New York, New York
In 2002 MoMA curator Peter Reed asked Ken Smith to propose an "imaginative" roofscape installation for the new gallery addition by architect Yoshio Taniguchi. Never to be accessible to the general public, the 17,400 square-foot garden, sitting six floors above street level, was destined to function more as one of the museum's collected works of modern and contemporary art than as an inhabitable landscape. Numerous design considerations included weight restrictions, zero tolerance for irrigation, no elements above three feet in height, and a low budget. Smith's first proposal was disallowed, sending the designer back to the drawing board to devise a final scheme of a contextually alert, patterned surface condition.
JA: Your first scheme for the MoMA rooftop was a success on the lecture circuit and in its eventual installation at the Cornerstone Garden Festival in Sonoma, California. But it was rejected by MoMA's residential neighbors, who had right of refusal and indeed are the primary audience for the rooftop site. What did you learn from the first scheme's failure, and how did that guide your ideas for the second scheme?
KS: The first scheme that I came up with was a grid of spinning daisies, an optical field of plastic flowers that reacted to wind movement. The idea was maybe too obvious. I think the Museum Tower's residential co-op board didn't like its overt nature. So for the next proposal I thought that a study of camouflage would be a good starting point for getting an interesting scheme under the radar, as it were.
JA: Is it problematic if the design succeeds to the point that it's rendered invisible, i.e., if a viewer misses the point? Does the term camouflage need to be used explicitly in relation to the project?
An alternative initial design scheme featured the daisy flower as an icon.
Smith's first, rejected design scheme for the roof garden was based on a field of spinning lawn flowers.
Orange, red, and purple flower field
Orange, red, and purple flower field
14-inch diameter daisy pinwheel, attached to pipe scaffolding base
Scaffolding-type tube and coupler lattice standard galvanized pipes painted bright green with standard couplers
Roof ballast rock
KS: I think it's hardly invisible. When I presented the project for approval, I didn't hammer the point home, I didn't start off by saying, "this is about camouflage," which would actually have been quite counterproductive. I talked about the garden in different terms, but my presentation acknowledged what it was about and how it was operating. The design is about simulation. In fact, creating a landscape garden on a rooftop is inherently an act of simulation. I am very interested in how camouflage simulates landscape, and in this garden the landscape simulates camouflage simulating landscape.
There is a whole series of different camouflage strategies that were developed at a critical moment of the late 1930s and early 1940s—coinciding with World War II. People then were very interested in the notion of camouflage—scientists as well as designers and artists. In the architecture magazines of the time there was a critical discussion about the role of camouflage in defense. I remember that as a student I read the old Pencil Points articles by Dan Kileyjames Rose, and Garrett Eckbo. In the same bound volume of the magazine there was an article on the art and theory and techniques of camouflage. It was geared toward architects and talked about how you could camouflage buildings for reasons of national security. I always thought that camouflage was an interesting quality and did my first camouflage studies during the late 1980s. It was an idea that I had played with but had never gotten to the point of executing.
JA: Does the making of a constructed landscape always imply the artifice of simulation? Some would say that all acts of design camouflage truth while others say it's a bringing forth, an agent of clarification and amplification.
KS: The history of garden design is filled with examples of simulation and camouflage. 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 imitated nature. Contemporary landscape design often deals with the fundamental issue of ameliorating or covering up the impacts of the constructed environment. Practitioners refer to this 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.
Four basic camouflage strategies were identified by Architect and Engineer magazine in 1942: imitation, deception, decoy, and confusion. Imitation camouflage is the most common and widely used technique. It is the blending in with surrounding territory so that the subject is indistinguishable from its setting. Whether it is in the country or city, desert or forest, summer or winter, the subject appears to be part of the surrounding landscape.
Deception camouflage is a method that does not attempt to completely hide the subject but to change its appearance enough that it resembles something of a different or innocuous nature. The principle is employed to deceive the bombardier who is looking for a powerhouse and finds only an "apartment house" with awnings and shrubs. Decoy camouflage is achieved through the construction of dummy objects in conjunction with the concealment of real ones so that enemy bombers will be attracted to false targets. Confusion is the least used camouflage procedure and consists of concealing the subject by impairing vision or judgment by presenting a multiplicity of potential or illogical targets that confuse accurate determination.
In contemporary urban life, "camouflage" is ironically used to both blend in and stand out. The MoMA project takes the art of camouflage and the artifice of simulation a step further by using the simulation 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.
Roof gardens are inherently artificial environments. They have limitations of weight loading, there are issues of how to anchor elements and protect the waterproof membrane, as well as environmental issues of wind, access to light, and generally harsh conditions for living plants, including limited maintenance and care. Simultaneously, the design of these spaces is often driven by the desire to impose the imagery of imitated nature onto these built constructions.
JA: Describe your four design proposals for the rooftop according to the categories of imitation, deception, decoy, and confusion.
