Places that Matter

Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village

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Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, Crabapple Trees, photo by Hubert J. Steed
Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, Crabapple Trees, photo by Hubert J. Steed
Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, autumn, photo by Hubert J. Steed
Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, winter, photo by Hubert J. steed
Globe lights in winter, Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, photo by Hubert J. Sneed
Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, summer, photo by Hubert J. Sneed
Robin in a Cherry Tree, Sasaki Garden at Washington Square VIllage, photo by Hubert J. Steed
Cherished greenspace in the heart of Washington Square Village
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Many mid-20th century urban planners believed that they could make old cities more modern and functional by replacing tenements and other historic architectural fabric with freestanding apartment towers on “superblocks.” The US Housing Act of 1949 labeled tenement districts as “slums” and provided federal assistance to cities replacing such districts with “Tower-In-The-Park” and “superblock” developments. These new planning models were considered safer and cleaner than the dense, low-rise development that existed from earlier eras. Integral to these designs were large open spaces that were supposed to offset the tall buildings and provide residents with more light, air, and better opportunities for social interaction.

The Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village was conceived as part of one such urban renewal-era plan to redevelop the forty acres south of Washington Square Park. In 1954, three superblocks were assembled between West 4th and Houston Streets, Mercer Street and La Guardia Place. The superblocks were produced by consolidating nine existing city blocks, and demapping Wooster and Greene Streets between West 4th Street and Houston Street. (Demapping meant that these streets were no longer city streets, and they were rendered slower passages through the superblocks.)

Initially, Robert Moses, Chairman of New York City’s Committee on Slum Clearance, intended to replace the low-rise, 19th-century buildings between West 3rd and Houston Streets with thirteen, 19-story apartment towers. But local residents vigorously protested, and by 1955, the land for Washington Square Village was conveyed to private developer Tischman-Wolf. The development plan was reduced to three, 600-foot rectangular apartment slabs, with units priced for middle-income residents who might otherwise have fled to the suburbs. The Tischman-Wolf plan also included open green space, a playground, designated commercial areas and an underground garage.

The reduced scale of the new plan notwithstanding, in 1957 the New York Times noted that contemporary redevelopment schemes like the one proposed for Washington Square Village were already drastically changing the physical and social character of Greenwich Village. The Times’ Ira Henry Freedman quipped, “Rose of Washington Square could hardly find a basement to wither in any more…This so-called Washington Square Village will hardly resemble the Washington Square of Henry James’ day or the Greenwich Village of Maxwell Bodenheim’s.” Freedman reported that Washington Square Village’s anticipated 2,004 balconied apartments would be offered for a considerable $60.00 per room.

Freedman’s article dismissed the “old Villagers” and “the bourgeois respectability against which the Bohemians revolted forty years ago.” But insufficient funding and vociferous opposition from the Village’s residents resulted in a further-reduced Washington Square Village plan. Buildings 1 and 2 were constructed on the north side of the north superblock, and occupants began moving in at the end of 1958. But a 1958 amendment limited the number of buildings and units, and relocated future retail space. Although Buildings 3 and 4 were completed on the south side of the north superblock in 1961, Tischman-Wolf withdrew from the project that year and the third apartment slab was never constructed. The entire site, including Washington Square Village, should have reverted back to the city so as to be open to public bidding, but in 1964, New York University essentially took over Washington Square Village from the private developer. The university also purchased the block south of Bleecker Street, where I.M. Pei ultimately built the Silver Towers.

Although Washington Square Village’s development was controversial, the tall buildings are now iconic features in the Greenwich Village landscape. And because the apartments were erected with the proviso that they be offset by greenspace, the Village is home to the serene and much-loved Sasaki Garden. Rose of Washington Square and Henry James might have preferred a more picturesque design to the decidedly Modernist landscape that Sasaki created at Washington Square Village. But they almost certainly would have appreciated the tranquil courtyard as a unique recreational amenity and recuperative space.

The pioneering 20th century landscape architecture firm, Sasaki, Walker and Associates, built the Washington Square Village garden in 1959. Hideo Sasaki and Peter Walker, the firm’s principals, were both teaching in the Landscape Architecture department at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design when the Washington Square Project was in development. Jose Luis Sert, the Dean of Harvard’s Design school, recommended Sasaki, Walker and Associates to his former partner, Paul Lester Wiener, who was initially Washington Square Village’s consulting site planner, but would ultimately become the project’s architect of record. Wiener had also previously collaborated with Le Corbusier, the French architect who famously promulgated the Tower-In-The-Park concept.

