MoMA's new roof garden is cloaked with meaning rather than plants.
By Susan Hines
© Peter Mauss/ESTO
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York City promised residents of the Museum
Tower condominiums that they would look down on more than a flat black roof
when the museum’s expansion project was completed, the condo owners probably
envisioned a formal garden of boxwood and impatiens. Instead, residents see
a folly of a garden atop the museum’s new sixth-floor galleriesa landscape
without living plants. However, the garden does, indeed, sport some boxwood
in the form of 577 standards that its designer, Ken Smith, ASLA, constructed
of pvc pipe and artificial greenerycall them Buxus plasticus, if you
Viewed from many stories above, the garden’s subtle pattern could be painted
on. Get a little closer, and the roof might hold a miniature golf course.
Get closer stillfrom MoMA’s own 10th- or 11th-floor offices, tricks of scale
fool the eye and you are not sure what virtual world lies on the other side
of the glass. Are the plastic rocks really big, or are the trees very small,
or both? Is that water or crushed glass?
According to Peter Reed, curator of MoMA’s recent Groundswell exhibit,
when the museum’s building team approached him about finding a designer for
the roof, New York City-based Smith quickly came to mind. Reed had reviewed
the work of many, many landscape architects for the upcoming exhibit. “I thought
Ken Smith would bring the right imaginative sensibility to the project,” Reed
says, citing examples from the landscape architect’s body of work, including
his 1999 Glowing Topiary Winter Garden in New York’s Liberty Plaza. Also,
the curator was confident that the small budget for the projectwhich he characterizes
as "strictly limited”wouldn’t impede Smith’s creativity. After all, he says,
wasn’t Smith’s learning garden for P.S. 19, an elementary school in Queens,
New York, "beautiful for a nickel?” (See "Big Dots, Little Dumpsters,” Landscape
Architecture, February 2005.)
Of equal importance, Smith had demonstrated he could forgo plantsand the museum
was adamant that the roofscape require minimal maintenance and no irrigation.
Although MoMA placed few restraints on the design, the site itself imposed
some severe limitations. Because the roof and its waterproofing membrane were
already installed, attaching anything to the roof or penetrating the membrane
was verboten. The built surface could bear only 25 pounds per square foot,
so whatever was placed on the roof needed to be extremely light. In short,
a purely decorative rooftop was the goal.
As Reed makes plain, the surface was never intended to be a green roof or a
public space. "The project arose rather late in the [construction] game. There
wasn’t an opportunity to say ‘let’s redesign the roof.’” Visitor access was
never a consideration. "Going up on it is just not possible,” Smith says,
describing a route that requires ascending fire stairs and ducking under pipes.
He compares the space to a Japanese Zen garden designed for viewing. "In a
densely built urban setting,” he says, "this garden represents a different
notion of what public space can be.”
The MoMA roof was a "dream projectone that came closest to having a patron,”
Smith says. "The curators gave me a great deal of freedom. There were some
requirements, but it was really a question of what I wanted it to be. I showed
them a lot of schemes, and they expressed opinions, but they would never say
‘this is the one.’”
The museum’s neighbors, however, rejected an early design outright, deeming
the field of spinning daisies Smith eventually debuted at the Cornerstone
Festival of Gardens (see "Hortus Ludens,” Landscape Architecture, February
2005) in Sonoma Valley, California, "inappropriate” for the midtown Manhattan
site. "The spinning daisies were just too classic, too pop,” Smith says of
that effort. He quickly moved on.
"The second time around, I thought I would do something not quite so in your
face,” Smith says, rather literally. Camouflage became the theme, partly inspired
by the fact that landscape architects and camoufleurs share similar goals.
"A lot of landscape architecture is about concealment,” he points out. "Landscape
architects are always remediating or contextualizing, whether they call it
‘naturalizing’ or ‘shrubbing it up.’ Yet we never think about that critically.”
For Smith, the camouflage idea worked on a variety of levels. "It’s about concealment
but also has a nice objective quality, blending in and standing out at the
same time, just like the urban camouflage that the kids wear,” he explains.
"That’s not about blending in; it’s about making a statement.”
Smith spent time reading World War II-era periodicals, researching the theories
of camouflage. A 1942 article outlined four methods: imitation, deception,
decoy, and confusion. Ultimately, these ideas became the basis of the four
design alternatives Smith presented to MoMA and neighborhood representatives.
Together, they selected the "deception” scheme.
To translate camouflage theory into a design concept, he took a pair of camouflage
skateboarder pants his wife had given him, made photocopies of the fabric,
and used the pattern as a point of departure. "The very first schemes were
basically the Xerox of the pants,” Smith says.
To design the headers that separate the rubber mulch, white gravel, and crushed
glass into distinct sections, Smith’s firm used roadway engineering strategies
to determine a small, medium, and large curve as well as a straight segment,
a T-shaped segment, and a splayed joint. To create the design, the firm imposed
the geometry of these six conditions on the photocopied camouflage and came
up with a new pattern that echoes the camouflage but does not precisely re-create
For the sake of economy, the museum encouraged the landscape architect to make
use of the black and white gravel already on hand to surface the roof. Like
Reed, Smith characterizes the budget as modest, and while the expansion of
the museum cost $425 million, no one will say precisely how much of that was
spent on roof décor. What’s clear is that the color palette of black, white,
beige, and green reflects the client’s desire to economizean effort Smith,
who is known for his use of off-the-shelf materials, accommodated while enjoying
Moreover, Smith believes value engineering made the project better. When
the first construction bid came in over budget, he says, "It forced us to
look at more synthetic materials, and that made the project conceptually stronger.”
