Ken Smith at the Gardner Museum

Ken Smith's design for East River waterfront

Recently, Ken Smith (MLA ‘86), a New York-based landscape architect known for his work on synthetic landscapes, discussed some of his projects at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

He was warmly introduced by the GSD’s Charles Waldheim (chair of the department of landscape architecture) as being "a singularity.” Smith spoke about his work on a number of landscape sites, many of which display his keenness for transforming underused urban spaces into more dynamic ones. He believes that one of the challenges of his generation of designers has been "to re-occupy space that had already been used, maybe not used wisely, or had been abandoned, or in some way was marginalized, and try to reclaim and transform it into something that would be useful within the city.” At the Gardner, Smith presented his work as part of an artist team for the Third Street Light Rail Project in San Francisco, completed in 2007, and Pier 35, a project currently under construction in New York.

The Third Street Light Rail trackway paving design was commissioned by the San Francisco Art Agency. It was early in Smith’s career; the project was the first piece of infrastructure on which he had ever worked. According to Smith, much of the inspiration for his design of the trackway came from music. "I was listening to a great deal of John Cage, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich at that time, and I was really interested in the conduction between music and landscape and what John Cage was saying about music being just sounds and emptiness between them—that sort of made sense in terms of landscape objects and space between them.” As a landscape manifestation, the ten miles of paving that Smith designed form a series of musically-inspired spacing patterns: there is regular-time spacing, quarter time, which occurred at stations, triple time, and finally a separate spacing interval for intersections.

Smith described the project as presenting both standard and atypical conditions: dynamic planning really comes when engineers and designers thoughtfully plan for atypical conditions. "As good as it is to determine the typicals, because they will dominate the system, you have to really pay attention to the atypical conditions, because that’s where it all falls apart,” stressed Smith.

Pier 35, an "eco-park,” is part of a two-pier reconstruction project along with Pier 15, both of which are initial projects in a larger plan to incorporate the East River waterfront into New York’s urban fabric. As a leading designer on the Pier 35 site, Smith has focused on taking what was a derelict district and responding to the surrounding neighborhoods and connections in an effort to create a renewed vibrant Lower Manhattan community.

He ruminated on how the redesign began to take shape and the nature of his creative process. "This part of the pier had fallen in, it had actually degraded to the point that it had just collapsed into the water. And this is the kind of inductive part of the project because we took that opportunity to not rebuild what was there but to actually think about it differently.”

Smith rethought more than just design, stepping off pier grounds and jumping into ecological waters. In addition to raised dune planters made up of native grasses and perennials, the eco-park includes a carefully crafted mussel habitat. New York’s waters, once filled with mussels, are clean enough now that mussels are coming back. An ecologist was hired onto Smith’s team to help build a habitat formed by sloped surfaces with rock gradients in which the mussels can grow.

To ensure that the scale would be right for mussels, each rock had to be precisely located, so the whole building process was heavily supervised down to the placement of rocks on pre-cast concrete blocks. "You can’t really just do a drawing of a jumbled gradient and expect the contractor to get it right, so my staff went to this construction site near Albany and they personally supervised the placement of every single rock,” said Smith.

The typical New York seawall is vertical and tidal change usually goes unnoticed, which makes Pier 35’s sloped-surface mussel habitat, moving between above and below-water conditions, distinctive. "During the construction of this, we spent a lot of time out there, and over the course of six hours on site you would go through a tidal shift,” said Smith. Pier 35, which is planned to be finished within the year, is one of the few places in Manhattan where New Yorkers will see the change of the tides.

Learn more about Ken Smith’s landscape architecture.


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2 Responses to Ken Smith at the Gardner Museum

  1. Caroline James Caroline James says:

    I really like the way that Ken Smith’s work deals with visualizing previously unnoticed phenomena, like the tides. It reminds me too of Mary Miss’s work “City as Living Laboratory” In both, landscape interventions are operative, informative, as well as experiential. Also, it is exciting to see mussel harvesting finally coming into fruition–this reminds me of one project at MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition in 2010.

  2. Saura says:

    Good point, Caroline! I’ve also noticed that mussels have become an increasingly popular part of ecological design. Natalie Jeremijenko (, who gave a talk at the GSD last month, mentioned that she has been using mussels in her work. This past summer she collaborated on Venice Mussel Choir, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which was a project using bi-valves as bio-sensors to measure water quality.

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