Manayunk’s Andropogon weaves nature and people
Across Manayunk and Roxborough, a surprisingly large number of people and organizations are working on environmental concerns, from my Schuylkill Center at the far end of Upper Roxborough to Cook-Wissahickon School down at the other end of Ridge Avenue.
But few have the reach of Andropogon Associates, the ecologically oriented landscape architecture firm headquartered in a converted mill building off Shurs Lane in Manayunk. Landscape architects design all parts of the site outside of the building, giving them a unique role in shaping places. José Almiñana, one of the principals of the 24-member firm, shared coffee withme in their conference room last week, offering me the chance to connect with a company at the cutting edge of this critical work.
Andropogon, named for a native grass — and more on that soon — recently designed the site around Manayunk’s new Venice Island Performing Arts Center, the theater space that doubles as a stormwater retention project in flood-plagued Manayunk. They’ve been the brains behind Morris Arboretum’s master planning for some 40 years now — in fact that was their very first project in the mid-’70s. The entrance driveway curving uphill through a meadow is an Andropogon concept, and its parking lot paved with porous materials — asphalt that actually lets rainwater seep through! — was one of the first such surfaces in the region. Bartram’s Mile, the latest section of the Schuylkill River Trail connecting Bartram’s Garden to a key piece of the growing Schuylkill Banks, is one of their latest, cutting the ribbon earlier this year in April.
At Penn, they famously designed Shoemaker Green, a pocket park that serves as a front door to both the Palestra and Franklin Field, two iconic buildings, while greatly managing that site’s complicated stormwater issues. At Georgia Tech, Almiñana leads a project to design the site for a student center that is also a “living building,” a goal that means, as he told me, “the building is energy-positive, so it produces more energy than it uses, and is water-positive, so it functions solely on the water that falls on its site without affecting the site’s hydrology. No carcinogenic materials can be used, and you can’t use combustion to generate heat, not even for cooking, so the project is powered by solar or wind. In short,” he continued, “the building has to behave with the elegance of a flower. That is,” he concluded, “it must be regenerative, causing no harmto nature— and, even better, improving the living systems of the site.”
If all buildings did this, our world would be radi- cally different.
One last example: Andropogon collaboratedwith architect MGA Partners in the development of the Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center in Nicetown, before that an 11-acre brownfield site, the term “brownfield” reserved for heavily industrial sites that typically contain hazardous wastes and lots of impervious cover. The former home of the Budd Co., which “made pulleys for locomotives,” he noted, “it became an impoundment lot for the city to park towed cars. Itwas a sea of asphalt.” While standard practice assumed that the waste-laden soil had to be trucked out and even landfilled and new soil then brought in, Andropogon cleverly “mined” the site, reusing much of the old pavement and concrete by crunching it up and incorporating it into new pavement; they added extensive outdoor activities to the site as well. In the end, Almiñana described the project as “net-zero in terms of materials” — the amount they reused was greater than the amount brought in, a huge accomplishment for such a degraded site.
Almiñana, a native Venezuelan, came to America in 1981 to attend Penn’s landscape architecture graduate program, then led by the visionary Ian McHarg, author of “Design with Nature,” the book that launched ecological planning and design. In fact, McHarg students and disciples Carol and Colin Franklin and Leslie and Rolf Sauer founded Andropogon and hired Almiñana in 1983. He has been there ever since.
“My first job at Andropogon,” he reminisced, “was drawing the construction documents for the Morris Arboretum entrance drive.”
Back to the name. As Almiñana explained, “Andropogon is a native grass that’s the most diversely distributed genus of grass across the continent — there are a multitude of species in all kinds of habitats. It often succeeds in colonizing extremely disturbed areas like strip mines or places with denuded and impoverished soils; it tolerates droughty conditions, and most importantly paves the way for the landscape to be healed.”
And just like the firm which it shares its name, it’s a pioneer species, one of the first to grow in bare spoils.
“The biggest gift the founders gave the firm was its name,” Almiñana concluded. “It speaks to an ethos, not an individual. The core of our practice is weaving together the landscapes of humans and nature for the benefit of both. We put into practice what this grass does in the world — make landscapes productive again.”
I observed that though they were a landscape architecture firm, so much of their work involves water. He smiled. “As (founder) Leslie Sauer used to say, ‘ Water is to landscape what daylight should be to buildings.’ Water is everywhere; it’s the reason we have life. If you think about it, water moving through topography creates soils, and soils create environments that foster biodiversity. Water is where it’s at.”
Water is. But then, Andropogon’s where it’s at as well. And they’re headquartered right here in Manayunk.
Children play in the water feature of the Venice Island Performing Arts Center. Andropogon Associates designed the site surrounding the building.
The view from Morris Arboretum’s entrance driveway. Andropogon has been working on the Chestnut Hill site’s master plan for 40years.