Wall Flowers, 2005

Ken Smith Landscape Architect

Location: New York, New York
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Ken Smith is a camoufleur—he uses splashes of color, foliage, earth, grass, artificial rocks and plants, and water to disguise and conceal. He can make a blank wall into a field of daisies, a railyard into a picnic grove, and a blacktop roof into a fanciful garden. A landscape architect of urban areas, Smith is convinced that “creating livable, renewable, and inspiring urban areas is one of the best ways to limit sprawl and the waste of natural resources.”

When Smith was asked to design a rooftop garden at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the design considerations read like a laundry list of disallowances: no irrigation, no structural attachments, no live plants, no heavy planters, maintenance-free, low-budget; he also had to incorporate black and white stones that the museum had already purchased. Moreover, the garden was to be physically and visually inaccessible to the museum public; only people in surrounding buildings could see the garden due to its location. After several designs, the museum settled on a scheme that started from a skateboarder’s camouflage pants, and followed with a palette of mostly natural or recycled materials, including recycled black rubber, crushed glass, sculptural stones, and artificial boxwood plants. Finished in 2005, the result is a cross between a Japanese Zen garden and a Jean Arp relief sculpture.

According to Smith, “Landscape architecture has always been about making synthetic nature.” Central Park, once a rocky, swampy, and muddy site transformed into a vast green urban oasis, is as much about artifice as Smith’s synthetic plants and pinwheels. But the whimsy and joy of the compositions Smith creates with his 99- cent store discoveries have the same effect as a “day at the park.” For example, his installation at the Cornerstone Café, part of the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in Sonoma, California, is a colorful spray of artificial flowers and ferns that sprouts from the wall. The installation is Smith’s contemporary version of flowered wallpaper— three-dimensional camouflage which conceals an imperfect wall. Called Wall Flowers, it is intended to both blend in and stand out.

Currently on the boards for Smith is the thirteen-acre Santa Fe Railyard Park. Part of a large urban-redevelopment area, the design is based on water harvesting to create a community park that requires little or no municipal water. It will include an open field, rail gardens, performance terrace, and picnic grove. It fits Smith’s modus operandi perfectly: the chance to do a lot with a little.