Archive for the ‘Historic Preservation’ Category

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Private Investment in Green Roofs, Roadside Plantings and Parks, Oh My!Forbes, 9/22/13

“Stormwater runoff is one of the main causes of urban waterway pollution nationwide. This runoff collects everything from trash to pet waste to antifreeze and motor oil. Why should we care? These and other highly toxic pollutants eventually make their way to our rivers, lakes, beaches, and drinking water supplies.”

Designing Streets for People, Not Just CarsGOOD, 9/23/13

“In San Francisco, three pedestrians are hit by vehicles every day. Our streets should be designed to be safer than this, and we think in the process they can also become viable public spaces that enrich our urban experience. In this project for Walk San Francisco, inspired by a GOOD Design challenge from Center for Architecture and Design, we wanted to transform everyday infrastructure to achieve both of these goals.”

Hartford’s Constitution Plaza: Potential Still UnfoldingThe Courant, 9/25/13

“As we approach its 50th anniversary next year, Hartford’s Constitution Plaza is still controversial. It has been criticized over the years as desolate and lonely, a failure as a public space. But as landscape architecture, it is a remarkable example of work from the period, whose worth may be realized in its second half century.”

On Governors Island, 30 Acres of Open Space are Becoming a True ParkThe New York Times, 9/26/13

“The landscape architecture firm in charge of the parkland project, West 8, decided to break up the monotony of the flat island and maximize views of the harbor by changing its elevation. Even the hammock grove north of the Hills was raised to a maximum height of 16 feet.”

Basking at Mussel BeachThe Architect’s Newspaper, 9/27/13

“Construction recently wrapped up on housing for a new demographic at Manhattan’s East River Waterfront Esplanade: mussels. Working with SHoP Architects, HDR, and Arup, Ken Smith Landscape Architect designed a 50-foot intertidal Eco Park at Pier 35 that is part of a two-mile shoreline revitalization effort by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).”

Investing in Volunteer ParkThe Seattle Times, 9/27/13

“Volunteer Park has often been called Seattle’s Central Park. Founded in 1887, it’s 30 years younger than New York’s legendary park. And at 48 acres it’s a fraction of the size. Both parks are distinguished by the classic elegance of their design by the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm, and both are the beating green hearts of the cities surrounding them.”

Plaza to the PeopleThe Architect’s Newspaper, 9/18/13

“The Foley Square side of the 1968 Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building on Lower Broadway is one of the most beautifully detailed and thoroughly usable new public spaces in New York. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, the plaza features Connecticut pink marble that alternates with Vermont ‘Danby’ stone, establishing what the landscape architect called ‘an abstract naturalism.’”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

Image credit: Manhattan’s East River Esplanade / Peter Mauss, ESTO

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After more than ten years of work, the restored and revitalized Rijksmuseum, the Netherland’s national museum, reopened in April. Spanish architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz brought the 19th-century building into the 21-st century with a new entrance and Asian pavilion, restored galleries, and thousands of energy-efficient LED lights. While this $375 million-Euro effort rightly got a lot of attention in the architecture press, the thoughtful update to the 14,500-square-meter outdoor gallery by Dutch landscape architecture firm Copijn Tuin- en Landschapsarchitecten didn’t.

A new outdoor exhibition of sculptures by Henry Moore may help remedy that because the sculptures show that the updated landscape is just as sumptuous as the restored building.

Just as the architects modernized but honored the original building, Copijn seems to have done the same with architect Peter Cuypers’ original plans for the gardens from 1901. Copijn tells us that they did a contemporary refresh of Cuypers’ old Dutch garden style, with ponds, lawns, original classical sculptures, and “fragments of ancient buildings,” along with seasonal modern plantings.

While they honored much of Cuypers’ plans, they updated the outer rim of the garden to the point where that part no longer resembles the original from 1884. Now, a “protective bank of trees and peripheral planting will give the gardens an intimate and secluded atmosphere.” The central lawns have also been elevated to provide a landscaped plinth for the sculptures.

Scattered through the modernized gardens are relics from Holland’s past. There are historic structures, a history tour of the built environment in the Netherlands, with old city gates, iron fences, and garden benches. There are classical 18th-century garden sculptures, 19th-century bronzes and busts of Roman emperors.

Another interesting Modern artifact was added: architect Aldo van Eyck’s post-war playground equipment from Amsterdam Nieuw-West. In the 1950s, Amsterdam commissioned 700 models of these aluminum play sets for inner-city kids.

The museum and landscape architects found space for a 19th-century greenhouse where heirloom vegetables will be grown. It was set-up so as not to disturb the “monumental” Wingnut trees. A water maze was also created based on a design by Danish sculptor and installation artist Jeppe Hein.

The exhibition of twelve Henry Moore sculptures will be on view in the garden until the end of September.

Image credits: (1) Rijksmuseum Atrium. Photo credit: Pedro Pegenaute. Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, (2-8) Rijksmuseum outdoor gallery / Image credits: Copijn Tuin- en Landschapsarchitecten

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Throughout history, cultures around the world have created the concept of the evil forest, a dark, scary place where bad things happen. In Europe, these were places where witches or wolves (or even werewolves) attacked the lone passer-by. In Igbo areas of Nigeria, the Ajofia, or bad bush, still exists in some communities, although they are rapidly disappearing with development. Their potency to scare the population into line has also faded with younger generations. In these places, the traditional culture that created them has transformed in the face of modernization and a growing consumer culture. In a session at Dumbarton Oaks’ conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Ikem Stanley Okoye, University of Delaware, explained why Nigerians should start thinking about preserving some of these unique cultural landscapes.

Okoye said in contrast to what European colonialists in Africa believed, Africans did produce landscapes that were visual representations of complex concepts. Europeans believed that Africans were “not invested in their landscape,” and really had no indigenous landscape art or architecture to speak of. “Africa was contrasted with the West, which was viewed as having thought-out philosophy, landscapes, and architecture. Africa art was never seen representing landscapes.” This belief was convenient because it enabled colonialists to then occupy and ransack local resources for their own use.

Indeed, those powerful landscapes that Europeans were clueless about are still shaping the culture in Nigeria. In Okija, a Igbo traditional village in the Anambra state of southern Nigeria, priests were arrested in an Ajofia in 2004 after 30 plus corpses were discovered at the site. Amid fears of human sacrifices, the police rushed in and destroyed the forest shrines. The entire “visually spectacular raid whipped up a media frenzy.” There was “intense anxiety” about another “traditional eruption,” which, ironically enough, said Okoye, was how Western missionaries used to respond to aspects of traditional culture.

