Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - DIALOGUE - By Jessie Scan­lon

When JAMES COR­NER talks about land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture, he doesn’t talk about path­ways or rose bushes. He talks about peo­ple com­ing to­gether to ob­serve other peo­ple. “Pub­lic spa­ces can be col­o­nized in time—not by nat­u­ral pro­cesses, but by peo­ple,” he says. “So un­der­stand­ing what it takes to cre­ate an invit­ing space is a dif­fer­ent de­sign prac­tice from just do­ing cool things with form.”

C orner is the founder of James Cor­ner Field Oper­a­tions, the firm re­spon­si­ble for New York’s High Line, the much-praised park oc­cu­py­ing a for­merly derelict el­e­vated rail­way on Man­hat­tan’s far West Side. He ap­proaches his work with the be­lief that good de­sign in pub­lic spa­ces makes a city more ap­peal­ing, draws both new res­i­dents and the com­pa­nies that want to em­ploy them, and en­hances the eco­nomic value of ev­ery­thing around it—a the­ory that’s been more than borne out in prac­tice. The High Line, Cor­ner’s most suc­cess­ful work, has thor­oughly re­vi­tal­ized its sur­round­ing area, trans­form­ing it into a lively tourist at­trac­tion that drew 7 mil­lion vis­i­tors last year and spurred bil­lions of dol­lars in nearby devel­op­ment.

W ith the help of his 60 em­ploy­ees spread out among three of­fices around the world, Cor­ner has given sim­i­lar treat­ments to Santa Monica’s Tongva Park in Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cisco’s Pre­sidio Park­lands, Cleve­land’s his­toric main square, and wa­ter­fronts in Lon­don, Seat­tle, and Philadel­phia. He’s also de­signed en­tire new cities in China.

W hile Cor­ner is rec­og­nized for turn­ing pol­luted or aban­doned postin­dus­trial waste­lands into thriv­ing pub­lic spa­ces, the idea of scenog­ra­phy is just as preva­lent in his work. As he puts it, ev­ery site is dif­fer­ent, yet each has to serve as “the stage set­ting of ev­ery­day life.” At Tongva Park, wo­ven steel ca­banas si­mul­ta­ne­ously af­ford park vis­i­tors views out to the Santa Monica Pier and put those vis­i­tors on dis­play for driv­ers on Ocean Av­enue be­low. “Peo­ple ac­tu­ally get mar­ried in those pods,” he says with mild amaze­ment.

C orner is well aware that, at the start of any project, many lo­cals as­sume that “some de­signer is go­ing to come in here and f--- it up, some ego is go­ing to come in and drop some­thing that doesn’t be­long.” So he seeks to de­sign landscapes that seem so nat­u­ral they look as though they’d al­ways been there. “These overde­signed places are try­ing too hard to look good,” he says, “but they don’t in­vite use.” His do. <BW>

● Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica

Much of Cor­ner’s work is about cre­at­ing “height­ened dra­matic set­tings for pub­lic life to play out”

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