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Designing Woman

     
Landscape designer Diana Balmori wants us to think of cities as living things, organically connected to the natural world

On a blustery day this past March, the landscape designer Diana Balmori headed up to the roof of a building on Central Park South in New York City to catch a glimpse of green below. Two years earlier, she would have been looking down onto the black asphalt covering the roof of a street-level retail store. Now she was admiring pale green buds, cool blue stonework, and evergreen shrubs, and pointing out the cherry trees that would, in a few weeks, blossom white and bright with the arrival of spring. She smiled at the curvature of the lines dividing up the space. "They're saying, 'Okay, I'm here between two straight buildings, but I have a life of my own.' "

As the sun came out, Balmori leaned far out over the balcony, as if she could touch the sedum growing some 11 stories below. "It's not just planting a green roof somewhere, but bringing buildings closer to living things," she said. "The building breathes. It cools, it processes water, it retains it. It becomes part of the living cycle. Walls and roofs should be like living skins, and the buildings inside should respond. It's a direct connection to living things that vivifies us."

Balmori brings that philosophy to every undertaking, whether it's the green roof of a single residential building or plans for a bold green city in South Korea, which the country is building as a new seat of government. For decades Balmori has espoused a complex and ambitious vision of what it means for urban planning to go green. It's not enough for her to see green spots "plunked into the middle of a city," as she often puts it; rather, she aims to foster connections to living things, actively bringing people closer to water, grass, even one another. In Bilbao, Spain, Balmori's master plan for the former industrial port has transformed the city into a major tourist destination. In the initial design competition for the commission, many entrants proposed discrete parks, essentially pockets of green in an otherwise urban setting. Balmori's distinctive design created a park that would lead pedestrians, via a terraced embankment, to views of the mountains and proximity to the Nervión River.

With few exceptions, landscape designers toil in relative obscurity, their names rarely synonymous with buildings, as those of architects so often are. Traditionally, the landscape designer's work is considered, as the architect Joel Sanders puts it, "something to 'decorate' the building." It's a perspective that he and Balmori would like to change, because they think it's theoretically flawed. The landscape design of a building, they believe, should be an essential part of any architectural vision. "Diana opened my eyes to the importance of thinking in a holistic manner about interior and exterior, natural and synthetic," Sanders says.

When speaking to Balmori, a listener is hard-pressed to place her faint accent, an unusual hybrid that reflects her eclectic background. She was born in Spain, her father's country of origin, but when she was 3, the Franco regime seized everything the family owned. They moved to England, her mother's native country, but moved again a few years later, this time to Argentina, where her father, a prominent linguist, would study dying indigenous languages.

Her mother was an accomplished painter, musician, and music historian, and Balmori grew up immersed in expressions of art. "We sang constantly," she recalls. "Every day, at some point after lunch, we'd gather around the piano and sing, or after dinner." Painters and musicians were frequent houseguests, and Balmori began sketching and painting with her mother when she was a young girl.

Instead of attending a regimented school in bleak English weather, she suddenly found herself accompanying her father to exotic and remote places in northwestern Argentina. She'd leave school for as much as six weeks at a time to make these expeditions, which often entailed travel on horseback.

This upbringing helped shape Balmori's unconventional approach to envisioning her surroundings. "I saw semitropical jungles and total desert," she recalls. "Strangely enough, the landscapes I preferred the most were the northwest deserts. There was something extraordinary about them, so powerful and intense. They were so pure. I still feel that way in deserts. Everyone thinks the desert is devoid of everything, but there's an incredible variety of plants and animals that you don't see."

Balmori says she's never seen a correlation between her upbringing and the work she does. Possessed of strong opinions and a restless curiosity, she perhaps has more interest in turning her intellectual energy outward to the world than in probing her own creative origins.

After a period of home schooling followed by undergraduate work at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán in Argentina, Balmori went to the University of California, Los Angeles, to get her Ph.D. in urban history. Her interest in studying the subject was sparked by a fascination with the cities the Spanish had built throughout their Latin American empire, starting in the early sixteenth century. "It was a very bold experiment in creating cities from scratch," she says.