Hideo Sasaki is usually credited with the Greenwich Village garden’s design. Sasaki was born in California in 1919, and was raised on his parents’ San Joaquin Valley truck farm. Sasaki matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1940s, but was soon interned at Arizona’s Poston War Relocation Camp where he labored in the beet fields. Eventually Sasaki relocated to Chicago where he completed his undergraduate studies in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. He received a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University in 1948.

After working for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Sasaki moved back to Massachusetts to teach at Harvard, where he served as chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture from 1958-1968. He also led Sasaki, Walker and Associates, which the Cultural Landscape Foundation suggests “emerged into the forefront of complex environmental design, focusing on the interaction of land, buildings and the greater environment.” Many colleagues and fans have noted Sasaki’s commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration and improving human environments through landscape architecture. The Cultural Landscape Foundation further notes that Sasaki’s lofty goals “informed his very real designs for the innovative and significant Modernist public landscapes,” including Washington Square Village, that “reflect Sasaki’s desire to create urban oases, landscapes that can restore the human spirit.” When Sasaki died in 2000, obituaries in both the New York Times and the L.A. Times noted the lasting significance and efficacy of his Greenwich Village garden.

The Sasaki Garden is a 1.5 acre courtyard at the heart of the Washington Square Village superblock. Elevated approximately four feet above grade, the garden is one of the United States’ first parking garage roof structures. (It surmounts a 650-car underground parking garage.) Comprised mainly of a large play area, two small lawn spaces and a fountain, the garden is accessible year-round by a ramp or staircases located at all four corners.

Different people have different reasons for loving the Sasaki Garden. In her 1998 master's thesis, "Rehabilitation Plan for the Garden at Washington Square Village," Ellen Jouret-Epstein eloquently described some of the gardens highlights, “features like a seating bosquet of Crabapples, a sentry trio of Higan Cherry trees, and flanking allees of London Plane trees, offer a rare grace in this dense urban setting.” Others have argued that the garden is an irreplaceable reserve for twelve different bird species. Some people love the interplay between the vegetation and the herringbone brickwork, while a handful of fans say that the original globe lights conjure a special nostalgic charm. Without devaluing the globes, it should be noted that the seating planters once featured built-in base lights, and the fountain, which used to spray ten fantastic, 6-foot jets, was illuminated with multi-colored bulbs. One local ecologist has identified the significance of the garden's urban agriculture education programming.

Once defined as places to retreat from the surrounding city, landscapes like the Sasaki Garden are now being understood as integral parts of New York City’s urban fabric and ecology. They are places of meaning and form that we understand through the enactment of everyday life. We must take ownership of landscapes in the same way that we do buildings and other cultural products. But they require different kinds of care to remain effective. Charles Birnbaum, a landscape architect and preservationist has suggested that, “because of lack of maintenance or experimental materials, these places have to be upgraded or rehabbed, not overhauled and removed.” Birnbaum believes that this is particularly true of Modernist landscapes, which, like abstract art, have to be approached differently than pastoral paintings and pastoral landscapes. He says that Modernist landscapes are frequently misunderstood, allowed to deteriorate and are then redesigned.

In 2009, the Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village was listed on the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s Landslide project, which seeks to “draw immediate and lasting attention to threatened landscapes and unique features.” It was identified by this initiative because New York University announced plans to erect two large academic buildings on the east and west sides of the superblock, between the two existing residential buildings. The plan for new development also includes several levels of below-grade academic space. If the plan is implemented, the Sasaki Garden will be destroyed in order to construct the subterranean spaces, and NYU will redesign the garden. Even more unfortunate, the expansion will also seriously affect the block south of Washington Square Village, and it will take 20 years to complete. However,  in 2011 the entire Washington Square Village complex was deemed “significant enough to “qualify for possible listing in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.” Such a designation would mean that New York University cannot use state or federal funding to demolish or erect buildings on the site.

The Washington Square Village complex embodies an incredible amount of potential energy, from the battles that marked its controversial beginnings to the war that is being waged over New York University's plans in the 21st century. Back in 1957, Freedman’s New York Times article stated, “recent and planned construction indicates that Washington Square is inevitably becoming a campus for New York University.” In 2012 it is not inevitable that the Washington Square Village complex, including the Sasaki Garden, submit to New York University’s expansion plans. The battles require as much energy now as ever, but if the community's history of rallying to save their neighborhood is any indication, there is more than enough to win the fight.