A modernist landscape gets some respect after all.
By Ted Radlak
The Ontario government is bucking the trend that has threatened
such modernist masterpieces as Dan Kiley's graceful North Christian
Church landscape (Columbus, Indiana, 19641967) and already
laid waste to Sasaki Associates' ground-breaking Boston Waterfront
Park (19731976), through its efforts to restore a faded Sasaki-designed
landscape within the government's flagship office precinct at Queen's
Park in Toronto. To this end, local firm Hough Woodland Naylor Dance
Leinster Ltd. (HWNDL), along with ERA Architects Inc. and landscape
historian Mark Laird, have been enlisted to put together the "Queen's
Park Complex Cultural Landscape Heritage Significance Study" (2002).
The plan articulates the guidelines for the landscape's restoration.
"It has become very timely that we take stock of this legacy that
represents the spirit of this period in landscape architecture history,"
Because such sites are largely perceived as too hard-edged, arid,
and amorphous by a general public that prefers the warm, lush, and
romantic landscapes of Olmsted or the familiar terrace-cum-pedestal
fountain Beaux Arts affairs of the Bryant Park ilk, inspiring public
interest in the preservation of modernist landscapes has been difficult.
As a result, many of the landscape designs that issued from the
modernist-inspired 1930s Harvard Revolution have been left to deteriorate
or have been altered or are at risk of being entirely demolished.
Due to complaints about handicapped access and the poorly maintained,
noisy mechanical system behind Halprin's fountain of sculptured
limestone blocks at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1976), a demolition
and redesign of this project is in the offing.
But the Queen's Park landscape design developed under the aegis of Toronto-based Sasaki Associates spin-off partnership Sasaki Strong and Associates Ltd. will not get dug up so much as spruced up.
Setting a precedent, the Ontario Realty Corporation (the provincial government's property manager) has voluntarily recognized that many of its buildings and landscapes have cultural heritage significance. Protecting them is "the right thing to do," says William Gerrard, the ORC's General Manager of Environment and Cultural Heritage. The Queen's Park landscape that wraps a complex of mostly International Style government office buildings in downtown Toronto next to the grand provincial legislature will be one beneficiary of this enlightened policy.
The ORC-commissioned initial "Heritage Significance Study" (1996) was followed by the broader "Queen's Park Complex Cultural Landscape Heritage Significance Study" (2002) that evaluated the cultural value of the entire landscape within the Queen's Park complex as well as setting forth specific conservation/restoration guidelines.
The extensive advisory group that participated in this study included Docomomo, an organization that has worked to conserve buildings and sites of the Modern Movement worldwide.
Although initially led by Sasaki, the landscape architect and teacher known for his collaborative, multidisciplinary approach and such modern design classics as the John Deere Headquarters (Moline, Illinois, 1964) and Constitution Plaza (Hartford, Connecticut, 1964), the visionary landscape architect rarely visited the site once the overall concept was developed. As a result, all of the design development took place in Toronto by Harvard-educated Richard Strong, along with another transplanted American landscape architect, Gerry Englar, who was project manager. Sasaki principal Masao Kinoshita refined and developed technical aspects of the design. So Sasaki principal Stuart O. Dawson was not surprised that his firm was not consulted for the latter study.
The study evaluated the landscape features as "excellent examples of the range of architectonic to naturalistic expression within the modern style of landscape architecture, and demonstrates high quality materials and workmanship"-key Sasaki trademarks. The significant 1960s public artworks further distinguish the project.
Principal-in-charge of the restoration at HWNDL Ian Dance, echoing the aforementioned study, explained that their intervention is based on the original project drawings that were donated to the Canadian Architectural Archives and would essentially be a straight restoration with some redesign of technical components and materials to better address "contemporary functional demands on the landscape."
The elegant Bay/Wellesley Garden (named by the study to distinguish different components), with its splendid flowering crabapple bosque and "Three Graces" sculpture by Gerald Gladstone set within a pool all embraced by an armature of intimately proportioned rectangular rooms, is the focus of the first phase of restoration. Restoration work led by HWNDL has already begun.
The study indicated that the hard materials had suffered deterioration, and some components were replaced with unlike, mismatched materials. At the corner entrance to the garden, interlocking paving has replaced the original limestone that tied the project in with the building, and many of the coping stones are chipped or grazed. The problem will be to find original Queenston limestone, as the Niagara quarry has been exhausted. The now weathered teak slats on the benches will be replaced with the same material.
The firm is proposing dismantling the pedestal support system under settled, uneven paved areas and using a granular base that would be better suited for maintenance needs, especially where heavy vehicles such as snowplows are involved. This would also do away with the wobbly stones that often chip at their corner supports. Strong admitted that Toronto's climate was not taken into account when this design was developed.
The limestone wall-cum-seating ledge at the Bay Street edge that was intended to "create a sense of enclosure" has been painted an unsightly drab gray to cover offensive graffiti. This will be cleaned, and a graffiti-proof finish is being proposed that will only slightly darken the stone.
Damage from skateboarding is evident along stairs, planter walls, and sculpture podiums. Though a final design decision has not been made, granite setts at the base of these walls are being considered to prevent skateboarders from mounting the walls and scratching the soft limestone coping; these would tie in with the granite setts used around the street trees. A similar solution was successfully used by the firm for its Windsor Civic Plaza project. A more invasive solution considered changing the coping to a more durable granite that could at least better withstand this latest teenage scourge. This solution was abandoned, as it would compromise the original design too much.
