A Tale of Two Modernist Parks
By National Trust Staff | From Forum Bulletin | May 11, 2012 |
Editor’s note: Last month, 24 State and Local Partners gathered in Fort Worth, Tex., for their annual meeting. A dozen or so came a day early to discuss topics of interest that are unique to large urban areas. These representatives of big city organizations visited several Fort Worth landmarks including two urban parks: one restored and the other in desperate need of restoration. The tour sparked a discussion about modernist parks in general—how to build appreciation for them, how best to maintain and preserve them, and how to protect them in the future.
For Fort Worth’s spectacular modernist urban parks it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Philip Johnson’s 1974 Water Gardens has been restored and is meticulously maintained. Lawrence Halprin’s Heritage Park, dedicated in 1977 and completed in 1980, languishes in disrepair behind a chain link fence. Perhaps the Water Gardens' story is the more startling of the two.
In an April 11, 2012 blog in The Huffington Post, Charles Birnbaum, landscape scholar and founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, wrote that while “architecture from the 1960’s and 1970’s has a particularly high mortality rate … it is usually the endangered buildings we hear about and not the landscapes.” And so, for example, M. Paul Friedberg’s 1973 Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, which the city appears determined to demolish, may join a host of other modernist parks, lost quickly and often without fanfare, and long before our understanding and appreciation of them has matured.
Last month as representatives of the National Trust and several big city preservation organizations toured Fort Worth’s Heritage Park, they grappled with the many challenges that face these landscapes. Far from the pastoral landscapes pioneered by Frederick Law Olmsted and made manifest in places like Central Park in New York City, modernist park designs like those at Peavey and Heritage draw from a more structural palate. Here, landscape architects use concrete, brick, stones, and paving materials to shape spaces that hold water and plant materials, quite the opposite of their more verdant predecessors. As many of these parks sit amidst dense urban blocks and have limited acreage, designers often created terraces to make the most of the small space and to allow users to experience the park at different levels. Fountains, cascades, spray pools, and reflecting pools became common features especially in warmer climes. Heritage Park has an elaborate system of trenches and spillways that ensured water was ever flowing through the park.
Where dead trees, unkempt lawns, and fetid water features became the bane of an earlier generation of neglected public spaces, unmaintained modernist parks are often marred by graffiti, cracked and spauling concrete, and broken light fixtures. In parks such as Heritage Park, where water is integral to the design, the loss of water moving through the landscape because of disrepair and neglect so thoroughly impacts the aesthetic and the experience that the design becomes unintelligible. Without a clear understanding of the intention and art of these spaces, it is easy for city officials to claim that these eyesores are not worth reinvestment. Plus these parks are doubly threatened by the fact that they normally sit on prime real estate in the urban core. Given all this, how and why did the Water Gardens survive? How can advocates secure the same fate for Heritage Park and Peavey Plaza?
Water Gardens: From Tragedy to New Life
On a hot day in June 2004, three family members and an acquaintance drowned in the Cascade Pool at the Water Gardens. They had been enjoying the cool spray of water as it flowed down a series of terraces to collect in a pool below. One child slipped in the pool and as the others jumped into save her they were all caught in the overpowering suction of an unregulated water pump used to circulate the water. That tragedy and the resulting outrage and lawsuit could have meant the end of the Water Gardens which was already suffering from lack of maintenance.
Instead, strong public advocacy and the commitment of some private funds persuaded the city to reinvest in, rather than abandon the Philip Johnson design. Today the park has never been in better shape. Modifications to the filtration system and pools, along with conscientious maintenance allow visitors full enjoyment of this design masterpiece.
For advocates of besieged modernist landscapes, the Water Gardens offers inspiration. Heritage Park may also emerge from its diminished state intact. Through the tireless advocacy of Historic Fort Worth, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, and Halprin himself, before his death in 2009, preservation efforts are now underway which include stabilization, subsurface monitoring, and a conditions assessment. Hopefully, this stewardship effort will bring attention and support to Heritage Park and result in a plan for its permanent protection and reopening.
Both examples illustrate the need to build greater appreciation and understanding of these public spaces through documentation and advocacy. Our modernist urban parks should not be allowed to suffer through the worst of times—not only should we respect the work of the architects who created them, but we should also remember that parks and outdoor spaces of all types are essential to urban life.