In November 2016 the profession of landscape architecture has lost one of its leading personalities. Diana Balmori was born in Spain, grew up in Argentina and emigrated to the United States in 1952 with her husband, architect César Pelli. Although not trained as a landscape architect, she explored the field between architecture, landscape architecture and urban design from the beginning of her research for a PhD in urban history at UCLA in 1973, and in her professional practice. In 1980 she created a landscape department in César Pelli’s architecture firm in New Haven and later, in 1990, set up her own professional practice, Balmori Associates, in New York.
In a time when “landscape design had been thought of as beautifying a site rather than something fundamental” (Barry Bergdoll, Columbia University), and when perhaps the profession itself was quite comfortable with that role, Diana Balmori strengthened the importance of the discipline by teaching and practicing the equal collaboration of architects and landscape architects, often anticipating ecological and social engagement of the designers.
Balmori was interested in projects of all scales. While she never really related to the concept of “landscape urbanism”, one of her main projects was the new administrative capital Sejong City, which William Grimes in the New York Times described as “South Korea’s version of Brasília”. It is a prominent example of her approach: developing formal conceptual structures out of the surrounding landscape and designing the city as an artificial environment, emphasizing the “fifth facade” with public parks on the rooftops of buildings, which was one of the keynote themes of Balmori’s work.
“Landscape can be like poetry, highly suggestive, and open to multiple interpretations”
Besides ecological, social and formal design issues, a fundamental aspect of Balmori’s understanding of landscape architecture was a close relationship with the arts: “Landscape can be like poetry, highly suggestive, and open to multiple interpretations”, she wrote in her Landscape Manifesto #24. In collaboration with Nancy Hold, she realized Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island” in 2005 – the year when land art was celebrating triumph in New York with Christo and Jeanne Claude’s “The Gates” in Central Park.
I remember intense discussions with Diana about the role of landscape design after my lecture at Yale University on the memorial project at the former women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück in 2001, and later meetings in her Soho office. She was worried about landscape architecture becoming more and more descriptive of processes and obsessed with the representation of schemes rather than searching innovative formal and spatial solutions. Worried she was, but always optimistic and with a positive mood.
In 2009 the Utne Reader considered her one of the 50 “Visionaries who are changing the world, as her range of work and imagination seemed limitless”.
Her worldwide lectures and, in particular, her teaching at Yale University, has influenced generations of urban designers and landscape architects, as did her writings, including Redesigning the American Lawn (1993) and Groundwork (2011). A Landscape Manifesto (2010) may be her legacy, but we will surely miss her unique personality, her illuminated curiosity and openness towards finding new approaches and ways in landscape design.
On the www.balmori.com website former collaborators and colleagues are keeping the memory of Diana Balmori alive.