Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Rococo Chair / Tony Favarula

Rococo Chair / Tony Favarula

Can leaving the comfort zone push designers to re-imagine what is possible? Outside Design, an exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s Sullivan Gallery, shows that the answer to this question is yes. During a talk at the gallery, Jonathan Solomon, director of architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects at SAIC, called for leaving the usual behind and “re-weirding the discipline of design,” which can allow designers and artists to innovate and move beyond disciplinary boundaries. The exhibition is part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial and features the work of five firms of artists and designers: Analog Media Lab (Urbana-Champaign, Illinois), Ants of the Prairie (Buffalo, New York), The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab (New York City), Species of Space (Chicago), and Sweet Water Foundation (Chicago). Solomon curated the gallery as a “series of laboratories.”

To re-weird design, as Solomon explains, designers must design outside of their wheelhouse. They have to explore ideas and processes that push both the design and themselves, and go beyond clients’ comfort levels. It may also call for designers to look outside — literally. Designers should see the “complexity of nature and ecology” as an inspiration for design and art, as well as a potential means to create a more sustainable future.

David Hays of Analog Media Lab describes their work as “purposeful, pragmatic, and playful” yet grounded in experimentation. Their Rococo Chair riffs on the floral designs of Rococo-era upholstery fabrics, replacing them with actual flowers sandwiched between clear plastic (see image above). However, these flowers aren’t sealed up; they are allowed to decay. The flowers in the chair are dynamic, making the “rococo image real.”

Moving up to the scale of the building, both Ants of the Prairie and The Living propose re-wierding building façades, integrating them with the natural world.

Whether we like it or not, animals and bugs live with us in and around our homes. How do we reveal and enhance this relationship? Joyce Hwang of Ants of the Prairie created her installation, Habitat Wall, as an “inhabitable living membrane.” Built of different types of wood, including salvaged and reclaimed pieces, and composed of a series of modules, Habitat Wall is a beautiful physical object, but also functions as nesting houses and ledges for bats and birds, allowing both people and creatures to live together.

Habitat Wall / Heidi Petersen

Habitat Wall / Heidi Petersen

Habitat Wall / Tony Favarula

Habitat Wall / Tony Favarula

Designing at the intersection of biology and architecture, David Benjamin of The Living works with biologist Ali Brivanlou to co-create a façade with nature. They designed Amphibious Envelope, a façade wherein the traditional double-paned glass is replaced with tanks filled with water, moss, frogs, and snails. As the oxygen levels in the wall lower, the frogs rise to the top of the water, triggering sensors which release air bubbles, thus re-oxygenating both the water and the air around the wall. The installation is both a “functional façade” and an “open-ended experiment” that allows for a more fluid relationship between the inside and outside.

Amphibious Envelope / Heidi Petersen

Amphibious Envelope / Heidi Petersen

Amphibious Envelope / Tony Favarula

Amphibious Envelope / Tony Favarula

And the process of re-weirding design can be expanded yet again to the scale of the public realm.

Eric Ellingsen of Species of Space plays with questions of language and people’s perception of public space. A book case built on an angle and a dream machine, a spinning strobe in a dark room that produces visual hallucinations, are a means to change our perception. Elison also is in the process of mapping poems of cities, to create a “physical manifestation of language and design.”

Dream Machine / Tony Favarula

Dream Machine / Tony Favarula

For Emmanual Pratt of Sweet Water Foundation (SWF), an ecosystem can be both a physical natural process and a network of people. SWF “transforms blight into life” through their internship model, which trains students in aquaponics and ultimately encourages them to create a “decentralized network of sharing.” The aquaponics ecosystem then becomes an ecosystem of community partners and users. Their installation, Aquapons, highlights the importance of a sustainable system.

Aquapons / Heidi Petersen

Aquapons / Heidi Petersen

Outside Design shows us how small changes in perception can yield interesting results. Designers owe it to themselves to look outside the usual design processes. Inspiration may come in the form of bats, frogs, or poetry. Everyone should be open to the opportunities “re-weirding” can provide.

A number of lectures exploring the ideas of Outside Design are scheduled through November. The exhibit runs through December 19.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Associate ASLA.

