January 18, 2007

Landscape grounded in Northwest natural history

  • Rich settings lend a backdrop for native plants, tree-lined pathways and ‘fossil’ trees
    Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture


    It started for our office in 2001, after architects Weiss/Manfredi won an international design competition for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

    Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi recognized the complexity of the context of the site and quickly adopted it into the overall design.

    Thus began an extended collaboration for an extremely complicated project. The design evolved dramatically during the earliest phases of the project to complement and even radically influence Weiss/Manfredi’s initial vision.

    Today we see a landscape of substantial scale and uniqueness that is home to an exquisite collection of sculptural masterworks, most of which were selected for the project during the design process. The park has, in addition to the sculpture, a pavilion and extensive infrastructure of bridges and walls, acting as a strong structural foil to a distinctive iconic landscape firmly grounded in the natural history of the Pacific Northwest.

    The site has four principle landscape precincts — valley, grove, meadow and shore. It is a landscape of “native flora with a twist.” The twist is provided principally by the strong geometric planting design of mostly native plants, the additional semblance of a classic park “greensward” of lawn- and tree-lined pathways, a distinctive group of “fossil” trees that were once native to North America, and a working waterfront.

    Photo by Paul Warchol
    A classic park ‘greensward,’ with its manicured lawns and rows of trees, stretches along the main path, linking sculptures placed throughout the park’s varied settings.

    The application of the landscape narrative to the site is just one of the ways the landscape architect collaborated with the architect and the other design team members through the design development phases of the project.

    That collaboration changed in the construction phases, where my firm focused on the planting and topsoil exclusively. Like the dominance of the Z-shaped path, the landscape design concept employed a “forest to shore” narrative.

    Each of the five landscape icons are abstractions of natural places and ecological processes, intended not to recreate specific habitat but instead to give people the sense of similar natural existing places and parks of the region.

    The greensward

    Adjacent to the pavilion is the connecting landscape of trees and grass that runs the length of the Z-path that connects the Olympic Sculpture Park to Myrtle Edwards Park.

    This landscape features the most classic parklike characteristics of mowed lawns and rows of trees. Patmore ash, a widely used nonnative traditional shade tree, joins the grass landscape as it reconnects the new park to the existing lawns of Myrtle Edwards Park.

    The more gentle lawn slopes are very useful for picnics and informal gatherings. Acting as a connective tissue, the greensward reinforces the Z-path by linking all of the sculpture settings of the park.

    The valley

    Image courtesy of CALA
    This sketch, which describes the character of each garden, shows the landscape plans under development early in the park’s design.

    This garden is inspired by our Northwest forests, the most densely forested region in North America.

    Featuring Douglas fir, red cedar, and western hemlock trees of extraordinary height and lifespan, these conifer evergreen trees and their associated deciduous understory trees, shrubs and groundcovers recall the essence of the Northwest evergreen forests.

    To evoke the timelessness of our temperate rainforest, large conifers and native plants were carefully assembled. In addition to native plant species, Ginkgo and dawn redwood trees emerge from the valley’s gravel floor, a group of “living fossils” that once lived here and are in fossil records dating from over 200 million years ago.

    While the evergreen is the dominant tree in our region, it is the deciduous trees and shrubs that colonize newly disturbed sites, often lining river banks and persisting along the edge of forests. Reaching maturity in 40 to 50 years, deciduous trees can dominate a site for decades before giving way to the great conifers.

    Along the western slope of the valley, Eddie’s White Wonder dogwoods, a hybrid cultivar of the native Pacific dogwood, joins columbine, irises, snowberry, sword fern and other understory shrubs. It is an ever-changing landscape that contrasts with the evergreen canopy of the conifers.

    The grove

    Deliberately ordered, the grove of aspen trees creates a landscape that respectfully questions humankind’s control over nature.

    A triangle-shaped grid of aspen trees dramatically expresses the seasons and clearly demonstrates temporary control of the ecological succession process.

    Aspens are grove-forming trees that, over time, will send young trees, or runners, up to grow in between the rows, continually altering the characteristics of this dynamic landscape. Under the trees, a sinuous path winds through a ground plane planting of azaleas, wild rose, Oregon grape and evergreen ferns.

    The meadow

    Three independent meadows clothe the slopes of the upper parcels of the park.

    The meadows feature all native grasses and wildflowers such as Western columbine, tufted hair grass, camas, pearly everlasting, along with Oregon oak and Douglas fir trees — trees that are known to colonize the rare meadow landscape of our region.

    The meadows are relatively large areas that easily accommodate changing uses, including future earthworks and other art installations.

    The shore

    The saltwater shoreline is one of the mildest (although not warmest) climatic zones of the Pacific Northwest.

    Coupled with constant wind and water-induced erosion, the plant community is broadly diverse and unique. Shifting sand, driftwood, beach grass and salt-tolerant plants dress this sun-soaked landscape.

    The trees of the shore zone tolerate the heavy salt environment. They include Oregon oak, shore pine, red alder and willow.

    In addition to the saltwater shoreline, a wedge-shaped drainage swale lined in concrete and covered in native topsoil serves as a perched water table that will support freshwater wetland plants. Leaves and debris will work their way to the beach, decompose and feed the juvenile salmon and other animals of the near shore saltwater habitat.

    The tidal saltwater environment will feature kelp, algae and other intertidal zone plants and animals that are revealed and concealed by the changing tides. Here tidal events, including lunar influences and the sounds of a thriving marine environment, reconnect people with their dependence to the sea.

    In many ways it is a place where we respect our ever-changing lives through the shifting sands, predictable tides and unknown universe of the ocean.

    These landscape icons were not simply applied to the topography — they emerged from and were formed by the program planning for the site.

    For example, the amphitheater and performance space were made possible when the “valley” emerged from the desire to reduce the amount of fill soil needed for the project. The lowered floor of the valley created side slopes reminiscent of forested mountains, and resulted in convenient access to the underground parking of the pavilion.

    Another example of collaborative design occurred at the shore. In order to create a shallow intertidal zone in this narrow portion of available land, we either had to cut into the shore or move out into the bay. The latter proved too expensive and ill-advised, so for the first time on Seattle’s downtown waterfront Elliott Bay won out, and the shoreline was actually carved into Myrtle Edwards Park.

    The sheltered cove we see today is home to a plant community of shore pine, nootka rose, and dune grasses that cannot exist without drastic improvements to the near shore landscape.

    The strong geometric forms and uniformity of an architecturally intense park benefit from an equally strong counterresponse of beautiful trees and rich landscape fabric. In a sense there is an unexpected balance that results from these often opposing forces — a yin and yang.

    The sculpture park is a setting where lovers of nature commingle with lovers of the arts in a grand new urban open space for all to enjoy. With all the effort to install the landscape in as mature a state as feasible, one can only imagine what it will look like five, 10, 20 or even a 100 years from now. It is hard to fathom that even in 500 years some of the trees planted today will only be approaching middle age.

    The day when one of the Oregon oaks, Douglas fir or red cedars reaches maturity will not only evoke awe it will also bear witness to a vision that started not with the design but with those who first sought to bring this incredible gift of art and open space to the citizens of Seattle and a venue to give art room to breathe within a landscape that one hopes will take your breath away.

    Charles Anderson, FASLA, has been a practicing landscape architect for over 20 years. CALA has offices in Seattle and Napa, Calif.

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