Diana Balmori

Describe a liv­able city.

A liv­able city resem­bles as much as pos­si­ble a liv­ing thing. It takes on modes of func­tion­ing that copy life; smart engi­neer­ing can realign the pat­terns and flows of the city with the lessons of biol­ogy. And that’s what I feel is the big trans­for­ma­tion in the next ten years. That we learn from liv­ing things and how to do things in what I would call a nat­ural way, although we’re doing it through engi­neer­ing. We adopt bio­log­i­cal mod­els you can repli­cate in engi­neer­ing — for exam­ple, in build­ings that auto­mat­i­cally adjust to tem­per­a­tures, that darken them­selves or light them­selves, or let light in or close them­selves, that they sort of become part liv­ing things. Their roofs are green, their walls may be green, so they’re totally inter­laced with liv­ing matter.

We’ve learned how life is main­tained. And so our engi­neer­ing should build from that. There are lots of bio­log­i­cal mod­els that are known about already, for instance in the way that we set up cer­tain things with water. We are begin­ning to learn. And that’s what I mean by nat­u­ral­iz­ing the city, that we adopt bio­log­i­cal mod­els that are engineered.

How could you see this hap­pen­ing in New York, for instance?

Let’s just take waters and rivers: I would like within the next ten years for the whole sur­face of the city to be totally porous. At present, the city sim­ply builds and builds itself and then you have to col­lect all the water rush­ing down dusty streets into drainage pipes which dump it into the river; if the sur­faces are porous then rain­wa­ter is not dumped into rivers. Instead, it flows directly into the earth. As it flows, it is cleaned through plant processes, through evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion, and through engi­neered processes. But it goes directly into the soil and feeds ground­wa­ter — and it’s not col­lect­ing all the dirt of streets and wash­ing that into our rivers.

And I would like that we learn to live with our rivers in a very dif­fer­ent way, acknowl­edg­ing that they change in height at dif­fer­ent times of the year, and accept­ing those changes. We can allow the rivers to have an enor­mous amount of excess water in places that do not flood. There are many ways of doing that.

And then we have a river that returns to life, that has all kinds of biota in it, is full of fish, with clean water, healthy water, and has at its banks not hard edges but planted edges, curved edges, because water always moves with a curved pro­file and planted edges would clean the water and slow it down. So in ten years, that is very achiev­able. That the city be porous, that the rivers be clean, full of life, and that their edges be com­pletely changed.

And that we do not force rivers to be fixed enti­ties, because noth­ing in nature is fixed. We should learn that from nature – that every­thing needs to have the room to be able to change con­stantly. Rivers need to change con­stantly. Cities need to change con­stantly. A planet changes con­stantly. We change con­stantly. It’s a very deep and dif­fi­cult les­son to learn. But if we start liv­ing this way and mak­ing our city work this way, it is sustainable.

So, I just men­tioned mak­ing all the sur­faces porous. I am not just say­ing that as a fig­ure of speech: I’ve been work­ing with a sci­en­tist at the School of Forestry and Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies at Yale and we thought of a pave­ment sys­tem that per­mits the water to come through and cleans it at the same time. We’ve even got a man­u­fac­turer involved in it, who agreed to build a test of it. But we haven’t been able to get fund­ing for it. It’s a mat­ter of just such a small amount of money but we can’t get it for test­ing that. Noth­ing would have a more incred­i­ble effect on a city than hav­ing its whole sur­face porous.

We some­how have to change the view of how a city needs to work. City Atlas, and I, and oth­ers have to do this. We must com­mu­ni­cate to a large pop­u­la­tion what it takes to trans­form cities into places that are not heat islands, that do not make garbage out of our rivers, and that do not con­tin­u­ally cre­ate prob­lems of drainage and sewage over­flow. And this is just tak­ing water as an example.

So the next step is essen­tially political?

Well, on some level the whole thing becomes polit­i­cal in the sense that we have to have the polit­i­cal will to do it. At the same time, when one encoun­ters a polit­i­cal sys­tem that doesn’t move or doesn’t react to urgent needs and new ideas, then I think that an intel­li­gent pop­u­la­tion has to take mat­ters into their own hands. I don’t mean they have to have a rev­o­lu­tion or that they have to become politi­cians. I think that we can give indi­vid­u­als the tools to go in this new direc­tion. And that’s what our pro­fes­sion allows us to do. We know cer­tain things — like what it takes to make a pave­ment porous or to reduce the heat island of cities. Every­body, every indi­vid­ual who has a roof in New York City can turn that roof into a green roof. And we don’t need a rev­o­lu­tion for that. We just need to edu­cate our pub­lic about this. And that is so pos­si­ble to do.


The green roof on Sil­ver­cup Stu­dios, Long Island City, NY (Bal­mori Asso­ciates, 2005)


I would pre­fer if some­one could get the politi­cians behind it. But if they’re going to be par­a­lyzed as they are now, then I think we need to say OK, what other ways are there? And — I think orga­ni­za­tions like City Atlas are pre­cisely the ones that can take all of these kinds of things on and be incred­i­bly effective.

