Modernism in the landscape that’s both heroic and subtle takes center stage.
By Zach Mortice
The protection of modernist design is a relatively new topic in preservationist circles. And in many cases, landscapes have lagged behind modern architecture in receiving formal recognition and valuation.
But over the past several years, the modernism preservation nonprofit Docomomo US has used its primary awards program to bring visibility to the vulnerability and value of historic modern landscapes. The projects recognized by Docomomo US’s sixth annual Modernism in America Awards show the ways that all disciplines of the designed environment come together as a defining element of modernism: architecture, landscape architecture, art, interior design, and more. That’s been a recurring theme through the years, though this year’s awards were the first time it was “expressed so clearly or comprehensively,” says awards juror and Docomomo US President Theodore Prudon. Several projects honored put the preservation of historic modernist landscapes front and center: the rehabilitation of Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, honored with a Design Award of Excellence, and the restoration of Olav Hammarstrom’s Pond House in Massachusetts, which received a Design Citation of Merit.
Docomomo US is the American branch of Docomomo International, which works to build awareness and historical recognition of modern design as these elements of the built environment transition from artifacts of the recent past into pieces of a shared historic narrative. (Docomomo stands for the “International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites, and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.”) The awards celebrate recently completed restoration projects, documentation efforts that build the case for historic preservation, as well as advocacy aimed at preserving endangered buildings and places. In 2014, the awards’ first year, the group presented the Cultural Landscape Foundation (among others) with an award for its advocacy to preserve M. Paul Friedberg’s Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis. Simonds and Simonds’s Mellon Square in Pittsburgh received an award in 2016. And in 2018, both Dan Kiley’s landscape at Hill College House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and documentation efforts for the University of California, San Diego campus received awards.
Prudon says landscape architecture’s signature material (plants) makes it harder to understand as an object of preservation, often inhibiting broad public understanding of its value. “Landscapes constantly evolve,” he says. “They’re not static objects like buildings.” Their fragility is also a contributor. “They die. A piece of granite has a much longer life span than a pine tree,” he says. Modern landscapes are often hard-edged, more formal experiences than 19th-century, Olmstedian counterparts that may have wider public appreciation. “For most people, landscapes have much more of a romantic connotation,” Prudon says.
The revitalization of Kiley’s Gateway Arch grounds is an example of the kind of total work emphasized by Docomomo, encompassing landscape, urban planning, architecture, and art—with Eero Saarinen’s 630-foot monumental arch, conceived as a piece of city-scaled sculpture. The recently completed revival and restoration of the landscape by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates makes the 91-acre park a much more urban affair, tearing down parking garages in favor of more organic connections to St. Louis. The redesign adds a ground-level circular splash pad at the foot of the park’s redesigned museum and a new waterfront promenade along the Mississippi River. Honey locust trees replace ash trees harassed by pests, nested in resourcefully rehabilitated soil, but the new design keeps the Kiley plan (in both circulation and planting patterns) fundamentally intact, with its series of meandering trails and ponds. Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, an awards juror and founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, praised the project because it “embraces the bone structure of the place,” instead of opting for a tabula rasa tear out.
Less well known, but perhaps just as sensitive, is the preservation of the Finnish architect Olav Hammarstrom’s Pond House and landscape in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Built in 1960 for Eero Saarinen’s first wife, the artist Lilian Swann Saarinen, it’s a long, low house wrapped in sections of floor-to-ceiling glass and set dramatically next to a glacial pond. The restoration, by SPG Architects and LeBlanc Jones Landscape Architects, applied a light hand, letting the lush foliage weave into pebble-paved nooks and terraces that invite recreation and relaxation. A bluestone path from the front of the house traces a path through ferns and black gum trees, framing views of the pond. A new glass-railed deck at the rear of the house overlooks the pond, lifted from the banks like a tree house. The banks were also intensively rehabilitated, with invasive plants removed and replaced with stabilizing native species.
“The interventions were surgical, and the language that was being used for the interventions had an aptness to the original design,” says Birnbaum.