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By Azzurra Cox, 2016 National Olmsted Scholar
This past September I attended Antigone in Ferguson, a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Antigone staged at Normandy High School in St. Louis County. Produced by the NYC-based theater group Outside the Wire, it brought the classical story of justice, loyalty, and redemption to a community that has been grappling with such questions — most publically in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in June 2014. Michael Brown was shot by a police officer a mere eight days after graduating from Normandy High School. His body, not unlike Antigone’s brother’s, was left in the harsh sunlight for hours. As audience members reacted to the stunning production with tears, praise, and probing questions, I couldn’t help but wonder in which auditorium seat Brown had last sat, how he had clapped, what had moved him. For an afternoon, that space became a living memorial.
What brought me to St. Louis was another site of memory just one mile away from that auditorium, in Hillsdale. Established in 1874 as the first non-denominational African-American commercial cemetery in the St. Louis area, Greenwood Cemetery is a unique cultural landscape and at the core of my research as a National Olmsted Scholar. Its 32 rolling acres house 6,000 marked graves, and up to 50,000 burials, including Dred Scott’s widow, Harriet Robinson Scott, and other notable figures. As one of the region’s late-period rural cemeteries, Greenwood speaks to both the typological and civic traditions of the picturesque cemetery; most poignantly, it embodies the right to be remembered for those who had to fight for that right. Although I haven’t yet been able to trace Greenwood’s original designer, the plan appears to reference Paris’ iconic Père Lachaise Cemetery, which inspired the notion of the American rural cemetery as a democratic space. Indeed, the people buried at Greenwood represent the full socioeconomic spectrum of the African American community, from artists to veterans, from civil rights leaders to school teachers. Greenwood historian and advocate Etta Daniels is fond of saying that the site embodies an entire historical narrative of black St. Louis.
That history is too often unspoken. A vibrant community space through the Jim Crow era, upon de juro desegregation Greenwood saw a sharp decline in use, after which divestment and rising poverty engulfed both it and the surrounding community. Today, Greenwood appears as an expanse of green surrounded by rows of modest homes, punctuated by vacant lots and boarded-up windows. Hillsdale is 96% African-American, a demographic typical of some of St. Louis’ northern suburbs. Its estimated median household income is less than half of Missouri’s median income. Ferguson, the birth of #BlackLivesMatter, lies a mere five miles away. It’s within this context that 32 acres of a vital place of African-American memory have been practically erased from the map.
Today a non-profit citizens’ group, the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association, is advocating for its clearing and restoration. My goal is to continue working with Association President Raphael Morris, Etta Daniels, Shelley Staples Morris, and other members to reimagine Greenwood as a vibrant, layered public space — one that blurs the distinction between cemetery, park, and museum. Last summer, I laid the groundwork for this long-term project by investigating and documenting the site’s cultural and ecological performance, learning from and getting to know Association members and other stakeholders to understand their desires for the site, and identifying ways in which I can lend my support and expertise. As someone who, unlike many Association members, does not have direct emotional and generational ties to the site, I see my role as an advocate above all.
No amount of prior research could have prepared me for the spatial power of Greenwood. In the heavy St. Louis summer, the site was bursting with life. The canopy in the northern elevated portion (what I call the Forest) enveloped rudimentary paths in birdsong. Along the central axis (the Field), many hours of volunteer work had carved clear sightlines across a shallow valley. Many of the site’s urban borders (the Edge) were characterized by fencing or neglect as residents turn their back on the site. And almost everywhere, gravestones appeared in various states of reveal. Throughout this range of spatial typologies, decades of neglect enabled unusually high species diversity.
The site — and the possibility of its revival — prompts questions about the narrative and political agency of place and the role of design on sensitive, sacred ground. A site of cultural memory has essentially been erased by its very material. But where we see biomass, we too often forget design. The state of Greenwood today is just as much a product of carefully designed systems — in this case, racial segregation and discrimination, as well as local and national political decisions — as were Olmsted’s parks. Yet while the tangled mass of vegetation does naturalize the structural violence embodied in the site, it is also a living testimony. Greenwood’s many histories are both covered and spoken by the landscape. So, how can design introduce new social life into a space with so much life and history already rooted into its soil? How might the site be reinterpreted as a hybrid public landscape? To what extent can landscape, as both medium and tradition, help render visible Greenwood’s many legacies?
