Tectonic Shift

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The High Line, Manhattan.

By tackling some of the most daunting problems of the city, landscape architects are rising to new prominence.

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Elizabeth Padjen: The last time ArchitectureBoston devoted an entire issue to landscape architecture was in 2003; our roundtable discussion was titled “Burying Olmsted.” At that time, much of the buzz in the profession was focused on what might be called the artful landscape: landscape cum art installation. But the participants in that roundtable also mentioned Millennium Park in West Roxbury — where soil from the Big Dig was used to cap an old landfill — as an example of cutting-edge thinking about ecological landscapes, and they bemoaned the lack of attention such projects were receiving. It’s astonishing to see how the profession has changed in just seven years — not only in terms of the kinds of projects that are gaining wide recognition, but also in terms of a new focus and a new energy. Terms such as landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and agricultural urbanism are now commonplace and are even leaking into the public lexicon. One of our editorial board members recently stated, “Landscape is suddenly the most relevant player.” Let’s start by talking about this new excitement. Where does it come from?

David Gamble: More and more, the public recognizes the fragility of the environment — look at the recent floods in Nashville and the oil spill in the Gulf. Part of the landscape profession’s rise to the top is due to the general recognition by the public that landscapes are living organisms and that we need to think very carefully about how we inhabit our environment. This increase in consciousness has helped landscape architecture play a much larger role in the public’s eye than it might have otherwise.

Laura Solano: Landscape architects are especially skilled in understanding systems, and that’s why we are deeply involved in this search for an ecologically responsible life. It’s easy to say that this focus has suddenly boiled up, but in fact, it’s been a long time coming. Frederick Law Olmsted, in the 19th century, understood systems perfectly; his talents were multivalent: he was a civil engineer, a surveyor, and an author, as well as a landscape architect. In the early to mid-20th century, Jens Jensen and Aldo Leopold were writing about these issues, but there wasn’t an audience. And then Ian McHarg blew the doors open in 1969 by introducing the idea of ecological planning.

Wendi Goldsmith: Olmsted espoused the merit of Central Park long before other people ever imagined today’s development pressures. Yet he rallied people behind a vision and was very clear about doing it for reasons of air quality, exercise, civic interaction, and creating a shared space that would reinforce community. His design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace was intended to solve some very practical stormwater flooding management problems. Both projects place landscape architecture at the foundation of what we now call sustainable community design.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: The public has long understood that landscape architects work with living elements. But a recent and significant shift is that we are starting to realize that cities are also living organisms, so the systematic thinking that has been part of the landscape discipline is now being translated to new strategies for the urban condition as well.

Jill Desimini: And of course, landscape architects bring an understanding of people and the designed experience. That means they are skilled at making spaces that work for their inhabitants that also address the complexities of urban, ecological, and infrastructural systems.


Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto.

Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto, part of a series of three multifunctional public walkways along the waterfront. Designer: West 8 + DTAH. Photos © West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

Architecture and Landscape Architecture

Elizabeth Padjen: The tectonic plates of the design professions seem to be shifting. I wonder if the rise of landscape architecture means that something has changed in the ligatures that tie the professions together or if it’s evidence of fundamental differences in the ways that the disciplines respond to the challenges of the world today.

David Gamble: It’s partly because of the vacuum created by the departure of the architects. Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and about relationships to key topographic and environmental conditions or special places in cities in which the landscape is really what’s most valued. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory by engaging themselves directly in those issues.

Jill Desimini: We like to think of projects as functioning in many ways — socially, economically, environmentally — apart from how they look. Of course, many architects do, too. But, having been trained in both architecture and landscape architecture, I would say there is a real difference in the complexity of the landscape medium and the ways in which landscape architects think about how various systems might come together. A good example is the project by Stoss for the Lower Don River in Toronto. A traditional urban-design approach might have considered the river as an entity to be squeezed into an urban fabric. Instead, Stoss asked, What does this kind of river need in order to function? The designers weren’t trying to adapt it to the city fabric and then figure out how to deal with the flooding that comes later. The challenge became how to structure the city and the neighborhood around the river. If you give the river the kind of mouth that it needs, if you understand that you’ll have fluctuating water levels, then you start to think in terms of different types of land use and you can start to develop a set of performance criteria both for the river and for the neighborhood and open spaces. Various elements start to work on multiple levels but also together in a unified, sustainable whole.

Laura Solano: The example of designing for fluctuating water levels underscores an important distinction between architecture and landscape architecture, which is that architecture usually doesn’t have to deal with something that is inherent to landscape: change, which is the driver for all natural systems, for better or worse. The arc of time and change are fundamentally different factors in the landscape design process.

The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. Jill Desimini

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Something that makes landscape architecture particularly resonant right now is its verb-like quality, in comparison with some earlier, more architecture-oriented urban models, like New Urbanism — all very intelligent, but really about organizing a city or town around a more static structure. Contemporary landscape architecture is much more interested in the systems and the forces and the flows, so it is a more active approach toward designing landscapes and urban systems. As we start to re-recognize that we are connected to the larger ecological world, we realize we need a model that can respond to an ever-changing world, not just one in crisis.

Wendi Goldsmith: I think that’s right. The whole green design movement started with a focus on energy systems within the building: insulation and the efficiency of HVAC systems. And then, bit by bit, it grew to include water use, glazing, building positioning, which then evolved into new ideas about things like light and lighting, water conservation and reuse, and integrating graywater management with building plumbing. Fairly quickly, sustainable design started to bleed into the landscape and to encompass infrastructure, including power generation, and people began to understand that it’s not just about the building and what goes on inside it: We need to look at what goes on outside, on site, and what goes on beyond the site. Now we’re thinking about buildings in relation to the grid, to watersheds, and to water supplies. What I am observing is a new relationship, maybe eventually a new field, where science and engineering and landscape design all merge. Our society is just beginning to recognize the value in such an approach.


The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut, contributes to a larger ecological and open-space system. Steven Holl Architects. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Urban Design and Landscape Architecture

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape typologies have evolved to a fair degree, and landscape architects today feel that they can take on a much larger territory than was their traditional purview: designs for entire regions or decommissioned airports or large post-industrial sites or whole infrastructure projects. That’s by necessity, because landscape systems don’t end at the property line. I always have a hard time making the distinction between landscape architecture and urban design, probably because I’ve been trained in both fields, but I think that is one area where they are different: It’s very hard to put a circle around what defines a landscape.

Elizabeth Padjen: Is the landscape architect encroaching on the traditional turf of the urban designer? Do you envision the end of urban design as a discipline, perhaps being absorbed by landscape architecture?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That could be a very politically dangerous idea to agree or disagree with, depending on your perspective. Clearly, both disciplines will continue to evolve. I just finished teaching what turned out to be a very exciting studio. It was called an urban design project, but it addressed landscape, ecology, and environmental dynamics. The project site was on a floodplain with a daily tidal fluctuation of about six feet; we also projected an additional rising water level of six feet over 100 years. So the students had to think simultaneously about accommodating fluctuating water levels and about creating urbanism. Typically, when we think of zoning, we think of it in a horizontal way, or as vertical envelopes of height limits. But the most critical aspect of this project was the first 10 feet of the city. The challenge was to design that sectional relationship intelligently, to foster a vibrant urban life on a ground plain that must accommodate so much natural variation.

Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and relationships to topographic and environmental conditions. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory. David Gamble AIA, AICP

David Gamble: The design professions in general have done themselves a disservice in trying to delineate distinct territories and in believing that a project needs to begin with the urban planner, then go to the urban designer, then the architect, then the landscape architect, and so on. That type of linear thinking is one reason why we haven’t been able to foster strong interdisciplinary collaborations. Major design competitions around the world now tend to be dominated by teams including very diverse disciplines, such as landscape architects, planners, economists, and historic preservation architects, because there is so much interdisciplinary discussion that needs to occur when you look at complex urban areas. I do think that the architecture profession today has much greater respect for a landscape architect’s sense of process than it did a generation ago. The work I’m doing in China now as an architect is entirely in the service of a landscape-architecture firm that is planning large regions of the country. It’s a scenario that stems in part from the client’s intuitive understanding of the nature of their ecosystems and the desire to work with their natural settings, which requires the landscape architect’s understanding of geography and place.

