Urban Play Garden, San Francisco


Terraces and folding planes create a graphic urban garden when viewed from above, but at the garden level the focus is on adventurous play, to draw the young children outdoors. On steep, previously unused, land, they play chase, roll, slide, climb a rope, dig, plant, and invent games. The sustainability-conscious garden connects to the minimalist modern architecture while promoting the children’s social and mental well-being through a web of relationship with the land.


The clients’ three-story minimalist modern house in the Buena Vista Park neighborhood of San Francisco has extensive views of the city from the roof deck but little land. When we started the project, in 2004, the rear space was a very small-feeling, steeply sloped, irregularly angled, wedge-shaped patch of weeds, 25fee at the widest point by 44feet long. Because it borders a city-owned, street-side retaining wall, any terracing would require its own pier supports on the south side, and tall screening would be required on the north side, where the space was overlooked by neighboring houses. Despite the obstacles to developing this space, the clients were determined to explore the chances to make an outdoor play space for their very young twin girls, so they wouldn’t have to always drive to a playground or otherwise have the children play indoors. The clients also wanted the play space to be interesting to view from above.

Our design strategy was inspired by the work of Tadao Ando, his beautifully clean, smooth, concrete walls and efficient use of space. We designed snap-tie concrete walls, colored to match the smooth stucco of the house, to retain the terraces and planting beds, visually extending the architecture into the garden. Italian granite, the flooring indoors, is continued outdoors in the steps that float down the slope, and in the seat of a bench that cantilevers from a concrete wall.

We organized the space into four zones: a flat upper terrace, a steep slope, a flat lower terrace, and below it, down a few steps, a service area with a shed. Before we began the terracing, we built a new wall, 18 inches in from the city wall, along the entire 44 foot length of the southern edge of the garden to meet city building requirements. The granite steps across the terraces and descending the slope form a strong axis when viewed from above.

Three of the zones are designed for the children’s play. The topography allows the children and their friends to climb up a grass hill (using a rope) and race, roll, or slide down (on the concrete slide), the kind of thrilling adventurous play—the clients call the garden “a safe place for the children to feel bold”—considered essential for children’s connection to landscape. Also important, according to research are the garden’s separation from the adult areas of the house, which gives the children a sense of their own place, and the availability of natural materials—sand, water (from the sculptural stone water bowl), twigs, leaves, and flowers—to build with and support imaginative play. The bench that allows adults to enjoy or supervise the children’s play is at the top of the garden, next to the house, at the greatest distance from their world. The flat areas are used for ball games and to pitch a tent. The children participate in the landscape, digging and planting, and choosing herbs, bulbs, and flowers to grow for tea parties and bouquets.

The play garden is made private by towering step-up double scrims of Pittosporum, two varieties (one variegated, one green), one behind the other. Above them wave the ‘borrowed” fronds of a neighbor’s date palm. Beneath them, other plantings spill over the retaining walls, in a carefully chosen, restricted palette of purple, white and yellow. The plantings are drought tolerant and irrigated, only as necessary, by drip irrigation.

The clients’ main consideration was to have a space where their children could play freely outdoors, which we view as an important human right and an aspect of social sustainability. We were conscious also of environmental sustainability: the rubber paving at the base of the slide and the metal gate and railings at the entrance to the service area were all made of recycled material. The grading design balanced cut and fill. We collected the water from the entire play garden and directed it to a bioretention drain in the dog area.

The clients asked us also to design the plantings at the house entrance and on the roof deck. At the entrance, under an existing maple tree, we created a minimalist green pad of mattress vine(Muehlenbeckia complexa). The sunny roof deck, with panoramic views of San Francisco, has container plantings of roses and dwarf olives.

From the roof deck, and the decks off the bedrooms and living room, the play garden far below reads as a pleasingly simple graphic that integrates with the architecture. At night, its lines are lit with soft channel lighting.


