Landscape architect Annette Wilkus offers unique insights on fabric opportunities in urban design
By Frank Edgerton Martin
Over the last 20 years, Annette Wilkus, ASLA, has forged a new niche for landscape architects. Working with some of the world’s leading designers, she serves as an on-site design advocate and construction specialist for some of the most famous urban parks of the last generation. In a time when many designers know more about environmental art than how to detail a retaining wall, Wilkus works as a construction specialist who champions design integrity from schematic design to final installation. She serves as a bridge between owners and landscape architects who understands both bottom-line cost implications and the designer’s vision.
In prominent projects ranging from Teardrop Park to the new Yankee Stadium development and the recently completed first phase of the High Line (featured with comments from Wilkus in the July/August 2010 issue of Fabric Architecture), Wilkus serves as a designer’s advocate embedded in the owner’s management team. As such, she is in a unique position to work with industrial fabrics ranging from geotextiles to woven mesh for green walls and trellises.
For people who care about quality design, Wilkus’ role matters. All too often, elements of the site program or the quality of its construction are compromised in the design/build or construction manager process. Beyond design, landscape architects are often not at the table when budgetary and decisions are made. Since founding her firm SiteWorks Landscape Architecture in 2005, Wilkus has become one of New York City’s most recognized consultants for constructability, quality assurance and quality control. Her knowledge of construction helps other landscape architects to achieve a stronger set of construction documents by avoiding pitfalls otherwise unknown to those not able to spend time in the field or to study new products.
A unique perspective on urban construction
Wilkus acts as a translator between the bottom-line owners and contractors and the sophisticated designs of leading architects. With increasing specification options and solutions for hard surfaces, geofabrics and plant materials, projects are inherently more complex and prone to compromise. Yet, as in the tradition of early landscape architects, Wilkus is very hands-on. She is a landscape architect who sketches and resolves problems in the field and directly with fabricators, subcontractors and owners.
Wilkus explains how industrial fabrics played an important role in the erosion control and water filtering at the first phase of Teardrop Park, an immersive pocket of rock outcrops and overarching trees in the center of Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. Lead landscape architect, Michael van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., of Brooklyn, N.Y., relied on Wilkus to oversee the project as it progressed and to keep the budget in line during construction.
The sequencing of rock outcrops, artist rock pieces, brown water filtration as part of the irrigation system, utilities, children’s water spray play and four new adjacent buildings was critical to the success of the project. Recently SiteWorks was again hired to oversee the construction of Teardrop South, a continuation of the park across Murray Street in Battery Park City.
Wilkus is most familiar with slope and soil stabilization textiles. “These textiles,” she notes, “include geofibers—an inert product mixed into engineered soils to maintain steep slopes while plant material establishes.” She adds that Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates used them in Teardrop Park to achieve the steep slope at the west end of the toddler space. “They are also using them for Brooklyn Bridge Park to stabilize the slopes along the East River.”
In Manhattan’s Chelsea district, the recently opened High Line is one of the most celebrated urban landscape projects in a generation. Wilkus was involved with technical issues on the first phase of the High Line where she is now working with lead designer, Field Operations of New York City, N.Y., on the second phase extension. Wilkus notes that the designers specified X-Tend® Stainless Steel Cable Mesh for two uses: “The first was along the historic railings to meet code of 10cm hole openings and then, secondly, for the alcove seating area to allow vines to crawl up.” The High Line is already generating an extraordinary boom in development in its vicinity; the design team envisioned the green screen as a means soften future buildings along this segment.
“One thing to remember while designing a green screen,” she advises, “is to carefully consider the openings between the wires. To get an even, full growth, the openings can’t be too far apart or you’ll end up with nongreen spaces. This may be a design feature to some, but I’ve noticed many landscape architects don’t think of this.”
Urban opportunities for textiles
When asked about new textile products that would be useful in her urban practice, Wilkus responds, “Green roofs are very ‘in’ now—which they should be—but what many people don’t realize that the soil is a heavy element of the roof system. Many buildings are simply not designed to accept this additional weight.” Her statement is particularly applicable to the old warehouses, tenements and loft buildings that comprise so much of the urban fabric of lower Manhattan. Yet, fabric technology can offer new options. “If a simple installation of a light colored or patterned textile could be added to this type of roof, the heat island effect could really be reduced in cities.”
Indeed, recently, the The New York Times ran an article that Wilkus mentions about the promise of light-colored roofs. “Many cities across the country are now requiring new construction to have green roofs to reduce the heat island effect. Chicago was the first city to make such a law and they have been extremely successful in making that happen and now New York has a similar law.”
But the fine-grained, older buildings of New York City pose challenges not found in the newer cities of the Midwest and West. “What is missing are the older buildings or simply residential buildings that can’t afford the weight or cost of improving their roof, a fabric would be ideal for this use. Of course a method to secure the fabric would be essential to avoid other problems.”
Is it possible for the fabric industry to consider new systems of fasteners and light roof panels that could be used for a few years and then recycled? Are there other options for lightweight, light-tone roofs that might serve as solar collectors? Wilkus’s urban work poses such questions to the industry. She also argues that, beyond the geotextiles she uses often, landscape architects don’t “have many products to use in public spaces.”
She mentions as an example, Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s West Side. This new and expanding project “has used fabric canopies to create shade, which is wonderful, but not many places are able to utilize this type of product. I think it’s important to educate landscape architects more about the use of fabrics in the landscape.” If developed with more flexible modularity, canopy product lines “could create innovative and interesting spaces for people to enjoy. Using fabrics as screens could really add to a space and help with wind issues if needed.”
Indeed, for a city of building canyons, river corridors and winter gales, designers and product suppliers more accustomed to moderate climates can often ignore wind effects. This gap is an opportunity for the fabric industry and its allies to brainstorm with urban landscape architects about new product combinations and potential customization. By thinking of product types ranging from mesh to fabric to lighting as integrated systems for comfort and sustainability, the industry can find new uses for product already on the shelf. When designed together, planting, screening, shading and wind-control strategies can shape public spaces that are welcoming, verdant and interesting in all four seasons.
In an age of mass-produced elements, Wilkus helps landscape architects and their clients to achieve a “sense of place” by crafting practical solutions that are unique to that locale. Her solutions for green screens, soil design, erosion control, irrigation and lighting offer reliability and ease of maintenance using local plantings and handcrafted materials. She is also at the forefront of lauded projects that showcase new solutions and new product needs. Being a specialized translator between designers and builders is a new niche for landscape architects, yet also an old part of the profession’s roots in construction administration, art and horticulture when designers regularly went to the nursery to “tag” trees and then out into the landscape land to site them and supervise their planting.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture magazine and frequently writes about landscape design, planning and design issues for national design journals.
See FA’s profile on the High Line in the July/August 2010 issue.
For more information on light roofs along with the designers and projects mentioned above, see:
“White Roofs Catch on as Energy Cost Cutters,” Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, July 29, 2009.