Corner acts uncomfortable talking about design, as if the aesthetic differences between the English countryside and the Tuileries aren’t particularly meaningful. He’d rather discuss concepts and processes, such as how a planner should approach an enormous trashed landscape. “Parks all start to look the same,” he says, “and that sameness is either the pastoral model or the modernist formal model, and this is my problem with style. We try not to have a style.” When Corner and his team began to think about Fresh Kills, they knew that the site was so large and technically demanding that it would be distracting to think in terms of design the way Olmsted did. So they have opted instead to “grow” the park. “Rather than choose between French and English landscaping—rather than designing a grand composition—we designed a method.”
This was, in fact, a very American idea—think Jefferson’s grid—and with this conceptual centerpiece, Field Operations settled on a philosophy that has guided all of their planning for the site: They would not build a new park on top of an old dump. Instead, they would make the old dump a part of the new park, by acknowledging it, reclaiming it, recycling it on behalf of a modern metropolis. Corner did not see Fresh Kills as a painting, in other words; he saw it as a palimpsest, a collaboration between a landscape architect and his landfill. For a lot of people, it is as if a lot of conceptual deadwood had finally been cleared away. “I think Fresh Kills could be a model,” says Steven Handel, a professor of ecology at Rutgers University who specializes in the ecology and restoration of beat-up places and has worked at Fresh Kills over the years. “It’s a new paradigm for a park.”
If landscape architects were birds, Corner would be a hawk, with his gray bristled crown, intense sharp-eyed grin, and reputation for circling old dumps, abandoned military facilities, closed industrial plants, and other large urban sites often referred to as disturbed. In addition to Fresh Kills and the High Line, his firm is at work on a 950-acre site on the lakefront of Toronto; the Great Falls, which ran the mills in Paterson, New Jersey (and was the first planned industrial site in the U.S.); and Shelby Farms Park, which until the sixties was a penal farm. “There are all these postindustrial sites, and no one knows what to do with them,” says Corner. “It’s a big heyday now.”
Corner founded Field Operations in 1998, in Philadelphia, where he chairs the landscape-architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania. He arrived at Penn fourteen years earlier, from England, where he grew up outside of Manchester, a hiker and climber who didn’t know he wanted to be a landscape architect until the British education system recommended it to him. At Penn, he studied under Ian McHarg, a seminal figure in landscape architecture, the reinventor who started people using ecological systems as a design starting point. Corner took McHarg to another level—putting people and history into the ecological studies of his predecessor. After a few years mostly theorizing on landscape, he acquired a few projects, such as Fresh Kills and the High Line, that repositioned landscape architecture for a lot of people, and suddenly he was winning awards that normally go to architects.
Sometimes Corner is mistakenly called Olmsted but more overgrown, a park-maker with a penchant for less-manicured plantings. In fact, he’s more like Olmsted as modern-literature professor, a designer who sees the landscape as text, a place where stories are written and rewritten, one on top of the next, sometimes getting all smudged up. At Field Operations, he is attempting to expand the idea of ecology to include not just rivers and streams but also subway lines, movements of capital, and weekend traffic. “To me, a city is an ecology—it’s an ecology of money, an ecology of infrastructure, an ecology of people,” he says. “Everyone thinks ecology is about nature, and it is, but there are so many other systems.”
The ecology of city real-estate construction is such that the last open spaces in cities are the ones nobody wants, and often they are the biggest ones. Corner has said he wants the public to dream big about Fresh Kills, but that’s not too tough; it’s big already. How do you reappropriate what was once a salt marsh and is now filled with roughly 150 million tons of waste? How do you manage all the leaking chemicals—the 312 gallons of liquid dump excretions processed by the Sanitation Department every minute? You don’t just get rid of a landfill: The garbage still decays, the hills still descend a few feet every year, as gas leaks and pollutants drain. The Sanitation Department won’t be leaving the site for at least another three decades. Thus, Fresh Kills is no-man’s-land, or no-corporate-man’s-land anyway, and the way we design a park there says a lot about how we confront land we have screwed up and how cities might be designed in the future.