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Archive for the ‘What we’re thinking’ Category

Brian Rose’s website, the subject of yesterday’s post, also features his photos of the Berlin Wall and its environs before, during, and after its fall. He writes about the experience of place in Berlin, and for anyone whose knowledge of the Wall is limited (mine was derived mainly from watching Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close — wonderful movies, in which the Wall is a character, but not the main character in them), Mr. Rose’s chronicle, called The Lost Border; Photographs of The Iron Curtain is well worth exploring. Don’t miss it, in fact — it’s an affecting series that depicts and describes how the Wall and the zone around it informed, and in ways continues to inform — the national consciousness of the once-divided and now unified Germany.

Photo by Svenwerk on Flickr

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A friend recently sent me a link to the website of Brian Rose, a New York photographer. Mr. Rose’s work is worth a look (or two or three); his photo series called New York Primeval chronicles his exploration of ‘wild’ parts of NYC. Knowing that Manhattan, at least, has been invaded with all sorts of extremely competitive plant genera (to see examples, take a look at Leslie Sauer’s The Once and Future Forest, which among other things describes the restoration of some of Central Park’s woodlands), it’s absorbing to study the Rose photos and try to figure out what plants make up today’s wildness in them.

This series, with its horizontally scrolling format, also affords a gratifying graphic experience: by grabbing and dragging the scroll bar beneath the photos in each of the three sections (‘One’, ‘Two’, and ‘Three’) it’s possible to scan through all the photos in that section, and to recognize the horizon line as a datum for the whole collection. I can think immediately of two other artists — Saul Steinberg (see this link) and Andy Goldsworthy — who have used a single line to organize a series of disparate items. Steinberg drew his lines, Goldsworthy builds his with stone, stems, shadows, flowers, ice, wood, or leaves. It’s a pleasure to see the line used here to link all photos.

Pebble spiral done in tribute to Andy Goldsworthy; shadow makes the line. Photo by Escher on Flickr.


Andy Goldsworthy's The Wall That Went For A Walk at Storm King in upstate New York. Wall as datum, organizing, defining, and questioning the edge between woodland and meadow and land and pond. Photo by Dr. Curry on Flickr.

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Last week a friend mentioned seeing a yellow-flowering shrub on the VFW Parkway in Boston. It reminded me of the show of Hamamelis that used to appear outside of the Harvard Business School’s Baker Library back in the early 80s; when I first saw it (this was a few years before I became a landscape architect and learned what Hamamelis was) I thought a bank of Forsythia was blooming in February.

Saturday I was in Cambridge, and drove down a street that used to be on my route home from work at CRJA. As I turned the corner, this sight greeted me.

This street runs roughly east-west, and with buildings on both sides gets a slice of sun in the middle of the day. The sycamore maples further along the street add a bit of dappled shade to that slice, too. These Witch Hazels don’t seem to mind. And they have the room they need to spread and fill out their characteristic fountain habits.

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Cattleya in bloom; Ripsalis in background


Another grey and cold day in a long, cold month. Going to my desk and working is a good antidote to the gloominess, especially when the Cattleya next to my drawing board blooms (as it did last fall), or the Ripsalis in the window each January reliably turns from a mop of green string into a mop of green string and yellow confetti. Each plant has its own delicate flower fragrance, which rests quietly in the air until someone walks through the room and stirs up faint currents of deliciousness. It’s a good reminder to use scented plants in the landscape.

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The upside.


Years ago, a friend lent me a copy of this originally tiny ad from Nature magazine; clearly, it had already been copied and enlarged quite a few times before I got a copy of the friend’s copy. I keep it next to my desk, sometimes for encouragement, sometimes for a laugh. When a different mood strikes, or I need to step away from the desk after too long there, I flip the FomeCor placard over to see this other image:

The other side.

When I do that, clearly it’s time to take a walk outside and see what’s happening in the natural world, or even just to pat the cat.

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Every month Landscape Architecture Magazine arrives in the mailbox, and some months I look through it quickly for pieces that catch my eye. Other months it has to go on the stack of periodicals next to my desk until I can pick it up on a slow day.

The 2009 series on field sketching was a dandy one, and I found myself pulling out each of those articles to save. One of my favorite things to do is to look at process art — the work that shows you the inside of someone’s mind — so I dawdled over these issues. It was inspiring to look at different sketching styles and to read each landscape architect’s approach to the materials, subjects, conditions, and opportunities of sketching.

