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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

November 2005 Issue

Ulterior Exterior
MoMA's new roof garden is cloaked with meaning rather than plants.

By Susan Hines

Ulterior Exterior
© 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 galleries—a 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 greenery—call them Buxus plasticus, if you will.

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 still—from 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 project—which 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 plants—and 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 project—one 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 it.

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 economize—an effort Smith, who is known for his use of off-the-shelf materials, accommodated while enjoying the hunt.

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 glass.

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 show—it 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 ballast—something 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.

Project Credits

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 Zimmerman, ASLA.
Landscape contractor: Town and Gardens.

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