By John King, The San Francisco Chronicle, November 2015
Monday morning I savored the last of the season’s first rain while walking through a grove of lacy birch trees, the white bark peeling from thin, tight trunks and the delicate leaves rustled by each hint of wind.
The journey was all the more vivid because of where I happened to be: not in some forested glen, but a tiered plaza between two squat office buildings at the base of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. This patch of symbolic nature was planted in 2002 and now has a transportive power — a power due in large part to the passage of time, the element that sets landscape architecture apart from other fields of design.
In our world that craves quick-draw drama, the most rewarding urban spaces can take years to show their stuff.
“It’s starting to really accomplish what we wanted,” said Marta Fry, the landscape architect who conceived the grove and its underbed of ferns. “I was happy from the start, but it’s getting richer and more organic with time.”
Fry opened her firm in the city in 1990 — long enough ago that she’s seen some of her spaces blossom and others wither, or be altered in ways that she could not control. Her linear park along Mission Creek, for instance, originally included poplar trees to screen the then-empty building sites behind them. The sites now are full and those trees now are gone, sacrificed to condo owners who wanted better views of the water.
Incidents like this are par for the course in landscape architecture. Unlike buildings, designed to look their best on opening day, parks, plazas and planted spaces debut with the promise of something better yet to come. After the trees spread out and the shrubs settle in, the larger intentions emerge.
Works in progress
They’re works in progress — and at the mercy of everything from sloppy maintenance to a caretaker’s whim. Trees might be deemed intrusive, growing too fast, or be pulled out because they seem to be growing too slowly. The original client might like a subtle collage of vegetated shades; the next owner might opt for splashes of annual color.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” said Peter Walker, a celebrated Berkeley landscape architect whose career extends from Sidney Walton Park in San Francisco’s Golden Gateway district to the National September 11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan — a career long enough to see treasured spaces marred by something as simple as inept pruning. “Everyone knows about the landscape, right? Everyone has a backyard.”
But with time, when a farsighted vision is groomed and nurtured with care, the rewards can be ongoing and deep.
“When you get something that is well maintained, it can be extraordinary,” Walker said. “There’s no time when landscapes stop changing.”
The birch-filled passage through 350 Rhode Island demonstrates this, and how a strong simple landscape can get better with time.
Using the slope
The complex fills the block bordered by Rhode Island, Kansas, 16th and 17th streets. The buildings are entered through the angled courtyard that extends from Rhode Island to Kansas; each side is four stories, but the change in elevation means that the uphill side is a full level above its twin.
Fry responded by exploiting the sense of sloped confinement. Rows of birch begin at the sidewalk and march into the center, brushing against the metal bridges between the buildings and engulfing the long ramp that allows wheelchairs to navigate the eastern half of the space. Each side includes an open court for seating, with slate paving and wide stone walls.
When the trees were planted, they were about 10 feet tall, Fry recalled. Now they’re more than twice that, lanky counterparts to the concrete walls and horizontal metal screens of the complex designed by Pfau Long Architecture for developer SKS Investments.
“The idea was to conjure up a forest, a forest from which the passageways are carved out,” Fry said Monday. And given the dimensions of the long, deep plaza, not just any forest: “The way birches grow, we figured if we planted them dense, they’d stretch up to the light.”
Vision goes unrealized
That’s how they’ve behaved — which is not always the case. Think of Market Street’s gaunt stagger of London plane trees, intended to be a ceremonial green band that would unify the boulevard’s long, disparate blocks. But the winds were harsh and the initial planting conditions were poor; reality never matched the early visions, and now there’s talk of replacing the trees with something else.
Visiting 350 Rhode Island for the first time in more than a year, Fry saw plenty to quibble with. Ferns were spotty in some areas and overgrown in others; one seating area was empty except for a faux-historic bench or two. Overall, though, she liked what she saw.
“Landscapes are so vulnerable,” Fry said. “We can design them and install them, but then we leave them behind.”