James Corner on Design, Scale, and Post-High-Line Life

James Corner, at a waterfront design meeting (Photo: MvB)

In the midst of James Corner Field Operations‘ work visualizing a new waterfront for Seattle (our coverage: posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), head man James Corner took time out for a talk for the Seattle Architecture Foundation.

It was part of their Design In Depth series; the Foundation is also behind many of those walking tours you hear about that criss-cross Seattle, visiting architectural points of interest. (They also have youth programs, if you have a little builder on your hands.)

The weather had brought April showers the night of the talk, and the recital hall at Benaroya Hall was not quite full. Corner, who’s had SRO turn-outs at most of his waterfront events, took note. “They told me a little rain didn’t stop Seattleites,” he said, and you could imagine an X appearing next to a mental FALSE box, as many of you were found wanting. (Prior to the talk, Corner was in conversation with the University of Washington’s Dean Daniel Friedman, when an acquaintance administered a lavish hug to Friedman. “Seattleites!” exclaimed Corner, shifting back. “The hugging!”)

The evening turned out to be a retrospective of sorts, as Corner used his firm’s past projects to map out his design philosophy–though philosophy is probably not quite the right word. Corner would go on to call out Louis Kahn’s 1953 mapping of Philadelphia streets‘ movement patterns, a kind of hydrological study of roads, and in his appreciation of Kahn’s insight you get an insight into Corner, too, and his motivations. “In depth” is a great title of an Corner talk, because he wants to flip your perspective from surface to deeper structures, structures of process: traffic flow, rather than roads, per se.

Work is already underway on a bike/pedestrian overpass linking Lower Queen Anne to the waterfront (Photo: MvB)

Corner told us and, separately, the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Hawthorne that his childhood is perhaps the setting for his primary influence in landscape architecture: the “tough working-class urbanism in Manchester juxtaposed with some amazing wild nature.” There was no disguising the delight he felt in finding that creative tension in the Seattle waterfront project. Blocks from downtown’s skyscrapers, Elliott Bay laps at Seattle’s edge, while just south, huge orange cranes offload freighters. Don’t worry, he assured everyone, he was not planning on “prettying” everything up.

This is what Friedman highlighted in Corner’s work in his introduction: the way Corner has found parallels between ecological process and infrastructure, the way his work generates a self-awareness in communities by making their patterns explicit. So when Corner talks about the juxtaposition of urbanism and nature, it’s not with the notion of any essential distinction: the urban has arisen from nature, from similar processes. In some ways the contrasts are the more striking because of their mirroring.

Hawthorne calls it Corner’s gift for “romantic, post-industrial drama,” the emblem of which is grass poking up through the rusty railroad tracks of The High Line (and worries that Corner’s Santa Monica parks project is going to offer little in the way of post-industrial theatre. It must be the first time that anyone has spoken enviously of Fresh Kills’ “complex history“). But after listening to Corner for several months, I think it’s necessary to realize that his conception of “theatrical” is paired to environment, not opposed to it. (In Seattle, one proposed waterfront feature is a “cloud” of mist that would appear on demand.)

Seattle's working waterfront, to the north of downtown (Photo: MvB)

This is an attitude we admit when we declare the Cascades and the Seattle skyline both to be “scenic.” And there’s something to be said for understanding how both are instances of upthrust. In his talk, Corner kept raiding the work of other architects (Koolhaas, Lloyd Wright, Corbusier) for illustrations of architectural reframing of past conflicts. What is a city park? Can series create a sustaining matrix? In the art of Rauschenberg, said Corner, he saw the attempt to organize “found” events on a flat surface, an idea much in parallel with the functional geometries of architecture, some of which are also “found” events.

This kind of systems syncretism may be commonplace for a landscape architect, though Corner’s popularity might just as well argue otherwise. As Corner explained it, it’s the scale of landscape architecture that forces “big picture” systems thinking upon you. You have to break the project down into chunks, while still retaining their relationships. Because a landscape is always doing something before you get there–channeling water, wind, light–you can’t hope to impose major changes without seeing environmental responses. You’re tinkering with an engine you can’t shut off.

As Corner might put it, any surface is both performative and adaptive. At Fresh Kills Park, he had four square miles of Staten Island to work with, with landfill hills up to 400 feet tall (puffed up by methane which will one day be all bled off, leading the hills to subside). That surface provides both room for frisbee fields and wetlands restoration. But in Corner’s design, the park is not just a location, but a process for generating the soil the area is lacking. It’s a “time-based, sequential methodology,” explained Corner, which requires a change of mindset for people who are used to looking at design plans that elide time. (The English are known for taking the long view on forestry.)

This isn’t a methodology just for parks. Corner’s Field Operations is designing a “Water City” in China called Qianhai. Here the city becomes a biological machine (it’s always a biological machine, actually, the question is how intentionally aware it is). It contains both “water fingers” that stream into the now-choked bay and transit hubs that act as community focal points for each of the neighborhoods. From forestry management, Corner has borrowed a typology of blocks and buildings so that the city can grow without undue specification, but still avoid chaos.

The flip for that last part is Corner’s thought that, just as its better to think of flows than roads, its better to think of a city as nested containers than as “blocks and buildings.” You might say: Provide parameters, not building codes. Again, the surface is performative, doing all of the things a city needs to do, but it’s also adaptive, a machine providing water remediation over its 4,500 acres. Time will tell how design corresponds to reality; at one point, Koolhaas couldn’t wait to get to China to build at speed, but he also got a glimpse of the downside of lax regulation.

Corner saved The High Line for last, and it’s here that you want to pay close attention to romanticizing a nature-reclaimed derelict. While nature was, in fact, busy reclaiming the elevated railway structure, pioneering seeds setting up in waterlogged railroad ties, as Field Operations began work, they discovered that it would be impossible to retain the existing nature: the railbed contained toxics, and the structure itself needed to be waterproofed so that it didn’t leak on private property below. So the whole thing was scraped clean, clad in a waterproof, irrigating skin, and a new “nature” reapplied, with 2,000 species of grasses, perennials, trees, and more that were each suited to the High Line’s microclimates.

Seattle's sculpture park, seen from the waterfront (Photo: MvB)

It’s the most potent example of Corner’s belief that the juxtaposition of the urban and “natural” is naturally fruitful. The High Line is another of his biological machines, and it also brings people to a new awareness of their environment, their neighbors. The fact that people promenade down a railway just underscores the permanence of flow, the transience of modality. (Corner is among those in favor of hanging Jeff Koons’ “Train” above the High Line.)

All of this is very much worth taking into account as the Seattle waterfront design is developed, and Corner begins the laborious process of talking people into his vision of a waterfront machine, at once integral and distinct in performative function. Conversation has so far been largely about “the park”: a place where people will congregate or not. Corner throws out ideas, people pooh-pooh them, depending upon their preferences. But if you revisit his plans in terms of flows and containers, it becomes clearer that he’s leaving space for things to emerge in a park-in-progress.