Diana Balmori, FASLA, 1932-2016

An early sustainability advocate and critic of the iconic suburban lawn died earlier this month.

By Jane Margolies

Diana Balmori Photo copyright Margaret Morton, 2009.
Diana Balmori. Photo copyright Margaret Morton, 2009.

Diana Balmori, FASLA, a pioneering member of the profession and founding partner of Balmori Associates, a landscape and urban design firm based in New York, died November 14 at her home in Manhattan at the age of 84. The cause of death was lung cancer.

During a career that encompassed wide-ranging projects—including the Winter Garden, with its grove of palm trees, inside the World Financial Center in New York and the transformation of the formerly industrial port area of Bilbao, Spain, into an expansive public park—Balmori championed the integration of landscape and architecture. She rejected the notion that landscape design was the mere “shrubbing up” of buildings, as she put it, after they were erected. In her firm’s innovative master plan for South Korea’s new administrative capital, Sejong City, the landscape comes first: a rolling, elevated green space that connects and shapes the government buildings below.

An early advocate of sustainable landscape practices, she challenged the iconic suburban lawn—with its intensive use of water, fertilizers, and gasoline for mowing—in the seminal book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, published in 1993. More recently, she advanced landscapes as protection against the effects of climate change.

Balmori found expression for her varied interests—which included all forms of art—at the firm she founded in 1990. She realized the artist Robert Smithson’s concept for a “Floating Island,” a barge landscaped with earth, rocks, and native trees and shrubs that was towed by a tugboat around Manhattan. Bal/Lab, a division within Balmori Associates, was established to explore such temporary landscapes and other experimental and cross disciplinary ideas. The projects that she found most compelling, according to her partners, Javier Gonzalez-Campana and Noemie Lafaurie-Debany, were those that promoted ecology and public access to green space.

“If a project was doing something for the community, that got her attention,” said Gonzalez-Campana, who worked with Balmori for 18 years. “If it was doing something for the community and the environment at same time, that really got her attention.”

Diana Balmori was born in 1932, in Gijón, Spain, but grew up and studied architecture in Argentina. After immigrating to the United States with her husband, the architect César Pelli, she obtained a doctorate in urban history from the University of California, Los Angeles.

She taught at the State University of New York in Oswego, where she became interested in Beatrix Farrand and coauthored Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes. But ultimately she decided she wanted to design, not just write about, landscapes.

She joined her husband’s firm (then called César Pelli & Associates), heading the department of landscape architecture and urban design. She also collaborated with the couple’s son Rafael, an architect who is a partner at the firm, now Pelli Clarke Pelli. She is also survived by another son, Denis, a neuroscientist, and two granddaughters.

Balmori was committed to public service. From 2003 to 2012 she was a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. She also taught at Yale University, in both the architecture and forestry schools.

At the time of her death, Balmori was working on Sejong City, and was designing a pedestrian corridor in Bellevue, Washington, that will link different parts of town. And she was doing the set design for a performance piece choreographed by Sean Curran, scheduled to premiere in 2018.

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