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Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Anya Sirota, an artist, was perusing Bon Marche, a famous bookstore in Paris, and discovered a whole section on Detroit, filled with mostly “ruin porn” books. In its decline, Detroit, she said, is one of the most “imagined cities in the world.” And it’s now connected with stories of great loss and lament — it went from a city of 2 million to 680,000.

The story is either “this terrible neglect, or perhaps a DIY gestalt — young, talented, non-conventional types can come here and make a new life, create an alternative lifestyle.” To appeal to that DIY audience, Detroit has also become the “scenic backdrop for the marketing of the authenticity of products.”

As Sirota explained at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, she decided to go to the city and see for herself. She ended up partnering with some local African American designers, artists, and activists to write a new story. Sirota calls what she eventually helped create “generative cultural infrastructure.” She believes it’s different from the usual “placemaking” experiences, which have become too “institutionalized” for her tastes.

Sirota called for new thinking about Detroit. Instead of treating Detroit as a “shrinking city,” how about relabeling it a “shifting city?” From the perspective of the African American community who have lived there for decades, the city hasn’t really shrunk — it has expanded.

She also questioned whether the city is really post-industrial. The massive, often illegal, process of recycling Detroit’s abandoned buildings is part of an international industrial economy. “As building development has boomed in China, the rate of deconstruction in Detroit has also increased. It’s a city fully embedded in industrial processes. Those scrappy, metals workers are just not considered part of the formal economy.”

But she really got to work when she saw that remnants of Motown were on the verge of being destroyed for good. Detroit’s city government had initiated a blight remediation program with the goal of tearing down abandoned, decrepit houses. They partnered with Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies to create Motor City Mapping, a website and app that enabled surveyors to examine thousands of damaged empty homes that need to be dealt with. “The survey looked at all structures in the landscape. After 15 minutes of training, surveyors post photos and evaluate the properties.” But it turns out some famous African American clubs where Motown started were added to the list for demolition. Sirota said these technology-enabled surveyors had no clue about the history of many of the places they were evaluating. “That’s not fair.”

Sirota eventually met up with Bryce Detroit, a local record producer, who “uses entertainment arts to create media that project African American identity.” Through his work, he has gotten involved with the climate justice and social justice movements, but he doesn’t call himself an activist. “The community calls me an activist though.”

Bryce Detroit in Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Bryce Detroit in the Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Together, Detroit and Sirota and many others came together to form the O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End, which is home to legendary musical venues like Phelps’ Lounge along the Oakland Avenue artery in Paradise Valley. What was once the hub of a “30-year Motown music economy” had become derelict, targeted for demolition. For Detroit and Sirota, this was incredibly sad. “There was no marker of the extraordinary history of the music here that impacted the world.” Instead, “someone used an app for 15 minutes and decided this place didn’t fit into the vision of the new city.”

Detroit, Sirota, and many others started to revitalize some spaces along a one mile stretch of Oakland Avenue. A part of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, a collection of artists, industrial designers, and architects, they created a vision for a new arts corridor that will undo the blight. New gardens appeared in empty lots. Buildings were turned into makeshift galleries and meeting spaces. “We rehabilitated a garage, really without permission.” There, they launched the Mothership, a mobile DJ unit, which comes with smoke machines (see above).

And for the grand opening of the rehabilitated space, 12 original members of Parliament Funkadelic, the legendary funk band who created the original “Holy Mothership” in the 70s, played a free concert. Some 700 people from the neighborhood turned up.

This collective is constantly “prototyping, programming,” creating new “experimental music and catalyzing the development of new organizations.” They branded the Mothership, with local artists creating t-shirts and earrings. They created a new magazine. As Detroit explained, “we wanted it to be beautiful all the way, with the highest possible production values.” There are pop-up shops were no money is exchanged; it’s all barter. There’s now a North End Urban Expressions Art Festival to showcase local talent.

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

Sirota said this all constitutes a new model for community revitalization. In the usual placemaking process, community groups, she said, have to work with foundation’s funding cycles. But the problem is they can’t “create complex cultural products in 18 months. Foundations really need to revisit that.” With their bottom-up approach, “there was true collaboration across disciplines. The cultural products were produced locally — not overlaid. This makes it sustainable and self-generating.”

