PRINT December 1987


Here, Lycoris, are cool fountains, here soft fields,
Here woodland, here with you I’d be Time’s casualty. . . .

As the green alder pushes upward in new spring.
Let us arise: for singers heavy is the shade,
Heavy the shade of juniper; and shade harms fruit.
Go, little she-goats, Hesper comes, go home replete.

—Vergil, “Eclogue X,” translated by Guy Lee

[The arcades and botanical winter gardens are] residues of a dream world . . . [in which] the collective consciousness sinks into ever deeper sleep. . . . The city is now a landscape, now a room.
—Walter Benjamin

THE MODERN CITY LIVES in a tension between the urban and the “natural,” in Rousseau’s sense of the utopian, Edenic, or arcadian possibility. This dialectic began in the early Enlightenment, with the Abbé Laugier, who, influenced by Rousseau’s opposition of the supposedly uncorrupted “natural man” to civilization, proposed a similar first principle for architecture in the “rustic hut.” This elementary hut Laugier set in an Edenic nature, as a critique of the despoilments of the new, disordered bourgeois city. As model, the hut, a simple shelter, reduced architecture to an absolute elemental base, reflecting an Enlightenment myth of a social arcadia in terms of the urban plan. Simultaneously, the hut evoked two related archetypes: first, Greek architecture’s pure, geometric, elementary forms; second, the original derivation of its column from the tree. Laugier writes, “The pieces of wood raised vertically give us the idea of columns. The horizontal pieces that surmount them give us an idea of pediment.”1 His proposal that city streets be laid out in a fashion analogous to the paths of the picturesque English landscape garden (then gaining ascendancy over the French, Baroque, formal garden) represented an assimilation of the natural into the urban and architectural. The metaphor of nature that Laugier introduced into the urban order took the form of a symbolic antidote to the city, while at the same time it was incorporated into the city’s underlying plan.

The introduction of nature into the city took a circuitous route. The births of both the park and suburbia were indebted to the relocation of the inner-city cemetery to just outside the city walls in the 18th century.2 It was discovered that decaying corpses and lack of ventilation were prime causes of the spread of disease; accordingly, the cemetery was relocated to the relatively open environment on the city’s edges, and new designs for its symbolic layout were introduced. The cemetery’s landscaping anticipated later urban design. The picturesque, “Elysian Fields” cemetery plan, Anthony Vidler points out, was “an arcadian realm . . . with individual monuments set picturesquely within groves of trees linked by winding paths.”3 This setting articulated the sentimental nostalgia that the city-dweller felt for the country environment: as Richard Etlin writes, “The living might imagine their relative’s eternal rest and even anticipate their own.”4 Yet at the same time that the cemetery’s location and landscaping connoted an idea of nature, they also anticipated developments in the city. As Vidler writes in a discussion of Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery, “the design of a cemetery represented in microcosm that of the . . . city as a whole. . . . the cemetery might surpass that [degree of planning] attainable in the city, founding in this way a veritable utopia in reality, and providing intimations of city embellishment [the tree-lined, promenaded boulevard and the park in the city] long before the actual transformation occurred.”5

It was in the mid 19th century that the new inner-city parks appeared, first in Baron Haussmann’s Paris, where they coincided with the building of tree-lined boulevards. The overt rationale of these urban spaces was the bringing of “airy greenery and light into crowded districts.”6 That purpose, however, masked political and military functions. In opening main urban arteries, the boulevards countered the rebellious proletarian tactic of “taking to the streets.” Boulevards allowed for better communication between various city districts; they permitted the military access to any point in the city. Later, the creation of the garden city by English social reformers took a different approach to related issues: the evolution of the suburban enclave was one answer to the urban concentration and accompanying political explosiveness of the slum. To accommodate the working-class family in its own house in a relatively rural setting helped to reestablish it as a stable nuclear form. In addition, this helped to create a new consumer society based on the family.

