The design team included landscape designers Margie Ruddick with the firm WRT Design, architects and urban designers Marpillero Pollak Architects and the artist Michael Singer. The Department of City Planning and NYC’s Economic Development Corporation are the client agencies, and the project is one of the first to follow the City’s High-Performance Infrastructure Guidelines. I recently sat down with Margie Ruddick, Sandro Marpillero and Linda Pollak to talk about how the project seeks to redefine the idea of nature in the city, integrating infrastructure, art and ecology. -C.S.
Urban Omnibus: Tell me about Queens Plaza.
Sandro Marpillero: Historically, it’s a layering of several phases of intervention. First came the Queensboro bridge, in 1909. Then came one installment of the Elevated, the one that corresponds to the N/W/7 today. And then some years later, another layer of subway came in, which prompted the transformation of the elevated station, just west of what will be JFK Park. As part of the overall transformation of the bridge, the upper deck – previously devoted to rail and subway – became car traffic. The introduction of car traffic brought about the immense ramps that encircle Silvercup studios. This is where the main focus of our intervention is, but it’s part of an ongoing transformation of a 1.3 mile stretch.
In the 1930s, as the station was restructured, some of the original portions of the structure were chopped back. That becomes an important moment for our intervention.
Because you have a multiple-level system: the lower portion has been partially demolished, and the top level is extremely active, so seems particularly complex…
Linda Pollak: … And chaotic.
Urban Omnibus: What were the City’s main objectives for this project?
Margie Ruddick: Generally speaking, to reclaim Queens Plaza as a place that people want to be in, a place that people understand how to move through, and a place that is green. In 2002, this was the first RFP that we’d ever gotten with a sustainability agenda; now every RFP you get puts sustainability front and center.
Urban Omnibus: And what are some of the ways in which you thought about sustainability when approaching this project?
Sandro Marpillero: You can think of the discourse of sustainability as a different way to understand timespan. Rather than looking at building as a matter of the shortest, most convenient way of doing things, we reinscribe the act of building within a process that belongs to history. I think we should reinvest existing pieces of city not only with value but also with the possibility of fulfilling a task.
Margie Ruddick: The idea that something hard, urban and harsh can operate ecologically – that’s something that isn’t yet in the everyday language of landscape architecture. This kind of approach to landscape is slowly but surely becoming much more prevalent. Particularly in Oregon and Washington State, where the flow of water is much more visible: you can really see how the plants are thriving due to sub-surface drainage and downspouts being let out into park spaces. The whole cycle of water is much more visible.
Linda Pollak: In terms of sustainability, a very important concept for us is ‘salvage,’ and I think that’s one aspect of our practice that encouraged Margie to involve us in the Queens Plaza project. ‘Salvage,’ for me, incorporates the need to understanding a site’s historical formation by much larger scale infrastructural events or systems. Understanding and acknowledging the historical formation of a building or site – its architectural and political construction – allows you to intervene in order to reconstruct it. Green infrastructure, I think, has a lot to do with salvage or recycling or reuse and we definitely brought that to bear on Queens Plaza.
Sandro Marpillero: It’s a little bit different than the twentieth century discourse of preservation that has to do more with the accredited value in cultural terms that an artifact might have fulfilled. I think our attitude about recycling or salvage is much more about being able to see how existing pieces of our cities, of our buildings, can perform in relationship to new operational challenges. It’s not so much a matter of preserving and invoking the past as model, as of reframing the role that existing sites and buildings and infrastructures can have.
Margie Ruddick: We were also very keen to infuse something of the personal back into the work. Amanda Burden [chair of the City Planning Commission; director of the New York City Department of City Planning] was very insistent that there be social eating space, for example. The personal scale is really important.
To that end, a broad swath of Ironwood trees will arc along the Elevated at JFK Park, enfolding the refuge-like park landscape. A river of understory trees will meander within the park, and then along the medians, down to the river. This immersive green landscape alters the conventional notion of what an urban park can be.
Urban Omnibus: It changes our perception of what an urban park can be? How so?
Margie Ruddick: In formal terms, rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in JFK Park, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.
We tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure.
Five or seven years ago, architects and everybody who saw our plans for Queens Plaza thought it was incongruous to have such a lush landscape on that kind of site. But now images from Queens Plaza are being used as a powerful precedent for an expressive language in a complex infrastructural context.
And beyond the material dimension, it alters our common perception of an urban park because it is not bounded; rather, it takes place in these skinny slivers. Even something like the High Line is bounded – even though it’s linear, it has a boundary. The Queens Plaza project is part of a street network but will operate as a park.
Margie Ruddick: Another aspect of the design that really distinguishes this park is the ways we deal with stormwater. All site stormwater is filtered through subsurface wetlands and median plantings. The artist Michael Singer worked with Linda, Sandro and ourselves to create a system of interlocking, permeable pavers that can manage and filter stormwater through various kinds of plantings, or serve as hard walking surfaces.
Michael also designed these beautiful edge pavers with a little curve on the side. When you put two of them together there’s a little peephole where the water flows from the paver down into the planting. It’s a really beautiful detail, just a little notch that allows the water to flow down.
Urban Omnibus: Are there other projects that you’re aware of that you find particularly exemplary of this kind of integration of ecology and infrastructure?