The January 2009 issue of the magazine, which I only just recently read, had a fine piece on designing for the winter landscape. What struck me about this piece was its tying design to maintenance. Anyone who has designed a place that gets regular snowfall knows the challenges of dealing with the need to move snow, of coping with ice, and of accommodating the freeze-thaw cycles of every winter. This article, written by Adam Regn Arvidsen, outlined some fairly commonplace tactics for designing in northern climates: including a basic inventory of a site’s winter maintenance needs, considering what happens to grout when it is exposed to moisture and cold, paying attention to pavement textures and slopes in areas where ice might accumulate.

The bit that most appealed, though, was the sidebar called “Quick Tips from Winter-Savvy Landscape Architects”. Arvidsen distilled suggestions from landscape architects in Vermont, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, and Maine into a useful tip sheet, with ideas about communicating with winter maintenance crews about design intent, using darker paving materials that will heat up and help melt snow, and avoiding evergreen plantings that might hang over cars or walkways, as the shade they make can encourage ice to form. (I’m always inclined to plant shrubs and trees fairly far back from pavement that’s going to get plowed, and instead use tough, blocky herbaceous plants, like peonies or hosta, that can hack getting snow dumped on them.)

These things all make sense, and as nuts-and-bolty as they are, consideration of this sort of practicality can lead to the kind of project detailing that lends ease and comfort and an air of gracious inevitability to a designed landscape.

Photo from Flickr, courtesy of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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I just wrote a post on Herbie, the champion American elm in Yarmouth, Maine, that was taken down last week after a life that spanned more than two centuries. The post, at Taking Place In The Trees, included several photos I took the day before Herbie came down. In his prime, Herbie was the largest American elm in New England — 110′ high, 120′ wide at the crown’s widest point, and 20′ in girth. When I saw him, more than half of his largest limbs had been removed, but the tree’s presence and majesty were unmistakable.

Herbie the American Elm, in his prime.


A field count of the rings on Herbie’s trunk indicated that the tree was at least 212 years old. This was a tree that largely defined the genius loci of its neighborhood. It filled the corner of a private yard and marked the intersection of two streets; it cast high shade over a wide and fortunate area.

It’s not difficult to extrapolate lessons from Herbie’s presence and longevity, lessons that might inform how landscape architects design and advocate for planting spaces. I can think of these lessons:

1. Plant trees! They provide cover, coolness, oxygen, and identifiability to a place.

2. Plan for the long term — aim to foster a tree’s growth for decades, not just for years.

3. Design for root space — bare-root transplanting of large trees shows us how trees benefit from space in which to grow, and how far from the trunk their roots need to grow to add crown growth. Push those developers, homeowners, and city agency officials to allocate more space for subgrade growth; it’ll pay off in happier, healthier trees, and broader shade canopies.

4. Remember how big trees want to get. Putting a large-scaled canopy tree in a slot of soil better used for skinny grasses won’t give you the tree you’re looking for; it’ll give you a tree that whimpers for a few years, declines, and then dies. Scale your trees to your site (aiming for as big a planting site as possible — see 2. and 3.)

5. Shoot for size. People love the giant, and are more apt to preserve and take what they love. A large tree builds its own constituency, which helps when you’re trying to keep nature from being overtaken by pavement. If you want people to engage with nature, give them something with which it’s easy to engage. (Keeping in mind 4.)

That’s for starters. What other lessons do you see in Herbie’s story?

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Gold

A few weeks ago I woke with the words of one of my college English professors, Richard Sewall, repeating in my head. At the end of a busy semester, he had tried to inspire our class to continue to read the good stuff (it was with him that we read Moby Dick, still one of my all-time favorites); in the middle of his last lecture he cried “Coat your minds with gold!”

That urging stuck with, and it pops up every now and again in my thoughts. This particular morning the sun was shining in the liquid way it does in late October, and while the vivid reds and scarlets of maples had mostly gone by, the landscape was still full of gold foliage. With Professor Sewall’s words echoing, I got up and began taking photos of some of the gold.

Norway maple


Norway maple


Silver maple


Oak


Norway maple leaves in juniper


Chrysanthemums


Rudbeckia, still going into November


No design observations here, just a look at some of the retinal balm that surrounded us for several weeks.

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I mentioned my last post, Landscape by Landscape Architects, in the LinkedIn ASLA and BSLA group discussions, and got some great responses to the observation that the AIA, in this difficult economy, is aiming to position architects as the best professionals to do the infrastructure projects being funded by the economic stimulus. Several suggested that all professional players — LAs, architects, engineers — should be at the table, and that integration among the professions will result in the most effective solutions. Another raised the important point that we live in a free market economy, and that those best qualified, and most adept at showcasing their qualifications, will be those chosen in the free market to do the projects. Still another member commented that LAs need to advocate not just for our qualifications to do the work, but also for the landscapes themselves once they have been designed and installed, as their maintenance requirements are unique and perpetual.

