Interview with Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. His firm recently won the international competition to redesign the grounds and surrounding urban landscape of the St. Louis Arch. He won the National Design Award in Environmental Design from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2003 and the Arthur W. Brunner Prize in architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2010. Van Valkenburgh was chairman of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1991-1996 and teaches the introductory class on the design use of plants. 

Your winning proposal for the St. Louis Gateway Arch landscape design competition is a vision of “ecological urbanism.” As opposed to preserving wilderness, which you say in the proposal is “neither possible nor feasible in city centers,” the park should instead function in harmony with natural ecologies. What is ecological urbanism? How does a visitor know they are in an ecologically urbanist place?

Let’s start by talking about the new buzz words of “ecological urbanism,” and “landscape urbanism,” which can be defined in many nuanced ways, but which are new terms for very old ideas in the field of landscape architecture. These terms are very important to what I like to call the emancipation of landscape architecture. To my mind landscape urbanism is primarily a question of understanding how we go about changing traditional (and formerly architect-directed) urbanism. Ecological urbanism is about city-making that focuses on the landscape elements and their continuity—it’s partly about nature-making in the city, but it is also an approach that adds the sensibility and techniques of ecology as a science to the making and remaking of cities. Similarly, landscape urbanism attempts to shift paradigms from object-based urban design to city-making. It seeks innovation within the interactions of urban systems, identifies opportunities in infrastructure, and sees landscape as much an organizing force as it sees it a distinct facet of the city.

So, rather than seeing the design disciplines as separate, both ecological and landscape urbanism realize a more powerful synthetic approach, more like an ecological methodology. To me, ecological urbanism is an approach that favors dynamic integration between natural and urban systems. In that sense, I would hope that it is not a question of aesthetic recognition alone that defines ecological urbanism but rather a record of measurable improvements in the effect that our cities have on the larger environment and vice versa. This is really a call to arms for rethinking the way we build human environments. This is a time when landscape architects should become leading players.

Aesthetics, of course, are significant in any discussion of urbanism; it is what makes a work of landscape architecture more than just good and distinguishes our work from the pure restoration ecology work that goes on without us. For instance, in UVA professor Elizabeth Meyer’s “Sustaining Beauty,” she points out the need for designers to bring positive ecological approaches to the forefront of our felt experiences, so that it becomes part of what we love in the landscape, not just something we put up with because it is good for us. It would be better if this constant striving for improvements and higher standards with respect to environmental health became so ingrained into our society that we could leave the qualifier “ecological” behind and this would simply be understood as the task of urban design as lead by landscape architects.
This focus on synthesis has led us to an office structure at MVVA that is less top down and more of a collaborative team. Although the leadership at MVVA includes myself and the other firm principals Matt Urbanski and Laura Solano, our 50+ talented coworkers are a heterogeneous set—with degrees from several different schools of landscape architecture, including Iowa State, UPenn, UVA, Cornell, OSU, Harvard, UConn, Penn State, LSU, Illinois, and several others. A good number of our MVVA office colleagues have undergraduate degrees in landscape architecture, but there are also others who have started in the fields of architecture, art, ecology, anthropology, and engineering. Some don’t even have landscape degrees! The hybridity we create through our office’s diverse disciplinary background is fundamental to our ability to lead complex projects in a dynamic and open-ended way.

Pier One, the first piece of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, just opened to acclaim in New York. The New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff said your design “engages all those aspects of contemporary life with a care and balance that make the park one of the most positive statements about our culture we’ve seen in years.” What statements do you think the park makes about American culture? 

Nicolai’s compliment is as much to the city of New York and Mayor Bloomberg, the state of New York, and the neighborhoods surrounding the park, as it is to our design — but it especially pays tribute to our client, Brooklyn Bridge Park, formerly the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, and its three presidents who have guided the park’s emergence over the last ten years.

As landscape architects, we aspire to create urban landscapes that become an integral and enriching part of daily life, places that inspire us and are socially rich rather than homogenizing. The goal of our work is to create parks that are intrinsically urban—not places to escape from the city, but places to escape within the city—the very idea is urban. This view is a fundamental paradigm shift from some of the anti-park sentiments of the 1980s, which posited rather ludicrously that we, as a society, had outgrown the need for parks. Whoever thought that either didn’t live in a real city or spent every weekend at a country house!

