Over three decades of professional practice and advocacy, Charles Birnbaum has tread a unique path to becoming the United States’ foremost advocate for informed and responsible stewardship of our shared legacy of historic and cultural landscapes. It’s no coincidence that the “ascendency” of the field of landscape architecture has coincided with his work. As the Founder and President of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and coordinator of the National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative (HLI), he’s been integral to landscape architecture’s rising profile among the historic preservation and design community, as well as the public-at-large.
In an interview with managing editor Jonathan Nettler conducted earlier this year, Birnbaum discussed the challenges with preserving and managing significant landscapes of the Modern era, lifting the veil on the field’s key contributors, and the most important way in which arguing for the preservation of landscapes differs from buildings.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Planetizen: I’d like to start with a topic that you touched upon in a recent article by Alex Ulam in The Architects Newspaper— the challenge of “softening modernism's hard edge.“
I wonder if you could talk about some of the challenges with preserving modernist landscapes in an era in which tastes have clearly changed. Is the preferred approach to preserve those landscapes in whole? To adapt them? How to you toe the line between preservation and adaptation?
Birnbaum: All landscapes have a carrying capacity for change. I think the question becomes, when does the landscape hit the tipping point.
One of the book series we’re publishing is called Modern Landscapes: Transitions and Transformations. Unfortunately, the first one in this series on Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park, is not a happy story. It was largely demolished. The second one, now in production, is for Mellon Square in Pittsburgh, and we are also working on manuscripts for the adventure playgrounds in Central Park, which of course have to be adapted to meet current safety needs. We are also considering Baldwin Hills Village in Los Angeles, or Village Green as it's now called, and the landscape associated with Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT.
With all of the projects we’re involved in, we look at how to bring back a historic designed landscape, but also respect current sustainability and environmental goals. In order to do that, you have to understand the DNA of that landscape. So in the case of a place like Boston City Hall or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, which are unique examples of what might be referred to as Modernist twists of an Italian piazza, how do you guide change in these two rare extant examples in such a way that it doesn't completely compromise the landscape’s historic design intent? These should not be an either or – preserve or tabula rasa, but should aim for sympathetic change.
To give a case in point, something that we've been very involved in is Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis – which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year. The Orchestra Hall (designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer) has been re-skinned. It's now a glass building that will create transparency and energize the street—all the things that similar buildings are doing in cities, hence the style’s popularity. My philosophy is that when you are in close proximity to that building now, because it's different, that has a different carrying capacity for change than perhaps the iconic signature fountains that were part of M. Paul Freidberg's design, or the fact that the plaza is sunken below grade, which is character defining. So within that, how do you adapt?
If you are a by-the-book preservation professional you might say: "We can't change the elevation of the sunken pool or get rid of any historic fabric such as the brick pavers." I would argue that you can raise the ground plane somewhat, so you are still below grade. You're still satisfying the historic design intent of not being on the street level, but you could also then create a more dignified accessibility solution because the plaza was originally designed before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each landscape has to be looked at individually to understand the design intent, to understand the carrying capacity, and that's my litmus test.
There are two factors that should be considered in managing change in a cultural landscape: the physical context or setting (e.g., the relationship between the City Hall Building and City Hall Plaza in Boston and/or the “borrowed” view from the Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River), and the historical context (was that the first biomorphic-shaped swimming pool? How does a landscape fit within Dan Kiley's professional career?). So we have to stack up these landscapes and compare them with each other – it’s like Russian nesting dolls.
In the case of Lincoln Center, a lot of people may not notice, but the reflecting pool's size has been altered. Its original sizing was a result of Henry Moore siting the context for his sculpture himself. Henry Moore came to North America and guided the siting of that sculpture and its relationship to the reflecting pool – which has now changed.In the same way that there was this public discourse about Kiley's role, there was no discourse about the role of Henry Moore and the change of that basin.
Planetizen: That brings up one of the issues you’ve actively explored in your work—intent, you've been very active in pointing to the original architect or landscape architect's own thoughts. Sometimes, these ideas may be at loggerheads with what a preservationist might think is best for a place. How much do you think the original designer's opinions should be viewed within the context of preservation?
