Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s firm is based in New York City and his work spans throughout the globe, but Chicago has managed to capture a part of his heart—and he, in turn, has left his own lasting mark on the city.
by Jessica Cilella, Web Editor
In the 1970s, Michael studied architecture in downstate Illinois and made frequent trips to Chicago, where he would later design some of the city’s most recognizable and treasured public spaces, including Maggie Daley Park and the 606. His love of cities and the energy of urban living—coupled with lessons from his childhood on a dairy farm in rural New York—drove him to start his own firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), in 1982.
As a registered landscape architect in more than 25 states and Canada, Michael’s notable work includes Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, the restored Harvard Yard at Harvard University and many other award-winning parks, courtyards and gardens.
In January 2017, Michael’s firm made headlines when it was selected to design the landscape for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park. At the time, Michael said he wants to create an accessible, inspirational and joyful design that honors the park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.
What do you enjoy about working in Chicago?
Working in Chicago really brings me back to my roots as a designer and as a person who thinks about cities. As a 1970s grad of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I visited Chicago quite a bit. Now, through my work here, I enjoy comparing my early experiences and impressions with the city that Chicago has grown into today. Things that interested me then—particularly parks and the lake edge—continue to evolve in interesting ways and I’m very proud to be a part of that, but also to see Chicago getting more park-oriented.
What is your vision for the landscape of the Obama Presidential Center?
I am unable to comment on the Obama Presidential Center except to say it's an honor to work on the project with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
What inspired your designs for The 606 and Maggie Daley Park?
I’m going to speak in the royal “we” here, since projects like these are always the work of many minds. MVVA’s design for Maggie Daley Park was meant as a complement to the wonderful Millennium Park and as a destination that would draw people across what used to be called the “bridge to nowhere.” We wanted the park to have a series of welcoming spaces and a range of activities that invite Chicagoans and their families to relax and play in all seasons of the year. Even working on top of the roof of a parking garage, we sought to add topographic variety, spatial complexity and a gentle sense of curvature. In our earliest work with then Mayor [Richard M.] Daley, he had us study a land bridge link to the lake edge. It’s a big project, but one that should stay in the imaginations of those thinking about the city’s future. We still love the idea so much that the study model—which is massive—hangs in our arrival foyer at the Brooklyn office.
The 606 was a very different opportunity, led by MVVA principal Matt Urbanski. The amazing connectivity and seeing the city from this elevated prospect were both exciting conditions, but we thought it was very important that it also touch down several times and tether to the neighborhoods along its length. That’s why the mini access parks were so important and also the planting, which you can see from down below. The planting helps invite you up on to the trail, even if you are not planning on a long jog or bike ride. We are also very proud to have worked with The Trust for Public Land to make this new park a reality. It was a great example of non-government organization stepping in to help expand Chicago’s park system.
Why do you like taking on projects like Bennett Park?
Bennett Park, located in Streeterville, is especially appealing because of its smaller scale. The pleasure is making a public space that is more about the needs of a neighborhood than the needs of a big city. Play is a massive focus of the design, but we have also created a central lawn with land form and trees all around the sides, with a single special tree near the center. It’s the peaceful ying to the exuberant yang of the play areas!
What is Chicago’s biggest built environment challenge?
I do not really know Chicago’s environmental challenges inside and out, but I do admire what the city has done with green roofs to reduce heat island effect, and also the efforts to revive the Chicago River. But I see a tremendous opportunity that you have in your fabulous park system, as a kind of positive challenge—to take the park land that so marvelously threads throughout the city, and set it up to make it the perfect framework for increasing and also improving environmental health—for “us” and for other species. The parks of Chicago could be redeveloped as more of an environmental asset than what currently exists. The big challenge, of course, would be securing the funding to make this happen and to fund adequate maintenance. One possibility might be for private philanthropy to step up and help, which we have seen in cities such as Tulsa, St. Louis, Houston, New York and Boston.
What project have you enjoyed working on most during your career thus far?
Parents love all of their children and the same is true for my work, but since it flashed as the answer and you are asking me to choose, it is Teardrop Park in Lower Manhattan. The design happened at a very important moment in the trajectory of my career and that of the office and the people who were our clients from Battery Park City Authority were totally inspiring to work for. Without telling us how to do our work, they knew how to draw out our best ideas and how to exact what they wanted out of the project. A landscape is a living thing—and I do not mean metaphorically alive, I mean truly alive—so a designed landscape sets in motion a life force that needs nurturing at all stages, and Teardrop has been nurtured and allowed to mature amazingly well.
What is the one project type you have not worked on yet but would like to design?
I want to design a cemetery! Mount Auburn Cemetery (which in part inspired Olmsted’s design for Central Park) meets the 21st century.
What’s your favorite Chicago building?
I’ll answer that if you’ll allow me to toss in my favorite landscape! For me it’s Unity Temple—as a 21-year-old trekking across the country on a grant to visit every built work of Dan Kiley, I expanded my mission to also immerse myself in a bundle of work by Frank Lloyd Wright. The houses are great but I was in heaven when I saw Unity Temple for the first time—the concrete, simplicity, the space, the silence of it. Another favorite is OMA’s campus center at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). My favorite Chicago landscapes? Dan Kiley’s public garden along Michigan Avenue at the Art Institute of Chicago and then the blunt sea walls of Promontory Point along Lake Michigan by the landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, a giant who deserves broader recognition.
If you could collaborate with any historic Chicago architect, who would it be and why?
I immediately thought of Daniel Burnham here. An underdog from the get-go, Burnham was constantly pushing himself and others to strive for better. He had an uncanny ability to steer ego-filled ships with such humility and conviction that he was able to achieve his larger vision and allow it to be energized by the ambitions of others. As long as I am getting to travel in time, I should say that I also would love to see myself collaborating as part of the Olmsted team working on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. I wish I could have been there to see what it was like as Olmsted and Burnham navigated around one another. Perhaps I would be a young beginner learning from Olmsted, who formed an incredible park system on the South Side (which is on my mind these days because it needs a huge cash infusion and an overlay that not only reinvigorates it but charts a stewardship plan for the future). I’d also like to collaborate with Jeanne Gang at some later date. She’s not historic yet, but I think she’s already made a lasting impact.
If you were not an architect, what would you be?
I have never wished to do something different. I feel incredibly lucky that I found landscape architecture or that it found me. I had a great grandfather who sold bare root fruit trees across upstate New York where I grew up, so maybe if I wasn’t a landscape architect I would be doing that instead. Or I remember an absorbing sense of joy as a kid when I visited heated greenhouses in the winters of my very cold and snowy childhood, so I guess that working in that environment might have been another possibility.
Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright?
Love them both. Maybe “Mies van Wright”? This brings back fond memories of my very good friend Peter Schaudt, who knew the work of these two better than me and helped implement our co-authored master plan for IIT. It was at IIT where we really basked in the shadow of Mies, so I definitely feel drawn to his work. But I’m also smitten with Wright, so I guess I can’t choose. Thinking back to your collaboration question, I should add that I have a hunch that they both are a form of hell for a landscape architect to work with, which more than a few architects have been in my life… how is that for an ending?