The Nigerian media and much of the public basically rushed to judgement, said Okoye. The criticism was, “why can’t they use their forests like other communities use theirs?” He thinks the priests involved “probably did nothing illegal, or beyond their own traditional Igbo norms.” It’s unlikely that missing persons were killed and buried there; more likely there were burials according to Igbo traditions over many decades. But what really shocked Nigeria was the hidden list investigators found, which showed how many of Nigeria’s rich and powerful were somehow involved. “There were scores of names, from governors to chiefs of police.” There were very public firings of officials found on the lists, and the president eventually had to intervene to protect some careers. Okoye then wondered whether the Ajofia, which was viewed as powerful because of its “impenetrable secrecy,” actually had any efficacy to keep people in line anymore, particularly given the harsh media condemnation. Almost ten years later, the Nigerian press is still interested in the story.

These days, the evil forests are actually diminishing. “The fiercesome wilderness now has limits.” Every village in southern Nigeria Igbo areas has a market and, close by, an evil forest. Towns are in effect divided into places that reflect good and bad, so some places have to represent negative powers and therefore become evil themselves. Okoye said these forests became dumping grounds for all of society’s ills. Suicides, who are anathema in Igbo culture, used to be simply dumped there to rot, unburied. Twins, who are bad luck, used to be left there. “This is place were they dump cultural garbage. This is a negative space.”

It’s also only a place priests can go. “They can enter and leave unharmed.” Once in the forest, they harvest plants, roots, and herbs to make traditional medicines that help ward off evil. “For everyone else, this is a fearful place, a place to be avoided.” And to this day, the cinema of Nigeria, which is often called “Nollywood,” often features horrifying forests with witches.

Funnily enough, Okoye said when the European colonialists arrived, the Ajofia were the first land the Igbo gave them, so to this day, you often find churches within Ajofia or next door, simply because they carved a road through what was previously a larger evil forest. The early Christians simply didn’t care that the land was deemed tainted.

Within the active Ajofia, which Okoye courageously examined on foot, there are “evil people art objects” and even landscape architecture. Claustrophobia-inducing paths cut through dense vegetation provide access points for priests who gather medicines. There are pots and vessels, which are often left at shrines at the edge of these places. An arrangement of twigs and organic materials spookily hanging from a string is actually a microcosm of the larger evil forest. “It is a landscape within a landscape. The landscape is also seen as an object.”

Okoye said, unfortunately, these fascinating places are getting taken over by development. “There is no constituency for these forests anymore,” except perhaps among old Igbo who still believe in their power. Interestingly, with the eradication of these places, crime has also risen in the villages that used to have them. Okoye thinks that’s because the power of the Ajofia to keep the community in check is waning. “There’s no present reminder of what will happen to you if you are bad.”

Okoye called for saving these places because they are “great archeological resources.” More and more archeologists are actually investigating garbage dumps and the negative spaces of society because those places tell them a lot about society – what those people valued or threw away. There is a rich history there: Many Ajofia appeared where “trans-atlantic slavery was particularly intense.”

Image credit: (1) Evil Forest Shrine / Linda Ikeji’s blog

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Who manages a cultural landscape that has global importance? Does the United Nations have final say or the local community? It turns out a complex web of interests shape these evolving cultural landscapes, particularly if people still live there and they aren’t just outdoor museums. In a fascinating session at Dumbarton Oaks’ latest conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Charlotte Joy, an anthropologist at University of London, delved into Mali’s convoluted history with UNESCO World Heritage program and one local community’s efforts to preserve a cultural landscape people still call home.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was formed with the rest of the UN System in the mid-1940s. Its philosophy, said Joy, was always to “foster inter-cultural dialogue through education.” The idea behind the organization was to “construct peace in the minds of men,” not just through disarmament and economic development. The thinking was if cultures could better understand each other, they would go to war with each other less.

In 1972, after years of debate about what constitutes significant cultural value and the best ways to preserve the sites that embody it, UNESCO’s member states signed the World Heritage Convention and, six years later, formed the first World Heritage List. Today, the list, which includes some 962 sites, is seen as a critical tool for spreading knowledge about cultures. The current list includes some 745 cultural sites and 188 natural ones. Some 157 are combined cultural and natural sites. According to Joy, Africa has just 86 sites, mostly in the natural category. Just to note: Cultural landscapes are a special sub-set of world heritage sites. Within this group, there are “clearly defined, organically evolved, and associative” cultural landscapes.

Mali, a country in the north west corner of Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to four sites, two of which – Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia – are critically threatened. In March of last year, a coup was started by an army officer, who was unhappy with the government response to a Tuareg rebellion. Soon after, the coup leaders attacked government sites in Bamako. Then, fighting with the Tuareg, who had partnered with an Al Qaeda affiliate, dramatically escalated. At one point, the Tuareg actually took control of Timbuktu, but they were soon repelled by French military forces, who have intervened in the conflict. Joy made a point of saying that Tuareg rebellions are nothing new in Mali, and have been happening at least since 1916. “There have been a large number of rebellions. Tuaregs are fighting for recognition, land, and self-definition.”

Mali’s economy has been devastated by both the conflict and the international community’s effective isolation of the new Malian leadership. Tourists aren’t coming to visit Mali’s amazing cultural sites because governments are listing the sites as unsafe. This is in part because many don’t have any formal communications with the new government.

Culture has always been big economic driver there. Joy said the cultural ministry even created a detailed “cultural map” of the country, with each region’s distinct art, music, and earth works. But all that amazing cultural heritage isn’t just for tourists: While there are many world music festivals that attract European tourists, local roots program radio stations and TV documentaries attract a wide domestic audience. Way before UNESCO created its list, “Mali was secure in its rich cultural heritage. This has always been a cultural landscape.”

In the relatively safe city of Djenne, south of Timbuktu, there is the UNESCO site Old Town. UNESCO put Djenne on the list because it’s an “authentic cityscape,” its “architectural whole is viewed as iconic.” Joy said “UNESCO loves Djenne because its African, monumental, and architectural.”

But she said the bounded lines of UNESCO’s definition of the Old Town don’t tell the true story of cultural heritage in Djenne. “For locals, it’s always been about Djenne and its surrounding landscape.” Gardens around the old town are used for growing food, while cattle herders move their animals and farmers grow rice. “Djenne can then be conceptualized as a formal cultural landscape,” not just as a set of old buildings.

Djenne has always had political value to Mali’s leaders. The founders of Mali pointed to it as “evidence of the democratic roots of Mali.” Interestingly, it began as a non-Islamic civilization, even though there are many Muslims who live there now. Its cultural value has shifted over time, at least for the locals who live there. Archeological sites within the old town are now off limits to the locals who have lived there for generations.

Age-old building techniques and materials have also changed, for the worst. Square bricks were introduced by the French, changing the traditional building construction techniques. “Before, masons in Djenne used round, cylindrical bricks.” Joy said the masons think the new bricks are inferior to the old.

