THE SKY’S THE LIMIT | Landscape Architecture Magazine

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On what was once a shabby roof, HMWhite created a plan focused on the procession and private moments. Photo © Tishman Speyer.

In the first half of the 20th century, Rockefeller Center set new standards for urban design. Its features have become staples of New York culture: the Rainbow Room, the Channel Gardens, and the grand promenade leading to the huge golden statue of Prometheus hovering above the sunken skating rink. From the outset, the landscape enhanced the street experience, and occupants of the office towers above benefited from building setbacks with beautifully manicured patio beds overlooking Fifth Avenue.

Plans for further rooftop development, including traditional parterre parks and gardens, boxwood-framed annual flower beds and a series of skybridges, remained unfinished – until the giant immovable Tishman Speyer took ownership and active management of the 19-building, 22-acre Rockefeller Center in 2001, performing renovations and structural improvements before focusing on amenities for office tenants. At Radio City Music Hall, nine stories above the Rockettes, a half-acre of dull brown roof was empty except for three pavilions housing pulleys and mechanisms to operate curtains, scrims and other Radio City stage equipment.

Hank White, FASLA, Founding Director of HMWhite, was working on a new residential project at a Tishman Speyer property elsewhere in New York when Chris McCartin, the company’s general manager, requested a landscape proposal for the roof of Radio City to complete the adjacent interior tenant amenities area . “The expectation was to have a design distinction equivalent to Channel Gardens,” says White. He immediately wanted to create a space with an aura of mystery and celebrate the canyon beauty and symmetry of the surrounding buildings. “It took 15, 20 minutes to come up with a processional-focused plan, going into a confined space,” White says. “And then during COVID-19, we had contract drawings in January 2021, construction started at the end of April 2021 and we did it in seven weeks. It was an urgent economy-driven deadline.

White applied 21st century concepts and technological advances – maximizing the number of trees by coordinating their placement with the roof’s structural beam grid; coordinate a layered subsurface geofoam topography with deeper growing medium zones for each tree; using a light, non-decanting culture medium – to make Radio Park. It strayed slyly away from the axial orientation of the historic gardens (some of which can be seen on the terraces of the West 50th Street block). From the interior amenity area, the pavilions, clad in copper doors enriched with a blue patina, form the entrance to the park and provide a contemplative atmosphere. The gentle dips and curves of a trail invite exploration. The revelation of plantings, colors, textures, sounds, movement and spatial context comes gradually.

“A memorable landscape experience is all about first impressions,” says White, who designed the park in three parts: a birch forest of 87 trees as a “space envelope”; a Yoshino cherry orchard with “all the white-flowering plants blooming at different times”; and the Belvedere, a stern row of European charms across the western edge of the roof. “We worked with structural engineers to create the topography and used the functional organization of the roof through a space-creating topographic structure,” White explains. Construction vents and other hardware remained in place, but with cleverly blended planting beds, as well as benches constructed of splashy Alaskan yellow cedar. Three rows of benches overlook a lawn and a dense patch of regularly trimmed boxwood. The tree root balls required 30 inches of growing medium, all the better for giving the otherwise flat roof a surface corrugation.

“By covering roofs with thermally insulating landscapes, buildings will benefit from significant energy conservation costs and extended roof waterproofing life cycles,” says White.

Moving away from the axial orientation of other Rockefeller Center gardens, Radio Park’s pathways gently curve and dip, flanked by the boxwood-framed lawn and birch forest. Photo © Tishman Speyer.

Unapologetically, this small but mighty patch of nature is juxtaposed against the massive built environment in which it sits. “The sound of the leaves deadens the noises of the city,” says White. “And an [can contemplate] the mysterious junction of landscape and building. Organic versus synthetic actually brings us closer to nature. These types of spaces and accessibility are essential to the condition of urban life.

White says that once the last trowel had planted the last plant in the dirt, the birds and butterflies discovered that new skyward plot “in minutes” and flew to Radio Park, with all the natural grace and belonging of the dancers below.

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