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Brightwater / Jared Green

Imagine a wastewater treatment facility where people get married, amid 40-acres of restored salmon habitat with designed ponds and wetlands. It sounds far-fetched but it’s reality in Snohomish County, Washington, near the border with King County, about an hour northeast from downtown Seattle. In a tour of the Brightwater facility during the American Planning Association (APA) conference by Michael Popiwny, the landscape architect who managed this $1 billion project for the King County government, we learn how wastewater treatment plants can become assets instead of drains on communities and the environment. The key to success was an interdisciplinary management, design, and construction team that was highly responsive to community feedback and deeply sensitive to environmental concerns. Plus, Brightwater was paid for by growth in the region. As new people are attracted to the quality of life the Seattle area offers, they move in and pay a $4,000 – $8,000 sewer hook-up fee. “The fact that new people were paying for the system helped us to sell it to the community.”

Brightwater, a 15-year endeavor that began operations in 2011, is a wastewater treatment facility, environmental education and community center, and ecological system rolled into one. It’s a 114-acre site, nestled in a wealthy residential area, with some 70 acres of trails and parks open to the public. There are 13 miles of underground conveyance pipes that direct wastewater to the plant. When it reaches the plant, the wastewater is cleaned through the largest membrane bioreactor system in North America, which makes the water 70 percent cleaner than conventional approaches. It is then sent out through a 600-foot-deep outfall pipe a mile out into the Puget sound. Excess materials are turned into “loop,” a biosolid that is sold to local farms and orchards at very low cost.

However, this description of the system doesn’t do justice the experience of being at Brightwater. Popiwny explained the critical role excellent design played in “selling this place to the community.” He said, “we realized that this place needed to be beautiful. We need it to be very well designed.” Just siting the project won King and Snohomish counties, along with CHM2Hill and Environmental Design Associates, an ASLA 2005 Professional Analysis and Planning award. Then, engineers with CHM2Hill and landscape architects with Hargreaves Associates and Mithun along with restoration ecologists and conservation biologists came together in an interdisciplinary design team to create a welcoming place that actually restored the ecological function of the landscape, turning into a place that aids salmon in their annual migration.

Popiwny briefly described the design and construction process: “We had separate contracts for the engineering and design teams. We needed the strongest engineering team and the strongest landscape architecture team. The teams completed their work separately and then we combined their efforts in the final design. Internally, we had an engineer lead the engineering team, and I led the design team. It’s important that you set up competitions for top notch talent in each category and then give them equal status.”

As the deep processing facilities were dug out of the landscape, the excess soil was turned into “decorative, geometric landforms,” by Hargreaves Associates. “These landforms alone took thousands of trucks off the highway, saved lots of carbon,” explained Popiwny.

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On the way to the North 40 acres, Brightwater / Jared Green

Amid these landforms in the “north 40 acres” is an elaborate system of forests, meadows, raingardens, wetlands, and ponds that hold and clean rainwater before directing it to the streams salmon use. What was once an auto depot is now a place that provides great environmental benefits.

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Restored forested habitat / Jared Green

The process of restoring the habitat and turning into a publicly-accessible park was complex, involving stream and wetland biologists, who guided ecological decisions, and landscape architects with Hargreaves. The team used 15 different types of rocks to create two different stream corridors that empty into ponds where salmon rest on their uphill climb to the places where they spawn. “The result is something similar to the original stream.”

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Restored stream / Jared Green

To restore the forested wetland, the Brightwater team made it an environmental education and community outreach project. Kids from the area helped plant over 20,000 native willows. “Native willows are easy for children to plant. We had about 4-6 busloads of kids from the surrounding area per week.” This effort really helped create community buy-in and grow a sense of greater investment in the success of the project.

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Forested wetland / Jared Green

As you walk out of the park and into the environmental education center, which was designed and built to a LEED Platinum level, you can see how an open-minded couple would actually want to host a wedding here. Popiwny laughed and said one comment he read about the onsite wedding online was, “it’s today — get with it!” There are pleasing views of the green infrastructure. One of the larger buildings is also a frequent host for local non-profits and community meetings.

