James Corner Field Operations says it practices landscape architecture, but its real plan is to redesign the public realm. Corner, founder and principal, calls his work “a totally new landscape of leisure,” built from the industrial-era remnants of long-abandoned railways and city waterfronts. With minimalist clarity, Corner and his team have transformed deserted eyesores into new urban destinations. Besides unveiling the second section of the High Line, the celebrated elevated greenway running along Manhattan’s West Side, the firm recently transformed a vacant waterfront into a pedestrian attraction (Race Street Pier, in Philadelphia) and is working to convert a 4.6-square-mile dump site into a sprawling park (Fresh Kills Landfill, in Staten Island) and an old freeway viaduct into a waterside plaza (Seattle Park Central Waterfront). The firm has been taking its work overseas too: Late last year, Field Operations won the right to design the south hub of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Is landscape architecture having a moment right now?
Yeah, for a number of reasons. First, the whole environmental agenda is something that landscape architects have been trained in and have worked on for years. We’ve been thinking about hydrological systems, water and air quality, biodiversity. Combined with that is a new interest on the part of cities to create a vibrant and strong public realm. Cities are beginning to invest in new parks, new public spaces, new waterfronts, and the transformation of many of these postindustrial inheritances from the 20th century.
Why focus on transforming urban relics, rather than doing more traditional urban planning?
That’s where a lot of the work is today. With the shift from an industrial economy in cities to a service economy, a lot of land is abandoned and derelict. No one knows what to do with it. The High Line is a great example of making something new. When we got hired to design it, the first thing we did was go and look at it and stand on it for the first time. And the immediate feeling was, How do we not mess this up? Because what we found there was so special and strange that any design needed to amplify those conditions.
How did that compare with seeing the Staten Island landfill?
The High Line is about a mile and a half long and about 30 feet wide, quite narrow. In some ways, even though it’s long, it’s a small thing. Fresh Kills Landfill was one of the world’s largest. It’s more than 4 square miles. It took all of Manhattan’s trash for nearly 60 years. It’s three and a half times the size of Central Park. There, the first impression was, Jeez, what are we going to do with this huge volume of land?
There’s an edginess and urban appeal that comes with these sites. It would be a shame to erase any sign of their histories. A part of what was innovative about our Staten Island approach is we devised a methodology around which a very large site could be transformed.
You’re also designing parks in Seattle and Qianhai, China. How do they differ from the New York projects?
Both transcend traditional definitions of landscape architecture. They’re much more complex projects that are also about buildings, infrastructure, transportation, and all of these different systems that go into making a city. With Qianhai [a new city being built over the next decade to hold an estimated 2 million people], one of the things we’re boasting is that it will be a carbon-neutral, fully sustainable urban center.
Does the intimacy of your spaces play a role in their success?
Definitely. But what I’m trying to push is both a concern for the intimate and larger-scale issues of sustainability and lifestyle in cities. The biggest issue over the next two decades is the world’s population growing by 3 billion people. You can build more buildings, but it’s hard to think about how to have a high-quality public realm. My interest is in these two extremes: the poetics of tactility, the beauty of intimacy; and a larger sense of how cities work and how they’re designed at that scale.
Photograph by Miller Mobley