Leadership and Cultural Landscapes: An Interview With Charles Birnbaum


Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 02: Buzz or Noise?
Fall 2012
by Sarah Kathleen Peck and Eliza Shaw Valk

Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Image courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

We recently spoke with Charles Birnbaum, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation about the public outcry over Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis. For those unfamiliar, Peavey Plaza opened in the 1970s and was designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg. In November 2010, at a public meeting chaired by Mayor RT Rybak, a team (which included Birnbaum) was selected to revitalize the plaza. In our recent blog post, however, Birnbaum decries what followed, noting that the design decision-making process was not public and further writes that the final option—to completely destroy and re-design the space—is irresponsible.

In an expanded interview, we speak at length with Birnbaum beyond the conversation and debate over Peavey, looking towards landscape architecture, leadership, and technology in design and the crucial role of communication in the design fields.

LU: In this issue, we are looking at the idea of communication in landscape architecture and design—how we talk about what we do, and how we tell the story of landscape architecture. The Cultural Landscape Foundation is an excellent example of promoting our shared landscape architecture heritage by making the hand of the landscape architect visible.

I’d like to start by asking you to tell us your story: how did you get interested in landscape architecture, how did you get to where you are today?

CB: Growing up in New York City, my first brush with landscape archeology was in my grandparents’ garden, in New London, Connecticut. I used to garden with my grandfather—I dug up a Moxi-Pop bottle, a precursor to Coca Cola. I still have it. It’s in my kitchen often with cut flowers. I remember being fascinated that this could come from the ground. For me, this was a seminal moment in my childhood—I was probably about eight or nine—I was interested in gardening, vegetable and productive gardening in particular. To unearth this artifact was a revelation for me.

I came to landscape architecture with an associate’s degree in ornamental horticulture. When I graduated with a BLA in 1983, the economy was in the toilet, and, like now, jobs were hard to come by. I graduated from the SUNY College of Environmental Design + Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, where I studied landscape architecture. Before graduating I interned in Paul Friedberg’s office, and upon graduation I worked mostly on traditional urban design projects for folks like Tom Balsley and Bill Kuhl, but something missing. Then, through the recommendation of the late-Phil Winslow, who was a great mentor to me, I met Tony Walmsley and Patricia O’Donnell who were working with him. In 1984, they were really taking what [Ian] McHarg had done with environmental systems: in essence, the firm was looking at ways to quantify and codify value. This was the origins—through overlays—of assessing historic designed landscapes like Prospect Park. At that time we worked on four of the five sections of Prospect Park (George Patton worked on the other); the project snowballed, and we began working on things like Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Seattle’s Lake Washington Boulevard, Andrew Jackson Downing’s Springside, and the Potapsco Greenway spanning five Maryland counties. Along with a few others, we became one of the go-to firms to deal with historic landscapes.

In 1992, I went to work for the federal government—the National Park Service [NPS]—to manage a young program called the Historic Landscape Initiative (HLI). The reason the position was created (in 1989) was to begin to develop guidelines for landscapes. While there have been standards for buildings since 1966, there was no federal guidance for landscapes—until this initiative, a project that began under Lauren Meier. The development of the guidelines took five years. One of the most important things that happened at the HLI occurred about a year into the program: External programs started using the term “cultural landscapes” instead of just “historic landscapes,” marking a shift in the way we think about landscape.

LU: What’s the difference between those two terms, a historic landscape or a cultural landscape?

CB: What a historic landscape means is that you can “bracket” it: You can say “George Washington slept here, this battle was fought here,” etc. Hence, the historic event or association has already taken place. What it doesn’t do is recognize the significance of the landscape’s current cultural associations. A cultural landscape is something that has significance to people today; whether it’s Navajo, Amish, or Gullah culture.

Around the same time I finished the guidelines, I completed a documentary film in conjunction with the ASLA [American Society of Landscape Architects], called “Connections Preserving America’s Landscape Legacy.” We started showing the film at festivals and conferences and people would get really choked up. And this made me realized that we had it all wrong. The way that the federal government was doing things was a top-down approach where you create standards and guidelines; yet, gardening and golf are two of Americans’ favorite pastimes. Our goal should be to reach the broadest possible audience by teaching the public how to see and value a landscape.

