Understanding Nature in an Urban Parterre

Imagine stumbling upon this plaza on a visit to New York. You might not know what hit you, or rather, who spun an ordinary city square in circles until it exploded out this chaos of color and squiggles. But, as students of landscape architecture, we can immediately recognize this as the work of the vivacious Martha Schwartz. Someone unfamiliar with the discipline might find this part particularly atrocious and devoid of nature, while I myself have grown to enjoy this park’s ambitions and subtle connections to nature. Although Schwartz designed Jacob Javits Plaza in 1996, she more recently published an essay entitled “I Hate Nature.” Throughout this article, she describes nature as messy and one in which we, as Americans, prefer to enjoy in consolidated doses. And, this is what she has given us in this plaza. A few mounds of grass “broccoli” and a row of trees lining the edge are seemingly enough for us on a regular basis. After all, if New Yorkers seek nature within the city, they might as well venture up to Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted worked tenaciously to create a massive perceived natural environment within a metropolis and did so quite successfully. Now, more recently Schwartz designed the plaza with Olmsted’s meandering lagoon edges in mind. Perhaps to her, and to the vast majority of us, this conceptual connection to “nature” satisfies our desire to be a part of it. Similar to Jennifer Price’s view that we look for nature in the mall and frequently believe we’ve found it within The Nature Company. Or, at least we’ve been captivated long enough to purchase some representation of nature and maybe even contributed a small donation to saving the rain forests.

Drifting back to Jacob Javits Plaza, we can further investigate nature through its relationship to the iconic French garden design element: parterres de broderie. When visiting France, Versailles is a must as the palace and gardens amaze. The parterres are impressive and boast intricate designs. When we see the gardens at Versailles, we are transported to another era and believe the extreme control of nature at work within these spaces as natural. They are beyond our comprehension of construction and therefore occupy a realm of untouchable nature today. It could be that this idea is linked to the design of the New York plaza. Or perhaps the connection is simpler- the visual of spiraling benches is likened to controlled planting patterns.

However we look at and understand nature, most of us upon first glance at Jacob Javits Plaza might believe it is the opposite. We might wish this plaza contained more natural elements. If so, we may have missed the subtle toying with nature that this urban parterre employs.

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