Lost in Translation

Modernist landscapes of the 1960s and '70s reflect the idealism of the times. Now they're being replaced with designs for a less hopeful age.

 

Demolished
Ten years after the Museum of Modern Art sold the Travertine House to Martha Stewart, the gutted house was demolished.

Credit: Caroline Rob Zaleski

Every year, in cities and suburbs across America, significant works of modernist landscape architecture succumb to the bulldozer. In recent years, major landscapes by Lawrence Halprin, M. Paul Friedberg, Dan Kiley, Hideo Sasaki, and others have been demolished or are in the process of demolition or teetering on the edge. Although architects have done a good job educating the public about the importance of modernist buildings, most of us could walk past a Kiley, or Halprin, or Friedberg landscape in New York, Minneapolis, or San Francisco and never know the difference. But their loss, some say, is just as grave as the loss of a Frank Lloyd Wright or Richard Neutra house—or perhaps more so. It can be argued that, in the context of city life, landscapes are more important than architecture, that they embody civic values, and that as they disappear, so does our understanding of place.

In Denver, one such modernist landscape was razed last summer. Halprin designed Skyline Park in 1973 as part of a downtown urban renewal scheme. The park, though not regarded as one of his most important works, nonetheless contained many of his hallmarks. A berm raised along the edge of the space created a sense of separation from the city street, and three signature fountains punctuated the line of the park, animating the space with a play of water. (Halprin, who designed the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., is perhaps most famous for these open-plan fountains in San Francisco, Fort Worth, Tex., and Portland, Ore.) Planters, seating, paving material, and grade changes were conceived as parts of a geometric whole. Although abstract, the jagged forms, paved canyons, and pinkish-hued cement made allusions to Rocky Mountain landscapes.

Read more about the lost Travertine House

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