Mill Race Park
In an interview with Gideon Fink Shapiro for the Guggenheim Museum, Michael Van Valkenburgh said, “I don’t think of landscape as escape from the city, I think of it as escape in the city.” In other words, instead of isolating individuals within a false version of nature, Van Valkenburgh designs beautifully landscaped spaces that connect with and relate to their larger context. Van Valkenburgh is participating in the Architecture for Everyday Life session of “Foundations and Futures,” where he will explore his vision of landscape architecture’s role in everyday life with Chuck Wilt and Mark Jones, stakeholders of Mill Race Park, his award-winning design in Columbus, Indiana.
Van Valkenburgh has been acclaimed for designs that explore the living qualities of landscape and draw connections between the natural and the urban. He is the principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), which he founded in 1982. MVVA has offices in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Van Valkenburgh is the Charles Eliot Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Raised on a dairy farm in Lexington, New York, Van Valkenburgh first studied landscape architecture at Cornell University. He earned a master’s degree in the field at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Van Valkenburgh has designed many high-profile landscapes, such as the grounds surrounding the St. Louis Arch and Teardrop Park in New York City. In 2010, his work on Brooklyn Bridge Park earned him the Brendan Gill Prize, which recognized the park as the work of art that best captures the spirit and energy of New York City. That same year Van Valkenburgh received the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, only the second landscape architect to be so honored. The first was another familiar name in Columbus: Dan Kiley.
Despite the prominence of his work, Van Valkenburgh’s projects defy categorization by school or style, so thoroughly do they respond to their specific sites, local ecologies, and urban contexts. One common thread that can be found is Van Valkenburgh’s focus on the variety of experiences visitors seek in landscapes. A park is sometimes a meeting place, other times a retreat. Van Valkenburgh has said, “I think we all want times in our lives when we’re with others and when we’re alone.” Many of MVVA’s parks, public spaces, and master plans accommodate solitude and also provide space for coming together. Just think of Mill Race Park, where people can gather for concerts at the amphitheatre, meet a few friends for a game of basketball, or do some solitary fishing.
Van Valkenburgh hopes that the Architecture for Everyday Life session of “Foundations and Futures” shows how good design, in landscape architecture as in other fields, can be a force for positive change within the context of everyday life. He says, “The ideal urban landscape becomes an integral part of daily life, a place that inspires us and is socially rich rather than homogenizing.” Like Van Valkenburgh’s landscapes, good design does not isolate the user, but fosters connections and processes that improve the quality of people’s daily lives.