Pier One in Brooklyn Bridge Park is about a new kind of park-making—an act of transformation rather than preservation. The design metamorphosis of the Brooklyn waterfront cannot return anything to a preexisting state of nature, or even simply a pre-urban condition—three hundred years ago the whole of Brooklyn Bridge Park would have been out in the tidal edge of the East River. We are also challenged by land-use decisions of previous generations that we are unable to change, such as Robert Moses’ Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), which now noisily looms above Brooklyn Bridge Park’s east side. However, what we can do is use park programming, innovative marine engineering adaptations, and shifts of scale—plus a bold design—to bring the Brooklyn Bridge Park into a new balance with the colossal scale of the surrounding man-made: the BQE, the Brooklyn Bridge, the whole of lower Manhattan across the river, and of course the breathtaking sweep of New York Harbor.

This balance between nature and humanity is generated by the fundamental belief of my practice, which is to create places where people feel embraced, welcomed and comfortable, to make areas for landscape as program, and to always think of landscape as places of activities. The message of the Brooklyn Bridge Park design and the culture of American cities is that we are learning to be more inventive within a diverse set of constraints and more pluralistic in the way that all groups of people are afforded the kinds of park uses that are meaningful to them. This resourcefulness in defining new parklands has required that we at MVVA venture into unfamiliar territories and create designs that encompass engineering and material science, while integrating methods of ecological restoration and the metrics of brown field remediation. For us, it has been a two decade progression of making urban parks all over North America on sites that once would have been judged as either marginal or even impossible for a park landscape. Today, designers are left with the scraps of the city more often than not (abandoned piers, land that violently floods, interstitial leftovers next to roaring highways…the list goes on!), but there is a liberation that comes from these challenged places—and these project sites are some of the most challenging and the most exciting for us. 
Sustainability is a major feature of the new pier-based parks. How did the decision to reuse the old pier infrastructure as the basis of the new parks come about? What’s the history of using piers as parks?

Pier Infrastructure is just one of dozens of sustainable aspects of our firm’s recent designs in New York, Toronto, Chicago, St. Louis and elsewhere. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, the decision to reuse the piers was made only after we had investigated all the underlying metrics of the site, including the existing structural capabilities of the piers, the possible need for expensive structural repair, and what the tradeoff would be for using money for invisible infrastructure or for tangible park spaces. It quickly became clear that the best way to maximize the footprint of the park was to reuse the existing pier infrastructure as much as possible–often with some structural upgrades but not wholesale rebuilding of the piers. (Pier One is unique in that it is not pile supported pier deck, but rather sheet pile supported landfill). The rebuilding of marine edge structures can be expensive, but if we had torn down and rebuilt the piers—as was done at Hudson River Park in Manhattan—the likelihood was that we would have used the lion’s share of the budget in the first stage on infrastructure.

Having decided to keep the piers, we found that the site and the various piers were uneven in their structural capacity, so we made our initial broad-brush programming suggestions based on a pairing of structural economy with the weight of the landscape that was needed to accommodate the programs. We asked ourselves how we could get the most programmatic use out of every area of the park with the least possible expenditure. We placed lightweight things on piers and heavier things on firm ground.

There is a long urban history of piers becoming dedicated or ad hoc public spaces—frequently they were built as standard piers and have since been programmed with food concessions, games, rides, etc. These recreational piers demonstrated the success of the constructed waterfront as a powerful place and a social draw in its own right, not just a location for loading and unloading cargo. However, they weren’t necessarily addressing all of the programmatic needs that we generally associate with the word “park”. As landscape historian Ethan Carr recalls from his childhood growing up in the West Village of New York City, the West side piers were places of activities of all kinds long before Hudson River Park was planned and built.

Your master plan for the Brooklyn park system calls for creating “post-industrial nature” on the site, and establishing functioning ecosystems where there was once asphalt and warehouses. Part of this includes the new salt marsh that just opened. Did you accomplish all you planned to in reintroducing natural habitat? If not, what obstacles limited the vision

When discussing our introduction of nature to urban sites, we have to look not only at each new element, but also at how the ecosystem as a whole interacts with the other aspects of the park. At MVVA, we prefer designs that are more like collages of activity, seeking a mix of program and treating the ecological pieces as park program as well. In Brooklyn, we analyzed the condition of marine structural edges and where they were badly deteriorated we didn’t replace them per se, and in a sense they became part of our collage—using some of these areas as places of created nature or opportunities to allow water access for kayaking. The purpose of a park is to serve people by thinking of every bit of the parkland as fulfilling a user’s need—even quiet scenery should be recognized as satisfying a need; but these purposes can be achieved, or assembled spatially, in many different ways. Our vision of what constitutes a successful habitat restoration is different from what a restoration ecologist might aspire to. To that end, I’m pleased with the extent to which we have been able to introduce thus far with these new ecologies along the Brooklyn waterfront—and the salt marsh is one of the best moments in the whole design. A drop dead gorgeous urban moment with a field of piers registering the tide nearby and the Statue of Liberty far across the harbor…and last week I saw a great blue heron there!