Laura Solano: And that’s not an unusual scenario anymore. Clients are unbelievably sophisticated now, and they do their homework in terms of the composition of the teams they hire. In my office, we are the prime for about 80 percent of our work, big and small. Many of our teams have 12 or 15 consultants, often representing narrow areas of expertise: planners, architects, historians, ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and biologists. Strong collaborations offer tremendous educational opportunities.


Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan.

Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan, incorporates organic soils and uses graywater and stormwater for irrigation. Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Landscape Urbanism

Elizabeth Padjen: Landscape urbanism is at least partly responsible for the profession’s new energy. What exactly does it mean?

Laura Solano: Charles Waldheim, who is now the chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard, coined the term. He has said: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway, in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”

Elizabeth Padjen: That’s a shot across the bow. What are some examples?

Jill Desimini: I’d like to respond first by saying that at the core of landscape urbanism is the idea that looking at, understanding, and designing urban processes will lead to making a new kind of city that is capable both of self-regenerating and of changing the way we experience the place we live. The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. With that in mind, I would point to Toronto, which has hired a number of landscape architects as leads for very big projects that are changing that city, especially the waterfront. These include West 8’s reconfiguration of the central waterfront, work by Field Operations on Lake Ontario Park, and the design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Lower Don Lands as a new metropolitan precinct. Landscape architects are also working on large projects in other cities. New York’s Freshkills Park project — the transformation of 2,200 acres of landfill on Staten Island into a new public park and urban habitat by Field Operations — is another example of an innovative approach to revitalizing and repurposing a piece of the urban fabric. The key now is to focus even more on the design of the city itself. Landscape urbanism positions landscape and landscape methods as a driver for urban infrastructural change.

David Gamble: Part of the momentum also comes from the shifting economics of cities. More and more cities over the last generation have been looking to old industrial sites or waterfronts as places to grow; large parks become the catalysts that drive economic redevelopment.

Elizabeth Padjen: But the idea of landscape, particularly in the form of public parks and open spaces, as a catalyst for development isn’t new. You can even find it codified in the 16th-century Spanish Laws of the Indies that was the basis for town planning in the Spanish colonies: put the square in the middle of the town and build out around it. What’s different?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape urbanism takes another approach — more profound in some ways — and looks at a larger force, a river, for example, as a generator of urban form and urban typology.

Jill Desimini: David is right that many cities are revitalizing industrial sites, and a lot of them are on waterfronts and thus have an ecological component. The difference is that landscape urbanism starts with looking at these sites in terms of the environmental systems that can serve as generators for the project.

Laura Solano: It’s about healing: taking derelict or brownfield sites and making them useful. We take a piece of land that nobody cares about any more, and turn it into something that people can identify as a place that has personal meaning and community value.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I think it’s important to not conflate landscape and parks. It’s true that the idea of building a public park that is a catalyst for development is an old trick. But only part of landscape is parks. Part of it is plazas. Part of it is open space. And part of it is the system of stormwater management that gets built into our streets, into our yards, into our housing units. What is exciting about landscape urbanism is that it can define new types of space that not only accommodate ecological systems, but also define ways that we as individuals can relate to landscape and to ourselves in different ways.

Wendi Goldsmith: Not long ago, the words “landscape urbanism” would have sounded like an oxymoron. We worked on a project recently with Laura’s firm and with the architect Steve Holl that is a perfect example of this change in thinking. This project involves brownfields restoration, a large public-works facility including a major green-roof project, the preservation of some public open space, and programming that includes a significant public education and events component — all while making very tangible contributions to natural habitats in the south-central Connecticut region. It completely merges architecture and engineering and landscape architecture. I can’t think of any earlier examples in the US with the same level of interdisciplinary entanglement. The hydrology of the site accommodates these major functional components, but reverts the site back to its pre-development “water budget” in terms of its hydrological performance. So there’s this incredible melding of function and beauty and education that also transforms a stigmatized landscape into something that sets the stage for a new pattern of development in the region.


The Schools

David Gamble: A number of design schools have been very strategic about raising the profile of landscape architecture within the school, which is reverberating within the field itself. More landscape-architecture programs are opening up, in part because some leaders in the profession are finding ways to excite a new generation of students who want to shape the physical environment. They’re raising the profile of the profession from within the academic community.

Elizabeth Padjen: Conversely, the schools must also be responding to a market interest.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: All of us who are in academia know that it’s the students who are really driving the sustainability agenda. No question about it. And that generation’s interest in the environment is one of the really big pushes behind recognizing, first of all, that our world isn’t static and, second, that we need to find a different way of working with it instead of against it.

Laura Solano: One of my students gave a presentation on a recent project in Korea that turned 600 acres of landfill into a park. The park ended up as a reflection of the trash pile: it was essentially a pyramid with the top cut off. This student’s discussion centered around what might have happened instead if a landscape architect had been involved from the beginning: there would have been a grading plan for placing trash, there would have been systems to promote decomposition, and the nearby wetlands would have been engineered to support a river watershed. These kinds of issues capture the attention of students; they know that there are huge problems to solve, and they know the answers lie in innovation.


Rose Kennedy Greenway

Elizabeth Padjen: Let’s say that, instead of having just been completed, the Greenway project is just now in the concept phase and the initial planning has been undertaken by a team of landscape urbanists. What are some of the substantive changes we’d be seeing?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: One obvious answer is that there would be a very clear, probably somewhat artful but potentially also didactic, approach to stormwater, so that one would actually see how water is moved and treated. We would probably also see some form of urban agriculture — not necessarily community gardens, but perhaps some form of urban foraging.

David Gamble: I suspect that the engineering for the tunnels would be done in the service of a much larger vision of connectivity and continuity. Whatever you think about whether or not there should be development along the Greenway, there is still a very painful sense that it is not as robust in its role as it should be.

It is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Most people think of landscape as the backyard garden or the national parks. Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA

Jill Desimini: It could perform in so many different ways. It could even have a greater social or economic agenda. Right now, it’s very neutral, and there’s nothing very neutral about a landscape-urbanist vision.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Thinking of it as a landscape in isolation — what you would do to decorate the top of the tunnel — is fundamentally not a landscape-urbanist approach. Thinking of the whole tunnel and the buildings along each edge in conjunction with the landscape, ecology, and the social program is much more appropriate to a landscape-urbanist approach.

Laura Solano: There have been so many disastrous tries at linking architecture and landscape along the Greenway; it suffers for a lack of integration. But I’m convinced that, over time, it’s going to be redone, because we know it’s not right. The Greenway Conservancy is doing some useful and valuable things, like organic maintenance and developing a tree farm to supply trees for the Greenway, but management can’t fix the things that are inherently wrong with it.

Wendi Goldsmith: This is a case where some of the most important concerns were put last on the list. Lots of people other than landscape architects, let alone landscape urbanists, were calling the shots. And so, many other aspects of the project crystallized before there was actually anything resembling a final program for how the Greenway would operate, or how it would look and function.

David Gamble: The Greenway has served a purpose of sorts. All across the country, cities are facing similar problems of deteriorating highways and infrastructure and are recognizing the value of trying, even at a smaller scale, to take advantage of new opportunities to reconnect their cities. Other cities will learn some lessons from what happened in Boston and try to do it in a more synthetic way.

Elizabeth Padjen: If we were to re-do the Greenway now, I suspect we would keep part of the superstructure of the old Artery and rework it as an artifact or walkway.

