Dan Kiley Exhibition – Interview with Charles Birnbaum, TCLF

Charles Birnbaum is the CEO and founder of TCLF—The Cultural Landscape Foundation. In his work, he is a fearless advocate and activist for significant American landscape architecture sites. He was honored as a 2020 LILA Honour Award Winner for initiating and developing TCLF for over 25 years with an “innovative vision, executed with great precision, enthusiasm, and perseverance.”

Landezine’s Zaš Brezar talks to Charles Birnbaum at the closing event of TCLF’s travelling exhibition, The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley, in Brooklyn, New York.

How and when did the Dan Kiley exhibition start? 

In 2012, when the centennial of Dan Kiley‘s birth came about, nothing happened. If we remember when Mies van der Rohe’s birth centenary occurred, there were several exhibitions, symposia, and book publications celebrating, honouring, and interpreting his legacy. Nothing happened for Dan.

So, in an eleven-month period, TCLF organized the traveling exhibition. And as with all of our work, it’s about making the invisible hand of the landscape architect visible, but also elevating Kiley’s unique legacy. So that way, when managing change at these unique landscapes, the work undertaken is sympathetic and well-informed. In the eleven years since we mounted this exhibition, a lot, mostly good, has happened for Kiley.

Here in New York City, the Ford Foundation atrium has been painstakingly restored and rehabilitated by Gensler with Raymond Jungles and Siteworks. It is an incredible achievement and it is a transformational analysis of Kiley’s design intent through Raymond Jungle’s creativity and love of plants. We’ve also seen the Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, which was facing an uncertain future and is a part of the collection at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The acquisition happened under the leadership of former director Max Anderson. It’s a significant save for Dan Kiley’s most iconic garden, which is probably one of the most important modernist gardens in the world.

But then, this past January, we had some sad news about the approved demolition of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington, Vermont, that Kiley designed with his frequent partner, Ed Barns. Although Kiley’s landscape will remain, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without the church on the site right now. So it’s unfortunate that for Kiley, who spent 60 years of his professional career, one of these rare public commissions in his home state has now been significantly altered by the church’s demolition.

The exhibition includes 28 projects. Are they all in good shape today, or are there also some that show issues in maintenance and care?

I don’t want to say there’s a little bit of everything, but there’s a little bit of everything. For a career that spanned an exorbitant number of projects, the exhibition comprises the most iconic, but it also includes diversity in terms of when Kiley was practising. There are some early residential gardens, and some very late residential gardens, for example, the Patterns Garden, which was done for Governor Pierre S. and Elise du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. That was most likely his last residential commission. But I think as you look at the photographs, you can actually see where Kiley’s design intent has been painstakingly maintained, like in the South Garden at the Chicago Art Institute and the way in which the alleys with the grid of hawthorns create this incredibly tactile pattern of shade and shadow. You don’t see any other Kiley project where the grid consists of hawthorns, although it was a tree that was used in the Midwest by Kiley’s predecessors, like Alfred Caldwell, because its branching patterns looked like flights of birds in the winterscape. Then you see projects like Concordia Theological Seminary, where the trees are quite young because they’ve been replaced after storm damage, so I don’t think you can read the design intent so well in those photographs.

Then, the opening portrait of Dan Kiley in the exhibition is situated in the Air Gardens of the Colorado Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and if you look closely at the photograph by Brian Thompson in the exhibition, which was taken in 2013, the Kiley-designed landscape feature was buried. It’s gone. However, a restoration began in 2015 and the rehabilitated Air Gardens reopened in October 2021. It’s an important achievement in the life of what is considered the literal and figurative centrepiece of the academy.

And then if you look at the Kiley Garden in Tampa, for Nations Bank, the parking deck was leaking for many years and the work was threatened with erasure. The first phase of restoration was done; all of the hardscape was put back, but none of the trees are now there. The water systems aren’t functioning. It is just waiting for a second chapter for revitalization.

You’ve studied American Modernism in great depth, so in your own words, how would you compare Dan Kiley’s work to the work of other American landscape architects of that time?