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Luminous void / 88888 Studio, via DesignBoom

Sunday Conversation with Shane Coen, Landscape Architect The Star Tribune, 9/19/15
“Minneapolis-based Coen + Partners, a small firm in the Warehouse District, received the nation’s highest honor in design, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Award. Its founder, Shane Coen, now finds himself on a larger national stage and with a louder voice in the design world.”

Green Peace: The Healing Power of Parks for Young and OldAARP.com, 9/22/15
“Parks are public spaces, but they can be very personal ones, too. They can be homes to our daily rituals — from morning jogs to dog walks — as well as our milestone celebrations. They also can be our quiet places of solace after a long day or after a deep loss, as I experienced.”

Frank Gehry Draws Ire for Joining Los Angeles River Restoration Project The New York Times, 9/23/15
“Yet none of Mr. Gehry’s farewell enterprises seem more daunting — and fraught — than his involvement in rebuilding the Los Angeles River, a bleak and dispiriting 51-mile channel that winds its way through fields, suburbs, dark city corners and industrial wastelands from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean.”

A Garden Where You’d Least Expect ItThe Wall Street Journal, 9/27/15
“A far more ambitious project alighted last week, when Diana Balmori, a celebrated landscape architect and urban designer, oversaw the launch of a floating landscape at the foot of the Whole Foods parking lot that overlooks the canal.”

88888 Sculpts Luminous Void Within the Water Surrounding the Castle of Horst  DesignBoom, 9/29/15
“In the water surrounding the ancient castle of horst in belgium, 88888 studio — the collaboration of karel burssens and jeroen verrecht — have sculpted into the earth, forming an unexpected, abstract interruption in the natural landscape.”

The Cultural Landscape Foundation Releases New Pioneers Oral History with Landscape Architect Nicholas Quennell – The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 9/30/15
“Quennell, in practice for more than 50 years, is esteemed for his work on iconic New York City parks including the Central Park Children’s Zoo and Fort Tryon Park, his innovative collaborations with artists such as Alice Aycock, Barbara Kruger, and Maya Lin, and his role in the civic realm as President of the Art Commission and with other organizations.”

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Baltimore bus stop / Knstrct.com

Landscape architects, architects, and artists are having fun with words in bus stops, playgrounds, and plazas. In these instances, letters become tangible and structural, so they can be touched, sat on, climbed on. The meaning of the words is clear or ambiguous. And, in one case, the letters can even be viewed from different angles to form new words. In three different public spaces around the world, word forms draw people in and enable new ways to communicate with the public. Given their tactile nature, they also invite conversation and interaction.

In Baltimore, a group of local and European Union arts organizations got together and financed a novel work by artists at mmmm spelling the word “bus” at, of course, a bus stop on S. East Avenue in Highlandtown. Each letter, which is made of wood and steel and is about 14 feet tall and 7 feet wide, can accommodate up to four sitters and even climbers.

As Baltimore’s Creative Alliance, one of the organizers of the project, explains, “the temporary and playful urban furniture was designed to promote interaction by having those seated inside the bowls face one another. The bowls are a social place for gathering, getting to know people, and fostering dialogue in small groups.”


Baltimore bus stop / Design Boom


Baltimore bus stop / Four one oh

In Port Adelaide, Australia, a bright, fun playground is made even more inviting with the addition of word play. Landscape architects with Aspect Studios created the space for Hart’s Mills Surrounds, which is located near a wharf. As they explain in Landezine, the new play space “draws on references of numerous trade port activities.”


Hart’s Mill Surrounds / Don Brice

Words like “purify,” “flour,” and “ever” somehow relate to the wharf’s past commercial activities, but their meaning is not quite clear to us. For kids, these word forms are scattered about as pieces to sound out and read or further explore. They are made of the same coated metal as the benches and playground equipment.


Hart’s Mill Surrounds / Don Brice



Hart’s Mill Surrounds / Don Brice

And, lastly, architects with Snarkitecture, who may now be famous in design world for their indoor “beach” installation at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. this summer, which has already been visited by more than 100,000 people, created a public art installation in the plaza just to the east of the Marlins Ballpark in Miami.