Laura Solano: I agree with you. There was something sublime about driving up over the city streets.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That sublime quality is one of the appeals of New York’s High Line, along with a nostalgia for the big old industrial superstructure as you’re floating through the city. And the elements are beautiful: the furniture is beautiful, the planking is clever and smart, and the planting is rich and a strong contrast to the more controlled environment. There’s no question that the High Line would have influenced thinking about the opportunities for the Greenway.


Burying Olmsted, Again

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I want to re-visit the idea of burying Olmsted, because it is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Part of the interest for me in the High Line isn’t so much the aesthetic of it, although it’s an amazing place, but that it calls into question what landscape is, and it calls into question the naturalization of landscape. When most people think of landscape, they usually think of the backyard garden or the national-park backgrounds in TV ads for SUVs. But by recognizing that what we are creating in both our green spaces and our hard spaces is a constructed landscape, we are held to a different standard. Our roads are landscape: they are designed landscapes. Our sidewalks, our traffic medians, our rooftops are designed landscapes. We learn to ignore them. But there is a lot of economic and design investment in all of those elements. The importance of burying Olmsted is that we need to recognize that our landscape is completely constructed, and that consequently, both our landscape and our work as designers must be held accountable.

Top: The High Line, the transformation of a 1.45-mile-long elevated freight rail line into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. Designers: Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo by M. Altamura.


Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Buffalo, by Keith Johnson

Photographs by Keith Johnson

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It’s almost a cliché: a landscape takes time. The knowledge that their work may take years, even decades, after construction to fully realize their design intention puts landscape architects on a sort of moral high-ground. Such patience! Such determination! Such delayed gratification! The rest of us feel slightly shamed in the face of such worthiness. Impatience is a common vice.

Recent photographs by Keith Johnson, however, offer a new understanding of landscapes: they have an intermediate life, a larval stage, when they in fact behave as landscapes even though they have not yet assumed their final form. These are the landscapes of process and construction, their materials — hydroseed, sod rolls, hay bales, geotextiles — as familiar as rhododendrons and cobblestones.

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The photographs were made between 2003 and 2008, part of a body of work that Johnson describes as examining “the ways we claim, construct, create, and recreate space in the pursuit of development.” These, too, are designed sites, although their aesthetics are most often determined by some anonymous hand, with results that are often, in Johnson’s words, “marvelously goofy.” Who chose the aqua and teal hues of hydroseed — and did they imagine we would mistake it for natural groundcover? Who designed the ubiquitous orange oval-mesh fencing, thus ensuring that the spirit of 1970s supergraphics would never die?

This suggests a new middle ground, so to speak. In the past two decades, landscape architects have begun to address “everyday” landscapes, claiming parking lots and median strips as extensions of their professional realm. But the temporary landscape of process — a mere blink of an eye in the lifespan of a project, but an eternity in the collective banality of everyday places — has received little attention. It’s a whole new land of opportunity.

Site Work: more thoughts on Turf

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Websites of note

The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Promoting public understanding of significant American landscapes, this robust site includes multimedia tours through significant civic parks and Modern gardens, a photo database of at-risk, lost, and preserved landscapes, and a growing collection of interviews with influential practitioners like Lawrence Halprin and Boston’s own Carol R. Johnson.

Landscape + Urbanism. A one-stop shop for the urban-landscape thing, this active blog includes it all: “landscape architecture, sustainable urbanism, vegetated architecture, urban agriculture, living walls, green roofs, ecological planning, and landscape urbanism theory.”

Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator. Want to sound smart at that next cocktail party? Facing a loss of words to describe your amazing design during your upcoming studio critique? Wish you knew the turn of phrase to make your “talk-itecture” jargon sound authentic? This simple, easy-to-use site’s got you covered. No pricey design education necessary.

City Farmer News. For 32 years, City Farmer has encouraged city dwellers to create their own productive landscape. With posts including stories from Vancouver, Phoenix, Tokyo, and Chandigarh as well as tips like how to use worms in your compost, this extensive site takes the “think globally, act locally” mantra to an entirely new dimension.

Waterfront Toronto. The poster child for landscape urbanism, Toronto also shows us how a municipal development website should be done. Waterfront Toronto provides design proposals and construction updates, maps, history, and more — making public process look like fun.

City Parks Blog. Coming from the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and the City Parks Alliance, this blog covers issues from crime and safety to economics, green infrastructure, and health. Staff from both organizations regularly post on the site, creating a rich information database and offering links to other blogs.

Urban Landscapes. Urban landscape photography from around the world: settle in for a global tour.

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Studying Landscape Architecture In New England

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

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It’s a growing discipline, so to speak. Applications are up. Course offerings have exploded. A number of new programs have recently launched, or are about to. Is this just a fad, or is something more significant taking hold?

Sustainability, global warming, amplified environmental awareness — contemporary concerns may be prompting this increase, along with the building industry’s rising attention to a structure’s larger environment. In education as in the profession, landscape architecture is embracing the entire built world.

As in architecture, landscape architects in the US must hold a professional degree — a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (BLA) or a Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) — from an accredited institution before taking registration exams. Many of these schools are consciously reconsidering what it means to educate landscape architects today, and retooling their programs dramatically.

In addition to the professional degree programs, there are many routes to serious study, including undergraduate liberal-arts minors, pre-professional programs, post-professional programs, and adult-ed night classes. Even institutions that don’t offer landscape “programs” — such as MIT, Wentworth, Mass College of Art and Design, and Connecticut College — are offering new landscape classes as well as expanded interdisciplinary courses on related topics like environmental justice or public horticulture.

It’s a lively time to be in school.

1900—Harvard Graduate School of Design, Department of Landscape Architecture

Charles Waldheim, chair

Degree: MLA

Harvard, the first institution to approach landscape architecture as an academic discipline, is still examining “design at the intersection of urbanization, environment, and contemporary culture,” with a strong new focus on landscape urbanism.

1903—University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning

Elizabeth Brabec, department head

Degrees: BSLA; MLA

UMass, with its long attention to “sustainable communities” and “protection of the land and natural resources,” now includes environmental justice, cultural accessibility and significant outreach initiatives in Holyoke and Springfield.

1942—Rhode Island School of Design, Department of Landscape Architecture

Mikyoung Kim, department head

Degree: MLA

Characterizing landscape architecture as a creative discipline bridging nature and culture, RISD emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration and design across scales, from watersheds to material details.

1968 (began at Radcliffe College), 2002 (moved to Arnold Arboretum), 2009 (new affiliation with the BAC)—The Landscape Institute at the Boston Architectural College

Heather Heimarck, director

Certificates offered in landscape design, landscape preservation, landscape design history, and planting design. Through courses, workshops, and certificate programs, the Landscape Institute “stimulates creative design and stewardship,” and is soon to be expanded online.

1972Conway School of Landscape Design

Paul Cawood Hellmund, director

Degree: MA in Landscape Design

Conway is a 10-month, full-time, non-professional graduate program for those interested in “ecologically and socially sustainable design of the land.”

1985—University of Rhode Island, College of the Environment and Life Sciences Landscape Architecture Program

Will Green, director

Degree: BLA

URI emphasizes sustainable communities, materials, and practices, along with a growing attention toward the developing world.

1998—University of Connecticut, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Mary Musgrave, head

Degrees: BSLA; MLA

Though recently accredited, UConn has offered landscape design and planning courses for many years, grounded in a department with a 130-year history of plant science and horticulture.

2001—Smith College, Landscape Studies

Ann Leone, director

Degree: BA with LSS minor

The first of its kind at a liberal-arts college, Smith’s interdisciplinary Landscape Studies minor draws from art, engineering, the humanities, and the sciences “to investigate… how we shape our world.”

2010—Boston Architectural College, School of Landscape Architecture

Kevin Benham, head

Degrees: BLA; MLA (beginning fall 2010)

Though the BAC has long offered landscape courses, the new accredited professional degree programs focus on “research and education in the context of Boston and its surrounding areas” and follow its tradition of work/study education.

