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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

February 2007 Issue

Abstract Realism
At Teardrop Park in Battery Park City, all the park’s a playground.

By Susan Hines

Abstract Realism Elizabeth Felicella

Teardrop Park is on River Terrace between Warren and Murray streets in lower Manhattan—just two blocks from Ground Zero. Although the appellation seems poignantly appropriate now, this natural playground in Battery Park City was actually named and already in the bidding phase when the Twin Towers collapsed.

Within just weeks of September 11, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, remembers meeting with his clients, the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), in their temporary offices. Visiting Ground Zero, he recalls “piles of twisted steel six stories high, smoke from the still-burning fires, and the smell.” The park’s design was finalized, but in the weeks following 9/11 the entire country, not to mention the citizens of New York City, was engulfed in uncertainty.

Although bidding was delayed for several months, the decision to continue with the building of the park was immediate. “It was so affirming for New York City,” Van Valkenburgh says. “I know [former BPCA president and CEO] Tim Carey felt it was a way of saying the Authority believed in downtown.”

Teardrop is tiny, just under two acres of space tucked between four residential high-rise buildings. Small children and their parents crowd the site, which is jam-packed with varied experiences, all taking their cue from the landscape of the Hudson River Valley without seeming out of place in an urban setting. Relax on the lawn, really a miniature greensward, or explore a small wetland; climb a rocky outcropping or stroll along the smooth paths. Take in the view from the top of a little hill, while your children accumulate grass stains rolling to the bottom. Watch your children zoom down the slide and play with sand and water. All of this is available in Teardrop, and it is very well taken care of by the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy (BPCPC).

While it is a playground for small children, it is beautiful enough for adults to enjoy with or without the distraction of a child. Curvilinear paths run around the teardrop-shaped lawn and take visitors through a vaultlike opening in the wall to the sandbox and slide area. Throughout the site, granite sculptures by Ann Hamilton create tension and interest, and their jagged granite edges keep the place from looking too bucolic even around the small lawn.

Structuring the space is the magical north-facing bluestone wall: Alive with water and moss in the summer and shimmering with ice in the winter, it divides the so-called active and passive spaces of the park and stands as a monument to the intersection between art and craft, nature and engineering that is the design theme here.

How often is so much money—in this case $17 million—and so much time—five years—expended on a small space intended mainly for young children? How often does one small city park allow visitors to get away from the city and run the gamut of landscape experiences, from the pastoral rolling lawn to the sublime beauty of a massive wall of ice and stone?

The idea behind Teardrop and its rugged but child-enticing terrain came from the top down. Carey, the former president and CEO of the BPCA, grew up in the Hudson River Valley and owns property in the Catskill Mountains. “My vision was that those four buildings would be like hills and you would get the experience of walking through a glen in the Catskills and feel closeness to nature,” Carey says. “I wanted to provide children with an opportunity to come to a place that leads them to another place.”

When Carey arrived on the job in 1999, the BPCA had committed to creating permanent playing fields in Battery Park City. The rezoning effort that entailed opened up the opportunity for Teardrop, which was built on land originally designated for four residential towers with small private courtyards. To convince developers and city authorities that a park was feasible, architect and urban designer Ralph Lerner created a conceptual plan that replaced a road with a public park. Because the shape reminded him of a teardrop, Lerner called it Teardrop Park on the plan.

James F. Gill, BPCA’s long-time chairman, notes that property owners had to be convinced that giving up some of their property would ultimately benefit them. In this case, the BPCA’s history of creating highly successful urban green spaces demonstrated that these amenities are actually economically advantageous. The developers understood that in exchange for a little real estate they would get something in return.

No RFP was issued. Instead, “Several designers were asked to offer designs,” Gill explains. Why? “Because the size of the park was so small and the unique concept [of a Catskills mountain experience] was already in place.

“Ultimately, it was Michael Van Valkenburgh who offered us the rolling hills, stone outcroppings, and willowy marsh that is now Teardrop Park,” Gill says.

The very generous budget was an important factor in getting the park built and reflects BPCA’s own success as a public-benefit corporation devoted to managing the 90 acres under its control. “Our bonds have a triple-A rating,” Gill notes.

 

Van Valkenburgh admits that of all the work his firm has undertaken in recent years, he took a particular interest in Teardrop. He had just relocated to New York himself. “When you go to a new place you always experience a heightened awareness,” he says. “And when you move to New York, the first project you take on at the end of relocation is very dear.”

