Interview with Visionary Architect, Doug McKean

Q: Why did you choose to do your master's thesis on Playland? What were your guiding design principles at the time?

A: I was concerned that Playland was an historic resource, which like many others, was losing its original reasons for being. While obtaining my Master's degree, I was deeply influenced by the writings of J.B. Jackson. In his book, "The Necessity of Ruins," he wrote:

"It seems clear that the whole preservation and restoration movement is much more than a means of promoting tourism or a sentimentalizing over an obscure part of the past...First there is that golden age, the time of harmonious beginnings. Then ensues a period when the old days are forgotten and the golden age falls into neglect. Finally, comes a time when we rediscover and seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty."

Many historic buildings and sites across the country have lost their original purpose - train stations, military bases; factories, and, yes, amusement parks. My main guiding principle at the time I did my thesis, entitled "Playland Amusement Park: A Park in Transition," was to respect history while allowing the incredibly valuable shoreline parkland asset to evolve to accommodate the changing needs of society. Unfortunately it has taken Playland literally falling into ruin (missing tower elements, half-missing colonnade, degraded (colored plexiglass colonnade), to energize the community. Yet, as J.B. Jackson has noted "there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity...ruins provide an incentive for restoration".

Perhaps Playland hadn't suffered enough deterioriation in 1979 when I first proposed its reinvention, now sought by the County.

Q: Since then your career evolved and you have many accolades to your credit, how does your past work affect your current thinking and architectural design?

A: Interestingly, my core values regarding environmental design, formed early in my education, have proven steadfast - and each project has built upon lessons learned from the previous efforts It is interesting to have the chance to update my vision plan for Playland from my original thinking in 1979 - to see what things I would now change and what remains the same. I proposed the need for recreation space and that need still remains. I proposed retaining the historic structures and plan layout and shortly thereafter they were designated a National Historic Landmark. I recognized the importance of Plaland's shoreline site on the Atlantic Flyway and kept clear of what has since become the Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary.

The work I have done since my Playland thesis continues to evolve the concepts of minimizing our impacts on the environment - or in the words of the Great Laws of the Iroquois Confederacy - "In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisionmaking on the next seven generations." Even if all new buildings were built to the highest environmental standards, the problems of our inefficient existing building stock would persist (minimizing the benefit of those new building initiatives) so without dealing with our existing buildings - like Playland's historic buildings - we are merely "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic".

Q: Grand Central, The Cooper-Hewitt Museum and other projects that you have been involved are emblematic and reflect the needs of the community and are emblematic in some cases such as the Shanghai...Do you see any synergy between those projects and your vision for Playland?

A: The Main Concourse at Grand Central is essentially New York City's living room - a place where people meet to begin to share the experience of NY together - it is a very special place indeed. Playland is essentially Westchester County's backyard - and should be filled with the outdoor activities that we need to rejuvenate and revive ourselves from the various stresses of our daily lives that keep us all so busy. The opportunity to shape the the future use of these significant spaces in the public realm is a privilege and requires a focus as to what the essential elements are of cultural settings / landscapes.

Q: What do you mean when you say that you are committed to "sustainability, " does it simply mean that you are committed to preserving the environment?

A: To me sustainability is more than a buzz word. It needs to be a paradigm shift for all of us. For the most part, I focus on environmental sustainability. Yet unless ideas are economically sustainable as well, they will fall short of having any value (and may never be realized in the first place). Sustainability is more than being "green" or 'doing no harm' - to me, it is designing with nature, instead of trying to figure out how to control it. It is more than preserving the environment, it is about designing and building "living buildings" that actually restore the environment.

Q: Do you think that the preservation of National landmarks is necessary, in the context of current community needs? Does historic preservation need to be static (Prince Charles of the UK feels that landmark buildings need to address community needs and not become old relics...)?

A: I do believe that national, state and local landmarks are essential. The preservation movement really took shape in the U.S. after we lost the original Penn Station in New York, a magnificent building designed by McKim Mead and White - and were about to loose Grand Central. Development pressures - especially in densely populated areas like NYC and Westchester County - could strip us of our cultural resources. Our landmarks are mirrors, within which we take stock of what we were and what we have become - and to think about where we are headed. The way we treat our buildings and landscapes tells a story about us.

Preservation does not mean that we should make a museum piece out of every old building or freeze them in time. Instead, historic buildings and landscapes must evolve and become 'living landmarks' - or in Playland's case a 'living landscape' - that reveres the past while infusing it with life. Past generations have provided us with some incredible 'legacy properties' which dot across our country - and the Westchester County Park System is one of those legacies which must be preserved and enhanced for future generations.

Sustainable Playland Inc.