The glass-roofed arcades (passages) that appeared in Paris in the 1830s also marked a stage in the development of the consumer market. Here, the city street became an interior devoted to shopping and the display of commodities, supplementing the new department stores as a kind of commodity festival in a setting of advanced engineering. For Walter Benjamin, the inner world of the glass architecture suggested “residues of a dream world . . . [in which] the collective consciousness sinks into ever deeper sleep. . . . Just as the sleeping person . . . sets out on a macrocosmic journey through his body, and the sounds and feelings of his own insides . . . generate hallucinations or dream-images which . . . explain [these sensations], so it is too with the dreaming collective which, in the arcades, sinks into its own innards.”7

The arcade, the department store, and the trade fair came together in the international expositions of the latter 19th century. In their crystal palaces, these often included a conservatory, in which plants were displayed in a protected environment that enabled them to survive throughout the year. Remaining after the expositions ended, this winter garden became a place in which to take temporary refuge from everyday life, a “natural” place effecting a symbolic escape from existing urban society. In the winter garden the meditative, private garden of the past was transformed into the botanical display as mass entertainment and mass education.

It is enough, then, to enter at random one of those crystal museums in which [the] somewhat funereal riches [of flowers] are displayed under the harmonious veil of the days of November. We at once grasp the dominant idea, the obtrusive beauty, the unexpected effort of the year in this special world, strange and privileged even in the midst of the strange and privileged world of flowers. And we ask ourselves if this new idea is a profound and really necessary idea on the part of the sun, the earth, life, autumn, or man. . . .
—Maurice Maeterlinck

It was out of the 19th-century trade expositions and winter-garden structures that office buildings with a glass-roofed atrium court developed in America at the turn of the century. The best-known example, now demolished, was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building of 1904–06, in Buffalo. Here, a glassed-over central core surrounded by bays of open balconies provided workers with light, and made them visible to one another. Wright’s administration building for the Johnson Wax Company, 1936–39, in Racine, Wisconsin, inflects curved corners and predominantly cylindrical interiors, giving the atrium core a science fiction look. The main light source is a translucent ceiling supported by columns that open out at their tops into large flat discs, like lily pads floating above one’s head, an image reminiscent of but inverse to the image of the lily pads floating on the surface of ponds within winter gardens. Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1943–59, in New York, is a helical form widening upward from an empty center atrium. The observer gazing from the ramp that constitutes the viewing area overlooks the void as if from a mountain precipice. The helical ramp is for pedestrian traffic, but seems to allude symbolically to the ramps of parking garages and the miles of roadway built in postwar America for exurban travel.

The spread of suburbia after World War II is a sign of the automobile’s reformation of American life. The new middle-class suburban family was more transportable than before, willing to pack up and move rapidly to another location. Corporations were able to spread and decentralize, shifting their staffs from branch to branch throughout the country. This suburban and automotive period also saw the rise of the drive-in cinema and the shopping mall. The use of the automobile for leisure, and the decline of the urban cinema, led to the highway theme park—for example, the original Disneyland, which opened in 1955. The theme park often became the vehicle of corporate ideology. Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland,” for example, once housed General Electric’s “Carousel of Progress,” a film-and-slide dreamland that presented the idea of progress, or “better living,” through commodity technology. Visitors sat in a theater section that moved forward around the carousel after each of a series of tableaux of a family of natural-looking robots in a middle-class kitchen. The sequence progressed in 20-year increments, from the turn of the century on; between each section the audience was encouraged to sing along with the robots, “It’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day. Man has a dream and the dream can come true.” The robots grew imperceptibly older, and their clothing and the decor changed to reflect the styles of the time, but the most significant changes, which the family was always showing off, were in the kitchen’s electricity-based home technology. The circular motion of the carousel expressed the idea that this technological progress would be endless, endlessly satisfying human needs.

