Oklahoma’s 21st Century Park: Myriad Botanical Gardens

The impressive overhaul of Oklahoma City’s Myriad Botanical Gardens represents the latest effort by today’s landscape architects to conceptualize urban parks, not as pastoral retreats, but as highly programmed spaces that attract the greatest number of visitors.

First, however, some backstory. In the United States, the era of modern park-building began with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s winning “Greensward” scheme for New York’s Central Park design competition in 1857. The concept behind the picturesque landscaping they proposed was that it serve as a foil to the dense blocks of buildings surrounding it. Activities were permitted, based on their visual appeal: Strolling on paths, riding horseback, and enjoying carriage rides were allowed. Picnics, ballgames, and other activities we normally associate with parks, were banned. The idea that urban park areas should have such limited use persisted well into the 20th century.

Beginning in the New Deal era and continuing through the postwar years, many parks and green spaces were built with little or no planned activities in mind, particularly as features of so-called “urban renewal” plans. After they were built, criticism of their underuse soon began to be heard. During the 1950s, Jane Jacobs, then an editor at the magazine Architectural Forum, visited troubled urban areas and interviewed the residents, publishing her findings in the influential book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961). In this book, she made such simple statements about parks as “[L]iveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life,” and “[I]t takes a wide functional mixture of uses to populate and enliven a neighborhood park throughout the day.” In the late 1960s, William H. Whyte, a colleague of Jacobs, expanded on these ideas while working with the New York Planning Commission. His studies questioned why many of the plazas and small parks built according to the 1961 Zoning Resolution in exchange for extra building height and square footage, went unused. In his book, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” (1980), he summarized his findings, coming to an equally simple concept that he dubbed “Self Congestion.” According to Whyte, “What attracts most people, it would appear, is other people.” He argued that the most effective way to draw people into urban green spaces was to increase the number of planned activities happening there.

These two critics set in motion a new concept of how urban parks should be conceived: not merely as green, visual pleasures, but as places of intense and varied programmed activity. Whyte was personally involved as a collaborator with Philadelphia-based Hanna/Olin on the redesign of the first widely publicized park to make use of these principles, Bryant Park. Nicknamed “Needles Park” in the 1970s due to rampant drug use on its grounds, Bryant Park, directly adjacent to the New York Public Library, was an embarrassment to the city. The new, neo-Beaux-Arts design — with a formal axis, a central rectangular lawn, and straight allées of London plane trees added a laundry list of amenities: food vendors, public toilets, moveable seating, public performances, and so on. The park rehabilitation improved accessibility and, perhaps most important, removed a perimeter hedge that had secluded it from the street and obscured the illicit activities then occurring there. Because these changes to Bryant Park drew lots of new visitors and discouraged undesirables, it has been a model for numerous later projects.

The spate of urban parks recently built or remodeled in the cores of Texas cities, for instance, follow this model, except that they substitute a visual language of neo-modernism for one of neo-traditionalism. A few examples are Houston’s Discovery Green (2008), designed by Hargreaves Associates, and Market Square Park (2010), designed by Lauren Griffith Associates. Dallas has Main Street Garden Park (2009), designed by Thomas Balsley Associates, and Klyde Warren Park (2012), designed by The Office of James Burnett. So it is perhaps not surprising that, when Oklahoma City began looking at ways to enhance its downtown core, it selected the prevailing urban park model for the overhaul of Myriad Botanical Gardens.

As in the four Texas examples, Myriad Botanical Gardens’ original design was a “failed” example of modernist principles. In 1965, the Urban Renewal Authority of Oklahoma City formally adopted a downtown master plan devised by I. M. Pei. In the plan, he proposed an almost textbook example of what Jane Jacobs said not to do. Many historic buildings were demolished. Some streets were widened and others were closed to create superblocks. In the southern part of downtown, one of the consolidated mega-blocks was designated for a public park directly adjacent to the planned Myriad Convention Center (now, Cox Convention Center).