The mud used to cover the buildings, which has its own special chemistry, has changed over the years. Before, corn husks were worked into the mud to strengthen it. Now, those corn husks have to actually be imported at great expense from other parts of Africa. The river from which the mud came from used to be rich in fish. Dead fish bones added necessary elements to the mud. With the loss of fish stock, “they now make poorer clay.”

Before, all able-bodied men and kids came out to help apply a fresh coat of mud to the mosque and other buildings in an annual rite. But with increased regulation, created by UNESCO, locals weren’t allowed to do it for a period of time because layers of recent mud forms were deemed to be out of compliance with the original forms. UNESCO asked the old town’s elders and masons to remove mud to go back to original design. “For five years, locals couldn’t apply the mud.” The community is back at work applying mud to the facades once again this year, or at least when the town elders decide it has reached the right consistency.

Joy said “there has to be a balance between regulating a place and actually living in it.” In effect, outside regulation can really interfere with locals’ ability to preserve their own cultural heritage, severing them from their cultural landscapes. She wondered how a cultural landscape that people live in can be trapped in time, particularly a time hundreds of years in the past. “People can’t live the same way indefinitely.” Also, can Djenne really ever be made to stay the same, “given the aquifers have changed, acid rain has affected the buildings, rice husks are now imported?”

She believes international organizations have an “ethical imperative to understand how people relate to a landscape” and adjust based on how that relationship changes over time. Joy also believes UNESCO missed the boat in terms of defining the cultural boundaries of the city. “The heritage is really found in the edge, in the periphery. What’s important is the symbolic relationship between the old town and the surrounding landscape.”

Other presentations explored the challenges of cultural landscape heritage management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Innocent Pikirayi, University of Pretoria, South Africa, described UNESCO World Heritage Site Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe as a “power-scape,” a contested political terrain. “There have been so many meanings projected on to this place.” Today, it’s officially a “sacred, protected site.” But in reality this means the local community who could actually support its upkeep has been barred from using the site as a spiritual landscape.

Early settlers, from 900 – 1450 AD, brought the population of the Great Zimbabwe area to around 18-20,000, which made it “comparable in size to pre-industrial London.” Beginning in the 1550s, the civilization that created the site began to decline, as it lost out to other civilizations in the gold trade. For hundreds of years, the site was “largely silent, abandoned,” until it was “discovered” by Europeans. With Cecil Rhodes and the rise of European settlers in Rhodesia (the European name for what is now Zimbabwe), the site’s history was “appropriated and falsified.” Then, with the rise of African nationalism “there was a purge of European scientific archeology,” in favor of making Great Zimbabwe a “national symbol.” Long-time dictator Robert Mugabe has “manipulated the past for political gain.”

The end result, said Pikirayi, is this vital place has actually lost its “sacredness” because the “spirit of the place is now inaccessible to the local community.” Some locals believe the gods are upset by this, which is why there are now “bush fires and other natural disasters.”

Maano Ramutsindela, University of Cape Town, South Africa, then discussed “how regions translate into cultural landscapes.” He described how regions, which share geographic, political, economic, and cultural characteristics, make up Sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, for example, these “cultural regions actually define the landscape.” Cultural regions also mingle with natural habitats, creating interesting “human-environmental relationships,” such as migratory routes. Today, he is looking at Peace Parks, those inter-border zones that transect political boundaries. The idea is to create regional national parks that aren’t separated by borders, given animals don’t know whether they are in Mozambique, Tanzania, or South Africa. Conservation then creates new layers in these regional cultural landscapes.

Image credits: (1) Djenne market / Wikipedia, (2) Mosque in Djenne / Bensozia, (3) Applying mud to mosque in Djenne / Key Africa, (4) Djenne fisherman / Flickr.

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Sub-Saharan Africa‘s deeply rich and diverse cultural landscapes will finally get their due at Dumbarton Oaks in May. In an upcoming symposium, scholars from around the world will spend two days on the “oldest inhabited landscape” on Earth, a part of the world that offers a “staggering range of geographies, cultures, histories, and patterns of settlement.” According to the landscape and garden studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, the symposium will focus on “what we know – or think we know – about pre-colonial landscapes; how they were read and misread in the colonial era; and how they are being reinterpreted in the present for various purposes, including conservation, economic development, education, and the creation of national identity.”

Many lifetimes could be spent trying to understand the cultural landscapes among these 49 countries that together have a population of more than 800 million. For landscape designers and historians, the range of interests can be matched with the diversity of sites: “World Heritage sites such as the Great Zimbabwe, or Djenne or Timbuktu in Mali; massive earthworks and palace grounds in Benin; anthropogenic forests and forest shrines; contested wildlife parks and ecological reserves; village compounds and seemingly chaotic contemporary urban settlements; and official and unofficial memorials to the struggle against colonialism.” To be added, hopefully, is some kind of discussion on urban cultural landscapes, the parks and plazas that create a sense of place in Africa’s growing cities, and the challenges of preserving historic landscapes in an era of rapid urbanization and population growth.

Just a few of the speakers include Suzanne Preston Blier, Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University; Lazare Eloundou, an architect and urban planner with UNESCO World Heritage Center; Jeremy Foster, an architect, landscape architect, and cultural geographer at Cornell University; Ikem Okoye, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Delaware; Innocent Pikirayi, University of Pretoria, among others. See a full list of speakers and what they will talk about. (Also, check out a fascinating past talk by Blier on cosmology and pathways in Yoruban landscapes).

Register now for the symposium on May 10-11 for $60 ($40 for students).

Separately, a new resource worth highlighting is Landscape Architecture for Humanity, a brand-new blog started by Ryan Aldrich, a landscape architect in New Zealand. Already posted are a number of interesting opportunities for landscape architects to give their time and expertise in places like post-Hurricane Sandy, New York, and Papua New Guinea. There are interviews and videos with designers aiming for “positive social impact.”

Image credit: (1) The Great Zimbabwe / Wikipedia, (2) Timbuktu / Patheos

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“By exploring the history of designers, we find out who we are as designers,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, at a conference on Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. For Van Valkenburgh, who is well-known for his ecological and contemporary campus, park, and residential projects, “standing in the shoes of Farrand and trying to figure out what decisions she would make in new circumstances is both a responsibility and a great pleasure.” He did just that in restoring and expanding upon Farrand’s original landscape architecture at Princeton University.

To understand Farrand’s work at Princeton, he dug into old photos, seeking out “anecdotal photographs of historical precedents.” He found that Farrand, a consulting designer at Princeton, organized the campus around ecology. Partnering with Ralph Adams Cram, the architect of Princeton University’s old stone campus, she created “passages through sequences of courtyard spaces.” Within the courtyards, she orchestrated a “close relationship between building and planting; there was a taut ground plane, no thickets.” Farrand said her goal was to “adapt one’s self to nature’s way.” She was a “lady intolerant of discords and “evoked effects that were subdued.”