During the ’60s the American city’s core came to be dominated by high-rise office buildings. Metaphorically, these corporate showcases use the social openness and transparency of window glass to merge the image of technology implicit in the buildings’ construction with that of efficient business practice, for the passerby can observe, through the glass, the workings of the company. At the same time, the building seems to open to the environment, incorporating into itself the light and sky reflected in the glass or, sometimes, visible through the glass on the structure’s other side. The workers open to view are only the lower echelon; the executive suites are high above the city. And while the lobbies of these towers are open to the public, they are not public space; they are designed as passages for those ascending to the higher floors.

After the mid-’60s wave of prosperity fueled in America by the Vietnam war came the sudden collapse of inner cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Many companies abandoned the city, moving to the suburbs; not only did they want an escape from urban problems, but the suburbs were nearer to corporate workers’ homes, and had lower tax bases. At street level in the sterile urban grids surrounding the Modernist corporate high-rise, crime and drugs were an increasing threat. The corporations that remained in the city began a move toward enclosure. Existing space—the plaza in front of the New York headquarters of the Chemical Bank, for example—were contained in architectural extensions; newly constructed buildings turned in on themselves like the medieval castle keep. Services, the retailing of goods, and pedestrian transit became concentrated in an inner court. New York’s Ford Foundation building, 1968, by the architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, and the architect/developer John Portman’s Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, 1967, codesigned by Portman and Griffith Edwards, reapplied the atrium form first used by Wright, and attempted to reopen the inner city and to attract suburbanites back to a protected area of the city. These and megabuildings like London’s Barbican Center, which suggests the walled medieval city, evoke nostalgic dreams of the closed urban plaza, and set them against the open but sterile Modern plan.

In its interior atrium, a rectangular hole inserted in a “70-story cylindrical tower, clad in reflecting glass,” Atlanta’s Peachtree Center Plaza Hotel, 1976, a typical Portman building, puts a tropical resort in the center of the city. From outside, the tower looks like a rocket in its gantry; it is connected to the rest of the building by bridges at each level. The floor of the tower is covered by a reflecting pool, or, as Jonathan Barnett has written, a “half-acre lake. . . . boat-shaped islands are pushed out between the columns, forming places to have a drink and observe the space and the people.”8 Portman’s hotels have developed a pattern of combining the dreamworld of the amusement park with the recreational arcadia of the picturesque park of the city. Landscaping techniques are brought indoors to create the dreamlike mood of a film set. Often, as Portman says, light “is filtered through hanging plants,” and “as the sun comes through foliage, it makes a pattern . . . like shadows on the floor of a forest.”9

In the late ’60s, New York City zoning law was amended to allow incentives for the creation of covered pedestrian spaces. In exchange for providing a “public amenity,” the parklike atrium, the developer was permitted to add to the new building’s rentable floor area. The result was a sprouting of such spaces in the city. Privately owned and maintained, these sanctuaries are usually under surveillance through the building’s hidden electronic security systems, as well as through the presence of guards. They often double as an entry to areas off limits to the general public. The questions of how individuals may use these corporatized “public spaces,” who will decide that, and whether or not they are truly open to all, remain open. Still, these atriums are taking over some of the functions of the urban park. In some cities, they are becoming integrated into the existing outdoor park system. From the River Walk along the San Antonio River in San Antonio, Texas, for example, pedestrians can follow a stream of running water into the Hyatt Regency Hotel atrium.10

Many atriums have become a kind of parallel form to the suburban shopping mall. The late ’70s and ’80s have seen a return of the upper middle class to the city from the suburbs, and the atrium has adopted the suburban model. Spaces like Citicorp Center, the New York headquarters of the Citicorp bank, and Trump Tower, also in New York, are simultaneously office or residential building, public park, and mall. These atriums suggest a suburban arcadia in the midst of the city (no need to commute), an urban fantasy of the picturesque brought into city central.

