Steven L. Cantor ’73: When Technology and Design Merge on the Roof
Aerial views of cities across the nation are revealing something rather unconventional — small patches of green on an otherwise lackluster urban canvas.
It’s not altogether uncommon to look up at towering buildings, from the vantage of a bustling sidewalk, and observe stalks of bamboo swaying in a rooftop breeze or crabapple trees showering down pink blossoms. In order to navigate these rooftop gardens, landscape architect Steven L. Cantor ’73 is aiming to assist students, professionals and the general public with his book, Green Roofs in Sustainable Landscape Design (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008).
Cantor works at Stantec Consulting in New York, but his green thumb propensity took root in Atlanta, where he grew up and where gardening was considered a family affair, with the most handsome gardens becoming a source of neighborhood pride. He came to Columbia to study music and recounts being influenced by composers such as Charles Dodge ’66 GSAS, ’70 Arch. and Charles Wuorinen ’61, ’63 GSAS. Cantor enrolled in an urban biology class at Barnard taught by James Schmidt, who led his students on field trips to Morningside Park and to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens and Llewellyn Park. Inspired by a hands-on approach to learning, Cantor studied under landscape architect Arthur E. Bye Jr., who taught at the Architecture School. Cantor earned an M.L.A. in landscape architecture from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1976, but his passion for music remained, and he earned an M.A. in piano accompaniment from the University of Colorado in 1986.
The idea for Green Roofs came about somewhat serendipitously. In 2003, Cantor was teaching a community education course, “Roof Gardens and Brownstone Gardens,” jointly sponsored by Cooper Union and The New York Botanical Garden, when after class, a student approached him and inquired about his knowledge of green roofs, which at the time he confessed was limited. She handed him a brochure for an annual conference in Chicago, a city that boasts the most green roofs in the country, and the range of topics covered fascinated him. In particular, Cantor was interested in the rapidly evolving vocabulary pertaining to green roofs.
After securing the interest of his publisher, Cantor’s first step was to obtain a translated version of the German Forschungs- gesellschaft Landschaftsentwicklung Landschaftsbau guidelines, which highlight terminology for green roof installation and upkeep. Green roofs have a long history in Europe, dating back to thatched roofs, but they are relatively new in North America. In the overview, Cantor felt it necessary to expose the lay reader to green roof vocabulary without too much technological jargon. Cantor states that “a green roof is simply a ‘vegetated roof’ designated for improving the environment,” whereas green roof technology is “a practical application of a systematic approach.” But he also believes there is plenty of room to include aesthetics, claiming that “the endeavor of creating a green roof puts you on the cusp of technical knowledge and art.”
With recent and perhaps a revived interest in the environmental and financial benefits of green roofs, Cantor has seen the initial question of whether to install a green roof shift to one of what kind of green roof to install. He does not spend time belaboring the benefits of green roofs. “The book wasn’t designed to preach to the converted,” he says, “but to instead provide a range of examples.”
The green roofs he features in the “Case Studies” chapter are meant to show instances of innovation. Much of the time, Cantor notes, “innovation requires a certain level of risk,” whether it’s arranging a variety of different colored sedum plants in a quilt-like pattern or adopting a unique method of irrigation using recycled water for raised plant beds.
From the onset, Cantor dispels any misconceptions that green roof installation is as simple as rolling out a mat of grass. There are many choices to consider, such as methods of installation, growing medium, irrigation and, as he points out, “nothing in a manmade landscape is maintenance-free.” Nonetheless, there is a sense that the challenges of creating and maintaining a green roof are in part the reward. There are no guarantees, with ever-changing variables such as plants, birds and weather. And it’s observing these changes — watching the grass grow, as they say — that makes it all worthwhile.
As a green roof philosophy emerges, the very notion of “green” is being called into question. Cantor points out the mutability of the term “green roof,” stating, “They aren’t green year-round. In fact, in Portland, Ore., they’ve adopted the term ‘eco-roof’ instead, and in London, Dusty Gedge [a green roof consultant and urban ecologist] is championing the term ‘living roof’ to highlight the importance of preserving habitats for endangered birds such as the black redstart.”
Green Roofs combines the navigability of a textbook with the artfulness of a coffee table book. The oversize format is resplendent with nearly 300 color photos, some taken by Cantor, an experienced photographer. The elegant look of Green Roofs was crucial to the publisher because so much of green roof design is about creating a visual experience. The book provides a launching point for dialogues about the future of green roof sustainability and design to occur, where in essence, the sky’s the limit.
Julie Poole ’11 GS