When you think of a landscape, you think of romantic green gardens and hedges and flowers, right?” James Corner asks, intently.
“But a landscape is so much more than that – it encapsulates society, politics and our own existence on a planet where we’re bound by natural forces. It’s how we give form to our land and cities. Ultimately it’s how we identify with places.”
Corner, it’s fair to say, is a man who knows the subject inside out. As one of the world’s foremost landscape architects and theorists, he’s worked on projects as varied and celebrated as Chicago’s redeveloped Navy Pier, London’s South Park at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and – most famously – New York’s High Line, along an elevated section of disused Manhattan railroad.
Forthcoming projects masterplanned and designed by his practice, James Corner Field Operations, include the redevelopment of Seattle’s central waterfront and protective seawall; the transformation of a former military base in San Francisco, into a 14 acre stretch of parkland; and the creation of a 10-mile “linear park, urban trail and living art destination” running below Miami’s elevated Metrorail tracks, known as The Underline.
From Manchester to Manhattan
I meet Corner at the rooftop bar of one of Barcelona’s fancier hotels, where he’s in town to judge the annual Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize. The view extends across the cityscape; an ocean of clustered rooftops – none more striking than Antoni Gaudi’s fairytale-like Sagrada Familia – that gradually fade into a horizon dominated by a sweeping mountain range.
It’s an apt location for our interview, because urban landscapes are Corner’s great obsession.
“I’m fascinated by the interplays between city and nature, between the garden and geography, between small scale and large scale, between art, imagination and something more tangible,” he says. “I had this double experience growing up in Manchester in England; on the one hand enjoying life in the city – nightclubs and bars and museums and street life – but also exposure to big nature. So we’d travel to the Lake District or the Peak District and go camping and climbing, hiking and parachuting. I was very active in the outdoors. I think that double relationship of being urban but understanding and appreciating big nature has conditioned my interests.”
After graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in the early 1980s, Corner began working on urban landscape projects, including Liverpool’s fondly remembered International Garden Festival Park. Next came a move to America to study a Master’s Degree on the subject at the University of Pennsylvania. He later became a professor there and developed his own brand of “landscape urbanism” – a theory of urban planning that places importance on the design of a city’s landscape – its public spaces and infrastructure – rather than just its buildings.
Around this time Corner chartered a light aircraft with pilot and photographer Alex MacLean, and together they set off on an expedition across America. MacLean took aerial pictures, Corner made maps and reflected on the sprawling vistas below – “a world of grid cities, axial cities, radial cities and collage cities.” His reflections on how we work the land, and how that informs the organisation of our cities, led to a seminal book called Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. Later it inspired his work as a landscape architect.
Scale is important to Corner. In the 18 years since he formed James Corner Field Operations in New York, he’s worked on projects large and small, from vast urban districts, complex post-industrial sites and major environmental resiliency projects to intimate and well-crafted gardens.
At one end of the scale is Freshkills Park, the studio’s 30-year transformation of an 8.9sq km former landfill site – once the world’s largest – into a green space three times larger than Central Park. At the other end is their installation for last year’s National Building Museum Summer Block Party – an ‘underwater world’ of climbable icebergs crafted from recycled construction materials. (Corner: “It was first suggested that we create a green maze or a Japanese Garden. I thought ‘fuck that – let’s do a more vital form of landscape.’”)
I ask Corner to summarise the practice’s philosophy. What unifies his work?
He contemplates for a moment. “We design places that are beautiful, but I also like the fact that they’re doing something more,” he says. “They’re adding value for the ecology, environment, people and economic development. They’re also provoking the imagination.
“I think of us as choreographers or conductors or film directors. We coordinate all the different experts and specialists to produce something that’s wholesome and authentic.”
Despite their success, Field Operations are not a household name in quite the same way as architects Bjarke Ingels Group, who were the 2014 Block Series designers, or Diller Scofidio and Renfro, who collaborated on the High Line. Do landscape architects receive the recognition they deserve?
“We sometimes feel as though we’re in a 1950s TV series in regards to our relationship with architects,” he replies. “They’re the 50s husband – dominant and frontal and vertical and visible. And we’re the stereotypical ‘good wife’. We’re not really seen, but we’re the ones who make things happen, who resolve a lot of the problems and add real long-term value.
“Landscape architects are the unsung heroes who are really doing the behind the scenes work shaping the public realm. But many people don’t necessarily consider this as design; they assume it’s just residual space that arrived there naturally.”
Such subtlety, Corner concedes, is often not a bad thing, even if it prevents those creating beautiful or impactful landscapes from having their moment in the sun.
“Some of the best public spaces have a simple anonymity,” he says. “They don’t call attention to themselves. They’re voids, but they’re still carefully thought through in terms of surface, mood and character.
“Landscape architects who try to be foregrounded often create work that calls too much attention to itself, dates very quickly and isn’t always that deep or lasting.
Living the landscape
The fact is, despite our propensity for calendars and inspirational posters featuring luscious landscape shots, such environments – where texture, sound and smell is crucial – are harder to represent than buildings.
“The things that I’m talking about don’t always photograph very well,” Corner explains. “And yet you live them in a profound way.
“The deeper part of landscape is something personally experienced, almost subconsciously. Walter Benjamin once said something like ‘buildings and cities are aesthetically received by a society in a state of distraction.’ He means that people don’t walk around paying attention.