(I just checked those discussion boards, and find that this topic on both boards has been moved to the Jobs section — I’m trying to get them switched back to Discussions, but for now if you check LinkedIn, take a look in Jobs on both the ASLA and BSLA sites. The topic is Architects and Landscape Architecture.)

So — as I say, thoughtful and thought-provoking responses, and clearly this is a topic lots of people have thought about. A couple of people referred also to the William Hamilton piece in the same issue of The Architect’s Newspaper, which discusses the need for the preservation of designed landscapes.

And really, it was reading this feature article, in addition to the editorial that got me thinking about the stance of the AIA and the architectural profession towards landscape architecture. Not the gist of Hamilton’s article, with which it’s hard to disagree, but for his language. In the entire discussion, he uses each of the terms ‘landscape architecture’ and ‘landscape architect’ exactly once. ‘Landscape’, and ‘landscape design’ stand in for landscape architecture through the whole piece. I’m wondering if the decision to do this came from the editors or from Hamilton himself — however it came about it seemed peculiar.

Maybe I’m being persnickety. Language does matter, though. What would an article about architectural preservation look like if it was written without the use of the words ‘architecture’ or ‘architect’? We would be reading sentences like “Enduring building design, like that by master designers like Paul Rudolph and Pierre Koenig, has the power to move societies…”, or “Craig Hartman, the respected SOM designer leading the project, has acknowledge the historical significance of the building…”. Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

And that’s why reading this whole piece, with its curious skirting of ‘landscape architect’ and ‘landscape architecture’ felt weird. Though the deans of twentieth century LA were mentioned, none was given the title ‘landscape architect’, and the profession itself was mentioned only that one time, in reference to its obscurity. I don’t think I’m living in a parallel universe to the real world, but this piece made me wonder.

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Last week my copy of The Architect’s Newspaper arrived, and yesterday I sat down with it at the breakfast table and read through. Page three opened with an editorial (‘Why We Do City Work’) by Julie Iovine and William Menking about architects and the hurdles they face in competing for public projects in various cities.

The competition among American architects to get public projects started when the AIA was born, back in the late 1800s; it began as part of a drive to show off the talents of American architects. Construction was booming in the 1880s and 90s, and the AIA saw a need for solid architectural design of “post offices, custom houses, and other official buildings” being put up in the boom (this according to Andrew Saint, author of The Image of the Architect (Yale,1983). The results of this ’employ the architects’ effort are visible in cities all over the county, where architect-designed public buildings abound. (My grandfather, practicing in the first half of the 20th century, designed quite a few municipal buildings in and around Providence, RI, including all of the city’s branch libraries.)

With the current economic situation, and the federal stimulus money being parcelled out to states, and thence to municipalities, the AIA is now pushing again for architects to jump in and dish up a piece of the pie for themselves. This time, though, they want a much bigger piece. Iovine and Menking report that the AIA, at a UCLA-sponsored conference called WPA 2.0 next week (November 16), “will urge architects to “take back the streets” and along with them the public buildings, parks, bridges, and roads across the nation that are the most obvious symbols of true investment in the future.”

Are landscape architects listening? The AIA is gearing up to urge architects to push hard for contracts to design landscapes. Iovine and Menking applaud this direction, and assert that “architects must continue that good fight to bring their design perspective and social awareness to public works.”

Well. Do architects (educated and licensed to design buildings, some of which are truly atrocious), have a lock on decent design perspective and social awareness? I don’t think so. Do they understand the complexities of designing outdoor spaces? The architect-designed park that comes immediately to mind — Parc de la Villette, by Bernard Tschumi — was a exercise in postmodernism that apparently has great individual building elements and features, but whose a landscape lacks scale and comfort. Commodity, yes (it’s big!), but fitness and delight — perhaps not so much, if visitor reviews are any guide.

Conversely, do landscape architects, we who have been educated and licensed to design outdoor spaces, lack design perspective and social awareness? Again, I don’t think so. Do we understand the materials involved in shaping outdoor space? Do we aim for proportion, for usability, for integration and sustainability, for beauty and fitness and readability? It’s why we went into this profession in the first place.

Certainly it’s not possible to claim that no architect understands outdoor space, and every landscape architect makes great places — but our profession ought to be aware that the building designers, having a hard time finding billable work these days, are aiming to position themselves as qualified to do our work, both to increase their billability now and to ensure revenues when building-design biz slacks off in the future. It would behoove every landscape architect, and every LA professional organization (this means you, ASLA) to do what we can to ensure that our bailiwick — the intelligent, sensitive, and skillful design of outdoor spaces, both public and private — remain in the hands of those actually professionally qualified to do it.

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