A Memorial Bowing / Noah Kalina

The giant letters, scattered throughout the plaza, hark back to the enormous “Miami Orange Bowl” sign of the stadium that stood on the site from 1937 until it was demolished in 2008. The exact same letters are reconstructed in the new plaza at the original ten-foot height, explains Snarkitecture. They can be touched, leaned against, and sat on.


A Memorial Bowing / Noah Kalina


A Memorial Bowing / Noah Kalina

They write: “Their positions capture an ambiguous moment between ruin and rebuilding; some letters stand vertically, others submerge themselves in the ground, and others lay horizontally as if at rest. As visitors move through the plaza, new alignments are created between the letters, spelling out different words as the new stadium is glimpsed through fragments of the old.”

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As If It Were Already Here / Studio Echelman

A grand new work of knots and colored rope from artist Janet Echelman floats 350 feet above the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. Commissioned by the Greenway Conservancy, the piece’s name — “As If It Were Already Here” — is as enigmatic as the art work itself. Echelman, who recently won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award, is a remarkable sculptor of massive floating net installations and frequent collaborator with landscape architects. This new mesh work in Boston, her home town, is some 600 feet long, 2,000 pounds, and is comprised of 100 miles of fibrous twine 15 times stronger than steel set into a pattern only made possible through a half million hand-made knots.

As with another recent piece in Seattle for the 30th TED conference, Echelman is increasingly lacing interactive technologies into her sculptural experiences. In Seattle, visitors could use a smart phone app to paint lines across the sinuous surface of her piece. Here in Boston, this new piece, which cost some $1.25 million, uses “dynamic light elements” that react with the wind. “Sensors register movement and tension, manifesting data into the color of light projected onto the sculpture’s surface,” explains Wallpaper magazine.



As If It Were Already Here color shifts / Studio Echelman

Echelman’s artwork hangs over the Fort Point Channel section of the 1.5-mile long greenway, which was tacked onto the notorious “Big Dig” project that replaced an elevated highway that cut through downtown Boston with an underground one. While the greenway is certainly better than the elevated highway, there have been numerous complaints over the years about the success of the urban design, largely because its many segmented parks are still separated from the city by 2-lane streets on either side. In a recent tour of the greenway, Christoper Hume, architecture critic for The Toronto Star, called it a “failure of the city and landscape architecture in general,” pointing out that few people seem to want to spend any time there. And Cathleen McGuigan, editor of Architectural Record, who was also underwhelmed, wondered “where can you sit?,” pointing to the dearth of public benches along the linear park.

However, local businesses seem to disagree with the critics. Boston Innovation reports that the greenway is increasingly a magnet for companies. “According to Avison Young’s Fourth Quarter 2014 Greater Boston Office Market Report, ‘vacancy in the 1.2-million-square-foot Greenway micromarket was 6.8% at the close of 2014, significantly lower than the overall market’s vacancy rate of 12.1%. The Greenway has seen 695,000 square feet of positive absorption over the past 10 quarters, a trend that has nearly halved the vacancy rate of 12.4% during the same time period.'”

Boston Innovation also argues that Echelman’s dramatic piece, with its “scope and dynamism,” has brought the greenway conservancy’s ambitious public art program to a whole new level, which could result in a sustained uptick in park use. “People are now actively searching out Echelman’s piece and are all the more likely to stroll the length of the park because of it.”


As If It Were Already Here / Studio Echelman


As If It Were Already Here / Studio Echelman

This is not the first time Echelman has been brought in to enliven a space that needed a boost. As she explained in an interview with The Dirt, “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.”

On her net sculpture now floating above the greenway, she said: “With my new project coming in, I’m part of the process of bringing this place back to the people.”

Go see it before it comes down in October.

And watch a video of the installation of “As If It Were Already Here,” which was so technically complex — it required attaching the piece to three nearby buildings — engineers at Arup were brought in:

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Painting with Light


From the series Decoding Scape (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

Contemporary artists around the world are painting with light, using photographic techniques to add layers of light art on top of real-world scenes. These layers, which take many forms, add depth, evoke awe, and are stunningly creative. These images also illustrate the changing relationship between real and digital realms, nature and technology, and the photographer and their studio tools.