By 1960, the political system in Argentina was collapsing, and she decided to leave the country permanently. Europe held painful memories for her and her family. "I had no interest in going back to a world that had been torn by war," she says. She chose to come to the United States even though it meant reinventing herself once again in a new country, her fourth. She was drawn here by "a feeling of what was new, what was interesting."

In 1984 Balmori founded the landscape architecture department of César Pelli Associates (she had met Pelli earlier in Argentina). From studying open spaces in urban settings to creating them -- designing them -- was perhaps a natural progression.

As influenced as Balmori must have been by the creative energy of her household, she also seems to have channeled into her work the formidable political experience of the authoritarian regimes in Spain and Argentina that shaped her and her family's choices. Even her writing on that seemingly humble subject, the front lawn, reflects a certain antiestablishment spirit.

Balmori's book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, which she wrote in conjunction with two professors at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, traced the historical development of the lawn and spelled out the toll it takes on the environment in terms of fertilizer, water, and pesticides. Balmori characterized the lawn as "the major crop of the United States." She pointed out that suburban lawns use more fertilizer than all of India and made the link between the phosphates used in those fertilizers and the choking of marine life in Long Island Sound, where chemicals from the suburban lawns of Connecticut and Long Island end up.

For Balmori, liberating homeowners from the tyranny of socially condoned but environmentally harmful green lawns is as political a statement as any green roof or public garden, possibly more so. "To implement changes in a lawn, all it takes is an individual," she says. "You don't have to wait 20 years until the government gets around to doing something about it."

Right now the topic of green lawns - meaning environmentally sound, as opposed to emerald colored -- is particularly hot, with the Home section, not the Science section, of the New York Times recently featuring lawns overrun by tall grasses, wildflowers, and weeds. When did Balmori and her colleagues publish their book? Sixteen years ago.

Balmori was also out there, front and center, in bringing green roofs to New York City. It was she who coined the phrase "the fifth façade" for a building's roof. That phrase, now widely used by architects, captures a design opportunity that has been inexplicably overlooked, especially in urban areas where that surface is so often visible even to the casual observer.

Balmori's most significant green-roof project sits atop the Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, where television shows like Sex and the City and Tina Fey's 30 Rock have been shot. In a highly industrial neighborhood, Balmori created a 35,000-square-foot green roof, the largest in New York City. Earth Pledge, a group that focuses on high-tech ways of improving the environment, has set up a research site to study the environmental impact of the project. Balmori chose Long Island City in part because it was so visible to commuters driving in and out of Manhattan on the Queensboro Bridge.

Ultimately, her plans are even more ambitious: to take advantage of the 667 acres of flat-topped manufacturing buildings in Long Island City, an area that she determined, after conducting a citywide survey, was best suited to such an extensive green-roof project. Devoid of parks on the ground, the neighborhood might instead have one on high. "We saw that we could put up something that was the size of Prospect Park [in Brooklyn] -- without buying any land," says Balmori. Without leveling any buildings or displacing current businesses, the city would be acquiring a thriving microclimate that would preserve energy and alleviate air pollution. "It's a very modest investment, relatively, from the point of view of infrastructure," she says.

People who think that creating a green roof entails simply putting some "stuff that's green" on a roof are missing the point, says Balmori. "Yes, there's evapotranspiration, so water returns to the atmosphere, which is a very good thing. And water is retained in plants and doesn't go into the drainage immediately, which means you don't have rivers flooding and you don't increase the velocity of water, which erodes the edges of a river," she says, ticking off some of the familiar benefits of a green roof. "But I really think it's much more transformative than that." It's her hope, for example, that enough green roofs could greatly reduce the heat-island effect of Long Island City's many tar and asphalt surfaces. In Chicago, studies have found that green-roof temperatures are from 19 percent to 31 percent cooler during peak daytime hours in July than those on a conventional roof, and that the absorption of rain during downpours is significantly higher.

image of Susan Dominus
Susan Dominus has written the "Big City" column for the New York Times since 2007.  She has contibuted to many other publications, including Discover, Glamour, New York magazine, the London Daily Telegraph, and the New York Times Magazine.... READ MORE >