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




Navy Pier Finalist: !melk & HOK & UrbanLab

pdf: http://www.navypier.com/vision/AECOM/AECOM_Design_Book_A_LR.pdf

!melk / HOK / UrbanLab smooths the South Dock’s promenade into a gentle slope. At the East End, the Edge includes an Olympic-size swimming pool and a glassed-in platform extending ten feet below lake level so visitors can view a fish habitat (hey!). The Glacier, a 200-foot-high steel structure in the lake, would be a new landmark suitable for climbing, according to the renderings. The team admits its whole vision would cost a whopping $300 million; the $100-million first phase would include improving the South Dock, the Shikaakwa Gardens (a revamped combination of Pier Park and the Crystal Gardens) and the Edge.

Navy Pier Pierscape finalist: Davis Brody Bond & Aedas Architects & Martha Schwartz Partners

pdf: http://www.navypier.com/vision/Aedas/Aedas_Design_Book_LR.pdf

Davis Brody Bond / Aedas Architects / Martha Schwartz Partners would install a wave fountain and wetland in Gateway Park. (The wetland would be used as a teaching tool, in conjunction with the Chicago Children’s Museum.) The team extends the South Dock into the water with floating gardens where visitors can watch performances—or just relax. The East End gets a “giant civic hot tub,” open even in winter, and a sci-fi-looking elevated gondola called the PierPod transports people to the pier from downtown Chicago. Unfortunately, $85 million only covers the first phase of this plan, which includes the wetland and upgrades to the promenade. The floating gardens (my favorite feature) and hot tub would have to wait for the $120-plus-million Phase 3. By the time the PierPod is finished, I suspect we’ll be using jetpacks anyway.

Aedas ArchitectsDavis Brody Bond and Martha Schwartz Partners proposalPierESCAPE goes beyond the Navy Pier Centennial Vision as it aims to strengthen the connections between water, land, nature, city, culture, civic space and infrastructure with a “series of dock-like extensions”. The proposal respects the history of the Pier while identifying unique opportunities that will them to create a 21st century waterfront experience that is both a historical and contemporary destination.

PierESCAPE envisions Navy Pier as a world-class urban landscape that protects Lake Michigan, promotes economic growth and creates an escape for the people of . Entertainment, recreation, culture and ecology weave together to create places that are “exciting, enriching, and sustainable.” The Pier will offer an expanded list of activities and destinations that will appeal to the people of  and tourists, enticing them to revisit the Pier again and again, throughout the year.

“Our goal will be to achieve a higher degree of integration between the Pierscape and all existing, new and proposed buildings”

Key aspects of the design include:

  • Crossing the Waters into Gateway Park
  • Taking it over the edge into South Dock Park
  • Getting Up to Get Down at Pier Park
  • Going Through the Looking Glass in Crystal Garden
  • Taking the Plunge at East Edge Park
As visitors cross the entry plaza threshold of the Wetland Stream, they are immediately confronted with a range of interactive spaces that commemorate the natural condition of Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Gateway Plaza, the Bus Plaza and the Wetland Garden are the three main components that welcome visitors to Navy Pier.
 Referred to as the Porch, South Dock serves as the unifying public space that stretches the entire length of the Pier and connects it back to the city. It is the “route of procession” that docks all the program and activities. At night, slender stainless steel channels, known as “lightowers”, mimic the Chicago skyline and illuminate the pedestrian promenade. The South-facing pathway overlooks the floating gardens, a major civic space offered in this proposal.
The gardens transform the city’s edge, creating a “greater fusion between infrastructure and the environment”, while accommodating for spaces of play, culture and relaxation. These series of iconic spaces create an intensified connection to the water with geometry inspired by the greater Chicago area. An existing wall of boats is removed and relocated into specified docking area, keeping the lakefront open, free and clear.
A grand staircase brings you up to Pier Park. A complex mixture of rides, theaters, outdoor spaces and much more is integrated into an area focused on interactive play. A new topography in The Crystal Garden creates a wonderland of outdoor spaces that provide an “art exhibit of play”.
The East Edge Park breaks the visitor away from the Pier and allows them to “take a plunge”. The lagoon features a year round public spa that allows people to directly interact with the lake, during any season. The wooden deck steps down into the water, creating a park during the summer and a space for ice skating during the winter.
This complex, yet organized proposal even features a Pier Pod that would serve as both a “spectacle” and mode of transformation. This Gondola experience would not be included in the 85 million budget.