Farrand took on a real “trial and error approach,” trying out plants and trees here and there. While “sexist” critics of her day would view this approach as “ding-batty,” Van Valkenburgh said her way was spot-on. She had a way of “going over things again and again.” Through trial and error, Farrand also perfected her “signature practice: training shrubs on building facades.”

She emphasized seasonality. By testing things out, she also sought to understand what a landscape looked like in “autumn, winter, and spring.” She was “big on palettes.” An early trend-setter, she showed a distinct preference for native plants.

“She had a strong interest in the different maintenance capabilities of plants.” Farrand oversaw the creation of tree and plant nurseries on campus and “actively managed what was grown there.”  Van Valkenburgh said Farrand knew that “grounds people aren’t stupid. It really takes a gardener to raise a landscape.”

Working in Farrand’s shadow, Van Valkenburgh tried to figure out what she would do. Blair Walk, the central grand promenade through the campus, was in disrepair. His firm replaced the stone walkway and used “new old plantings,” an act of preservation, which also involved “restarting elements of the design.”

Because the university wanted to widen the walk in some places due to heavier foot traffic, Van Valkenburgh, in his sensitive historical approach, simply kept the original path width, but tacked on permeable pavements at the edges. “She would have gone for this because she was into stormwater management.”

In another project, he pushed the woodlands into the campus. Because the campus had expanded to such a degree – “Farrand would have been shocked by its size” – his team wanted to recreate the original campus’ woodland feel, which had disappeared with its later expansion. “We re-asserted the presence of the woodland at the edge of the campus,” in effect recreating Farrand’s original relationship between campus and environment. (Apparently, some alums didn’t really get this).

For another campus project, he created a subtle new bridge that weaves through nature. There, Van Valkenburgh said, his goal was to “preserve the beauty of the landscape.” Unveiling his design philosophy, he said landscape architects “have made a big mistake by trying to be modern. The beauty of a landscape is in its fragility. If you remove the fragility, you take out the beauty.” Farrand really understood this, and even went one step further, incorporating “irregularities into her designs as a complement to Cram’s buildings. There was a complementarity through contrast and distinction.”

Other speakers at Dumbarton Oaks spoke about Farrand’s legacy: Dennis Bracale, landscape architect and historian, discussed Farrand’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, an oriental garden in Bar Harbor, Maine, that is a mix of Western, Chinese, and Japanese landscapes. She had worked closely with the Rockefellers — who amassed an amazing collection of East Asian art that would later became the founding collection at the Asia Society — creating a garden that traced paths through priceless stone sculptures. The landscape design was based in Chinese spatial relationships and a Japanese appreciation for using found, natural materials. Mrs. Rockefeller had wanted a “spiritual retreat,” which she got. Farrand studied gates and wall designs from Beijing’s Forbidden City and replicated these designs to a tee. The garden, and its surrounding natural landscape made accessible via paths — which Bracale said also mirrors East Asian landscape patterns – was meant to evoke the maxim, “God is in nature.” So we understand yet another side of Farrand’s versatile practice.

Judith Tankard
, a landscape historian, then covered Farrand’s final years in Maine, where she created the Reef Point arboretum and amassed an amazing collection of plants and trees (and tens of thousands of books, which were later donated to U.C. Berkeley). At its prime, the arboretum had some 4,000 visitors a year, but Farrand complained that most visitors were tourists and not real lovers of plants. By the mid-1950s, Farrand realized the arboretum had no future, so she decided to “obliterate” this part of her life by destroying the buildings and landscape, as opposed to letting it fall apart through mismanagement. Forever the perfectionist, Farrand would destroy things that didn’t live up to her standards.

To learn more about Farrand and other women landscape architects in the early twentieth century, check out these books: Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes by Judith Tankard; Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century by Thaisa Way, ASLA; and Women in Landscape Architecture: Essays on History and Practice by Louise Mozingo, ASLA, and Linda Jewell, FASLA.

Image credits: (1) Princeton campus / DLand Studio, (2) Farrand facade / Princeton University, (3) Blair Walk / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (4) Woodland expansion / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (5) Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden / Fine Art America

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After years of controversy and lawsuits, and then a judge’s ruling in 2004 that allowed the Barnes Foundation to move out of Merion, Pennsylvania, and into the heart of Philadelphia, the new home of one of the world’s finest museums finally opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway last May. The effect of the new building and landscape on Philadelphia is significant. The new 4.5-acre museum seems to raise the quality of the parkway and the city’s cultural offerings almost single-handedly. While the museum building by Todd Williams and Billie Tsien has rightfully received almost universal rave reviews, the landscape architecture got short rift in the major press (as always), perhaps with the exception of the The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s coverage. Their loss: the story about the new landscape architecture by Philadelphia-base landscape architecture firm OLIN is about as fascinating as the story about the new building.

The original home of the amazing art collection assembled by Dr. Albert Barnes, and obsessively arranged and rearranged by the doctor in his final years, was his summer estate, which was later turned into a museum and arboretum. While much has been made of how Barnes’ precise arrangements of art — which involve mixing French modern masters with Asian and African works — were exactly replicated in the new museum, and set against the same canvas background, in rooms with the same proportions, little was discussed about how the original grounds and arboretum guided the new landscape architecture that now provides a frame for the new museum and art. OLIN writes that “it’s impossible to replicate the expanse and full character of a suburban estate on a relatively small urban parcel of land in the heart of Philadelphia, yet the landscape design for the new Barnes Foundation has created a group of spaces of varying size and character that are planted in contrasting and complimentary manner to the institution’s location and to each other so as to offer rich sensory experiences that recall aspects of the historic Merion campus.”

Both architects and Laurie Olin, FASLA, saw this approach as the way to respect the site, while also creating a vital contemporary design for the new spot, which was once the site of a children’s jail. In a work session with Williams, Tsien, and Laurie Olin in Rome, a new plan was developed to offer a “modern geometric structure inside and out, a sequence of spaces moving first one way and then another, that flowed into and through each other, that were large and ample, even stretched, were alternated with smaller, more compressed spaces, then back to spaces that give release.” While creating a new sense of harmony and movement through the site, the team also wanted to make sure they paid “homage to the earlier work of Paul Philippe Cret and the Barnes’s without aping the style and habits of that earlier period.”

