On Plastic Plants

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

(photos: Quincy Court by Scott Shigley, MoMA Rooftop by Peter Mauss/ESTO)

There is a lot to like about Chicago’s Quincy Court, an alley turned public space outside the Mies van der Rohe-designed Dirksen Federal Building that opened this summer. The General Services Administration (GSA) initiated the project to help beef up security around the federal campus, and they can certainly be praised for hiring a design firm to reimagine the space, in this case Rios Clementi Hale of Los Angeles, instead of just bolting a bunch of bollards into the ground. And while the design has a certain whimsy, which may appeal to some, we’re having a hard time getting over the giant plastic palms.

According to the press release the “sculptural grove” mediates between the monumentality of federal campus and the smaller scale of State Street. The seating and tables are nicely detailed and the project’s Pop sensibility is sure to change the way people think about this alley way.

But in this age of ecological crisis, and in a city that has made sustainability one of its hallmarks and has worked hard to green the Loop, the plastic palms seem like the wrong message for the GSA to send. Real deciduous trees, after all, provide shade in the hot summer and loose their leaves in the fall when sun is welcome. Ken Smith’s artificial rooftop garden at MoMA, which boasts fake rocks, plastic plants, and few environmental benefits, seems like a similar missed opportunity, a one liner that provides intriguing views for neighbors but does little to improve the hardscape environment of midtown Manhattan.

Are we being too rigid in our thinking? Should we loosen up and go shopping for some silk flowers?

3 Responses to “On Plastic Plants”

  1. R says:

    Missing from the photographs is the McDonalds on the corner of the alley and State Street. The chintzy palm trees, which look insanely out of place in downtown Chicago and suspect only more so in winter, serve no other purpose than as an outdoor dining area for consuming Big Macs and fries (as confirmed by several walk throughs this week). I shiver when looking east through the open lobby of the van der Rohe courthouse and see those fake green glass trees. How did this happen?

  2. AS says:

    I believe they are representing leaves from the Honey Locust tree, not palm fronds.

  3. poster says:

    Mies created the open glass lobby in the Dirksen to create a visual linkage between the commercial retail function of State St and the new government center. I would think McDonalds is exactly the right element here, as is the cheery clutter of the palm trees. They act as a foil to the serious serenity of the Federal Center Plaza on the other side. That relationship of opposites joined is what makes it all work as an urban environment.

    The palm trees are certainly far better than the post 9-11 granite bollards that now barricade the Federal Center Plaza, those unfortunate features which destroy the free flow of open space that the architect intended.

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