Birnbaum: The idea of consulting with the original designers was something that grew out of a conference TCLF did in 1995 at Wave Hill. It was the first of two conferences on preserving modern landscape architecture. I remember interviewing Larry Halprin at that time because the Skyline Park controversy was picking up. Some of his landscapes were already at risk (e.g. Seattle’s Freeway Park) or had been lost (e.g. the Burr Sculpture Court in Hartford) and we'd seen the same with Kiley's designs. Initially, Larry said, "I don't have any favorites. They're like my daughters, sometimes they act out and they're a problem, other times they're good."
But at the time, he, like Paul Friedberg, was not nostalgic about these places. When people from other cities said to Larry that a landscape he designed was broken, he wouldn't question it and would just move on. Part of the reason is that people like Halprin, who had three iconic projects open when he was 89 years old, are always looking forward. Paul Friedberg is 81 and still working internationally. In fact, since Larry did not retire and was still practicing late in his life, his career could not be “bracketed” – the result is that none of his designs were listed on the National Register until after his death in 2009.
Planetizen: And I presume they leave it up to others to define their legacy and their place in history?
Birnbaum: To some extent. Larry wrote prolifically, so we're blessed in terms of understanding his design approach. Paul also published quite a lot, he's now writing an autobiography; Larry's was published posthumously. What's been interesting for people like Friedberg is that they've seen proposals come about that they feel are no better than what they did, and that makes them angry. To some extent, they've become engaged because of not being asked.
Rich Haag’s tenacious “won’t take no for an answer” approach is a delicious response to this dilemma. Haag couldn't get a seat at the table with Seattle’s Gas Works Park, where some changes had been made or were proposed – his response, he helped to found the Friends of Gas Works Park. It became a vehicle to engage park users and also supports a renegade advocacy organization. This past January the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That didn't happen overnight, it was more than a decade in the works.
Back at the Wave Hill Conference, I had come up with eight or nine steps and one of them was to consult with the original designer. We were fortunate that these landscape architects were long-lived, and my theory was: let's take advantage of it and chronicle their stories in their own voices. Our oral histories project started that simply. We started with Larry (that was a five-year process). Then we started putting in place a much more structured template for doing four- to six-day interviews to capture a designer’s biographical narrative, design philosophy and seminal works. We've completed eight of nine to date including Friedberg, James van Sweden and Cornelia Oberlander. This fall we’ll complete one with Laurie Olin. These oral histories, their related transcripts, and personal recollections by colleagues and peers are enormously helpful for those undertaking scholarly endeavors as well as those working on rehabilitation and renewal projects of their work.
Planetizen: Last year, Alan Brake wrote of the ascendency of landscape architecture. How do you see this intersecting with your efforts to raise awareness of the history of the field and preserve significant landscapes?
Birnbaum: When I gave my opening lecture at the Second Wave of Modernism II conference in 2011, I started out with images with huge text that said: "Pete", "Martha", "Ken", "Doug", "Mia", "Raymond", and so on. Everyone in the room knew whom I was talking about. It's no longer just "Zaha" and "Rem". The visibility of landscape architecture is obviously changing. The fact that The New York Times actually knows how to spell “Olmsted” and to call a landscape architect a “landscape architect” is important. So in terms of a foundational thing, to some extent, it's been baby steps to go beyond Olmsted and to lift the veil.
So how has it affected the preservation movement? First of all, National Register designations are increasing for works of landscape architecture. There were four designations that happened in January (Peavey Plaza and Gas Works Park in addition to the Halprin Chain of Open Spaces in Portland, which were all listed on the National Register, and Fletcher Steele’s Camden Amphitheatre in Maine, which became a National Historic Landmark). Perhaps most astonishing, in the case of Haag and Friedberg, the landscape architects are still living. Now that may not sound like a big deal. But ten years ago, when Rich Haag was about 80, Gas Works was denied Register status. So part of the change is, not just that these people are older, but that the National Register program has matured to go beyond the antiquated 50 year rule and recognize the seminal significance of landscapes that were created in the 1970s. In the case of Gas Works, they recognized the significance of the bio-remuneration of the site, and in the case of Peavey, as the progenitor of the “park plaza” typology.
The other thing that's happened with the Register is that we've lifted the veil on the Olmsted firm. So you now see designations involving partners in the office like James Frederick Dawson, who worked in Seattle and Los Angeles, and Carl Rust Parker who was working in Maine. We are recognizing that Olmsted was one man with two sons, and along with many partners and associates their professional output spanned a hundred years.