Trees found in the original arboretum were then used in the new landscape design. “The planting openly recalls that of Merion and any number of private gardens in the Delaware Valley. Here the trees are a Japanese Cryptomeria, Star Magnolia, and Korean Dogwood along with a number of broadleaf evergreen shrubs, such as Winterberry, English Laurel, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Summersweet, Viburnum, Mountain Laurel — all found in the earlier Arboretum — along with Astilbe, Vinca, Fothergilla, Spirea, Sweetspire, and other ground covers and perennials.” Beyond finding ways to recall the actual landscape design of the original grounds in the new museum, OLIN also looked to the art for inspiration. “Planting selections were made to reflect some of the flora frequently seen in the Impressionist paintings of which Dr. Barnes was such a significant collector.”

Now, the way in. One of the nicest features of the new landscape architecture is the entryway, which feels like a small, contemporary piece of Europe just landed in Philly. As you walk off the parkway, you are greeted by a unique black granite fountain, sleek and contemporary, offset by benches.

Past this fountain terrace, you move either towards a small pavilion, which provides a coat check and service entrance, or meander along a path over a river bedded with rocks to the actual doorway.

The door itself is almost hidden, with the sign for the museum at hip level. Within this entry zone are small trees, with plinths as a backdrop hiding the parking lot beyond.

At the front of the building (facing the parkway), one piece that didn’t seem to fit at first was the raised bed. While it helps break up the building so it doesn’t provide a monotonous facade to the parkway, it seemed jutting, out of place. Upon learning that it’s there to provide a view of greenery for visitors looking out the window and also serve as a visual break so that art gazers don’t just see cars, it did make sense though. As OLIN explains, “this plinth and its planting fulfills several roles. One is to provide a buffer between the multistory tall windows of the south-facing main gallery with its important collection of art and the busy pedestrian and vehicle circulation and events of the Parkway, so as to preserve a desirable calm atmosphere for those in the room with the, allowing them to concentrate on the art without distraction. The other motive is to supply as much green as possible outside the windows without constructing high barriers. Matisse is known to have remarked that the color palette he chose for his now famous Lunette murals of The Dance that were above the south facing windows of Cret’s original structure was in part a response to the green of the garden beyond in the sun.”

Within, the materials are enticing, making the building feel like it can last hundreds of years and not look dated even then. Williams and Tsien incorporated African patterns in the furniture, referring to pieces of Barnes’ collection. Limestone walls seem to begged to be touched. There’s also reclaimed Ipe wood floors — from the old Coney Island boardwalks that were ripped up, no less. This is perhaps the only acceptable use of Ipe given what we now know about how wood is harvested from the Brazilian rainforests. (Designers: try the just-as-good domestic Black Locust). Outdoors, OLIN pays close attention to materials, as always, so the experience feels rich. “Paving in the site is composed either of cut granite or decomposed granite, a natural material that has been selected for its remarkable life cycle cost benefit – the longest that is known or achievable if well detailed and installed.”

All of this was accomplished while also creating a highly sustainable LEED Platinum museum and landscape. The building roofs either have skylights to let in light, solar panels to create energy, or green roofs filled sedum to catch rainwater and insulate the buildings. Around the buildings is a landscape purposefully designed to capture stormwater. Any excess water is steered towards a cistern, which captures stormwater for later irrigation on the site. “Water is directed through planted areas and granular materials to aid in filtering and cleaning it.” And even within the building, there’s a new interior courtyard filled with trees and enclosed in glass. While not accessible to people, the green space provides a glimpse of nature, a brief respite from room after room of art. Even during a tour of the museum in January, the courtyard was bright, refreshing.


There’s also a sheltered outdoor space next to the museum cafe, which is easy to imagine as a swanky event space on a summer night. The space is enlivened by a trio of trees set within a wooden bench and other plantings.

Upon leaving, one of the memorable experiences is actually walking all the way around the building, and seeing how all the new grading, series of trees, and street designs come together for pedestrians. The connection to OLIN’s Rodin museum landscape is especially welcoming, as there seem to be multiple paths leading from the edge of the Barnes into Rodin if that museum’s gates are open.

Towards the south, Logan Circle has also been revitalized. The new Sister Cities park by Studio Bryan Hayes with its fun watery playground and a green roof-covered angular pavilion by Digsau bring a burst of contemporary design to the fairway. The new pavilion with its much-needed cafe is great right next to an old church.

The revitalized fairway then is Philly at its best. The streetscape seems to have gotten as much attention as the new museum and its landscape. Next time you visit, walk from the new Sister Cities Park to the new Barnes Foundation, through it and then around it, and then have a coffee before heading to the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Fairmount Park. You may find that you just end up doing this anyway. This what you’ve been asked to do — through the design.

Image credits: (1-8) barnes Foundation / OLIN, (9) Sister Cities Park Pavilion / Philly Visitor’s Center

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Lawrence Halprin’s now defunct Skyline Park in Denver gets the full treatment in a new book by Ann Komara, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver. In more than 140 pages filled with beautiful drawings and photographs, Komara delves into the economic and social trends that spurred the creation of Halprin’s park and led to its eventual decline.

Komara writes that Halprin, who recently died, is one of the most substantial and influential landscape architect of the second half of the twentieth century. His Sea Ranch in Sonoma, California is rightly famous in the design world, while millions of visitors love the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Halprin, who won innumerable design awards and the highest American presidential medals, also designed the landscape approach to Yosemite National Park.

In this book, it’s his designs and design process for the park, more than his design theories, that we see and understand most vividly. Komara writes: “While a critical appraisal of his legacy is still needed, it is possible to glean insights into his design process, his design expression, and the experimental aspects of his works by taking a closer look at one of his works — Skyline Park.”

Skyline Park came out of urban renewal efforts in the late 1960s in downtown Denver. Occupying a central 100-foot-wide swath of downtown, the 3.2-acre park, which was finally completed in 1976, was seen as a way to create a vital community space in a dense downtown while also boosting commercial activity. The park was one of the first designed to be a “cooling microclimate” in tune with the local natural environment. It’s certainly a prime example of Mid-Century Modern, but in landscape form. The park is almost more sculpture than park, with its “experimental materials, spatial forms, or images.”

Komara is thoughtful about the history and has clearly done her homework, but uses a light touch with all the historical information. She delves into the history of downtown Denver’s development but seems to take off when she gets to Halprin’s design process, which was detailed and intense. Enlivened with drawings from Halprin and his designers, you get a real sense for how Halprin worked with the local development authority and developers and conceptualized, designed, and implemented the park.

At the start, Halprin set the park in its local natural environment. He “studied local landforms and ecologies to create a design for the park that would resonate with Denver residents and visitors.” His notes and drawings show the influence of the Colorado foothill landscape and the sand stone rock formations of the Rocky Mountains. The region’s arroyos, deeply cut streams or channels, which “support cooler, moister micro-climates with indigenous trees and shrubs,” are clearly represented in Skyline Park’s designs.