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Environmental education center / Jared Green

All of this is a result of efforts to stave off protracted lawsuits that would have delayed the project from the beginning. The parkland, environmental education and community centers, were all part of the $149 million set aside as part of the “mitigation budget.” According to Popiwny, “budgeting this kind of work upfront meant saving money over the long run.” However, the Brightwater project was still sued by local sewer districts who argued that the project “spent too much on mitigation.” The state supreme court eventually sided with Brightwater. Popiwny said “lawsuits are an inevitable part of large projects.”

Now the challenges to projects like Brightwater are “often in the guise of environmental protection.” But Popiwny just sees this as part of the broader system of checks in a democratic system. “There needs to be multiple checks as these projects can affect communities. The region benefited from the opposition to the project as it pushed us towards a higher performance, but it also made it more expensive.” The Brightwater team included other forms of technical fail-safe systems, like multiple, isolated ponds to separate acid or bases if there was an overflow or accident caused by an earthquake, and engineering all pipes and systems to withstand high levels of seismic activity.

As we walk out of the environmental education center, which features flexible classrooms for groups of all ages and enables a range of hands-on learning about the water cycle, we head to the facility itself, which is strangely odorless. “There are three levels of odor control.”

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Brightwater wastewater treatment plant / Jared Green

Spread throughout the site is public art, as the project was part of the state’s 1 percent for art program. Climbing up a stairwell to the spot where the millions of gallons of cleaned water is sent out to the sound, there is artist Jane Tsong’s poem, which actively blesses the elements of the plant (air, water, biosolids) as “they depart from the treatment process and continue their life cycle into the natural world.”

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Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green

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Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green

Popiwny said the facility staff particularly connect with these poems, as it is reminder of how meaningful their work really is.

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Parading floats at the Sambadrome / AP

As finalists for this year’s Wheelwright Prize gathered at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) to present their research, Gia Wolff, the inaugural winner of the $100,000 traveling fellowship, returned after two years of funded research to give a lecture. The Brooklyn-based architect and GSD alumna won the prize for Floating City: The Community-based Architecture of Parade Floats. Her talk recast the famous Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as an allegory of the city itself.

When Wolff began her research, she knew very little about carnival traditions, or the infrastructure, culture, and community behind the spectacle. She learned that mapping a float’s route through the streets of Mangueira by drawing a set of precise arrows on an aerial photo wasn’t helping her figure things out. Carnaval “is off the map.” In the end, it’s not about getting the sequencing and choreography of floats in the Sambadrome, a linear stadium, exactly right–“it is not really about that, but everything else.”

The first surprising notion was that in Rio, carnival is not an event as much as a practice. Its duration and influence span more than a single show or the arena of a stadium. Wolff refers to this as the “cyclical nature of Carnaval.” It pervades the urban fabric and is deeply embedded in the culture. Preparations begin long before the performance. Samba schools practice the music and dance throughout the year and the Carnavalesco designs the floats months in advance. Costumes and floats are constructed in old warehouses, disguising the work up until the eleventh hour–no small task for a float the size of a building. In fact, the floats can’t take final form until they enter the parading ground of the Sambadrome. After months of rehearsal, the “perfect image of Carnaval” is fulfilled only during the parade. It is as if sneaking a peak would jinx the final picture.

The Samba schools also operate under a fierce system of competition. Wolff likens the organization of the schools to a soccer league. Three tiers with varying degrees of monetary and cultural capital all participate in the carnival with their respective floats. But while the first and second-tier schools parade in the Sambadrome designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built in 1984, the third tier moves through the streets, the original parading ground. This reminds the audience that the Sambadrome is little more than a glorified avenue, constructed and reserved for a single purpose and only a few days each year. The surprising permanence of this structure contradicts its relative temporary function as a street, and the otherwise pervasive nature of Carnaval.

