The landscapers’ gentility

New digs for ASLA. (Gensler)

New digs for ASLA. (Gensler)

The American Society of Landscape Architects plans to turn its headquarters, on Eye Street in Washington, into a “world-class” Center for Landscape Architecture. Shudders ran up my spine as I saw the article that said so, by an anonymous contributor to Dirt, the ASLA newsletter. Visions danced in my mind of a nice building demolished and replaced by – what? – a torqued nightmare of a landscape curling up at its edges as if to entrap the people trying to enjoy it. Or maybe I was just channeling the Bjarke Ingels Group’s plan for the front yard of the Smithsonian Institution, not far away on the Mall.

But no. The landscapers have come up with something entirely reasonable. It threatens nobody. Designed by the international architecture firm Gensler, the new center would be inserted behind the existing façade of the old, three-story building the society has occupied on Eye for 17 years. Minor tweaks would allow a swath of verdure to decorate the stringcourse above the first floor. Enchanting! Inside, walls setting off an old staircase would be removed to open a new atrium three floors in height.

Although undescribed in the Dirt article, the design of the new interior may well be modern, and who cares? It will be inside. Its context, the District’s vibrant Chinatown, will feel as if it has dodged a bullet. Landscape design is an exercise, it seems to me, in the gentle manipulation of nature in the vicinity of architecture. Landscape architects lack the arrogance of architects, and the cityscape is the better for their modesty.

Mark A. Focht, FASLA, immediate past president of the ASLA, was quoted by Dirt:

This is an opportunity to create a facility to reflect the image and ethic of our profession — a world-class Center for Landscape Architecture that will inspire and engage our staff, our membership, allied professionals, public officials and the general public.

If this new headquarters reflects the continuation of the landscapers’ gentility against all odds, then the society deserves the applause not just of Mother Nature but of mankind and its built environment.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to The landscapers’ gentility

  1. Nice, soft, and appreciated post about one building in the public realm of Washington, DC. I wish I didn’t have to fear for my life when I walked the town. No offense intended–just the facts about public realm in large urban American cities these years. 🙂

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  2. No, Brent, they are leaving the facade alone, and the inside as it is today is regrettable. I don’t blame them for redesigning it. The original interiors were probably ruined long ago. There was nothing about the existing interior whose loss preservationists are likely to regret.

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  3. Brent Runyon says:

    Facadism. Facadectomy. Are these great treatments for a place? Perhaps, perhaps not. If the interior is truly unusable, them I lean in favor of preserving what can be preserved. But LAs are at the forefront of the sustainable design movement, so I hope they aren’t trashing a building just because its aesthetics don’t suit them. Also, what is really left of DC’s Chinatown?

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