September 30, 2011

Learning From Lynden

I had the pleasure of hearing Lynden B. Miller give a talk a few weeks back.  If you live in New York City, you’ve likely heard of her.  If you know ‘public spaces’ design, you surely know her name.  If you don’t, and if you care about parks and open public spaces, you should make her acquaintance. 

Ms. Miller describes herself as a ‘painter and gardener’ and it is true that she trained as a painter and that she gardens.  But that’s akin to calling Édouard Manet a French painter.  It’s technically accurate but it barely scratches the surface.
This is the Conservatory Garden
in Central Park.  When I lived in
New York City in the 1970, the
garden looked nothing like this
Ms. Miller got her start in 1982 when she was asked by Elizabeth Rogers, the Administrator of Central Park, to ‘do something’ with a space in Central Park.  Today, we think of Central Park and we think, ‘magnificence’.  Thirty years ago, the park was just starting to come back from decades of neglect and much of the restoration work being done was at the southern end of the park where, frankly, all the wealthy donors lived.  Ms. Miller was asked to tackle the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street – well ‘above 96th Street’ as they say in Manhattan. 
Ms. Miller knew the site well.  She remembers when the Conservatory Garden contained both a series of greenhouses and a formal garden.  The former was destroyed by Robert Moses, the latter fell into disrepair because of a succession of city decisions to stint on maintenance.  By the early 1980s, the once-elegant gardens had given way to graffiti, broken bottles, compacted lawns and overgrown flower beds.  People stayed away in droves.  Ms. Miller did more than just design a new garden.  She set about to raise private funds, hire qualified staff and organize a dedicated volunteer group of gardeners drawn from the neighborhood.  Even better, she has stayed with the garden ever since, guiding its development, raising an endowment for its long term care, and, making the space a gathering spot for the community.

Lynden Miller
I focus on that garden not just because it was her first ‘commission’, but because the garden became the cornerstone of Ms. Miller’s philosophy: everyone, rich and poor, will respect and love a beautiful place when it is well-maintained.  She also believes in encouraging people to sit down and enjoy themselves.  The revamped Conservatory Garden encouraged people to linger by providing ample seating spaces.

More commissions followed:  gardens for The Central Park Zoo, Bryant Park (with its hundreds of portable folding chairs that, contrary to everyone’s fears, don’t get stolen) , The New York Botanical Garden, Madison Square Park, and Wagner Park in Battery Park; waterfront gardens in Red Hook, Brooklyn, improvements to Union Square Park and the 97th Street Park Avenue Mall, renovation of the “Gateway to Harlem” Broadway Mall at 135th Street, Loeb Plaza for Hunter College, and the 67th Street Armory.
I wish I could find a 'before' photo
of the Stony Brook campus - which
resembled a set from some
post-apocalyptic film.  Here is
part of what Lynden Miller
Her other project that caused gasps from the audience was her work at Stony Brook University, the Long Island campus of the State University of New York (SUNY).  Built in the 1960s, the campus embraced that decade’s ‘brutalist’ style of architecture: acres of raw concrete and windowless buildings that looked like bunkers.  It was once one of SUNY’s least desirable campuses. 

Since 2000, she has overseen the gradual transformation of the site, installing walkways, trees and large sweeps of colorful plantings to replace those vast stretches of concrete pavement which had make the center of the campus a barren and inhospitable place. Twenty thousand ground covers, ornamental grasses, perennials and shrubs were planted to soften and humanize this area. The result is nothing short of startling.

The thing I find most fascinating is that Ms. Miller focuses on New York.  She has wandered as far as Princeton but the great body of her work is in the five boroughs. I don’t see work in Dubai or Los Angeles. She may speak in Boston, but I don’t see a cadre of apprentices churning out plans for parks here (the apotheosis is Michael Van Valkenberg).  In her talk, she said she believes strongly that public open spaces with superior, well-maintained plantings can change city life.  She accurately and wisely acknowledges that well-planted public places (Bryant Park, for example) have a huge impact on the surrounding neighborhood, attracting visitors, reducing crime and raising real-estate values.

She is, in short, a treasure from whom we can learn a great deal.

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