Critic’s Notebook: Shifting horizons in Santa Monica parks design

Standing atop a patch of churned-up dirt on a recent morning, James Corner was surrounded by mismatched palm trees, chipped sidewalks and sagging chain link: a typical slice of Southern California landscape caught unawares, hardly ready for its close-up.

He and I had just walked onto the site of a new pair of connected parks in Santa Monica that his New York-based landscape architecture and urban-design firm, James Corner Field Operations, is creating. Three towering ficus trees, sitting in giant temporary planter boxes and waiting to be relocated, added some scale, but otherwise the area was bare.

“It’s fairly modest, as you can see,” Corner told me, before slipping off his sunglasses and stepping into the substantial shade under the ficuses.

With their flat terrain and tabula-rasa potential, the two parks, occupying the old site of the Rand Corp. headquarters just west of Santa Monica City Hall, offer little of the romantic, post-industrial drama of the sites where Field Operations has produced its most memorable designs. There is no rusting and useful relic like the abandoned elevated train tracks that form the spine of Corner’s most celebrated work, the High Line park on the far west side of Manhattan. There is nothing like the complex history of the Fresh Kills waterfront park on New York’s Staten Island, a former landfill that is nearly three times the size of Central Park and became a macabre sorting ground for World Trade Center rubble after the 9/11 attacks.

And unlike a 26-block-long promenade that Field Operations has proposed along the Seattle waterfront, replacing the massive Alaskan Way Viaduct, the scale of the Santa Monica parks will be contained, even intimate. The smaller portion, directly in front of Santa Monica’s 1938 City Hall, will cover a single acre, while the larger one — bounded by Main Street, Ocean Avenue, an extended Olympic Drive and a sunken stretch of the 10 Freeway where it becomes Pacific Coast Highway — will be 6 acres altogether. There are backyards in Beverly Hills and San Marino more spacious.


Still, to think of the project, awaiting an official name, as little more than a couple of small parcels waiting to be dressed up by a big-name landscape architect from out of town would be to vastly underestimate its potential, both as a destination in its own right and as a case study in planning and urban design in contemporary Southern California. There is in fact a whole collection of fascinating story lines that intersect in the connected parks, which are expected to open in 2013 at a total cost of $46.1 million.

Most obvious is the question of whether Corner, who is arguably the most prominent landscape architect in the country at a moment when landscape architecture is itself ascendant, can create the powerful results his firm is known for without that backbone of existing infrastructure. In many ways, the Santa Monica sites — open, empty, borrowing political significance from the architectural symbolism of nearby City Hall — offer a setting for landscape architecture in an old-fashioned, City Beautiful sense.

Even if there is little traditional about Field Operations’ design vocabulary, this represents a shift from the linear designs that Corner’s firm has lately produced. Even its most modest recent project, a reworking of the Race Street Pier in Philadelphia that opened in May, stretches dramatically out into the Delaware River, offering views of open water for three or four miles in each direction.

Another part of the story here has to do with the character of Santa Monica and indeed of an increasingly crowded Southern California desperate for new models of park design as it tries to make up, slowly, for decades spent gilding its private sphere while neglecting the public one. The immediate context for the parks is a web of surface streets and freeway exit ramps, with some low-rise architecture strung along them. The site is also close to a number of commercial attractions — the Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica Place and the Santa Monica Pier among them — that combine consumerism and pedestrianism with outdoor activity, performing that peculiarly persuasive impersonation of public space that is so common (and so lucrative) here.

It’s not as though Corner has nothing to work with in Santa Monica: The park sites are two blocks from the beach, completely open to the sun and sky and cooled by breezes coming off the ocean. On the morning Corner and I visited, a tantalizing sliver of blue was visible on the horizon. The parks promise to be crowded from their opening days, given those nearby attractions and the arrival of Metro’s Expo Line, which should be rolling into a station at Colorado Boulevard and 4th Street by 2015. And if the city can ever realize a very expensive dream to build a park capping the nearby sunken freeway, the Field Operations design could be a major element in a newly unified Santa Monica.

Corner, 49, grew up near Manchester, England, and came to this country for a master’s degree in urban design from the University of Pennsylvania. He stayed on at Penn to teach and write, founding Field Operations in 1998. Though he dresses better than a typical academic, he retains an eager, professorial interest in explaining the theories that underpin his designs. His charisma is the dogged kind.

But it’s the appeal and popularity of the firm’s recent work that has become its chief calling card. The High Line, where Field Operations led a design team that included the architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and the garden designer Piet Oudolf, is the most transformative piece of urban design to open in any American city in at least a decade. (Its second section, running from 20th Street north to 30th and doubling the park’s length to a mile, opened in June.) It offers an elevated oasis from the city streets below, a superbly choreographed experience leading visitors from open spaces with broad skyline and river views to more intimate pockets and back again. The park has also been a powerful magnet for new construction, creating an estimated $2-billion in economic development in the immediate vicinity, a burst of architectural activity that includes buildings by Jean Nouvel and Neil Denari and a forthcoming home for the Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano.

