Next, he’ll build a canyon

Times Staff Writer

THE first time he took his future wife, Priscilla, on a date, Ken Smith bicycled her to an abandoned sand and gravel quarry west of Des Moines.

“Terribly romantic,” she recalled, straight of face.

“It was a wasteland,” he acknowledged. “Most people would see it as a wasteland. Central Park was a wasteland, you know.”

Even then, in 1983, he was envisioning the flooded old quarry as a park too -- if not quite another Central Park, at least as a place with fishing piers and boat docks around the scarred hole in the earth.


“I thought it kind of strange,” she said, but so was he, the Iowa farm boy who was campaigning to preserve old barns as a staffer in the state conservation office, but who refused to view the long straight rows of Iowa corn with nostalgia. Like the quarry, the cornfields were “basically an industrialized landscape,” he said.

“He certainly saw that differently,” as wife Priscilla McGeehon summed it up 23 years later. “I gotta believe the roots of what you’re doing now were there.”

They were speculating about this in their TriBeCa loft on Ken Smith’s first day home after the trip west that brought the news likely to change his life -- that his team had won the job of transforming the abandoned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine into a park bigger than Central Park with an ambitious name to match, the Orange County Great Park.

So which is more unlikely: That Orange County would have turned to a New York hipster to design its Great Park? Or that Smith would have morphed into that hipster from his upbringing on a one-cow farm?

The cow was named Bossy, and Smith can still recall how he’d call her in for milking, “Come, Bossy!” His other main chores were picking up the corn that his father’s machine missed and tending the onions by carefully pushing soil away from the good ones. “I was proud of my onions,” he said.

But there was not much future in family farming in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Smith was growing up, and already his father had a side job as a mechanic, while his mom cleaned houses. The high school guidance counselor advised all the kids to go to college, the girls to study home economics, the boys engineering. His parents said the University of Iowa was too liberal. Iowa State was OK.

That’s where he discovered Earth Days and landscape architecture classes in the agriculture school and, in the library, the writings of Robert Smithson, the pioneering earthworks artist, and Andy Warhol, whose idea of the natural was commercial ready-made stuff sold at the corner store. Years later, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art was being remodeled and Smith was asked to design its roof garden, his first proposal was to create a field of plastic daisies -- cheap fake daisies that twirled in the wind.

His job with the conservation office in Iowa gave him an education in the practical needs of parks and recreation lands and how to create a picnic area, but Smith knew from Day One that he’d leave the home turf, to go to graduate school, for starters.

He was accepted at Harvard, where the landscape architecture department of the Graduate School of Design began in the 1800s as an extension of the Brookline office of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, in an era when it was applied mainly to the estates of the wealthy and grand spaces such as Central Park, which Olmsted co-designed. By the mid-20th century, the focus was more on large-scale housing and suburban development -- inspired by the post-WWII baby boom -- and by the 1980s the emphasis had evolved again, to landscape as art.

Traditional teaching about Central Park saw it as the antidote to the industrial city, an oasis of nature to mitigate urban ills. But when Smith moved to New York after finishing his graduate studies in 1986, he began reading Olmsted’s writings and learned that the architect saw that public space in social terms, as one place in a diverse city where “people of different backgrounds came together.”

With time, Smith saw the nation’s best-known park in the tongue-twisting manner of a postmodernist -- as nature, perhaps, but not natural. “Yeah, it’s all man-made. Most people don’t see that. It’s a brilliant work of art,” he said.

Smith still could appreciate the functional side of Olmsted’s creation, how different uses were on different grades, for instance, the carriage trails separated from the social promenades. But the common man sunning on the Great Lawn would have a hard time grasping Smith’s reading of the place as, in essence, “a great emptiness in the heart of the city ... [where] each generation can find what it needs.”

Smith was a one-man Manhattan office for a San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm until the 1987 stock market crash made it too costly to maintain a New York outlet. For four years he lived on the West Coast while his wife stayed behind, near her own job as a college textbook editor. But the economic slump enabled her to find a New York loft they could afford, which she described to him over the phone as “basically a big shoe box,” he said, “and I thought a shoe box sounded pretty good.”

The loft’s “view” out its single wall with windows is of a small chair and clay pots on a rickety fire escape behind a disrepaired brick building that once contained city employment offices. That property is not yet in sync with the transformation of TriBeCa (the “triangle below Canal”) spurred by its ‘70s influx of arts types, and more recently the well-heeled.