The Wellesley campus valley you restored turned parking lots into wetlands. Toxic soils were lined and stored, creating new mounds that mimic the original landscape. What are the challenges involved in working with toxic soils if you are trying to create a natural habitat? 

The mounds are references of sorts to glacial formations, such as drumlins and eskers, which exist in the New England landscape, but are not at all a direct representation because there were never mounds in this wetland to begin with, nor do they have the formal configurations of the mounds native to this landscape. The placement, height, and slopes of our landforms serve an important programmatic purpose—to allow us to pile and contain the mildly contaminated soils—but we also chose to exaggerate topographic qualities that are already there as a means of creating a visual and spatial sequence as one walks throughout filtering marshes to the edge of Lake Waban. Through this exaggeration of naturalism, you can recognize that the mounds are human made, but this creates a sense of experiential drama that makes the place feel powerful while also belonging to where it is.
I suppose a comparison might be to painters who might take a certain signature element of their subject—for instance a beautiful woman’s long neck in the case of modernist Amedeo Modigliani—and call attention to it by overstating it a bit. We’ve been using the term “hyper-nature” for years now to describe this element in our work from the vegetal perspective, and the Alumnae Valley landforms definitely fall into this category as landscape forms and circumstances that seem both familiar and a bit uncanny at the same time. The ambiguity, we hope, is a part of the charm, just as the ice wall in Teardrop Park evokes the physical power of geology and plate tectonics without attempting to hide its origins as a constructed object.

When working with toxic soils, regardless of whether you are looking to recreate natural habitat, it is always a question of either containing or removing the toxicity. Almost none of the toxic soils were removed from Alumnae Valley. The mildly contaminated soils used to make the valley mounds were excavated as part of the construction of an underground garage nearby. Toxic soils always represent a huge challenge because of issues of responsibility and cost for handling and moving. Clearly you cannot ignore toxic soils, as they are likely polluting the groundwater. You also cannot (or should not) ship them away, because then you are merely relocating the problem. Yet, treating them onsite is a slow, arduous, and expensive process.
At Wellesley we adopted different measures for different aspects of the brown fields, each of which represented an aspect of the college’s desire to take responsibility for this particular part of their legacy. The overlapping areas of contamination required multiple remediation strategies, including isolating toxic soils and safely reusing them onsite and establishing a long term pumping system to draw out toxic matter that had settled in the site’s original peat layer. Although the soil pollution and stormwater treatment were separate issues, the landscape design addresses them simultaneously. Using soils from the excavations for the garage and the student center, the new landscape is elevated, on average, six feet higher than Lake Waban, allowing site runoff to bypass the worst of the soil contamination caused by the coal gasification plant while the pollutants are pumped out.

In some of your smaller projects, you’ve highlighted the textural qualities of simple natural materials, creating sustainable and meditative spaces. In “Small is Beautiful,” a landscape for an office for the fashion designer Elie Tahari, there are moss and black locust log planks. “Passage to the Lake” features simple concrete bridges and wooden log steps set within the landscape that also look fun to walk on. What’s the connection between sustainability and meditative spaces? 
We experience landscape through what we see and smell and feel. The sensual aspects of landscape are what I care most deeply about in our medium. Materiality is therefore crucial to my firm’s work; we design with specific materials in mind and we oversee the building of all of our projects in order to safeguard but also modify our original ideas about how things will feel in daily use. I cannot overstate the care we take to use materials to build landscape experience in subtle and unique ways. We are material geeks and we embrace our inner nerds when it comes to the elegant transformation of engineering to design. That being said, I believe the connection between sustainability and meditative spaces exists and is crucial. It is a belief that has been so fully absorbed in who we are that it colors our reactions to experience rather than generating a purely intuitive response to sustainable approaches. There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing that a landscape makes positive ecological contributions, and there is a richness to natural materials and native habitats that buzz with life, but it is also important to be sure that the design doesn’t foster a complacency that looks for nothing other than a beautifully stylized landscape.

