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.