The urban corporate atrium is an attempt to smooth over contradictions between environmental decay and technological progress. As a miniutopian retreat from the stresses of city life, it reevokes the notion of “garden” as idealized landscape (the return to a preurban Eden), attempting to reconnect it to the idea of technology as an aid to man. The same attempt lay behind the 19th-century utopian communes of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, which abandoned the city for the countryside; the Ford Foundation building seeks to address similar issues, but integrates itself with the urban community and urban park that surround it. More recent corporate atriums have increasingly separated themselves from the city fabric. Today, there is a proliferation of separate, self-contained, competing corporate atriums, which tends to vitiate the radicalness of the Ford Foundation model. Emilio Ambasz’s just-completed San Antonio Botanical Conservatory stands as a critique of this trend, and as an attempt to rethink the questions raised by the atrium form.



1. Quoted in Anthony Vidler, “The Third Typology,” in Leon Krim et al., Rational Architecture, New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1978, p. 29.

2. This idea is discussed by Richard Etlin and Vidler in Oppositions 8, Spring 1977, pp. 3 and 15-31, and by Etlin in his book The Architecture of Death, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984.

3. Vidler, “Cemeteries of Life and Death,” Oppositions 8, p. 13.

4. Etlin, “Landscapes of Eternity,” Oppositions 8, p. 18.

5. Vidler, “Cemeteries of Life and Death,” p. 13.

6. Vidler, “Promenades for Leisure,” Oppositions 8, p. 49.

7. Quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, “Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk: Redeeming Mass Culture for the Revolution,” New German Critique 29, Spring/Summer 1983, pp. 216-17.

8. John Portman and Jonathan Barnett, The Architect as Developer, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976, p. 185.

9. Ibid., p. 96.

10. See Michael J. Bednar, The New Atrium, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1986, p. 37.


In New York’s Park Avenue Atrium, designed by Edward Durell Stone Associates in 1983, the plants and flowers of the indoor garden grow in planters of polished stainless steel, which anamorphically mirror the environment. Side walls are sheathed in reflective glass and polished steel, in a complex geometry of crystalline forms which shine in the sun. The quality of the light constantly changes with the movement of sun and clouds. Urban architecture such as this, which tries to restore technology’s glamour by combining it with environmentalism (implicit in the placement of the garden in the city), denies the specific historical critique of technology presented by the ecology movement.

The Park Avenue Atrium is among the most futuristic of the indoor parks in New York. In addition to its glass and steel surfaces, glass-walled elevators shoot up and down its walls, hurling visitors toward the sky while preserving their view and light. One is reminded of the interior of a space capsule, or of the artificial world that Arthur C. Clarke describes in his novel Rendezvous with Rama: this world is “bowl shaped,” or like “a gigantic well . . . a huge cylinder” whose “perfectly smooth . . . apparently seamless metal surfaces . . . shot light back.” “Beyond this little oasis of light the land rose up to—no, become—the sky.”1

Post-Modern serving carts resembling Laugier’s “rustic hut” are available to offer lunch to visitors in the atrium garden. The planters can be repositioned into different garden arrangements for other uses of the space. Although a public-amenity status has been granted by the city, the space can also be leased to tenants of the building for private functions.



1. Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama, London and Sydney: Pan Books, 1973, pp. 41, 69 and 70


In his Ford Foundation building, 1963–67, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo pioneered the use of private space as a public amenity. As Roche has said, the building was intended to “fit into the [urban] environment,”1 reversing the destructive model of many of the glass-and-steel office high-rises of the postwar era. The parklike, glass-roofed atrium is the core of the building, which is built in a square C shape. The glass wall of the south elevation fronts on 42nd Street. In the C’s center is what Roche has called a “large garden court.” Workers have common access to the garden, and most of the offices above ground level have a view of it, and across to the other glass-walled offices around it. The building creates a sense of communal well-being. The atrium is designed as a shared space allowing staff members to be free to meditate as well as to be aware of each other.