Landscape Architect
Blasen Landscape Architecture
Eric Blasen, ASLA, Principal
Silvina Blasen, Gary Rasmussen

Tim Gemmill, Gemmill Design

Frank & Grossman

Interior Design
Mark Cunningham

General Contractor
Creative Spaces




Ken Smith

Ken Smith has a new book, published by Monacelli Press, and he was giving this talk in conjunction with selling and signing his wonderful book. I required my class to attend this presentation because he is the ‘designer du jour’ here in NYC and his ideas ‘push the envelope’ and are perfectly suited to the 21st century urban milieu…(uh oh! I am letting some designer jargon creep in here….note to me: watch those french words and cliche descriptors)Smith also spoke about his famous Museum of Modern Art Roof Garden:

no soil, no weight, no plants, no people

Smith accomplished the goal of creating lightweight faux garden at MOMA..plastic rocks, styrofoam edging, phony boxwood…185 crushed recycled rocks + 7 tons crushed glass + 4 tons rubber mulch + 560 artificial boxwoods.It is visible only to people who live above the Museum of Modern Art – no visitors allowed.He told us he based the garden layout on a camouflage pattern – he likened modern landscape architects to ‘camofleurs’ (uh oh, French word, again…). He said many times we are asked to screen this, hide that…so true.As you can imagine, this ‘ersatz’ approach has engendered its own critics (now I am lapsing into German words – stop it, now!)Here is what Mason White wrote in archinet in ‘Faking It For Real’:“Smith’s pop garden perched atop the venerable MoMA offers itself as a mirage or oasis of artificiality. Unwavering in its denial of seasonal change, and uninterested in the fact that it presents itself as hyper-real. This landscape is the perfect manicured zen lawn. …”

Oh Yeah! Finally the no-watering solution! (No carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange, either, but who needs fresh air?)I was disappointed he didn’t share his residential gardens which are stunning– like my favorite, the urban viewing garden at 40 Central Park South.By the way,  *Howard Roark, architect, was the empire building, main character in Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’.




Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House

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Project Statement

Philip Johnson’s monumental 1964 Beck House was conceived as a theatrical viewing platform for the surrounding landscape—a motive pursued more simply and elegantly in Johnson’s own Glass House fifteen years earlier. The Beck House renovation, completed in 2009, critically revises this modernist paradigm. By deftly altering Johnson’s conceptual break-line between building and landscape, the project demonstrates landscape architecture’s capacity to integrate the conservation of the material legacy of a project with direct engagement of the visual, spatial, ecological, and domestic characteristics of the site.

Project Narrative

Conservation Ethic

A triumph. The landscape architect created a much better perspective of the forest and the architecture. There is an abstract concept within this design that makes it art and helps counter the scale of the house. Love the bridge. It incorporates just the right amount of preservation with new design. This is a great example of taking what was there and working with it rather than coming in with a whole new concept.”
—2011 Professional Awards Jury

A family with deep commitments to arts patronage in Dallas rescued the Beck House from destruction in an overinflated real estate market, purchasing it from the original owner in 2002. Over the course of seven years, the client and design team demonstrated a careful balance of restoration and intervention, landscape recovery, and curatorial distinction. The house needed complete renewal. The landscape was seriously degraded, with abundant indicators of poor ecological health—more than half the site barely penetrable and clogged with invasive plants; declining populations of pecans and cedar elms; eroded and depleted soils; unstable creek banks and floodplain; and unfavorable habitat characteristics with few if any beneficial constituents. The clients demonstrated unquestionable commitment to respecting the project’s heritage and placed great focus on the curatorial aspects of the house and their extensive collections; but they were equally motivated by the need to reconcile these characteristics with their desire to create a family-oriented home, a comfortably domestic landscape, and a lasting stewardship ethic for the property.

Restoring Ecological Health

Over seven years, the goal of improving canopy and soils health has driven numerous management and design decisions. Twenty-three original mature orchard pecans (plus five replacement trees) have been returned to long-term vitality through extensive rehabilitation of root zones and canopies. Nearly one hundred cedar elms have undergone similar treatment. To facilitate the preservation of these trees, whose root flares existed at hugely varied base elevations, concrete risers of three- to six-inch elevations were inserted—over 4,000 linear feet of them—with pile foundations that minimized interference with soil/root masses. Bioengineered creek bank restoration succeeded in stabilizing formerly eroded slopes to resist regular flash flood damage. The swimming pool program was relocated above the 100-year floodplain. Lawns, which provide occasional public access for the sculpture collections, have been transitioned to a combination of warm- and cool-season grasses with reduced water demand. The small existing prairie was restored at a larger scale with low-demand Buffalograss. Site maintenance today is 100% organic.


