It wouldn’t really be fair to critique a painting that had only its base coat and its rough composition laid out and to pass judgment before the work was complete.
In that sense, it could be premature to discuss the merits of the Railyard Park. On the other hand, the park’s landscape architecture is really a living, evolving work that draws much of its value and essence from seasonal shifts, plant growth and death, and changing priorities of public use.
On a recent weekend, with the winter sun bright but bleak and with the wind carrying a bite at the tail of its caress, the public happily used the park. Even though the children’s play area, largely designed by public art specialist Mary Miss, is not yet fully open (stonework is still being set around the organic heap of slides and tunnels set into a hillside) it was the popular area for congregation.
It was actually such an unexpected portrait of multi-cultural family happiness that it was momentarily off-putting—like an advertisement for milk or something—but the glee on kids’ faces as they dangled across a network of rope nets, spun dizzily in little whirling planet contraptions, dug through sand and bounded over rock piles made it impossible to avoid softening to the moment.
A barrage of hip Santa Fe citizenry, including tattoo artist Dawn Purnell, IAIA Museum Deputy Director Joseph Sanchez and a whole Goler faction, loitered, either around their kids or on afternoon strolls of their own. Unlike most vanilla playgrounds, this one is thoughtfully created and challenging.
I asked one passerby, who works in the area and often cuts through the park, what his opinion was: “People are using it, so that’s good. It seems kind of dangerous, so that’s good, too.”
As far as kids playing in the park, it comes down to every once in a while someone is going to bust an arm or twist an ankle or take a crack on the chin from a hard, rocky edge. This is the consequence of a free and proper childhood and the first parent to sue is, officially, an asshole.
As to the rest of the park, and its more aesthetic aspirations, they are mostly successful. There are several parallel paths, creating banded walkways or planting beds across the length of the park. This thoroughfare sensibility can be discomforting, especially if one is used to the wild parks full of secret places that are common to coasts and regions where trees grow more thick and wild. But this is the high desert, where the plane of the horizon provides the mystery. This also is winter and early in the life of many of the plantlings. Soon, fruit trees will stretch and blossom, trumpet vines will climb over tall trellises, and grasses will grow bushy and full. Below all of that, these parallels will still course, but they have their meanings and they portray the honest nature of the park as a long, narrow strip along a rail corridor.
The primary path through the park follows the line where a narrow gauge railway (still survived by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway) once ran north from Santa Fe. The path forms an intersection with the Acequia Madre and is as true a heart of settlement in Santa Fe as might be said to exist. Along all the paths are benches of simple, large wooden rectangles, minimal bricks of natural material, some occasioned with metal backs for those who prefer an object to lean against. There is plenty of seating offered by benches and picnic tables, with even more to come. Some of the tables even have grills at their sides, unusual and probably verboten despite their technical presence in this fire-fearful area.
Against the rail tracks sits a bed of clumpy native grasses, framed in by an “acequia niña,” which will eventually be used to irrigate demonstration gardens. The grasses and the stone-filled acequia lead past a circle of fresh grass and on toward the gently sloping angle that serves as the viewing platform for performances and other events, already used to great success for showing The Wizard of Oz, during the park’s grand opening.
Across the park from there is a circular ramada where roses will eventually rule, along with several porch-swing-style benches. Problematically, and no doubt as a special legal issue, the benches are also anchored into the ground with cables. One can’t swing so much as violently lurch like zombies chasing after human brains.
The desing team, including Miss, famed landscape architect Ken Smith and Frederic Schwartz Architects, laid out the park according to its agreed sensibilities—and deserves credit for pushing Santa Fe much farther along aesthetically than it would ever have gotten on its own. The Trust for Public Land, which managed the park’s construction, is also to be applauded for having an architectural competition, which almost inevitably produces a better result than just hiring the usual suspects. Smith and Miss, however, both owe quite a bit to local input, especially that of Santa Fe-based landscape architect Edith Katz.
The Railyard Park and Plaza
Guadalupe Street and Paseo de Peralta
This article initially omitted key architects, Frederic Schwartz Architects. SFR regrets the error.