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Ken Smith’s fabric WallFlowers bloom in New York

Exteriors, Features | July 1, 2010 | By:

Draped over the elegant façade of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Ken Smith’s temporary city garden grows with some surprising fabrics.

Ken Smith is known for challenging old assumptions about landscape architecture. In his adopted hometown of New York, he makes gardens that are vertical, roof gardens without living plants and “WallFlowers” installations planted on scrims of bright orange construction fencing. This sort of appropriation of industrial materials and objects for artistic purposes has been going on in the art world since at least the age of Dada. But in the aesthetically conservative and ecologically-based profession of landscape architecture, industrial materials such as geo-textiles are meant to be used—and not seen.

Smith is not afraid of the artificial, a point made by a new monograph of recent work, which I helped to edit. In talking with Ken about the monograph’s projects, he explained how cities like New York require a different way of thinking, where horizontal space is severely limited and vertical walls are everywhere. So why not go up? Why not make terraced metal mesh planters as he did for an office project near Columbus Circle, or clinging vine walls as he recently installed in a community garden in Queens? Why not make a temporary garden of nonliving “WallFlowers” at scales ranging from a hotel room in Midtown to the entire façade of one of New York’s most elegant Fifth Avenue mansions?

As part of the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2006 Design Triennial, Smith designed a large-scale outdoor version of WallFlowers for its 91st Street façade. The construction fencing plays the traditional role of a trellis. For the Triennial installation at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smith’s team hand cut overscaled synthetic flowers from varieties of bright erosion control fabrics (see materials list below) and sewed them onto the scrim. Yet their placement is anything but random. “These installations explore my interest in the cultural simulation of nature as an art form,” Smith explains.

Whether in an art gallery or on a large building, Smith maintains that every “installation of WallFlowers is different. WallFlowers are organized on an invisible grid; and the exact flower placement and flower choice is subject to a specified installation process.” The team chose the cutout flowers randomly and placed them on the fencing in one of nine possible positions until all positions were filled. They then continued this process until every grid space on the building-scale scrim was filled.

But why an orange construction fence? Smith answers that, with “its diamond mesh pattern, this bright and temporary construction material contrasted with the formality and crafted masonry of the building.” It makes sense that in a city with four distinct seasons, contrasts in color and texture are part of the cycle of time. So why not introduce the brightest colors possible on a formal mansion? In a city like New York, flowers, even those made of geotextiles, can seem alive when they bloom for only a season. They can show how, just for a summer, the most staid Fifth Avenue mansion can become a garden in itself.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture specializing in landscape design and planning. His report on the Morgan Station Post Office green roof appeared in the May/June issue.

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