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New South Mall campus plan / BIG

The new master plan for the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus, which runs from the Hirshhorn Museum all the way to the Freer Museum, is a shocker. It obliterates the existing landscape, filled with intimate nooks that invite exploration, in favor of “improved connectivity” and open plazas that extend the grand expanse of the Mall in between the buildings. While the current set-up is perhaps rightfully criticized for being difficult to navigate and uninviting in parts, with so many walls separating museum from museum, the new plan by Danish architecture and urban design firm BIG and San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm Surface Design, as well as many other collaborators, may leave visitors feeling exposed. Given full design and implementation of the $2 billion plan is expected to take more than 20 years and won’t even start for the next 5-7 years, we can expect elements of this plan will certainly change. The Smithsonian just began its public comment phase of the process.

For the past two years, the Smithsonian has invested $2.5 million in developing these plans, seemingly under the radar. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the impetus for the new plan came from all the negative public feedback about the experience at the South Mall campus. The subterranean Ripley Education Center, for example, is nearly impossible to find, as is the entrance to the Sackler Gallery. Underground, good luck getting from the Freer to the Sackler or the Ripley Center; the passages are incredibly confusing. These museums, set deep within the Mall, are dark. At night, the whole campus is devoid of light. Visitors can’t walk directly from the Hirshhorn to the Freer, but must zig and zag. As a result, Clough believed the Smithsonian needed to totally “reimagine the experience and transition the Smithsonian into the future.”

This new master plan is then meant to be a road map to guide how to get there, added Smithsonian Undersecretary Albert Horvath. “It’s fluid and provides opportunities and options for us.”

Bjarke Ingels, the founder of BIG, explained the key facets of the plan for a site that may be the “most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth”:

The centerpiece of the redevelopment — and the first phase the Smithsonian will tackle — is updating the Castle and protecting it from earthquakes, like the one that heavily damaged it in 2011. The entire building will be set on rollers, a system of “base isolation,” to guard against future seismic anomalies. Given “we are digging anyway,” said Ingels, a new underground interactive exhibit is planned, which will outline all the resources the Smithsonian provides. The building’s interiors, which have been broken up into shops selling knick-knacks and offices, will be reunited in a grand hall, as it once was.

As visitors exit the Castle from the rear, heading toward the Enid A. Haupt garden, visitors will discover a contemporary landscape that peels up in the corners. Each corner will be home to a bright, glass-enclosed entrance that leads visitors either down into the Sackler Gallery or the African Art Museum. Ingels said: “These will be entrances to a much bigger experience. No more hidden pavilions.”

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Visitors will also be able to go up the top of the slopes or picnic on this green roof deck.

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Given the current Haupt garden isn’t under any historical protection, it could actually find new life in this form. One architect with BIG said the team would keep Jean Paul Carlhian’s Moongate Garden, which people love, “just putting it back even better.”

The Sackler Gallery and African Art Museum will also now be viewable from the revamped garden, providing a preview of the art below. “The skylights will give people a sneak peek into the museums, making them intuitively accessible.”

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The spaces themselves will be flooded with light, an improvement everyone can appreciate.

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One reason for all the walls separating these museums from each other is that there are three separate loading docks for the museums. BIG proposes consolidating them into one loading dock and creating a subterranean road that will enable artworks to be safely transported. Paralleling this route will be underground passages, all sky-lit, that allow visitors to travel directly between the Hirshhorn to the Freer, perhaps bypassing having to have your bag checked by security again. With one dock, the walls separating the museums can then be pulled down and direct, above-ground paths can also be created cutting through all the sites, too.

BIG then proposes further exposing the museums to the expanse of the Mall, first by removing the high walls around the Hishhorn Museum, and creating a new landscape design at near-Mall level with a pattern or circles that appear to be radiating off the building. One architect from BIG said they saw the original drawings for the site, and this new concept actually returns this space to the original design intent.

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According to Skip Graffam, ASLA, a partner at OLIN, who created a tour of the existing Hirshhorn landscape, “architect Gordon Bunschaft designed the austere and minimalist building and site, which was later refined by landscape architects Lester Collins and James Urban.” Many may appreciate the understated landscape, always a welcome respite from the Mall.

The sculpture garden, which is in sore need of maintenance, will instead be similarly gutted under this new plan, replaced with a design encased in glass.

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The museum’s central fountain will also be further sunk in.

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A new subterranean space, which will also provide access to a new cafe, will enable visitors to directly connect between the museum and sculpture garden. Now, visitors have to leave the Museum go up over the road, and then go back down into the sculpture garden.

