The Park at the Center of the World.

At Center for Architecture, New York City, through August 25, 2007; Building 110 on Governors Island, through September 2, 2007.

Though barely 800 yards from Lower Manhattan, Governors Island, in New York harbor, suffers from obscurity and neglect. First established by the British in 1698 for the “benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors,” it served from 1783 to 1996 as a post for the U.S. military and Coast Guard but is now consigned to hosting their derelict buildings. Access to the 172-acre island has been limited to intermittent ferry service by special appointment, so even since the island was decommissioned, few New Yorkers have ever been there.

The northernmost 22 acres of the island are a designated National Monument, protecting the early-19th-century fortifications there. In 2003, after years of failed proposals for the site, including casinos and a United Nations campus, the federal government transferred the remaining 150 acres to the State of New York at a cost of $1. The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), which maintains control of this section, issued a Request for Qualifications in 2006, hoping to jump-start development of the island. The proposals of the five short-listed teams—Hargreaves Associates/Michael Maltzan Architecture; Field Operations/WilkinsonEyre; Wallace Roberts Todd (WRT)/Urban Strategies; REX/Michel Desvigne; West 8/Diller Scofidio + Renfrew/Rogers Marvel—selected from a group of 29 submissions, are now on display at the Center for Architecture in New York and in Building 110 on Governors Island.

Establishing and reinforcing the island’s visual and programmatic connections to the city, landscape architects Hargreaves Associates proposed four landscape typologies—athletic fields, beach, perennial gardens, and a meadow of grasses and pine—separately delineated by pedestrian axes that open up sight lines toward iconic views. Surrounding these areas, a promenade along the island’s entire perimeter creates new edge conditions. Other proposed features, such as plazas, gardens, and Michael Maltzan–designed buildings for cultural programs, animate the procession along this stretch and emphasize views outward.

The strength of this proposal by Hargreaves, designer of such large urban parks as San Francisco’s Crissy Field, is the balance between its promise to connect with the city and its flexibility to accommodate Governors Island’s future needs.

By contrast, New York–based landscape architects Field Operations, with WilkinsonEyre, a London architectural firm, casts the island and its natural features as a foil to the city. With a single landscape typology, this team creates a series of mounds and pools on Governors’ south end that accentuate the changing relationships between the topography and surrounding body of water. When daily high tides flow in, only the mounds and the horizontal plane of an elevated promenade remain exposed, while the supports become submerged beneath the water. With thermal pools, botanical pavilions, and a marina, this program is focused on the experience of the wind, water, and changing environment.

Dominating the proposal by REX (an OMA spin-off in New York) and landscape architect Michel Desvigne of Paris is a declaration in bold letters: “This is not a landscape proposal. This is a development strategy.” In the spirit of OMA principal Rem Koolhaas, this is a team of self-conscious provocateurs. They call for gridding the island, a move inspired by the Jeffersonian grid that allowed westward expansion. REX hopes this grid will accommodate what it insists is the only viable intervention here: investment by developers. The need to improve the island’s appeal and accessibility emerges in this scheme, but obviously a gridded island of development already exists, a mere 800 yards away. Manhattan’s grid works because of the urban engine (with economic, demographic, infrastructural, and other forces) fueling it. And Jefferson’s grid relies on its own slew of cultural, political, and religious forces. Though the proposal is compelling, it remains doubtful that a city park can or should be “settled” following either of these gridded paradigms.

Meanwhile, WRT of Philadelphia proposes a traditional green city park. The plan orients itself around a large meadow with most program around the perimeter. The large firm’s design is a reasonably pleasant—but formulaic—response to a unique condition.

Taking a radically different approach, West 8 (Dutch landscape architects), and Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rogers Marvel (both New York architectural firms), propose sculptural landforms at heights reaching 180 feet and with names like “Babylonic Hill” and references to “return to lost paradise,” evoking a landscape theme park. The forms resemble ziggurats or are translucent bulbous domes, and house, for example, art galleries, greenhouses, and a floating oyster bar. Three thousand custom wooden bicycles and lounge chairs would be available free of charge for park visitors.

With its physical autonomy and absence of a residential program (due to current guideline restrictions), the site lacks the sort of casual, improvised use that makes other urban parks vibrant. The two teams that most effectively capitalize on this condition are Field Operations, with its emphasis on the island’s natural features and “otherness” in confident juxtaposition to Manhattan, and Hargreaves, with its strong connections to the city.