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Posts Tagged ‘Dan Kiley’

As regular readers will know, I am a great fan of the work of the US designer Dan Kiley. His spare, modern parks and gardens arguably made him the finest and most influential landscape architect of twentieth century America.

So I’m delighted to be contributing to two events this autumn that celebrate his work.

A 1970 photograph of Kiley's modernist North Court, from www.lincolncenter.org

A 1970 photograph of Kiley’s modernist North Court, from http://www.lincolncenter.org

In October I will be speaking at an ICOMOS conference in Chandigarh called “Filling the Gaps: World Heritage and the 20th Century.” At a session dedicated to historic urban landscapes of the 20th century, I will analyse the treatment of Kiley’s seminal 1960s design for the North Court at Lincoln Center in New York City, which was sadly neglected and then effectively dismantled.

La Défense

Some of the magnificent groves of plane trees laid out by Kiley at La Défense

In the US, The Cultural Landscape Foundation is organising a major retrospective of Kiley’s work. Having offered to contribute, I was surprised to find how many articles I had written and how many photographs I had taken of Kiley designs. They are now all available to the Foundation as it finalises its plans for a Landslide compendium and a travelling exhibition of photographs that will display some of his most important commissions, including his work at La Défense.

La Défense

The water feature at the end of Kiley’s esplanade through La Défense

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Lincoln Center 2Damrosch Park at the Lincoln Center was designed in the 1960s by master landscape architect Dan Kiley. Much diminished through neglect and misuse, the park is about to host New York Fashion Week, which is moving from its old home in Bryant Park.

I am a huge fan of Kiley (see my previous posts on his designs in Brussels and Paris) and was lucky enough to discuss his work at the Lincoln Center with him, and to review his files on the project (since sadly destroyed in a fire).

Lincoln Center 3

Early plan of Lincoln Center, showing Webel’s design for the park (left). Image from Lincoln Center Inc.

He was commissioned in 1959 to design a courtyard to the north of the Metropolitan Opera House. The firm of Darling, Innocenti and Webel was to design Damrosch Park, to the south. As the early plan reproduced here shows, Richard Webel worked up plans for a traditional park with a lawn and some trees. But Center President John D. Rockefeller and his team of architects were so enthusiastic about Kiley’s design for the North Court that, as Kiley later explained, Webel “was directed to incorporate precepts of my plan to assure site continuity.” The final design for Damrosch Park bears Kiley’s unique imprint. The resulting relationship between the two plazas brought a sense of spatial continuity and cohesion to the whole site. Damrosch Park had the same distinctive quartets of plane trees, set in planters with an understorey of azaleas. They enclosed a seating area that was surrounded by a bosque of forty or so purple-leafed maple trees. The bandshell at the far end of the Park was also framed by plane trees, with a perimeter planting of Sargent crab apples.

As built model of Lincoln Center

A model of Lincoln Center, with Damrosch Park to the left. Image from http://www.rowan.edu

In 1990, the Center infamously ripped out all the plane trees in the North Court and replaced them with forlorn little ornamental pears. Soon the Center started to remove trees from Damrosch Park as well. One complete row of plane trees was taken out, apparently because the shade they cast was causing moss to grow on the side of the Metropolitan Opera House. All the crab apples disappeared too, possibly because they were obstructing the guy wires for the Big Apple Circus that pitches its tent in the Park for several months each winter. The crab apples were replaced with small ornamental plantings of geraniums and dwarf conifers, as well as what one observer called “inexcusable installations of amateurish lava rock landscaping.” Eight or so of the purple leafed maples also disappeared, at least one having been damaged by circus vehicles. Other plane trees were removed when they became infected with cankerstain. Staff at the Center, unaware of who had designed both plazas, argued that the plane trees had been “bunched too closely together” and might all need to be replaced with single specimens of zelkova or sophora trees.