The design for Myriad Gardens, as it was originally called, was done by Conklin & Rossant, architects best remembered for their master plan of the new town of Reston, Va., the first sections of which opened 

in 1965. In the center of the 17-acre park, after realizing that there was an aquifer about 25 ft below grade, they dug down to “uncover” a large, T-shaped pond. Around the pond, two stories below grade, were concrete-paved areas accessible only by steep sets of stairs. As the park’s second main feature, a double set of futuristic concrete, steel, and glass tubes, the “Crystal Bridges” were proposed to span the pond and contain tropical gardens. Although the initial project was highly publicized and it won a Progressive Architecture design award in 1973, the actual construction was delayed. The park was not begun until 1983, and it opened to the public in 1988 — though with only one Crystal Bridge, due to problems with fundraising.

With two seldom-used buildings as immediate neighbors — the convention center on one side and the Mummers Theater (now called the Stage Center) on the other — and surrounded by a number of vacant lots, Myriad Gardens did not receive many visitors. And by 2006, when Devon Energy Corporation’s executive chairman Larry Nichols started casting about for a new location for his fast-growing company’s headquarters, Myriad Botanical Gardens was in a state approaching that of Bryant Park during its “Needles Park” phase.

In 2010, Project 180 was launched by the city at Nichols’ behest, to refurbish public areas of downtown. Devon Energy even gave the city a $95 million loan to get work started faster. Based on a master plan designed by The Office of James Burnett, “180” refers to the number of acres to be improved. Its approximately $175 million budget was funded by a variety of sources, chiefly tax increment financing (TIF), which was provided in large part by the construction of the new 50-story Devon Tower (2012), a shiny new bauble designed by Pickard Chilton. While much of the money went to new streetscapes, a large chunk — about $40 million — was allocated for Myriad Botanical Gardens.

Burnett’s office sought to correct as many of the design “mistakes” as possible, while working elements that could not be removed (the Crystal Bridge) and those that were desirable (allées of mature trees), into a new, coherent project. The biggest issue was how to deal with the sunken pond. The excavation fill was piled high in order to make berms along the sides of the park. The few sets of steps snaking down the steep sides were narrow, and wheelchair accessibility had not been considered. First, the pond was reduced in size, and the northern, short end of the T was filled in. A 28,000-sf event lawn took its place. The berms were cut down, and the slope down to the pond was eased with the installation of tiered and switchback ramps and bigger and broader stairs. The circular outdoor stage at the foot of the Crystal Bridge remains from the original design, but seating has been extended. The park was further divided into several distinct areas, each with its own type of activities. There is a dog park in the southeast quadrant, for example, while the northeast quadrant is home to a quieter, more naturalistic section of garden.

After coming up with the master plan, The Office of James Burnett invited Gensler to design several new park pavilions and to redesign the entry area to the Crystal Bridge. Gensler’s team, headed by David Epstein, AIA, designed a diaphanous bandstand made of bent steel tubes that anchors one end of the even lawn. Epstein also designed a circular, open-air pavilion for the southwest quadrant of the park, about which a smaller activity lawn, a water park that mimics the atmospheric effects of a thunderstorm, and a children’s garden pivot. A much larger, glass-enclosed circular pavilion on the park’s eastern edge contains a full-service restaurant and faces a plaza that doubles as a skating rink in the winter. A crisp version of neo-modern, it is very precisely fitted-together, with white-colored cement board, sheet metal, and plaster panels accented by pipe columns.

Although the redesign of Myriad Botanical Gardens at this point is not groundbreaking, it is nonetheless a thoroughly polished project, one that follows successful precedents now entering their third decade. The project gains in significance because it is part of a larger comprehensive and sensible improvement plan that extends throughout Oklahoma City’s downtown, a plan that even goes so far as to reroute a section of interstate freeway away from this core area. (An unfortunate omission, however, should be pointed out. There is no concrete proposal to refurbish the Mummers (Stage Center) Theater. Designed by John Johansen, this important landmark won a national AIA award in 1970, yet now stands vacant.) Myriad Botanical Gardens’ redesign represents a prevailing trend, not only in landscape architecture, but in image-crafting for “urban” areas in contemporary cities. Nowadays, the idea is not to “create order out of the desperate confusion of our time,” as Mies once said of his work, but rather to create interest out of the desperate monotony of our time; to harness the authentic, gritty “chaos” of older downtown areas, smooth it over a bit, and neatly package it for mass consumption.

Ben Koush is a Houston-based writer and architect.

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect January/February 2014.