2011—Northeastern University, School of Architecture

George Thrush, director

Degree (anticipated): BLA

Beginning in September 2011, Northeastern’s new “urban landscape” program strategically creates curricular, research, and faculty overlaps with architecture — perhaps the first new program to be based on the principles of landscape urbanism.

The Vespa

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The Vespa

Other Voices

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It was a typical autumn morning in London. The sky was pewter grey and the air heavy with the expectation of rain. The only sounds I could hear on the narrow residential street were in keeping with its demure Victorian brick terraces: front doors thudding shut; purposeful footsteps of men and women on their way to work; the “slick slick slick” of bicycle wheels moving along the damp tarmac. All was in its rightful place until, from behind me, the buzz of a Vespa scooter toppled my aural order. A Vespa scooter! For one glorious second, I was in Rome with its ochre-colored palazzos, dark cobblestoned streets, and fierce sunshine. Then, as the buzz trailed off into the distance, I remembered that scooter sales had recently exploded in London, a consequence of the exemption of two-wheeled vehicles from the city’s hefty congestion charge. “Mental note to self,” I thought, “erase Italian connotations of scooter noises. The Vespa is now just as much part of London’s soundscape as it is of Rome’s.”

You could call me, I suppose, a “sound hound,” a “collector of audio.” It’s a professional hazard when you work in radio. When I arrive at an interview location, I walk my ears around the place to identify what sounds I might record to give my listeners a sense of being there with me, to transport them out of their cars and kitchens to, for instance, Rome. Vespas, I realized that autumn morning, no longer work in the shorthand way they used to, at least for London listeners.

Hearing is the first sense we acquire as human beings — before even coming out of the womb. Hearing is also, we’re told, the last sense we lose before dying. Sound envelopes us every minute of our lives. There are individual sounds — the ring of a bell, for instance — so iconic that only a few seconds suffice for our brains to flash an image of the place that ring was from, whether a school, church, or door.

Cities are a cacophony of sounds — cars, horns, voices, footsteps. Recording the aural cityscape is a challenge. How can one convey without using words the intimidation caused by the Stalinist buildings of Minsk, the pandemonium of a Manila shantytown or (and this is perhaps most challenging) the modern humdrum of a bureaucratic city like Brussels? My own moment of revelation came at the National Gallery in London. Not because of any painting, but thanks to the variety of its floor surfaces. The soles of my feet still remember the sensation of moving from parquet to marble to carpet. But my ears remember, too. Voices, footsteps, the London buses outside the window — each reverberated differently depending on the floor material. Does a given soundscape, I wonder, affect our artistic appreciation?

Hearing a place is a visceral experience: it is something we can all relate to without thinking why. Recording a person interacting with a space by talking in it and walking through it creates sounds that paint a vivid picture in the mind of a listener. Consider the following radio sequence of just one minute from a documentary about land reform gone wrong in South Africa. The reporter walks into a ruined farmhouse. She describes what she sees and as she does, her voice bounces off the bare walls and her feet scrape against the rubble inside the house. She walks out of the house, and the echo is replaced by the deadened sound of an abandoned garden where she wades through brittle breaking leaves where there were once flowers and vegetable beds.

We share our streets and squares; we share their sound, too. Or perhaps more accurately, most of us still share their sound. Technology, the iPod being just one example, is already changing our relationship with the soundscape. It is a bittersweet irony that the very medium that proselytizes a community of listeners is experiencing a renaissance thanks to devices that shut people off from the sounds of their own cities.

Photo by Morten Rustad.

Let Them Eat Kale

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Murs à pêches in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France.

The growing interest in urban agriculture means we need to think about the city in a whole new way.

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The media moment is lasting. First ladies and queens — Michelle Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, and “Queen of Cuisine” Alice Waters — have endorsed kitchen and allotment gardens for their nutritional and educational values. The New York Times and Financial Times regularly report on urban agriculture, “edible schoolyards,” foraging, and gleaning. Organizations such as Growing Power in Milwaukee hold on to the limelight, its founder Will Allen knighted with a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship, and its greenhouses, composting facilities, job program, and tilapia tanks duly documented in videos and articles. The business world has taken notice too: New Urbanist Andrés Duany states that “agriculture is the new golf,” and a financier aims to convert 20,000 acres of Detroit’s vacant land into farmland. Whether as shorthand for sustainable land use or a loophole to acquire land inexpensively, urban agriculture and the associated idea of “the productive landscape” are central to the current discourse on the quality of life in and around cities.

Urban agriculture is about not only food, but also sustainability, health, social justice, and money. It can mean many things to many people. Hydroponic skyscrapers in cities like New York promise a bounty of tomatoes within easy reach of office workers. Strategic interventions within so-called shrinking cities such as Detroit and St. Louis seek to revalue urban land while bringing fresh produce to “food deserts” — neighborhoods without access to grocery stores offering fresh produce. Suburban developments advertise the inclusion of agricultural land as a conservation measure, a means to guarantee “safe” local food, and to satisfy our longing for a pre-agribusiness countryside. In cities like Kampala, Uganda, and Rosario, Argentina, urban agriculture is part of a participatory design process that integrates housing programs. Given this diversity of meanings and applications, urban agriculture begs for a site-specific and scale-specific nomenclature. It is a feel-good concept in need of a critical framework.

Murs à pêches in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France.The interrelationship of city and food, both in production and consumption, has a long history. The Mesopotamian city of Uruk, founded in 3500 BCE, relied on a system of flood protection and irrigation to yield dates, legumes, and grains to support its population. Versailles offers a more recent example, and one still visible today. There, Louis XIV expressed his integrated vision of garden design, urbanism, and food production. To the south of the château, the king’s kitchen garden, or potager du roi, featured 22 acres of ornamental vegetable beds and walled orchards. Just as spatially compelling were the murs à pêches (peach walls) of Montreuil, at the opposite end of Paris, whose now barely productive traces bear witness to their mark on the collective memory. Though somewhat of a cliché, the inextricable ties between culture and cultivation — semantically and conceptually — can be witnessed across societies from the floating gardens of Xochimilco’s chinampas, near Mexico City, to the hortillonages of Amiens, in France.

As the city displaced food production from its center, the relationship between living, working, and eating became more abstract. Landscape architecture was not central to early 20th-century architectural debates, yet a number of planners and designers sought to redress urbanization and crowded cities with a productive landscape system. German garden designer Leberecht Migge’s polemics were a call to arms for food self-sufficiency. Migge promoted an integrated housing-garden unit where greenhouses, vegetable beds, walls, and pergolas spatially extended the minimum dwelling and supplemented the family diet with a carefully calibrated output of foodstuff. Three decades later, Danish landscape architect C.Th. Sørensen took a more emotional and more modest stance. Based on his observation that apartment dwellers had lost their primordial relationship to the ground, his 1948 design for the Naerum allotment gardens created a dreamlike landscape that would reconnect man with the medium of dirt. The garden ovals cascade down the slope, their hedges allowing for a multitude of cultivation endeavors, both communally and privately.

The argument for self-sufficiency embodied in the allotment garden and community garden rested on an economic and moral rationale. The penury of war, the pressure of oil dependency, and economic recession have periodically prompted a yearning for food security and proper nutrition, and/or employment. To some, the current surge in urban agriculture projects reflects a phase as temporary as the World War II victory gardens, the UK’s Women’s Land Army (which put women to work on farms during World War I and II), and the 1970s’ embrace of organic gardening, do-it-yourself structures, and Whole Earth Catalog. Others contend that the new urban farmer represents a more enduring commitment to social justice and better nutrition in a better environment. Urban agriculture is in fact the product of both a top-down revolution and grassroot movements. The somewhat elitist desire to transform the relationship of Americans to food, the nostalgic collective memory of Jeffersonian agricultural ideals, the myth of old Europe, and the preservation of landscape through agritourism are all gathered in today’s “delicious revolution” and “slow food” movement. Conversely, urban agriculture rests on models tested in the developing world. The informal, opportunistic, impromptu, yet essential gardens and plots in the cities of Latin America and Africa contribute a large percentage of the local food supply. Likewise, the community gardens of West Philadelphia are crucial in strengthening the economic base, as well as the physical and mental health and cultural identity of the community.