Throughout, BIG proposes major improvements to building and landscape systems, gutting all the 50-year old systems and replacing them with the most energy and water-efficient models. The proposal promotes green infrastructure, energy efficiency, as well as localized renewable energy sources. Ingels said: “Energy use will be reduced by 39 percent and carbon emissions will go down 40 percent.” At the same time, the amount of space available for the museums will increase by 30 percent. “It’s a significant upgrade.”

The changes to the landscape, however, are perhaps mis-characterized as “subtle, surgical interventions.” This is a wholesale redesign of this part of the Mall, but Ingels says his team can “recreate the romantic, meandering nature of the space, so people can get lost in the plants,” while also dramatically improving connectivity. Also important will be creating connections with the ambitious new plans for L’Enfant Plaza and Southwest Eco-District, which is expected to bring in tens of thousands more federal workers, dramatically upping the density in the area.

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Horvath said the “landscape portion of the plan is least developed. The gardens are really integral to the design.”

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Christian Gabriel / Taylor Lednum, GSA

Christian Gabriel, ASLA, is the National Design Director for Landscape Architecture for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C. At the GSA he works to set design standards in the realm of public space, landscape, site security, and sustainability. He reviews and approves design proposals, serves on team selection panels, assists on special projects, and advocates for innovation. Prior to joining the GSA, he practiced as a senior design associate at Thomas Balsley Associates and Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect.

Since you began as the National Design Director for Landscape Architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) two years ago, what has changed? Where is GSA now on landscape architecture?

In the last two years, GSA has established a landscape architecture presence that acknowledges the value of the field. When I arrived, landscape architecture issues and opportunities were addressed indirectly through other disciplines, sometimes falling through gaps between general design, architecture, art, or urban planning.

But GSA wanted to shift to a more holistic approach that acknowledged the value robust landscape architectural design can bring to our projects. We have been realizing that shift through the creation of policy guidance on landscape architecture; the selection of prominent landscape architects as national design peers; identification of project opportunities, including landscape exclusive projects and ecological services; and a new landscape architecture voice in capital project design review.

GSA has long-excelled at the art of sustainable building development, and now we’re beginning to bring the same attention to site design.

During the past two years GSA’s new construction budget was slashed. In 2010 the budget was $800 million, but two years later that budget was down to just around $50 million. For this year though, Congress has allocated more than $500 million for some new facilities, such as the San Ysidro Point of Entry in California and an FBI complex in San Juan, Puerto Rico. What is your role in these high-profile projects? How will they showcase design excellence in landscape architecture?

It’s easy to hang on the overall numbers because, like any federal agency, our budget ebbs and flows. Even when our overall capital construction budget goes down, our portfolio remains considerable since it takes quite a while to develop the large projects and programs in our pipeline. And we have a huge maintenance program to boot. Even those maintenance projects can be quite large and have the ability to catalyze change. For example, the Javits Federal Plaza project in New York City, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is an eloquent example of a major, well-designed work of landscape architecture that began as a waterproofing project identified and completed through our repair and alterations program.

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Jacob Javits Federal Building Plaza, New York City / Alex Maclean / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In terms of the role of landscape architecture in major projects moving forward, it will be like the role I established during leaner times: seek to be a clear-headed voice at the table, but also bring forward the value of landscape architecture in a variety of performance areas — whether it’s through ecological services or public space design.

The public realm in many of our projects is vitally important. For example, the San Ysidro point of entry is one of the busiest land ports in the world. It sees 30,000 to 50,000 pedestrians every day, and 60,000 to 80,000 vehicles a day. Public spaces there see volumes you rarely find anywhere outside of Times Square.

Another part of your job is educating GSA’s 12,000 plus employees who manage nearly 9,000 buildings about the value of landscape architecture. That seems like a herculean task. What is your strategy for improving awareness? What landscape architecture issues do you think are most misunderstood there?

First, you have to get to the right people. There are people at the beginning of projects who provide significant direction, like chief architect Les Shepherd who shape the look, the feel, the design team. Another critical step is working closely with our regional design and construction teams and project champions, the folks that push the projects along, ensuring that they’re meeting all of the intended objectives and aspirations of the project. Then, when the project is turn-key and facility management takes the reins on behalf of one of our client agencies, it’s critical to touch base and clarify the “care and feeding” of the projects to ensure the longevity of our landscapes and public spaces.

More broadly, we’re focused on the education of all of our staff. We’re providing continuing educational units for our professional staff on a near monthly basis. Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and other outside institutions and practitioners provide education on landscape architecture topics. We’re also entering into the “landscape analytics” portion of our work where we’re looking at some relatively sophisticated and complex landscapes that have a lot of embedded green infrastructure and are beginning to verify the performance of those projects. Many of our staff are incredibly knowledgeable about both design and construction and have demonstrated a real interest in understanding how complex landscape projects perform under field conditions.