Donnell Garden, Sonoma, California. Photo by Charles Birnbaum, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

LU: And this is what you do with The Cultural Landscape Foundation? Tell us more about your vision for the project.

CB: We are an organization that lives and breathes online, and since our incorporation in 1998 our core programs have remained the same. When we initially started, we were doing Landslide, Pioneers of American Landscape Design, and Cultural Landscapes as Classrooms: these were our three primary programs.

Our Landslide program has been in place since 2003, and spotlights threatened or unique landscapes. Landslide strives to generate a call for action and create a civic discourse where there is often none. We monitor these landscapes over time, noting on our website those that are “saved” or “lost.” In addition, starting in 2007, we partnered with various art groups—such as the George Eastman Museum of International Photography and Film and American Photo magazine—to produce travelling exhibitions in concert with annual thematic lists, spanning topics such as working landscapes, Modernism landscapes and seminal trees and tree collections.

The Pioneers of American Landscape Design initiative is a collection of essays and oral histories of some of the significant folks in landscape history. To date, two volumes of over 300 essays have been published, in addition to over 500 web profiles. Seven oral histories have been mounted on our website where you can explore the biographical narratives, design philosophies, and executed projects of such seminal figures as Lawrence Halprin, Cornelia Oberlander, James van Sweden and most recently, Stu Dawson. It’s one thing to read and visit the work; it’s another to hear the landscape architect, often on site, tell their story. Looking ahead, we will be videotaping Laurie Olin and Israeli landscape architect Schlomo Aronson.

We developed three web-based modules for Classrooms: Columbus Park in Chicago by Jens Jensen was first; the second was called City Shaping, showcasing fifty years of Olmsted design in Louisville; and then, finally, a comparison of two important postwar gardens, the Donnell Garden in Sonoma and the Miller Garden in Columbus. The Miller Garden at the time was facing an uncertain future—today it is owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and has recently been opened to the public (this garden also appeared on our 2008 Landslide list, Marvels of Modernism).

Donnell Garden, Sonoma, California. Photo by Charles Birnbaum, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

LU: What’s “What’s Out There?”

CB: About a year and a half ago, we launched What’s Out There [WOT]—and, full confession, this is a project that I wanted to do when I was at the NPS. In sum, what I wanted to do was create a way for us to understand the full spectrum of America’s designed landscape heritage and to begin to consider the legacy in its broadest local, regional, and national contexts.

What we are doing is building a National database, an illustrated dictionary that is organized around individual designers. Ultimately, it’s a reference tool for designers, historians, gardeners, golfers, and tourists. We recently unveiled an interactive mapping component that allows you to see all of those landscapes in the database in your area. We now have over a 1000 sites in the database.

Kaiser Center Roof Garden, Oakland, California. Photo by Tom Fox, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

LU: In your writing, you’ve got quite a sense of humor—you’re funny. What do you think is missing from landscape architectural dialogue and criticism (besides, as you’ve mentioned, its absence on the whole)? How can we better communicate as landscape architects? Why do you think we have so much trouble talking or writing about what we do?

CB: Let’s back up and rather than answer that question directly, let’s talk about Lawrence Halprin and Laurie Olin: what makes them extraordinary? It’s that they can both write, they can speak, and they can draw. Perhaps this is why they have both been tremendously successful in getting their work built.

It’s about knowing where you have to go and how to get to where you want to go. Part of it is making sure that everyone has fun along the way; and part of it is not taking yourself too seriously. I think the thing about Larry and Laurie both—and others—is their amazing ability to convince you to support what it is that they want—follow their pencil, listen to their poetic, passionate language—and all of a sudden, you realize they have won you over—at times even making you think it was your idea. Not only are they masters in communicating their ideas, writings, and community-based efforts, they convert the resident into an ambassador, enabling them to see a bigger picture.

On the flipside, you look at someone like James Corner—only in the last few years have many of his projects been built. What’s fascinating to me is that here is a person who has not built much, but was having a monumental impact on our future generation of landscape architects—and again, Jim’s passionate writings, oratory prowess, and evocative drawings brought in a new generation of students, municipalities, and donors who wanted to be a part of his vision. I think the challenge today is to know your audience and stay on message.

