Finding Resilience in Urbanism and Infrastructure

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Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, is the president, CEO, and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). Prior to creating TCLF, Birnbaum spent fifteen years as the coordinator of the National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative (HLI) and a decade in private practice in New York City, with a focus on landscape preservation and urban design.

Since taking the helm at the foundation in 2008, Birnbaum’s major projects include the web-based initiative What’s Out There (a searchable database of the nation’s designed landscape heritage) and the creation of the first International Prize in Landscape Architecture named for Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. He has authored and edited numerous publications, including Shaping the Postwar Landscape, (UVA Press, 2018), the Modern Landscapes: Transition and Transformation series (Princeton Architectural Press, Volumes printed in 2012 and 2014), Shaping the American Landscape (UVA Press, 2009), Design with Culture: Claiming America’s Landscape Heritage (UVA Press, 2005), Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture (1999) and its follow-up publication, Making Post-War Landscapes Visible (2004, both for Spacemaker Press), Pioneers of American Landscape Design (McGraw Hill 2000) and The Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes (National Park Service, 1996).

In 1995, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) awarded the HLI the President's Award of Excellence. In 1996, the ASLA inducted Birnbaum as a Fellow of the Society. He served as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, during which time he founded TCLF. In 2004, Birnbaum was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation and Conservation and spent the spring and summer of that year at the American Academy in Rome. In 2008, he was the Visiting Glimcher Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University's Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture. That same year, the ASLA awarded him the Alfred B. LaGasse Medal, followed by the President’s Medal in 2009. In 2017, Birnbaum received the ASLA Medal, the Society's highest award. Birnbaum has served as a Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, a visiting critic at Harvard’s GSD, and currently serves as a Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He was also a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post (2011-18). In 2020 Birnbaum received the Landezine International Landscape Honour Award as well as the Garden Club of America’s Historic Preservation Medal.

From Paving Paradise to Preserving Parking Lots: A Modern Landscape Problem

Mid-to-late Modern Era properties—buildings and landscapes constructed between 1950 and the mid-‘70s—frequently include parking lots. In assessing those properties as potentially historic, the focus is typically on the building. But are those parking lots preservation-worthy, too?  The “landscape” is the totality of the spatial organization and features of a site, and, in the Modern Era, it often includes parking lots. The term “landscape” tends to bring to mind formally designed gardens and parks; vernacular properties such as farms; or ethnographic properties such Native American sites. The landscape associated with a building is typically treated as part-and-parcel of the building, as indeed courtyards and plazas may be, or described as landscaping, via an inventory of plants. Modern Era buildings, having been designed and built in the car-centric decades of the mid-twentieth century, add a new feature for consideration, one typically perceived as strictly utilitarian: sizable parking lots.  As properties of this era approach 50 years of age, becoming subject to evaluation for eligibility for National Register listing, where are the guidelines, what are the standards, for evaluating the historic significance of uniquely Modern Era landscape features such as parking lots? Part 1 reviews the historical development of automobile parking lots; Part 2 examines cultural landscapes as generally understood by cultural landscape professionals, notably, the National Park Service; and Part 3 offers recommendations for evaluating and adaptively reusing parking lots, with cases studies drawn from both the public and private sectors.

Chicago’s Hymn to Water: The World’s Largest Water Filtration Plant

Chicago's Central District Water Filtration Plant was the first major public infrastructure project completed under the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and one of the first modernist or “Miesian” projects designed by the renowned architecture firm of C.F. Murphy. Taking more than ten years to complete—and emerging triumphant over a lawsuit by residents and property owners on Chicago’s lakefront—the plant opened in 1965 and included an amenity not typically coupled with infrastructure: a ten-acre public park organized around the display of water. Designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley, the park features five circular pools—representing the Great Lakes—as well as a dramatic, cantilevered platform for viewing the Chicago skyline. The viewing platform has made it one of the most popular locations for photography in the city. In 1966, the park was dedicated in memory of Chicagoan Milton Lee Olive III, the first African-American recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in the Vietnam War. Today the facility remains the world’s largest water purification plant, processing nearly one billion gallons of water each day to serve more than six million customers in the greater Chicagoland area, which includes over 100 suburban municipalities. Olive Park remains popular with the public, but has fallen into a state of disrepair.

“Crossroads of the Air:” Chicago’s Airport Architecture

Aviation heritage is rarely addressed by preservation campaigns.  Yet the losses of structures like Myron Goldsmith’s United hangar at San Francisco International Airport (1961-2000) or the Pan Am Worldport at JFK in New York (1960-2014) call attention to how vulnerable many of the last century’s airport monuments are.  Standing in the way of modernization and caught in near-constant changes in operations, these structures are rarely missed or addressed in expansion or reconstruction plans yet, as they fall, they deserve acknowledgement and study as artifacts in the development of technology and the evolution of the aviation-age city.  This paper documents Chicago’s airport architecture, highlighting lost and extant structures at Midway, Meigs Field, and O’Hare and arguing for awareness and discussion of threats to what remains.