Just as microloans have attracted global banks, urban farming and growing food as a means to ensure physical, mental, and ultimately economic health have come to the attention of the business world. Venture capitalist Woody Tesch put food economics and local production at the center of his 2008 book Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, thus bringing attention to the Slow Money movement and the “nurture-capital” industry.

Recently, corporations have returned to the production of food as part of their operating structure. In a trend reminiscent of the paternalism of company towns, corporations such as Pepsico and Google have introduced company gardens to the workplace: employees, or sometimes corporate departments, are given access to on-site vegetable plots in order to boost morale, develop team spirit, improve employee health and well-being, support food banks, or even to improve cafeteria fare. (Response varies and is perhaps best described as mitigated enthusiasm.) On a larger and supposedly more public scale, the 20,000-acre Hantz Farms in Detroit promises to “rejuvenate [the] city by returning to its agrarian roots … and putting property back on the city tax rolls.” A commercial venture, it will use conventional methods to grow crops that include Christmas trees. Advertised as a win-win proposition, this “plantation” has already raised the specter of land-grab among community activists, given the critical importance of land tenure in urban agriculture.

The contemporary enthusiasm for urban agriculture presents a paradox: zoning regulation, olfactory and sound control, and moral opprobrium have erased almost all traces of food production within most Western cities. This contradiction reveals the difficulty of integrating agriculture into urban systems and the need for landscape architects, planners, and community activists to tackle policy. The perception of urban agriculture as a temporary land use for disenfranchised inner-city populations is also likely to hinder its potential to form a new type of open space.

It would be well worth reevaluating the mid-20th-century division between ornamental and productive landscapes, from an educational as well as an economic standpoint. As heirs to both agricultural and urbanism traditions, landscape architects are uniquely situated to bring the aesthetics of “third nature” (the garden) back into a new urban “second nature” (the farm). Productive open space will gain acceptance as an essential component of sustainable urbanism through highly visible pilot projects. The inclusion of an urban farm in Harvard University’s plan for a new campus across the Charles River would have performed such a role, had construction not been halted. The proposed Allston campus offered an ecological, spatial, and social laboratory to test ideas about urban agriculture. The interconnection of a productive and didactic landscape and urban spaces would have demonstrated Harvard’s commitment to sustainability and progressive development and taken landscape architecture and urbanism in a new direction.

But other opportunities are emerging. The 2009 proposal by Michel Desvigne and Jean Nouvel for “Grand Paris” carries implications for the redefinition of the suburban-rural interface. The periphery of Paris offers the opportunity to develop a new type of productive landscape, one performing simultaneously as an open-space system for the hyper-individualistic suburban tracts and as a test plot for the agricultural belt that lies beyond. Desvigne describes the 500-mile joint of varying width as a lisière — a term for a forest edge or a seam. Traces of a long-gone farming landscape — hedges, ditches, thickets, and paths — and an infrastructure of greenhouses, allotment gardens, recycling, energy production, composting, and sports fields organize this seam. Strictly codified, it is a terrain for exchange and experimentation, a means to make the landscape accessible to all users. In this scenario, planned indeterminacy hems the suburbanization of the countryside and allows agriculture to reenter the urban environment.

In such theoretical scenarios, urban agriculture offers the potential to recalibrate the social, economic, and spatial balance. It is the designer’s role to underscore the importance of urban agriculture as a designed open space with wide-ranging implications. And it is the politician and planner’s role to acknowledge it as a new landscape system, one that is aesthetic, productive, and sustainable.

Above: The thermal mass of the murs à pêches (peach walls) in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France, created protected environments for espaliered peach trees, typically grown in more moderate climates. First constructed in the 17th century, the walls remain in one small district (center and upper right of photo) of the modern city outside Paris, once famous for its peaches. Satellite image (top) by TerraServer; circa 1930 aerial photo courtesy

Correction: The location of the headquarters of Growing Power has been changed to Milwaukee.


Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Competition proposal for the Lower Don Lands project in Toronto by Stoss.

The rise of landscape urbanism

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Jeff Stein: For centuries, architects have been making buildings and cities — designing what are literally the building blocks of urban environments. Today, as architects talk about greening the cities, their focus is still essentially on those building blocks. But lo, here comes the notion of landscape urbanism, which suggests a completely different approach to the urban environment: the city as a living thing. This sounds like the beginnings of the right solution at the right time.

Charles Waldheim: Landscape urbanism began about 15 years ago as a way of trying to describe what was already going on within urban design and landscape practices. The primary complaint has been that landscape architects are taking market-share away from urban designers and planners, but frankly, the urban design and planning realm has been slow to recognize the increasing importance of environmental factors.

Jeff Stein: Of course, urban design itself is a fairly new discipline, starting in this country after World War II, and using Mediterranean cities of the classical world as precedent — cities that sometimes aren’t the best working models for cold climates like ours.

Charles Waldheim: Urban design, to describe the discipline very simply, proposed that the city was an aggregation of buildings. Architecture was seen as fundamental to the city not only as a kind of spatial construct but also as a social and cultural one: If we could get enough buildings organized in a sympathetic way, then we might aspire to the city as a cultural form.

Jeff Stein: Even though automobile-related media — streets and roads and parking lots — in American cities take up as much as 50 percent of the ground plain.

Charles Waldheim: That’s actually the basis for one of the critiques of current planning practice that has come out of landscape urbanism. If you have a culture that is fundamentally automobile-based, then an urban model that is anti-automobile is counterintuitive at best. There’s a strange precept these days that asserts that people will abandon their cars if we simply build cities that don’t accommodate them.

Jeff Stein: Is it fair, then, to say that landscape urbanism isn’t design-based? Landscape urbanism talks about process, a framework for looking at the city as a living, changeable entity.

Charles Waldheim: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s not about design, but it is a different medium. Instead of using buildings as the medium of design, we’re using landscapes. That means infrastructure, public space, open space. But part of what you say is true: it’s much more comfortable with open-endedness. It argues for ceding certain forms of control to other kinds of controls. For example, landscape urbanism would argue against controlling the heights of buildings and maintaining the continuity of the street wall, which are tropes that come out of an idea about urbanism that overstates the social and environmental benefits of density. Density is a correlate of economic orders: mass automobility, decentralized industrial networks, and private land ownership rights have driven urban form in North America toward lower density.

Jeff Stein: It’s true that creating density can be difficult when many American cities are shrinking, especially those in the Midwest. Cleveland and St. Louis are both half the size they were 40 years ago, and Detroit — where you did some work early in your career — is the poster child for the shrinking city; it is actually demolishing buildings.

Charles Waldheim: If our model of urbanism depends upon aggregating buildings for its spatial framework, then it is fundamentally problematic that most of us live in the suburbs. Detroit became a very useful venue for my research when I was teaching at the University of Michigan: little serious work had been done on it, and it was a great example of how an industrial economy drives a form of spatiality. Detroit allows us to look at the story of globalization, economic shifts, and the spatialization of economic powers. The majority of metropolitan Detroit’s population of five million lives in the suburbs in a relatively affluent condition; the population of the city itself has shrunk by half or more and is economically struggling. The idea of shaping the city through buildings doesn’t make much sense, so Detroit has become a good case study for thinking about landscape urbanism in terms of urban shrinkage. Shrinking cities have been largely an academic concern in the United States, but they have been taken up by the German federal government post-reunification. In fact, the Germans have done the most work on shrinking cities, from both the ecological and the design side, and have funded serious high-level federal research.