But what really captured Wolff’s imagination were the immense and utterly spectacular floats, which set the whole parade into motion. It’s the float that drives the performance, draws the crowd, consumes much of the labor, and occupies the street. The Portuguese term for float is carro alegórico, “the allegorical car.” But she considered, “could it also be an allegory for the city itself?”

If not the city, perhaps its components. When floats “move through the city like mobile buildings,” the sheer size of the floats–in this case, some of the largest in the world–transform the exterior realm of a street into a new interior. These temporary structures are made with steel frame, wooden construction, and foam, all in the name of a thematic story, which the float, the carro alegórico, tells. The final transformational act, however, that makes the “allegorical car” into a live spectacle and truly gives scale to the construction is the addition of people.

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Carro alegórico carioca, a Brazilian “allegorical car” in Rio de Janeiro / Gia Wolff

We see an image of a large, crane-like machine lifting and lowering elaborately-dressed participants into position, to become part of the float itself. Even though the performers appeared grossly out of scale, they gave the float a dimension at the “unexpected architectural scale.” And then we see a short video clip from the Sambadrome that features a boat and rowers at the center of a large blue tarp. The tarp is suspended from the hips of the performers standing in dispersed perforations, and their coordinated hip-swaying is making waves in the sea. The objects represented are everyday objects, but Wolff promises, their performance transcends the urban scale. In this way, she observes, Carnaval presents “hyper-reality as a new sort of normal reality.”

This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

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Artist Peregrine Church has created Rainworks, a project that turns Seattle’s over abundance of rain into an opportunity to enliven street life. Using stencils and a non-toxic, biodegradable “superhydrophobic coating” made of nano-particles called Always Dry, Church has created a fun, do-it-yourself template, demonstrating how to use concrete pavement as a canvas for artworks, illustrations, and messages — but only when wet.

Church has created about 25-30 works of “rain-activated art,” featuring messages like “Stay Dry Out There,” a lily pond filled with frogs, a fun hopscotch game, and other natural patterns.

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Rain-enabled art / Rainworks

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According to Church, the coating of nano-particles only last about 4 months to a year, given wear and tear. “A rainwork is the most vivid during its first couple of weeks, then slowly becomes more subtle.”

Rainworks is actually legal, too. Church checked with the Seattle department of transportation, which gave the OK, because the works are “temporary, don’t harm the property, and don’t advertise anything.” Also, the concrete retains the same texture once it has been sprayed. The material leaves “zero residues and is 100 percent invisible, odorless, and doesn’t alter the texture of the substrate.”

In this brief video, Church says: “It’s going to rain no matter what. Let’s do something cool with it.”

Another D-I-Y way to improve street life and, really, a whole city’s approach to accessibility, is Walk [Your City]. This non-profit started by Matt Tomasulo, a landscape architect, enables communities to order and install their own signs explaining how far it is to walk to different locations. Cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico; West Hope, West Virginia; Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, have all used Tomasulo’s process and signs to create more walkable places. See Walk [Raleigh], which won an ASLA student award in 2012 — and really started it all.

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Contemporary Flower Art

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Flowerworks / Sarah Illenberger

Flowers, one of nature’s most appealing experiences, continue to be a source of inspiration for artists. Their form, color, and delicate, ephemeral nature are compelling. Their unique qualities make them the focus of photography, painting, even the material for sculpture. Today, contemporary photographers and artists are highlighting the seasonal lures of plants in ways never seen before.

In Flowerworks (see above and below), Sarah Illenberg has created an ingenious series of photographs that transform flower arrangements into fireworks exploding in a night sky.

Many of her photos have an incredible sense of movement.

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Flowerworks / Sarah Illenberger

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Flowerworks / Sarah Illenberger

Makoto Azuma has long been at the avant garde of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, taking his living installations further into the world of abstract sculpture. Now, he is subjecting his arrangements to extreme conditions. With Iced Flowers, floral bouquets are suspended in pillars of ice. According to This Is Colossal, Azuma said the “flowers will show unique expressions they don’t display in everyday life.”