Navy Pier Pierscape finalist: Pier+ / AECOM and BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group)

pdf: http://www.navypier.com/vision/AECOM/AECOM_Design_Book_A_LR.pdf

AECOM / Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) places an aquaponic vertical urban farm in the Crystal Gardens, which would provide food for Navy Pier’s restaurants. (Surely not Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Bar & Grill?) The team incorporates the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s planned extension into a manmade hill suitable for people-watching or sledding, depending on the season; visitors can descend via a giant slide. A “loyalty program” app enables people to control a snazzy fountain at the pier’s East End and post messages on a screen incorporated into the Ferris wheel. AECOM / BIG swears it can deliver these improvements, among other features, within Pierscape’s $85 million budget.

Design leadership: AECOM and BIG
Lighting design: Speirs + Major
Signage: Project Projects
Programmed events and art: Lead Pencil Studio
Water feature design: WET Design
Economics: Tivoli International and AECOM
Horticulture: Eden Project and Christy Webber Landscapes
Cost Estimating: Davis Langdon, an AECOM company

A team led by AECOM and New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is one of five shortlisted teams invited to participate in an international design competition to renovate and reactivate Chicago’s landmark Navy Pier. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity that will redefine the character and focus of Chicago’s waterfront. It is part of an ambitious effort to create a new Navy Pier for the 21st century, and in doing so, to redefine what the pier and the waterfront means to the city.

Unveiled to the public on January 31, 2012 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the AECOM-BIG design vision aims to “re-colonize the people’s pier,” by maximizing opportunity through a holistic approach. The result is Pier+, a vibrant urban destination that creates a new amenity shared by all while making a positive and progressive statement about Chicago to the world.

Navy Pier is prominently situated along Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. The largest destination in  and the world’s longest pier, and a centerpiece of Daniel Burnham’s forward-thinking grand plan, this has been a much-loved piece of Chicago history. In recent years, though, the pier’s popularity has waned, marked by congested experiences that are cut off from the rest of the city.

The AECOM-BIG design proposal seeks to strike a new chapter in this storied history. Our ambition is to create a new reality at Navy Pier that lives up to the poetics of its beautiful lakefront setting by giving a world-class place back to Chicago.

Key aspects of the design include:

  • Gateway Park: A welcoming, well-connected arrival experience through focused interventions.
  • Crystal Garden: Part sculptural indoor park, part futuristic urban farm – a sustainable food production hub for entertainment, education and culinary delight.
  • Skyline Gardens: An extraordinary tapestry of the world’s finest roof gardens.
  • Pier Park: A Grand Stair and Boardwalk (pictured) that give the city a truly world-class setting and the finest views in town, through integrated, holistic thinking.
  • East End Park: An archipelago meeting both the water’s edge and horizon line.
  • South Dock: A playful ribbon of connectivity, expanded program and shaded pathways.

East End Park: The East End Park will take visitors over the water, and into the water. The existing obstruction to the view is eliminated, revealing a breathtaking view of the lake, the water blending seamlessly into the sky. A lifted corner creates a space below at ground level, housing a café/restaurant.

Recalling the east end’s not-so-distant history when portions of it were closer to water for smaller boats and wading, we propose a stepped soft threshold that can accommodate fluctuation in water levels. This new public space will allow visitors to engage much more closely with the water; sculpturally, it will be the yin to the yang of the lifted corner to the south. This “North Dip” becomes a completely intimate and free experience allowing for relaxation in the sun on a man-made beach park. Stepped seating will allow for viewing a spectacular 500-foot-high water show (designed by WET) located off the end of the pier in the lake.

