Above the People: The Meadow, the Apple Tree, and the Cow!

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Forward for the book “Above the Pavement—the Farm!: Architecture & Agriculture at PF1” by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2010

One of my earliest and most vivid memories from a childhood storybook is of an old lady entering her house through a door set into a mound in a meadow. Her house was not on top of the earth, but in it. Up above it there was a cow grazing, and the surrounding landscape of forest and meadow gave way to some vegetable plants, an apple tree, a berry patch, and perhaps some chickens. As you turned the page and saw the house from the other side, there were windows peeking out, framed by tomato vines above and tall grasses below. The surrounding wilderness gradually rose up into a mound, merging so completely with the home where the old lady lived that it would be impossible to clearly define the actual borders of the house. On another page you could see her up there with the cow—milking, gardening, tending—on what one might call, depending on the point of view, the roof. This entire situation—for it was a situation, much more than just an image or even a design—thoroughly captured my imagination. Even at that young age, maybe five or six, I knew this was totally crazy in the most promising way. This was different than any other living situation I had seen before. There was the mystery of it, the modesty, the subservience to the land, its casual nature, and the complete welcoming in of the wild world around it—plus it was ridiculous and fun. The possibility of what this represented had a profound affect on me, and the revelation of this house within the meadow must have also had some affect on my future interests and work.

The English root of the word garden is gart or enclosure. The enclosure serves to keep the cultivated human space inside protected from the wild space outside. It is a space of protection but also of balance between human need and natural resource. Unlike the farm or the designed landscape, it is inherently modest in size so that one person or family unit may tend it. The garden in its richest sense does not distinguish between the productive and the ornamental; rather, these are two ends of a continuum and in some cases are indecipherable from each other. Such a garden is both a negotiation—to determine what sort of sustenance can be achieved from the land in a particular place—and a human space that we occupy, live in, and derive pleasure from. Now that we have dominated and transformed the entire planet, and the wildness that we once protected the garden from no longer exist in its pure form—contemporary gardening battles with wild hedgehogs, rabbits in suburban subdivisions, and urban rats notwithstanding—how should our idea of the garden evolve? If a garden is an enclosure, where do we draw these lines today? What is inside and what is out? Or what if that line is gone and the garden emerges from everything around it—undefined, unprotected, a landscape that goes wherever we are? The lost wilderness and the protected garden would be replaced with a fusion of a cultivated wilderness and a merging of those two very aspects that the garden enclosure previously sought to isolate. The precious but fortressed, controlled garden and the untouched wild would be replaced by a continuous landscape of pleasure gardens—surrounding and above us—that also happen to produce food.

Growing up in suburban Minneapolis in the 1970s and ’80s, I became aware of local architectural responses to the energy crisis and in particular the developing interest in earth-sheltered buildings. At my local library I discovered the book Earth Sheltered Housing Design: Guidelines, Examples, and References written by the Underground Space Center at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Energy Agency, and it became my favorite book at around the age of thirteen or fourteen. This rather dry document of charts, section drawings, and data never seemed to acknowledge the fantastic side of the story they were telling, and the authors did not seem to get very excited about what could happen with all of that land on top, but they did validate the idea of living under the landscape as a viable possibility. In my northern climate with harsh winters it was all about going underground to moderate the extreme temperatures and reduce energy costs, something that was a dim and distant goal to a young teenager.

A few years later I discovered the books of Malcolm Wells, the architect who was baptized in the modern idiom and continued down a corporate path for a while, until inspiration struck, and like a religious zealot he spent the rest of his career advocating underground and earth-sheltered architecture. He designed a few examples, including his own underground solar residence in Massachusetts, which was a significant laboratory for his ideas. Unable to convince many clients of his vision of spaces covered with earth for people to inhabit, he spent most of his energy proselytizing through his books, over twenty-five titles in all since the 1960s. He celebrated the romantic and pragmatic alike with evocative, technical prose, illustrated with lovely line drawings of his architectural creations peeking out beneath layers of plant life. The vision first offered to me in a children’s book had come to life here as a possible future for all of us. He proposed a new world order, where we would go down and the plants would go up. Later, Wells would expand his dream to include not just homes, but airports, shopping malls, and offices—everything and all of us would go underground. There is poetry to his completeness of vision, which captures the imagination, but there is also something uncompromising about it, like the emergence of a lost dictatorial modernist voice, reappearing in a new way and triggering a grand reconsideration of the nature of urbanity. How does our idea of a city change if we cannot see it from above? What happens to the identity of a people if their landmarks are not buildings, but trees and gardens?