While the architecture is singular and strong, this site is home to a family of four. Drives, terraces, and an extensive recreation program were designed to achieve a domestic character. Design tactics included the provision of a reflective water feature at the everyday family entrance; introduction of seasonal horticultural interest—bosques, hedges, shrub masses, and ground covers—along edges and in family areas; and the planting of significant new Shumard oaks and live oaks to domesticate the scale of the house (and eventually shade it).

Building on the aim of domestic character, the project alters the architect’s original promenade architecturale. Johnson’s grass plinth distanced the house from the creek and beyond. Johnson provided only one indirect path of connection to the creek; the overall stance was remote and pictorial. In the renovation project, four-foot retaining walls were reduced in height; sections of the plinth were broken for access; and a broad lawn stair was introduced that facilitates direct movement and visual connection toward Bachman Creek and the balance of the property. The geometry of terracing and articulation of the groundplane were aligned with the orientation of the creek, bringing the two sides of the property into strong visual and spatial connection.


The project carries significance for Dallas and beyond with respect to mid-century modernist residential heritage. Due to inflated land values and a dramatically degraded condition, the house was headed for demolition. The new owners rescued the property and committed enormous capital to its recuperation. The approach taken here brings critical and respectful measures to the preservation of a recent work (less than fifty years) and proves that discrete interventions can honor a project’s original design intentions while transforming use and character to satisfy contemporary ideals and lifestyles. Moreover, the case is made that arboricultural and topographic renovations can yield a more fully engaged site experience that moves beyond modern architecture’s limited pictorial agenda. Finally, the decision to promote 100% organic maintenance on a highly visible site in Dallas demonstrates a rare and overdue shift in local landscape practice.

Lead Designer: Reed Hilderbrand 
Principal in Charge: Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA

Co-Principal: Douglas Reed, FASLA

Project Manager/Project Designer: John Grove, ASLA

Project Designer: Naomi Cottrell, ASLA

Architect & Interiors: Bodron+Fruit

Art Advisor: Allan Schwartzman

General Contractor: Sebastian Construction Group

Consulting Arborist: Shade Masters

Landscape Contractor: American Civil Constructors

Fountain: Dan Euser Water Architecture

Lighting Designer: Craig Roberts Associates Inc.

The Museum of Modern Art Roof Garden, New York, NY

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Best Landscape Architecture Projects Received ASLA 2009 Professional Awards

Ken Smith Landscape Architect, New York, NY
client: The Museum of Modern Art

Project Statement:

The new roof garden on top of the Taniguchi building at the Museum of Modern Art in New York marks a contemporary addition to the landscape spaces at the museum, which also include the ”modern” sculpture garden designed by Philip Johnson and Zion and Breen in 1953. The garden breaks new ground esthetically in terms of design vocabulary, wit and irony, materiality and public visibility. While physically inaccessible the garden is highly visible as a viewing garden at the urban high-rise scale of Midtown Manhattan.

Project Narrative:

Project Background and Program
The new Museum of Modern Art in New York City is a unified complex of existing and new structures. Construction of the new museum involved impacts on the neighboring Museum Tower residential condominium and as mitigation the museum agreed to construct a “decorative rooftop” on the new roof areas over the new sixth floor galleries. The roof areas, while not visible or accessible to the museum visitor, function as an urban viewing garden for the neighboring Midtown high-rise community. The original 1939 museum building also had a rooftop design element that could be read only from above and this tradition was continued at the temporary MoMA Queens, which had roof graphics visible from the elevated subway. The project architects, Yoshio Taniguchi, and Kohn Pederson Fox had designated a simple pattern of black and white gravel stripes that was part of the building’s base construction budget. MoMA’s director and curators, however, wanted a design that functioned as both viewing garden and art installation. In addition to a relatively modest construction budget, the landscape design commission came with a set of limitations imposed by the client. The roof structure and waterproofing membrane had already been constructed. The surface had been designed with a landscape live load of only twenty-five pounds per square foot; there were to be no structural attachments to the roof or penetrations to the building’s waterproof membrane; the garden was to be designed for a program requiring minimal maintenance and no irrigation; and use of living plant materials was discouraged. Because the museum had already purchased the black and white gravel the design was encouraged to incorporate those materials as well.

