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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2004 Issue

The Poetry of Passages
Dan Kiley's design forms the green, modernist heart of Rockefeller University in Manhattan.

By Brenda J. Brown

The Poetry of Passages
Photo by Brenda Brown

It is the long allées of Rockefeller University that linger most in memory. They are lined with London plane trees, over 80 feet tall, 50 to more than 100 years old, with leaves dappling sunlight as nature has dappled their bark. The tree rows are set within horizontal greens—of long grassy lawns, of ivy and vinca, of low hedges of cotoneaster and yew, of ericaceous beds augmented with viburnum, spirea, or cherry laurel—making terraces so flowing, tranquil, and expansive that one can forget the site's topography. The white marble-paved walks that parallel the lines of trees are in many places set in white marble chips, lightening the paths so that they seem to float.

Like its allées, the shape of this campus on Manhattan's Upper East Side is linear, some three times as long north and south as it is wide. To the east it drops off abruptly as a wall to FDR Drive, but it slopes more gradually westward and more gradually still to the north. Allées, walks, gravel, greens, and adjacent spaces that include two distinctive gardens, a hanging stairway, a large open plaza, and an enchanting crabtree-lined building entrance were shaped by landscape architect Dan Kiley between 1956 and 1958 with funds provided by David Rockefeller, grandson of the institution's founder. Around the same time, modernist architect Wallace Harrison, a contemporary of Kiley's, designed the long, low buildings along much of the allées' length. Around the lower allées' eastern edge, the Philosopher's Garden, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Hall's north end, these buildings work most stunningly with the landscape to demonstrate the modernist ideal of interior and exterior space integrated. The office of Harrison and Abramowitz designed the dome-shaped Caspary Auditorium, the President's House, and, a little later, the more massive Bronk Laboratory and Sophie Fricke Hall that are perpendicular to the allées' southern edges. The Scholar's Residence across 63rd Street was designed later still.

Today Kiley's design forms Rockefeller University's green, modernist, aesthetic heart. However, the 100-year-old campus is the product of multiple interactions—interactions among contemporaries and between generations and among patrons, scientists, university presidents, plant operations heads, horticulturalists, and designers. Kiley's transformation of a Beaux-Arts design into a modern one did not extend to the south campus (by and large invisible from the allées), where development begun in the 1970s continued through the 1990s. Nevertheless, while time has wrought difficulties on Kiley's design, those concerned with the campus landscape today must reckon with it. How after all does one deal with a living icon?

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