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Iced Flowers / Makoto Azuma

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Iced Flowers / Makoto Azuma

Azuma has even sent his arranged flowers into outer space, the most challenging environment. Last year, he launched a bonsai tree and collection of flowers up 91,000 feet into space from a launch site in Nevada. He told The New York Times Style Magazine this shows that “flowers aren’t just beautiful to show on tables.”

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Bouquet in space / Makoto Azuma

And lastly, the young Spanish artist Ignacio Canales Aracil has created unique sculptural forms out of pressed flowers, only made possible after being woven into place on large vessel-like molds.

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Flower Vessels / Ignacio Canales Aracil

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Flower Vessels / Ignacio Canales Aracil

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Flower Vessels / Ignacio Canales Aracil

This Is Colossal describes his process: “The pieces dry for up to a month without the aid of adhesives and are sprayed with a light varnish to protect the sculpture from moisture. The final pieces, which could be crushed with even the slightest weight, are rigid enough to stand without support.”

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Bar codes are engraved in granite towers jutting up into the sky in Topher Delaney’s “Promised Land.” – Amy Osborne / The San Francisco Chronicle

PBS Series Explores ‘A New Wild’ Sustained, Instead of Wrecked, by PeopleThe New York Times, 2/4/15
“The series ends in New York Harbor with the story of Kate Orff, a landscape architect who’s been pursuing the restoration of the region’s oyster reefs as a buffer to storms, pollution filter and more. Now a $60 million grant will help establish an oyster reef off the Tottenville section of Staten Island.”

Winter’s Stark Landscape Lets You See Yard in a New Light – The Chicago Tribune, 2/5/15
“‘This is a great time to look at your landscape without its screen of leaves,’ says Susan Jacobson, landscape architect at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. ‘You can really see it in a new light. You’re down to the basics, and you’re not distracted by flowers and other details.'”

Renovated “Tom Sawyer’s Play Island” in Hialeah Park UnveiledThe Miami Herald, 2/10/15
“Amelia Earhart Park in Hialeah now boasts a half-million-dollar new playground area for kids to experience their own adventures, both in the air — on monkey-bars and swings — and on land. Nestled between strands of oak trees and pristine lakes, ‘Tom Sawyer’s Play Island’ is the largest playground within Miami-Dade County’s parks.”

Promise Fulfilled: Required Public Art Springs up on Mid-MarketThe San Francisco Chronicle, 2/11/15
“Unfenced last week after nearly a year of anticipation, a new pathway cuts a corner from Market Street through tall slabs of granite to 10th Street. Look up and they will see that there are granite monoliths with ledges to sit on. One ledge has the word ‘Promised’ etched into it in gold, the other has the word ‘Land.'”

Billionaire Barry Diller’s $130 Million Floating Park on the Hudson Is Actually Going to Get Built, and It Looks IncredibleBusiness Insider, 2/12/15
“Media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, have committed to funding a floating public park and performance space on a pier in the Hudson River. Their pledge of over $113 million will be the single largest private donation to a public park in New York City history, according to Capital New York.”

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Janet Echelman / Todd Erikson

Janet Echelman builds living, breathing sculpture environments that respond to the forces of nature — wind, water and light — and become inviting focal points for civic life. She is recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her TED talk, “Taking Imagination Seriously,” has been translated into 34 languages and is estimated to have been viewed by more than a million people.

What is your role as a public artist today? Are you here to enliven dead places, create a new sense of place, or just get us to feel something new?

I am engaged in enlivening dead or invisible places. I’m drawn to places that somehow do not yet click, because it’s a challenge — enigmatic and interesting. The hardest thing is to go make art in a place that’s already good.

Creating a new sense of place is a very interesting problem for me in my practice of public art. I often think of it more as creating a sense of place, because many of these places felt anonymous before. I’m often part of a larger effort that involves a landscape architect, architect, and urbanist.

Feeling something new: Yes, I am interested in that because it’s about feeling alive in the moment to encounter, experience, absorb, just see the world in a different way. My work is dynamically changing in different weather and at different times of year, which is actually very in-tune with landscape architects’ sensibility. I admire landscape works that have plants that flower or drop their leaves at different seasons, the sense of sculpting something that has seasonal change.