In this way, expensive rock gave way to recycled rubber mulch and recycled
Originally conceived in the gray brick that Philip Johnson used on MoMA’s 1960s
addition, the headers that outline the roof’s various surface materials were
ultimately carved from foam at a factory that used the firm’s cad files as
templates to guide computer numerical cutting (cnc). The foam headers were
sealed for protection and painted to match the color of the existing concrete
pavers. The fiberglass grates that underlay the plastic "forest” were also
cut by computer off site.
In the end, "the landscape fit together in an industrial way,” Smith says.
The numbered cnc header pieces joined perfectly, and working in the dead of
winter, the landscape contractors completed installation in less than two
months. Smith relied on the landscape contractor he worked with on his re-cent
renovation of Lever House (see "Proving Ground,” Landscape Architecture,
January 2005). "It made sense to use a landscape contractor,” Smith explains.
"They know all the problems of drainage and weight. It saved a lot of money
and kept their crews busy when they would have been laid off.”
The three-foot-tall plastic "trees” were attached to green fiberglass grating,
and the 185 large plastic boulders, which Smith likens to supersized versions
of the ones sold to hide extra house keys, were positioned in time for the
opening of the Groundswell exhibit. Images of the new roof were included
in the show and the catalog along with over 20 additional landscapes designed
within the past 15 years or so.
Limited access and load-bearing capacity put the roof off limits to gallery
visitors. While not attacking the design or the landscape architect, a Los
Angeles Times review of March 23, 2005, implied that the garden was elitist.
"How many museums could afford a cheekily contemporary garden by a leading
landscape architect on the roof just to improve the view for the neighbors?”
author Christopher Hawthorne queried. The answer: "exactly one.” Since the
museum won’t reveal precisely what the installation cost, it inadvertently
invites questions about the appropriateness of the expenditure.
However, the local print press seemed to enjoy the roof more, accepting the
unusual garden on its own terms. The New York Post’s Barbara Hoffman
named it "MoMA’s secret garden” in the February 21, 2005, issue but also carefully
noted the limitations of the site. In the November 11, 2004, edition of the
New York Times, Anne Raver wrote about the commission, commenting that
the "camouflage garden is an ironic comment on the art of landscape architecture
itself.” On the other hand, the New York-based web magazine Treehugger.com
engaged in a bit of online hyperbole on March 16 of this year, when it accused
the museum of hiring Smith to "commit the crime of the century” and wondered,
"Why, oh why, would MoMA design such a disaster, just when we thought real
green roofs were all the rage?”
"It was meant to be fun,” Reed maintains. "I was really happy with what Ken
proposed, and it fit well in the Groundswell showit speaks to an idea
of simulated nature and the way landscape architects have traditionally worked
to cover up eyesores, whether natural or man-made. It became a really good
vehicle to illustrate this principle in the exhibit.” And he notes that the
surrounding roofs now look bland in comparison.
"I’ve heard being invited up to see it has become a ‘thing,’” Smith says. "Presumably,
people wouldn’t invite people up if they didn’t like it.” Reed explains, "The
point was not to antagonize [the residents]. They are our closest neighbors.
We wanted something more than just ballastsomething interesting to us but
satisfying to them.”
How do viewers rate the garden? To answer that question, you need friends in
high places. The condo owners were somewhat prepared for the rooftop in advance
of installation. The museum gave them the opportunity to review and discuss
the design. Smith even did a mock-up so that interested parties could see
how the boulders and other materials would appear from different floors. Museum
Tower’s building manager John Spellmon reports, "Some people were not expecting
such an unusual design, but in general, the residents love it."
Ted Voss has lived at Museum Tower for 21 years and is a member of the condominium
association that the museum worked with on the garden. He confirms Spellmon’s
assessment, saying his neighbors "find it very playful." Residents were aware
that the design had to work on many levels. After all, some owners look almost
directly on the garden, while others like Voss, who lives on the 25th floor,
have a very different perspective. "It’s very successful on both levels,"
Voss reports. "I was visiting someone on the 10th floor, and at eye level,
it’s very interesting how the glass changes with the light." He thinks it’s
"appropriate for an art organization to think about the impression it makes
on the 20,000 or so people who look down on it everyday."
The museum hasn’t received any complaints, Reed says. As far as MoMA’s own
employees go, when Landscape Architecture accompanied the landscape
architect for a look at the garden, the staff seemed to enjoy it, sharing
a laugh with Smith about how well the trees were doing.
How does Smith hope end viewers will react? "I think that they should smile,"
he says. "Historically, gardens make you think differently about the world,
and that’s probably what they should do. Like a Zen garden, the roof allows
you to free-associate."
Without people to structure the landscape via their uses, and purposely devoid
of an ordered pattern with a recognizable repeat, the camouflage garden is
a world apart. It’s familiar yet unfamiliar terrain, a place to take in, if
not a place to take the air.
Lead designer: Ken Smith/Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect.
Design team: Tobias Armborst, Elizabeth Asawa, David Hamerman, Rocio Lastras,
Student ASLA, Ken Smith, ASLA, Annie Weinmayr, Judith Wong, and Christian
Landscape contractor: Town and Gardens.
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