What distinguishes Lexington, Ky., is not any particular building, monument, landmark, or site. The downtown is an undistinguished string of buildings, its main square a plaza marooned in front of convention center and an arena that only fills when the University of Kentucky basketball team comes down from the hill to play.
What is most remarkable about the place is a square block of downtown that is a grass field, marked off by a fence. It is beautiful not only because it is a void, but because of the fact that it, purely by happenstance, offers a little bit of what does make Lexington amazing: those fields of grass so luscious that they seem almost blue and so filled with nutrients that racehorses develop strong bones, cut into undulating squares by white fences. This is all because it was a site cleared for redevelopment and has lain fallow for years.
Bluegrass is what makes Lexington so beautiful, but you can only find it in the suburbs. That is the situation that the Town Creek competition, whose jury I chaired last week, aimed to remedy. The idea was to find a way to bring the waterway of that name, which is one of the main reasons why Lexington came into being on this site, back from the concrete tomb in which it has been encased since a series of floods decades ago. The creek could be the center of a linear urban park that would flow through downtown, the city reasoned, and could end up in a glorified catchment basin in the former rail yards to the west of the Rupp Arena, turning that into a larger-scale park.
The winning scheme, by New York firm Scape, proposed exactly that. Of the five invited entries, it created such a park with the most bravura and drama. Designer Kate Orff took her inspiration from the karst stone that makes the bluegrass so blue. A sponge-like layer that alternately lets water seep through and is almost impervious, it underlies the rolling hills, swallows creeks and spits them out as boils, layering into the kind of ledges that separate Lexington’s downtown from the university to the south.
The scheme celebrates that karst most clearly in a waterfall that will bring the water from a reconfigured plaza in front of the arena, where the creek actually disappears back underground to accommodate the crowds for sporting events and conventions, to the Lexington Hollows, an undulating park stretching from downtown, over the old train tracks, and out to the fields beyond.
Against this (quasi) natural drama, Scape poses the Karst Commons, a hardscape where the water will boil up into kid-pleasing fountains and a bridge will bring students, faculty, and staff down from the university into a new heart for the central business district. The project actually starts on the east end, where the creek will follow an extension of existing park trials and will water new community gardens.
The linear park thus does everything we expect from modern urban parks: urban agriculture, animated public plazas, linear green, a recreational commons, and a bit of city branding. It does it with great beauty and verve. Will the park be built? Scape showed how the project could be phased, but it will require substantial investments on any timeline. Yet, you could make the argument that only this kind of recreational transformation will save a downtown in which people no longer live, and their work is increasingly no longer near their homes. Recreation will attract both temporary and permanent residents (both human and fauna) and make downtown work. That is ironic: here, all over America and the world, it is nature that will save those places that owe their existence to gridding and burying the land on which they were built.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.