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Cultural Driver: Mary Margaret Jones

Categories: Articles

By Martin Moeller, senior curator

Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, FAAR, is president and senior principal of Hargreaves Associates, a prominent landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in San Francisco; New York City; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and London. She was a panelist in the National Building Museum’s  program Cultural Drivers, the first in a series of programs exploring the role of cultural facilities and programs in urban regeneration. National Building Museum Online recently interviewed her about the role of landscape architects and planners in cultural infrastructure.

NBM Online: When most people think of cultural facilities, they think of individual buildings like museums or opera houses designed by architects. How are landscape architecture and planning firms like Hargreaves contributing to our cultural infrastructure?

Mary Margaret Jones: Parks and landscapes can contribute to cultural experiences in a number of ways. They can incorporate cultural facilities, like outdoor performance venues, which often allow more flexibility of use than indoor performance venues can. Our park in Houston, Discovery Green, has a covered stage and grass slope that are used in a wide variety of ways—from special performances by rock and country stars that require tickets, to free concerts and weekly movies, to free dance classes. The design of the stage incorporated infrastructure that allows lighting and sound systems to accommodate a variety of needs and the physical design of the grass slope allows crowd control when needed and openness for the frequent free events. The whole park is used for a number of festivals and special events.

In addition, we have incorporated art within our parks and landscapes. In public parks we most often work with artists collaboratively, which results in pieces that are environmental, interactive, or that are integral to the design. Doug Hollis’s Listening Chairs and Mist Tree in Discovery Green are good examples. But we’ve also done projects where we sited existing works within the landscape—in parks but also on campuses, cultural institutions and residences. The goal in those cases is to enhance discovery and setting to amplify the experiences of the art and the landscape.

Parks can also be embedded with narrative. Design and art elements can relate stories of a site’s past and importance within a cultural continuum. This is true in almost every park we design but is especially true in parks that are historic in nature, like Crissy Field in San Francisco (the grassy airfield is a national landmark where some of the nation’s first bi-planes landed) , or the vision planning we have been doing for Jamaica Bay in New York City that includes Ft. Tilden and Floyd Bennett Field (both national parks), or the design we did for the Los Angeles State Historic Park, a site with many poignant chapters in LA’s and the state’s history.

And finally, parks can provide a forum for future cultural expression. The 70-acre downtown park for Oklahoma City that we are now designing will present a new place for Oklahomans to express who they are and the aspirations of the city.

NBM Online: The Los Angeles State Historic Park you mentioned is an important, as-yet unexecuted project by your firm. Describe this design and its innovative incorporation of cultural elements.

Jones: The design includes a variety of cultural elements. The most obvious is the exposure of the below-grade archaeological remnants of the roundhouse that was the centerpiece of the rail yard that once filled the site. This will become part of a plaza that will accommodate the stage for the outdoor performance area. There are also various elements that will provide venues for the stories of the many cultures that are part of the site’s history—from Native Americans who once settled there to Mexican Americans who were forced out of their nearby homes to make way for Dodger stadium to the Japanese who were forced onto the trains there destined for internment camps. Interactive displays in the visitor’s center will allow people to add their stories to those historic ones so that the importance of the place is built upon and its life evolves.

NBM Online: The L.A. State Historic Park is an example of a “programmed” park. Is this a new concept? What are some other examples of programmed parks by Hargreaves?

Jones: This was the critical issue in the design for Crissy Field (and is for many of our parks). At Crissy Field many people thought that the restoration of the tidal marsh was the most important goal for the park, while many thought the restoration of the historic airfield was paramount, and yet many others thought the use of the park going forward for recreation and social gathering was most important. The design balances all of those goals without dividing up the site (Balkanizing the site, as we termed it) so that uses and goals overlap and co-exist. It has become one of the most beloved places in San Francisco and a must-see for visitors.

NBM Online: In what ways are our concepts of landscape and public space changing? How do you think your practice will be different in ten, twenty, or thirty years?

Jones: Environmental issues will continue to be a critical component in open space design as sea levels rise, water resources diminish, habitats disappear and pollution of water and air increases due to urbanization and population growth. Parks can address these issues when viewed as an integral part of these natural systems, not just applied to them. Integration of landscape design, engineering solutions and scientific goals is critical to storm water management, water resource protection, habitat creation and water edge systems. At the same time, the need for open spaces that can satisfy recreational and educational goals also increases. It is the combination of these that is the future of our practice. Creating places that attract and inform, provide recreational experiences within environmental and historic settings and that are physically memorable—that become iconic places—is what we do and will continue to do with ever-greater urgency.