Professor Wins Prize For Park Design

A Harvard professor accepted a prestigious New York City art prize for his firm’s work designing the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Harvard Graduate School of Design Professor Michael R. Van Valkenburgh received the Brendan Gill Prize for the design of Brooklyn Bridge Park by his firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

The prize, which was awarded Monday evening, aims to honor artistic creations that “capture the spirit of New York.”

The Brooklyn Bridge Park—formerly a series of industrial piers that fell into disuse—is located along the East River in New York City. The park’s waterfront stretches 1.3 miles from the Manhattan Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side of the river.

According to Van Valkenburgh, when his firm began working on the project eight years ago, the site’s former use as a pier and as an industrial space made it appear inhospitable to a green park.

“As cities, we have used up the conventional places for park-making,” Van Valkenburgh said. “Landscape architects work on disenfranchised sites—abnormal places for making landscapes.”

The park covers 85 acres of urban real estate with space for kayaking and traditional park features such as green space and playgrounds.

According to Matthew L. Urbanski, a design school lecturer, the location presented a unique challenge for the designers.

“It’s an incredible site with incredible opportunities in terms of reconnecting the city with the river,” said Urbanski, who is also a principal at Van Valkenburgh Associates.

According to Van Valkenburgh, the unusual quality of the site required innovation on the part of the designers who adapted technology from rooftop gardens and dry landscapes to help create a green landscape on a space that was largely paved over.

Van Valkenburgh also noted that the park’s view is one of its unique elements.

“You see the water in a lot of places in Manhattan, but you don’t sense this enormous boundless landscape of the water,” he said, referring to 800 acres of water visible from the park.

Past winners of the Brendan Gill Prize, including musician Sufjan Stevens and film director Ang Lee, have received the award for a broad range of artistic achievement, but Urbanski said that it is rare that it is given for landscape architecture.

“It’s quite an honor for a landscape architect,” he said. “We get awards for our work, but the Brendan Gill award is an artistic merit award.”

Van Valkenburgh said that he felt that receiving an award that had previously been awarded to artists in so many different disciplines was a tribute to landscape architecture.

“One of the things I’m the proudest of is that works of film, music, [and other disciplines] are spoken in the same paragraph as landscape architecture,” he said.

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at jworland@college.harvard.edu

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