Design Concepts
The notion of simulated nature and the simulation strategies and theories of camouflage were used to generate the roof garden forms. The design team did a periodical literature search of camouflage articles in architecture and design journals from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Camouflage was a popular topic in such publications as Art News, 1932; Architecture Record 1917 and 1939; Builder Magazine, 1939; Architect and Engineer Magazine, 1942; Architectural Forum, 1942;Pencil Points, 1942; and The Architectural Review 1944.

“Camouflage is functional design par excellence. Its only raison d’etre is to conceal effectively.&mbsp; Whether this is done with aesthetically valuable or indifferent results, cannot matter in the least to those who commission it and pay for it. Yet — as it is mostly done by artists or at least experts of aesthetic sensibility — the results of camouflage often have a distinct visual charm and curious similarity to the conscious creations of modern art.”
The Architectural Review, Sept. 1944

In contemporary art theory, simulation has been a topic of considerable interest in the theoretical writings of Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, 1981, and in other theorists contributing to a growing body of simulation-related work in the art world.

Camouflage is the art of masking or disguise. Specialists refer to it as “disruptive pattern.” In military practice, buildings or infrastructure are camouflaged to blend into their surroundings. Architect and Engineer Magazine in 1942 identified and described four basic strategies of military and civilian camouflage: “The problems are many and varied. Almost always the camoufleur is called in after the site has been selected and the building built. It is up to him to do something with it. I grant that this is not good planning, but the reasoning seems to be this: Let’s get under way as soon as possible and plan our building for maximum efficiency, if we have to camouflage we can do it later . . .

The four major methods of camouflage are: 1. imitation, 2. deception, 3. decoy, 4. confusion. The landscape architect used these four strategies to develop the initial design alternatives for the roof garden. The alternate design studies were presented and discussed with the client along with representatives of the neighboring residential tower. The “deception” scheme was selected.

The history of landscape design is filled with examples of camouflage and simulation. Central Park, for example, is a large-scale garden that artistically simulates visual and spatial aspects of an idealized pre-industrial arcadia and disguises a large territory of the Manhattan grid with a simulated nature. Contemporary landscape design often deals with the fundamental issue of ameliorating or covering up the impacts of the constructed environments. Practitioners refer to it as “remediation,” “shrubbing it up,” “contextualization,” or simply “naturalizing.” This practice of landscaping as camouflage is a common but critically unrecognized aspect of simulation in the landscape architecture profession. In contemporary urban life camouflage is ironically used to both blend in and stand out. This project takes the art of camouflage and the artifice of simulation a step further by using the simulation of camouflage itself as a source for design speculation. One might think of this as the simulation of a simulation or using imitated nature to generate a new nature.

Construction and Fabrication
The design also draws inspiration from Japanese dry Zen gardens with a relatively flat garden of white gravel, recycled black rubber, crushed glass, sculptural stones and artificial boxwood plants. Tan headers fabricated from milled foam and coated with a hardening surface define areas of material and give a crisp definition to the design layout. While rooted in tradition, the design and fabrication is contemporary in spirit and form.

The design started out most literally as a Xerox copy taken from a pair of skateboarder’s camouflage pants. The pattern was scaled and fitted onto the roof area. The design was translated through the rigor of a reductive geometry of straight line segments, three distinct curve radii, and two intersection conditions. Extensive research was done on materials, material systems and fabrication techniques. The MoMA roof garden material palette consists of natural, recycled and synthetic materials including natural crushed stone, recycled glass, recycled rubber mulch, as well as synthetic materials including fiberglass grating, PVC fittings, artificial boxwood plants, foam headers and artificial rocks. Contemporary C-N-C (computer-numerical-cutting) fabrication techniques were used to reduce on-site labor. All of the fiberglass panels and foam headers were factory-cut, using the landscape architect’s CAD files as templates.