These are the questions I continue to ask in this work. The next step is to work with Raphael and the Association to design a multi-phase implementation plan for the future of Greenwood. Ultimately, we want to leverage the site’s layered cultural, ecological, and historical legacies into a resource for the immediate community, the metropolitan region, and beyond. The opportunity for this project to spark that feedback cycle — whether by engaging Normandy High School, addressing conditions of vacancy in Hillsdale, or creating employment opportunities — is both exciting and very daunting. Fundraising is also core to the project, with the goal of establishing a perpetual care fund to secure Greenwood’s future. And this may well be a pivotal moment, as awareness of the cultural and political significance of neglected African-American cemeteries is growing near and far. The future of Greenwood Cemetery is about a landscape, but it’s fundamentally a matter of cultural heritage and racial justice — what is past and what is yet to come.
Azzurra Cox received a Master of Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is currently working at GGN in Seattle. Azzurra first learned of Greenwood Cemetery thanks to Seth Freed Wessler, who reported and wrote a powerful piece on the site in the aftermath of Ferguson.
To honor our 2016 Olmsted Scholars, LAF held a series of events in New Orleans on October 20-21. Forty of this year’s 76 Olmsted Scholars traveled from across the U.S. and Canada, with some coming from as far as Peru and Portugal to participate. Top landscape architecture students are nominated to the Olmsted Scholars Program by their faculty for demonstrating exceptional leadership potential.
The Olmsted Scholars Luncheon kicked off the first days’ events, giving the scholars the opportunity to meet each other, the LAF Board of Directors, Board Emeriti, staff, and program sponsors. The luncheon program included an certificate ceremony and a short presentation from 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Emily Vogler (Assistant Professor, Rhode Island School of Design) who discussed the her latest research and prototyping efforts to both support and reveal the process of coastal restoration within the urban context. Presentations from our 2016 National Olmsted Scholars, Azzurra Cox (MLA, Harvard Graduate School of Design) and Casey Howard (BLA, University of Oregon), concluded the program.
Azzurra, winner of the $25,000 graduate prize, presented her research and on-going work to develop a vision for the revival of Greenwood Cemetery, an endangered heritage landscape that was the first non‐denominational commercial cemetery for African Americans in the St. Louis area. Casey, winner of the $15,000 undergraduate prize, shared her first-place team project for the 2015 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge focused on food systems. Inspired by existing drainage technology used in agriculture, Casey and team developed a concept for a living filtration system to restore soil health, protect watersheds, and preserve productive lands.
Following the luncheon, the scholars participated in a facilitated Leadership Conversation with LAF Board Emeritius members, discussing how to continue to pursue their passions, stay accountable, and keep motivated as they transition from school to the workforce. Through facilitated calls over the course of the next year, these conversations will continue allowing the scholars to share goals, stories and experiences with a network of peers. These dialogues are part of LAF’s ongoing effort to build leadership capacity and strengthen the community of the now 468 Olmsted Scholars named since 2008.
To round out the day, the 2016 Olmsted Scholars ventured across town for an office visit at Spackman Mossop and Michaels, an international landscape architecture and urban design firm with offices in both Sydney, Australia and New Orleans. The scholars met with firm Directors Elizabeth Mossop and Wes Michaels to discuss some of their current projects in vacant land management, stormwater design, and urban revitalization in New Orleans, Detroit, and Chattanooga.
The events culminated with LAF’s 31st Annual Benefit at the historic Civic Theatre in New Orleans. Olmsted Scholars mixed and mingled with their peers and over 500 other Benefit attendees. In addition to recognizing the scholars, the program featured the public unveiling of the New Landscape Declaration with a live reading by outgoing LAF President, Kona Gray. Guests also enjoyed live music from New Orleans jazz legend Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers.