It would be absurd, though, to think that some magical High Line formula might apply in Santa Monica. Field Operations is the rare landscape architecture firm that has earned a reputation for seeking out public input on its work without sacrificing its high-design credibility. But the public-engagement process in Santa Monica is unusually, well, comprehensive — capable of exhausting even the most creative and civic-minded designer.

Corner told me that his philosophy for drawing out public opinion was straightforward: “You always set up a process that is led by design. We don’t say to people, ‘What would you like?’ We put a design on the table and ask them what they like about the design.”

In this case the firm put several designs on the table. After winning a high-powered design competition last year that also featured Frank Gehry and landscape architect Peter Walker, Field Operations spent the spring and summer in a series of workshops with local residents and by October had released three separate proposals. More community meetings — Corner estimates he has made a dozen trips to Santa Monica altogether — helped shape a final version blending elements from each of the initial concepts.

Over time Corner has added locals to the design team, including architect Frederick Fisher and horticulturist John Greenlee. The Chicago-based artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle is working on a piece for the park.

The design that has emerged is in some ways a return to the sinuous forms of the firm’s earliest work. It will carve the 6-acre site into a series of undulating paths, remaking the topography to offer views from the high points and more intimate sections in man-made valleys. A main path will arc from the northwest corner of the park, closest to the pier, to the center of its eastern edge, facing City Hall. A network of smaller walkways will branch off, like the veins of a leaf, from the central one.

Corner settled on the arroyo as a central concept for all three preliminary designs, and that idea — the park organized around a dry creek bed, or wash, marked by the largest path — remains the heart of the current scheme. But atop that foundation, which risks edging into cliché about the character of the Southern California landscape, Corner and his collaborators thankfully have laid a dense thicket of trees, plants and gathering spaces and relied on crisply modern, nostalgia-free forms. There will be slides and hilltop forts for kids; even the bathroom building, designed by Fisher, will be a design attraction. Sunk into the side of a hill, it will be topped by a path, its entrance framed by colorful flowers. Fisher calls it a “nonbuilding.”

Throughout the park, the shifting topography will create a series of sloping meadows draped in native grasses and wildflowers. Along with the replanted ficuses, the trees will include sycamores, oaks, olives, pines, palms and figs.

“We’re trying to make something that horticulturally is pretty high quality,” Corner said. “Most parks are designed now to be super low-maintenance, so you get a very limited number of species and a pretty boring organization. What we have in mind is really a garden. It’s that more than anything else that we’re hoping will be the attraction — that the reason to step away from the beach or the pier or come out of the mall is to come into a place that’s shady and offers a beautiful sequence of gardens.”

Atop the highest sections of the park, three platforms, which Corner calls “overlooks,” will offer views of the ocean to the west, the pier and Palisades Park to the northwest, and toward 2nd Street to the north. In earlier versions the overlooks were marked by simple white rectangular frames, which seemed a nod to the work of California Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, who used spare forms to dramatize ideas about vision, perspective and artifice. The frames are gone, and the overlooks are now wrapped in woven, basket-like forms: a more organic, less nervy solution.

The section of the park in front of City Hall, meanwhile, remains unfinished. Field Operations produced a design for that portion that was — compared with the area across the street — spare and rather formal. His hands tied by historic-landmark guidelines, which protect not just the City Hall building itself but also the nondescript lawns and rose gardens in front of it, Corner decided to play up the differences between the two sides of Main Street. He made the smaller section of the park restrained and rectilinear where the larger one is aggressively fluid.

Fascinatingly enough, Santa Monica officials have with near unanimity decided that the design in front of City Hall is too meek. They are trying to work around the historic-preservation restrictions and have told Corner and his firm that they want something more dramatic in that space.

Phil Brock, a Parks and Recreation commissioner for the city, said the city ought “to allow Mr. Corner to punch it up a little more. Don’t allow it to be diluted too much.”

“I’d like to see a more adventurous design,” Mayor Richard Bloom said flatly.

Those comments suggest the tricky and sometimes contradictory course that Corner has had to navigate in Santa Monica. Listen to us, the public says, in workshop after workshop. Change this. Incorporate that. Meanwhile, public officials, fully aware of the role that the High Line has played in New York, are saying something else. Make it bolder. Don’t hold back.

On balance, the Field Operations proposal holds terrific promise for Santa Monica. It is another sign that the city, smaller and more nimble than Los Angeles, is miles ahead of its lumbering neighbor in thinking comprehensively about how mobility, urban design and civic identity are connected. But if there are also faint signs of concession and even whiplash in Corner’s design — signs of a landscape architect struggling to be a visionary and a good listener at the same time — can you really blame him?