Planning bureaucracies are often fighting the last war, if not two or three wars ago. Charles Waldheim

Jeff Stein: It seems that much of landscape urbanism is focused not on inner cities but on that edge between the densely urbanized center-city and the semi-rural suburb, in which office parks and manufacturing facilities have come and gone, leaving behind brownfields and empty parking lots.

Charles Waldheim: One of the reasons landscape urbanism took hold was that it could be useful as a generalized theory of urbanism in the contexts of both shrinking cities and suburbanization. If automobility is the baseline for your culture; if the majority of the population doesn’t live in cities but in suburbs; if you have a culture in which buildings are increasingly disposable because they are of less and less cultural and material value; then landscape emerges as the spatial medium in which you need to work. It used to be that corporations listed buildings as assets and, of course, they still do on financial statements. But they rarely see them as civic assets any more. In the ’70s and ’80s, signature buildings on the skyline were associated with corporate identity. Then, with the increase in mergers and acquisitions, corporate identities started to change so fast that investments in buildings, especially to promote corporate identity, made less sense. We have the case of the Sears tower, for example, which is no longer about Sears.

Jeff Stein: Or, in Boston, the John Hancock tower.

Charles Waldheim: Right. So now we see corporations pulling their names off buildings and onto stadia because you can buy and sell the naming rights to a stadium irrespective of where your front office is. The flux of capital is happening so much faster than the rate at which buildings change, that it’s very difficult to make buildings the kind of iconic civic signifiers that they used to be.

Jeff Stein: And in fact, many of our civic signifiers — those things that somehow define or enrich or give value to the public realm — don’t seem to work as they once did. For example, landscape urbanism seems to focus on the creation of public space, yet what is meant to go on in that public space? How do we make it viable and meaningful when so many people connect to one another and to events electronically rather than physically? You mentioned the increasing rate of change. How do you design for an indeterminate urban future?

Charles Waldheim: Certainly one of the challenges of landscape urbanism has been this notion that we’ve somehow lost the capacity to project desirable public futures apart from private capital sources. You could say the canonical works of landscape urbanism come from the European welfare state: their high-speed rail systems or the Dutch dike systems — big infrastructure projects in which there’s a landscape or ecological component. But in North America, we’ve generally lost faith in the ability of public institutions to deliver public space. Increasingly, we rely on private development — in the form of both the philanthropic donor culture and private real-estate development — to deliver not only private space but also the public realm. Landscape urbanism tries to grapple with that, but also suggests that we can have new forms of public spaces that derive from actual city-making, with a strong environmental component addressing environmental toxicity, brownfield sites, and the complexity of climate change. They don’t have to look like a 19th-century city, which has been one of the limitations of the discourse around urban design. And in a context where we don’t have strong leverage over landowners, in which municipalities are competing with each other for scarce tax revenue, and in which capital is increasingly mobile, the challenges are real.

Jeff Stein: Beyond its design implications, landscape urbanism relies on some meaningful science, especially in terms of environmental and ecological systems. The Boston Architectural College is working on a green alley project behind our building. Not only will it lessen the heat-island effect in that spot on a sunny day, but it will also help to recharge the groundwater under the Back Bay. We think of it as a little bit of landscape urbanism.

Charles Waldheim: Part of the appeal of landscape urbanism is its comfort with incompletion: small-scale projects such as yours can aggregate and eventually make a difference. Other theories of urbanism or design have tended to need great unifying gestures or continuity. We do have quite a lot of science available. Adapting it to the urban environment — for example, restoring ecological diversity — can be a challenge. That said, I would say that the greater challenge is that we must work within a policy framework and with public-sector planning bureaucracies that are often fighting the last war, if not two or three wars ago. So a part of my goal is to educate professionals who can work across these boundaries.

Jeff Stein: What are the possibilities for this sort of undertaking in the realm of professional practice? Are we doing more than just talking about them? Are there actual projects that reflect this approach?

Charles Waldheim: These are not theories that we invent in the academy and then try to throw into practice. Quite the reverse: a part of landscape urbanism is trying to theorize, after the fact, transformations that have already happened in practice. Over the last 20 years, as architects and urban designers struggled with urban form, complex remediation techniques, ecological challenges, and sustainable building techniques, landscape architects were increasingly recognized for the skill set that they bring to the project team. I realized landscape urbanism was going to take off when I saw that, if you were in the suburbs outside St. Louis or Chicago, and you had 15 professionals in your firm, and if you were doing what urban planners used to do, you were probably a landscape architect. There’s a whole generation of planners who are no longer physical designers, because post-’68, the planning discipline largely abandoned physical planning.

Jeff Stein: It became refereeing.

Charles Waldheim: Yes — it focused on policy and public process and a lot of other important things. But in that tradeoff, planners no longer had the ability or the interest or aptitude, generally speaking, to deal with spatial issues. Urban designers were very committed to a particular model of the 19th-century city, and therefore weren’t comfortable with or weren’t suited to the problems of the places where most of us lived and worked: the suburbs. So landscape architects emerged to take that on, without any kind of fanfare or theory behind them, just on a day-to-day basis.

Jeff Stein: It’s interesting that you yourself are actually an architect. And here you are now, in charge of a landscape program.

Charles Waldheim: My own career path is kind of an exception. But it’s also true that the majority of the proponents of landscape urbanism are doubly trained; I would even say it is a characteristic. They often share a combination of training in ecology or landscape and a training in high architectural culture. Chris Reed [Stoss] would be in that list, as would James Corner [Field Operations] and Adriaan Geuze [West 8].

Jeff Stein: You were an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania, which was home to Ian McHarg, the landscape architect who is widely credited with making connections among landscape architecture, planning, and the environment. Were you one of his students?

Charles Waldheim: He was a professor emeritus, retired but still in the building, although I never studied with him. It was a very interesting place just then, with a range of people talking about the city from different points of view and different disciplinary frameworks. But Ian’s work is undoubtedly what people have in mind when they pose one of the most important questions about landscape urbanism: Well, isn’t this just what we’ve been trying to do for 50 years? Haven’t we been aspiring to make better planning decisions, better spatial decisions, about environmental forms for the social justice of our cities? And I would say yes, but the great heroic Modernists — Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania, Carl Steinitz at Harvard, and others — tended to spatialize ecological data with the expectation that we would make better planning decisions. Those projects have been wildly successful, but they’ve run into something of a dead end because, broadly speaking, we’ve decided not to plan any longer. Ian’s work on regional ecological planning — the McHarg project, let’s call it — benefited enormously from the idea of the welfare state and the understanding that the public sector would use its ability to take land and to organize space. It’s one of the great ironies — or perhaps one of the great tragedies — of the McHarg project that the moment that his work began to flourish in the late ’60s to early ’70s was precisely the same moment when we began to dismantle the welfare state in North America. We now have more ecological knowledge than we’ve ever had, more scientific knowledge, more ability to apply spatial reasoning, yet we somehow lack the ability as a culture, at least in the US, to make spatial decisions.

Jeff Stein: We do have more ecological knowledge and understanding, but I would add that it’s not confined to trained professionals. Americans in general have a broader and more sophisticated understanding of these issues today.

Charles Waldheim: And the rising general literacy and interest in environmental and ecological topics have certainly supported this. But I would also stress that landscape urbanism was developed in some ways as a direct critique of New Urbanism.

Jeff Stein: I’ve noticed in the literature put out by the Congress for the New Urbanism that they themselves embrace landscape urbanism. Yet they’re still, it seems to me, mired in the picturesque. Landscape urbanism is more about — I hate to use these terms directly adjacent to each other — design science. There’s a scientific basis for this work that brings a level of complexity to the understanding of the city that we haven’t quite had before.

