Manayunk’s An­dro­pogon weaves na­ture and peo­ple

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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.

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