What kind of spaces best enable us to interact with your voluminous, floating artworks? When you’re installing a piece in an existing park or plaza, how do you see a spot and say to yourself: Yes, that’ll work?

I’ve created sculpture in a forest, in fields, and on a beach. These are very satisfying environments, but there is no more compelling site than the middle of a city where people are. These works are about the experience of how it feels to be underneath them. The reason I make them is because I want to be under something like this.

I don’t know if my work is a landscape, but they’re a scape of sorts. They’re an environment that you go inside of, and they’re often integrally linked with a landscape beneath them. Maybe they’re a skyscape?

When I am brought in to work with a team, it’s a question of understanding what the options are, walking through the site, thinking about the patterns of pedestrian movement, and where there might be a place of contemplation. Where is a place where people can lie down and look up?

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She Changes, Porto, Portugal / Enrique Diaz

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, your recent piece for the 30th anniversary TED conference in Vancouver, was imbued with technology that enabled the public to interact. What was your motivation for this interactivity? Does this mean we can only reach people through their smartphones now?

Each project I take on has to have some edge where I’m experimenting or pushing limits. In this project, I wanted to give the public a way to interact with color and lighting. It was a collaboration with a digital artist Aaron Koblin, who leads Google’s data art labs.

This piece is about social gathering in cities. Its form is derived by 2,000 years of urban history and the city of Rome, when the Colosseum was built. The Colosseum once had a textile work suspended by ropes called a velarium. We don’t know exactly what it looked like, but this was my challenge to create a velarium for today. I was thinking about why people gathered in Rome 2,000 years ago to watch violent spectacles and why we gather today.

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Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, Vancouver, British Columbia / Ema Peter

Aaron and I spoke how often technology connects us to all sorts of people but never the person standing next to us. In the context of the sculpture, it would not only connect you to your friends list but the person physically next to you. We were using technology as a tool to bring people together; it was both a physical space and a virtual space at the same time.

It’s not the phone that distances us. I don’t feel that the smart phone has to control us in terms of how we relate. We can use it in a way that brings us together in a real landscape in real time in a real conversation.

You partnered with landscape architecture firm OLIN on Pulse, an exciting project coming to the new plaza in front of City Hall in Philadelphia. Can you talk about the collaborative design process with them and the other designers, engineers on the team? What did you learn from them and what did they learn from you?

The project in Philadelphia with OLIN is a completely different experience for me, because it’s not about looking up. It’s in front of the beloved historic Philadelphia City Hall. It was more about working together with the landscape architecture to engage people and add playfulness. It’s meant to engage above ground with what’s going on underground.

It was an intimate collaboration. We’d have the site model with trace paper. I would draw a line, and Sue Weiler, FASLA, a partner with OLIN, might pick up the pencil and complete the line. OLIN was open and willing to invite me into the landscape, to join in what became a completely integrated work of art and landscape. With landscape architects, the projects tend to become really collaborative. Neither side is really too attached to their ideas. That’s not always the case when collaborating in the design world. Sometimes, there’s an uncomfortable butting of heads.

Their input really changed what I designed in the end, because I was initially thinking about being vertical and engaging with the parkway, which is on the diagonal. The more I learned from the OLIN team, the more I saw it was as about people moving through this plaza. I became engaged with the ground plane in a way I never before. The project required me to delve into the history. The site housed the original waterworks of the city, the former railroad station of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Broad Street Station, where trains ran on steam. So I developed a completely new material to engage with this history, working with mist or fog as a sculpture material and colored light, to bring the sense of the trains.

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Pulse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / OLIN

Having your pieces in so many different types of landscapes, you must have some sense of what landscape architecture works and doesn’t work. Is there an ideal relationship between landscape architecture and public art or is it all relative?