The atrium park addresses environmental concerns, and its own place in the city. Signs near the central pool read, “The pool is filled and the garden is watered with rain from the roof and steam condensate, which are collected in a cistern. This emergency store of water is drawn off as needed during times of water shortage, keeping the garden green without tapping the city’s scarce supplies.” With an adjacent park and the semiprivate lawn areas of the surrounding Tudor City apartments, the atrium forms a green complex in this area of the city. The walkways and stairs throughout the garden are surfaced with glazed bricks, all aligned to the same east-west orientation as the sidewalk paving outside. Their color approximates the color of the surrounding buildings on 42nd Street. Internal setbacks in the building create three levels of terrace rising from the central court, suggesting the rock outcrops of the natural Manhattan landscape, and mediating the garden paths’ descent from the higher 43rd Street entrance to the 42nd Street entrance. These terraces also relate to the existing street lines, and to the low setbacks of the adjacent Tudor City apartment buildings.

The floor-to-ceiling windows of the foundation’s library are framed in Cor-Ten steel, which rusts to form a brownish patina. The popularity of Cor-Ten in the late ’60s was a departure from the ubiquitous plastic and sheet-metal extrusions in the preceding generation of art and architecture. Like wood, this material accepts, even incorporates, its own natural aging process and thus the natural cycle. It doesn’t try to dominate its environment or to pretend at a new, better world through the “miracle of chemistry.” Its use seems to question the advocacy of technological progress implicit elsewhere in contemporary architecture.

The atrium was codesigned by architect Dan Kiley, who is largely known for his landscape work. The original planting, by Everett Conklin, included eight 35-foot-high magnolias (which, surprisingly, lived for 18 years indoors). Also planted in the garden is a mixture of schefflera, gardenia, ficus, low shrubbery, English and Swedish ivy, and ferns. At the lowest point of the garden, sunken below street level, is a square pool, with at its center a calla lily in a brick planter. At the water’s edge the sweet fragrance of gardenias mingles with the splash of a small jet into the pool. At the top of the atrium’s western side, the foliage of a line of trees can be seen jutting through the balcony rail, echoing the greenery below, and evoking the ancient archetype of the hanging garden.



1. Quoted in Francesco Dal Co, Kevin Roche, New York: Rizzoli, 1985, p. 43.


Emilio Ambasz’s San Antonio Botanical Conservatory represents a development in the contemporary city’s attempt to reconcile urban and garden space. This just-completed group of conservatories, built not for a corporation but for the San Antonio Botanical Center Society, differentiates itself from both the American glass-covered urban atrium and the recent nostalgic vogue to restore the European plaza as res publica. If the corporate atrium combines the historicist metaphor of the winter garden, the ’60s space-capsule topology of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the ecological/suburban patio, Ambasz’s work evokes the ideological and metaphoric implications of the novel and film Dune.

Most of the conservatory, set in 50 acres of previously undeveloped land within the city limits of San Antonio, Texas, is underground or below ground level. The earth, then, is used both as a container of plants and as urban space, and to control interior light and heat. The architecture suggests troglodytic caves, and the sequentially linked rooms and sunken courtyards suggest both Pueblo Indian dwellings and vernacular Mediterranean architecture (derived from the early cities of Turkey and Sumeria). The most crucial aspect of Ambasz’s scheme is its connection with the landscape. The architecture is the landscape, not simply placed upon it, or enclosing a simulacrum of “nature.” Ambasz is rethinking Laugier’s idea that the Enlightenment city’s plan be derived from the English garden. Instead of creating a new building in a city, or even a new city park, the work preserves and harmonizes with the indigenous landscape.

The San Antonio project preserves the environment. When elements of the greenhouse project above the ground, their configurations relate to the wind and to the orientation of the sun, and they mirror the forms of mountain ranges. This compositional approach can be related to the raked sand garden of Japan, whose central object is often the metaphoric form of Mount Fuji. This form is surrounded by raked-sand waves and troughs symbolizing the ocean.

