Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘sensory experience of landscape’

That last post made a good point — sometimes the leftovers in a landscape can be used as a feature in and of itself — but I much prefer the photo here. This hemlock is very much alive, and lives outside of Boston on private property. Carl Cathcart, Consulting Arborist, took me to see this wonderful tree last July, and you can see more photos of and information on the tree at Taking Place in the Trees.

To get an idea of the scale of this tree, look just to the right of the tree's center; Carl Cathcart is standing on the ground under the tree's canopy, and his legs are just visible.

Read Full Post »

Downtown Boston teemed with people this past holiday weekend. Stroller brigades patrolled the streets, the scent of sunscreen wafted through the breeze, and a general air of well-being rested like a pleasantly warm blanket over the city.

Friday, I had walked through Boston Common and seen the simple and remarkable memorial to Massachusetts’ fallen military just installed by the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund. Yesterday I returned with my camera.

In the distance, something appears to cover the Common's usual green carpet.

Closer, the rug becomes a sea of American flags below the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. Visitors drawn to the sight stop, gaze at the flags, take photos, and chat quietly with others standing nearby. Parents keep their little kids from running into the flag field.

People and cameras are everywhere.

Flags are set between 12 and 18 inches apart, on no discernible grid.

One flag for each fallen military service person from Massachusetts.

A few signs printed on FomeCor and staked into the ground explained the memorial installation.



Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Saul Steinberg was a genius for showing us how versatile a line can be.

Saul Steinberg was a genius for showing us how versatile a line can be.

Like that Steinberg drawing, the Parisian building facade pushes in and pushes out, has ceilings and floors, and carves places — albeit the tiny ones of deep sills and shallow entryways — out of mass. Items get applied, chunks get taken out.

It’s easier to see those thicker building walls in older American cities — Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia — on buildings put up before curtain wall construction took over. Curtain wall construction, regardless of where it takes place, thins out walls and so abstracts function down to the single use of dividing inside and out.

Building owners looking to limit their liability sometimes impoverish the richness that a more complex wall offers. This article in the Canadian Center for Architecture website discusses the use of ‘pigeon strips’ to deter people from sitting in the deep sills of older buildings. I’m betting that liability is another reason that it’s rare to see streetlights on buildings in this country.

(Yes, pigeon strips to deter people, not pigeons, from sitting on the sills. They’re really heavy spikes, and perhaps they aren’t really meant for pigeon deterrence (that’s done more often with much thinner spikes in a fanned arrangement), but the CCA called them ‘pigeon strips’, so I’m continuing the practice.)

Read Full Post »

I tagged trees for a project last week at Millican’s Nursery and swung through Concord, NH, on the way back. A through-building alley off Pleasant Street (the main drag) led to Bicentennial Square, an eclectic in-block park built in the 70s and updated in the 90s. It has quite a mix of elements: brick waterwall, the back of which is a low stage; granite boulders carved into sculptures and seats; a stone tortoise; a tiny grove of trees, cobble, brick, and Goshen stone paving, and even a small coffee shop’s outdoor seating. Shade and the sound of rushing water made it an oasis in the hot town.

Several little lanes run into the Square, and you get a sense of the ad hoc historic accretion of buildings and byways from which it developed. I spotted these lamp posts along one of the lanes, and wondered who put them in and why so close to the building?

I understand the bollards protecting each lamp post, and wonder what the post footings look like.

I understand the bollards protecting each lamp post, and wonder what the post footings look like.


I don't think that anyone makes globes with flat heads for this purpose, so each of these globes is tipped forward just a teensy bit.  One more inch away from the building and they'd be perched level on the posts -- but doing it this way makes it look as if they're paying attention to the conversations of passersby.

I don't think that anyone makes globes with flat heads for this purpose, so each of these globes is tipped forward just a teensy bit. One more inch away from the building and they'd be perched level on the posts -- but doing it this way makes it look as if they're paying attention to the conversations of passersby.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

I was thinking today about the way that our culture is largely extractive — we pull apart individual elements out of natural materials, and use those elements for specialized purposes (oil from the ground to power the internal combustion engine, vitamins from food to recombine into other foods, etc.). We are now seeing the limits of some of that extractive behavior, and are beginning to explore how to work within the full complexity of natural systems to achieve our energy, food, and shelter goals. To do so requires a better understanding of the natural systems around us, so we can see how human activity might fit in to them in a more sustainable way.

Our extractive tendencies show up in the garden, too. As Toby mentioned, he and I have been talking about monocultural landscapes, as opposed to the more complex landscapes often found in nature. I was making a point about some of the more beautiful designed landscapes I’d been seeing images of recently: residences with extensive knot gardens, a spot of topiary, and layered hedges. Those places garner oohs and ahs — from me as much as anyone else — but after I’ve seen a few images, I’m done. I realize that the hedges help compose each shot, and once I’ve seen the graphic composition, I’m often left with not much to look at.

The idea of facing down a 5′ high yew hedge with a 3′ high barberry hedge, and facing the barberry hedge with a foot-high Japanese holly hedge is cool; covering up the shrubs’ bare legs gives a full, buttressed look to the geometric lines edging a space.

Nice use of hedging varieties -- use with restraint

Nice use of hedging varieties -- use with restraint

I’m as inclined to do it as anyone else (in moderation, I hope).

Somehow, though, making an entire landscape this way feels like clobbering a property into submission. Once I’ve seen the ‘rooms’ all these hedge walls make, I want to see a party of plants inside those walls. It makes sense to form space that allows free human activity to take place in it, and done well, it’s completely great (see Russell Page’s work). It also — at times, and perhaps in addition to this kind of hedge planting, if not in place of it — makes sense to design plantings that express a more organic understanding of the natural world. Why is it that formal hedges telegraph a sense of sophistication in photographs, when designing communities of plants requires greater effort, knowledge, and skill? Replicating or designing a complex system is a far more sophisticated exercise in my mind than setting out geometric patterns of the same plant, as fun as doing that is.

Perhaps I’m just crabby on this topic because I’ve done a great deal of hedge shearing in my time, and it’s strenuous, back-breaking work, and I’m little inclined to design a place requiring that sort of ongoing maintenance monotony.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »