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Something from Nothing

Why would a company want employees diving into its trash bins? Because at Sasaki Associates, one of the country's hottest landscape and urban-design firms that's shaping the Olympic village in Beijing, life is all about salvaging good from bad.

To make sure nothing gets tossed into the trash that should be recycled, Sasaki Associates employees do occasional Dumpster diving. To make sure nothing gets tossed into the trash that should be recycled, Sasaki Associates employees do occasional Dumpster diving. (Photograph by Erik Jacobs)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
June 22, 2008

ACROSS ROUTE 2 IN CONCORD FROM WALDEN POND, THE BRISTER'S HILL SECTION OF WALDEN WOODS IS SACRED ground for any naturalist, historian, or conservationist who wants to pay tribute to man as a keen observer of nature. It was here in the 1840s on this sandy lot, unsuitable for farming, that Henry David Thoreau took his daily walks, many times to and from Ralph Waldo Emerson's house for lunch, and then wrote about his discoveries in the forest and about humans' relationship with the environment. This well-documented land is pretty heady stuff for any design firm to stick its hands into, especially one best known for revamping staid college campuses and creating beautiful public spaces out of former industrial sites. Yet, when Sasaki Associates was chosen to craft a 1-mile loop around Brister's Hill, the Watertown landscape and urban-design firm applied a deft touch that even a highly opinionated fellow like Thoreau would surely have admired.

Quotes from the great thinker are sprinkled throughout the path. Not on large, tacky plaques sitting on wooden posts, but rather nestled in the ground, with text inscribed in rough-cut granite. Dead leaves often cover the words, forcing you to get down on your knees and wipe the granite clean. Only then will you see the lichens emerging from the soil, the seed of the pitch pine lying on the forest bed, and other inconspicuous examples of plant succession that Thoreau detailed in his writing but most of us overlook. Designer-planner David Hirzel and landscape architect Alistair McIntosh have painstakingly re-created the mix of grassland and forest prevalent in Thoreau's time, so that you and I can walk in his footsteps. "Whether it's the reclamation of a waterfront in Indianapolis, the formation of Forest Park in Beijing, or a historic retreat in Concord, all our work is a form of regeneration - restoring a place that could have been lost," says the impassioned McIntosh, before quoting Yeats and dashing off.

FOREST PARK IS A LARGE GREEN space on the northern fringes of the Beijing Olympic site, home to this summer's Games. It may also become the defining project for this 55-year-old team of urban and strategic planners, building and landscape architects, engineers, and graphic designers that specializes in turning bad land into something special. It was back on a Sunday in July 2002 when a young landscape architect fluent in Chinese ran into the office of Sasaki Associates president Dennis Pieprz, screaming, "We won, we won." Sasaki was all over China's press - it had won an international competition among 90 firms to create the master plan for the new Olympic district. Within days, Pieprz was on a plane to China to showcase how Sasaki's blueprint would fit seamlessly into the city. The massive project, also known as the Olympic Green, would include stadiums, Olympic housing, and Forest Park, the largest park in Beijing. Other architectural firms were hired to design individual buildings, like the signature "bird's nest" stadium by Pritzker Prize-winning Herzog & de Meuron, but Sasaki would oversee the design of the entire new neighborhood. "This was a mix of vacant land and storage, once used for agriculture," says Pieprz as he gazes at a copy of the Beijing design in his office. "Land being kept in reserve for a special function one day."

One of the crucial elements of the Sasaki plan is that it looks beyond the few weeks the Games will overtake Beijing and offers a place that can serve as a vital community for years to come. This included adding museums, conference centers, hotels, and retail stores to the design. Most important to Pieprz were the creation of new public spaces on the Olympic Green and within Forest Park, meeting places that would be open and accessible to everyone in the city.

Pieprz had the opportunity to look at other designs in the competition and says he believes his challengers spent too much time trying to make spectacular architecture out of all the elements, whereas Sasaki concentrated on the overall plan for the Olympic district. At a time when the showpieces of celebrity architects are unveiled with great fanfare - whether, as with Frank Gehry's Stata Center, they work on a pragmatic level or not - the field of urban design and planning is often overlooked. "Many design firms are dominated by a single discipline, like architecture," says Pieprz. "Here at Sasaki, we have landscape studios, planning and design studios, architecture studios. They're all equal with each other, with more or less the same number of principals."

That equal emphasis on landscape architecture more often than not means preservation, a thread that holds together the tapestry of Sasaki's most recent work. Almost at the same time that Sasaki snagged its prize in Beijing, it won another international competition in Ho Chi Minh City, to devise a new riverfront neighborhood. Developers there were only too happy to throw down some concrete and build a slate of modern buildings, but Sasaki insisted that half the location be saved as mangrove areas and wetlands, to be converted to park space. The other half would be used for much-needed residential development, including housing for the squatters who currently live there. "A lot of our recent work, whether it's in Beijing, Vietnam, Chicago, or LA," says Pieprz, "is making public spaces for large numbers of people to enjoy for years to come."

AS A TEACHER OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AT HARVARD'S Graduate School of Design in the 1950s and '60s, Hideo Sasaki, a thin, bespectacled Japanese-American whose family had been interned during World War II, met some of the leading architects in the country, such as Eero Saarinen and Pietro Belluschi. After he opened Sasaki Associates in 1953 at the age of 34, his professional relationships led to commissions all over the United States, including one with Saarinen at the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois, still considered one of the country's most exquisite corporate settings. "Contribution is the only value" was Sasaki's mantra, says David Hirzel. "Hideo was a great listener and a great problem solver." These abilities made him a natural at bridging design disciplines.