The visitor enters the conservatory by descending a semicircle of wide steps leading, processionally, down into the earth, to a tunnel that opens on a small, round, sunken courtyard, its top open to the sun. In this antechamber stands one large tree, a Mediterranean fan palm. After passing through a series of rooms, the visitor moves into a large, sunken, slightly trapezoidal courtyard open to the sun. With its colonnaded sides, this space recalls the Spanish-style open square of some southern-Texas towns. At its center, however, is a cooling free-form lake. This could symbolize the value of large manmade or natural bodies of water in the southeastern United States’ semiarid landscape.

The court narrows at the far end, leading to the palm house, the largest space. Its floor spirals upward; the visitor is walking out onto a roof deck, flush with the ground. To one side of the court is the fern room, where a glass ceiling, also flush with the ground, can be obscured to varying degrees by a screen of movable shades, to control the light. A series of pumps produces a permanent mist, as if from the interior cascade. False rocks made of fiberglass conjoin the “natural” and the designed “artificial.”


In front of what is now the Park Avenue headquarters of the Chemical Bank was once an open plaza. Describing the condition of that space in the late ’70s, Ted Hammer, of the architectural firm of Haines Lundberg Waehler, noted, “The existing plaza didn’t [drain] quite right; . . . you couldn’t walk across the plaza without getting soaked. There were steps that were huge . . . there was no way that a disabled person could ever get into that building.”1 Furthermore, drug deals were known to occur in the plaza. The space was enclosed, then, to the firm’s design, through the construction of a greenhouselike addition.

Glass walled, ChemCourt alters its appearance with the fluctuations of natural light. Inside the court is a garden, with anodized-aluminum columns, canals of water, a tiered marble fountain, and planters faced with stone. Above the doorway in the lobby, overhead glass shelves, supported by the openwork diagonals of steel trusses, rise and narrow to a pyramidal point. Each holds a long gray planter filled with the hanging green vines of Cissis antarctica. The cool clinical light of a bank of fluorescent tubes reflects in white stripes on the gray-tinted glass of the risers, creating the impression of a high-tech Babylonian garden.

Near the facade is a low stone channel filled with gently rippling water, which reflects and then dissolves the geometry of the metal frame supporting the glass curtain wall. The hard lines of the channel are softened by hanging foliage and tassels from a planter of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata), their boles wreathed, in season, in the firefly illumination of Christmas-tree lights. All of the trees are electrically wired. The slender trunks, bottoming into a fat thickness at the ground, are surrounded by a variety of herbaceous plants.

Mark Morrison, the project’s landscape architect, wanted to combine pleasure with information in a civic-minded space. He worked to create “an urban botanical garden . . . [in which] everybody can learn, by having the common everyday houseplants. . . . In ChemCourt there’s an 18-foot marginata, with an overall diameter of probably 10 to 12 feet. People go in and they think ‘That plant in my living room, it’s only 3 feet tall, is that really the same plant?’ And that’s important, I think, and as valuable as having something flown in from Madagascar.”2 The garden also includes seasonal displays, originally installed by the New York Botanical Garden. A stack of three planters split by a central water channel and fountain, for example, houses poinsettias in winter, purple and yellow chrysanthemums in the fall, and orchids in the spring. This seasonality reverses the artifice of the 19th-century winter garden, which denied the natural cycle.

In its combination of entertainment and education, ChemCourt in some ways resembles the museum. The Equitable Center and Philip Morris branches of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the IBM Building, with its basement exhibition space, are nearby; these museum spaces are a development of the practice, begun in the atrium, of providing public space as a trade-off for more commercial floor area. In them, the corporation and the museum become synonymous.



1. Ted Hammer, interview with the authors, 1987.

2. Mark Morrison, interview with the authors, 1987.


At other corporate atriums, the video and audio surveillance equipment is concealed. Here, it is fully visible on the monitors behind the stage. Perhaps this is in keeping with IBM’s image as an information-service corporation.


A weekday at the Park Avenue Plaza atrium finds homeless people clustered on either side of the large waterfall that dominates the lobby. Atriums are legally designated as public amenities; hence the tension between their private ownership and public use.

Dan Graham is an artist who lives in New York. Robin Hurst is a designer for a New York garden-design firm.