During an ASLA-hosted webinar on how landscape architects can contract with GSA, you mentioned a short selection process that would allow local LA’s to pre-qualify for GSA projects. Can you offer any more details on this process? When you expect GSA to roll it out?

We are always exploring how to enhance our contracting mechanisms and have been looking at two elements related to that: One has been the renewal of our indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity teams. The other is the potential for a short-selection process, which is really a pre-qualification for landscape specific firms. The latter element is only in a discussion stage.

Sustainability is now a key goal for the landscapes GSA manages, but GSA must also prove the benefits of sustainable design practices like green infrastructure outweigh the costs, so it has undertaken a broad effort to collect data and make the case. What kind of data are you collecting? Are there any interesting findings so far?

We’re trying to bring forward the value of landscape architecture in measurable terms. Part of that is making clear the contributions of the landscape if we’re suggesting that public money be spent on creating more intense functional landscapes to treat stormwater, sequester carbon, and produce electricity. There needs to be a commissioning process, similar to how we would commission a furnace in a building, proving to us all that it’s functioning at a certain capacity. Often green infrastructure is assumed to be functioning at maximum capacity. We know in practice, however, that it’s actually very rare, because these are living systems not typically maintained at a perfect level or performing at a consistent level.

We’re planning to work with Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) on two projects we identified for our landscape analytic study, which explore these issues:

First is the new United States Coast Guard headquarters at the old Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital site in Washington, D.C. It is a massive structure, set against a hillside in an historic campus, which hosts the third largest green roof in the world. The combination of on-grade and on-structure elements working together to provide diverse ecological services and zones for the overall project is astounding. We’re planning to verify the performance of hydrologic networks and other sustainable features through a combination of on-site and secondary research, examining the construction, installation, and care.

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US Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. / Taylor Lednum, GSA

Second is the Domenici Courthouse in Albuquerque designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. This is a SITES-certified project, on a much smaller scale, and in a totally different eco-region, demonstrating an entirely different approach to sustainable landscape. The two projects should prove complementary.

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Domenici Courthouse, Albuquerque, New Mexico / Robert Reck

Carbon, water, and electricity are the three defining design issues of our day. We’re hoping to tackle two of them within the realm of landscape. We are not alone in our interest: Our colleagues at Andropogon Associates, lead designers of the United States Coast Guard Headquarters landscape, have started similar research on other non-federal facilities. We’ve also recently been in touch with Reed Hilderbrand, a firm also looking at something similar, essentially a commissioning process for their Clark Institute of Art project in western Massachusetts.

Your work must incorporate security. Is there a new approach from GSA for using the landscape to improve security? You were talking about these point-of-entry projects where security needs to be visible. You need to know you’re entering this secure environment, so there are symbols of security. But how do you balance creating a sense of security while also providing access and transparency?

There is the issue of preemptive security, the visual definition of security, so people understand a legible and secure envelope on a building or site as a deterrent. That is of great interest to our security-minded client agencies.

At this point, nearly all federal client agencies essentially self-identify the risk level of their own facility on a pre-defined scale. The Interagency Security Council develops all the standards and protocols, the hardening requirements of each level facility, if you will. So this issue is deceptively complex.

Regardless of the risk level however, the best path is integrated design. For example, the Los Angeles Courthouse, now in design and construction on a highly urban site, has a series of walls, planters, and bollards. It’s the idiosyncratic deployment of those things, not in a singular, monolithic monotony that make it less pointed. That site was designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates and peer reviewed by Jennifer Guthrie, ASLA.

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Los Angeles Courthouse / SOM and Mia Lehrer + Associates

By contrast, at the federal campus down in Puerto Rico, where we have more real estate, we can explore more use of tactical topography and water courses as security devices.

Lastly, with colony collapse disorder, honey bees and other crucial pollinators are dying off in great numbers. They are being affected to such an extent that President Obama has issued a memorandum to use buildings and landscapes managed by GSA and other federal agencies to help these important insects. What is GSA specifically doing to help honey bees and other pollinators? How are you going to measure progress?

Pollinators contribute more than $25 billion in value to the American economy every year. Some 60 percent of pollinator populations have been significantly reduced, or have disappeared completely, in the United States, over the past 60 years. Some estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our food would not be available without pollination. Now, we put an economic value on these creatures, but, clearly, they’re irreplaceable.

GSA provides an enormous educational opportunity because we are responsible for office space for 1.2 million federal workers every day. Through our facilities, we have the ability to touch people’s daily lives about this issue while also providing an ecological service.

We’re interested in providing both habitat and foraging opportunities for pollinators; it’s in the realm of what can do through design as an agency. GSA is not one of the big land agencies. We’re not the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, or the Forestry Service, but many of our facilities occupy an important part of the built environment. If you follow Richard Foreman’s theory of land mosaics, our facilities can be considered critical stepping stones for pollinators to move from one site to another. Our urban and ex-urban landscapes are fragmented and we can do our part to improve the conditions for pollinators.

