Memory in Post-Industrial Landscapes

Both Battery Park City (top) and the Central Delaware Riverfront Master Plan (bottom) were projects in which OLIN fused memories of the past with new purpose for the future.

Both Battery Park City (top) and the Central Delaware Riverfront Master Plan (bottom) were projects in which OLIN fused memories of the past with new purpose for the future.

Artist Robert Smithson said that the best sites for earth art are those that have been disrupted by “industry, reckless urbanization, or nature’s own devastation.” Such places are certainly not unfamiliar to landscape architects. We have a unique responsibility to understand, honor and influence the memories associated with the public spaces we craft. Beyond recalling the past, landscapes can also be designed with the intent of creating new memories for future generations. OLIN explored this concept of memory in a recent installment of the studio’s in-house Theoretical Basis symposium, which concentrated on OLIN projects undertaken on post-industrial sites. 


Left: Battery Park City was a blank slate before OLIN’s work. Right: The design of site features at Battery Park City, such as the railings and light fixtures, was informed by furnishings found in other beloved New York parks.

Battery Park City was created when excess soil from the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1970s was deposited between piers along the Hudson River, creating an entirely new landmass in Lower Manhattan. The site was a tabula rasa, or blank slate, when OLIN began the project, without a history to reference. To counter this, OLIN looked to New York City, which offered a quintessential aesthetic that the design team incorporated into the plan. Features in other parks around the city such as benches, railings, light fixtures, and paving stones formed a language that was characteristic of New York; these items ultimately informed the design guidelines. Furthermore, Battery Park City’s west and southwest orientation made it a prime location for views of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River waterfront. OLIN’s approach was to capture and frame those views, thus infusing Battery Park City with a character defined by its relationship with these iconic historic sites. By harnessing memory in these ways, OLIN was able to create a place that feels as though it has always been a part of New York.


Top: As a member of the team for the Central Delaware Riverfront Master Plan, OLIN identified both degraded and in-tact piers that could be repurposed. Bottom: A wetland park can be supported atop the infrastructure created by derelict piers and sunken ships.

Contrary to the existing conditions (or lack thereof) of Battery Park City, Philadelphia’s Central Delaware Riverfront is a place where memories are deeply connected to the site and its many artifacts. An eclectic mix of degraded and in-tact piers, partially sunken ships, and defunct industrial sites populate the six-mile stretch of urban waterfront. But rather than viewing these elements as relics to be eliminated, the design team sought to use them in new ways. The derelict piers and submerged ships had transformed over the years into habitat for aquatic and avian species, and in the master plan, these became the infrastructure for new wetland parks. The stable piers are envisioned as additional public space along the water, with views of both the river shoreline and Center City Philadelphia. A decommissioned coal-burning power plant is also re-imagined as a performance venue and anchor for one of the parks that line the waterfront. With these strategies, the artifacts of the Central Delaware Riverfront will take on new lives for the future while serving as reminders of the site’s industrial past.

OLIN has encountered a vast array of existing site conditions over 30 years of practice. Each site has its own circumstances of history, culture, context, and physical form, and each of these aspects needs to be considered by landscape architects in order to design public spaces to which people feel connected. This is the enduring challenge and opportunity of our profession—to simultaneously reference the past and envision a new future.


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