Pier Park Grand Stairs: At the heart of Pier+ is the Grand Stairs, combining a large stepped zone for seating, a flat zone of slides and medium-size steps straight to a rooftop with uninterrupted views. The massive scale of the buildings currently constructed on the pier restricts the views back to the city. Lifting the public realm over the existing pier provides a respite, a relief from the city that is not available anywhere else: it becomes a place that will make the pier a destination among day-to-day residents, rather than just the occasional tourist.

The Grand Stairs is thus a park with a city view, doubling as a “Spanish Steps” style place to rest, to look, to play and to relax – a new landmark that is as iconic as it is public.

The hill (doubling as the roof of the proposed Shakespeare Theater) accommodates a series of restaurants and dining terraces looking back to the city, from where you will be able to enjoy dramatic views of the sun setting behind the Chicago skyline.

Any proposed program within the Pier Park – from organized concerts to personal picnics – will be immediately unique. In the Chicago winter, for example, this can become a place to play. The smooth portion of the Grand Stair to the south will have a permanent set of slides as a groomed area in snowy months for a giant set of tubing slides. In warmer months, the slides will be transformed as a playful amenity for all ages to enjoy.

Life After Dark: As an integral part of the team, renowned lighting designers Speirs + Major have developed a comprehensive lighting design program that will make Navy Pier a stunning vision in the Chicago nightscape. Developing a theme of “Life After Dark,” the designers have created a night-time identity that combines the functional requirements of lighting delivered alongside leisure activities of the site.

Micro-wind turbines on the roof will produce renewable energy to power much of the lighting

Crystal Garden: The Crystal Garden will be an indoor public attraction that brings together sustainable food production, entertainment, education and culinary delight. An aquaponic nutrient/water cycle system will feed various naturally-growing fruits and vegetables, which will respond well to the microclimate, in dramatic sculptural pillars – an urban food jungle. Ground-level pedestrian circulation will enable easy visitor access; meanwhile a floating seed-like juice bar will serve products created from food grown on site. Completing the holistic system, food grown in the Crystal Garden will be used to supply the restaurants at Pier+.

Skyline Gardens: Between the Grand Stairs and East End Park will be an evolving tapestry of the world’s finest roof gardens. Arranged in an artful geometric pattern, these gardens will provide a visually interesting and rich landscape for visitors. In collaboration with the existing flower show, a phasing plan imagines the roof gardens growing through time to eventually encompass the entire rooftop of Navy Pier’s largest building.

James Corner Field Operations selected for Chicago’s Navy Pier

                       pdf:  http://www.navypier.com/vision/JCFO/JCFO_Design_Book_LR.pdf

The Navy Pier Inc. (NPI) Board recently announced that design firm James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) has been selected to help reimagine Navy Pier’s public spaces, an effort designated as “Pierscape.”  Corner and his team were among the five finalists in Navy Pier’s search for a Pierscape design team that began six-months ago with 52 submissions from around the globe to redesign the Pier’s public spaces.

“Public spaces do not only help define a city – they are the heart and soul of a city. We have a remarkable opportunity to make Navy Pier one of those unique public spaces,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Having an internationally renowned design firm like James Corner Field Operations working with one of our city’s greatest icons demonstrates that Chicago has the energy and vision to continue to lead on the world stage.”

The Pierscape portion of the Centennial Vision plan calls for reimagining the Pier’s public spaces including Gateway Park at the west entrance of the Pier, Crystal Garden, Pier Park, East End Park, the South Dock as well as the smaller public spaces that dot the length of the Pier. This work will include enhancements to the Pier’s landscaping and streetscape along with the addition of water features, public art and lighting.

The next step in the process will be for Navy Pier and JCFO to begin putting more definition around the project. The Board emphasized that JCFO’s vision will inform and guide the Pierscape redesign, but were quick to point out that the final design will reflect other factors including practicality, functionality, collaboration with the NPI board, and available capital.

