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Saving That Landscape, in Pictures at Least
source: New York Times

Rick Hock's view of Lawrence Halprin's Manhattan Square Park, is in the exhibition <em>Marvels of Modernism</em> in Rochester.
Rick Hock's view of Lawrence Halprin's Manhattan Square Park, is in the exhibition Marvels of Modernism in Rochester.
Courtesy of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film

Published: November 21, 2008-- IN his six decades as one of America's pre-eminent landscape architects, Lawrence Halprin has seen his creations come and go. He has watched as they've been neglected and abandoned, distorted from their original vision, rendered irrelevant or tweaked by others in the name of bringing them up to date.

"I have indeed had that happen, and it makes me sick to my stomach," said Mr. Halprin, 92, whose Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington and the Sea Ranch community in Sonoma County, Calif., are among his most celebrated works.

In a phone interview from his office in Marin County he spoke of the public's lack of understanding of landscape work. "I think it's very much easier to look at a piece of architecture and a building and say, 'Here they put in some tower and some plaza,' than it is to understand what we do and why we do it," he said.

"That's where the difficulty is," he went on, "because our work is much more poetic and has themes and reasons for its design which are much more deep-seated and almost biblical very often. Our work is harder to appreciate because it's more difficult to understand its steps."

That's where Charles A. Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation comes in. For the past decade he has been viewed as something of a savior by Mr. Halprin and his peers, whose works are threatened by declining maintenance, encroaching development and a simple lack of interest, as trends in landscape design fall in and out of favor.

As president of the foundation, based in Washington, Mr. Birnbaum, 47, is an advocate not only for historic landscapes, created or natural, but also for the visionaries who have shaped them.

"He's like a little Johnny Appleseed for the design professional and landscape architect," said Tom Fox, a principal with SWA Group, a planning and landscape design firm in Sausalito, Calif. "He's spreading the word."

But Mr. Birnbaum, who speaks in exuberant paragraphs that weave together history and observation, knows that it doesn't matter how widely the word has spread if what is being spoken about is not actually seen - particularly by a society that so often renders landscapes invisible.

So for a second year the foundation, in collaboration with Garden Design magazine and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, has commissioned photographers to capture for posterity significant landscapes at risk of being lost.

In Marvels of Modernism, the latest installment, 10 photographers have translated the design elements of 12 postwar Modernist landscapes - kidney-shaped pools, Miró-esque reservoirs, boomerang curves, floating cantilevered decks and adventure playgrounds - for the 21st century. The exhibition, which opened Wednesday, will run through Jan. 4 and then travel to museums and botanical gardens. The sites were selected from the foundation's annual "Landslide" list of endangered places and plants, which was culled from hundreds of nominees and then vetted by a panel of designers and preservationists.

"What we're trying to do with the Cultural Landscape Foundation is to begin to get people to recognize that the American landscape is in fact a cultural institution worthy of celebration," Mr. Birnbaum said. Featuring works like the daunting horizon of Boston City Hall Plaza, designed by I. M. Pei & Partners, and Dan Kiley's orthogonal Miller Garden in Columbus, Ind., designated a national historic landmark in 2000, the disparate sites are linked by the civic ambition of those who designed them.

Their creators - people like John Ormsbee Simonds of Pittsburgh, Edward L. Daugherty of Atlanta, M. Paul Friedberg of New York and Mr. Halprin of San Francisco - "were city shapers, players in the '50s, '60s and '70s," Mr. Birnbaum said. "They did a lot to affect the form that the city ultimately took."

Aside from creating a permanent record of the landscapes for the foundation, the photographers involved in Marvels of Modernism have donated images to the Eastman's permanent collection.

"It becomes part of the memory chest, if you will, of all of these places," Mr. Birnbaum said.

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