The only way I know if a landscape is working is my subjective experience. How do I feel when I walk through a space? In a former phase of my life, I worked as a psychotherapist. In the training, they talked about self as instrument. How you feel is your greatest tool in understanding what’s going on around you. That training has helped me as an artist working in the public realm collaborating with landscape designers. So it is subjective, but it is in fact my only tool, so that’s how I judge a space.

I can’t say what is the ideal relationship between public art and landscape, but I am intrigued where they are in conversation with one another. Many of my works are in the sky and they talk to the landscape. I lived in Bali and there they say, “The sky is my father, and the Earth is my mother.” It’s a romance between the ground plane and the sky.

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1.26, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / Janus Vanden Eijnden

If you have to deal with the legacy of bad planning or landscape architecture, how can you fix it?

It’s interesting what I am asked to fix. At the San Francisco Airport, they asked me to create a zone of re-composure for people after they clear security. In cities and even on campuses, I’m asked to create a “heart.” This is a challenging but worthy goal. I can never reach my ambitions, but I’m willing to be aspirational.

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Every Beating Second, San Francisco Airport / Brute Damonte

I am frequently part of a team that includes landscape architects who are addressing a fix to some previous plan, often the result of urban renewal. We’re in a moment when we are finding many of the designers in the 60s and 70s may not have succeeded in creating what we all want.

For example, Boston had an elevated highway going through the middle of it. With the “Big Dig,” they were able to remove that. The highway was a mistake of an earlier era where the automobile was given a precedence over the pedestrian. With my new project coming in, I’m part of the process of bringing this place back to the people.

Your hit TED talk, which has been viewed more than a million times, is all about the rediscovery of wonder. What advice do you have for designers trying to keep in touch with that feeling, given all the challenges involved in designing and building something these days?

I try to keep a sense of wonder in my own life and practice. I try to hold a space of time to experiment, as a kind of research. In the business world, successful companies have R&D labs, but we artists and designers rarely have that benefit. We must reserve a space for discovery and wonder.

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Metro’s Union Station / Metro via The Los Angeles Times.

Homeless Welcome in San Jose’s Latest St. James Park Reboot San Jose Mercury News (CA), 9/24/14
“Designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, St. James Park hosted the best and worst of San Jose history in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

An Alliance of Dance and DesignThe New York Times, 9/25/14
“In 1966, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and the dance pioneer Anna Halprin invited 40 young people to Northern California to participate in a roving summer workshop.”

Metro’s Union Station Master Plan a Significant Shift Los Angeles Times, 9/26/14
“With landscape architect Mia Lehrer, the architects have proposed a new civic plaza—what they call a ‘forecourt’—at the foot of the building, filling the area between the building and Alameda Street and replacing a surface parking lot.”

Inside North America’s First Islamic Art MuseumAl Jazeera, 9/26/14
“Rows of serviceberry trees lead visitors into a garden quartered by water channels, five reflecting pools, long walkways, and pebbled paths—the work of Lebanese-Serbian landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic.”

Gender Studies: These Five Anonymous Women Helped Build New York City Curbed National, 9/29/14
“As NYC’s Chief of Tree Plantings, a position she nabbed in 1936, landscape architect Clara Coffey brought greenery to the Hutchinson River Parkway and swapped out the fences and hedges of the Park Avenue Malls with flowerbeds and kwanzan cherry trees.

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By the Silent Line (cropped) / Pierre Folk

Since 2011, photographer Pierre Folk has traversed Paris’ Petite Ceinture, or Little Belt Railway, which has been abandoned since the 1930s. Apparently, discussions have been ongoing since last year about the line’s future. Ideas include tearing up pieces of the 20-mile (32-kilometer) railway so as to free up room for new development or preserving the railway and turning into a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly linear park. Parts of the line have been reused for contemporary railway infrastructure, but much of it remains outside the civic realm, except for a small piece opened to the public.

Access to the Little Belt — which is elevated, ground-level, or subterranean — is still forbidden, but that hasn’t kept Folk or others from getting a closer look. One tunnel of the old line even provides access to the city’s catacombs.

