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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2007 Issue

The Grass is Greener
Here’s how one landscape architecture firm found a technical niche designing lawns and irrigation systems for difficult sites.

By Adam Regn Arvidson, ASLA

The Grass is Greener C/O David Karp

On top of the brand-new addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is a perfect green lawn. It is a summerlike day in March, and though the new building itself is not yet open, the roof hosts a few strolling and chatting locals. They sit contentedly on the elevated greensward and look out over the Henry Moore Sculpture Garden, a 1989 Dan Kiley work that unrolls downhill from the original classical-style museum building. The turf on the addition’s roof spills between Steven Holl’s translucent blue boxes and merges with Kiley’s grand lawn, where a few more Kansas Citians toss Frisbees among Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s oversize shuttlecocks. It is an idyllic scene: green and peaceful. After a few moments, the rising hiss and click-click of rotary irrigation heads add themselves to the background birdsong and send the rooftop locals running.

Among the list of big names responsible for this scene is one perhaps lesser known: Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company. This North Kansas City-based landscape architecture firm designed the irrigation, soil profiles, lawn, and green roofs that together make Nelson-Atkins a community front yard. Bruce & Company was not the lead landscape architect. In fact, the company was hired by another landscape architect (Rick Howell at multidisciplinary firm Gould Evans) to deal specifically with the ground and just-belowground layers. Bruce & Company has spent 20 years carving out a specialty in athletic fields, lawns, and irrigation, in the process consulting on well over 100 professional, collegiate, high school, and municipal facilities.

But most landscape architects design lawns, right? Lawns are easy, right? And irrigation can be done design/build, right? Well, maybe on perfect soils with regular rain and little foot traffic.

Millennium Park in Chicago, where more than a million people per year abuse the turf with feet and blankets seven days a week, would be another story. As would Invesco Field in Denver, where the Broncos play on a hybrid natural/artificial surface. And Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University, where southern heat and competitive football combine to create a very unfriendly environment. Even 909 Walnut, a green-roofed condo building in downtown Kansas City, where little dogs are let out of little condos to lift their legs and ruin the grass. And, of course, the Henry Moore Sculpture Garden in Kansas City, a multilevel (at rooftop and ground level), steeply sloping, heavily used showpiece. It is at these sites, where soil is not quite soil and natural drainage is unreliable at best, that designers and developers have turned to Bruce.

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