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Posts Tagged ‘engage with landscape’

To digress just a little from the line discussion: That Parc Citroen photo puts me in mind of the Cornell Arts Quad, around which are ranged some of Cornell’s most historically and academically significant buildings. The Arts Quad is huge (obviously not what it has in common with the Parc Citroen lawns shown), and there is a several-foot (eleven feet?) grade change from east to west, along its short axis.

Cornell Arts Quad looking north to south.  The tipped plane displays the lawn more prominently to those walking along the west side and looking east, as an open box of candy looks more appetizing when held at a slant to display its contents better.

Cornell Arts Quad looking north to south. The tipped plane displays the lawn more prominently to those walking along the west side and looking east, as an open box of candy looks more appetizing when held at a slant to display its contents better.

When I was a student there in the late 80s, and in the throes of learning how to analyze sites, I realized that the Arts Quad’s tilted plane created a perceptual wall for anyone walking along the west side, looking east and uphill. Standing at the bottom of the lawn and facing east, your eye perceives more lawn even than is actually there, because the plane is slanted rather than flat. In Parc Citroen, the tipped planes of lawn feel similarly more available to the eye from the walks along their low edge.

Using this kind of quiet grade manipulation can let you create a sense of greater green space than may really be available. Horizontal planes give you two axes — horizontal and vertical — to read, while tilted planes give you a more complex experience. I think that controlling the ground plane’s edge makes the experience more readable, as in this Halvorson-designed tilted plane at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank,

Tilted plane of lawn at Boston's Federal Reserve, with South Station behind.  This cylinder of stone and grass is actually part of the Fed's security system -- no one can drive a truck through it to hit the bank's glass walls, just to the left.  But you don't read it as a giant bollard; you read it as a big pad of lawn, elevated and held out to your eyes on a stone tray.

Tilted plane of lawn at Boston's Federal Reserve, with South Station behind. This cylinder of stone and grass is actually part of the Fed's security system -- no one can drive a truck through it to hit the bank's glass walls, just to the left. But you don't read it as a giant bollard; you read it as a big pad of lawn, elevated and held out to your eyes on a stone tray.

or at Park Citroen. Where the plane continues to buildings (which accommodate the grade change), as in the Arts Quad, the effect is more subtle.
Now that's a controlled edge.

Now that's a controlled edge.

Manipulating the ground plane with a wash is a fine way to tweak how a space is perceived, and to give it more quiet complexity.

Cornell Arts Quad photo taken by Anjum and supplied courtesy of Flickr.

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To continue the story from the previous post (check out the photos on that one):

Wednesday, I had to visit Cavicchio’s Greenhouses to tag a tree. Carl and I arranged to meet there, and Carl called to see if Jake Cavicchio could meet us at the little pin oak. We bumped down a back road to the base of a slope, and recognized the tree immediately. It had some deadwood, but had leafed out nicely and seemed to be growing well.

Jake remarked on the deadwood — he said that it had all been there last year, and that this year no more seemed to have developed.

The day after the root-washing, Cavicchio’s had planted in three other pin oaks, similarly root-bound, in the same area. Those three were planted conventionally, their root balls holding the same red clay that had been washed out of the first tree.

The most noticeable difference between the first, root-washed tree and its companions was that the three conventionally planted trees were showing signs of current stress, while the first tree looked fine. Each of the three other trees had foliage sprouting from its trunk, a symptom of stress and an indication that the tree is trying to counteract decline. On the other hand, each of the trees also had similar top growth to the first tree.

It is probably too early to tell what the future will hold for any of these trees — regardless of planting method, the fact that all the trees are now planted out boosts the possibility that they will survive. It seems entirely likely, though, that the tree whose roots were freed from the dense clay soil ball will now encounter less struggle to reestablish a vigorous root system, and that reduced stress for it will mean a healthier prognosis than for the other trees. Take a look at these photos.

