Other Natures
Reimagine Central Park 

Competition Entry
Teamwork with Zihao Zhang
Year: 2018 Fall
Location: New York, NY

American technological historian David Nye articulated three interlocking narratives that underpin today’s American culture and life: 1) second-creation: early colonists using technology to transform “nature” based on pastoral ideal; 2) wilderness myth: preserving “pristine nature” as a baseline to measure the success of second creation; 3) recovery: adopting “green” technologies to recover “nature” and undo the wrongdoings in the second creation. The interlocking narratives form a moral stronghold that is difficult to argue against. On the other side are stories of Indians, failed farmers, extinct species, and many other suppressed counter-narratives, which are sporadic and local, hard to enter mainstream perspectives.

Given the current condition in Central Park, we see a chance to reshape American narratives of nature. If the old central park served as a repository of colonists’ nature, then the new one should be repositories of multiple natures of America. We reject reducing nature to a singular grand narrative and argue for multiple meanings and heterogeneous conceptualizations.

To serve as the repositories of natures, the proposal is a system of division and allocation. Built on the existing grid of Manhattan, which also represents a particular view of nature, the park is divided into garden plots that can be edited over time. Different relevant social groups can propose, construct and maintain gardens of nature. A committee made of representatives from each group negotiates and decides collectively the allocation and maintenance regime of each garden. The process of constructing natures is democratized. The performance of negotiation and deliberation of the committee politicizes the design of natures, bringing topics such as environmental justice, ecological integrity, and social construction of nature into the political and social realm, generating new meanings and values in today’s American society.

The gridded division is only conceptual so that one nature will permeate into adjacent ones and influence other natures though geological, hydrological and ecological processes. While some boundaries are clear due to the intense maintenance of certain groups, other boundaries are ambiguous. Over time, multiple natures of America can co-evolve, and new natures will emerge out of the hybridization process. Through continuous working and reworking, American natures are constructed and reconstructed.

Competition Brief: 

LA+ ICONOCLAST asks you to redesign New York’s Central Park, which has been fictionally devastated by eco-terrorists. Here’s the brief:

Central Park is arguably the canonical work of modern landscape architecture. Its aesthetic and socio-political ideals of health, beauty and democracy underpin the profession of landscape architecture, which Olmsted first named, to this day. Writing of the park in 1973, the artist Robert Smithson claimed that Olmsted “combined both art and reclamation in Central Park in a way that is truly in advance of his times.” But what would Olmsted do today? What will you do?

This competition asks that you redesign Central Park, starting, as Olmsted and Calvert Vaux did, from scratch. In doing so this competition seeks to explore the following questions: 1) If in parks, no matter how faux or superficial, we manifest a collective aesthetic expression of our relationship with the “natural” world, then what, on the occasion of nature’s disappearance, is the aesthetic of that relationship today? 2) What is the role of a large urban park today? 3) How might issues of aesthetics on the one hand and performance on the other coalesce into what Olmsted described as “a single work of art”? 4) Given the extraordinary history of the Central Park site, the competition asks how the new interprets the old, and how together, the new and the old anticipate the future.