Donna Dorian | February 01, 2012
One of the most progressive landscape designers at work today-a finalist for the 2011 National Design Award and a visiting critic at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design—Margie Ruddick is not about to let nature play a subservient role to the built environment. Nor is she likely to plant decorative pansies to adorn the flattened backyards of a prepackaged suburban community. Rather, by closely reading the local ecology and respecting it, she lets landscape drive the action.
She now operates her namesake firm in Philadelphia while consulting for the urban-planning and architecture firm Wallace Roberts & Todd, where she was previously a principal. She and WRT will soon complete an urban renewal project for the Queens Plaza area of Long Island City, New York, carving out small parks in a tangle of transportation infrastructure, and the team recently finished an elegant Manhattan office lobby featuring leafy living sculptures inspired by the fern canyons of Northern California and Oregon. Her longest-running collaboration, starting in 1992, has been with Steven Harris Architects, which has worked with her on residences around the globe as well as on the Shillim Institute, a 2,500-acre ecological retreat in India. Take a look, and see what happens when she turns the status quo upside down. Here is what she has to say.
What are the benefits of working with residential architects?
The collaborative process allows the landscape to operate as a space to live in. Likewise, it allows interior spaces to relate very closely to the experience of being in a landscape.
At Steven Harris and Lucien Rees Roberts's own weekend property in Columbia County, New York, the two buildings that make up the compound are only 14 feet across, but the dining area has 14-foot-wide glass pocket doors on both sides. Sitting in the dining area in winter, you feel like you're in a snow bank. In the summer when the doors are open, the landscape seems to slide right through. The buildings overall are very simple, clad in shingles, so the windows were the big-ticket item. They were worth it.
You also worked with Harris and Rees Roberts on a repeat client's house in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
It's set on significantly less than 1 acre. Because it's cliff-side, though, we were able to take advantage of the topography by building a large part of the 10,000-square-foot interior right into the slope. The house is literally immersed in nature, and each room has a view of the Pacific Ocean.
How did topography dictate your approach at the Shillim Institute?
Like in Cabo, the siting of each building drove the architectural form. The spa is actually a dam, impounding storm water. The masonry of the relaxation center seems to grow out of a rocky outcrop. This approach was integral to promoting a sustainable way of life that includes reforestation and organic farming.
Why do you refer to that Manhattan office lobby as the Urban Garden Room?
I call 1 Bryant Park the city's ultimate green building-it's the first LEED Platinum skyscraper there. So the lobby needed to connect to nature. Our solution for the glass atrium was to construct four enormous sculptures covered in living ferns, mosses, and ivy.
The sculptures were designed by my mother, Dorothy, shortly before she died. As a sculptor trained at Black Mountain College, she was all about rules and following them where they took her. This was a wonderful project for her, because the space is very high and narrow, and the restrictions turned out to be the mother of invention.
What role does ecology play at Queens Plaza?
I am a landscape designer first and foremost, which means that my process is thoroughly concerned with how plants will survive and where water comes from and where it will go. Whenever we plant, even in urban settings, the birds fly in and help redistribute the seeds that, in turn, grow to become more plants to feed the birds. Setting up a food chain creates wildlife habitats.
At Queens Plaza, allowing ecology to drive the project enabled us to make sense out of a mess of streets and urban infrastructure. The area now include bicycle lanes and sidewalks as well as parks and green pockets. By putting plants, animals, water, and shade first, we developed a new idea of nature in the city.