"He recognized that after the Second World War, the problems that designers and planners had to deal with were so complex that landscape architects on their own or planners on their own or architects on their own really couldn't tackle the pressing quandaries of the time," says Pieprz. So Sasaki wisely teamed up with legends like Saarinen and a brilliant young landscape architect named Stu Dawson in Moline, and one of the country's most innovative developers, Charles Fraser, at the Sea Pines Plantation in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He was pushing environmental issues to the forefront of design long before "green" was a magic word. At Sea Pines, one of Sasaki's main concerns was restoration of the coastal ecosystem.

Sasaki, who died in 2000, had already retired as chairman by the time Pieprz came on board in the late 1980s, around the same time that a new type of preservation, converting former industrial sites into public spaces, was starting to gain traction. One such site, the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina, was languishing, mostly abandoned and used for little but parking. Sasaki was hired for an open design project and came up with the concept of a park along the water. It would be a great attraction for the Charlestonians and, hopefully, an incentive to spruce up nearby historic buildings as inns, stores, and restaurants. It did that and more. The Charleston Waterfront Park, which debuted in 1990, last year won the Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. "When America became industrial, we turned our back to the waterfront," says Thomas Tavella, vice president of communications for the society. "Charleston Waterfront Park was one of the first places to open up the water to the community."

Waterfront reclamation is now a surging part of the Sasaki business. The firm has reaped accolades for the work of Alistair McIntosh and others on the Indianapolis riverfront, and it is currently transforming a former steelworks on the southeast side of Chicago into a residential area and park on Lake Michigan. This long-term project, called South Works, will be one of the few neighborhoods along the lake that is not cut off from the water by a major arterial like Lake Shore Drive. Closer to home, Sasaki has been hired by Providence to design Narragansett Landing, a 200-acre neighborhood along the Providence River. The mile-long stretch of waterfront property, now home to gas and oil storage facilities, will be turned into parkland, a river walk, a marina, hotels, and office buildings. It's part of a much larger project called Providence 2020 to reinvent the city as a post-industrial urban arena.

"All over the world, some of the most remarkable neighborhoods being redeveloped are former industrial sites set right at the heart of major cities," says Pieprz. "You just have to look at the South Boston waterfront, a working harbor with storage, parking, and other industrial uses. Now we see it as the future growth of Boston."

As a design firm, Sasaki isn't alone in creating parks and living space from contaminated settings, landfills (like Boston Harbor's Spectacle Island, capped by Big Dig dirt and expanded to 105 acres of parkland and beaches), and abandoned manufacturing plants. An elevated train track on the West Side of Manhattan will soon become the new High Line Park. A 9-acre parcel on Puget Sound, once dotted with oil tanks, is now home to Seattle's spanking-new Olympic Sculpture Park.

"With sophisticated new technologies that can cap landfills or contain contamination, there's a reduction of risk between humans and the environment," says Niall Kirkwood, who holds the same landscape-architecture chairmanship that Hideo Sasaki once occupied at Harvard. Coauthor of A Brownfields Primer: Clean-up, Design, and Re-use of Existing Land, Kirkwood is often called upon as a consultant to advise cities on how best to take advantage of all their available space. "When I started teaching about brownfields a little over a decade ago, it was considered a marginal topic," says Kirkwood. "Now, there's little doubt that young designers and planners will face these types of places in their work."

Dennis Pieprz says there is a simple explanation: Urban areas are running out of land. "It has a lot to do with sustainability - compact cities taking advantage of existing infrastructure, regenerating fallow sites, creating density and new opportunities for close-in urbanization as opposed to sprawl."

Sustainability starts at home for Sasaki, which has 332 employees, 40 of them based in San Francisco, the rest in Watertown. The day I visited the offices, sunlight poured in through the large windows of the U-shaped building that overlooks the rapids of the Charles River, reducing the need for artificial light. If Meredith Elbaum, the company's enthusiastic director of sustainable design, has her way, this former mill from the mid-19th century will once again take advantage of hydropower. In the meantime, she's managed to reduce electricity use by 34 percent - so much that NSTAR thought its meters were broken. About 60 percent of Watertown employees now commute by bus, carpool, or bike. Then there are the occasional "dumpster dives," where volunteers go through the garbage - part of a waste audit that helps the company improve its recycling.

Elbaum particularly enjoys working with universities, because many are now deep into finding ways to make their campuses more sustainable. The students she comes across are usually pushing to make their schools more earth-friendly. "Often, there's 200 kids packed into a small room, brimming with ideas on how best to save this planet," says Elbaum with a smile.

Pieprz seems genuinely excited about all of Sasaki's endeavors, be it the Beijing Olympic project, an expansion on the University of Pennsylvania campus, or a buffer park between the working port of Los Angeles and the surrounding neighborhood. His personal favorite is the Cleveland Gateway sports complex, home to the city's baseball stadium and basketball arena, joined by an outdoor public space. "To make a great new urban district that has literally tens of thousands of people coming to every event, that's quite amazing," he says.

Sweet fern, huckleberry, goldenrod, and other native plants now bloom in a part of Walden Woods that for much of the 20th century was mined for sand and gravel. Sasaki's employees have taken Thoreau's principles to heart in their renewal of land once thought unusable - not just in Thoreau's backyard of Concord, already blessed with a tranquil aesthetic, but at the core of many of the world's most congested cities, desperately yearning for an urban oasis.

Stephen Jermanok is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com

PHOTO GALLERY Sasaki Associates
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