Looking good being green


Sometimes the most surprising green spaces are those that have been quietly there all along. This is so of the roof top garden on the British Empire Building at the Rockerfeller Centre. It is an example of visual space, a pleasure garden brilliantly contextualised with the surrounding architecture. The heavily geometric topiary subtly reflects the enclosing skyline: quite a challenge when the skyline includes St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Kensington Roof Garden formerly Tom and Derry’s in London is another example of a visual space, albeit this time as an enclosed garden. Of more particular note, is the roof garden at Villa Savoy by Le Corbusier, which it can be said is largely responsible for the idea of roof gardens in the modern era.  The Kaiser Roof Garden by Henry Kaiser is another example of a modern visual landscape at risk. It is to be hoped that the heritage value of these modern gardens is recognised and that organisations like Landslide which are dedicated to their preservation are supported.

The next generation of  visual space designed as sustainable green roof gardens are still being imagined. Hints of what they might look like are out there….This roof by the Australian architects Hassal for the Adelaide Zoo  demonstrates a sensitivity to context (in this case a bushland setting) which characterises visual space. The private residential roof garden by Charotte Rowe in Holland Park, although conservative in conception, demonstrates a heightened sense of visual awareness with consideration of light for night and daytime uses.

It would be amazing to a roof garden taking inspiration from sources such as the waterlily garden at the Mauritius Botanic Gardens by John Duffy.

10 thoughts on “Looking good being green

  1. Tom Turner

    I wish more of the British Empire had been planned like this!
    There was something distinctly odd about Le Corbusier’s influence on gardens. He loved roof gardens, as you say, and he had a great appreciation of landscapes as views. But he seems to have had no appreciation of the traditional garden as an intermediate stage in the transition from house to landscape.
    The whole subject of roof gardens, gardens and landscapes is fascinating!

  2. Christine

    Yes. In Unite d’Habitation Corbusier created a children’s nursery and a pool on the roof terrace.[ http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/marseille/index.htm ] The fifteen different apartment types had double height living spaces and single height bedroom spaces. The grounds are conceived as a park rather than a garden.

    It is an interesting distinction to explore in terms of resident use v general public use of open space….

  3. Tom Turner

    Dorothy Imbert writes that: ‘To Le Corbusier, gardens and landscape were green abstractions that belonged to the trilogy of “Sun-Air-Vegetation”. For the urban landscape, the “encounter between the geometric elemetns and the picturesque elements of vegeation” was “both necessary and sufficient”’. ‘The garden in the air is the “modern recipe for ventilation,” Le Corbusier declared. Easily accessible, it is protected from harsh sunlight and rain, and its dry paving prevents rheumatism. Hygienic, it transformed the usually inert apartment building into a breathing sponge that integrated air and greenery within its concrete structure. Such a garden was convenient for city dwellers because it was “efficient and maintenance-free.”

  4. Christine

    Corbusier lived in a different time with a different set of concerns. In particular cities were attempting to adjust to the introduction of the motor car…something that the developing countries are still doing. [Developing countries can take their lead both in what they choose to do and not do regarding vehicular traffic from the lessons of the developed countries.] Corb was dealing with the transition from horses and stables to cars and garages!

    He has left a remarkable legacy!

    Green space conceptually meant healthy air. Katoomba in NSW Australia is famous for its heritage of day spas which were built so that Sydneysiders and International guests could avail themselves of the opportunity for healthy fresh mountain air and spa treatments. [ http://www.mountainheritage.com.au/gallery.htm ] and
    [ http://www.thecarrington.com.au/news.asp?pid=15 ] and [ http://www.hydromajestic.com.au/index.php/media-release and http://www.hydromajestic.com.au/index.php/component/content/article/34-hydro-majestic-hotel-blue-mountains-news/47-hydro-majestic-blue-mountains-history%5D

  5. Tom Turner

    Those Blue Mountain Spas look great.
    My own view of Corb is that he got three things right, which is far more than most people. They were (1)a sculptural approach to modern architecture (2) the importance of roof gardens (3) the idea of ‘floating’ tall buildings in parkland.
    It is not so kind to dwell on what he got wrong but there is a terrifying chill about the Plan Voisin which makes it tempting, if wrong, to blame him for everything one does not like about the cities of the twentieth century.