Other finalists included teams from AECOM/Bjarke Ingels Group, Aedas Architects/Davis Brody Bond/Martha Schwartz Partners, !melk/HOK/Urban Lab, Xavier Vendrell Studio/Grimshaw Architects.

Star Maze, Netherlands


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In northern Netherlands, the historic Groot Vijversburg park is not only expanding physically but also going contemporary with the addition of a new Star Maze, which will be designed by LOLA landscape architects,Deltavormgroep, and Piet Oudolf, plant designer for the High Line Park and last year’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion.

According to Bustler, the idea is to use new works of landscape architecture to transform Groot Vijversburg park, a ”romantic public park,” from a historic site into a national destination with a more contemporary feel. Beyond theStar Maze, lots will be added like “two new park chambers, which create a link between the historical park, a post-war recreational area, and a nature reserve.”

The Star Maze is a “remix” of two historic park shapes, “the star shaped forest” and the “labyrinth.” Tall hedges will work like “room dividers for the existing meadow and create several park spaces suitable for various use.” The structure is also designed to connect visitors into other components of the park.

The design team writes: “Each ending of the Star Maze has a function, such as a landscape balcony with a view over the nature reserve, a pier for canoe travelers in the recreational area, a window with a vista to the main park villa and a shed with rubber boots, to explore the marshland.”

An additional “park chamber,” which can be flooded, will be a bit of The Sound of Music, with hills featuring perennials in a “field of pollard willows.” The hills will be accessible via a series of small dikes.

The landscape architects write that the changes to the way visitors flow through the site represent the shift from “romantic” to contemporary landscape models: “The central space gives an overview in all directions but at the same time doesn’t impose any direction. By doing so, the design goes beyond the ideals of public cultivation and public health on which the nearby romantic park and the Modern recreational landscape are based, and it gives the visitor maximum freedom to use the park however he wishes to.”

  • Project name: Star Maze
  • Location: Tytsjerk, Netherlands
  • Program: Extension to public park
  • Area: Project Size: 85,000 m2
  • Year: Commission: 2012 • Construction Start: 2013
  • Project by: LOLA landscape architects
  • Others: Collaborators: Deltavormgroep, Piet Oudolf
  • Text: Courtesy of LOLA landscape architects
  • Images: Courtesy of LOLA landscape architects

Park extension Groot Vijversburg:

Park Groot Vijversburg is a romantic public park with a growing art collection, located in the north of The Netherlands. The park is broadening its boundaries and is ambitious to become a national destination. The winning landscape design gives a contemporary interpretation to two new park chambers which create a link between the historical park, a post-war recreational area and a nature reserve.

Central element in the design is the ‘Star Maze’, a remix of two historic park figures: the star shaped forest and the labyrinth. This structure consists of tall hedges that function like room dividers for the existing meadow and create several park spaces suitable for various use. On top of this, the structure creates connections to the surrounding landscape and arranges the accessibility to the various fields. Each ending of the ‘Star Maze’ has a function, such as a landscape balcony with a view over the nature reserve, a pier for canoe travelers in the recreational area, a window with a vista to the main park villa and a shed with rubber boots, to explore the marshland. The second park chamber, which can be flooded regularly, contains several hills with perennials in a field of pollard willows. The hills can be reached through a grid structure of small dikes.

The design offers the visitor a great freedom of choice in the way he can move through the park. The visitor has to find his own way through the ‘Star Maze’ to the different areas. The central space gives an overview in all directions but at the same time doesn’t impose any direction. By doing so, the design goes beyond the ideals of public cultivation and public health on which the nearby romantic park and the modernistic recreational landscape are based, and it gives the visitor maximum freedom to use the park however he wishes to.

The team (LOLA, Deltavormgroep, Piet Oudolf) has won this commission through a national tender, for which five teams were selected. The other design teams were B+B in collaboration with Michael van Gessel, OKRA, Hosper en Strootman.