Buffalo Bayou Park. Courtesy: SWA Group.

The Houston Transformation and “Nature”: Part III of a Discussion with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro

This is the final part in a three-part interview Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2

Mankad: The transformation of Houston’s parks has not been free of controversy. The community outreach for the Memorial Park master plan was tremendous but not all the feedback was positive. I spoke with both proponents and detractors. Both sides rely on the word “natural.” Both sides invoke respect for “nature” — either preservation or restoration of nature. Those who oppose the project want to leave nature the way it is. Those who promote it talk about restoring the nature of a time before Houston. To some extent, the same objections were raised downstream at Buffalo Bayou Park. How are we to make sense of that contestation?

Alfaro: What does “nature” mean in Houston? What is it? Houston is so strange because you have at least three different ecosystems all combining, which is great when you are looking at plant selection. But it is difficult when you are trying to decide the flavor of the landscape. What is it that we are trying to do? You can almost do anything that you want. With residential landscape you can! Native horticulture has, for me, been one of the biggest changes in approach. Here, where we are sitting, at Brochstein Pavilion, we have this beautiful landscape with this one type of plant. African Iris. Or is it Bicolor Iris?

Albers: Bicolor Iris.

Alfaro: It is a very beautiful plant, does very well in Houston, but it is only one type of plant. What is beginning to occur in the minds of many gardeners and people who enjoy outdoor spaces is this growing fascination with native grasses, with native plants, native trees. The market for that historically had been very difficult. Where do you go to buy the native plants? Now the commercial growers are beginning to carry that some more. People are starting to adopt this ethos of using native vegetation. The water consumption is lower with native plants. That alone is a very transformative thing. It reflects the way that people are changing their attitude to nature.

That said, landscape architecture to a great extent is a very synthetic discipline. Even though this grove looks amazing, like it has always been here, it wasn’t. It was manufactured. It was installed. I think that what fascinates people now is trying to return to what Houston may have been like. Certainly, Nelson Byrd Woltz took this approach at Memorial Park. We see it on multiple scales with big city parks and residential landscape.

Rendering of Memorial Grove. Courtesy: Nelson Byrd Woltz.

Rendering of Memorial Grove. Courtesy: Nelson Byrd Woltz.

Albers: The idea of nature has always been a construct. For someone to say a landscape is “natural,” or that this is “nature,” is a judgment. A judgment of the way things should be versus the way things shouldn’t be. Look at invasive species. Pine borer beetles are killing forests of pines that have no defense against this pest. Well, that is invasive; it is horrible to the environment that they are in. Is it “natural”? The pine borer beetle didn’t invade for the sake of being an invasive species. It just kind of ended up there. Perhaps through the work of people, perhaps not. So I think when you say “nature,” there is a judgment associated with that. My judgement is that we don’t want our forests devastated.

Mankad: In my experience, when you poke at “nature” long enough, you end up talking about resilience from extreme climate and you end up talking about beauty, about aesthetics. So …

Albers: The concept of “nature” is always something that we discuss at length in our Introduction to Landscape Architecture class. Look at the tradition of landscape architecture, look at the history of gardening, look at the history of humanity’s relationship with their environment; at one time, anything that existed outside was somehow a corruption of an ideal. That’s where the tradition of paradise gardens comes from. They were representations of nature that assumed everything was corrupt after the fall of man.

Alfaro: Following from that was the tradition of French formal gardens. There is always this cyclical effect. The reaction against those formal gardens was the English Romantic garden. Central Park is a hybrid English Romantic and French Formal garden. Then you have the influence of Modern Landscape Architecture and all that comes down to us here.

Master plan for Memorial Park. Courtesy: Nelson Byrd Woltz.

Master plan for Memorial Park. Courtesy: Nelson Byrd Woltz.

Albers: Look at the master plan for Memorial Park. It takes into account the natural ecosystem, the natural flow of conditions, the natural drainage pattern … it is so hard to get away from that word. I just used it four times.

Alfaro: Yes, you did.

Albers: The existing drainage patterns, the existing soil conditions, the existing plant material. They looked at the plant material that existed before it became Memorial Park. While all those conditions are taken into account, the ultimate master plan is still designed. It is still a manipulation of existing conditions into something new. It may address what someone thinks is more natural. It may not.

Some people don’t like anyone to dig up plants and clean things out. They love the fact that in certain areas along Buffalo Bayou whatever had volunteered to grow there has gone crazy. It was covered in green. It looked lush. It looked like some kind of wilderness. When you look at which plants were really growing there, you begin to see things like the tallow tree. You see other invasive species. You see things that are not necessarily good for what you want that system to do.

Alfaro: The fact is that the Buffalo Bayou route changed over time, but it is not allowed to do that now.

Albers: It must work as a drainage channel. It is a constructed, engineered drainage channel, not a meandering system anymore.

Alfaro: To go back to the question of beauty, to the arbitrariness of talking about landscapes being beautiful, Andrew often argues that this is very normal. When you look at gardens, when you look at landscape, it is normal to describe it as a beautiful space.

Albers: He is using my class against me.

Alfaro: I am. You make a fair point. It comes down to the plant material, the system of the plant, the beauty of the flower, the form of the leaf, of the structure, of the hedge, of the color. Right? The texture of the bark of these elm trees here, those are the things that are beautiful…why? Is it because natural systems are beautiful to us? Because we are connecting…

Albers: Again, you’re saying “natural” systems!

The project of restoring the ecology of Buffalo Bayou, the project of cleaning out invasive species, the project of making the space more useable, to restoring the banks, the project of restoring the system to how it would function if it was a meandering creek — on the one hand, you could say we are restoring nature and, on the other hand, you get a public outcry that you are destroying nature.

Buffalo Bayou is a fairly contemporary design but not so contemporary that it is all straight lines and right angles. It does not a hit you over the head like a 1980s Peter Walker design. Buffalo Bayou Park is a great design that appeals to people. It has its moments of modern design, but it also has its moments of scenic picturesque design as well. It is very appealing.

Buffalo Bayou Park. Courtesy: SWA Group.

Buffalo Bayou Park. Courtesy: SWA Group.

Alfaro: It is a blend.

Albers: The design itself is not the lightening rod. It’s the fact that you are transforming a space and removing what was there. I think that is the crux of the argument over what is natural and what is not. It would be better to frame discussions in terms of how the ecology is performing. We live in a constructed environment and we can’t get away from that.

What one calls “natural” is determined by the lens that they use to view it.

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