Thank you to the generous Olmsted Scholars Program sponsors whose support makes the financial awards and events like these possible. Photos from this year’s Olmsted Scholars Luncheon and LAF’s 31st Annual Benefit can be found on LAF’s Flickr Photostream.
The Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Olmsted Scholars Program is the premier national award and recognition program for landscape architecture students. The program honors students with exceptional leadership potential who are using ideas, influence, communication, service, and leadership to advance sustainable design and foster human and societal benefits.
Here, we showcase the 2016 undergraduate winner and finalists, who were announced in April. An independent jury of leaders in the landscape architecture profession selected them from a group of 32 undergraduate students nominated by their faculty for being exceptional student leaders. The winner receives the $15,000 undergraduate prize and each finalist receives $1,000. All of the 2016 Olmsted Scholars will be honored at LAF’s Annual Benefit in New Orleans on October 21.
National Olmsted Scholar Casey Howard of the University of Oregon
Casey shares first-place team project for the 2015 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge focused on food systems. Inspired by existing drainage technology used in agriculture, Casey and team developed a concept for a living filtration system to restore soil health, protect watersheds, and preserve productive lands.
Finalist Kathryn Chesebrough of the State University of New York
By showcasing several influential experiences, including the Red Cup Project that she led in Syracuse, New York, Kathryn shares her thoughts on the power of art, her design perspective, and sources of inspiration.
Finalist David Duperault of North Carolina A&T State University
[Video forthcoming. See bio here.]
Finalist Lyna Nget of the University of Washington
Lyna discusses her focus on evidence-based design for sustainable, inclusive, and therapeutic environments for vulnerable populations — especially those who suffer from physical and mental illnesses and disabilities.
The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is delighted to announce that Azzurra Cox, a master’s student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and Casey Howard, an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, were selected as the 2016 National Olmsted Scholars.
Azzurra receives the $25,000 graduate prize and will leverage the award to continue her research around a vision for the revival of Greenwood Cemetery, an endangered heritage landscape, which was the first non‐denominational commercial cemetery for African Americans in the St. Louis area. By grappling with deep questions about race, remembrance, and the political agency of landscape, she hopes that the site can serve as a case study for how landscape architecture can help expose and valorize narratives that have been unrecognized. Azzura graduates with a Master of Landscape Architecture in May 2016.
Casey receives the $15,000 undergraduate prize and will use the award to expand on her team’s “Living Filtration System” concept, which won the design round of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. The concept integrates living microorganisms with renewable materials to improve upon an existing technology commonly used to drain agricultural fields, and she wants to explore how it could be used in horticultural and storm water management solutions. Casey graduated this spring and would like to continue her education by pursuing a Masters in Environmental Studies.
Also honored are six National Olmsted Scholar Finalists, who each receive a $1,000 award. The graduate finalists are:
- Jorge Alarcón, University of Washington
- Olivia Fragale, Boston Architectural College
- Ellen Oettinger White, Rutgers University
The undergraduate finalists are:
- Kathryn Chesebrough, State University of New York
- David Duperault, North Carolina A&T State University
- Lyna Nget, University of Washington
Two independent juries of leaders in the landscape architecture profession selected the winners and finalists from a group of 45 graduate and 32 undergraduate students nominated by their faculty for their exceptional leadership potential. These top students earned the designation of 2016 University Olmsted Scholars and join the growing community of over 450 past and present Olmsted Scholars.
The 2016 jurors for the graduate award were: Kona Gray, LAF President and Principal at EDSA; Vaughn B. Rinner, FASLA, ASLA President-Elect and consulting landscape architect; Jody Rosenblatt-Naderi, Director of the Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture at Ball State University; D’Arcy Deeks, President and CEO at IRONSMITH; Daniel Martin, Director of Marketing at Permaloc Corporation and Partner at Land8 Media; Stephanie Pankiewicz, Partner at LandDesign; and Grant Fahlgren, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar (Graduate) and MLA student at University of British Columbia.