Given the constraints of the site—flat, sandy, and mostly shady—the challenge of building a Catskills-inspired playground for tots was fairly daunting. “This park is on bare landfill—sand pumped in from the river in the 1960s—there was nothing here,” says Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) principal Matthew Urbanski. “We needed a strategy that allowed for some sense of exploration or unfolding in this very small space. Otherwise people would just come in, see everything, and leave.”

At first, the firm played with fairly simplistic ideas such as bringing in a large rock outcropping and dropping it down on the site. However, as they visited quarries looking for materials, Urbanski says, “We realized we needed to evoke nature, not mock nature.” The firm quickly abandoned its initial concept of creating a “revealed bedrock” look. Instead, it embraced an idea Urbanski describes as “building nature from quarried pieces.”

In response, Van Valkenburgh himself drew the wall that began to define the space and the aesthetic of Teardrop, and through the drawing of the wall, “the tension between built and natural began to emerge,” Urbanski says. It is exactly that tension that keeps the park from seeming like counterfeit countryside.

The wall, which blocked the view from one end of the park to the other, commenced the process of dividing the small space to make it more complex. It also serves as a retaining wall for the rocky outcropping and slide combination that lies on the south-facing side. Many of these aspects of the design were worked out in models rather than through drawing and, in fact, the modeling process continued through the writing of the construction documents.

The firm was confident that the public would respond positively to the aesthetic. “New Yorkers know naturalism as public landscape,” Urbanski notes. “If this was a prissy formal garden park they might think it was private.” However, New York is home both to Central Park, where Olmsted first promoted the concept of created naturalism, and to Gramercy Park, a fenced and gated vestige of the nineteenth century and the last private park in the city.

The firm wanted to actively signal to the public that Teardrop was open to everyone, not just the residents of the residential high-rise apartment buildings that line its edges. Thus, throughout the site, MVVA reached out to New Yorkers in a variety of specific ways, speaking to their collective unconsciousness of what public parks should look like by choosing paving and furnishings, such as the World’s Fair park benches, that identified the space as public.

One space the firm insisted on, despite initial skepticism from the überorganic BPCPC, was the inclusion of lawn in the space. “We wanted grass because New Yorkers love grass, and without a lawn it wouldn’t seem like a park to them,” Urbanski explains. “We did an elaborate solar analysis to determine where the sun would hit for at least three and a half hours on the equinox. The solar angle study determined where the lawn would be and then we tilted the grade up to the south to get even more sun.” Because the developers were vested in the project they were able to convince the owners and the architect of the Solaire condominium to shave six inches off the rooftop, allowing just a tad more sun in.

Teardrop Park did not spring fully formed from the offices of MVVA. The firm assembled a sizable team that included natural playground expert Robin Moore, Affiliate ASLA; geotechnical engineers from Mueser Rutledge; quarryman Bruce O’Brien; master stonemason Hayden Hillsgrove; and artists Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil.

“When the client said ‘this needs to be a place for play’ we interpreted that in the broadest way,” says MVVA principal Laura Solano. And they called on Moore for advice on how to integrate play throughout the site. “It didn’t take much to convince Michael and everybody else that the whole landscape should be a playground,” Moore says. He advocated successfully for rocky yet climbable terrain, a steeper slide than is generally installed in playgrounds, and a small boggy wetland filled with rotting logs at the lowest point in the park. Aside from the slide, the play elements are basic—sand, water, rocks, and plants.

“Robin Moore drove my parks people and lawyers crazy at the time—they liked all those flat, boring places,” Carey says. “But Robin was able to create a magnificent place for kids. When you get down to their height the landscape is even more exciting.” Teardrop is climbable, adventure packed, and potentially risky.

“There are no regulations for playgrounds,” Solano points out. “But there are consumer product safety guides for equipment.” By studying playground equipment guides they learned about recommended allowances for head clearance, the dangers of entrapment, fall height requirements, and the minimum and maximum spaces for gaps.

“Because we were dealing with natural materials and natural forms, we had to make sure those rules were applied in the field,” Solano says. To solve this problem the firm made templates from foam core that showed angles and distances and gave them in kits to contractors for use during construction. By referencing the templates workers could precisely determine if distances between rocks and boulders were too large or too small and if an angle was sharp enough to produce an injury.

So far no injuries have been reported. Signs warn people not to climb on the wall or Hamilton’s granite artwork. Climbing is encouraged in the rocky slide area; adults as well as children make use of this feature. According to a posting on the Project for Public Spaces web site, at least one elderly woman regularly practices her rock-climbing skills here.