Korean artist Lee Jeong Lok overlays glowing Korean characters, symbols, and stylized natural forms like butterflies and trees on the natural vistas he has photographed.


From the series Nabi (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

In Designboom, he writes: “I have been painting something that exists despite its invisible nature; places that correspond to the visible world, places beyond our sensual cognition, profoundly mysterious places that nevertheless cannot be separated from our world of cognition.”


From the series Nabi (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

Lok adds: “painting with light is the body, mind, and the soul harmoniously following the rhythm; it is an act of delivering positive energy felt by the body, rather than creating something from nothing.”

French artist Julien Breton, otherwise known as “Kaalam” is also inspired by light, translating his own movements with flashlights into gorgeous depictions of Arabic calligraphy.


Dead’s place. Abstract calligraphy. New York, USA, 2012. Calligraphy by Julien Breton aka Kaalam (cropped) / David Gallard

The characters seemingly appear out of thin air, although in a few photographs Kaalam doesn’t completely photoshop himself out, so you see the man behind the light, the precise moves that result in the alphabetic additions.


Billy and the Kid (cropped) / Morocco

As This Is Colossal writes, Kaalam is attracted to architectural backdrops as well as dark rooftops and streets. The contrast between the tightly-scripted visions of light and the organic urban scenes adds to the allure of these art works.


La lumière – The light. Arabic calligraphy. Jodpur, India, 2012. Calligraphy by Julien Breton aka Kaalam (cropped) / David Gallard.

And then there’s Italian photographer Paolo Pettigiani, whose augmented layer is an infrared filter, which completely remakes the Italian countryside into a candy-colored (or perhaps toxic) fantasy world. Designboom brings together a collection of these photographs.


Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

Like Lok, he is also showing us an unseen world, given humans can’t see infrared light.


Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani


Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

Beaches, woodlands, and marshes become unfamiliar, their forms seem renewed.

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Crawick Multiverse / Charles Jencks

As Scotland becomes one of the first countries to run solely on renewable energy, communities face the question of what to do with the country’s abandoned mining infrastructure. In one Scottish village, Sanquhar, the answer is to transform a former coal mine into a 55-acre, $1 million work of land art. Conjuring images of Stonehenge, Crawick Multiverse, which opened July 10 with a ceremony of music and dance, was built from materials found on-site, including 2,000 boulders half-buried below ground.

At the urging of local residents, the landowner, Richard Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch, commissioned landscape artist Charles Jencks to build something dynamic that would benefit the region, which has been struggling economically. Crawick Multiverse, “represents the cosmos, from the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies to a spiral of rocks that make up the multiverse.” While Jencks often draws inspiration from astronomy, at the nearby Garden of Cosmic Speculation for example, Fast Company writes that it was also a natural fit for this site, where prehistoric stone art and Celtic gold necklaces designed to represent the moon have been found nearby.

Traditionally, former coal mines in the country are bulldozed and returned to the pastures they once were, but this misses an opportunity to reflect the cultural significance of a site. “Around the world, mines produce an environment which is depressing, and derelict and desolate and deserted, full of junk,” Jencks told Fast Company. “There have been laws put in place to restore these areas to their pristine original quality — that often means putting grass over the site, plowing it back, and returning it to the cows. We wanted to build something positive for the community instead.” By using on-site materials to create the dramatic earthworks rather than flattening the site, construction costs were also reduced.

A network of paths weave through the sites four different ecosystems (grassland, mountain, water gorge and desert), while navigating landforms represent the sun, universes, galaxies and comets. At the heart of the project is a 5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse.

5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse / Charles Jencks

5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse / Charles Jencks

Dramatic earthworks include the two galaxy mounds – Andromeda and the Milky Way – which stand at 25 and 15 meters high, respectively. The mounds represent “the cosmic ballet of the two galaxies coming together,” and each have lagoons that add to their visual impact.