This also illustrates another aspect of what we're doing at the foundation: In addition to the oral histories, we're lifting the veil on all of these people that contribute to professional offices through our pioneer's work. Our next volume, for example, will include seminal individuals that worked in Dan Kiley's office – all of whom are still living. Joe Karr, who was a major player in Chicagoland and managed the Art Institute and the Central District Filtration Plant project will be featured. Peter Ker Walker is another one. In the case of Hideo Sasaki, key principals include Stu Dawson, who worked on John Deere for multiple decades. In the case of Halprin's office, we’ll feature Jean Walton, who was the first woman principal and was the go-to "plant woman". So, in addition to significant “pioneers” such as Haplrin and Kiley, we're going deeper and developing a more nuanced understanding of who did what, where and when.
Planetizen: Is this rising awareness of landscape architecture bringing new interest in the history of the field? Are you finding collaborators and partners that you wouldn't have expected in the past?
Birnbaum: I would say that my strategy, or my personal philosophy, has been to speak to multiple audiences. I always remind people that in the U.S., gardening and golf are the country’s favorite hobbies – if you google these terms they yield greater numbers than “architect.” I had this epiphany yesterday, as I sat in a lecture, where a colleague who was presenting the Sydney Opera House preservation efforts said, "You need to make love to this building - you have to love it". And I thought: "Make love, not worse.”
Because gardening and golf are in everyone's DNA, it's different to love a landscape than it is to love a building. So on one hand, we're doing all this scholarship to say: "Okay, here's the context, here's who these people are, here's how we make the hand and the artistry of landscape architecture visible to professionals." But we're also engaging the public – through our Web site and our free community-based events (such as What’s Out There Weekends).
I often talk about “Publish or Perish”. We've seen in publishing that coffee-table books that reflect our love of artists - visual artists, sculptors, painters, and architects - make a difference.
Case in point: 17 years ago, Judith Tankard wrote a book called, The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman. When she published this book, I remember seeing everyone with a Shipman landscape come out of the woodwork. "Shipmania" swept through Grosse Pointe, Michigan. With TCLF’s "What's Out There" project, we’ve found that if you can make a designer’s hand visible, people will translate that value. So, the more that we make these people and their intent visible - both the people who are practicing today, like Mark Rios and Raymond Jungles, as well as the people behind the Olmsted or the Halprin firm veil, or other historical figures who are important in a local community - then people can begin to understand, go deeper and value their contributions.
Planetizen: You are framing this as a very person-driven pursuit.
Birnbaum: In terms of the designed landscape, yes. People like a good story. The reality is a lot of these stories are really powerful because people now want to study landscape architecture due to the work of the people we were talking about. When they see Ken Smith's roof garden at MoMA, which is completely artificial, they observe: "that's the work of a landscape architect." The designers of the High Line (James Corner Field Operations) or Brooklyn Bridge Park (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) have become bold name personalities. I think that many people today become landscape architects because they think: "I want to do that".
Planetizen: I wonder if, because modernist landscapes are tough to love, making that personal connection to the hand of the designer is more important for recognizing the value of those places.
Birnbaum: It also goes back to teaching people how to see. At the Wave Hill conference I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, I delivered an address, "Sharp Angles or Curves, You Decide." The inspiration for this was a survey done by two Russian immigrant artists at Berkeley. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid surveyed 1,001 Americans and asked them what they liked about art. Then they painted the results.
For example, an overwhelming majority of Americans in the survey said they like blue and green. They preferred their colors blended, not separate. They wanted their art to be "realistic", not "abstract or different looking" and, overwhelmingly, they wanted curves and not sharp angles.
When I would lecture about this, I would show the painting that they created - which looked like a Hudson River scene with George Washington in a contrapposto position, a few deer, and dappled light. To illustrate this through built landscapes, I would show Lyndhurst (the National Trust’s first property) or Central Park (an Olmsted landscape). The painting that people didn't like had cool grays, sharp angles and yellow ochres, and I would show it next to an aerial view of the now-demolished Copley Square by Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay – the two with their cool grey abstract forms almost looked identical.
So the way you have to teach people to see modern art, you have to teach them to see modern architecture and landscape architecture. It's like any other discipline; you have to build the appreciation.
TCLF’s next What’s Out There Weekend will take place in Los Angeles on October 26th and 27th. The weekend will feature free, expert-led tours at more than two-dozen significant examples of designed landscapes in greater Los Angeles.