Photo courtesy Margaret Morton

Lancelot “Capability” Brown was one of the most sought-after landscape architects of eighteenth century England, whose imprint on history was his unique style of “gardenless” gardening. In hundreds of private parks surrounding the country’s estates, he did away with natural features—the trees, streams, and grasses—to create sprawling expanses of smoothed over ground, coursed through by serpentine rivers. His works, which were broadly considered replicas of the wild in its ideal form, in fact required massive feats of engineering, the uprooting of native plants, and often the people who had long lived on the sites. More than two hundred years later, we’ve not only inherited Brown’s penchant for lawns, but also the contradictions on which they are built: man-made environments that claim to be wholly natural, and a stubborn blind eye to the water and chemicals that they consume.

Probing these contradictions is at the heart of Diana Balmori’s co-authored Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony. Published in 1993, it is a prescient book in which Balmori describes lawns as “the major crop of the United States.” But it hit the press with barely a whimper, and it would be more than a decade before Americans began to concern themselves en masse with the ecological toll of maintaining pristine green turf. However, Balmori has carved a career out of calling trends before their time. The urban historian and landscape architect has been at the forefront of sustainable design, creating urban spaces composed of fluid lines between landscape and building structures. She is best known for her interpretation of cities as living entities, where blurred boundaries express deep interdependence. Her abiding interest, she says, is in “how you put a city together, both spatially and socially,” and in the politics of creating public space. “I was interested in who gets behind this stuff to say, this is going to be public, this is going to be for all of us, or some of us. What does ‘publicness’ mean? And when does it happen when you put a city together?”

Balmori considers designers like Brown in much of her written work, but she’s never clearer than in her 2010 A Landscape Manifesto. Here she attempts “to understand what our relation to the history of landscape design is, in order to free ourselves from it.” For Balmori, nature and structure are not binaries but rather inextricably entwined, and her work makes few Brown-esque attempts to imitate the aesthetics of the wild, exposing the engineering in her projects as a reminder that in this moment of rising temperatures and sea levels, technological interventions remain as important as ever.

In New Haven, she transformed a corridor of railroad into a linear park, allowing new life to embed itself within industrial paths of iron and stone en route to the city. In Bilbao, she created a metal-clad garden that seems to glide up the staircase on which it was built. And in New York, she has designed green roofs for condos in Battery Park and factories in Long Island City.

I met with Balmori at her office in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, situated just under the High Line, whereupon she promptly told me, “We are spectators to too many things today. I think we need to be in there instead.”

Nick Murray for Guernica

Guernica: You mentioned that landscape tends to be in the background and you want to bring it into the foreground. Have you seen this happening in the course of your career?

Diana Balmori: For most of the twentieth century landscape was sort of shrubbing up architecture, a very secondary thing that came after the big building is built. You shrub the thing up to make it pretty. It never had any important critical function. When you looked at a city, you basically thought that it was buildings. Or say that you took it from the point of view of an urban designer, then you essentially created what forms of transportation you put through it and put the buildings in between. But everybody started from the concept that these are the buildings that are going to just shape it, and here’s where we’re going to put this, that, and the other.

I think that we’re probably going to have a world of cities and that the mayors are going to be calling the shots.

But what’s happened is that landscape architecture has recently acquired all sorts of tools that now are very good for being able to design spaces and cities. What landscape has done is reverted to saying, okay, this is basically the piece of earth on which we’re going to set a city, and what are the conditions of it? What is the geology below it, and what is it doing to the city, and then what happens when rain comes down on it? Does it get absorbed?

It begins to look at what are the pieces that can be woven together to make this into space, buildings being one of the many? It’s bringing all the pieces together. It’s not just buildings, it’s not just road; it’s also social factors, geological factors, climate factors—a much more complex mix.

Guernica: And this shift in perspective is taking place at a time when urbanization is on the rise…

Diana Balmori: Above all, it’s because we have acquired these tools to deal with cities—and it turns out that most people want to live in cities—that population is shifting to cities. By the year 2000, half of the population was in cities, and in twenty-five more years, three-quarters is projected to be in cities. Therefore, it’s become the critical piece in all societies. I think it’s more than that, too, because cities are going to become the real units of work, rather than the state or the nation. It may be that we’re all frustrated with Congress and that we feel nothing can be done, but I think that the mayors of cities are the last political individuals who can move to get something done, more than the governor of a state or the president of the nation. It may be the political moment, but the importance of cities is growing rapidly. I think that we’re probably going to have a world of cities and that the mayors are going to be calling the shots.

Guernica: The New York mayoral election is coming up, what sort of shots does the next mayor need to call?