On the one hand, you’ve got to be able to inspire people who are in your fields; and on the other hand, you have to welcome newcomers and empower them. So write for Landscape Journal, Topos, and Landscape Architecture while also writing opinion pieces for your local paper, use your website as an idea forum, and not just a place for headshots, bios and project listings.

I think the greatest challenge that we have in getting our message out is finding a way to get the message to a broader audience. Our approach with the foundation is to constantly cast a wider net to enable our audience to become engaged with us—to be torch-carriers for the collective cause.

Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington. Photo by Charles Birnbaum, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

LU: When you reach out to people, you mentioned a bit about the psychology behind communication. How do you go beyond this— how do you teach and educate? And beyond being a leader, how do you teach people to be leaders themselves? As a leader in the fields, as a speaker and a writer: what motivates you? Why do you do what you do?

Let’s ask a broader question about leadership within and beyond our field. How do you reach out, teach, and educate the importance of cultural landscapes, landscape heritage, and design? As a leader in the field, we’re curious to hear more about why you do what you do. What motivates you? And second, how do you teach people to be leaders themselves?

CB: I think one has to have principles and be brave. We can’t be afraid to stand up; but we also have to be strategic and couch our messages in the right way for the right audiences. Very often landscape architects will not take an unpopular position if they think it may diminish their chances of securing project work from a municipality or pissing off a mayor. Not all mayors can be like Joseph Riley in Charleston and value BOTH history and design—but it is our challenge to educate them and other decision-makers to see the big picture.

The Huffington Post blog that I just wrote, for example, about the future of M. Paul Friedberg’s design for Peavey Plaza—a progenitor of the Post-War “park-plaza” in Minneapolis, along Nicollet Mall—asks what the role of the Target Corporation should be and what we can do to help shape the project’s direction. Just last week Target launched a new wing, the Target Center for Creative Collaboration at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. Where is the creative collaboration at Peavey?

(To read the full post, check out the recent blog post)

LU: What’s next for WOT and TCLF? What are your goals, objectives, and long-term visions for The Cultural Landscape Foundation? And how will you know if you’ve done it?

CB: I should confess: when I wake up in the morning, I pour an espresso and before I open the New York Times and the Washington Post, I go to Google analytics. Every single day, I begin with coffee and looking to see what’s happening on our website. I look at what’s resonating and what’s not working. The feedback tells you a lot about how the user interacts with the site—we all must do this.

To give you a simple example—one of the things I’m fascinated with on our site is the page that answers the question, “What are cultural landscapes?” There are four types of definitions—but what I learn is that people are coming to this site looking for the term “cultural landscapes” in big numbers every day. It has become a buzzword. Every day, no matter what new content we are generating, this is always in the top five landing pages on our site—I now know that we encourage people to go deeper into our site. So next year, when you land on this page—because it knows [geographically] where you are, there may be five or six landscapes culled from What’s Out There selected specifically for you.

So, to answer your question, where are we going: I think that we are always looking backwards and forwards—and having this capability to understand what people are using on our web site and increase its optimization—this is critical. One of the challenges that most organizations have, like ours, is finding the funding to do this—information architecture is not always sexy to donors.

What we truly want to do is teach the broadest public about our landscape heritage through our shared values of cultural landscapes, and to begin to elevate the often invisible hand of the landscape architect—to give the public the essential tools to be able to understand, not just buildings and the history of architecture, but the mosaic of the American landscape in the same way. This was one of the reasons why we created What’s Out There Weekends in which we led free tours in Washington, DC, Chicago and San Francisco for thousands of public landscapes that people move through every day, often without the knowledge of who designed them.


Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, is the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in Washington, DC. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the American Academy in Rome. He has written and edited numerous publications including 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).

Sarah Kathleen Peck works in the spaces between landscape architecture, technology, communications, and strategy, and is the founder and editor of this site. Read her complete bio here.

Eliza Shaw Valk is co-editor of this site and is a designer and writer with a background in dance and performance. Read her complete bio here

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