Lincoln Center 1It looked as if none of the original plantings in Damrosch Park would be left. But interventions by landscape architects Robert Stern and Ken Smith saved at least some of Kiley’s design. In 1996 the Center replaced all the purple leafed maples that had been removed (although ironically, Kiley noted in his project files: “If I had known, I would have suggested the Schwedler maple – the purple leaf ‘bugs’ me.”). Kiley was invited to advise Lincoln Center staff on how to maintain and restore the remaining plane trees, which were apparently also showing signs of disease. He told me he was dismayed at the suggestion that the problems arose because the trees were placed too closely together, arguing that trees will thrive in denser plantings and with less soil in the wild. He also expressed surprise that no-one at the Center had previously contacted him for advice when the trees began to struggle, when he was as expert as anyone in the country on urban tree planting. The Center subsequently restored all the missing plane trees, retaining the tight spacing of four in each planting box. For many years, ironically, they provided the best illustration on the site of Kiley’s original plans for the landscape, even though he had not originally been commissioned to design Damrosch Park at all.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The plans to rework Kiley’s North Court (now largely implemented). Image from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

The North Court has sadly now been dismantled as part of the massive, one billion dollar redevelopment of the Lincoln Center led by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Lead architect Liz Diller told me recently that she has tried to retain something of the “spirit” of Kiley’s design, with a geometric planting of plane trees, but to me the plaza now feels more like a corridor than a gathering space, and is overwhelmed by a new fancy-dancy sloping roofed restaurant.

Plans for Damrosch Park under the redevelopment are not yet clear, but many of the plane trees have recently been cut down, and the arrival of Fashion Week suggests that the Center management is more interested in holding high-profile outdoor events at the Park than in conserving what remains of Kiley’s work.

Fashion Week

The park last month, the plane tree planters now empty. Image from ny.racked.com

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I recently wrote a piece for the Historic Gardens Review on a courtyard garden designed by American master landscape architect Dan Kiley in Brussels.

In 1989 AG Group (a financial company which became part of the troubled Fortis group) began redeveloping a run-down city block on rue du Pont-Neuf, near the Grand-Place. The project was to create the Group’s new HQ within a mix of housing, office and commercial space, designed on a human scale and laid out in a style sympathetic to local architecture. Chosen through competition, a group of European architects took on the project, which gained the enthusiastic support of HRH the Prince of Wales. At the heart of the redevelopment was to be a large, enclosed garden of some 3,000 square metres (three-quarters of an acre). Dan Kiley, internationally known for his work on urban plazas, was commissioned as the landscape architect.

Snowy AG garden 1

He described his design as a ‘corporate cloister’ of three interrelated spaces, each displaying elements of his distinctive style. The first portion was an open plaza, with a simple fountain at its centre, designed as a gathering space. Flowing from that was a smaller, more private area, shaded by a grove of forty-eight honey locusts (gleditsia triacanthos) arranged in a tightly-spaced grid, and underplanted with periwinkle (vinca). Gleditsia was one of Kiley’s favourite trees, used for its structural qualities and delicate foliage. The third and smallest part of the garden featured a wooden pavilion housing a bubbler fountain with, on one side, seating amongst clipped yew hedging and, on the other, a small grove of serviceberry trees (amelanchier canadensis). The end of the garden was marked by an allée of ginkgo biloba, another Kiley favourite, for its urban toughness and ancient history. Kiley thus created a landscape of varied sensory experiences and of contrasts (openness and enclosure, structure and wildness, simplicity and complexity, an abstraction of nature and an extension of the surrounding architecture).

Snowy AG garden 2

The design was subsequently featured in the book Dan Kiley in His Own Words: America’s Master Landscape Architect. Planted eighteen years ago, the garden has matured well and, unlike many of Kiley’s urban courtyards, has been carefully maintained. The yew and periwinkle are regularly clipped, and the honey locusts and ginkgos have recently been heavily pruned, to encourage dense lower branching.

While views of the garden are enjoyed from the surrounding offices and apartments, it has sadly proved too costly in maintenance terms to allow office staff access on a daily basis, and so Kiley’s design intent – to provide the changing, dynamic feeling of a walk in nature or a visit to a large park – has arguably lost some of its relevance for the site.

Snowy AG garden 3

For a while the garden seemed under threat. Its owner Fortis was stricken by the credit crunch. A government-led rescue plan, which included effective nationalisation and subsequent sale of much of the company to the French bank BNP Paribas, was put on hold when a Brussels appeal court froze the controversial sale. The Belgian government resigned over the row. The building that includes Kiley’s design was one of several flagship offices that Fortis had put up for sale in a desperate effort to raise capital.

But, at least for now, Kiley’s garden appears to be safe. Fortis has been rebranded as AG Insurance, apparently successfully, and the building is no longer on the market. The garden is, however, not open to the public and has not featured in the city’s Jardins En Fête open garden scheme since 2008.

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La DéfenseThis week I went to see Dan Kiley‘s landcape design at La Défense, the business district to the west of Paris.

