New York-based architects Balmori often use unique means for their experimental projects. Their floating islands, green sculptures, and plenty of other intriguing surprises change up the cityscape and redefine urban planning.

A mime dots the air with glistening soap bubbles; children are squealing with delight. Couples enjoy a rest on nearby benches while senior citizens, dressed in waistcoats, berets, and jackets, have claimed a shady spot below the trees. Most of Bilbao seems to meet and mingle at Parque República de Abando on the banks of the River Nervión.

The trademark of the large parklands become visible from bird’s eye view: lines of tarmac, grass, and stone retrace ever-new visual stripes, lines, and loops on the ground. Stepping back even further, it becomes apparent, how much meaning this park holds for the Basque metropolis, itself a paragon of structural reinvention after the decline of the region’s heavy industry.

A Woman in the Parqie República de Abando in Bilbao
“The garden that climbs the stairs“ in Bilbao.
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates

The urban oasis that has emerged between the Palacio Euskalduna and the Guggenheim Museum since 1996, seems to capture – and transform – some of the sheer power of work and hard graft that used to fill the area’s torn-down warehouses, factories, and dockyards.

Now, Bilbainos enjoy spirited discussions or carefree sunset walks with friends or outdoor sports. This has been made possible through the work of several different architectural experts. Among them: Balmori Associates from New York City.

Parque República de Abando
Inside Parque República de Abando.
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates
Landscape Architecture by Balmori Architects
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates
Urban architecture in Bilbao
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates

Artistic architecture for all

The wild river of green and stone, artificially constructed with 21st century means, is a great example of the unique approach practiced at Balmori. Instead of grey functional architecture, serving a universal, interchangeable taste, Balmori like doing things a little differently. With a cheeky wink and an artistic touch.

The result is often surprising. Take their mysterious floating island from 2005. Planted with trees, it was dragged up and down the Hudson River along the Manhattan shore, prompting droves of people to stop and stare at this fascinating apparition from the banks.

The project is another homage by Balmori: The concept is the brainchild of the painter and artist Robert Smithson, who, in the late 1960s, decided to free art from the shackles of the museum. As Smithson could not complete the piece in his lifetime, Diana Balmori put it together for a Smithson retrospective at the New York Whitney Museum of American Art.

All of her life, the vigorous visionary – who died last year aged 84 – had been obsessed with the notion of reconciling architecture and the environment. By lecturing at Yale University, Diana Balmori had influenced an entire generation of designers, prompting the New York Times to claim that she had “championed a new understanding of landscape architecture and the built environment.“

floating island by Balmori Architects
“Floating Island” in New York.
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates
view of the floating island in New York City
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates
closeup of the floating island by Balmori Architects on the Hudson river
Photo: courtesy of Balmori Associates

Architecture as landscape

Before Diana Balmori’s time, landscape architecture had merely enjoyed the status of fancy gardening: three trees for the roadside and maybe a touch of green for spacing. Yet attitudes are shifting and changing around the world. It is becoming apparent, that tomorrow’s city cannot be built with an early 20th century blueprint.

The metropolis is where we live and work; where we kick back and spend time with our friends. It therefore deserves as much greenery as possible. Balmori showcased a glimpse of that vision in South Korean Sejong in 2012.

“There used to be nothing but rice paddies,“ Noémie Lafaurie-Debany, partner at the renowned architecture firm, remembers. “We placed the city in nature, not the other way around.“ Or, as her co-partner Javier Gonzalez Campana likes to underscore, “we need to rethink how cities work.“

Founder Diana Balmori in her office
Diana Balmori leaves a legacy of urban oases.
Photo: courtesy of Kristin Gladney

A new generation of urban planners

The two architects are paragons of the second generation of landscape and city planners at Balmori, tackling urban development as we know it. In Sejong, the landscape itself drives and shapes the overall masterplan. Ministries were moved underground, below a four-kilometer-long park – a novel, exciting way to approach urban living.

Two generations earlier, it was Le Corbusier who had paved the way for such daring concepts: For the city of Algiers, the design icon had created a giant residential complex – snaking all the way along the coast and topped by a highway.

Bird's-eye view of the green spaces in Sejong
A green pathway through Sejong in South Korea.
Photo: courtesy of Efrain Mendez

Yet Noémie Lafaurie-Debany and Javier Gonzalez Campana not only want to inject more green into the gray, but also design cities from scratch that double as extended nature. All of this with closed cycles and green as a dominant constant in city planning – to promote the long overdue fusion of city and nature.

For more information on Balmori, visit their website.

Eskaudi Plaza in Bilbao designed by Balmori Architects
Euskadi Plaza in Bilbao.
Photo: courtesy of Efrain Mendez