For design and construction, we have a facility standard that guides our process — essentially setting the minimum of what we’re trying to achieve across the board for design performance. Now we have a baseline standard for plant diversity that attempts to provide foraging opportunities for pollinators throughout the year and can be applied across the nation for projects of varying size. There may be exceptions because we’re writing a standard for Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Maine at the same time, but it gives us the opportunity to force an issue as critical as pollination up to the front in design considerations. We can ask our design teams to think critically about pollinators as it relates to a design and then allow a discussion to emerge.

GSA also worked closely with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, Smithsonian Gardens, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, and other federal partners on writing the new addendum to federal landscape guidelines to support the health of honeybees and other pollinators.

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Starry Night Bike Path, The Netherlands / Daan Roosegaarde

Future Forecasting: Landscape Architects Might Save the WorldArchitecture & Design Australia, 11/3/14
“I predict we’re going to hear a lot more from landscape architects in the coming years. There has long been a misunderstanding about what they actually do – ‘something about gardens’ being a common response.”

Minneapolis Picks Architecture Finalists for Stadium-Area Park Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, 11/6/14
“The city of Minneapolis named three finalist teams to design the two-block park near the new Vikings stadium. The three finalists are Olin Studio, Philadelphia and Snow Kreilich Architects, Hargreaves Associates and Damon Farber Associates, and WORKSHOP Ken Smith and Perkins + Will.”

Frick’s Plan for Expansion Faces Fight Over Loss of Garden The New York Times, 11/9/2014
“The Frick Collection’s plan to build a six-story addition, which destroys a garden design by landscape architect Russell Page, has met resistance. More than 2,000 critics have signed a petition organized by a consortium of preservation groups in protest of the expansion.”

In Urban Farming, a Different Taste of L.A. The Los Angeles Times, 11/12/14
“Instances of urban farming in Los Angeles have become increasingly common. From the roof of 120-year-old private clubs to local high schools, urban farming is proving its worth with gardens yielding up to $150,000 in produce annually.”

Daan Roosegaarde Opens Solar Powered Van Gogh Bike Path in the NetherlandsDesignBoom, 11/13/14
“Running 600 meters along the Brabant, the Netherlands site where Vincent Van Gogh lived from 1883 to 1885, dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has opened the ‘Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path’, comprising thousands of solar powered stones arranged in swirling compositions likened to the painter’s renowned ‘starry night.'”

SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, founded by Kate Orff, ASLA, has just received $100,000 from the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) for their “comprehensive climate change adaptation and community development project” called Living Breakwaters. This innovative project in Tottenville, at the southern tip of Staten Island, New York, will be first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture.” It has already been slated to receive $60 million in financing from the U.S. government, as it also won HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition. With the added support from BFI, Living Breakwaters is now considered one of the most promising systems-based designs for coastal resilience.

The BFI uses its annual challenge to highlight game-changing systems-based designs, that is approaches that can truly upset current modes of operating and lead to paradigm shifts. Last year’s winner, Ecovative, came up with a novel approach to packaging, inventing a new biodegradable form of Styrofoam made of mycelium and agricultural waste. According to BFI, Living Breakwaters takes a system-based approach as it combines “ecologically-engineered” oyster-tecture with education around coastal resilience, and a focus on the “restoration of livelihoods traditional to the community of Tottenville in Staten Island,” while also spurring regulatory changes.

Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green, a 2014 senior adviser and jury member, said what’s exciting about SCAPE’s project is that it’s about partnering with natural systems instead of fighting them. Furthermore, the project deals with seemingly separate ecological and social systems together as one. “It is on the one hand an engineering and infrastructure-related intervention, but it also has a unique biological function as well. The project team understand that you cannot keep back coastal flooding due to climate change, but you can ameliorate the force and impact of 100 and 500 year storm surges through ecological interventions while simultaneously catalyzing dialog to nurture future stewards of the built environment.”

The project will deploy “innovative, layered ecologically-engineered breakwaters;” strengthen biodiversity and coastal habitats through “reef streets”; nurture and resuscitate fisheries and historic livelihoods; and engage the community through new partnerships and educational programs meant to address the social side of sustainability.

Orff describes the concept in more detail: “Rather than cutting communities off from the water with a levee or wall, our approach embraces the water and its economic and recreational opportunities, using shallow water landscapes to stabilize the shore and rebuild diverse habitats. Sitting at the mouth of the New York Bight, Staten Island is particularly vulnerable to wave action and erosion. Our pilot project in Tottenville utilizes a layered system of breakwaters, constructed of ecologically engineered concrete, to attenuate wave action, create habitat for juvenile fish, and provide calm waters for recreation on the landward side. We have designed ‘reef street’ micro-pockets of habitat complexity to host finfish, shellfish, and lobsters, and hydrodynamically modeled the breakwater system at a macro scale to understand how and where they can most effectively protect communities. Structures called Water Hubs are located at critical points along the shore to serve as places of gathering for classes, orientation, kayak & equipment.”

