Michael Van Valkenburgh is the principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), a landscape architecture firm renowned for creating experientially rich and environmentally sustainable places. Based in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, MVVA has designed many urban parks, public spaces, and master plans that encourage city dwellers to reconnect with their environment and with each other. Major recent projects include Brooklyn Bridge Park and Chelsea Cove at Hudson River Park, both in New York. In 2010 the firm won an international competition to redesign the site of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, home to Eero Saarinen’s famous Gateway Arch. The BMW Guggenheim Lab | log sat down with Van Valkenburgh, who teaches at Harvard University, to discuss the role of landscape architecture in “emotional cityness.”
What landscapes move you most?
I find any built landscape in an urban environment more moving than its counterpart in a nonurban location. In other words, there’s something really poignant about people having preserved or made landscape in a city for people to enjoy close to so many other people. One of the most moving urban landscape experiences of my life was in my last year in high school, when my best friend and his mom invited me to go to Paris. As soon as his mom went to sleep, we headed out the door and wandered into the Tuileries. I didn’t know what landscape architecture was when I was 17 and I didn’t know what the Tuileries were, but we walked in and there was the order of the trees, the serenity, the vastness of the space, the lights, people moving and sitting. A similarly moving moment to me, but very different, is in New York when I am walking down Fifth Avenue with Central Park on one side and the city on the other—the two realms invigorate each other. I don’t think of landscape as escape from the city, I think of it as escape in the city.
Urban landscapes can bring us together and also let us spread out. How do you balance the possibilities for social gathering and solitude in designing a public space?
I think we all want times in our lives when we’re with others and when we’re alone. Most landscapes can afford the opportunity to have larger gathering spaces and more intimate areas, although it’s more challenging to provide these when a space is small. The physical form of Central Park, for example, with the meandering quality of the paths, accommodates both moments of solitude and of chance encounters. Bethesda Terrace in Central Park is of course the ultimate example of a coming-together space, as Olmsted imagined. I think creating opportunities for public interaction is still a requirement for public space design.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Water seems to play an important role in your work, as in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park, Teardrop Park, Allegheny Riverfront Park, Mill Race Park, and your several Toronto proposals, among others. How does a close connection with water affect city life?
With all humanity there are these common denominators, these things that we all enjoy. Water is just part of our survival. But I think it’s on a more sensual level that people are attracted to water. There’s something elusive and intangible and ephemeral and unfathomable about water. Often our clients give us a site next to water to work on, but the question becomes how to work with it. In many parks in New York, lighting is placed right next to the water’s edge for nighttime illumination. However, the next time you’re in Brooklyn Bridge Park, you’ll notice there is no light at the water’s edge. The lighting is all held back, so that when you are near the water’s edge at night, there isn’t this barrier of light between you and the experience of the water moving.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Let me tell you a story. Thirteen years ago we had our first public meeting for Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was very controversial in the beginning, there was a lot of community concern about it. This amazing woman who was at least 80 years old stood up. She went to the microphone and she said something like, “I’m an old retired lady and I don’t have money to go to the country anymore. And the one thing that I want you to let me do in Brooklyn Bridge Park is to go down to the edge of the water at night and put my toes in the water and to see the reflection of the moon in the night sky.” And it almost made you want to burst into tears. It was something that everyone could relate to.
Many of your projects un-flatten the ground on a site to create mounds, glens, and slopes. How does topography affect the way we see, interact, and move in a space?
I like “un-flattening,” let’s stick with that. I’d like to mention Matthew Urbanski, who is a principal of MVVA and a significant force with regard to the unflattening of the world through our firm’s work. The work that we do is not best viewed or critiqued from a two-dimensional plan perspective. We take a much more sculptural and three-dimensional approach to land-shaping. There are several reasons it’s so dramatic, almost exaggerated, in Brooklyn Bridge Park. First of all the site is largely a manufactured or filled site. There was almost a tyranny of flatness on the site, because it was originally constructed for shipping and it needed to be flat. But this is a part of New York City with heroic urban scale. The harbor is huge, Lower Manhattan is huge, the new Frank Gehry building [at 8 Spruce Street in Manhattan] is huge. The bridge, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway—everything is huge. We felt the unflattening of the site needed to be done with a lot of gusto and needed to operate at the heroic scale of what surrounds it. The other thing is that there’s a shaping of experience and a holding of space that creates smaller or more intimate areas in the park that you could only achieve by altering topography.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, exploded axonometric view. Courtesy MVVA.
Is there one bodily sense—as in sight, touch, hearing, movement—that is most powerful in experiencing a place?
The thing that comes to mind when you ask me that question is spatial continuity. What this curving, rolling topography gives us as designers is an opportunity to use the creation, syncopation, and unfolding of space to create provocative sequences that offer surprise without being scary. You go up one side of a hill and you can’t see down the other; you go around a curve in this direction and you can’t see over here. The kind of rolling, up-and-down quality of Brooklyn Bridge Park is all about creating these continuities that are experientially rich and varied and really unlike what a lot of the city is like. New York is on a grid, things are straight, and we spend lots of time in subways. Then you go into the park and it rolls and turns, and it has the evocativeness of a natural landscape. But at the same time it feels significantly man-made. You don’t have to be in a place that feels completely like it was made by the hand of God for it to be magical.
Boston Children’s Museum
How does the scale of a landscape relate to the scale of the human body—from the intimacy of a room, to the expansiveness of the harbor or the skyline?
I’d mention Olmsted again. He talked about range in landscapes. As we were discussing, sometimes we want to hang out with people and sometimes we want to be alone. Some days we want to go to the edge of the water and breathe in the harbor, and other times we want to be held and sheltered, and feel more private and introverted. But the two together are great. The restrictiveness of one area only makes an area of expansiveness feel better and vice versa. And I think good public design, good public landscape-making tries to put those together.