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According to Wikipedia, the railway was first conceived in the 1840s as a military transport system, a way to convey troops and material around the city. The railway was built in the space between an existing “tax wall” and a “larger and better-fortified ring of protection,” an outer wall. The French government couldn’t afford to complete the line on their own, so they asked the major rail companies for support in uniting all their lines in the capital. In a long-term lease with the government, these companies created the infrastructure, which evolved into railways for passenger and freight trains, and maintained it until the early 1930s, when other networks began to supersede these lines.

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As Folk captures, the Little Belt is being slowly reclaimed by nature, providing a home to opportunistic trees and plants. The railway is also a canvas for street artists.

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We hope that Folk’s photographs will lead to the preservation of this charming piece of infrastructure, much like Joel Sternfeld’s evocative photographs of a wild High Line helped convince New York City’s policymakers there was something worth saving.

Explore the layers and layers Folk finds and watch a video.

Also, check out these great abstract photographs of Parisian rooftops.

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Glenn Kaino’s Bridge / Jared Green

The Washington, D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities just seriously upped their game with their latest city-wide temporary public art project called 5 x 5. Five curators brought 25 artists’ site-specific installations to all 8 wards. Each piece we toured highlights an aspect of the District’s changing identity in the face of rampant redevelopment and gentrification. Many pieces make a combative, political point, wading into some of the most troubling issues in the city, while others offered more nuanced stories, but still aim to strike a chord.

Underlying all of it was a genuine effort to bring compelling pieces to all D.C. residents. As Sarah Massey, who was doing outreach for the commission, explained, “this whole project is a dialogue between the monumental core of the city — where all the tourists go — and the actual district, where people live. Do people who live in Anacostia go to the monumental core? We don’t know. The commission wanted to bring art to where people live.”

We start at the Navy Yard, which has gone from being the site of abandoned armaments factories and strip clubs to one for high-end condos, restaurants, and a hipster-loving trapeze school in less than a decade. Many of the old naval buildings have been taken over by new restaurants, but one that has yet to be turned, a gorgeous empty shell of a building, is now the temporary home of Glenn Kaino’s magnificent Bridge (see image above). Kaino’s work overwhelms on first sight, appearing to be a hundred-foot-long dinosaur spine hanging from the ceiling. But it’s actually a bridge, made up of 200 unique slats. Each slat is a cast of athlete Tommie Smith’s arm, with a clenched fist at the end. Smith made his famous Black Power fist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where he won a gold medal. For this political act, Smith was expelled from the games.

Kaino writes that the use of extended arm and fist was long a political symbol before it was appropriated by Black Power activists, and its meaning has since evolved, given our ever-shifting understanding. The bridge is then meant to show this path of a “revised, formed, and remitted cultural narrative.” Smith seems to reflect that changing narrative himself. When I asked him what the Kaino’s piece said about black power in the District today, he replied, “Well, I didn’t actually make the Black Power sign. I was showing solidarity with all the world’s repressed people. It was a sign of freedom.”

As we move to Anacostia, we learn about a series of billboards that match African American male poets and visual artists to create site-specific billboards around the city called Ceremonies of Dark Men. As curator A.M. Weaver explains, “D.C. used to be the Chocolate City, but it isn’t anymore. We need a new way of looking at the black male figure. We want to re-assert this figure in a changing community, with all the hipsters coming in.” Weaver picked highly visible spots in every quadrant and augmented the billboards with apps that have video slideshows. She said each juxtaposition between image and text was carefully curated.

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Ceremonies of Dark Men / Jared Green

Heading towards the Southwest Waterfront Metro stop, we are confronted with a group of five pieces in what was empty grassy space next to a D.C. government office building. There, curator Lance Fung, who was behind the ambitious Artlantic project in Atlantic City, New Jersey, explained his Nonuments public arts exhibit. Fung said with the help of the “best neighborhood” and local partner, Washington Project for the Arts, “the community now has a temporary art park.” He made a point of saying “we didn’t phone in these works of art; they all came out of the soil of this place.”