One would expect a landscape designer to have greenery at home, and Smith did make his wife a big moss pot when they bought the loft in 1990. “But the place is so hot, it just dried up and died,” he said. “We have north-facing windows. It’s dark.” So he went with fake ornamentation, plastic and silk flowers, obvious fakes, not subtle ones.

When it came to filling the rectangular living room -- virtually all the loft’s space -- Smith recalled William Randolph Hearst’s enormous dining table in his castle on the California coast. Smith created his Warhol-style, by sticking two wooden doors end to end atop legs of galvanized pipe, then placing them on a thin black rubber mat he found on Canal Street. The chairs? Plastic.

Part of his point in proposing plastic daisies for his MoMA project was easy to grasp -- how creating any garden on a roof is “inherently an act of simulation.” It also made sense not to use soil and water, for the rooftop in question was fragile, above the museum’s galleries. In fact, no one would walk in that garden -- it would be visible only from windows of surrounding buildings, notably the Museum Tower condos, whose residents had final say over the project.

Smith figured his mistake with the spinning daisies was bringing samples to the apartment of the condo board’s president, where the residents got a close-up view of the overt artificiality. After that got a thumbs down, he altered the salesmanship for his next proposal for the roof, which was to simulate camouflage patterns using artificial boulders, bushes and ferns. This time he kept the fake stuff down on the MoMA rooftop and gave the condo board a choice of two camouflage patterns: one rectilinear, which he compared to the classical gardens of Rockefeller Center; the other curvilinear, like the gardens of Isamu Noguchi. Smith left out that he was taking his garden’s pattern off a pair of camouflage hip-hop pants.

“I didn’t have the pants there that day.... I think talking about Noguchi first was probably the better way,” said Smith, whose MoMA roof garden, with the curvilinear design, opened a year ago this month.

SMITH was part of the “Think” team led by architect Rafael Vinoly that finished second in the celebrated competition to redesign ground zero after 9/11, “otherwise known as the loser,” quipped wife Priscilla.

Smith learned from that experience too, especially from the sales job done by architect Daniel Libeskind, who before then was known as a postmodernist theorist who couldn’t get anything built. Libeskind showed up for the World Trade Center competition with an American flag lapel pin and some architectural metaphors that were the equivalent of a politician’s applause lines, such as rebuilding the main tower a patriotic 1,776 feet high and having it almost waving at the Statue of Liberty. But for all such corny selling points and the anecdotes about his immigrant parents, the power of Libeskind’s proposal came from a single original concept -- of preserving the exposed slurry walls where the Twin Towers once stood.

“The big void was a very strong idea,” said Smith, whose home and office are blocks from ground zero. “The first presentation, when he talked about keeping the slurry wall, that was a brilliant move. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish I thought of that.’ ”

The more sobering lesson was how Libeskind may have won but was quickly marginalized amid wrangling among the site’s landlord, the politicians and the victims’ families. Although he become an instant celebrity right down to his eyeglasses, to this day, nothing has been built.

Smith thus knew how precarious such projects could be when he was invited last summer to compete for the job of designing a 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park that may wind up costing $1 billion. Despite the cachet of his MoMA commission, and impressive partners, Smith saw himself as the avant-garde underdog pitted against bigger firms “who could point out that I’d never done anything on this scale before.”

He came up with his idea of carving a canyon into the flat military base when, after the teams had their initial tour of the site, he drove down the coast to see Balboa Park in San Diego. “It was a hot day, and there’s a little bit of a natural palm canyon and as I walked into that, it got cooler, the microclimate changed. I thought that was an amazing thing.”

When he gathered his team in New York, however, the canyon was only one idea among others, such as preserving part of the base’s cracked asphalt runways to display historic planes while inviting visitors to view the found industrial landscape with fresh eyes -- much as museums in factory buildings invite fresh looks at the old brickwork. New York artist Mary Miss was intent on cultivating orchards and creating natural “rooms,” intimate nooks for groups to meet or for individuals to reflect. Steven N. Handel of Rutgers University brought expertise on “restoration ecology,” and the Los Angeles landscape designer Mia Lehrer reminded them how public space is used in Southern California, how playing fields had to be strong on soccer and provide areas for families to eat. Smith said he’d never met Lehrer before inviting her to join the team: “I just called her up.”

But Mexican architect Enrique Norten was the one who talked turkey when asked to critique the ideas.

“He came in, he said, ‘You know, the runway is a fine idea. All your competitors will do something with the runway. You’re not going to win the competition on the basis of that,’ ” Smith recalled. “Then he said, ‘The fields and the orchards, everybody is going to have some version of that.’ He said, ‘The canyon, that’s a very powerful idea.’ ”

They made it bigger then -- two miles long -- and the guts of their Great Park. They also adopted Norten’s idea of building cultural facilities not on the flats of the old airfield but into the banks of the canyon.

