Completing a Mid-century Vision for Arkansas
This study revives the forgotten vision for a public water garden by internationally-renowned mid-century architect Edward Durell Stone, a native Arkansan. Contemporaneous with his design of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Stone designed an equally monumental park to accompany the Greers Ferry Dam in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Completed in 1962, the dam was part of a reservoir-building program to generate hydroelectric power in tandem with regional economic development and new community building for this rural area. Influenced by the hydraulics in Roman and Persian water gardens, Stone’s masterful vision deployed late modernist tropes combining monumentality and glamour across the 269-acre site. Despite the site’s 240-foot drop into a ravine, Stone’s schematic vocabulary left gaps on matters of passage over the terrain, native planting, and water as an experiential medium. Designed in a different era, Stone’s design did not account for ecological fit or visitor-centered approaches to support park operations. Essentially a heritage preservation project despite not having been built, the 2016 Plan shows that preservation can be an innovative platform for reframing and refreshing the contemporary.
Toward Complexity: Reservoir-building, Economic Development, and Placemaking
The symmetry of dam (hard infrastructure) and water garden (soft infrastructure) offers a new environmental model for park design. Excess water (energy) created through the Greers Ferry Dam’s impoundment of the river can be harvested and strategically recycled throughout the Greers Ferry Water Garden to grow new life and create higher order landscapes. Scientists refer to such transformations as “complexity”, the key to building resilient communities. Such transformations of low-quality energy into high-quality social environments parallel objectives in dam construction—the generation of renewable power and rural development from the simple storage of water.
Design: Combining Stone’s Formal Approach with a Visitor-Centered Approach
Three principles guide the 2016 Greers Ferry Water Garden Master Plan.
1. Preservation: Uphold but render feasible E. D. Stone’s grand vision for a national water garden, an unfulfilled legacy of the State of Arkansas. The 2016 Plan prepared by the design team follows the strong form of Stone’s vision that he defined through four primary geographies: Formal Ridge Garden—Ravine Passage—Lower Formal Garden—Circular Terminus. The updated plan shifts Stone’s overreliance on Roman and Persian garden imagery toward a more place-based expression of each of the four territories. To assure a more visitor-centered experience, the 2016 Plan devises 'Drivescapes,' 'Walkscapes,' and 'Waterscapes' that thread varying serial passages through the park. The three “scapes” provide coherent narratives by which to differentiate park experiences. Whereas Stone’s elegant modernist vocabulary emphasized a formal and culturally bounded experience for a singular user, the three scapes invite repeat visitations through differentiated and changing content.
2. Conservation and Biodiversity Education: Optimize environmental fit of the garden with the site’s ecology and manmade infrastructure. The 2016 Plan uses architectural structures, botanical displays, and engineered walkways to engage and educate the visitor about natural systems in non-traditional ways. Through the invention of various walking geographies the garden is foremost a mile-long Walkscape highlighting the cognitive and material dimensions in walking. This includes the slow formal strolling in the Promenades of the Upper Formal Gardens to the rapid touring through the Outdoor Museum in the ravine, or extreme passage on fabric bridges, cat walks, and climbing walls. The 2016 Plan engages the ravine through development of an Outdoor Museum and Public Art Walk blended into the landscape.
The 2016 Plan introduces a robust botanical function—the collection and display of plants—throughout the garden. Signature plant guilds are tailored to the eight landscape zones organizing the site (e.g., prairie, hardwood forest, water hole, etc.). This ecosystem-based landscape illustrates sustainable design principles in a State that lacks a tradition of landscape architecture design or even a formal public garden. The Greers Ferry Water Garden would fill a gap in Arkansas’ portfolio of cultural attractions.
3. Economic and Cultural Development: Expand tourism and cultural-based economic development, exemplifying a powerful mid-century model of rural economic development. Like the famous TVA in the 1930s, Greers Ferry deployed reservoir-building to generate hydroelectric power attracting new retirement and recreation-based communities, supplemented by scaled tourist amenities like Stone’s water garden. Completion of this mid-century synthesis of energy production, economic development, and community-building broadens the economic base of rural Cleburne County. This synthesis capitalizes on large infrastructure investments to connect placemaking with niche cultural and economic opportunities otherwise unavailable.
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and one of a few university-based teaching offices in the United States dedicated to delivering urban design work. Originated in 1995, the center advances creative development in Arkansas through design, research, and education solutions. Nationally recognized in public-interest design, the center has its own downtown facilities and 5-6 professional design/planning staff, some who also teach. Beyond the focus on urban projects, UACDC has developed eight place-making platforms to shape civic design and public policy at state and municipal levels. These interdisciplinary platforms include 'missing middle housing,' 'agricultural urbanism,' 'transit-oriented development,' 'context-sensitive street design,' 'watershed urbanism,' 'big box urbanism,' 'smart growth,' and 'low impact development,' vocabularies which are locally articulated but hold universal currency.