Corner, 49, grew up near Manchester, England, and came to this country for a master's degree in urban design from the University of Pennsylvania. He stayed on at Penn to teach and write, founding Field Operations in 1998. Though he dresses better than a typical academic, he retains an eager, professorial interest in explaining the theories that underpin his designs. His charisma is the dogged kind.
But it's the appeal and popularity of the firm's recent work that has become its chief calling card. The High Line, where Field Operations led a design team that included the architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and the garden designer Piet Oudolf, is the most transformative piece of urban design to open in any American city in at least a decade. (Its second section, running from 20th Street north to 30th and doubling the park's length to a mile, opened in June.) It offers an elevated oasis from the city streets below, a superbly choreographed experience leading visitors from open spaces with broad skyline and river views to more intimate pockets and back again. The park has also been a powerful magnet for new construction, creating an estimated $2-billion in economic development in the immediate vicinity, a burst of architectural activity that includes buildings by Jean Nouvel and Neil Denari and a forthcoming home for the Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano.
It would be absurd, though, to think that some magical High Line formula might apply in Santa Monica. Field Operations is the rare landscape architecture firm that has earned a reputation for seeking out public input on its work without sacrificing its high-design credibility. But the public-engagement process in Santa Monica is unusually, well, comprehensive — capable of exhausting even the most creative and civic-minded designer.
Corner told me that his philosophy for drawing out public opinion was straightforward: "You always set up a process that is led by design. We don't say to people, 'What would you like?' We put a design on the table and ask them what they like about the design."
In this case the firm put several designs on the table. After winning a high-powered design competition last year that also featured Frank Gehry and landscape architect Peter Walker, Field Operations spent the spring and summer in a series of workshops with local residents and by October had released three separate proposals. More community meetings — Corner estimates he has made a dozen trips to Santa Monica altogether — helped shape a final version blending elements from each of the initial concepts.
Over time Corner has added locals to the design team, including architect Frederick Fisher and horticulturist John Greenlee. The Chicago-based artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle is working on a piece for the park.
The design that has emerged is in some ways a return to the sinuous forms of the firm's earliest work. It will carve the 6-acre site into a series of undulating paths, remaking the topography to offer views from the high points and more intimate sections in man-made valleys. A main path will arc from the northwest corner of the park, closest to the pier, to the center of its eastern edge, facing City Hall. A network of smaller walkways will branch off, like the veins of a leaf, from the central one.
Corner settled on the arroyo as a central concept for all three preliminary designs, and that idea — the park organized around a dry creek bed, or wash, marked by the largest path — remains the heart of the current scheme. But atop that foundation, which risks edging into cliché about the character of the Southern California landscape, Corner and his collaborators thankfully have laid a dense thicket of trees, plants and gathering spaces and relied on crisply modern, nostalgia-free forms. There will be slides and hilltop forts for kids; even the bathroom building, designed by Fisher, will be a design attraction. Sunk into the side of a hill, it will be topped by a path, its entrance framed by colorful flowers. Fisher calls it a "nonbuilding."
Throughout the park, the shifting topography will create a series of sloping meadows draped in native grasses and wildflowers. Along with the replanted ficuses, the trees will include sycamores, oaks, olives, pines, palms and figs.
"We're trying to make something that horticulturally is pretty high quality," Corner said. "Most parks are designed now to be super low-maintenance, so you get a very limited number of species and a pretty boring organization. What we have in mind is really a garden. It's that more than anything else that we're hoping will be the attraction — that the reason to step away from the beach or the pier or come out of the mall is to come into a place that's shady and offers a beautiful sequence of gardens."