Margie Ruddick: Some streetscapes in Portland, Oregon, and another beautiful little project in Portland is the ecotrust parking lot. Also some projects in Germany. I think when we started it we were on the leading edge but now it really is becoming the norm. I’ve also been working with Enric Ruiz-Geli, an architect from Barcelona, and his firm Cloud 9 on a number of projects that promote the notion that great infrastructure can actually operate at the level of a park and make the landscape really perform: generating energy, dealing with big urban infrastructure issues, contributing to water quality and equity. And I think that’s what really exciting about the work that Enric and Cloud 9 are doing is that it’s also operating on the level of art.
The idea is to create an urban canopy that will visually organize what is already there.
Sandro Marpillero: I think there is more and more awareness about the immense resource that a piece of infrastructure can be. Repurposing of the city can make a dinosaur into an incredible asset. It feels like there is starting to be an awareness of a wealth of public space, previously unnoticed. The potential is incredible; these places are magic.
Linda Pollak: They may be noisy, dirty, not without challenges. They’re also amazing. The High Line is a great example: the spaces underneath that are turned into places as well as the park on top.
In order to do very little – to make the small moves that effect a major transformation – you have to know a lot. And to perform localized interventions in an extremely fragmented, incoherent site like Queens Plaza, requires a broad and informed view. You have to identify any possible affiliations or similarities between existing infrastructures that had nothing to do with each other when originally conceived. For example, the Elevated at Queens Plaza was built in a context of thinking that infrastructure was just infrastructure, there was no thought that it could contribute to or provide public space.
As architects and urban designers, we set about identifying a framework of site systems that could bridge from the existing to the new, from the industrial to the residential/commercial, from the large-scale transportation infrastructure to pedestrian and cyclist routes. The idea was not to end up with streetscapes that were merely decorative or “greening” for the sake of an amenity: the idea was to make a new place.
The site is completely dominated by the Elevated, visually; you can’t take a picture in Queens Plaza where you don’t see it. But most plans of the site do not register the presence of the Elevated. It’s more comfortable not to acknowledge it. In some ways our job as urban designers is to keep the Elevated in the picture – literally.
Sandro Marpillero: The lower tracks and beams, that portion of the Elevated that is no longer used, are still there. Because they are in between street level and the uppermost level where the train still runs, this intersection comes at odd angles and make the overall impression extremely complicated and difficult to read.
Our strategy for the treatment of the Elevated is to address two aspects of its historical layering. Number one is to make its constituent modules legible. And number two is to highlight the presence of these abandoned tracks, to offer a wayfinding clue, especially at the intersection between Jackson Avenue and Queens Plaza.
Margie Ruddick: Marpillero Pollak Architects’ design transforms the structure of the Elevated, which now appears as a tangle of steel, into an elegant lantern-like series of sculptural spaces suspended above the flow of people and traffic below.
Sandro Marpillero: A minimal intervention of flexible stainless steel mesh within the structural bays allows passersby to see, and to read, the structure as a rhythmic series of volumes. It is a rethinking of the geometry of these voids within the substructure. Leni Schwendinger has brought to the project her creativity and experience about the relation between lighting and steel mesh.
Linda Pollak: And you would be amazed at the power one of these elements can have. Even as I was drawing the light lines canopy at Jackson Avenue, I felt it as a huge art installation: it transforms the Elevated. Because of its fragmentary nature, it is susceptible to transformation by wrapping. And the idea that you get this urban canopy for a fraction of the cost of building… it’s a solution that could only be seen by understanding the formation of the place.
Amanda Burden really wanted JFK Park to have the sense of being a refuge. The challenge is to accomplish that and also to facilitate the flows in and out of the refuge, and acknowledge the other flows: the trains and the traffic. Those elements could become a burdensome distractions at best, more likely a tremendous disturbance. But if, through structure and light, the imminent arrival of a train can become an event – one that excites kids and plays with the existing rhythms of the infrastructural system – if that can happen, then some aspect of the flow and the scale of the train have been engaged at the individual scale. At the scale of a person down on the ground, enjoying the park, and registering the presence of the train in a positive way. That engagement makes the arriving train part of public space, not a noisome distraction from it.
Repurposing of the city can make a dinosaur into an incredible asset. The potential is incredible; these places are magic.
Providing some sense of legibility will remake the public space. It does not decorate it. It integrates across scales, from benches and street furniture to landscape and topography. With the elements that Michael Singer made, the pavers, the runnels and the bench slabs are all of the same fine grain. They connect different pieces of landscape, they intersect easily with the pathways, and they relate to the planting. All of us tried to leverage Michael Singer’s contribution as much as possible. We expanded the role and the reach of art on the site, integrating it into the various systems.
Margie Ruddick: For example, the benches that Marpillero Pollak and Michael Singer designed bring the language of the ground-plane landscape into relief.
Linda Pollak: The Elevated, the intense traffic – these also are flows. And the Elevated has a certain transparency. Amanda Burden was clear that she did not want the design to interfere with that transparency. It’s sort of a filigree. The shadows and the light have a qualitative dimension. The idea is to create an urban canopy that will visually organize what is already there without filling it up.
Margie Ruddick: The interplay between refuge and connective tissue may seem difficult to reconcile at first, but landscape designers and landscape architects have been harmonizing these two objectives from time immemorial – it’s a kind of sleight of hand. When you look at Central Park, you may only see green landscape, but the planning is porous: the ways you get in, get out and are conducted across it. It’s a perforated landscape.
Linda Pollak: It is, ultimately, a bicycle and pedestrian improvement project – about flows. Facilitating movement, for pedestrians and cyclists, is not only about movement; it’s also about wayfinding. Pedestrians emerge from the subway disoriented. We wanted the place to ground you somewhere.
Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Cassim Shepard.