Charles Waldheim: That’s a fair assessment. We used to consider environmental science as separate from design culture. Among the strange bedfellows of the present day are these hybrids, and landscape urbanism is one of them, where design culture intersects with ecological knowledge, a combination of two things. This is the essential difference from previous similar forms of practice. In the past, there was a desire for the divergence and professionalization of separate realms. It’s certainly true that in the 19th-century understanding of landscape — if you look at the Back Bay Fens or Olmsted’s work in Central Park, for example — you see that landscapes and parks were perceived to be an exception to the city. The pastoral, picturesque landscape tradition in America is characterized by the park as a place apart from the city, both morally and physically. Whereas landscape urbanism argues quite the contrary, that the city is itself a place of natural flows, and human beings are embedded in those flows. Landscape urbanism is much more interested in the synthesis between models of the natural world and the shape of the city, as opposed to a contrast between the city and the natural world.

Jeff Stein: That was the sort of thing that McHarg was doing, though. He made the distinction between city and country.

Charles Waldheim: I think this is actually one of the great limitations of that model, in addition to its vulnerability because of its dependence on the welfare-state public-planning bureaucracy. The McHarg project was very good about deciding where not to build, and then identifying certain places where one could build, but McHarg rarely got to the precise characterization of how to build and in what forms. So he persisted with this idea that there was city and not-city, and of course the moral story was all too simple: the city is bad and the not-city is not bad. We’re fatigued these days with that kind of simple morality tale.

Jeff Stein: Almost every publication about landscape urbanism mentions that you coined the term in the early 1990s. Yet you talk about others, James Corner comes to mind, who were doing work on this before you. There’s a certain continuity that you fit into.

Charles Waldheim: It’s intellectually honest, but also good etiquette, to acknowledge one’s debt to those who went before. There were Europeans who were writing — significantly, in English — about why landscape was important in the American city; there was also a similar interesting discourse in Australia. Mohsen Mostafavi, now the dean at the GSD, and James Corner at Penn were also trying to describe this thing. From my perspective, I’m happily surprised that anybody paid attention to this marginal academic exercise. Now we are seeing an interest in ecological urbanism, which represents both a critique of the failings of landscape urbanism and a continuation of its aims, in perhaps more precise terms.

Jeff Stein: The GSD has been trying intently to develop landscape architecture as a powerful intellectual discipline.

Charles Waldheim: This department is the oldest and most distinguished of its kind in the world — I’m not being boosterish, because that’s objectively true. So my appointment was an enormous honor.

Jeff Stein: You want to move it forward. Which way is forward?

Charles Waldheim: My appointment was one of four made in the past year; Chris Reed, Pierre Belanger, and Anita Berrizbeitia have joined me, and we will make six new appointments this coming year. For a very small department to have 10 new hires in the space of two years, especially in this economic climate, is I think without precedent. So, without making any claims about what we’re going to do next, I would say, stay tuned. Because if you can arrange 10 new hires in a relatively small field, something interesting is likely to happen.

Above: The competition proposal for the Lower Don Lands project in Toronto by Stoss (Chris Reed, principal) incorporates principles of landscape urbanism to revitalize a waterfront district at the mouth of the Don River. Rendering © Stoss.

Wall to Wall: The Digital Landscape

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria.

For better or worse, digital technologies — smartphones, LEDs, social networking — are changing our cityscapes.

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“Foursquare is all about helping you find new ways to explore the city. Earn points and unlock badges for discovering new places, doing new things, and meeting new people.”

This message greets you when you download a smartphone application from one of the popular online social-networking sites. To increase its functionality, the app links you automatically with your Facebook friends and Twitter feeds. The message encourages you to join a virtual club of urban dwellers and promises exciting new possibilities. By monitoring your activities through your phone’s GPS, the app alerts you when friends are nearby, showing their location. It also helps you to map daily routines, comment on venues, and learn from anonymous contributors. On occasion, it gives you a personal insight into private arrangements within the public realm: Navneet Alang, a Toronto-based blogger for This Magazine, writes about his favorite tip from Foursquare, which suggests asking a waiter at a certain restaurant for “the secret pink menu.” “You could call it a new approach to urban discovery, one that takes the online mantra of ‘by the people, for the people’ and mixes it with happenstance,” he adds.

Digital technology increasingly, and more and more seamlessly, bridges the physical landscape with virtual environments to form visually rich and emotionally engaging narratives. Mobile devices serve as portals to enter and navigate multimodal landscapes. Geographic data, pictures, and brief commentaries merge into a single data-based landscape. The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone. Similarly, the distinction between the built and the conceptual is blurred with the integration of LED and projection technologies into architectural façades, effectively transforming previously static façades into dynamic media objects. Landscape becomes a continuous interface between these urban media façades and the ever-expanding use of digital devices with interactive content. Interactions and experiences that in the past were predominantly confined to art-gallery installations or online chat rooms become Main Street events with broader participation and authorship. While perceived by some as invasive and overreaching, media participatory landscapes could also help us to reclaim the public realm and democratize its content.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe. Image based on original photo by Antti Ahonen.

Media façades

Media-infused urban spaces such as New York’s Times Square, or to a greater degree the Ginza and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo, expand their content into mobile communication devices and often merge with the online experience. This is not limited to their visual identities or content delivery methods; these urban spaces often redefine a message and authorship within a public domain. By doing so, they create opportunities for, though not necessary guarantees of, greater public participation. Building on the increasing role of mobile devices in people’s everyday lives, many initiatives have attempted to capture this new audience and functionality. A recent ad campaign by Microsoft allowed random users to contribute a short phrase about their use of personal computers to “I’m a PC” advertisements. Each respondent’s photograph and phrase were later displayed on one of the media façades in Times Square, giving the participant 15 seconds of global visibility. This moment of personal visibility was further documented by a webcam, fed into an online gallery, and sent to the contributor in a personalized e-mail. The entire process effectively established a communication loop from mobile device to media façade and back to mobile device. Although this was a commercial campaign, it established an operability that could be easily adapted to social activism and other purposes.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands, by artist Q. S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX) with Pitupong Chaowakul, Chris Seung-woo Yoo, and Norbert Palz. Photo courtesy NOX.

Architectural responses

Most commercially driven media façades are simple projection or display screens superimposed on an exterior wall without considering architectural design. They often are seen as design eyesores that desperately cry for public attention. Recently, however, more buildings have incorporated media components into their façades in ways that do not compromise design. In the Graz Art Museum, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier introduced “communicative display skin” that features a large, low-resolution media façade. Their design relies on abstract patterns with pixelated text or graphics, treating the media component as yet another building skin and augmenting it with a textural reading. This approach allows media content to enhance a structure’s appearance and to communicate a message or convey a building’s functional content without compromising its design integrity. In other projects, media screens and projection lighting elements change the three-dimensional perception of an immobile object, as seen in works by digital-media firm NuFormer. Temporal façade alterations can inform, entertain, or simply showcase a work of architecture in new ways, continuing a tradition of public artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Furthermore, media façades create an opportunity to redefine the relationship between a building and the public realm. In contrast with the Modernist dictum of a façade as an expression of the inner functional or structural logic of a building, these projects connect it back to historic practices, which considered a façade as an enclosure of a public space.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels, by Magic Monkey. Photo ©

Social activism>/p>

Just as graffiti, posters, and handbills have historically appropriated the façades of private structures for public speech, so have media-enhanced landscapes already begun to extend beyond commercial use or aesthetic considerations into the sphere of social discourse and activism. The implications are profound: nothing less than the transfer of the public domain back from corporate ownership to public authorship. Equally profound is the opportunity for individual expression similar to that found in online environments. An example of this form of public discourse is a Dutch project, the D-Tower by artist Q.S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX), which maps the emotions of the inhabitants of the city of Doetinchem and expresses them through an interactive art installation. This installation relies on the input of voluntary collaborators; because the data are not analyzed or sampled statistically, the work is purely a subjective form of expression. The “Green Cloud” art installation by HeHe (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen) confronts contemporary environmental issues, displaying energy usage by Helsinki residents. Exhausts from a power plant are used as a screen for media projections, directly correlating the visual presence of the “green cloud” image with the amount of energy produced. This adaptive installation continues to remind residents of the role they play in energy conservancy. The Green Cloud successfully integrates the ephemeral qualities of landscape with the effective use of digital media. Both installations illustrate social, emotional, or environmental data using an interface that puts residents into the position of active content creators, thus shifting their role from consumption to authorship.