To lay the foundation for this art park, artist Peter Hutchinson threw a rope and plotted natural material along its path — in this case, 33 trees.

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Peter Hutchinson Thrown Rope / Sarah Massey

Four other works seem to orbit this central work. One is Migration, a set of otherworldly “nests” by artist Cameron Hockenson, who explains: “these nests are much like neighborhoods now on the move, embracing, adapting, or resisting forces of gentrification now sweeping the city.”

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Migration / Jared Green

There’s also Portrait Garden by Jennifer Wen Ma, a painter who magnified a picture of a local resident, chosen at random through a lottery, into a large-scale portrait through an unusual material: ink-stained plants. Ma wants to honor the “unsung heroes of daily life with plants that, like every life form, are under daily stress.”

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Portrait Garden / Jared Green

But here, Ma has added extreme stress, coating the plant’s leaves in ink, like they are rice paper in a Chinese brush painting. Ma explained that this was part of the meaning of her work. The plants, like people, will either succumb to or overcome their challenges. I expressed concern for the plants, but she said, “they prove to be amazingly resilient. The same plant can come back year after year. They will survive if they are watered.”

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Portrait Garden / Jared Green

And the most arresting piece was Peep by artist Jonathan Fung, which aims to use art to increase awareness of human trafficking, a dark undercurrent of humanity that also runs through the District. Fung told me that there are now more people enslaved at any point in human history, more than 30 million, and the district is a hub for this activity. In his piece, a shipping container, which is a common means of transporting trafficking victims, is painted bright pink, like something that would appeal to a child. This is because vulnerable foster children or young adults in this country — and around the world — are often the targets of trafficking, lured by people pretending to be their friends. Fung said the piece represents “stolen innocence, lost childhoods.”

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Peep / Jared Green

Inside Peep are rows of sewing machines and a recording playing their droning music. Fung said, “it’s about the commodification of people.” Being in there working on the piece, Fung said he also now understood why so many trafficked people don’t make it on their long journeys: The shipping containers are unbearably hot. (Learn more about human trafficking in Fung’s film, Hark, or this TED talk).

Many more pieces not covered here are on view until December. Learn more at 5 x 5.

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Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed

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Riverbed / Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark is considered a milestone of modern Danish design, noted for its synthesis of art, architecture, and landscape. Now, a new exhibition from artist Olafur Eliasson seeks to blur these boundaries even further with Riverbed, an exhibition that transforms “the entire South Wing into a rocky landscape.”

Riverbed is what it sounds like: a rocky riverbed, complete with stones, soil, and a narrow waterway meandering through the middle, laid down inside the museum walls.

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Riverbed / Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Described as “stress-test of Louisiana’s physical capacity,” the installation also directly refers to the site’s history. In 1982, the museum added the south wing on a slope, which had once been home to a sculpture garden. “Like many of the exhibitions presented throughout his creative career,” writes Designboom, “Eliasson’s Riverbed is site-specific, engaging with the cultural institution’s unique identity, thematically linking the artworks and gallery as a place.”

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Riverbed / Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Design blog The Fox is Black describes Riverbed as “a surreal and beautiful sight. Visitors are encouraged to walk on the rocky surfaces, and spaces are entered through semi-submerged gallery doorways. I think it looks terrific and I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to hear the trickle of water running through the small galleries of the Museum.”

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Riverbed / Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Beyond the sensory pleasure, the exhibition questions the meaning and experience of the museum itself, writes Arch Daily. “Both grand and humble, the installation overturns expectations of the role of museum-goer and dances between definitions of observer and participant . . . Avoiding traditional expectations of behavior and thought associated with museums, Eliasson strips away superficial information through the emptiness of the landscape. There is nothing on the walls, and there is no expected way to act within or experience the space, allowing for freedom of reflection, thought, sensory experience, and sense of self.”

The exhibition opens August 20 and runs through April 2015, alongside Model Room, a collaboration with Eliasson and Icelandic artist Einar Thorsteinn, and three video screenings in the main hall.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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