Jurors for the undergraduate award were: Jennifer Guthrie, FASLA, LAF President-Elect and Founding Principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol; K. Richard Zweifel, ASLA Immediate Past President and Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Maria C. “Tina” Gurucharri, Associate Professor and Landscape Architecture Department Chair, University of Florida; Po-Sun Chen, Executive Director and Vice President of BrightView Design Group; Gina Ford, Principal and Chair of Urban Studio at Sasaki Associates; Jim Laiche, Water Conservation Business Manager at The Toro Company; and Maria Muñoz, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar (Undergraduate) and BLA student at Louisiana State University.
Now in its ninth year, the Olmsted Scholars Program is the premier national award and recognition program for landscape architecture students. The program honors students with exceptional leadership potential who are using ideas, influence, communication, service, and leadership to advance sustainable design and foster human and societal benefits.The Olmsted Scholars Program is made possible with support from Lead Sponsor: The Toro Company; Annual Sponsors: EDSA, HOK, OLIN, Sasaki Associates, IRONSMITH, LandDesign, Thomas C. and Gerry D. Donnelly, Steven G. King, FASLA, and Bill Main, Hon. ASLA; Promotion Partner: American Society of Landscape Architects.
By Daniel Xu, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist
“Place makes memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space.”
— Dolores Hayden, Architectural Historian
A long time ago, a classmate of mine told me that he could not visually distinguish the difference between a Chinese, a Korean, and a Japanese person. I laughed and told him that sometimes I could not either, because our differences were not simply in our appearances, but in our minds and ideologies, which were influenced by the native culture we were born into. However, if our minds and ideologies are so heavily influenced by culture, what makes us different in the trend of globalization and acculturation? Are we slowly becoming the same? It is an intriguing question.
Prior to 2009, I was a resident of Chengdu, one of the most populated metropolises in Western China, where traditional Chinese quadrangle dwellings are preserved and conflated with contemporary urban fabric and lifestyle. Since then, I have been a student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and a traveler to cities around the world. This experience has given me opportunities to immerse myself in diverse cultures, discover landscapes and urban spaces that are unique to different social environments, and tackle how local residents interact with those spaces.
Social psychologist Harold M. Proshansky believes that the cultural identity of a place is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces. Sometimes cultural identity and landscape are so tightly bounded that it is hard to separate them, like gardens in Versailles, Central Park in New York City, or a random prairie plateau in Aberdeen, Scotland. These spaces are historical or unique mainly because of local natural characteristics. They establish a balance between nature and human cultural activities and provide people a sense of place and belonging. However, in the global trend of uniformity and homogeneousness, how can one ensure a newly proposed landscape design can achieve the same effect? How can urban landscape enhance regional cultural identity and provide a sense a place?
To me, any given land contains information that is both tangible and intangible. It is almost natural for us to study the tangible aspects — hydrology, topography, vegetation, land use, soil type, spatial organization, and circulation system — because they have a direct relationship to the visual and ecological outcomes of a project. However, the cultural identity of a place derives from the intangible parts in which a piece of landscape functions to provide a sense of belonging — local history, tradition, religion, festivals, public desire, and other demographic information.
I demonstrated my beliefs in my past works during my time at Purdue. Natural Water as Cultural Water, a research project I did during junior year, sought to find the balance between culture and nature along the Wabash River in Lafayette, Indiana, which is currently underappreciated because of flooding, vacancy and disconnection. The proposed solution is an embodiment of cultural representation and technology of stormwater management.
The inspiration for the design comes from the city’s history — the transportation instrument Native Americans originally used on the river, and the major agricultural product of the region: corn. The geometric structure of the canoe and the matrix of the corn seeds were taken, hybridized and re-conceptualized into revelatory units to construct concave and convex landforms. It reroutes and collects water and serves as a buffer between the river and the city during flooding seasons. The plan provides a refuge for wetland plants and animal species. With potential for spontaneous use and dynamic programing, the site can transform into a sustainable landscape infrastructure with a cultural identity that provides an active waterfront experience. The regional planning phase of the project won the Award of Excellence in Analysis and Planning in the American Society of Landscape Architects 2013 Student Awards.
Daniel received his Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture with a minor in Fine Arts from Purdue University in May 2015. He is currently working at Sasaki Associates in Boston.