Jake Cavicchio and Carl Cathcart with the root-washed pin oak planted last October

Jake Cavicchio and Carl Cathcart with the root-washed pin oak planted last October


Jake with the pin oak he root-washed

Jake Cavicchio with the pin oak he root-washed


Well-structured root flare, at the right grade

Well-structured root flare, at the right grade


Conventionally planted pin oak, planted at the same time as the first tree, showing signs of stress

Conventionally planted pin oak, planted at the same time as the first tree, showing signs of stress


Adventitious buds along the trunk have leafed out, indicating that this conventionally planted oak (which had been balled and burlapped for two years and was unsaleable) is under stress

Adventitious buds along the trunk have leafed out, indicating that this conventionally planted oak (which had been balled and burlapped for two years and was unsaleable) is under stress

Owner: Cavicchio’s Greenhouses, Inc., Sudbury, MA
Arborist: Carl Cathcart, MCA
Tree mover: Jake Cavicchio
Scale figures: Carl Cathcart, Jake Cavicchio

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Carl Cathcart, Consulting Arborist and mentor to any number of Massachusetts arborists, sent me an email a couple of months ago. In it, he told about a pin oak (Quercus palustris) that had been sitting, balled and burlapped, in Cavicchio’s Greenhouses, Inc. for a couple of years. Carl, out at the nursery at the time, heard that Cavicchio’s was planning to send the tree to the dump, and he persuaded Paul Cavicchio to save it, root-wash it, and plant it out.

Jim Flott, of Community Forestry Consultants in Spokane, Washington, had given a workshop on root-washing at the 2007 New England ISA meeting. He distributed this document on root-washing, and — oh, okay, I’ll say it — made a big splash with the arborists, including Carl.

The pin oak presented a good opportunity to see how root-washing might work on an otherwise doomed tree. Jake Cavicchio, Paul’s son, washed the roots with a firehose using 90 pounds of pressure; according to Carl, “The soil was all clay and hard as a rock.” Obviously, the firehose method applied more pressure than what Jim Flott recommends, but in this instance (the tree’s roots were entirely clay-bound, and its options were firehose or trash pile), the firehose was the best solution. Here are Carl’s photos from that operation:

Root ball is held with a fork lift while Jake aims the fire hose at its clay root ball.

Root ball is held with a fork lift while Jake aims the fire hose at its clay root ball.


DSCN7743
Aiming from all angles loosens the soil so it can wash away

Aiming from all angles loosens the soil so it can wash away


Washing a root ball this large requires plenty of space

Washing a root ball this large requires plenty of space


Dense mass of roots revealed

Dense mass of roots revealed


Preserving these roots should help the tree's chances of survival

Preserving these roots should help save the tree


Taking the pin oak to its new home

Moving the pin oak to its new home


Roots have been spread out as best as possible; now the hole is being backfilled and flooded.  Plunging the stake into the wet fill helps remove air pockets.

Roots have been spread out as best as possible; now the hole is being backfilled and flooded. Plunging the stake into the wet fill helps remove air pockets.


Paul Cavicchio holding a guy stake for the machine to push into the ground

Paul Cavicchio holding a guy stake for the machine to push into the ground

Carl had taken those photos of last fall’s washing operation, but until this week hadn’t been back to see how the tree was doing. This past Wednesday, when I was at the nursery in hopes of tagging a tree for a project, Carl arranged for us to meet Jake at the tree. We were hopeful…

Photos and Inspiration: Carl Cathcart, MCA
Owner: Cavicchio Greenhouses, Inc., Sudbury, MA
Planting Crew: Jake Cavicchio, Paul Cavicchio, employees of Cavicchio Greenhouses, Inc.

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In that last post, I don’t mean to imply that all veneer stone walls come from shady dealings, by any means, or that they are bad in and of themselves. I use veneer stone walls in plenty of my projects, and veneer is a valuable construction method in any number of applications. Often they are the best solution for a given site. And certainly there’s plenty of stone to go around in New England.

The cutting of larger, weathered wall stone into much smaller, weathered-face pieces is what I’m wondering about, and have no solid answers. Those smaller cut pieces can make a stunning chimney face, or interior stone wall, or, as in the case featured recently on a popular TV program, a knockout modern retaining wall backing a narrow reflecting pool. But each weathered stone taken from an old wall and cut up for one of those elements provides incentive for the removal and cutting up of the stones from other old (and still viable) walls.