KS: The most common camouflage strategy is imitation. If you have a building sitting in the middle of the woods, you imitate the woods to blend in. For a building in midtown Manhattan, imitation means employing rectilinear forms that have the shape of skylights, vents, or elevator shafts—the sort of platforms you find on the top of buildings that blend into the urban landscape. So our first scheme was very rectilinear—a kind of Peter Walker scheme.
The second strategy is based on deception, in this case making the rooftop look like something it isn't, as opposed to blending in. I used curvilinear forms to imitate Central Park, which is just a few blocks north of the building. I applied the iconic camouflage pattern you find in military clothing to make reference to Olmsted's landscaping.
Decoy is the third approach, the one where you basically throw the viewer off track by building a dummy target. For that scheme I created a folded landscape that was neither building nor nature—it was just a false thing up there, a red herring.
The fourth strategy was confusion. In the magazine article this approach was described as building fires or something else to obscure the vision of the pilots. I interpreted it as just doing
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the role of camouflage in defense was discussed in various architecture magazines.
"CAMOUFLAGE-aesthetics and technique," Architectural Review vol. 96 (September 1944)
"Industrial Plant Protection," Architectural Forum vol. 77 (August 1942)
"Industrial Plant Protection," Architectural Forum vol. 77 (August 1942)
"The Camoufleur and His Craft," The Builder vol. 157 (October 1939)
Camouflage design concept alternatives for the roof garden
34 MOMA ROOF GARDEN
1) Black pebbles
2) White pebbles
1) Black pebbles
2) White pebbles
3) Crushed glass
LEFT: Camouflage materials, initial palette RIGHT: Comparison of alternate camouflage studies
LEFT: Selected design: "deception" RIGHT: Camouflage materials, initial palette
Black recycled rubber White pebbles Crushed glass
Black recycled rubber White pebbles Crushed glass
Camouflage materials, final palette something so strange and far out that it wouldn't be clear what the hell it was. This scheme had great big daisy shapes floating on the roof like mutant giant lily pads.
JA: There seems to be a consistent use of faux plants, rocks, and paving textures that ignores the phenomenological potential and inherent mutability of landscape media—characteristics that could play into ideas of deception, confusion, and so on. How does investigation of materiality enter into these schemes?
KS: The materials have shifted a little bit but basically all four of the schemes I presented involved artificial rocks, artificial shrubs, and three colors of ground material (white, black, and crushed glass). The palette remained consistent in the four schemes. Although the design was more about the form and content than materiality, the materials do have content, and to emphasize the simulation aspects of the design I chose materials that were artificial and iconic.
JA: The client sell was more successful the second time around—why?
KS: I created graphics and a quarter-scale model of each scheme (later these were on display in a small exhibition at the Harvard Graduate School of Design) and presented them to the museum. I met with Terence Riley, Peter Reed, Glenn Lowry, and others and we agreed that we would take two of the schemes to the co-op board to present: the rectilinear one and the curvilinear one—imitation and deception.
I pushed for those two, although I also liked the confusion scheme. But I thought that the imitation and deception approaches were the most true to the idea of camouflage that we were developing. I was leaning toward the curvilinear scheme, although during our meeting with MoMA
there were concerns about the curvilinear design being difficult to build. The rectilinear one would be simpler to construct, and everyone thought it might also be more palatable to the board members of the residential co-op because it's inherently more conservative. People understand minimalist geometry, and certainly it was more in keeping with the Taniguchi building. But that was exactly why I preferred the curvilinear scheme. I thought that it was more interestingly subversive about camouflage because it plays a reverse game of deception rather than simple imitation.
JA: Many critics complain that the curvilinear is a default parti, a limiting, planimetric interpretation of a romantic, pastoral legacy. But really since the 1980s we've endured a regime of minimalist geometries and aggressive formalism that overlooks the figural power of site-specific, continuous topologies. How is the curvilinear scheme and its implication of a two-dimensional articulated ground plane more of a challenge to prevailing site aesthetics?
KS: It has a whole series of levels that are interesting because so much of landscape architecture is uncritically involved in camouflaging. We're a profession of shrubbing things up, covering up mistakes, hiding and smoothing things, and contextualizing them. Usually, the camouflaging efforts within the profession are invisible. This scheme acknowledges the issue of camouflage and uses it critically as a visible element. But not everyone wants to hear about that.
I started the presentation to the co-op board by talking about the roof as a kind ofjapanese garden. Part of the program stated that we couldn't have any live plants, we couldn't have any irrigation, we couldn't have any substantial weight, we couldn't have any physical attachments. There were also issues of a limited budget and little or no maintenance. Basically, things
LEFT: Model of deception camouflage design
RIGHT: The camouflage patterns were initially traced from a pair of hip-hop pants.
had to be lightweight and set in place. It was inherently a dry garden, similar to thejapanese Zen garden, which is an abstraction of nature in some way. I continued by talking about the two schemes that we were going to present, a rectilinear geometry and a curvilinear geometry, showing them the gardens on top of Rockefeller Center as an example of a classical rectilinear geometry garden and Noguchi's work at UNESCO in Paris as an example of curvilinear, modern work. They loved it. The biggest hurdle was the synthetic palette of the garden.
