You would think, from the way New York has always encircled its parks with walls, fenced off its gardens, and even demarcated sidewalk flower beds with tiny iron stockades, that we are suspicious of greenery. Perhaps we fear that once it gets a tendril-hold on asphalt, it will run wild, turning the metropolis into some postapocalyptic forest. And so nature must be confined, one of a city’s thousand civilizing distinctions. Curbs separate pedestrians from vehicles, painted lanes divide traffic, and security desks protect those within from those without. Then there are all the invisible lines—between neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, and worldviews.
It’s that pervasive web of borders that makes the small but lovely new visitor center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (which opens May 16) seem so quietly radical. The married team of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi has created a border station between city and garden in which architecture and landscape merge. Instead of flattening the site and plunking a structure down on a concrete pedestal, they let the ground plane fold and fall away. They’ve tucked the walls into a slope and planted tall grass on the curving vault, making it look more like a knoll than a roof. Yet this is still an unmistakably urban building, all white steel, concrete, and glass, with an asymmetric plan that produces all kinds of angles except right ones. It’s the metropolitan counterpart of a Scandinavian sod-roofed hut, or maybe the Hobbit hole of tomorrow.
Folding nature into architecture, even in a resistant city, is not a new idea. In the sixties, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo placed a verdant atrium at the center of the Ford Foundation building on East 42nd Street and arrayed offices all around. Half a century later, New York is planting a million trees, revisiting its relationship with the waterfront, and starting to let nature thread itself into the urban warp and woof. In the Bronx, the new affordable housing complex Via Verde was designed as a series of stepped rooftop gardens. On the High Line, a carefully curated simulation of wilderness is braided among the benches, bleachers, and concrete pavers. Before there was an elevated park, there was a weedy rail bed, and the memory of that poetic neglect clings to the place even now. The park also boasts a new feature of New York public space: the aerial lawn. There’s one on the upper level of the new Pier 15, and SHoP Architects’ proposal for Pier 17 at South Street Seaport features a rooftop concert hall with a picnic-friendly greensward. Then there’s the grassy potato chip atop Lincoln Center’s chic restaurant, which the designer Signe Nielsen calls “a visible manifestation of the integration of landscape and architecture that we haven’t had since the hanging gardens of Babylon.”
Nielsen can be forgiven her exuberant overstatement. A founding principal of the firm Mathews Nielsen, she came of age at a time when new public spaces, like the unlamented plaza of the original World Trade Center, were grim and hard and empty. Today, her firm is necklacing the city with plants, from the Tribeca section of Hudson River Park to the transformative South Bronx Greenway, and public areas from streets to waterfront esplanades have been softened and chlorophylled. Landscape architects have long had to scrounge for recognition while their counterparts became celebrities. (Weiss/Manfredi is the rare firm that is equally comfortable building with soil or steel.) Lately, though, the city has been a welcoming haven, partly because the Bloomberg administration sees greenery as a way to generate greenbacks: The High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the Williamsburg waterfront are all creating fortunes in real-estate value.
The demand has prodded landscape architects to tackle the special challenges of smuggling flora into a dense human habitat. A plant’s got to be tough to survive in New York. “We do a lot of research on how they’re affected by different forms of salt: Hudson River salt, deicing salts, salt spray, salt in dog urine,” says Nielsen. Then there’s the problem of street-level dimness, which is not a forest’s dappled shade but the unforgiving shadow cast by high rises. Teardrop Park, squeezed among apartment buildings in Battery Park City, is planted with hybrid grasses developed for stadiums with retractable roofs. “Those lawns are a feat of modern technology,” says the park’s designer, Michael van Valkenburgh. Plants also contribute a primeval but effective technology of their own: They store and filter rain water, cool the air, placate storm surges, and scrub pollutants. They are, in other words, good citizens.
Many patches of citified vegetation remain more a statement of bucolic yearnings than a genuine environmental boon. In the nineteenth century, ladies manifested the Victorian era’s interest in biology by fitting out their hats with colorful dead birds. Today, cities can use the plumage of landscape to display environmental sympathies. But Weiss and Manfredi have gone beyond facile symbolism, producing the city’s most extreme and subtlest fusion of building and bower. The Botanic Garden’s gift-shop wall follows the curve of a particularly old and lovely cherry, so that beam and branch graze each other in a circle dance. A fritted-glass canopy dapples a walkway in stripes like shade from a geometric tree. A winding vinelike pavilion leads to a leaf-shaped party room, with curving sides and pointed ends. There, the south-facing glass wall gives out onto floral splendor, while on the north side, a row of clerestory windows crowns a wall clad in wood from a fallen ginkgo, and the view takes in a double line of that tree’s remaining comrades. As vegetation softens the pale concrete walls, and as the meadow on the roof matures, the building will model a relationship that other parts of New York should emulate: a tight new bond between urban landscape and concrete jungle that can make the city a more civilized place.