On the other hand, not everyone wants the weathered look. A contractor once told me about a client for whom he had built a handsome fieldstone wall, one that he had been at great pains to use stone with nicely lichened faces. There was even a little moss on some of the stones, and because of that and its careful design, the wall looked comfortably situated in the landscape from the start. The client, who had been out of town and away from the project since approving the design, came home, saw the wall, and called his contractor. “What is this?!” he asked — “I don’t want old, used stone in my wall! I thought I was getting new stone!” The contractor shook his head as he told me the story, laughing at the idea of having to source stone that hadn’t been around for millennia….

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Quite frequently I design a project that calls for one or more stone walls, and almost as frequently the stone I specify is New England fieldstone. Fieldstone walls are ubiquitous in this part of the world, and a good wall, even if it’s newly constructed, can help give structure and readability to a landscape.

Because I specify stone walls so often, I see quite a few stone supplier ads. A newish product, fieldstone veneer, has been advertised in the last few years. Fieldstone veneer is made by cutting chunks of fieldstone into small rectangular pieces; the face of the veneer is left rough and weathered, or with a split, not sawn surface. The rectangular form makes installing the veneer a relatively quick process, and gives an architectural, or at least strictly ordered, look to a wall face. The contrast between that ordering and the naturally textured surface presents quite an appealing finish.

When I see videos of the fieldstone veneer cutting process, though, my mind drifts to the disappearance of historic stone walls throughout New England, and I wonder if any of the projects I’ve worked on contain some of that stone, hauled from its centuries-old home and sliced into construction-ready pieces. This article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation outlines the problem: stone walls are being taken without permission or compensation from private properties and reused elsewhere. As far as I can tell, there’s no way of determining the provenance of stone — and cutting it up only makes identification even more impossible. We can only see the ancient walls disappearing from roadsides, yard perimeters, and woodlots, and hope that what we’re using has come only from legitimate sources.

Here is a photo of intact stone walls in winter. p1000614These are freestanding drylaid walls, and one of their structural merits is that they move with frost. Their jointing methods – no mortar used – and wall composition insure that the walls move with the land as it undergoes the freeze/thaw cycle, and the relatively large stone size keeps the walls from falling apart even as they move.

With the ‘recycling’ of New England fieldstone for mortared walls, as in this wall,
Picture 5for instance, the cutting up of stones limits their future use, and the ability of future generations to recycle the stones once more. The argument could be made that veneer makes fieldstone a material accessible to more people because a veneer wall is less expensive to build than a full-depth stone wall — and it’s a valid argument. But the lifespan of mortared veneer walls has to be far shorter than that of traditional drylaid walls, given the nature of the freeze/thaw cycle, the shallowness of small veneers, and the prevalence of moisture in the New England winter — and that means that these walls will need maintenance and/or rebuilding sooner than the more traditionally built walls. Not to mention that if the natural stones themselves disappear, so too do the building techniques that produce the most stable and flexible kinds of walls for landscape use, and the possibility of being able to build them as readily as has been done in the past.

Is this a solvable problem? Is this a problem? I think that stone wall theft is definitely a problem, and I don’t know if it’s a solvable one. I’m pretty sure I haven’t explored the topic of New England stone walls, their disappearance, the metamorphosis of fieldstone into veneer, the use of veneer in landscape applications, or the costs (short-term and life-cycle) of veneer versus fieldstone with anything approaching thoroughness — but it seemed that recording initial thoughts on the topic would be a good place to start this particular conversation. Your thoughts?

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Shortly after posting Monuments and Trees (June 5), I had a note from Art Presson, the Superintendent of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. He wrote:

“We too have noticed how rarely grave stones get wacked by falling trees. Mysterious intervention is a possible explanation. We had a 125 year old oak come down on top of a very important bronze angel sculpture here that went on both sides of her, but the monument wasn’t even scratched.”

Taking care of the trees in a large, old garden cemetery is a particularly demanding job. The Green-Wood Cemetery covers 478 acres (for comparison,Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge has 175 acres; Swan Point covers roughly 200 acres). In a way, it is an arboretum of mature and maturing trees that shares the space with headstones and monuments.

A staff of arborists works with the woody vegetation: assessing the health of thousands of trees, tending the cemetery ‘forest’, removing hazard limbs and whole trees when necessary — these responsibilities take focus, skill, and a refined knowledge of woody plants, as well as a sensitivity to the nature of the cemetery’s function. The Green-Wood arborists take pride in their skill. According to Art, “When we take trees down my arborists are really competitive. They call their shots like they are shooting pool. They are remarkably accurate, which is a good thing with as tight as it gets with monuments here.”

