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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.

Blue

On a gloomy day, after a cranky post, perhaps a little visual break is in order:
RS blue

Landscape architecture

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.

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.

Not what it seems

Something about this light post base puts me in mind of a stage set. Perhaps it’s the fact that while the base looks as if it’s a heavy iron casting, this tear reveals that it’s really made of a kind of fiberglass or resin. This kind of material for a light post base is all right, I suppose. It does make me wonder about the makeup of other street furniture and accoutrements these days, like manhole covers….
light base

Small-space gardening

We’ve all seen photos of grand mixed and perennials borders on old country estates (Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, Beatrix Farrand),

Sissinghurst White Gdn

Vita Sackville-West, Sissinghurst White Garden. Photo by bestfor/Richard on Flickr.


and of sweeps of perennials, grasses and shrubs by the contemporary designer Piet Oudolf and landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.
Generous expanses of grasses and perennials at Chicago's Lurie Garden. Plantings by Piet Oudolf; photo by queenjill on Flickr.
They’re dramatic and luxurious-looking, and it’s easy to envision being right there, surrounded on all sides by space and uninterrupted swathes of glorious texture and color.
Sometimes the only space available is quite a bit smaller and more constrained. This past weekend I was walking down a suburban Boston street and found this planting, in which a narrow bed — bounded by fence on one side, driveway on the other — hosts a garden that shows off in every season.
p1040079

This plant bed can't be any more than three feet wide, but there is a lot going on in it.


In this climate, plantings that flank a driveway have to be tough. Snow gets shoveled and plowed on top of them, and sometimes it’s best to stick to herbaceous perennials that will die back to the ground and be unharmed by wayward plows.
This garden has a fairly simple palette — Hydrangea, ‘The Fairy’ Roses, Korean Chrysanthemums, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and a carefully pruned collection of crabapples — that works well here. Even if the hydrangeas and roses get clobbered by the plow they’re likely to recover; the sedums and chrysanthemums can be cut back to the ground, and the crabapples are trained to hug the fence, out of the way, making what could have been a winter drawback into a fine asset.
It’s refreshing to see this kind of resourcefulness in what often seem only to be incidental places on a property. This strip isn’t a place in which you’d want to (or could) lounge away the hours, but it shows how varied and texturally exciting even a small space can be.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Photo by Astrovine, courtesy of Flickr.

If we’re talking about slow, how about Florence’s Ponte Vecchio? Or Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England? Although the more built up a bridge is the more limited the river views. Both these bridges house little shops along the roadway; slowness along them is likely to come from being distracted by stuff to buy.

Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Pulteney Bridge, Bath, England. Photo by bridgink, courtesy of Flickr.

Columnar

I noticed this visual pun only after I’d uploaded my Naumkeag photos back in the office.

This pair of round columns (one is behind the maple tree) are only two landscape columns cylindrical in shape at Naumkeag. Is it coincidence that they stand next to the Arborvitae Walk, or was Steele winking at us?

This pair of round columns (one is behind the maple tree) are only two landscape columns cylindrical in shape at Naumkeag. Is it coincidence that they stand next to the Arborvitae Walk, or was Steele winking at us?

Naumkeag was built on a steep hill, and so its landscape required quite a bit of manipulation to be usable. The Peony Terraces behind the house show how a big drop in elevation over a short distance can be turned into a showcase. In this instance, the terraces gave Mabel Choate a way to show off her tree peony collection. An apple cordon in front of the top retaining wall separates the Top Lawn and its promenade from the peony garden; fieldstone walls stepping down the slope make the narrow terraces.

This collection of tree peonies looks good through the growing season, and is a knockout in flower. Each fieldstone wall holds a couple of feet of elevation, at least, leaving a pleasant grassy lawn for passageway between the Rose Garden and the South Lawn.

This collection of tree peonies looks good through the growing season, and is a knockout in flower. Each fieldstone wall holds a couple of feet of elevation, at least, leaving a pleasant grassy lawn for passageway between the Rose Garden and the South Lawn.


Retaining walls on three sides enclose the rose garden; in one corner a stairway of radial steps spills into the space from a narrow opening in the masonry.
While the Peony Terraces could be considered to push forward into the lawn space, the Rose Garden, shown here, appears carved out of the hillside.  The grade is almost completely flat, the better to exhibit the curvy gravel paths and rose beds to viewers from above.  (The pattern is said to be reminiscent of the floral pattern on a Chinese painted plate.)  Everywhere on this property is evidence of how the land is sculpted in the service of spacemaking.

While the Peony Terraces could be considered to push forward into the lawn space, the Rose Garden, shown here, appears carved out of the hillside. The grade is almost completely flat, the better to exhibit the curvy gravel paths and rose beds to viewers from above. (The pattern is said to be reminiscent of the floral pattern on a Chinese painted plate.) Everywhere on this property is evidence of how the land is sculpted in the service of spacemaking.


