The Ford Foundation – where modern corporate greenery began 50 years ago,

and Celebrating the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) 50 years

I am indebted to my good friend, Boston landscape architect Nelson Hammer ASLA, for my introduction to The Ford Foundation building in New York, “the first permanent large-scale interior landscape installed in a commercial building in the United States, and serves as a landmark in the field.”

Nelson was fortunate in his early career to work in the Office of Dan Kiley, who designed the landscaped atrium in the 1967 building by Kevin Roche-John Dinkeloo and Associates.

Dan Kiley (1912-2004) was one of the most important and visionary Modernist landscape architects, acclaimed for more than 1,000 designs worldwide.

In 1995 I was privileged to visit this iconic indoor garden at the invitation of John Mini, renowned interior landscape specialist, whose company John Mini Indoor Landscapes, Inc., was about to undertake an upgrade and refurbishment of the landscape, while adhering to the original design concepts.

Although I have been involved with most aspects of plants in buildings for more than 30 years, this visit literally brought to life for me, the future direction and possibilities for large-scale corporate greenery .

Nelson, in his definitive book Interior Landscape Design (McGraw Hill 1991), describes the Garden of The Ford Foundation Building “ the building was built to house the 400 employees headquarters staff of the Ford Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organisations in the world, in a square, 12 storey structure. The 12 floors of offices form an L around the 24.4 m2 garden, whose atrium extends the entire 12 floors (47.5m) to the skylit roof.”

Noted New York architect Jonathan Marvel FAIA, founding principal of Marvel Architects, on the Architecture, in an interview with Paul Makovsky

“Architects today are as much involved in designing the environment within which their buildings fit as they are the buildings themselves. There’s a real dialogue between architecture and landscape, when the two disciplines were once completely separate. That’s exactly what interests me about this building. Because of its tiny footprint, it sits on the ground delicately. Many of the programmatic parts of the building actually float over either the garden or the walkways. You feel the entire building is a landscape. The offices feel like part of the garden. From the cafeteria, you feel part of the roofscape, and the fact that the president’s office literally floats above a curtain wall of glass without any space below it is just wonderful. When you’re inside the garden and look up, you see four red-granite columns rising up like the trunks in a redwood forest, with the Cor-Ten steel and the glass branches coming off of the trunks. It’s like a tree house.

The forerunner of today’s green buildings

“The building is one of the first green buildings in New York. It was designed in the sixties, when we were thinking of alternative lifestyles, like living on houseboats or in geodesic domes, and alternative practices that were getting close to issues of sustainability that we’re incorporating in our buildings and landscapes today. To have this kind of building take on a corporate character is a reminder of how early it tries to deal with issues like passive solar ­energy—with the whole south wall of glass, the collection of rain­water on the roofs that then create a pond and irrigate the garden, and the borrowing of natural light for the interior spaces so you don’t have to turn on electric lights. All these issues were clearly there as a model for how to build in the twentieth century.” (now the 21st century).

Buildings and interior landscape

As corporate greenery increasingly becomes an essential part of building design, more focused than ever on the health, wellness, and productivity of building occupants, there are many lessons to be learned from that early experimental approach to incorporating building and landscape, and a whole new direction for landscape architects.

Upgrade to a heritage building

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) have approved upgrade plans by leading New York Architects Gensler, that are mainly focused on bringing the building up to code. A key part of the upgrade is a complete reworking of the atrium plantings by Raymond Jungles Studio. to reflect what has been learned over the past 50 years of interior plantscape in commercial buildings. The renovation is expected to be complete by 2019.

It is to be hoped that some of the present day skyscrapers will repeat the success of The Ford Foundation building and its internal atrium gardens, to be refurbished in 50 years time. This can be achieved with cooperation between architects and landscape architects, with the lessons learned from The Ford Foundation 50 year experiment.

Ronald A Wood, Interior landscape specialist

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