If reporters cornered them, they still might lapse into theory-speak, perhaps Miss saying, “Parks traditionally have been places to get away. The new way examines the relationship between people and our fragile environment.” But the oversized soft-covered book promoting their design has on its front a cartoon-style rendering of a mountain biker plunging down a path into a canyon lush with palm leaves. Other fantasy renderings show Sunday strollers heading into a museum all but hidden in the canyon wall. And up top? An aging vet with a cane showing his grandson a historic aircraft, the kid sipping a drink through a straw while, from his knapsack, an American flag stands at attention. Ken Smith was echoing more than Daniel Libeskind’s taste in eyeglasses.

“You don’t work that hard and not want it,” said Smith’s wife.

The work seemed to pay off in the fall after the competition was reduced to three finalists and, of those, the canyon plan clearly captured the fancy of the Great Park Corp. board. Then the panel was said to be leaning another way, and that’s when Smith went to work on the loft next door to his in TriBeCa.

He’d come far enough, without the Orange County job, to buy a second shoe box when the neighbor decided to sell last year. They tore a passage to the adjoining loft, where there’s room for a non-plastic sofa and, outside the window, a planter that might actually need watering. In fact, Smith already has adorned that loft with real organic matter -- a bowl of sprouting sweet potatoes from Aunt Doris’ farm back in Iowa. And when it looked like the Great Park was not going to happen for him, “I refinished the floor,” Smith said. “I focused on the floor.”

In Orange County, the park’s board briefly floated the idea of having the three finalists work together. But the outcome was still undecided when Smith flew west. The next night, he got to pop a bottle of Champagne with a couple of his partners, who will share more than $10 million in fees while making the park a reality.

“I’M not sure if you determine your fate or if you take what you’re given,” Smith said.

He had just completed a walking tour of his diverse projects in Lower Manhattan, with no plastic flowers among them. There’s a one-acre park behind the office tower at 55 Water St. decorated with wild grasses as it slopes up to a lookout providing views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. A city master plan hopes to revive the Manhattan waterfront below with, among other things, tree-lined promenades that Smith has designed. And though Smith lost the ground zero job, he is doing a fountain plaza on its edge and has already completed a memorial for 11 employees of American Express killed on 9/11. Situated in a lobby of the World Financial Center, it has a 700-pound crystal suspended over an 11-sided pool where drops of water fall, like tears, from above.

Smith left the farm 35 years ago, but he remains, by his own account, a small-town boy. Lower Manhattan is like that, especially when the hordes of workers aren’t around. So it was that, shortly before he left for L.A. to hear the news on the Great Park, he passed Daniel Libeskind on the street here. Smith said he nodded, but was not sure the diminutive architect recognized him.

His priority upon returning home, however, is to arrange for an office back in Irvine, preferably in one of the peeling-paint military buildings on the base, so he can quickly build huge models of the park, then get some soccer fields done, then start moving earth for the canyon. He also intends to rent an apartment out west, another step to make sure his winning a marquee competition does not go the same way as Libeskind’s. “This is going to keep me pretty much engaged for five to 10 years,” Smith said. “Big project. Big opportunity.”

Somewhere in there, Smith and his wife will toast the moment. When Smith turned 50 two years ago, Priscilla promised him a plateau of oysters from Balthazar, but it was summer, when they are not in season. “I still haven’t cashed in on my oysters,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a big oyster celebration.”

Paul Lieberman can be reached at



On a much smaller scale

Landscape architect Ken Smith concedes that most of his professional life for the foreseeable future will be taken up by huge projects. But he has not given up on creating gardens for homeowners. “I always like having a residence or two in the office. I think of myself as having a generalist practice.” Smith recently completed one in a penthouse terrace on posh Sutton Place, and another in Chelsea. Both are what he calls “vertical gardens.”

Sutton Place: “The terrace, it’s 20 feet by 15 ... [It] had this white wall. I put pipes on the wall that they could thread artificial flowers in. Right now it has purple daisies. They’re PVC pipes, little plastic things, white. The pipes stick out 4 inches from the wall. It produces a little shadow. Very simple but kind of cool.”

Chelsea: “I did this little courtyard, 9 by 23 feet, two stories tall. I attached pots to the back wall so the garden goes right up the wall, bromeliads and orchids. It has real living plants, tropical plants. And a shred rubber floor so it’s spongy, like going in a rain forest.”