And she articulates the potential systems impact of her thinking: “Our initial project aims to protect the South Shore of Staten Island but the concept, through site-specific study, could be replicable along much of the U.S. coastline.”

A new system may come at not a moment too soon. So much of our coastal ecosystems are under threat, with sea level rise, temperature changes, and the rise of nitrogen levels. Orff says our critical estuaries and bays could be at risk of “disappearing within decades, if not years.” Let’s all hope this experiment works — and can truly be replicated at reasonable cost.

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All James River Park images / Jared Green

Richmond, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon, may not seem to have much in common, except they both have rivers that cut through their cities. In the case of Portland, it’s the Willamette River, and in Richmond, it’s the James River. Portland has invested in a wonderful loop along its waterfront parks and bridges, which connects the east and west sides of the Willamette in a seamless experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. And, soon, Richmond will have a similarly transformational circuit along its 600-acre James River Park, created as part of its smart riverfront plan, which is destined to boost revitalization efforts in this newly resurgent city.

The city’s planning department has partnered with landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates, which is leading a team of designers and engineers, to make the vision of a more connected Richmond a reality. The first priority in the multi-year plan is the Brown’s Island Dam Walk, which will convert old dam infrastructure into a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the river, connecting the city’s downtown to Manchester right through some glorious urban wilds. It’s smart reuse of a charismatic piece of old infrastructure. And the impetus for getting new circuit done fast, in this most southern of cities? The UCI World Championship bike race, which will set off bikers in a 10 mile course throughout the city in 2015.

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The old dam once powered Richmond’s economy, explained Nathan Burrell, the superintendent of the James River Park, in a tour organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) as part of their What’s Out There weekend in Richmond. Energy from the river supported flour mills along the riverfront. “Richmond was known to have the best flour” in part because of how well ground it was. As the dam fell into disrepair and was further damaged by Hurricanes Agnes and Camille, we just see the bones of it today.

While the storms caused hundreds of millions in damage across Richmond, there may have been one benefit, said Burrell. These storms cleared out decades of accumulated industrial sludge that had sunk to the bottom as well as raw effluent that had been captured by the river. Nature, in combination with a 30 million gallon sewage containment tank built to deal with the city’s combined sewage overflows, had, in effect, restored the river to a healthier state. While there are still the occasional combined sewage overflows with heavy rains, the river is in much better shape than it was decades ago.

The day we visited, kayakers were enjoying the park’s rapids.

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Burrell said he even takes his family down to the park’s beaches so they can go snorkel and see the migrating fish, including giant sturgeons, return.

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The islands that dot the river are home to migratory birds. “We have spotted 35 different species of birds, including Blue Herons.” Burrell said older residents of the area still think of the river as a filthy place, but perceptions in the region have dramatically changed in the past few years. Now, just 40 percent of the 700,000 visitors who have come to the park since summer began are from the city.

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Efforts to clean up the river and further restore the ecosystem have gotten a boost from Richmond’s stormwater management tax. And the riverfront plan will further promote the use of green infrastructure, including wetlands, to deal with runoff from the city and improve water quality. As Burrell explained, the goal is to show the James River Park’s value as a “habitat, not just pseudo-wilderness.”

Indeed, as one moves across the novel pedestrian bridge hanging from an expressway and lands on Belle Isle, it’s easy to forget you are in a city. The 64-acre island feels increasingly isolated from the city as you move further in and also feels like a true nature park, an effect only enhanced by the appealing industrial ruins.

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David Johannas, an architect and planner on Richmond’s planning commission, told me that much of the riverfront plan came out of earlier hard work on the downtown master plan. “I feel that the downtown master plan was the real turning point in our perceptions of our city. Hundreds of residents were very active in the process, which began in 2007. The study area reached to the east just past the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood to the city docks, north to interstate 95, west to include Virginia Commonwealth University, and across the river to the Manchester district. Reaching across the James River to Manchester became a defining element of the plan, as it made the James River and its natural parkland Richmond’s Central Park.”

The dam bridge really is just the first piece of an ambitious plan to further integrate the city and nature and put the James River Park at the heart of that connection. Learn more at Richmond’s planning department.

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Teresa Galí-Izard / Leena Cho

Urban design competitions are opportunities to assert the value of landscape architecture while still creating a dialogue with other design professions. At a recent review of Barcelona’s Placa des les Glories Catalanes design competition, Teresa Galí-Izard, International ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia (UVA) and partner at Arquitectura Agronomia, explained why it’s important for landscape architects to take advantage of these competitions.