Because it’s the clas­si­cal prob­lem of get­ting the sci­ence out there to the people?

But you can also give the peo­ple tools so that they can do things on their own. Not just edu­cate them about big ideas or ask for their sup­port, reserv­ing action for polit­i­cal lead­ers. Instead, inspire peo­ple to change their own build­ings, you know? It would have an enor­mous effect on the city if you could reach enough people.

We’ve had these con­ver­sa­tions about, how do you engage a per­son? Do you cater to their ego in a sense by say­ing you can do this and you can look great — like, here’s the iPhone of the envi­ron­ment — you can look also really great with it? Do you do those par­al­lels? Or then there’s also the scare method, where you have a very real con­ver­sa­tion which scares peo­ple into mak­ing changes.

Yeah that doesn’t work.

Exactly. Or do we sim­ply start prepar­ing them for the after­math of the cat­a­stro­phe? It’s not a very uplift­ing sce­nario really…

Peo­ple are not given enough credit for how much they do under­stand. It’s true when they have very strong rea­sons for not doing some­thing that would be most incon­ve­nient to them, but I think that there is also a good amount of pure com­mon sense and a sort of ‘do it your­self’ char­ac­ter in the Amer­i­can social body. One can appeal to that. And I really think that it’s a pow­er­ful tool and should be used more often.

That’s a good point. Some of the pride.

Yes, it is a very Amer­i­can char­ac­ter­is­tic that you don’t see in other places.

Yeah, yeah. There are so many meth­ods for dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent cities, dif­fer­ent neighborhoods.

Undoubt­edly. That’s one of the par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­can strengths and it can be appealed to.

Where do you see the field of land­scape archi­tec­ture going?

I really feel that both paint­ing and archi­tec­ture have dom­i­nated most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Towards the end, sculp­ture sort of jumped into it. The twenty first cen­tury is a moment that land­scape archi­tec­ture, bol­stered by archi­tec­ture and biol­ogy, is going to be incred­i­bly impor­tant. Because we are deal­ing with liv­ing things and liv­ing mat­ter, which is where the cul­ture has moved. And it is par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing using the bio­log­i­cal model because land­scape archi­tec­ture is sud­denly involved in this issue of sus­tain­abil­ity. And I think that land­scape — because it’s always been deal­ing with liv­ing things, unlike archi­tec­ture — has always had to face this test. If it sur­vives, it’s suc­cess­ful — and if it doesn’t, it isn’t. So that fits much closer to the bio­log­i­cal model.

And biol­ogy is also becom­ing much more sophis­ti­cated in its analy­sis of what keeps life going. And art has to be the other dimen­sion. While land­scape can main­tain that good under­stand­ing of bio­log­i­cal mod­els on the one hand, it must also re-connect itself to art, because it sort of dropped away from art — then I think it will remain strong and pow­er­ful. It needs, how­ever, to make the aes­thetic dimen­sion much stronger. And if it doesn’t I think it’s not going to last very long as field of impor­tance. But it is impor­tant because it’s clos­est to liv­ing things.

What is inter­est­ing too is every­thing that has to do with com­put­ers today is mov­ing towards bio­log­i­cal mod­els. Even in that very high tech field, the bio­log­i­cal model is begin­ning to dom­i­nate. So I really think we are in an era in which liv­ing mat­ter is the basis of what­ever we’re going to under­stand and do. What is sus­tain­able for life will dom­i­nate the whole culture.

So land­scape archi­tec­ture has an oppor­tu­nity. Whether it will take it, we’ll see. It’s cer­tainly a good field in which to test things because we’re dis­cussing liv­ing mat­ter today and the archi­tects are try­ing to see if their build­ings will become closer to liv­ing things. I think that’s where it’s at.

Part One of a Two Part Interview

About Diana Balmori

Diana Bal­mori has been the prin­ci­ple land­scape designer on many highly inno­v­a­tive projects, includ­ing the Mas­ter Plan for the Aban­dio­barra Dis­trict in Bil­bao, Spain, where her land­scape designs run along­side the Nervion River and adja­cent to the build­ing of the Guggen­heim Bil­bao. She real­ized the extra­or­di­nary con­cept of Robert Smith­son for a float­ing island around New York City, and Bal­mori Asso­ciates were the design team behind the green­roof at Sil­ver­cup Stu­dios in Queens, New York, which is the largest sci­en­tif­i­cally mon­i­tored green roof in the United States. Balmori’s mas­ter plan for an entirely new city in Korea, Sejong Admin­is­tra­tive Town, is now in early stages of construction.

Her books include A Land­scape Man­i­festo (Yale, 2010) and, with co-author Joel Sanders, Ground­work (Mona­celli, 2011).


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