Working abroad: Gustafson Porter
Lebanon’s volatile politics forced the landscape architect to respond to opportunities where it found them
Five years ago most of Gustafson Porter’s work was in Lebanon. Then, literally overnight, the country was plunged back into war and everything stopped.
Though it only lasted a month, the conflict in the summer of 2006 left 1,200 people dead and parts of Beirut in ruins again.
While most of the landscape architect’s work has resumed, it is a heavy irony that its Garden of Forgiveness project remains on hold because the site is occupied by soldiers. The land is close to Lebanon’s parliament which, while political tensions remain high, is considered a potential target.
The retaining walls have gone up but they overlook an overgrown archaeological site whose less sensitive southern end is filled with troops, army tents and vehicles.
The practice won the project in 2000 when, a decade after the end of the long civil war, Beirut still felt as though it were just waking up.
“It was a lot less exuberant,” says Neil Porter, who founded the practice in 1997 with American Kathryn Gustafson.
“There were a lot of bullet holes, derelict areas and rubble and people were just scraping a living. Gucci hadn’t arrived.
“The competition, for a new park in the city centre, was about bringing together the different religious communities around this amazing archaeological site. It was a total puzzle for us.”
The sudden pause brought about by rockets at this and four other schemes the practice was working on in the city created a “sticky situation”, says Mary Bowman, an ex-Foster & Partners associate who joined Gustafson Porter as a director in 2004.
“There were a lot of bullet holes, derelict areas and rubble and people were just scraping a living”
It certainly lent an edge to its bid for Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay competition. It won the design of Bay East, much to the practice’s relief, and now finds itself working alongside Wilkinson Eyre, which won Bay West.
It was Gustafson Porter’s first project in the tropics and its focus has been on encouraging the determinedly urban inhabitants of the island city to engage with nature. The masterplan incorporates underground car parks and a food court — both local essentials — and breaks the 2.5km-long park into distinct areas. These include an open-air spa and allotments intended to supply local restaurants. It also aims to draw breezes off the adjacent reservoir to cool the park.
Big city parks are a speciality of the Kentish Town-based practice which cut its international teeth on Amsterdam’s £18 million Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek, the transformation of a former gasworks into a 16ha park that it won in 1998. The way the firm dealt with contamination on the gasworks — capping the worst pollution beneath lily ponds — ensures the culture park is still bringing clients to the practice years later.
In the last year it has won large parks in Milan and Valencia. The latter involves the stitching together of communities divided by a high-speed rail line; while the Italian win involves designing the landscape around three high-profile towers by Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Arata Isozaki. Gustafson Porter arrived on the project long after the architecture had been designed, after a convoluted history of failed attempts to landscape what will become a key route to the 2015 World Expo.
More satisfyingly, the firm is designing the north park on Novartis’s Basel campus — that “museum of modern architecture” as Porter puts it — where some of the buildings are still to come, and so will be responding to the firm’s landscaping. This prestige job, working alongside Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, OMA and Alvaro Siza, was the result of a recommendation. Reputation and relationships have been central to much of the practice’s success.
Two commissions in Abu Dhabi — to restore historic desert landscapes around Bronze and Iron Age sites — came from senior figures in the Emirati culture department: former colleagues who fled their native Lebanon during the war.
Bay East Gardens
Brief: One of three waterfront gardens, totalling 101ha, in the new downtown in Marina Bay intended to help fuse the city with the natural world around it.
Completion date: June 2012
Hili Archaeological Park
Location: Abu Dhabi
Brief: Iron Age archaeological site in the desert containing tombs and irrigation systems. The government wants to bring visitors here but they must keep to a network of unobtrusive paths. The interpretation centre will be
built on the most disturbed area.
Status: On hold
Valencia Parque Central
Location: Valencia, Spain
Brief: A new 23ha public park at the heart of the city’s most important redevelopment project to date, using land freed up by rerouting railway lines underground.
Start date: 2011
Santiyeh Garden Cemetery
Brief: Gustafson Porter was appointed in 2004 by the client from the Garden of Forgiveness to landscape this Muslim cemetery. It is one of four linked projects in the city centre and will featuremeadow plants, pools and pergolas.
Garden of Forgiveness
Brief: To create a terraced park on an important archaeological site running through the centre of Beirut. Surrounded by cathedrals and mosques, the project attempts to bring religious unity to the city.
Status: On hold
Brief: A pedestrian promenade route along the city’s original coastline — since extended by dumping — to help revitalise the war-ravaged downtown
Brief: A leisure space including a pergola garden and an activity field for temporary fairs, festivals and art installations at the heart of the city
Completion date: 2015