Kiley is one of my favourite landscape architects. I spent a morning with him in his Vermont home not long before he died, to learn more about his work at the Lincoln Center in New York (now sadly dismantled).

In 1978 he was commissioned to design the vast pedestrian concourse at La Défense, which runs above the vehicular circulation and railway line. It extended the city’s historic axis from the Louvre along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, bringing it across the Seine to the Grande Arche de la Défense. (Kiley used the term la Dalle Centrale – the main platform – to describe the half-mile long concourse, although today it is usually known as l’Esplanade du Général de Gaulle.)

Dan Kiley designHis work at La Défense is always included in lists of Kiley’s projects, but the design has actually been little discussed or celebrated. The only description I have been able to find of any substance about the project is from Kiley’s own book, The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect, which gives a great sense of his design intentions and includes some photographs from the 1990s. For him the project was “a progressive mix of art, nature and commerce as urban infrastructure.”

La DéfenseMy visit earlier this week started from the metro station Esplanade de la Défense, where the promenade begins beside a large pool decorated with jolly metal poles (a 1988 installation by Takis), and wonderful views over Neuilly and down the Avenue de la Grande Armée to the Arc de Triomphe.

This view of the city persists throughout Kiley’s promenade.

La Défense

I strolled west towards the Grande Arche. The central walkway was exposed and deserted in the 30ºC heat but on either side are characteristic long, linear groves of pollarded trees, providing leafy, dappled shade. The trees are nearly all London planes (platanus x acerifolia), which Kiley loved for their form and beautiful patterned bark. The specimens here are well-maintained: regularly and expertly pollarded, and clearly replaced as necessary. The extensive use of a single species draws the disparate architecture together to form a unified space, just as Kiley intended, while the choice of London plane trees is a deliberate link with the same trees on many Parisian promenades, including the Champs Elysées. Other elements are kept simple as well, such as the single design of wooden bench found throughout the esplanade, and the limited palette of paving materials.

La DéfenseLa Défense

The cotoneaster ground cover beneath the trees is thriving and beautiful; elsewhere ivy and vinca are struggling a little.

The gentle slope up towards the Grande Arche is marked by simple, vast terraces and low flights of steps, now with ugly temporary ramps; apparently in the near future there will be permanent (and no doubt less visually intrusive) disabled access.

As I walked along, the concourse felt majestic, green, and completely right in scale. Perhaps, perversely, that is why Kiley’s work at La Défense features nowhere in the online history of the site, or in the lists of its many works of art: somehow the promenade feels an intrinsic part of the site, something so appropriate that no-one thinks of it as designed and installed.La Défense

At the end of the promenade, the modern fountains by kinetic artist Yaacov Agam are splendid, with their orchestrated jets and tiled surface suggesting constant movement. Kiley was a great fan of the work, calling it “a brilliant centerpiece,” and himself proposed the waterfall at its western edge that links the roads below with the pedestrian esplanade. During my visit, scores of people were dabbling their feet in the cool water; some children were swimming. Beyond Agam’s work is the open, treeless parvis that leads to the Arche, a stark contrast with the leafy, shaded space that Kiley created.

I have not seen ‘as built’ plans for Kiley’s work at La Défense, but it feels to me like a site that has been generally well conserved. There are, however, two additions which jar:

Shelomo SelingerThe first is the 1982 installation in the place basse, part way along the esplanade, of Shelomo Selinger’s sculpture “La Danse,” a series of sculpted planting boxes in pinkish concrete. Whatever their artistic merit, these seem to me too small and detailed for this vast corporate space. Until recently little globular holm oaks (quercus ilex) and groundcover ivy filled the boxes, but this Spring they were replaced with individual specimens of pink-flowered crape myrtle (lagerstroemia indica), a tree which ironically Kiley himself used, but in a more intimate space.

The second unfortunate change is the insertion in the early 1990s of small flowering cherries (prunus ‘Accolade’) among the London planes. They are largely masked by the plane trees at this time of year; but in winter their low, twiggy form must detract from the sculpted architectural shapes of the leafless plane trees. In Spring, as the cherries flower, the contrast (to my eyes at least) is odd and inappropriate. It is — as landscape architect Ken Smith noted about the introduction of forlorn little ornamental pears into Kiley’s previously architectural Lincoln Center courtyard — the triumph of a “post-modern aesthetic”: the desire for flowers rather than form in a landscape.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the esplanade at La Défense felt pleasingly like a mature and well-managed Kiley design. It was a joy to be there.

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