“To make a landscape is a very violent act,” designer Walter Hood told his small, appreciative audience at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, while pausing to share a construction shot. Indeed, the presence of large cranes and boulders at the refined Upper East Side location seemed especially intrusive. As part of the museum’s updated identity, the landscape architect’s Oakland, California-based firm, Hood Design Studio, was hired to re-envision the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden, the former Carnegie mansion’s gated outdoor space on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, which opened free to the public a year ago.
What does today’s museum-goer need from an urban garden? A lot, apparently. The garden must be flexible enough to function as both event space and urban refuge, occasionally at the same time. The plot that takes up roughly half a Manhattan block delivers, in the form of a package of discreet spaces that allow for multiple uses.
Designing outdoor spaces that provide all things to all people hasn’t yet dulled Hood’s capacity for innovation. His landscapes have helped to define unique experiences for visitors to a number of well-attended museums. At the 10-year-old de Young, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, indoor and outdoor spaces are woven together to make the most of the pastoral setting. Hood is surprised (and pleased) that there’s also a popular space there that functions ideally for wedding photos. For the Broad Museum, in downtown Los Angeles, Hood ultimately juxtaposed the building’s sleek, lacy exterior with a grove of gnarly, 110-year-old olive trees, a bold gesture that appears both minimal and robust.
Hood Design Studio teamed up with NYC’s RAFT Landscape Architecture for the Cooper-Hewitt project. The goal for the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden was to reinforce the former habitation of the site, and to plant the seeds for “a dynamic exhibition that changes every day.” They researched the site’s history from the time of its original occupation as riding grounds and recognized the visual importance of retaining the openness of the south-facing façade and its famously blooming wisteria. A handsome Rockery (rock garden) that had never materialized was arranged by hand from a 1901 plan. The design had to be of its place and honor its history, while not being history-bound. And it had to stand up to a high amount of foot traffic.
The challenge of remaking the Cooper Hewitt’s garden was doubly so because it sits across from what is arguably the most famous unnatural landscape in the world: Central Park. What would be its relationship with that iconic site? The way Hood imagined it, one should beckon people from across the street into the other, with the promise of a different experience—related, but not dependent environments (they share plantings such as Cherry Trees and Rhododendrons). They’re both highly constructed and ever-inviting.
Hood is romantic about his work, and desires that it communicate “evidence of the process of articulating what you feel.” He says he delights in the unpredictability of landscape as it matures and also relishes his lack of control: “Unlike a building, you have to let it go.” In the end, he envisioned “a garden forcing you to see the city in many different ways.” And to that end, its effect is larger than the space it transforms, providing what people have been seeking from wonderful gardens forever: it frees the imagination.
Julie Eakin is SWA’s Communications Manager. She is based in New York City. Photo of the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden is courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.