How to interpret the tendency of falling trees and limbs to miss grave markers? I’m not sure. And I can’t speak for the arborists responsible for these garden cemeteries, though clearly, their professional skills and pride mesh to make tangible their respect for the nature of these places.

Have you any stories about the management of cemetery woody plants? Send them along, and let’s see what common threads may emerge.

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In my first Influences post, I neglected to mention some things that made the Providence house I grew up in such a great design curriculum.  I carry with me, and use in my work, several key principles.

1. The house’s front entry sequence was an exercise in welcome: wide bluestone steps, wide gravel walk, wide brick-tiled portico signalled generosity and invited you in.  Lesson:  Wide walkways lend themselves to sociability; they let people easily walk abreast, they announce that there’s plenty of room for all, and, when in scale with building mass, they signify balance and integration between building and landscape.

2. Fieldstone walls on either side of the walk and steps set the house on a wide plinth, anchoring it firmly to the landscape.  Lesson: Give a building a platform on which to stand and see how substantial and solid it feels. Make sure that the platform is proportional to the building in breadth and depth

3. The extra-wide front door, with its big, smoothly worn brass thumb latch lockset, was like a genial host, letting you know as it swung open how pleased it was to usher you in.  (The door even spoke:  some piece of hardware in its panels or in a hinge made a satisfyingly deep ‘clack’ when the door swung open or closed.) Lesson: A broad entry signals glad welcome and a cheerful openness.

4. The characteristics of hardware we touch influence how we perceive a place. The Providence house’s thumb latch embodied a long history of guests arriving; the ‘clack’ as the door swung on its hinges made its personality audible. When we enter or leave a building we make contact with our own shelter, and that is why we feel secure and well-housed if the elements we touch — lockset, door frame — have heft and solidity.   Lesson: Those elements that people come in regular contact with telegraph messages we may not consciously register, but that we certainly understand. Materials and the forms they take make a difference in the built environment.

5. A smooth transition between indoors and out expands our home’s domain; we feel at ease when we can walk on easy slopes or comfortably proportioned steps. Landscape steps have shallower risers and deeper treads than steps used on building interiors. Lesson: Architectural steps in the landscape feel uncomfortably steep; use the appropriate riser/tread proportions (2R + T = 24-26″) for the most comfortable passage up and down through a stair corridor.

6. Interior stairs use a different formula, but some of the same principles used in the landscape still apply. I once spent a few days in a house with stairs that the contractor built carelessly; one of the treads tipped slightly downhill while the others were level.  After skiing down them once on the bottoms of my feet I wasn’t quite able to trust their safety again.  While a slope, or ‘wash’ is typical on landscape steps, so that they drain water properly, you don’t want a wash on any inside steps.  For both indoor and outdoor stairs, it is important that each riser and each tread is sized and sloped exactly like every other riser and tread in the run.  Our bodies are conditioned to expect consistency on stairs.

I absorbed several other Christopher Alexanderish principles from the house my grandfather designed: set aside nooks (windowseats, step-down bathrooms) — for privacy and a sense of snugness; make comfortable transition spaces (paved porticos, porches) at the building face to give shelter in the outdoor air, build niches into walls for shelving or drawers, allow natural light in wherever possible.

Many of these principles are usable outside as well as in; I try to incorporate them when I can in my design work. Mainly, I think my grandfather tried to envision how people would use his spaces, and then designed those spaces with well-proportioned elements that allowed the greatest comfort and ease. I don’t know that he overscaled any architecture; he wanted humans to feel human in his buildings.

Similarly, I hope, my aim is to design well-proportioned places where humans can interact comfortably with the outdoors, and can feel at home in the natural world.

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p1010402No, that’s not a shot of a revolutionary way of planting in pavement — that’s a photo of one of the enormous China Girl hollies being taken to its new home at the property belonging to L. and A., my longtime clients. This holly is a mature plant; in my Air Spade In Action post (May 16), you can see it set on the ground, opened to its full, voluptuous 9′ width.

You’ll also notice that shrubs flanking the steps and walk here are mostly mature plants. L. and A. have spent years developing their landscape, and it has the flavor of a place owned by art appreciators. The plants have been tended with care, diligence, and skill, and their character reinforces the design intentions evident throughout the gardens.

