By ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE
If you can tear yourself away from people-watching at the new Museum of Modern Art -- one of the more colorful activities available in this greatly enlarged, coolly impersonal artplex -- there are two architecture shows that bring its pristine remoteness down to earth where we ordinary mortals dwell.
Both are exhibitions of landscape design, and both deal with the shared open spaces that planners call the public realm. They feature the parks, plazas and promenades traditionally understood as part of the public sector, and a striking and important new development -- the reclamation of derelict land, polluted "brownfields," disused rail lines and yards and obsolete industrial sites, even refuse dumps and sanitary landfill, and the transformation of these difficult, degraded areas into useful and beautiful places. This is the kind of stunning, positive development that makes you believe that art can still be a generous and redeeming public act.
Both exhibitions have been organized by the museum's Department of Architecture and Design. "Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape," a show that has been 10 years in the making by Peter Reed, the department's curator, working with curatorial assistant Irene Shum, is an international survey of 23 eye-opening projects on view since the end of February that can still be seen until May 16. "The High Line" is the first public display of the proposed design for the abandoned, mile-and-a-half-long elevated rail line running from Gansevoort to 34th streets between 10th and 11th avenues on Manhattan's far West Side that would reinvent it as a linear park and promenade. Prepared by Tina di Carlo, an assistant curator in the department, this show has just opened and will run until Oct. 31.
"Groundswell" is an overview of some spectacular new landscape and urban design work being done around the world. "The High Line" -- a project initiated by a private group, the Friends of the High Line, which has already enlisted state and city support and funding -- brings us home to New York and a proposal that ranks with the best of them. This imaginative and sensitive scheme is so well conceived and its design development is being so well orchestrated, in everything from its excellent Web site to its practical execution, that it serves as an object lesson for a preservation movement increasingly mired in sentimentality, amateurism and political infighting as judgment is defaulted through lack of appropriate critical standards for modernist buildings coming of age. The High Line's outstanding team draws on the best of the city's talented design resources; led by the architectural firm of Diller, Scofidio and Renfrew and landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations, it includes the horticulturist Piet Oudulf, artist Olafur Eliasson and the structural-engineering firm of Buro Happold. This is an all-too-rare instance of real vision being implemented by real talent and professional expertise.
The design on display at MoMA is a study for the first phase of the route, from Gansevoort Street to 15th Street. A long, slender model of the rail line slung like a hammock in the gallery shows a miniature linear landscape of boardwalks meandering among trees, meadow grasses, flowering shrubs, wetlands and wild flowers, with overlooks, sundecks and gathering places, all 30 feet above the ground.
Presentation boards on the walls supply a detailed analysis of the transformation and its technical and horticultural elements, but the purpose is clearly to keep the spirit of the serendipitous and secret wild garden that the abandoned rail line has become as nature has taken over.
The structure is off limits to the public now, but a series of beautiful photographs by Joel Sternberg show a delicate sweep of wild flowers and swathe of native grasses, bordered by views of the Hudson River and the historic industrial buildings currently being invaded by trendy new construction downtown. The design seeks to retain a sense of this unexpected greenway with the need to translate it into a unique public urban asset. What a gift to New Yorkers this park-promenade would be!
In one of those totally unpredictable shifts in sensibility that occur when least expected, it is the landscape architects who are re-engaging today's radically innovative aesthetic with human needs and social functions; this is where the essential connections with the human condition are being made. And just in time, as architects, seduced by celebrity and technology, engaged in a dead-end contest in egos and engineering, have become more fixated on object making than place making, more removed from the intrinsic social purposes of their art.
The examples in the "Groundswell" show are innovative, varied and aesthetically rich. Ranging from the strikingly unorthodox to the classically minimalist, using traditional and unconventional materials, the designs combine nature and artifice with a vision that is totally new. Much of the emphasis is on an ecological mix of restored wetlands and native and wild plantings rather than on familiar, cultivated greensward.
With references to a past long lost or paved over, these landscapes can also be read as texts of older histories and conditions. In the "rust belt" of Germany's Ruhr region, Peter Latz and Partners have treated the blast furnaces, empty coke and ore bunkers and old rail lines of obsolete industries as sculpture and landforms in their design for the Duisberg-Nord Park. Industrial artifacts coexist with flowering fruit trees for an extraordinary landscape of rebirth and recall.
The city of Barcelona began its successful program of urban improvements with the creation of small parks, each using a different alliance of architects, landscape architects and artists. In Tokyo, the American landscape architect Peter Walker has created a serene roofscape on top of an office building; uniformly spaced trees, seating and lighting echo the modular proportions of the severely modernist structure. This formal symmetry appears again in his design for the landscaping of the memorial plaza of the World Trade Center site. In contrast to Mr. Walker's reductive minimalism, Kathryn Gustafson employs long lines of natural plantings of wildflowers and grasses based on the topography of her Lurie Garden site in Chicago's new Millennium Park.
Traditional landscapes have been joined by "hardscapes" that rely on the color and texture of their materials and may have no plantings at all. There is nothing conventional about Theater Square, a paved plaza over an underground parking garage in Rotterdam, Netherlands, by Adriaan Geuze of the Dutch firm West 8 Architecture and Urban Design BV. Perforated metal and herringbone-patterned wood decking, fountains in steel gratings that send up beaded jets of water, giant lamp standards moving in a kind of motorized ballet to suggest the huge cranes used for unloading container ships in the city's harbor -- all are part of a playful dynamic in a lively, hard-edged public space unlike any we have seen before.
And then there are "lifescapes," which is what James Corner of Field Operations calls his plan for the reclamation of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, an area nearly three times the size of Central Park that had been closed after 50 years of waste collection and was reopened for the tragic wreckage of the World Trade Center.
A staged, 30-year program would cap, contain and treat mounds of waste as high as 225 feet, turning them into an undulating landscape, gradually converting 150 tons of waste into an ecologically diverse park with recreational and cultural activities. Pre-existing wetlands, trees and waterways would be restored and new venues developed for sports and passive pleasures. This is surely the most dramatic example of the creative rebirth of a physically and symbolically devastated site.
It should be noted that nowhere, in any of these schemes, do we find the hokey lighting fixtures, phony artifacts, spurious Victoriana and redundant cobblestones that have become the trademark landscaping clichés of the faux-historic park restorations favored in this country and inflicted indiscriminately on both old and new communities, from historic New England to New York's City Hall Park.
Landscape architecture has come a long way from its theme-park and garden-club associations, and the design of public space is defining a new architectural frontier. The competitive infatuation with "signature" skyscrapers may continue to get the publicity, but some of the best young talents are staking their claims and reputations on the ground.
Ms. Huxtable is the Journal's architecture critic.