Galí-Izard believes landscape architects have an identity “crisis” and an urgent need to distinguish themselves from architects and planners. To make this point, she discussed the issue of landscape representation in photo-renderings and other promotional images in competition proposals. Too often, she noted, trees appear simply tacked onto sites, with no consideration for the conditions needed for them to fulfill their potential. This is a sign of a lack of involvement by landscape architects.

Landscape architects have a nuanced understanding of plants’ needs, as well as a deep awareness of the ground as a dynamic system. The profession has a unique ability to incorporate ecological and hydrological systems as major design elements. This knowledge is essential to the sustainability of a designed landscape. In urban design competitions, landscape architects then need to get involved and shape how a proposal is presented to clients and the public.

She also emphasized the need for landscape architects to be involved in designing briefs—that is, framing the problems—for the competitions in which they participate. Engagement at this early stage gives landscape architects greater influence in guiding the scope of large-scale urban projects.

The competition she reviewed is an effort by the Barcelona city government to revitalize a central plaza—the junction of three main avenues—and enhance its role as a ecological and cultural hub in the city. While she did submit a competition entry (“Tres Cartes”), Galí-Izard focused less on her particular proposal and more about the educational aspects of all the proposals.

The exhibit itself was provocatively presented: 10 design proposals were arranged around the gallery without attribution and visitors were asked to assess the work based on visual representation. After attendees had critiqued the proposals, Galí-Izard revealed the names of designers and background information on the entries.

Galí-Izard was frankly critical of her own proposal, explaining ways to improve and enliven the design and expressing regret for not having challenged the brief more extensively: “I feel so bad for not breaking the rules!”

Thinking through drawing, she quickly sketched revisions onto the presentation board, inserting buildings around the perimeter of the park, and proposed a mix of architecture and landscape for this central plaza.

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She showed a profound interest in her competitors’ proposals and their ideas and values. Her critical engagement with the other entries revealed an exemplary attitude toward the competition process: She understands the benefit of learning from peers and pushing her own practice and didn’t measure the merit of the experience solely in terms of winning.

For Galí-Izard, a good competition—like the Placa de les Glories Catalanes—should be grounded in real site constraints but still open to experimentation and creativity, a venue for extending the rigor and imagination of the university studio into the “real world” of contemporary practice.

This guest post by Julie Shapiro, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Virginia

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Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C. / Bethesda Now

In just four years, bike share has gone from being the fantasy of a few enthusiasts to a practical and low-cost way for tens of thousands of people in cities, both large and small, across the U.S. to get around. While some cities have created their own bike share systems, many have partnered with Alta Bicycle Share, a company based out of Portland, Oregon. Alta runs bike share systems in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Chattanooga, really inventing these systems as they go. Like many start-ups, Alta Bicycle Share has never turned a profit and has also gotten blasted in the press for hiccups in the roll-out of its services (see the ongoing complaints with CitiBike in NYC). But Alta Bicycle Share was recently acquired by outside investors, and Jay Walder, the former head of the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), will soon become the new CEO. According to Alta Bike Share founder Mia Birk, who spoke at Washington Ideas Forum, an event organized by The Atltantic and the Aspen Institute, this move is for the best, as “this new group can take us to the next level.” Birk said the acquisition signifies bike share is moving from niche into the mainstream, from being a start-up concept to a legitimate transportation option.

Birk, who is also the head of Alta Planning + Design, which plans and designs bicycle infrastructure, said bike share has been as transformational as any start-up in existence. “The numbers are phenomenal. To date, there have been an estimated 45 million miles traveled on bike share, ridden over 28 million trips.”

While major bike share systems like Washington, D.C. and NYC’s get all the press, Birk said there were actually 35 systems running in the U.S. Some smaller cities’ systems may just have a few hundred bikes. For example, Salt Lake City has GREENbike. Indianapolis has started its Indiana Pacer Bikeshare, and San Antonio, Texas, has also gotten on board.

Bicycling in general is up, even if safety remains a major concern. According to data from a recent Governor’s Highway Association study, bike use has increased 62 percent since 2000, but so have bike fatalities, with a 16 percent gain. Some 69 percent of those deaths have been in cities. Birk said “we’ve found that as bike use increases, there is also an increase in the raw number of crashes. However, the number of fatalities is very small, so even a few deaths can make the percentages go up.” Interestingly, some 80 percent of bicyclists killed are men, and 28 percent were shown to have been drinking. “People drinking on bikes are a real danger.”

On New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of zero transportation-related deaths, Birk said this is a worthy but “probably more aspirational than realistic. Can we really expect everyone to behave? No. We don’t have sovereign control over humanity.”

