Terrain-NYC turns a bedrock cliff in the Bronx into a garden for all seasons.
By Zach Mortice
Faced with the need for a meditative and richly planted landscape for an affordable and supportive housing project in the Bronx on top of exposed bedrock, Brian Green, a landscape architect at Terrain-NYC, looked to the other geologic formations in Manhattan, particularly in Central Park, and in the Bronx. What he noticed most were the ferns that grew in these places. Typically considered too delicate to take root in rock, they were surprisingly persistent. “They’ll find their way, somehow, into these little crevices,” he says.
Reassured by this discovery, Green planted Christmas ferns as well as a diverse array of hardier species on the exposed bedrock that defines the site of St. Augustine Terrace, a 12-story housing tower designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning. His confidence was rewarded: Within a year, more volunteer ferns sprouted from the rock. Located in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx on the former site of a church, St. Augustine Terrace’s landscape is a master class in plant selection and subtle tectonic framing, applied in a place where people seldom have access to quality landscapes. From the 11-foot-high iridescent plateaus of quartz schist grows a multitextural landscape that changes with the seasons and offers residents what Green calls “a little garden by their front door.”
Completed in 2018, the housing project was developed by Catholic Charities and its Beacon of Hope housing services subsidiary. It includes 112 units, 35 of which offer supportive services for people with chronic mental health challenges, many of whom have been unhoused. The site was formerly home to one of the area’s oldest Black Catholic churches, demolished several years prior. The bedrock was largely obscured when the church was still intact, and Catholic Charities kept it for a few reasons. “Part of it is the uniqueness,” says Susan Albrecht, a senior director of the Association of New York Catholic Homes, “and part of it is the cost.” This dollar-saving act of preservation is echoed by other artifacts left over from the site’s former life: A church bell and the church’s 1894 cornerstone grace the entry plaza, and a few pieces of the original foundation remain in a shady courtyard flanking the main entrance.
The quartz schist formation that is Green’s planting canvas dates from the Middle Ordovician to Lower Cambrian periods, formed more than 500 million years ago, one of several geologic formations that converge in the area. The housing tower is sited back from the street; stairs and a ramp bring residents and visitors up and over the 1.2-acre site, atop the bedrock, and onto an asymmetrical concrete plaza. A steel-grate overlook cantilevers from one side of the plaza, offering views of the landscape, but even without the plantings, the bedrock puts on a show, exhibiting shades of gray, black, white, and oxidized oranges and reds, all highlighted by quartz that sizzles in the sun. The geologic strata of compressed layers of rock are easy to read, especially where implacable junipers creep into the seams.
There was a lot of subtle choreography involved in creating the four terraced levels that align with certain stairs as they descend the bedrock from the plaza to the street level. Green says he wanted the landscape to be “as light as possible on the ground. It’s about not imposing our will on this geology, but working with it, exploring it, and using it the best we can to create the experience.”
THE TERRAIN TEAM CONJURED A WIDE RANGE OF TEXTURES AND COLORS ON THE ROCK.
The terrace levels are created by long precast-concrete beams that extend like arms from either side of the stairs at each of four levels. Their locations on the site were plotted with string tied to waypoint markers. The path of each string was then spray-painted bright blue along the rock. Horizontal steel dowels tie each beam together, and vertical dowels secure the beams to the bedrock. Much of the plaza area is infilled with soil, and the terrace levels create shallow tubs of soil on the bedrock. Horizontal weepholes were drilled through the eight-inch-wide beams every foot or so to aid drainage, and the beams are largely obscured by the plantings.
The soil and plantings thin out the farther one moves from the building. The site’s perimeter is surrounded by low mesh fencing that doesn’t obscure the visual impact of the bedrock face. The planting criteria for this seemingly inhospitable place called for pollinator-attracting natives that were drought-resistant and steadfast in the face of full sun. (The Terrain team modeled the building and landscape to determine solar exposure levels.) And the plants had to do well in shallow soil. On the bedrock section, the dirt was only 18 inches at its deepest, and often just a few inches deep. But within these constraints, Green and the Terrain team managed to conjure a wide range of textures and colors on the rock: purple catmint flowers, wispy ferns, and woody sumac.
The determination of the site’s junipers stands out immediately; they reach their fingers into corners and crevices, growing in just six inches of soil. Shining sumac, which can reach up to five feet high, offers verticality and shape near the top of the bedrock. Thorny roses near the building’s entrance keep kids from scrambling onto the rocks. Throughout, the team removed very little rock. A tall birch tree along the building’s side door necessitated the excavation of a few feet of rock, but that was largely all.
The landscape is designed to give people a reason to come back across all four seasons. The flowering catmint will keep its blooms throughout the summer. Staghorn sumac’s pyramidal clusters of fuzzy red berries are persistent through much of fall, and juniper and eastern white pine will stay regal throughout the winter. Reaching up to eight feet, these pines, as well as serviceberry shrubs (popping with fruit in late June), isolate a side courtyard where the original church’s masonry foundations lie, in strong contrast to the exposed rock at the front of the building.
Farther out on the sheer rock face, beyond patches of intentional soil and flora, the plants are sparser but perhaps even more impressive. Purple-flowered volunteer clover and sensitive ferns (usually more at home in wetlands than on a sun-bleached rock in the Bronx) are the most daring, springing from rock like magical set pieces in a fairy tale. They are small but perhaps the most eye-catching plants on-site, especially for passersby who can reach out and touch the bedrock from the sidewalk. These small bits of flora exist in relative isolation compared to the native meadows where cycles of spontaneous expansion are celebrated, but like native meadows, they blur the boundary between “weed” and “planting.” And the residents pay close attention to these cycles, says Lakesha Baker of Wavecrest Management, the building’s manager. If anything looks to be ailing, they want to know how soon the landscape crew can take a look. They tell her, “‘It can’t wait three months,’” she says. “The residents take a great deal of pride in the fact that they have not just tree pits.”
Jacqueline Rosario-Perez, the assistant director of resident services for Beacon of Hope Catholic Charities, says access to this landscape is nothing short of therapeutic. “The beauty of the landscape itself is just so invigorating from a mental health standpoint,” she says. “It really helps people to be able to enjoy nature and be able to have the ability to step outside and enjoy something that’s beautiful and welcoming. Many of our clients have come from really challenging backgrounds, [with] histories of homelessness. To have [this] landscape, in terms of hierarchies of needs, fulfills something beautiful for them.”
That’s been Graviel Pagan’s experience. He’s lived at St. Augustine Terrace since it opened, and often spends time in the landscape several times a day. When he feels depressed or anxious, he goes outside to relieve stress. “It’s a nice atmosphere,” Pagan says. He’s fascinated by the bedrock formation it sits on. These rocky outcroppings were something he enjoyed photographing even before he moved into St. Augustine. He likes to sketch pictures of the flowers and birds on the bedrock. Whatever he draws, it has to be spontaneous. Like the plants that weren’t planned here but help to define this little cliff of tenacious life, he says, “It has to come in the moment.”
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on architecture and landscape architecture.