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Aesthetic Integrity
Profile: Peter Rothschild FASLA, Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Peter Rothschild FASLA, Principal, Quennell Rothschild & Partners, LLP

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Peter Rothschild, FASLA, in a career spanning more than 30 years as a landscape architect, has left his imprint on the entire field of urban landscape design. As co founder of Quennell Rothschild & Partners, he provided iconic plans for some of the most significant urban waterfronts as well as parks, public open spaces and major private institutions in the country. But it was no accident. Profoundly influenced by his grandparents, their own love of art and philosophy was further enhanced by the social, psychological and visionary atmosphere to which Rothschild was exposed at Harvard in the 1960s.

When Peter Rothschild was a Harvard undergraduate, it was the last great era in the Bauhaus tradition. Walter Gropius, the pioneer of modern architecture and founder of the Bauhaus School, taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Rothschild went to Walter Gropius’ 80th birthday, and among the guests was Rudolf Arnheim, Professor of the Psychology of Art in Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.

“On several projects we have collaborated with artists, most significantly was the design we did for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. We worked with eight or ten different artists, and ultimately, the landscape became the foil for the art.” Photos Courtesy of Quennell Rothschild & Partners

“Harvard had a very cerebral and “quasi” creative curriculum, but no fine arts program,” says Rothschild. “They had started ‘Architectural Science’ which then became ‘Visual Studies’ that looked at art purely as an intellectual exercise examining the way the natural world was structured according to aesthetic principals. Of course, they taught the ‘right kind’ and the ‘wrong kind,’ with their heavy influence of Bauhaus and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy tradition. All the students read the treatises they wrote and studied with these incredibly powerful intellects. Here were professors whose minds and careers were forming while Chekov was alive (barely), Pavlov was winning the Nobel Prize, Freud was publishing The Psychopathogy of Everyday Life and Niels Bohr was proposing quantum theory. It was truly a transformative atmosphere for anyone who was even close.”

Peter Rothschild grew up in Riverdale, high on the cliffs at the northern tip of New York City. A seminal part of his childhood was his grandparent’s interest in abstract art—cubism, futurism and Russian constructivist works. Collecting in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they traveled extensively, met with Braque, Picasso, Mondrian, de Chirico, and visited Brancusi’s studio.

The badly deteriorated existing limestone pavements, walls, benches, and the fountain pool at Princeton’s Scudder Plaza were replaced with Canadian granite to provide a more durable and easily maintained facility. Sixteen new honey locust trees were added at each end of the plaza, as well as stepped seating surrounding the pool and fountain. New stairways and ramps connect the plaza with the campus pedestrian circulation system and surrounding buildings. A new vehicle drop-off area was created at the south side of Robertson Hall.
Photo courtsey of Paul Warchol

Rothschild’s grandmother wrote notes on all of those meetings, and they were eventually published in a book about their art collection. Hearing about those experiences inspired Rothschild’s lifelong interest in art.

“I thought I wanted to be a sculptor,” says Rothschild. “The Director of the Design Workshop at Harvard, Italian sculptor Mirko Basaldella, along with his brother, Afro Basaldella, took me under their wing. I was doing large relief sculptures and spending huge amounts of time with these icons. However, I ultimately decided the life of a sculptor was too impractical, so I branched into architecture.

Inspired by a painting completed in 1942 by Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondran, the design includes specially designed illuminated paving. “The Mondrian projects, one of which was 30 Lincoln Plaza in New York City, were much more about the spirit of those places as iconographic identities rather than their ability to address purely human needs,” Rothschild says. “As time goes by, however, those ideas no longer feel as if they are in opposition to one another.”

“I had studied with Jose Luis Sert, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and I decided to transfer into the architecture school.” For two summers, Rothschild worked for Vollmer Associates, a landscape and engineering firm in New York. There he met Nicholas Quennell who was training as a landscape architect. Vollmer Associates did State parks, and one summer Rothschild worked with Lawrence Halprin who was in San Francisco.

At that point, he had fallen in love with landscape architecture. Nick Quennell got his degree, became an landscape architect and Rothschild started moonlighting for Quennel. At 26 he worked there full time and then at 27, he decided to become a landscape architect as well. “I loved the diversity of projects we worked on those two summers. They appealed to me because of the intensely sculptural quality of landscapes. A lot of landscape designs were significantly aesthetic in nature as opposed to purely functional.”

Rothschild & Partners have served as principal landscape site designers for each of Princeton’s recent building projects, collaborating with project architects including Frank O. Gehry and Demetri Porphyrios. They collaborated with Rafael Vinoly Architects in the design of the landscape for the Carl C. Icahn Laboratory, a new laboratory building housing the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics on the campus of Princeton University. There, a grove of Paperbark Maple trees forms an arc through the arcade.

“However, the international style of the day was not that interesting to me,” says Rothschild. “Fortunately, the University of Oregon was offering a teaching fellowship in a young, vital program that was very interesting. The dean was Robert S. Harris, who is now teaching at University of Southern California. Harris thought of environments holistically and he introduced me to Chris Alexander.”

Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, Chris Alexander’s first book, The Timeless Way of Building describes exact methods for constructing practical, safe and attractive designs at every scale, from entire regions, through cities, neighborhoods, gardens, buildings, rooms, built-in furniture, and fixtures down to the level of doorknobs. The architectural system consists only of classic patterns tested in the real world and reviewed by multiple architects for beauty and practicality. Alexander’s latest, and most comprehensive and elaborate work puts forth a new theory about the nature of space and describes how this theory influences thinking about architecture, building, planning, and the way in which we view the world in general.