The park’s rich material palette also refer to Red Rock’s sandstone. “As sandstone itself was deemed too expensive, concrete mixed with a local sandstone aggregate was specified to simulate the stone. A tawny rose color tint was fully blended throughout, and the stone matrix was visible on all surfaces once they have been sandblasted, thus forging the local connection through color and also somewhat through texture.” Halprin and his team also introduced Native American beadwork patterns into the original design, but they were later abandoned.

The park’s overall design also shows Halprin’s unique take on urban renewal. Streets were transformed into “linear spatial structures threaded into a system of pedestrian movements that hold a linear directional flow regardless of where they are entered.” The plazas show how Halprin’s skill in designing public spaces that could provide “nuanced experiences for visitors.”

The mix of trees and signature use of water helped make the place a “connected and unified whole.” “From the consistent planting and the line of street trees to concrete coloration and treatment, from custom lights to trash receptacles,” all worked together to form a new, unique place. The fountains also succeeded in drawing people in. Komara eloquently states: “It was not a traditional park; it was an experience of place, a choreographed sequence of spaces in a sculptural landscape.”  

When the park came online in the mid-1970s, it was celebrated. In a local publication, it was highlighted as among the best Denver had to offer, a “restful spot in the center of a major metropolis.” But Komara says its success may have also ultimately undermined it. As taller buildings came in, this “small yet significant public space” was subsumed. People “desired more from the adjacent park,” calling for its renovation. Komara lists the many “points of vulnerability” that led to its decline: new development messed with the access points so that the surrounding storefronts no longer “activated it;” an “elevated pedestrian system around the park had become “outdated;” a new mall siphoned people off the park; programming and maintenance dropped off; and, lastly, the park had become vulnerable politically, seen as a “haven for young ‘mall rats,’ a destination for the homeless, and a hidden zone for outre behavior such as drug use.” Perhaps equally as important as those other causal factors: the park’s “style,” its design, may also have been come to be seen as outdated. It’s strong sculptural forms “did not mesh with popular conceptions of parks as grassy, leafy, rolling terrain, reminiscent of natural meadows.”

Beginning in the 1990s, the park spurred a debate about how downtown Denver should look. The park had declined (Komara says relatively slowly) and the business community that had once supported the park now actively sought to replace it. As Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) just argued in a recent Huffington Post article, many factors, including the lack of maintenance or programming, can undo masterful Modern landscapes like Skyline. In his intro to this book, he also adds that in contrast to buildings, “landscapes…often die quiet deaths.”

Perhaps with the death of Skyline Park along with the recent demise of Peavey Plaza, more cities will work a bit harder to keep their Modern jewels shining brightly. Who knows? They may come back in style again.

Read the book.

Image credits: (1) Princeton Architectural Press, (2) From the RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, George Braziller, 1970, (3) Lawrence Halprin & Associates, (4) photo courtesy of Gifford Ewing

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Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, is principal at Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. Smallenberg, who has 20 years of experience leading large and multidisciplinary teams, is one of the most highly recognized landscape architects in Canada.

In Toronto, your firm, Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, just announced the opening of Canada’s first underpass park, a public space that transforms one of the city’s least desirable spots into an asset. The first pieces of the park offer a playground for kids as well as basketball hoops and skateboard ramps for teenagers. Why put a park under a highway? Why design this park for exercise?

There are probably more examples in the United States than there are in Canada, but cities in western societies are littered with spaces that can only be considered incidental. They’re leftover pieces of the urban fabric. They’re generally a result of urban infrastructure — and usually some form of transportation infrastructure — that ran amok in the ’40s,’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Cities have been faced with all sorts of these leftover spaces ever since.

With respect to the park we developed under an overpass in Toronto, the site was centered within a newly redeveloping community that Waterfront Toronto is putting forward called the West Don Lands. So it needed to be easily traversed and it had to be done safely and securely. We felt why not actually make it interesting fun and give it some community use? Together with Waterfront Toronto, the idea was born that the space would become a park, in large part just to take advantage of the free weather protection. In Toronto, there are not a lot of places where you can play basketball, or go skateboarding 12 months of the year without getting soaking wet or covered with snow. So the project was really  about turning something that most people looked at as a constraint into an opportunity. Now, that it is partially complete — for some weird reasons — it’s achieving celebrity status in the City of Toronto.

The park is being developed in two phases. The first phase is complete. The second phase is under construction. The first phase is primarily underneath the influence of the overpasses. There’s a couple of openings in the overhead structure that have allowed us to create a softer kind of landscape with trees that humanize this space, but for the most part, it’s a space that doesn’t get a lot of light or any rain and so the solution was a hard surface one where we put in largely recreational opportunities that could best take advantage of this obvious design response. At the same time, we created enough flexible space within the first phase so there could be a farmer’s market, informal performance theater and the likes. The second phase, that will be complete by spring of 2013, is much greener. It’s almost out from underneath the overpasses—so, lots of trees, community gardens, etc. When the park is read as a whole, it’s going to feel like there’s a good balance between recreational and passive park space, hard surface and soft surface.

We have been working with the Planning Partnership from Toronto in the detailed design of the entire West Don Lands public realm. In addition, Michael Van Valkenburgh’s firm has been central to the open space of the West Don Lands, designing the Don River Park, and a smaller space called River Square. All of the public realm pieces, under the direction of Waterfront Toronto, are flowing well together to create a bigger whole. The program offering of Underpass Park is just one component of a much larger basket of public amenities that are unfolding throughout the whole community.

Your firm has played a major role in the rebirth of the Toronto waterfront. With the latest contribution being Sherbourne Common, a fascinating hybrid: a park that is both a water treatment plant and public space. Visiting the park, I noticed how the infrastructure can’t be separated from the park. How was the park designed to be both infrastructure and public space? How well does it function as a neighborhood water treatment facility?

Early on, we were involved in the precinct planning of East Bayfront, the area that Sherbourne Common sits in. We worked with Koetter Kim, an architectural firm out of Boston. They were responsible for the built form. We were responsible for the public realm. We put together a plan that essentially took this brownfield site along a fairly disused portion of the Toronto waterfront and created a plan for a new neighborhood, which was, again, part and parcel of the whole Waterfront Toronto vision.

In this work, we were able to order the community both by circulation and open space. The open spaces took on different roles. For example, Claude Cormier’s park called Sugar Beach, which just won an ASLA award this year, is part of that. West 8 / DTAH has done a waterfront promenade and they’re building a significant streetscape along Queen’s Quay that will run right through the central waterfont and the East Bayfront community.

