Harvard Magazine: The Urban Landscaper
By William S. Saunders, Harvard Magazine
WITH HIS graying red hair going every which way and his designer black clothes rumpled, Michael Van Valkenburgh, 61, looks like a contradiction: an absent-minded hipster professor. A professor and designer he is—the Eliot professor in practice of landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), and probably the most celebrated landscape architect in America. But a hipster he isn’t and wouldn’t want to be. He is much too boyish and earnest for that.
On a walk through the new Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP), which his firm designed, he effuses in numerical terms:
“In good weather, these soccer fields are used 18 hours a day. And the players are speaking in over 50 languages. I love to see them coming down the sidewalks through toney Brooklyn Heights in their soccer clothes.”
“Within a week after we finished building this wetland, four types of ducks were using it. And all these plants, chosen because they could tolerate salt, survived after Hurricane Sandy covered them with 30 inches of salt water.”
“Too bad you weren’t here last weekend. You see those benches lining most of the path? All two miles of them were occupied. On a nice day, this place draws thousands.”
It’s clear that what Van Valkenburgh most cares about in this park—perhaps the most prominent project of its kind under way in the United States—is people and their daily experiences. To see how his design serves people, consider the care that went into planning the lighting. Rather than line the shore path with lights down by the water’s edge, Van Valkenburgh has erected tall wooden poles some yards back and topped them with fixtures that cast an even glow, like the moon: bright enough to provide safety but dim enough to leave the water and far objects like the Manhattan Bridge visible. “I was trying to give a little dignity to looking at the views at night,” he says. “At the first public meeting about BBP, a lady too old to be able to visit the countryside any more begged that I make a place where you could put your feet in the water and see a reflection of the moon on it. It was a touching moment.”
The site is huge, encompassing six abandoned industrial piers in northwest Brooklyn. Most of the 85 acres in this $380-million-plus project have spectacular views of Lower Manhattan, Governors Island, and the Statue of Liberty. Piers One and Six have been open for almost four years; the others will open in stages during the next five years.
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