To add, Birk said we must differentiate between bicyclist and bike share user deaths. “In bike share world, there have been no fatalities.”

So what’s coming up for bike share? First, Birk sees further integration with other established transportation systems. Cities will roll out “one passes,” which will enable transit users to easily shift between subways, buses, car share and bike share. “The San Francisco Bay area may be the first out of the gate.”

Second, notoriously car-centric cities like Dallas and Atlanta will become more bike-friendly, at least in parts. “These cities may not become bike meccas, but there may be pockets that change the culture.” In Dallas, Birk and her team are working on a new trail system; In Atlanta, the goal is to bring bike share to the Beltline project. Even Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Walmart, is creating a pocket of bike share, probably because it’s a cheap way to get around. “It’s not just in Portland anymore.”

Lastly, bike share and bicycling in general will become even safer. Today, only 1 percent of Americans commute by bike. “These are usually male, lycra-clad adrenaline junkies.” Another 6 percent of the population, said Birk, are “enthusiastic, confident bicyclists who bike on weekends with their kids but feel it’s too dangerous to bike to work in traffic. They are concerned about safety and parking. They want a low stress network of bikeways, and better separation between cars and bicycles, like you find in the European Union.”

To get that 6 percent commuting everyday, Birk argued that U.S. cities need “dedicated bike signals, which are used in every European transit system.” These signals are crucial to improving safety and reducing the number of irresponsible bicyclists who fail to obey traffic signals and bike up on the sidewalks. “This is really what happens when you have very little bicycle infrastructure. People behave how they want.” As one Dutch traffic engineer told her, “bicyclists are like water, they will flow into wherever they want to go.”

So cities need to get moving on building out more bicycle infrastructure — to meet growing demand and improve safety, but equally as importantly, to reduce the growing backlash against “bullying” bicyclists. In D.C., tensions have risen to such an extent between drivers and bicyclists that we can read statements like these in The Washington Post op-eds: “It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.”

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Morel, Jean-Marie. La Théorie des Jardins (Paris 1776). Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Joseph Disponzio, ASLA, wants us landscape architects to know where we came from. His lecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, which honored Frederick Law Olmsted, shed new light on the origins of landscape architecture as well as the debate surrounding the field, which has lasted almost as long. Disponzio, preservation landscape architect for the New York City department of parks and recreation and director of the landscape design program at Columbia University, said what we recognize today as “landscape,” the modeling of land, really began with the garden. The transition from garden to landscape has everything to do with a shift in the understanding of nature in the 18th century.

Disponzio pulls up a slide with three interlocking circles: God, Nature, and Man. He points to the circle at the top of the triad that reads “Nature.” This, Disponzio tells us, is the “metaphysical lynchpin” that became autonomous in the Enlightenment. He identifies this as the moment the wall of Eden fell and a new space was created and, with that, a new way of modeling the land. Lockean empiricism replaced Cartesian rationalism. Nature got a sudden promotion. Leading up to the 18th century, nature had acted as the base of all philosophical inquiry. And then, rather suddenly, it became the subject of investigation in its own right. And its secular study led, of course, to the natural sciences, with substantial consequences for the practice of landscape design.

Throughout the lecture, special credit is given to the work of Jean-Marie Morel (1728 – 1810) for effectively replacing the art of gardening with the science of gardening, bringing it one step closer to the profession of landscape architecture as we know it today. Frederick Law Olmsted may be known to us as the first to call himself a professional landscape architect, but he borrowed the term from the hyphenated title architecte-paysagiste within Morel’s theoretical texts. Disponzio also points out the English term “landscape” is a new invention, but in 18th century France there was no clear distinction between paysage and jardin, neither scalar nor qualitative.

Morel published his text, La Théorie des Jardins, in 1776 alongside numerous essays and poems written by his French, English, and German colleagues. Together, the essays and treatises of Claude Henri Watelet, Henri Duchesne, Jean-Marie Morel and René de Girardin paved the way for a new landscape design tradition that would eventually become popularized as landscape architecture.

The rejection of the Cartesian understanding of nature in favor of a new Lockean tradition did not come without a few sacrifices. Pre-18th century designs, which were rife with formal devices and meanings, no longer suited the intellectual trends that emphasized the secularization of experience. These regular geometries, as it turns out, were also ill-suited for anything other than flat surfaces.

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The orthogonal geometry of pre 18th century gardens. André Le Nôtre, Vaux-le-Vicomte, 1661 / Wikipedia

An attitude of nature for nature’s sake then banished the projection of orthogonal geometry onto flat surfaces, à la le Nôtre. For the first time, an appreciation for natural topography emerged. Disponzio argued this “new, organic outlook on the world” yielded a new garden tradition, for in fact few knew what this new landscape should look like. While natural landforms proved problematic for orthogonal geometry, innovative responses to this dilemma eventually led to new ground within the field. Disponzio connects all of this with new research into the natural sciences: “It cannot be a coincidence, then, that the development of a new gardening tradition coincided with a new period of inquiry into nature.”