  6. Christine

    I believe I would never have been in favour of his plan because of its reliance on the destruction of the heritage of Paris.

    However it would be an interesting design exercise to have Interior Designers, Architects and Landscape Architects take this basic 3D model of Plan Voisin and attempt to give it some depth
    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNBr6de7TD4 ]

    It would be fascinating to see what sort of interventions would make the plan more palatable! Perhaps rather than trying to land commercial planes on his proposed airport they could use the air strip for local air traffic…[ http://www.terrafugia.com/ ]

  7. Tom Turner

    How could the Plan Voisin be imporoved? It is a very good question. My answer would be along these lines:
    1)the design for the roads and buildings should be preceded by what might be called a Green Infrastructure Plan: a set of landscape plans for landform, water, vegetation and air. A simpler way of thinking about this is that a network of greenways should precede any plans for roads or buildings. The green infrastructure should create the illusion of a forest setting for the high apartment buildings
    2) a green transport network (footpaths and cycleways) should be planned in advance of the road network
    3) the public transport and road networks should be planned before the buildings
    4) instead of being arranged like First World War tombstones, inspiring though they may be, the blocks should be arranged to make communal gardens at ground level [this is what is being done in the more advanced regions of South East Asia)
    5) the virtues of Corbusier’s idea should be maintained: roof gardens, wide views, a sculptural approach to building design, provision for mass transportation
    One of the most chilling aspects of the Plan Voisin is the way it has been adopted around the world, regardless of any contextual considerations (culture, climate, tradition, landform, hydrology, ecology, etc). We cannot blame Corb for this but it is an urban tragedy.

  8. Christine

    Thanks Tom. Is this correct?

    1) You would begin with topographic mapping? (landform, water) How detailed would your consideration of vegetation be? How would you map or represent air?
    [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topography#Topographic_mapping ]

    The engineering perspective of James Owen certainly began with an idea of buildings and then travel and inverted it to travel and then buildings and then discussed what he considered the efficiencies and inefficiencies for landuse of this process. [ http://www.library.cornell.edu/Reps/DOCS/owen_jim.htm ]

    Undoubtably this nexus land/building/road has been considered in various ways by different theorists?

  9. Tom Turner

    Expressed in the oldest terms, the landscape principle is Consult the Genius of the Place. Translated into modern terms, the theory is embodied in books by Ian McHarg, Anne Whiston spirn and Michael Hough (see list of 100 best books on landscape architecture). But basically, yes, the idea is to start with topography (in the sense of a ‘graphic’ of a place – ‘topos’: landform, vegetation, water, etc). It is a great mistake to draw on a sheet of paper or a computer screen which does not show these features. This is the difference between designing an urban landscape and making a book or a painting. The ‘humanities’ can start on a white screen. City building is more like writing or drawing on the bark of an ancient tree.

  10. Christine

    Thankyou. That is a great way to frame the inspiration of ‘place’ (whether landscape and/or urbanscape) as the genesis for all thinking about dwelling or settlement.

    After considering the bark of the ancient tree – the genius loci – I believe the next most important aspect to have an understanding of is the ‘spirit of the times’. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitgeist ]

    Having given this idea some consideration three concepts of city are of currency (the ecological, the competitive and the cultural city). To begin – the Ecological City.

    Sharon Haar in her paper ‘The Ecological City: Metaphor v Metabolism’ describes the history of the concept of the ecological city.

    1) the ecological city
    “…from the notion of the perfect city as the embodiment of the perfect body (Renaissance) to the city as diseased body (Nineteenth Century) to urban sociology’s empiricist turn to science to describe the effects of modernisation on both urban inhabitants and urban form (Twentieth Century).

    In the Twentieth century both urban sociologists and planners used scientific signifiers to describe urban processes in an attempt to bring the study of the city into a value system controlled by the assumed objectivity and rationality of science.

    Many of these values are imbedded in contemporary planning models, even as modifications are made to incorporate notions of sustainability and to reinterpret the image of the historic city within the new city as a signifier for a sustainable city.”


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