In Robert A. Caro’s 1974 biography of the greatest builder of parks and recreational spaces of the twentieth century, Robert Moses, we begin to better understand why the green spaces in New York, and in cities across America, look the way they do today. On the surface, here was the ultimate friend of greening the city. For decades he devoured land, both unclaimed and occupied, in the  boroughs and on Long Island, and transformed one grand parcel after another into an impossibly vast system of giant recreational spaces, parks, pools, and beaches, the scale of which was unprecedented in any U.S. city. Where large tracts were no longer available in the densest, least-green parts of the city (and also the least prosperous areas, which he disdained and virtually ignored), he even started to acquire smaller vacant lots to transform into neighborhood pocket parks. This never amounted to much, as they were deemed an inefficient use of his time in comparison to the scale and breadth of his other, more visible public works. It took proportionally more time to plan and implement a small park, and inversely less fanfare and public acclaim. He was not interested in fostering a dialog with the local community, as would be required for a small neighborhood park. This famously land-hungry man, who would send his team to sniff out any unused parcel to impose his vision upon, would turn down offers of free land that were too small and not worth his trouble. He believed that three acres was the smallest that could be controlled and managed as a park. Once you have to start listening to people, things get complicated and inefficient. You have to find out how they live and what they want. It also comes down to an issue of scale that continues to plague our cities, our planners, and our architects, as well as ourselves to this today. We still confuse size with significance.

How would our cities be different today if Moses had channeled just a fraction of his vast resources and brilliance away from the mega-projects and toward a network of small green spaces that anyone could walk to or implement for themselves in their existing locations? Whose job is it to make sure that each one of us has immediate visual and physical access to an open green space? Whose job is it to make sure that every resident of a city has access to affordable, chemical-free, fresh and local produce? I have come to believe that no one will ever be hired or formally assigned to take on the most vital problems and meaningful inquiries about placemaking for people today. The most promising and humane possibilities will come from the collective, unpaid imaginings of wandering, curious, and self-driven individuals exploring the edges of what is acceptable at the time, creating possible alternative scenarios in a much more powerful way than any hired professional or singular Robert Moses could ever do on his own. His legacy is among the most visible approaches to placemaking in the twentieth century; in comparison, perhaps, it made the old lady living under the meadow all the more shocking to me. It was such a contrast with everything else that I knew about home and city, in my suburban environment at the time, taking the familiar and shifting it in radical ways just by putting dirt and life on top. I did not understand that proposition of her life—under the plants and animals in the meadow—as an architectural project, or a literary conceit, or a hippie lifestyle, or a landscape strategy, or a futurist fantasy, or a primitive step backward. I simply saw it as an unexplored, possible way of living—a parallel reality not chosen.

The old lady living under the meadow, her vegetable garden, and her cow were the first things that came to mind when I saw WORKac’s Public Farm 1 installation. Here at last were the visionary architects turning their skills toward a complex living (and alive) situation, not just a design or an image. The inverted V shape of the gardens floating up above was like the inverse of the mound in the meadow, but the grand gesture of the garden coming down to greet us from above felt the same. PF1 is not a solution to a problem nor a literal vision of a possible future. That would miss the point and underestimate the project’s significance. It is a handmade piece of pragmatic poetry. It’s a complex living situation, responding to the larger living situation of the city and the global networks that it exists within. It is alive, both in the lives of the plants that it supports and in the lives of the many sorts of people that converged on a conversation to dream it up, build it, and tend it. The typical team that an architect is used to shepherding has at PF1 expanded to include an exciting breadth of human endeavors: the farmers and the engineers, the art curators and solar experts, the college students and experimental soil companies, the graphic designers and chicken handlers. Ultimately I experienced the project as a great big invitation to leave buildings behind, to participate in our landscape, and to climb up.

– Fritz Haeg, 2010