Diana Balmori: Address climate change. That’s number one. But with climate change, the mayor has to address—not ignore—the social issues, issues of enormous differences in income that have become much more acute in the last ten years than they were before. And ecology is not separate from social issues, so they have to go together. Forget about what the rest of the world is doing. We depend on the rest of the world, but if each city mayor took it under his or her belt to do something about the issue of climate change, we’d get there faster.

I’m very much for engineering of whatever landscape I’m working on, but with this proviso: that you use the engineering to work like nature works. In that sense, one is imitating nature, but not aesthetically.

Guernica: How has the growth of ecology affected landscape architecture?

Diana Balmori: Oh, enormously. But I also need to add, because some people get confused by it, that landscape architecture is not ecology. It has a good ecological base. It uses it as a superb discipline and an enormously important ingredient in what it does. But it is not ecology, it’s a separate thing. Really, landscape was born in the seventeenth century out of painting. The painters were the first ones to see out there and call it a landscape. Nobody really looked at the world around them as landscapes. So they invented even the word, and then the landscapers who designed landscapes would copy what was in the painting and put it on the land, so it just came out of an art. And the word landscape meant painting; it didn’t mean designing landscape.

Guernica: In A Landscape Manifesto you’re critical about ecology, and suggest that from an aesthetic perspective, it’s a conservative force. Can you speak to that a little bit?

You accept that the river can rise and fall. You accept the constant change of nature.

Diana Balmori: I actually have been known to make attacks on ecology because until the nineties there was a mindset among ecologists that design is totally useless, that what you have to do is imitate nature, which has all the solutions, and if you got into designing something then you were mucking it up. I couldn’t disagree more violently with that. When you look at something like Central Park or this thing [the High Line] in front of us, there’s a mix of very clear human engineering with ecology and with landscape. But though the great designer of Central Park, Frederick Olmsted, was trying to give you the impression of nature and the experience of countryside, he engineered that place to bits. The engineering is colossal. He moved rocks, all kinds of systems of water, he just really shaped it. He is used as an example of somebody who left nature alone, and there couldn’t be anything that’s further from the truth. He was very, very clear, but he wanted to give the expression of nature, and that business—particularly in the nineteenth-century aesthetic—of trying to make it look completely natural has led us down a very false path. Number one, it was not what was being done, and number two, it led to this image that you had to not touch nature, based on a series of false assumptions. I’m very much for engineering whatever landscape I’m working on, but with this proviso: that you use the engineering to work like nature works. In that sense, one is imitating nature, but not aesthetically.

Guernica: How is this idea evident in your work?

Diana Balmori: I’m working on a project in Memphis, and Memphis is on the Mississippi River and the Mississippi River goes up 40 feet and down 40 feet. And quite apart from the fact that rivers had been mistreated and tried to be fixed when they’re not a fixed entity—there comes the issue of nature changing all the time and being allowed to change. We are building a public space, with architects, a space that is at the end of Beale Street, and Beale Street is the street of the blues, and at the end of the street of the blues they wanted to create a whole series of platforms, a big platform in which you could have concerts at night, and this is where the Mississippi boats come up and down full of tourists. And the people who come there to go to the bars at night, and they go and see Elvis Presley’s place. So our idea was to put them like trays at different heights, and that at different times of the year some of them would get covered with water.

This is engineered for the plants at each level: these can take a lot of time being in the water, and these less, and these less, and these without it at all. But there’s a change in relationship to the river according to the height. You accept that the river can rise and fall. You accept the constant change of nature. But at the same time your own position within it is that you are at very different viewpoints on the river but always in proximity. So the aim is to see if we can set up a different kind of relationship with the river. That kind of relationship, of being much more intimately tied to the rhythms of the river and being close to it, and seeing all of its moods and changes, seems to me a way of starting to reverse the other take that we had, which was that nature was the other and we simply built walls to protect ourselves from it and fix it.

Guernica: What do you look for when you’re at a site that you’re about to work on?

Diana Balmori: The relationships of everything around it. Be it that it’s a neighborhood, be it that it’s a little store, be it that there are people living on boats, be it that it’s a river and the river is muddy or not muddy. Every quality of it. That includes the people in it and what they do. The work is framed in that. It’s not the site by itself; it’s what it connects to.

I spend a lot of time, usually at the very beginning of the job where I just get in there and live there for a couple weeks, and then it diminishes as the job goes along. And then there’s the moment that that job opens, and you look at it. And really, in landscape, what happens is, unlike architecture where when it’s finished, it’s finished, in landscape you’re really just beginning. You’re going to begin to see a process starting, and when you have small plants, small trees, the things haven’t woven into each other, so it’s a very different moment for the two professions.