“But a city or a landscape lingers in your memories.” He gestures at the view around us. “You’ll leave with fond recollections of Barcelona, but they’re not precisely photographic. It’s something a little deeper and more emotional.”
The High Line
By Corner’s own admission, there is a double play in his work, and his philosophy too. While he appreciates and practices subtlety, some of his best known projects are inspired by a sense of the dramatic. Take the High Line. What began as a plan for “a sort of melancholic stroll on a piece of industrial infrastructure” transformed into what it is today when he realised the key was “to theatricalise the everyday”.
The park was subsequently designed to provide a stage for “the joys, pleasures and dramas of public life.” Since opening it has become a regular point for marriage proposals, wedding photos, birthday celebrations, community events and public gatherings. It’s even been reported that Elizabeth Diller is planning an opera to be performed along the 1.5 mile route.
“We’ve borrowed the landscape of Manhattan and created a journey,” Corner explains. “Because you’re 30ft above the street and you’re crossing over bridges, you get these amazing views and vistas that are little surreal. You can see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the river, all from this elevated perch. You hear birdsong and see butterflies and insects. There’s this pulsing sense of life brought into play.
“But the biggest draw is the people-watching sexiness of it all. People just get a kick out of being up there with other people. Sometimes it’s about you being the voyeur, sometimes it’s you being the exhibitionist. There hasn’t really been a space before where people can just come out and be with others in an informal way. That’s the magnetism.”
Corner admits his team “never foresaw the glitziness of what came” with the High Line. He credits its success to then mayor Michael Bloomberg and the founders of the Friends of the High Line, who fought a neighbourhood “that wanted to tear the railroad down” rather than build a park.
In 2016, two years after the final phase was completed, the High Line was visited by over seven million people, making it one of the city’s most popular destinations. Developers have been drawn to the postcode, commissioning showy residential buildings from the likes of Zaha Hadid Architects and Bjarke Ingels, who has hailed the High Line as “one of the greatest things to have happened to New York in the last decade.”
The success has inspired a host of copycats. Sydney, Seoul and Singapore are among many places investing millions to transform disused viaducts, overpasses and railways into linear parks. Corner’s own project under Miami’s Metrorail, called the Underline, also shares some DNA with the High Line, although he’s quick to point out the differences between them.
“Miami doesn’t have the same density or intensity as Manhattan, so the idea is different. If the High Line is an urban promenade for strolling, like a garden in the sky, the Underline is more fast-moving. It’s about health and fitness, cycling, basketball, running and rollerblading. The similarities come from the ways in which we’re working to bring drama to the everyday and encourage people to spend time outdoors.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he warns against “every city thinking they can have their own High Line.”
I ask him why. “It doesn’t always make sense in every context,” he says. “The High Line was expensive, and it’s still expensive to maintain today. It is a chore frankly for people to go up 30ft in the sky. With elevated structures there are safety issues. There’s a lot of complexity to it. It’s only a good idea when the context actually make sense.”
Platforms of tolerance
What Corner doesn’t doubt is that creative and public spaces are more important than ever.
“Cities are economic machines and they need people,” he says. “So they have to retain residents, businesses and tourists. Young people today have a choice. They could go and live in London or Chicago or Miami or Hong Kong or Barcelona. So to keep them, you need public spaces that really appeal to them. We need to create desire.”
As well as keeping residents happy, Corner believes well-conceived parks and squares are “conducive to more tolerance at a time when democracy is being challenged”.
His argument is passionate: “Great public spaces allow people to be exposed to other people. They attract people from every walk of life, and that can reduce prejudice or fear of others.
“You become more tolerant of the fact that diversity and pluralism is part of cosmopolitan life in any city. Design that welcomes and showcases that is a great, great thing.”
Corner points to his own work on Cleveland’s six acre Public Square, which his practice designed as “another stage for public life” by bringing together four quadrants that had previously been separated by two big roads.
“There was a lot of fear that there would be big riots last year in the square ahead of the Republican National Convention [where Donald Trump accepted the party’s nomination to run for president],” he expands. “People were expecting vandalism and damage and fights. But afterwards, a reporter from a local newspaper wrote an article about just how amazing it was, because while people turned up and there were public speeches and protests, it was all done with great respect. He extended the hypothesis that that respect came because of the square.
“Our design emphasises the sound of water, the shade from the trees, the openness of the views. The quality just led to a sense of ‘this is an open platform to say what I want and protest, but I am no way induced to violence.’
“This goes back to the feeling that you’re in an environment that commands a certain amount of respect. If you design a trashy place it will get trashed, if you design a special place it will encourage a special atmosphere.
“It’s an issue of ownership. Whose territory are you in? Is it really public or does it feel it belongs to somebody else? To what degree do you feel isolated or part of a community? Fearful or joyful? All of these emotions are created by the context.”
This is heavy stuff, certainly far beyond mere “hedges and gardens”, and as our interview draws to a close I tell myself to be more aware of the public spaces I interact with every day.
“It’s a lot to think about, but really it’s just about trying to make the world a better place,” Corner laughs, perhaps reading my mind.
“If you can capture the imagination, provoke desire, stimulate interaction and bring fun to people’s lives – what could be more perfect than that?”