Sherbourne Common was intended to be the heart of this new waterfront community. It needed to be many things to many people. Interestingly, because the park is an example of building public realm in advance of private development, when it was completed it appeared somewhat alien because there was nothing around it. It’s still a bit desolate in the area but very quickly evolving. A commercial office building promoting film and media was recently completed and, directly adjacent to the park, a new 3,000 student university college has just opened its doors. Hines Development out of the States is in the process of developing a significant residential and mixed use component, which is directly east of the park, so, eventually, the park is going to be bracketed by all of this really interesting and meaningful community development. It’s going to be surrounded by commercial, educational, residential, and retail, which was always the plan from the beginning. This multi-use type of new community development is going to be different than anything we’ve seen in Toronto.

Sherbourne Common was intended to be the big green heart of the community. In terms of design, it’s centered around the idea of sustainability. It’s actually one of the first LEED-rated parks in Canada. We decided early on that we wanted to do something about stormwater. In the East Bayfront planning process the idea was that we would collect all of the stormwater within the community, and, ultimately, figure out what we were going to do with it. We weren’t going to just deposit it into the city storm sewers. That wasn’t on. This was a new twenty-first century community.

When West 8 came into the planning for the central waterfront in about 2006, they had developed this idea for the water’s edge, which includes what they have built now — this hard surface promenade, and, in the future, a floating or slightly-stepped boardwalk going the full length of the East Bayfront community. Underneath the boardwalk is planned a series of connectedbox culverts that will accept all of the storm water from the whole of East Bayfront. So, generally speaking, all of this water will move by gravity from the developing area into these containment culverts along the water’s edge where sediment will filter out and eventually the water will come back into the park.

From there it travels through one of the most sophisticated UV treatment systems in the Canada if not the world. The water travels up and through the dramatic art sculptures by Jill Anholt, which you would have seen when you were in Toronto and then into biofiltration beds, taking out most of the remaining contaminants. The water eventually makes its way back into the lake in a very clean state.

The intention from the very beginning is that there wouldn’t be a dividing line between design and disciplines. First and foremost, this is landscape architecture, but it was done in a way that collaborated with artists, architects and engineers. PFS, as a firm, is always trying to do this. Landscape architecture, as a profession, is hopefully trying to do this. You do get mixed results when one discipline takes over or something else happens to skew the balance, but in Sherbourne Common, the balance was there. The engineers were very creative. The architect was very creative. The artist was very creative. PFS set out the concept andthe others plugged in all of their resources to making this thing a reality. It’s almost impossible to see where the engineering starts or where the landscape architecture ends because we intentionally wanted boundaries blurred. The same holds for the art and the architecture. So from that perspective, it’s a huge success for us.

Do you think, given the incredible lack of space in cities and the increasing value of that space, more urban, public spaces need to be like Sherbourne Common and double as infrastructure? Is this the model for urban parks of the future? What are the challenges to this approach?

I think it’s one model for some urban areas. If you can see an opportunity where you can ride on the back of an infrastructure project or an infrastructure need, why not? In Canada, the budgets that are put forward for things like sewers and roads are exponentially greater than any budget put forward for landscape. Yet, these kinds of projects can go hand-in-hand. So why not piggyback on budgets like that? Why not make something that isn’t a hindrance or a distraction in the community? If you can make it fantastic, usable, and beautiful, why not do it?

There is a real opportunity here. There’s leftover urban infrastructure everywhere and there’s all sorts of new urban infrastructure projects coming on line. Urban open space is scarce and you just don’t find many conventional open space opportunities anymore because cities are built up. The tastier bits are all gone. We have to be really creative in how we look at opportunities.

A number of other works by your firm elegantly repurpose historical buildings and landscapes, reusing sites, but making them contemporary in the process. I was struck by the Canadian Embassy in Rome, Bellevue City Hall in Washington State, as well as Coal Harbour, the historic seawall in Vancouver. Please explain how you translate cultural landscapes– large and small– significant or not– into new works.

We’re very interested in cultural landscapes and there are different ways you can look at this..a the artifact or the ritual. Personally, I’m more interested in the rituals. In other words, the things that have happened in places that we’re asked to take a look at as opposed to the artifact. They’re both important, but I think ritual is more important.

We’re very respectful of historic properties, but we will always look for a way to put a contemporary layer on any sort of historic site or project that we’re asked to come into. From our perspective, that’s the way you actually make places relevant. You need to design for the next generation. The next generation has to feel like they’re a part of it. If there’s no relevance, then they will eventually lose interest. And, ultimately, there will be a loss of the synergy that happens between users and these spaces.

In the case of Coal Harbour, it was built largely on reclaimed land. We were very interested in  tracing the old shoreline. We did it in a way that recalled some of the area’s natural processes, the scouring of the sandstone cliffs by the ocean and the granite lenses that were revealed in this process. We designed a wall in Harbour Green Park that in subtle ways picks up on this.

With respect to the Canadian Embassy in Rome, its located on a vestige of an old villa estate in Rome near the Villa Borghese. It’s called the Villa Grazioli. There’s a lot of history there. The building itself is an eighteenth century Tuscan-style villa that was renovated to accommodate the Canadian Embassy. They had pretty much finished the villa and realized that the grounds, which took up a little under five acres of property, had been ignored during the restoration. Our firm was called in to design a plan for the grounds that could do two things: appreciate what was there before in terms of historic patterns and uses and recognize that there would be a whole new program that had to be established on that site. The challenge was how to weave those two things together.

This project was on a fast track and I went to Rome several times over the course of a year. I worked hand-in-hand with clients and contractors there through a daily ritual of sketching then meeting then re-sketching. It wasn’t a design-build, but at times it felt that way, when I would go out there and work with these amazing Italian craftsmen. For me just the process was about appreciating and understanding a cultural landscape.

In Grounded, a new book on your firm’s work, you said, “Green is the future, and landscape architects are critical to meeting the challenge of green cities in the broadest sense.” What is a green city? Getting specific, what do landscape architects need to do to occupy a central role in creating this green, urban future?

Everybody has a take on green cities. There’s a different perspective whether you’re a planner, architect, or landscape architect. To me greening a city just means optimizing land and resources in a way that makes a city livable. To optimize it, it seems to me that you need to have a lot of people onboard. If you want to make a city green, it’s got to be a true collaboration. And it starts with politicians and local administration. Then, you have to have smart architects designing really smart buildings. You need great engineers designing and building fantastic transit. And you need landscape architects that are able to hold the whole thing together.

Ian McHarg nailed it years ago when he talked about how critical it was that cities understand there were these natural processes all around them and that they were a part of, and that you had to draw these processes through the city and make them real. Then, 20 years later, Jan Gehl talked about a city’s vibrancy, which got better and better with increasing social interaction and integration. For me he’s essentially talking about  people bumping into one another, striking up a conversation, or maybe just observing people with friends and families or getting a sense of what they’re doing or what interests them. I think that these ideas have influenced landscape architects and their approach to green cities. We’ve read McHarg. We’ve read Gehl. And most have read Lewis Mumford, who postulated that cities are ordered through transportation and open space.