Guernica: Has the reception to your work and your ideas changed?

Diana Balmori: Constantly. The thing that I would also say is that in many cases I’ve just done things too early. With a colleague of mine at the Yale School of Forestry & Environment Studies, we wrote a book about the lawn in the late eighties and made an analysis of how ecologically insane it is for our time, how it needs to be rethought and used in a different way. We had no response whatsoever when the book first appeared, and then about ten years later everybody started writing books about the lawn, and everybody began to say that. It’s very important to put an idea out when the time is right, and if I had to criticize myself, it’s that I’ve been doing it before the time was right. Our handling of water: we started working with water and dealing with issues of floods in the late nineties, but it was at a time when water projects and flooding didn’t seem important. Today, to say something about flooding, you’ll catch anybody’s ear. It changes constantly, yes.

Guernica: On the subject of flooding, what can New York City do to protect against another hurricane like Hurricane Sandy?

Diana Balmori: Many things, but there is one very difficult fact, and that is that the waters of the ocean are rising, and we are surrounded by oceans here. One of the most obvious things to defend ourselves against this is marshes. The marsh edge breaks the force of the water and gives something in which the waters can be absorbed. But if the waters keep rising, the marsh dies. When I was in Mumbai, on the east coast of India, I had a project, and in front of the project there was a long band of marsh. I was there during a very serious storm, and I saw how the force of the water was totally absorbed by the marsh, and the land on which I was working was totally spared. What I tried to do afterwards was essentially extend this area of marsh in order to make this more effective. They saw that marsh as a weedy thing, something they didn’t really want on the project, but they accepted using it in the area that had water on the site, where it gathered water and cleaned water to save it and reuse it. A friend of mine, an ecologist, nearly two years later was farther up the coast and he saw a very similar marsh, and he saw that the marsh was dying and the surrounding population was very dependent on all the good fishes that were in the marsh. Simply, the ocean had risen, and it was killing the marsh. So one of the tools that you have is gone, because even if we address climate change we aren’t going to obtain results for years. So we know that for the next twenty-five years or thirty years, or more probably, we’re going to have the ocean rising.

Guernica: You are probably best known for the green roofs you’ve worked on.

Diana Balmori: You know, it’s a dumb little thing. It really is. We have a very effective technology for putting them on very cheaply and over big surfaces. The reason that I’m interested is not because of the technology and not because of the roof in itself—although I like the possibility of these becoming public spaces on top of buildings—but because of their additive value. We have ones that we’ve built in Long Island City. We studied it for a year, and we saw how it saved water, cleaned water, reduced the temperature on the roof, did not allow the roof to get really cold in the winter thereby saving on heating inside.

I think that the task we have now is to be able to transmit a vision that changes our relationship to most of the things in nature…

But what interests me now is that if you take one building after another after another, and you put the green roof over a large extent of the city, you can began to affect the “heat island.” The “heat island” is carbon dioxide, and it’s what every city has on top of it. So when you have the city there, up goes the temperature and up goes the carbon dioxide. So this very dumb little element, if it’s used on a big enough scale, could really affect that. It should be part of the building code. I’m not interested in building roof gardens, I’m interested in what it can do as a citywide element. It’s really so dumb and so easy, but we don’t have any tools by which to implement something at that scale. I think mayors are the only ones that can.

Guernica: How can we change the building code to incentivize this?

Diana Balmori: That’s a very long process, but I really think that it is citizen action in the end. It’s citizen action that can say, look, I want my neighborhood to have all green roofs and the code has to say that every time someone changes their roof, they have to make it a green roof. It’s a very simple deal, and it’s very inexpensive. The city is going to save money on heating, they are going to save money on sewers, they are going to save money on all kinds of problems if they do just that.

Guernica: Personally, are you optimistic that the changes we’ve been talking about—changes in the building code, changes in the way we build, changes in the way we think about the city—are someday going to occur?

Diana Balmori: I think that the task we have now is to be able to transmit a vision that changes our relationship to most of the things in nature that we have around us, and that’s what’s going to produce changes in codes and all that. I don’t think that it’s very practical to just go about changing a code, you know? That is the third step. I think that the first is to create a powerful enough vision that makes people understand what is implied in public actions and public space and in the relationship to the animals, to the air, to the water, so that suddenly they want to connect in a different way. I am optimistic about that, and I do think that over time we are going to be able to transmit a vision that makes that happen, that sets up a different relationship of people to the rest of nature. And the codes are going to come out of that.

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