The “Ellipse Walk” at Genomic’s is a new tree lined walkway that is a cross-campus artery. Intersecting a small entrance plaza planted with a grove of Paperbark Maple trees, the walkway continues through the arcade created by the sun-shading louver system and completes the first segment that defines the edge of the University’s intramural fields.

“My experience at Oregon inspired philosophical approaches to design that remain central to my practice today. I arrived just at the moment when the campus planning effort—the Oregon Experiment—led by Chris Alexander, began,” says Rothschild. “I worked harder, slept less and enjoyed myself more than ever before. It was participatory democracy for architects and we had the deep conviction that by involving this diverse community in planning its own future, the resulting environment would be more useful and appreciated in the years to come.”

“I almost stayed on teaching at Oregon,” says Rothschild. “I got a Fulbright-Hays research fellowship, went to England for two years, taught at various English universities, then decided to rejoin Quennell. We became Quennell Rothschild & Partners.”

Quennell Rothschild & Partners designed the bluestone entrance plaza to Princeton’s Marquand Library and green roof over the underground library. The rare and sensitive books below dictated that nothing be allowed to penetrate the roof slab. With this in mind, they designed the custom bench, bike racks, drainage and granite walls in such a way as to preserve the integrity of the roof below.

Another profound experience in his life was when he visited a site designed by Gunnar Asplund, a Swedish architect. “He designed a cemetery in Stockholm, which is a poetic place that is also extremely spiritual. There are areas where grave stones are all flush with the grass, so it’s a huge grassy meadow. Other areas had very distinctive plantings. You felt as moved by the landscape as you were by visiting a grave.”

“There’s another landscape architect, Carl Theodor Sorensen, a very minimalist landscape architect from the 30s and 40s designing in Denmark. His landscape modernism was introduced to me while I was teaching at Newcastle in England, and that kind of spatial art that is Danish functional architecture is very appealing.”

“As far as landscape architects saving the world, I would say they are certainly capable of more sensitivity in what they do, but what they do won’t be all that is required,” explains Rothschild. “I think a more common consideration regarding sustainability and conservation of resources must be addressed. Sustainability should also be equated with a sensitivity to the impact of construction on the rest of the environment. Instead of increasing the amount of impervious surface and using non-renewable resources, it is now clear there has been a very significant shift. Now buildings are going up bragging about their LEED certification.”

Rothschild continues, “There are so many more considerations that are huge. Whether you plant native or naturalized plants, it may be less significant to the whole infrastructure of our lives than why there is no public transportation. Why do we need private cars? Why does everything have to be air-conditioned? When I was teaching at Malmo, Sweden, there were seven trains a day for transportation into town. One even had a playground on the train.”

The Morningside Park design was an interesting confluence of all Rothschild’s talents and experiences. New York City had made a deal with Columbia University to build a gym in the park. “But the community members laid down in front of the bulldozers,” says Rothschild. “Twenty years later, we got the groups together again and of course, they were still angry. Everyone ultimately agreed on a design that was similar to Olmsted’s original design, but added a waterfall. With the combination of my background in Oregon working with communities, and the increasing fatigue, we ultimately got consensus. Of course, our final design references Olmsted.”

“There is a deep, cultural proclivity towards beauty there, but the next five years will be tough,” Rothschild feels. “How, if governments are eliminating aid to hospitals and police departments, will they be able to spend billions on parks? There is the hope that there will be a WPA. Other recessions we’ve been through were tough. Even in the depths of the 70s and 1987, there was still life after death. But there is also a lag time between the faltering economy and larger projects that are already in the pipeline. They may stop work on city projects soon.”

The Morningside Park work was an interesting confluence of all Rothschild’s talents, styles and experiences. New York City had made a deal with Columbia University to build a gym in the park. “But the community lay down in front of the bulldozers,” says Rothschild. “So the city hired Lawrence Halprin, hoping he could bring consensus. Halprin proposed a fountain, but that was also controversial and everyone continued arguing for the next 20 years. The firm in New York that was ultimately hired to work with Halprin, Max Bond and Rider (later Davis Brody Bond—Max Bond just died) brought Quennell Rothschild in. By then, Halprin was out of the picture. We applied the principles of the Oregon Experiment and ultimately agreed on a design that was similar to Olmsted’s original design, but added a waterfall.

Quennell Rothschild & Partners led a multi-disciplinary team of design professionals and technical experts to create the master plan, overall schematic design, and design guidelines for this 4.5 mile long park on Manhattan’s west side. After many years of public debate which surrounded the project, the firm’s plan described an exciting new vision for the 550-acre park that won widespread support and is currently being implemented in a series of phases.

“Clearly a dialog between function, style and aesthetics is required,” explains Rothschild. “At some time in my life I had strong convictions about aesthetics. Recently, I’ve become more interested in independent aesthetics. The identity of landscapes, such as Zen gardens, are inspiring even though there is a separation between those pure designs and the mundane aspects of people’s everyday lives and needs. Now I see the imperative of trying to bring design into play while conceiving environments that are responsive to humanity, as opposed to creating an expression of pure abstraction.”

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November 22, 2019, 2:41 pm PDT

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