Landscape architects often heed Frederick Law Olmsted’s dictum, “Plant thick, thin quick” (a motto we learned in Lenny Mirin’s Landscape History class at Cornell — Lenny?), and plant shrubs more densely than the mature size of the plant might dictate. Clients often want to see immediately gratifying plantings, which means a minimal view of the mulch and a maximal view of plants. Which is fine — as long as someone goes back in a few years later and actually does the thinning.

The making of a landscape is not a one-off deal. At the North Shore garden this past week, as we were in the midst of reworking two areas on the property, I had a revelation. My clients have been devoted to their gardens for years, and they enjoy and promote the evolution of their place. Their enthusiasm for their landscape has allowed me to make the refinements that continue to animate it. Thinning out the plantings is one aspect of this work: dismantling the holly hedge gave us ten wonderful plants to use around the property, while allowing us to develop a planting in place of the hedge that uses a combination of new, younger plants and older transplants that have grown into their habits.

Toby and I have discussed in earlier posts the idea of planting densely and allowing the plants themselves to elbow each other both into a coherent ensemble and into a set of individual character actors. This week, I was able to take mature, idiosyncratic plants — in this case, rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurel — and transplant them in an area where each plant’s form would be visible.

This sort of refinement is possible when a landscape has been designed, planted, and growing for years; it is the stage at which the character of plants can truly be showcased. Not every landscape reaches this stage, which requires something of the eye of an editor and a knowledge of horticulture in addition to the skills of a designer. A property may be sold, a client may find other priorities, or may simply feel overwhelmed by the “planted thick” place. Rather than thin it out or make new spaces in the landscape, that client or new owner may ask for an entirely new planting.

Refining a landscape by reimagining its plantings, though, and in some cases developing new spaces to fit a changed use of the property, can breathe new and vigorous life into a place. Mature plants, well-situated, give a well-structured place the look of inevitability that is difficult to achieve with the callow youth of new nursery-grown stock.

Some of my favorite work has involved shaping spaces with mature plants reused from the same site. I tend to see character in plants, and really like gussying them up to highlight that character. Putting together a collection of plants in this way is like developing the singing skills of a choir; individually, each singer’s voice is distinctive, and together, all the voices blend to create shifting and satisfying harmonies.

This kind of design starts with a plan, but requires an agile mind onsite, as the plants move from one situation to another, and relationships among their forms change. It’s challenging to see a plant from all sides, envision how it will work in harmony with the others to join it, be sure it works horticulturally, and assemble the collection to best effect. There is no way to plan precisely that kind of work in advance; the joy of it comes when shifts, tweaks, and adjustments bring about a result that fits just right, and that pleases.

This week, I got to spend three days of orchestrating this kind of work, and every minute was a pleasure.

Here are before and after photos of one planting area we changed:

Drive court edge, planted with a 7' tall hedge of China Girl hollies.  Bloodgood Japanese Maple on the left; neighbor's red pine at center, neighbor's Norway maple on right.  Yews on the left are Taxus 'Green Wave'.

Drive court edge, planted with a 7' tall hedge of China Girl hollies. Bloodgood Japanese Maple on the left; neighbor's red pine at center, neighbor's Norway maple on right. Yews on the left are Taxus 'Green Wave'.


Same area, newly revised. The existing trees remain, and we've added another little Bloodgood. The great wall of China Girls is gone, we moved two of them back in front of the Norway maple to grow more loosely together as a backdrop to two mature azaleas. Older rhododendrons and mountain laurel show their forms to the left of the new Bloodgood. New Green Wave yews will grow together and in a few years will make a continuous loose line with the existing Green Waves.

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The building is Norwood High School. Tomorrow is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts; perhaps that’s why snazzy red sashes are wrapped around these trees.
p1000970

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The idea of layering on top of history is cool, and happens everywhere — it’s standard practice to preserve what once was and to build on top of it. Still, I wonder what it might have been like to remove layers and really get visitors down to water level, as in Pianissimo from a couple of months ago; perhaps it would get them engaging more with the water, and more sympathetic to and active in the efforts to keep Boston harbor clean and livable…

That’s me talking with my clean water voice.

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