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The new genre of landscape design. Henry Hoare II, Stourhead, 1725 / Andrew Turner. The Landscape Garden Guide

A new design tradition grew out of this boldly new, scientific understanding of land form. While landscape, from the study of painting, had been understood to be convex, flat, and concave, now landscapes had geological and ecological complexity. Disponzio said, “in their most secular act, they took a look beyond the traditional garden wall and at a view rich in pleasure, utility, industry, and ruin.” In practice, that meant taking up a body of knowledge and technique in related fields, such as geography, geology, and engineering. Landscape built up a vocabulary of its own. Natural forms devoid of icons and associations promoted the idea that the landscape should speak for itself.

Land then came to be modeled with an entirely new agenda. Rather than impose rationalism onto the land mathematically, the landscape was to be read scientifically. The natural style synthesized all its elements into a cohesive whole,  reflecting the underlying curiosity about how a landscape is composed, formed, and structured. The focus shifted from visual order to an internal order, which may have been perceived as chaotic but was organized according to the laws of nature. Here, Disponzio discusses the rise of interdependent systems as an integral part of the practice of landscape architecture. We recognize familiar territory.

More than a hundred years after the first degree program within the field was established in this country at Harvard in 1900, the curriculum still reflects the methodology laid out in Morel’s 1776 Théorie des Jardins. Disponzio cites James Corner Field Operations and Hargreaves Associates as examples of contemporary practices that emphasize process-driven design. He also mentions the theory of landscape urbanism, the systems-driven approach to design, which is deeply embedded within the curriculum at the Graduate School of Design today. Even the recent research agendas of Jane Hutton and Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, come to the fore as instances in which iconic, designed landscapes such as those of Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Elliot, are investigated through the lenses of geology and geography.

Since the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which were built in the mid-17th century, we have been steadily broadening the scope of the profession by borrowing from neighboring disciplines and adopting new technologies in an effort to become true specialists of modeling the land. We are familiar with cartography, ecology, and urban design, along with ArcGIS, Google earth, software for digital drawing, 3D modeling, and even parametric design. The question as we move forward is: how often do we look back?

Although Disponzio ended his talk without asking the audience this question explicitly, he urged us to take one more look at that decisive moment in history that led to the complete abandonment of the Le Nôtre style. What fascinates Disponzio is this sharp turn elicited no regrets. It seems everyone accepted the challenge to the status quo, as though landscape architecture as it’s practiced today was inevitable. In the end, we landscape architects are left with a silent request to look at ourselves, today, with a new understanding of our origins. And with this long view behind us, one cannot help but also steal a shy glance into the future of the profession.

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

SteelStacks Art and Culutral Campus, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania / Urban Land Institue, Paul Warchol

SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania / Urban Land Institute, Paul Warchol

New Singapore Public Realm Project for Grant AssociatesHorticulture Week, 10/21/14
Grant Associates, an England based landscape architecture firm, has revealed its design for a new public realm project in Capitol Singapore. The project comprises three conservation buildings and features themed residential roof gardens and terraces.”

WRT’s Design for SteelStacks Awarded ULI Global Award for ExcellenceReuters, 10/23/14
Wallace Robert & Todd announced the Urban Land Institute has awarded the SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus its Global Awards for Excellence. Steelstacks is located on the former Bethlehem Steel plant, which closed in 1997.”

L.A. a Fertile Ground for Garden ApartmentsLos Angeles Times, 10/24/14
Landscape architects designed Los Angeles’ garden apartments to take advantage of the California landscape. To spotlight garden apartments, the L.A. conservancy is hosting daylong tours of three notable examples as some try to replace the apartments with higher-profit alternatives.”

This Clever Train Station Doubles as a Part of the LandscapeWired, 10/27/14
“The city of Vinge, Denmark will transform from a grassy field with a train station to a full-fledged town by 2033. The centerpiece of the small town’s urban plan is the train station that will subtly blur the line between built and natural environments.”

Thirty-three foot Slide and Tree House Coming to New Buffalo Bayou Nature Park Houston Chronicle, 10/28/14
The Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveiled plans for a 28,000-square-foot children’s nature park that includes a 33-foot slide and tri-level tree house overlooking the bayou. The park aims to open in time for summer 2015.”

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Janet Echelman / Todd Erikson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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She Changes, Porto, Portugal / Enrique Diaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pulse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / OLIN

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

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

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

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1.26, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / Janus Vanden Eijnden

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

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

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Every Beating Second, San Francisco Airport / Brute Damonte

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

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

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

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

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