The shady site would not support the growth of many trees. Of the 65,910 plants in Teardrop Park—shrubs, perennials, ground covers, trees, vines, and bulbs—mature witch hazels and fast-growing sumac are among the tallest. Planted above the ice wall, the sumac creates a jungle effect in summer and a blast of color in the fall.

Creating rolling topography atop a sand bed required geotechnical expertise from the engineering firm Mueser Rutledge. The company’s relationship to Battery Park City dates from the building of the original landfill. To build the landforms that make up the high-contrast landscape of Teardrop, the firm recommended using horizontal layers of geogrids. Most often used to reinforce embankment fills and earth dams or to repair slope failures and landslides, these plastic square grids extend into the growing medium.

But the geogrids couldn’t prevent surface erosion and wouldn’t allow for the creative placement of rocks and trees. “We needed flexibility in the surface layer,” Urbanski says, so Mueser Rutledge came up with the idea of using geofibers in the surface layers mix. “The conservancy had never seen these polypropylene fibers before, so an on-site test was conducted. We built a 1:1 slope using the geofibers mixed in with the BPCPC’s regular designed soil mix. We left it all winter long and it never eroded.”

Look closely and you can find the geofibers in Teardrop’s planting beds. What looks like a piece of plastic string pulls apart to reveal a web of woven fibers. “Essentially, geofibers mimic plant roots to stop surface erosion and give tensile strength to the earth—like millions of little plastic rebars. It was just one of the technical things that allowed this expression of nature to happen,” explains Urbanski.

An artist in his own right, O’Brien was the mastermind behind the 300-ton bluestone wall, building it over the course of 6 months at his upstate New York quarry, numbering the stones, and then disassembling it and shipping the rock to the city to be reassembled by union masons in just 3 days. The masons reportedly said the wall was the most beautiful thing they had ever made.

Several kinds of rock were used in the park. In addition to the dramatic stone of the tectonic wall, giant boulders of sandstone, a by-product of the quarry process that usually ends up as aggregate, were set aside. Hillsgrove and his wife, Betsy Hoffman, helped MVVA with the placement of these stones and others used for texture and climbing practice around the slide. They moved into one of the buildings and literally lived on the park’s edge for several months.

Hamilton and Mercil’s sculptural rock installation runs “like a rift,” as Urbanski puts it, through the park. The firm had worked with Hamilton before at Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh. Dramatic stacked sheets of the same bluestone used in the wall appear in various sections of the park, adding interest yet somehow blending in. Like so much of the art and craft harnessed here, these sculptures riff on the theme of nature while complementing the landscape composition.

Without the full support of the BPCPC, a park such as Teardrop would never be so well maintained. For example, because the conservancy bears maintenance in mind from the very beginning, the railings chosen for use in the park can be removed for painting or repair and then popped back in place.

And they bring landscape architects back to fix problems. “We made the stupid assumption that kids would take the path up the hill to the slide,” Urbanski says, but they don’t; “they climb up the embankment.” No high-tech product can protect soil and plants from a team of young soccer players in cleats. In response, the firm removed the plants and made the slope more climbable, installing rocks with a grainy surface that would prevent slipping.

When it turned out that teens liked hanging around the sheltered area near the south-side tunnel opening, low rails were installed to encourage leaning and discourage climbing. Although intended for tots, everybody is welcome here.

“We wanted it to look as if we had never been here” is a cliché often voiced by landscape architects.

Teardrop Park is a different case. Unabashedly the work of humans—two acres of landfill, surrounded by skyscrapers, topped with a heady mix of technology and aesthetics—it works as nature without pretending that it is nature. What could easily have become a bizarre kind of Catskills Country Safari theme park is instead a highly concentrated dose of art inspired by nature. As such it is an appropriately potent antidote to the urban landscape that surrounds it.

PROJECT CREDITS
Client: Battery Park City Authority and Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, New York. Landscape architects: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., New York (Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Matthew Urbanski, Laura Solano, principals). Artists: Ann Hamilton, Michael Mercil, Columbus, Ohio. Structural, civil, MEP engineers: Arup, New York. Geotechnical engineer: Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, New York. Construction manager: Humphreys & Harding Inc., New York. Play consultant: Natural Learning Initiative, Raleigh, North Carolina. Site contractor: Metrotech, Jamaica, New York. Landscape contractor: Kelco, East Northport, New York. Engineered stone contractor: Granite Works, Waverly, New York.

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