You also said the future of cities could belong to landscape architects because people were becoming “weary of the way cities are rolling out or, in some cases, imploding.” What do you mean? As an example, how can landscape architects undo the damage of sprawl?

If we’re trying to undo the damages of sprawl, then we have to make density interesting. We have to make living in the core of the city interesting. Our firm’s from Vancouver. Vancouver has been noted around the world as one of the most livable cities in the world. A lot of that has to do with reengaging the public’s imagination in living in a dense, downtown environment.

For many cities around the world, there was a great exodus out of the core. Cities were left to the offices and some commercial pursuits. In large part, this didn’t happen in Canada to the same extreme it did in American cities, where there was a lot of hollowing out of the centers and there are still many stark reminders of that. What Vancouver ended up doing was coming up with a variety of ways to encourage people to first live in the core, and then when they started living there, to encourage them to shop there, socialize there, raise their kids there. In 25 to 35 years, it’s turned from a uninteresting, fairly unpopulated downtown into one of the most vital downtowns in the world. It’s not Tokyo, Shanghai or New York, but it’s pretty good and was partially achieved through this idea of building optimism and imagination. Landscape architecture, quite frankly, was a huge part of achieving this.

At one point in the book you say that landscape architecture in Canada is still struggling a lot. You argue that landscape architects aren’t flourishing despite the great projects all over Canada. Why is that? What are the main challenges still facing landscape architects? What are the future opportunities?

I kind of regretted saying that in the book. PFS does very well. There are a lot of firms like ours that do very well. And there are lots of successful individual practitioners. But I do think the profession continues to struggle in Canada. I think it still struggles in the U.S.

I’d be very interested in getting into more of a conversation about this with other practitioners in Canada and the U.S. For me, the profession needs to continue getting out from underneath architecture and engineering. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way to those disciplines. We enjoy working with great architects and great engineers. We seek out multidisciplinary approaches in our work. I do know that for some though there is this sense that landscape architects are the butlers or the handmaidens of these larger, more organized, better financed professions. The truth is landscape architects should end up trumping the professions of architecture and engineering. The solutions we collectively bring to bear as landscape architects on urban problems is seen in a much brighter light because people are tiring of the other solutions. I think people aresearching for solutions that reside closer to their hearts. So, in Canada, landscape architects will continue to do well. I’m optimistic about that, but, as a profession, we need to define ourselves a little bit better.

Image credits: (1) Underpass Park / Waterfront Toronto, (2) Underpass Park / PFS, (3) Sherbourne Commons / Tom Arban, (4) Sherbourne Commons / Frederick Moeser, (5) Coal Harbour / Scott Massey, (6) Canadian Embassy in Rome / Giacomo Foti Fotographia

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Beginning in 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright began creating his winter studio and architectural campus Taliesin West, his ode to the majestic Sonoran desert. Still a working architectural college to this day, the place is dramatically different from his urban masterpieces like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and Robie House in Chicago. The buildings are unassuming and seem to purposefully nestle into the cacti-filled landscape.

The campus’ main buildings took four years to build. During that time, Wright, his 3rd wife, and 25 apprentices all slept in tents under the stars. During the first years, there was no well, so water had to be brought in from miles away. On the 640 acre site, Wright left his tent to first build a document vault, then the studio, kitchen, dining and bedrooms. Using wood from local trees to build the frames and quartzite boulders to establish the foundation, the buildings are very low to the ground, and were originally filled with open window frames covered only in canvas. It was only after many years of protest by his wife that glass windows were put in.

Wright thought the glass wasn’t needed because he oriented the spaces to maximize solar and heat gain in the winter and minimize the sun’s glare in the summer. However, he eventually discovered that the glass windows only enhanced the passive solar capabilities of the buildings. Ever careful about how light interacted with interior spaces, Wright used his windows and canvas shades to further control the interplay of light and dark in the interior spaces, diffusing light and bouncing it off the interiors to create more comfortable spaces. So Wright was not only an early innovator in the use of solar passive technologies but also controlling light through shades.

The patios, gardens, building were all set in patterns of 16-foot-square grids, said our tour guide. The interior frames are also all standard sizes so once a visitor figures out the size of the grid and frames, they can quickly figure out total square footage.

Outside, the gardens were meant to deeply complement the buildings and work together as one. Like Richard Neutra’s work, Taliesin West is rooted in its native landscape. You can’t really imagine it elsewhere.

In the gardens that provide middle-grounds between the home and the desert and mountains, Wright’s original landscape architecture, one of his few works of landscape, has been faithfully preserved. In between the view of the home and Papago mountains, there’s a triangular pool, which was created as an amenity, source of comfort in the hot months, and security measure in case of fires. The triangular pool, which also mirrors the triangular shapes of the mountains, is dramatically juxtaposed with a bright red door into the studio and 75-year old Joshua trees. In this space in the early 1950s, the gravel came out in favor of grass.

The desert views Wright, his wife, and workers enjoyed are made even better by the flora and fauna: grand Sagauro cacti and fuzzy Jumping cacti make a dramatic statement and we even saw wild Gambel’s quails running together in the campus. But this landscape is no cultural desert either – it’s been used for thousands of years by the Hohokam indians. Their dense network of canals were basically copied by the settlers who took over their lands.

Wright also oriented the home so that there were distinct breezeways, which provided comfort for those living there. The breezeways double as spaces to enjoy certain perspectives of the mountains. Wright set up a few views of the mountain peaks he loved best.

Moving through one of those breezeways, there’s a central plaza, with gardens filled with native cacti set out on grids. While the space seem designed to be moved through as opposed to inhabited, the guide said Wright constantly used the space for events, reconfiguring the outdoor spaces for garden parties. The guide said Frances Nemtin, one of Wright’s original apprentices from the 1940s is still managing the gardens in keeping with Wright’s original design. The only major change: there had been a set of palm trees but they grew so large architects in residence thought they were messing with the proportions of the site. They were dug up and given to a nearby resort.

According to our tour guide, Wright knew that sprawl would eventually surround his beloved Taleisin West. Until the 1960s, they managed to keep development at bay. Now it’s basically found at the end of a cul-de-sac. Sadly, it’s one of the few remaining intact desert habitats in the broader Phoenix region, which sprawls out some to a gargantuan 1,650 square miles. Our guide said developers are ever swarming over their parcel of nature but always let down when they hear that the entire 550 remaining acres are a National Historic Landmark. Let’s hope it stays that way forever.

Image credits: Ben Wellington, Student ASLA 

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