all its aspects--its mountains and its woodlands but also its pipework and its concrete, its airport runways and its boxcars.

This is the direction that some of the most interesting new parks in the world are taking. In their search for usable parkland, densely developed cities in the U.S. and Europe are combing through their brownfields, disused and sometimes contaminated industrial sites. The Olympic Sculpture Park, for instance, is located on the former site of a fuel-storage and -transfer facility, which is why nearly all the original soil had to be dug out and carted away. And the City of New York is planning a huge and inventive new park atop Fresh Kills, the massive landfill--meaning garbage dump--on Staten Island where much of the debris from the Twin Towers was hauled after 9/11.

These are pretty challenging sites, but architects and landscape designers are treating them as opportunities to rethink what a park should look like and what it can say. Seattle was already a pioneer in this area by 1975, when the city opened its 20-acre Gas Works Park on the site of an abandoned plant that had once extracted gas from coal. Instead of tearing down the industrial buildings, the city refurbished and repurposed them as play barns and picnic sheds. But while the Gas Works Park includes a big rusted factory, the surrounding greenery doesn't much engage the thing, which stands more or less on its own on a grassy plain.

Five years ago, the city of Duisburg, Germany, vastly upped the ante when it completed its huge Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, a 570-acre site occupied by massive relics of the former Thyssen Steelworks. Blast furnaces, rail lines, gas tanks--corroded ruins of the industrial age--were reborn as archaeological monuments among newly planted groves and grasslands. And the designer, Peter Latz, didn't hesitate to directly invade the factory precincts with trees and smaller plantings, playgrounds and rock-climbing walls. By that means the derelict factory was woven back into the world of the living. The past, instead of operating as a burden--something the Germans know all about--becomes the very opposite, a plaything for the present. If history starts looking like a cage, who says you can't use it for monkey bars?

The story of landscape design has been a centuries-long argument between the "natural" and the "man-made." It's important to remember that these are just two different ways of saying man-made, with the difference being that the would-be natural parks try hard to disguise how man-made they are. To put the argument in familiar and somewhat simplified historical terms, on one side are the supremely rational (and unashamedly artificial) boulevards of André Le Nôtre's design for the Gardens of Versailles, with their long Baroque vistas and knife-edge perpendiculars. On the other side are the parks and estates of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the 18th century English landscape designer whose gently (and shrewdly) idealized version of nature, with its faux-pastoral scenic effects, all those rolling mounds and little groves, was an important inspiration for Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City.

We live in a Le Nôtre moment, when the most intrepid designers give us parks that are plainly man-made arrangements. And in the same spirit these places make no pretense to timelessness, a tempting fantasy when we think about nature but a hopeless ambition in landscape design, which is always a product of its time. So the Weiss/Manfredi design for the Seattle park, with its pulsing tectonics and dynamic lines, is clearly a product of late 20th--early 21st century thinking, the era of Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind and their thunderbolt architecture.

Keep in mind too that for some time one of the key words in design has been palimpsest. It originally referred to a manuscript or parchment that has been written on more than once, so that the earlier writing has been scraped away but still sometimes remains faintly visible. Translated into design terms, palimpsest stands for the idea that, given a chance, the history of a place can and will rise from its grave. It's the notion, for instance, behind a persistent argument in Berlin, where architects, city planners and ordinary citizens periodically squabble over how much of the footprint of the Berlin Wall should be remembered along the streets of the quickly redeveloping united city. And it's an idea fundamental to the High Line park being developed in New York City.

The High Line is a 1.5-mile elevated railway track that served for decades as a way to bring freight into lower Manhattan. By 1980 the trains had stopped running and the tracks were sliding into decades of spectacular decay that was also a kind of blossoming. Nature re-established itself. Saplings and wind-sown grasses sprouted in rail beds where the homeless built campfires at night. Whole stretches made you think of the Appian Way after the fall of the Roman Empire, the almost phosphorescent decrepitude of a vanished civilization made even stranger by the fact that an intact, modern city was churning away all around it. But in the '90s, as real estate values on the streets below started rising, developers began to clamor for the tracks to be demolished to make way for their perennial notion of utopia, which consists almost entirely of luxury apartments.

And this would have happened if a community group, the Friends of the High Line, had not pushed for a more imaginative alternative. Incredibly, they prevailed, or at least have so far. Last year saw the groundbreaking for a park conceived through a collaboration between the artist-architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the landscape designer James Corner of Field Operations, which is also the firm behind the landfill park at Fresh Kills. Their plan calls for stretches of the High Line to be planted in ways meant to recall the self-seeded trees and grasses that sprouted there in the past. That's to remind visitors of the processes of decay and renewal basic to the metabolism of any city. And because this quasi-natural environment will be held within the compartment of an indisputably man-made railway, the High Line will also be an ingenious contribution to that historic dialogue between the natural and the manufactured.

Corner says he hopes the completed High Line, still a work in progress that's currently budgeted at $94 million, "will have the attributes of something strange and otherworldly, something 'found,' but nothing that could be said to be a ruin." If anything, its future now looks so promising that developers are rushing in with proposals for luxury condos along its route, and the Whitney Museum of American Art is planning a sizable new facility there for contemporary art.

Which brings us back to the Olympic Sculpture Park. With its clever switchback paths, the Weiss/Manfredi design capitalizes on the park's magnificent views by constantly bringing you back around to them in different ways. All the while it draws those views into a complex fabric of references to the city. So by narrowing and widening the routes, for instance, the designers create false perspectives that recall airport landing paths, an illusion they've underlined along one stretch with a string of low-rise "runway" lights. This is a park that doesn't try to separate nature and civilization. What it does instead is lead you to reflect on how they penetrate each other just about everywhere you go. Maybe somebody should have told Thoreau that if he couldn't get away from the sound of that train whistle, the thing to do was just whistle along with it.