According to Strong, "a sophisticated, urbane character was intended for this prominent space." Strong admitted that the rough granite setts used around the plaza trees and within the fountain were a "naive mistake" that detracted from this feel from the beginning. Not surprisingly he winced at any suggestion that additional cobblestone setts be added at the base of the planters to deter skateboarders. In an earlier conversation, Englar suggested that subtle metal cleats be installed every few feet as a deterrent instead of something as "intrusive and hard edge" as granite setts. Strong went on to suggest that an "acid wash" would be sufficient to restore most of the stones and the addition of a bull nose edge would remove that wear and tear and prevent further damage.
The fountain in the Bay/Wellesley Garden, Canada's first year-round fountain designed to display ice formations in the winter, will also be restored.
Surprisingly, the original planting plan for this areaincluding
a bosque of Japanese flowering crabappleshas survived the
past 30 years relatively intact. The Norway maple street trees have
not fared well, and one of the trees is dead. HWNDL has proposed
to replace the Norway maples with green ash, which are more pollution
tolerant while maintaining the kind of "strong architectural feel"
that was Englar's original intention.
HWNDL has not proposed any changes to those species that have survived, such as Japanese yew, regal honeysuckle, Russian olive, and cutleafed European white birch; however, they will be cleaned of dead branches and stabilized, and the planting scheme will be filled in with more shade- and pollution-tolerant species yet to be chosen.
Sasaki himself would certainly not oppose the replacement of the old pop-up irrigation rotors and sprays with a more efficient and effective micro-irrigation system.
The original single and cluster globe lighting replaced over the years will be brought back. Flush-mounted lighting along planter walls will be repaired along with the colored floodlights in the fountain.
The restoration efforts for the Wellesley Street Frontage will focus on creating a viable understory for the dense shade created by the closely spaced grid of lindens. The modernists were not timid at all; they liked their plants in groves, drifts, and massive grids, explained Englar. Both Strong and Englar admitted that ground-cover choices of periwinkle that never became established "were a failure throughout."
The lush, naturalistic Macdonald/Whitney Courtyard, designed by Sasaki, Strong, and Englar, will require a more extensive intervention. At the limestone forecourt to the Whitney Block anchored by the "Woman and Child" sculpture by John Kenneth Harman, one can see only remnants of limestone pavers that were originally interplanted with dense mats of green sedum. The limestone pavers that originally meandered through the site were largely removed and replaced with crushed limestone. Those that remained were leveled with crushed marble to eliminate the trip step that had become a safety concern during the litigious eighties.
The restoration of this area will bring back the limestone pavers, albeit more tightly spaced, while the denuded pathway edges and intimate adjoining spaces will be reinforced with additional plantings of shade-tolerant woodland species to be determined. Englar conceded that the "design failures in this area opened it up to eventual modification."
The Englar-Strong-designed, exquisitely detailed Whitney South Garden, one of the best examples of roof garden design in Canada from this period along with Sasaki's Place Bonaventure in Montreal, will undergo a restoration when the roof slab needs repair.
Although there may be a question as to whether some aspects of the original design intent were appreciated, the existence of a master plan with clear restoration guidelines all under the auspices of an enlightened government body bodes well for the Queen's Park project. The HWNDL-developed maintenance manual will also help to maintain the project's integrity.
However, many other modernist designs are not so favorably positioned. "Modernist landscapes are invisible," says Charles Birnbaum, coordinator of the Historic Landscape Initiative for the National Park Service. Many projects from this period that cannot count on direct government intervention, as in this case, or U.S. National Historic Landmark designation-which does confer name recognition and some protection when state or federal funds are used in their redevelopment-will need to attract public interest and call upon the stewardship ethic of the profession of landscape architecture. Birnbaum further suggests that designs that have received the ASLA Classic Award should be enshrined in the Library of Congress's permanent collections.
Ultimately, the landscape as a reflection of our society will change over time nevertheless. But a balance of change and continuity, as articulated by the aforementioned study, and an appreciation of the original design intent, will preserve the best of this period before it is lost.
Ted Radlak is a practicing landscape designer in Toronto and a writer on subjects ranging from architecture to interior design and landscape architecture. He is currently writing a monograph on Canadian landscape architect Janet Rosenberg.
Landscape architects: Hough Woodland Naylor Dance Leinster
Ltd., Toronto: Ian Dance, CSLA; David Leinster, CSLA; Caroline Marshall.
Architects: era Architects Inc; Michael McClelland.
Heritage consultant: Mark Laird, landscape historian.
Ontario Realty Corporation project team: Serge N. Chukseev,
CSLA (project manager); William Gerrard, Nancy Anthony.
Birnbaum, Charles A.; Wagner, Cheryl. "Making Educated Decisions:
A Landscape Preservation Bibliography." Department of the Interior,
U.S. National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1994
Birnbaum, Charles A.; Karson, Robin. "Pioneers of American Landscape
Design." National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative, Library
of American Landscape History, Catalog of Landscape Records in the
United States at Wave Hill, Cultural Landscape Foundation, Washington
Birnbaum, Charles A. "Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture:
Papers from the Wave Hill-National Park Service Conference." Historic
Landscape Initiative, Heritage Preservation Services. Spacemaker
The Landslide Project of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, www.tclf.org/landslide.
Lists the 10 most endangered modernist landscapes in the country
National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative, www2.cr.nps.gov/hli.
Provides a comprehensive range of tools, information, and resources
for anyone interested in the preservation of historic landscapes.
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