A short, controlled slope drops off from the Arborvitae Walk to the marble fountain on its lawn terrace in the Evergreen Garden.
The lawn slope between the Arborvitae Walk and the fountain is short enough and just shallow enough still to be mowable.

The lawn slope between the Arborvitae Walk and the fountain is short enough and just shallow enough still to be mowable.


On the other side of the Arborvitae Walk, the slope up to the drive and Chinese Garden is planted with Pyracantha and made passable with this stairway of solid stone steps.

On the other side of the Arborvitae Walk, the slope up to the drive and Chinese Garden is planted with Pyracantha and made passable with this stairway of solid granite steps.


The steps leading to the drive from the Evergreen Garden link nicely to a walk across the drive. This walk, in the same stone as the steps (either marble, limestone, or most likely for durability’s sake, granite), brings you to the Devil’s Gate, one of two entrances to the Chinese Garden. (Apparently, the gateway’s 90-degree turn is meant to shake off the devil and prevent him from entering this garden space.)
The Devil's Gate:  step up into the space, turn right and go up a short ramp, and find yourself in the Chinese Garden.  Some transitions between gardens at Naumkeag are seamless, and easily blend one area into another.  Here, the drive separates two distinct gardens, each of which possesses a threshold that requires grade change.

The Devil's Gate: step up into the space, turn right and go up a short ramp, and find yourself in the Chinese Garden. Some transitions between gardens at Naumkeag are seamless, and easily blend one area into another. Here, the drive separates two distinct gardens, each of which possesses a threshold that requires grade change.


Another stone stair gets you up to the little temple in the Chinese Garden.
Elevating the little temple makes it more imposing and dominant in the Chinese Garden.  (That's not a wheelbarrow ramp in the upper stairway; it has some other kind of spiritual significance.)

Elevating the little temple makes it more imposing and dominant in the Chinese Garden. (That's not a wheelbarrow ramp in the upper stairway; it has some other kind of spiritual significance.)


To leave the Chinese Garden, you walk through a moon gate in the brick and fieldstone wall (masonry types may be the topic of a whole ‘nother post on this place). There’s just enough threshold to reinforce the notion that you’ve left a distinct place, and have entered an entirely different space. A curving ramp brings you back down the the drive.
To get in, go up a step and up a ramp; to leave, step over a threshold, through a wall, and down a ramp.

To get in, go up a step and up a ramp; to leave, step over a threshold, through a wall, and down a ramp.

What do we see if we look at one place through a particular lens? Last week I was out at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, MA, and found myself appreciating the wide vocabulary of ways that Fletcher Steele used to get garden guests up and down the slopes. Here’s a partial list:

Brick and brownstone steps from the upper lawn terrace down onto the walkway above the peony terraces.  It's unlikely you'd see anything this idiosyncratic (narrow, curves with almost no tangents on the treads, funky riser/tread ratios) built today.

Brick and brownstone steps from the upper lawn terrace down onto the walkway above the peony terraces. It's unlikely you'd see anything this idiosyncratic (narrow, curves with almost no tangents on the treads, funky riser/tread ratios) built today.


Two steps down a grass ramp to a grass landing.  How do you navigate your wheelbarrow up and down the steps?  Use the wheelbarrow ramp, of course.

Two steps down a grass ramp to a grass landing. How do you navigate your wheelbarrow up and down the steps? Use the wheelbarrow ramp, of course.


Grass steps with stone risers welcome visitors coming in from the Lych Gate on the right  This stairway is really a series of little terraces that tame the slopes converging in that corner of the South Lawn.

Grass steps with stone risers welcome visitors coming in from the Lych Gate on the right This stairway is really a series of little terraces that tame the slopes converging in that corner of the South Lawn.


It's a stair, a ramp, a runnel, a runway. It shows you where to go, and incidentally holds level the top edge of the South Lawn and Oak Terrace.

It's a stair, a ramp, a runnel, a runway. It shows you where to go, and incidentally holds level the top edge of the South Lawn and Oak Terrace.


And, of course, can't leave out the Blue Steps, Mabel Choate's path down to her cutting garden.  Riser/tread ratios change with each step; high risers and short treads at the top of each run graduate into low risers and long treads by the bottom, so that each white stair rail above the step noses scribes a parabola in the air, rather than a straight line.

And, of course, can't leave out the Blue Steps, Mabel Choate's path down to her cutting garden. Riser/tread ratios change with each step; high risers and short treads at the top of each run graduate into low risers and long treads by the bottom, so that each white stair rail above the step noses scribes a parabola in the air, rather than a straight line.

Naumkeag, the Choate family estate now owned by The Trustees of Reservations