I had built a small mock-up on the rooftop, which everyone could look down at. So instead of bringing an artificial shrub into the meeting, the materials were judged from a distance of forty or fifty feet, the actual viewing distance. From that perspective, you actually can't tell the difference between an artificial boxwood and a real one, and in fact, three years out, the artificial boxwoods are going to look better than a dead boxwood here and there. Live plants would have difficulty surviving in the garden because of limited maintenance, limited soil, and the environmental conditions.
JA: The scheme changed some between that meeting, where you presented the initial concept, and the final installation. How did value engineering effect specific construction details or change your interpretation of deception by design?
KS: The shrub masses are made of fiberglass grating, and the bases are computer-numerically cut into pieces that fit together on the roof. I specified PVC pipes that go into PVC flanges which are bolted to the fiberglass grating to provide stems for the shrubs. These assemblies are heavy enough that they can just rest on the roof. Originally, I had planned to place the shrubs at a distance of twenty-four inches from each other, but this was eventually adjusted to thirty or thirty-six inches
Detail showing artificial rocks Opposite: Aerial view of north and south roofs to save money—ironically the artificial boxwood plants were more expensive than live plants. This adjustment saved $40,000, but a study also showed that the new spacing actually worked better. In a real landscape with real plants you would want the shrubs to be placed close to each other, so that they can grow together as a mass, but here, having the shrubs read as individual elements worked because it made the design more synthetic.
The artificial rocks I used are a brand that people in the suburbs use to hide their utilities. Basically they're camouflaging elements in the landscape. Across the rooftop I laid a series of runners to which the rocks were bolted. Placed over the runners is a thin layer of ground cover. The black ground cover was originally Mexican black pebbles because that was what Taniguchi's office had specified, but to save money I decided to use ground tires—recycled rubber, a material recommended by the landscape contractor. The white surface, made of crushed white stone, is the only natural material, although it could be called into question whether this material is actually natural or not at this point. The blue surface is crushed glass, which could also be considered a natural material. It also calls into question what's authentic and what's simulated.
Some of the changes I made to the original scheme happened to cut costs. For example, the headers were going to be brick in order to relate to the historic context by choosing the same material Philipjohnson used, but instead I ended up using CNC-milled structural Styrofoam. In historic preservation work a lot of detailing, such as cornices, is made out of this material, usually with a finish that looks like limestone or another stone. Here it is treated with a spray-on hardening surface that's really strong and painted the color of brick. All the shapes in the curvilinear plan are translated arcs, tangents, and straight lines taken from a camouflage pattern that was traced from a pair of hip-hop, skate-boarder pants. I wanted to make the
Raised area at north garden
Raised area at south garden
-Area of required mockup
Composite plan showing north and south roofs
camouflage a little more synthetic so I reduced the pattern to a kind of roadway engineering. There are three different curve radii and three different line-segment and intersection conditions. To transfer the pattern onto the roof, it was divided into a series of simple units, which were factory-cut from standard sheet sizes into a palette of parts, numbered at the factory, put together on site, and glued down.
As I was concerned about the integrity of the curvilinear forms, my office staff and I mocked up about a fifth of the area on one side of the roof with chalk and string lines. In half a day we laid out the geometry of one substantial area of the design so we could see how the forms fit and get a sense of the scale. We looked down at it from the tower, which was kind of reassuring. We also discovered we had some dimensioning issues in the rooftop layout, which needed to be corrected. These little adjustments, and in some ways also the things we had to do to bring the budget down, made the project conceptually stronger. The whole process of being forced to go back to the client with a completely new idea after the first design was rejected and work through the issues of the rejected proposal resulted in a better design concept. And while I'm not a big fan of value engineering, in this case it clarified the material palette and made the project stronger conceptually and materially.
JA: In retrospect, what got sacrificed when you let go of the first proposal, the spinning daisies?
KS: The MoMA team loved the first scheme. Terry Riley liked it because it used an iconic element taken out of context. Peter Reed liked it because it hovered between pop art and minimalism. When Peter talks about landscape architecture, his approach is to speak about landscape design relative to the tug between surrealism and cubism. I don't know if those quite translate to pop art and
minimalism but Peter thought it was interesting south roof, view from cbs Building that on one level the scheme was pop because you've got the iconic daisy the found object. And on another level, the design was purely minimalist as the big blocks of color made up a minimal color field that underlies the operative level of the spinning and turning objects in the wind. But in the end, I think the deception/camouflage garden hovers in the same way, in this case between a kind of utilitarian industrial-design appropriation strategy andjapanese garden abstraction.
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