In American landscape architecture, Kiley, Eckbo and Rose are all three together at Harvard. They’re all getting their grades of X-es and failing because they won’t do their Beaux Arts designs, and they each go on their own paths. I think Kiley, in terms of his use of geometries, restrained minimalism in adapting French gardens and adapting nature to fit into his vegetative architecture – all of these are trademarks that you see in his landscapes.

But perhaps more than any of the others here in the U.S., Kiley had a huge impact on those who followed in the next generations. The hand of Dan Kiley is very often present, and whether it’s a winery by Andrea Cochran or the work of Hoerr Schaudt at Illinois Institute of Technology campus by the late Peter Schaudt, who worked in Dan’s office, or for that matter, Gregg Bleam …  We see this Kiley renaissance that began at Harvard when Peter Walker commissioned Alan Ward in 1978 photograph the Miller Garden; the photographs made visible – in its mature state – a garden that no one had seen before.

It was the equivalent in the landscape architecture world of the discovery of a lost symphony or an unknown Caravaggio. Suddenly, here it was, through the painstaking stewardship of the Millers, Kiley’s design intent, fully realized. And whether it was the arrival allee of the horse chestnuts or the honey locust grid, bracketed by the artworks of Jacques Lipchitz and Henry Moore, there was Kiley’s vision, realized in full.

For me, the most important thing about Kiley is the most important thing about why The Cultural Landscape Foundation exists. We have to know where we’ve come from to know where we’re going.

We’re at a moment right now with the designation of landscape architecture as a STEM discipline, so landscape architecture is officially a science. First of all, when you look at the scores of modernist works among more than 98,000 properties listed in National Register of Historic Places, nearly all are buildings; landscape architecture is minuscule. There are more than a thousand modernist buildings in America listed in the National Register that are less than 50 years old. In the very elite category of National Historic Landmarks, of which there are some 2,600 properties nationwide, in all design types and styles, there are only about 75 works of landscape architecture.

The Miller Garden is one of them. Glass House by Philip Johnson is another one, the Gropius House, Manitoga by Russel Wright … But unless we begin to recognize that history plays a role in defining how we move forward and how we seek inspiration in both crafting narratives and in form giving, we’re going to be in trouble. Landscape architecture is an art, and it is a science, and Kiley is part of that canon and is part of the palimpsest of multiple generations of practice. I hope that both his legacy endures and that there will be opportunities for reinterpretation.

I think that, in terms of how Kiley approached his work, his language was unique. As with any great artist, he saw the world in his own way. And I think we’re all the better for it.

Which are the most intense open fronts currently at TCLF?

The thing that’s keeping us up at night is the future of Mary Miss’ Greenwood Pond: Double Site. It’s not only important because it’s a significant work of land art by a woman land artist. It is one of her most significant extant works, but most importantly, it is in a museum permanent collection. And we expect museums to be good stewards of our shared custodial heritage.

And the museum, Des Moines Art Center (DMAC), is deaccessioning the work, and they’re basically saying there are no alternatives to demolition. It is an important case to watch because it has ramifications for artists all around the world. I would also say the work we’re doing, in terms of looking at race and space, is terribly important. We’ve just launched a guide to more than 140 African American cultural landscapes and lifeways throughout the U.S., and we hope to expand it significantly. We’re excited about the work of this year’s laureate, Kongjian Yu, the recipient of our second biennial Oberlander Prize.

And as part of the public engagement activities associated with Kongjian Yu and the Oberlander Prize, we hosted an international online Oberlander Prize Forum titled Soak it Up: Designing with and for Flooding, featuring Yu, Pieter Schengenga, director of H+N+S Landscape Architects, the Netherlands, and moderated by Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, University of Virginia. This is one of a series of events TCLF has organized since the first Oberlander Prize Laureate, Julie Bargmann, was announced in October 2021. There are more events being planned and we look forward to sharing information about them with the Landezine community.

Where is the exhibition headed next?

The Kiley exhibition will be on view at Bell Works in Holmdel, New Jersey, June 30-September 30, 2024.

Thank you for the interview, and thank you for your service to the global profession!


Published on May 31, 2024

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