The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone.

In contrast to these anonymous contributions to public discourse, the recent Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project by Magic Monkey drew upon the urge to claim authorship of individual expression. “Create your own Shooting Star and share your wish with your loved ones and the millions of commuters!” encourages a Web advertisement for the project, which was installed during the December 2009 holiday season in Brussels. The Shooting Star project allowed contributing individuals to customize their holiday messages, using the Electrabel Power Plant cooling tower as a canvas for the animated LED installation. The response from the public was high, with the project attracting over 5,000 contributions within a 20-day period. The Interactive Power Station project built upon concepts previously developed in two others: Toyo Ito’s “Tower of Winds” in Yokohama, which used light as a masking device for an industrial site, and the “I’m a PC” campaign in Times Square discussed earlier, which incorporated open online public participation.

The need

As digital media, and especially media façades, assume a more prominent role in contemporary architecture, there is a growing need for research and for creative models that demonstrate enriching and meaningful integration of this technology into the urban environment. A number of questions emerge for architects and designers. How can the integration of new technologies with architecture and landscape create spaces that evoke new experiences, touch us emotionally, and help us feel at home? How can media-rich architecture and landscapes provide new answers for the needs of a mobile and globally connected society? These are the issues we need to address in the next decade, or life — in the form of commercial enterprise — will answer them for us. The question is not whether we like or dislike the extension of media content into architecture and landscape; the digital media landscape, in the form of advertisement and corporate identity, is already here. Instead, the challenge is to direct its development toward the aesthetic benefit of our urban environments and the cultural and political benefit of our society.

Top image: Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria, by Realities:United in collaboration with Spacelab Cook Fournier and ÖBA Architektur Consult. Photo by Peter Pakesch/Landesmuseum Johanneum/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0..

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

Galveston, Texas

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We all know the tale of the three pigs and their homebuilding projects. Maybe you sang the camp song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock while the foolish man chose a nice sandy beach site. As children, we thus learned the basics about how and where to build. But, as with many lessons taught in childhood, we figured we knew a better way. Architects and engineers are perhaps most susceptible to this pattern — they are, after all, taught how to design their way around any problem.

And so, through a combination of incremental individual decisions and a shared focus on short-term gain, we have sometimes built in places that really make no sense, in ways that defy the greater forces of nature. We drive by them, perhaps we visit them on vacation, and we take advantage of their contributions to today’s economy. We don’t see the big picture.

But Alex MacLean does. From his plane, thousands of feet up, the details recede. Patterns emerge. Folly is revealed. “Mitigation packages” become unimportant. An internationally celebrated photographer, MacLean takes advantage of this rare vantage point, his aesthetic sensibility, and his deep knowledge of environmental issues to promote a better understanding of the American landscape and wise land-use.

The following images are drawn from MacLean’s new book, Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point. Even more than his previous books, this collection of photographs has an urgency, focusing on topics such as water use, sea-level rise, waste, automobiles, and electric generation to demonstrate the vulnerability of our built environment and the fragility of the natural environment.

What’s wrong with these pictures? Nothing. They tell you everything you need to know.

The Universe In A Garden

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Photo courtesy Charles Jencks

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Lecture by Charles Jencks (October 7, 2009); Gardens & Spirit Series, co-sponsored by Trinity Church and the Arnold Arboretum

What is a garden? By today’s standards, the notion of a garden seems naïve, vaguely old-fashioned, or at best pleasantly restorative. Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt informs us that the Roman orator Cicero described the cultural landscape of bridges, roads, harbors, and fields as “second nature,” implying a first nature of landscape untouched by humans. Before moving on to gastronomy, writer Michael Pollan gave his wonderful account of fighting entropy in his own suburban Connecticut garden in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991). Sixteenth-century Italy introduced the concept of “third nature” — art incorporated into nature. The notions of second and third nature speak to the balance struck between human order and natural chaos, and the definition of that balance becomes the personal expression of the gardener.

On October 7, architectural historian, writer, and designer Charles Jencks presented his private landscape, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Located at Portrack House near Dumfries in southwest Scotland, the garden began as a creative joint venture with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, on her family estate. Images of the steeply sloped, grass-covered landforms sinuously enclosing lobe-shaped pools of water have become the widely recognized images of the garden, reproduced in coffee-table books of “radical” landscapes since its construction in 1989. To this first project, Jencks has continued to add new vignettes of garden spaces, so now the visitor experiences an episodic journey of garden rooms — based on themes of modern physics, mathematics, and science — rather than a broad, continuous landscape.

Prior to Portrack’s relatively recent step onto the world stage, the most celebrated Scottish garden was Little Sparta, the garden of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jencks’ “neighbor” 70 kilometers to the north. Referring to Little Sparta, Finlay quipped, “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” These two private gardens, carved out of the Scottish landscape, offer much to consider about the nature of gardens — their meaning and manufacture, as well as their authors.

Taking Finlay’s definition of the garden as either retreat or attack, it is interesting that for the agoraphobic Finlay the garden was an attack, filled with metaphorical sculpture and pointed, iconographic references to politics, philosophy, anarchy, and landscape history. For Jencks — who found fame through his prolific writing and lecturing on postmodernism in the late 1970s and 1980s — the garden is a retreat from the world stage and perhaps from personal loss. While Finlay’s garden alludes to the past, Jencks’ engages current and future relationships between humanity and nature as expressed in quantum physics, chaos theory, ideas of “strange attractors,” Solitan waves, and the Anthropic Principle of the universe’s genesis.

Like any creative endeavor, these works must be evaluated on their own terms, as landscapes outside of the meanings proposed by their authors. The rural Little Sparta, created within the context of the barren moors south of Edinburgh, is more successful, as it truly engages the full medium of landscape — topography, vegetation, climate, light, and place. Finlay’s sculpture, Nuclear Sail, a replica of a nuclear submarine’s conning tower, plies the “sea” of the grass-covered moor, and achieves a sense of the sublime in both the raw emotional power and scale of the moor, as well as the insidious threat of nuclear annihilation. In other places, tree trunks stand as columns with stone entablatures at their feet, commemorating a pantheon of philosophers. Other inscribed stone blocks stand in for grazing sheep in the pastoral fields of the farmhouse, a 20th-century interpretation of the English landscape garden.

Similar to Little Sparta, Portrack’s garden spaces and elements are an eclectic assembly of objects and ideas, but here are superficial referents to complex scientific theory, breaking from English garden traditions both in content and how they engage landscape as a medium for design. In several places, complex theories are simplistically applied as pattern, as in the case of the Black Hole or Fractal Terraces, or oddly freestanding as sculptural objects, as in the DNA Garden or in the wire tracing of subatomic particle explosion that fords a stream. While well crafted by local tradesmen and gardeners, the primary space is largely derivative of current landscape celebrities Kathryn Gustafson or George Hargreaves in the use of sinuous and geometric landform. The smaller gardens play a diminished, secondary role: they exist only as backdrops for the display of pseudo-scientific objects.

The garden is at its best where it is most allied to the landscape elements of earthwork, water, and woodland enclosure, in the landform garden. As it delves further into scientific symbolism and allegory, both the forms and the references become more simplistic and less successful. Pollan closes his essay on gardening saying, “Nature does tend toward entropy and dissolution, yes, yes, but I can’t help thinking she contains some countervailing tendency, too, some bent toward forms of ever-increasing complexity. Toward us and our creations, I mean. Toward me and this mower and the otherwise inexplicable beauty of a path in a garden.” In regard to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation as a work of landscape, this critic is left wanting more of the real entropy of the garden, and less of the theoretical.