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Next, he'll build a canyon

With a postmodern penchant for plastic flowers and a resume of urban park space, Ken Smith isn't the first landscape architect you'd think of to design the Orange County Great Park. But transformations are his calling.

February 09, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE first time he took his future wife, Priscilla, on a date, Ken Smith bicycled her to an abandoned sand and gravel quarry west of Des Moines.

"Terribly romantic," she recalled, straight of face.

"It was a wasteland," he acknowledged. "Most people would see it as a wasteland. Central Park was a wasteland, you know."

Even then, in 1983, he was envisioning the flooded old quarry as a park too -- if not quite another Central Park, at least as a place with fishing piers and boat docks around the scarred hole in the earth.

"I thought it kind of strange," she said, but so was he, the Iowa farm boy who was campaigning to preserve old barns as a staffer in the state conservation office, but who refused to view the long straight rows of Iowa corn with nostalgia. Like the quarry, the cornfields were "basically an industrialized landscape," he said.

"He certainly saw that differently," as wife Priscilla McGeehon summed it up 23 years later. "I gotta believe the roots of what you're doing now were there."

They were speculating about this in their TriBeCa loft on Ken Smith's first day home after the trip west that brought the news likely to change his life -- that his team had won the job of transforming the abandoned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine into a park bigger than Central Park with an ambitious name to match, the Orange County Great Park.

So which is more unlikely: That Orange County would have turned to a New York hipster to design its Great Park? Or that Smith would have morphed into that hipster from his upbringing on a one-cow farm?

The cow was named Bossy, and Smith can still recall how he'd call her in for milking, "Come, Bossy!" His other main chores were picking up the corn that his father's machine missed and tending the onions by carefully pushing soil away from the good ones. "I was proud of my onions," he said.

But there was not much future in family farming in the '50s and '60s, when Smith was growing up, and already his father had a side job as a mechanic, while his mom cleaned houses. The high school guidance counselor advised all the kids to go to college, the girls to study home economics, the boys engineering. His parents said the University of Iowa was too liberal. Iowa State was OK.

That's where he discovered Earth Days and landscape architecture classes in the agriculture school and, in the library, the writings of Robert Smithson, the pioneering earthworks artist, and Andy Warhol, whose idea of the natural was commercial ready-made stuff sold at the corner store. Years later, when New York's Museum of Modern Art was being remodeled and Smith was asked to design its roof garden, his first proposal was to create a field of plastic daisies -- cheap fake daisies that twirled in the wind.

His job with the conservation office in Iowa gave him an education in the practical needs of parks and recreation lands and how to create a picnic area, but Smith knew from Day One that he'd leave the home turf, to go to graduate school, for starters.

He was accepted at Harvard, where the landscape architecture department of the Graduate School of Design began in the 1800s as an extension of the Brookline office of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, in an era when it was applied mainly to the estates of the wealthy and grand spaces such as Central Park, which Olmsted co-designed. By the mid-20th century, the focus was more on large-scale housing and suburban development -- inspired by the post-WWII baby boom -- and by the 1980s the emphasis had evolved again, to landscape as art.

Traditional teaching about Central Park saw it as the antidote to the industrial city, an oasis of nature to mitigate urban ills. But when Smith moved to New York after finishing his graduate studies in 1986, he began reading Olmsted's writings and learned that the architect saw that public space in social terms, as one place in a diverse city where "people of different backgrounds came together."

With time, Smith saw the nation's best-known park in the tongue-twisting manner of a postmodernist -- as nature, perhaps, but not natural. "Yeah, it's all man-made. Most people don't see that. It's a brilliant work of art," he said.

Smith still could appreciate the functional side of Olmsted's creation, how different uses were on different grades, for instance, the carriage trails separated from the social promenades. But the common man sunning on the Great Lawn would have a hard time grasping Smith's reading of the place as, in essence, "a great emptiness in the heart of the city ... [where] each generation can find what it needs."

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