Diana Balmori

Diana Balmori (1932–2016)

William Grimes reports in the New York Times that the landscape architect Diana Balmori––a teacher at the Yale School of Architecture and the Yale School of Forestry who is known for her environmentally conscious designs that created harmony between buildings and natural surroundings––died last Monday in Manhattan.

Born in 1932 in Gijón, on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain, Balmori fled with her father, a Spanish Loyalist, and the rest of their family to England in 1936 to escape political persecution during the Spanish Civil War. She later received a teaching position at the National University of Tucumán in Argentina. Balmori studied architecture at the university there but did not receive her degree, due to the government’s expulsion of her entire class after a student protest. She emigrated to the United States in 1952 with her husband, the architect César Pelli, whom she had met at the university.

Balmori moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and earned a doctorate in urban history at UCLA in 1973. A year later she began teaching at the State University of New York in Oswego, where she took an interest in the landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand and eventually coauthored the book Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes (1985), with Diane Kostial McGuire and Eleanor McPeck. In 1980, she joined her husband’s firm in New Haven—César Pelli & Associates—where she founded the department of landscape architecture. She worked with him on several projects, including the Winter Garden Atrium in the World Financial Center in Manhattan, where she planted sixteen palm trees.

One of her goals, as she told Guernica magazine in 2013, was to mix “very clear human engineering with ecology and with landscape.” She founded her firm, Balmori Associates, in 1990 and was responsible for developing the master plan for renovation of an old industrial port of Bilbao, Spain, into a park system connecting residents to the river and to the Frank Gehry–designed branch of the Guggenheim. Other projects included work with community organizations in New Haven to convert fourteen miles of abandoned rail line into a park that would extend through Yale University’s campus; a trail system in Cedar Lake Park in Minneapolis; rooftop gardens for the Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens; and the first garden atop a residential tower at the Solaire condominium complex in Battery Park City in Manhattan.

In 2005, she realized a proposal by the artist Robert Smithson, who in 1970, three years before his death, sketched out an idea for a garden that could travel by water around New York City. Working with the artist Nancy Holt, Smithson’s widow, Balmori designed “Floating Island,” a landscape of rocks, soil, native trees, and shrubs on a barge that was towed around Manhattan. Balmori also drafted the landscape plans for what’s known as South Korea’s Brasília, a series of linked buildings to house relocated government ministries in Sejong City, seventy-five miles south of Seoul. The structures, called New Government City and completed in 2014, are a reversal of traditional practice as they evolved from the landscape, mimicking the forms of the nearby Geumgang River and Charyeong Range.

Barry Bergdoll, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, said of her work: “Landscape design had been thought of as beautifying a site rather than something fundamental . . . Early on, Diana insisted that it should be a collaborative process with the building designer, and that landscape designers should think about how we use a site and how we live on the surface of the earth. With the ecological crisis we face now, this seems self-evident, but it wasn’t a half generation ago.”