Andromeda and the Milky Way Earthworks / Charles Jencks

The site was once valued for its industrial purpose, but there is a beauty in the surrounding landscape that Jencks sought to emphasize in the design. The comet walk — a ridge trail with white-yellow sandstone emulating comets’ tails — leads to the Belvedere, a lookout offering a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Again, stones from the site have been repurposed, this time into a stone hand with a finger pointing to the North Star.

Intersection boulders – the largest rocks on the entire site – mark the start of the Comet Walk / Charles Jencks

Intersection boulders – the largest rocks on the entire site – mark the start of the Comet Walk / Charles Jencks

The lookout from Belvedere / Charles Jencks

The lookout from Belvedere / Charles Jencks

“Destroyed sites are an opportunity to renew. It’s wonderful to see this park used in different ways. For a designer, such as me, that’s the pay-off,” Jencks explains in a video for the project. “This site is big enough to absorb 10,000 people a day and you wouldn’t feel crowded, so I’m really happy about that. It’ll take time to get there, but I’m sure it will be used in thousands of different ways we can’t even predict. All successful parks have to embed themselves with the locals who will use them in new ways.”

The project is potentially the beginning of an exciting series of reclamation projects poised to take hold in Scotland’s post-industrial landscape. As coal mining becomes increasingly obsolete across the country, Crawick Multiverse, in its striking whimsy, offers a practical strategy for industrial redevelopment at the landscape scale.

See a video of Jencks discussing his inspiration for the project:

And see more images.

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The Tree Church by

The Tree Church designed by Barry Cox / Barry Cox

While some aspire for grand pools or tranquil gardens in their backyards, New Zealand resident, Barry Cox, had other ideas for a 3-acre space in his own yard. Yearning for an old stone church like those he had admired on his travels through Europe, Cox united his passions for religion and tree relocation to create a 100-seat chapel at his Ohaupo, New Zealand home made almost entirely from mature trees. According to the New Zealand Gardener, as a child, Cox wanted to be the Pope, but instead, settled for the position of head altar boy in his hometown church. His interest in Christianity, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of trees, came full circle in the creation of Tree Church.

Cox, who owns the mature tree rescue and relocation business, Treelocations, spent only four years “growing” the church. By re-homing semi-mature trees, he accelerated the maturity of the structure, giving it the appearance of a project 20 years in the making.


Barry Cox with one of his dogs, Scruff / New Zealand Gardener by Sally Tagg

Cox carefully selected from a wide variety of trees for the chapel. He writes on his website that he used live cut-leaf alder trees for the roof canopy and copper sheen for the walls, as well as camellia black tie, Norway maple, and pyramidal white cedar. These species were specifically chosen for their flexibility and their ability to be trained around the iron frame of the chapel. Some of these trees have stone-colored trunks, while others have sparse foliage, ensuring that the church can always be illuminated by sunlight.

Inside the church, rows of wooden benches form a pathway to an altar that holds special significance for Cox. The altar come from his family’s church in Shannon, New Zealand and is made of marble from Lake Como, Italy, where his ancestors are from. The copper-sheen walls of the church’s interior have thick, stone-colored foliage that must be trimmed every six weeks to maintain their lush quality.


The inside of the church / New Zealand Gardener by Sally Tagg

Across from the church, Cox designed a labyrinth walk based on the walls of the ancient city of Jericho, created in 460 BC. He also constructed a large canopy from military cargo parachute to be used for after-event gatherings. Preparing for these events at the church is demanding for Cox, who told New Zealand Gardener it generally takes “five hours to mow the lawns and at least three hours of final primping to get the gardens and Tree Church to the standard to be happy for an event.”

Aerial view of the church and labyrinth / Barry Cox

Aerial view of the church and labyrinth / Barry Cox

While Tree Church was originally “designed to show how an instant garden can be created” using a tree spade, since its opening to the public in January 2015, the church is now not only “a welcomed retreat from society” for Cox, but for others as well. After urging from his friends and relatives, he decided to open the church to the public twice a week and it’s now a popular spot for photo shoots, events, and, of course, weddings. While it’s currently closed for the winter, it will open again October 2015.

Watch a video about the project

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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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green


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.


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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