To the degree that there can be a sense of intrinsic rightness about a place (it should feel inevitable and this idea is terribly important in our work), I think that it often as to do with the elegance of the solution, with “elegance” understood in the way that engineers or mathematicians use it, to indicate an ingenious simplicity. When we say that design continues through all phases of our work, we mean this specifically in terms of how the elegance of our work is materially realized all the way through construction phase decision-making, often with in-the-field adjustments during the building process that fine tune what we ultimately make and how it is experienced.

Throughout the realization of a project, some of the most important measures we take with respect to sustainability are not based in technology or material selection but instead have to do with looking for opportunities to be resourceful and allowing this to become an integral part of the felt experience of a place. I think that people can sense and appreciate this frugality when they see—and feel—our landscapes. People tell me that they like our projects even more once they have seen them in person.

Resourcefulness gets to the essence of what sustainability is all about. So it is really the means by which form, materiality, and larger aspirations can come together, hopefully in a way where people leave our landscapes feeling as though they have experienced something wonderful. Designed landscapes, whether big or small, are ultimately about making the everyday lives of all people richer, fuller, and healthier.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (2) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (3) Alex Maclean, (4) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (5) Alex Maclean, (6)  Small is Beautiful. ASLA Professional General Design Award, 2006 / Elizabeth Felicella 

An Alkaline River Courses Through Western Hungary

The Economist
writes that efforts to strengthen the walls of a 1,000 by 1,500-feet reservoir used to contain toxic sludge from a refinery run by MAL Zrt, a Hungarian aluminium company, have been succeeding. However, the walls, which have been supported by a hastily-added protective ring of rock and earth, could also give way at any point, unleashing a new spill on local communities.  To date, eight people have died in Devecser and Kolontar, two nearby villages hit hard by the toxic spill which unleashed some 35 million cubic feet of an alkaline mix. In addition, Zoltan Bakonyi, head of MAL Zrt, has been detained by police “on suspicion of endangering public safety, causing multiple deaths and damaging the environment.”

The European Union (EU) has just sent a team of toxicology and environmental experts, who will try to determine the “precise extent of the damage to arable land, rivers, and air quality,” says The Economist. The sludge is made up of by-products from the aluminium refinement process: 40-45 percent is made up of iron oxide or rust, which creates the red color, 10-15 percent consists of aluminium oxide, and another 10-15 percent is comprised of silicon oxide. Smaller amounts of calcium oxide, sodium oxide, and titanium dioxide are also present. Professor Paul Younger from the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability at Newcastle University told BBC News, that the main issue is the combination is “highly alkaline” and similar to products used to clean kitchens. “In cases of prolonged contact – it can ‘lift off the top layer of your skin’.”

Despite the work of nearly 4,000 rescue workers to contain the spill and mitigate its effects, there could be lingering environmental issues even when the sludge eventually gets cleaned up. The Economist says unseasonable heat could dry off the top layer of the sludge, leading the spill to evaporate into a toxic cloud. BBC News writes: “Some studies have linked the inhalation of titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide dust to cancer in animals, but it has not been proven in humans.” Also, many conservationists fear that the spill could find its way to the Danube river and underground aquifers and lead to long-term impacts on local water quality.

However, Dr. John Hoskins, a consultant toxicologist, says there isn’t much danger to the environment over the long-term. While the initial spill was dangerous, the area will be safe for people and wildlife if the spill area is totally scrubbed. He said: “It will be neutralised by nature, because of rain which will dilute it and because of the chances that it will come into contact with slightly acidic substances in soil… but that will take a little time.” Relief workers are also dumping huge amounts of gypsum and acetic acid into local, affected waterways to reduce their alkalinity and the threat of toxic waters reaching the Danube.

So far, MAL has offered $510 in compensation to each affected family, which has rightly caused outrage given many families will need to pack-up and move or completely rebuild their homes and yards. The Economist adds that state regulators may be to blame because cracks in reservoir walls were not spotted early on.

Read the article and see more images of the spill from the NASA Earth Observatory.

Also, see “Mine the Gap,” a recent report from the World Resource Institute (WRI), which “presents a preliminary framework that the financial community can use to assess water risk, including a series of questions for mining companies about their water use.” The idea is that investors and financial institutions should commission and review comprehensive analyses of water risks in mining sites before they invest. 

Image credit: (1) NASA Earth Observatory, (2) AP

Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport To Become Park

City officials in Berlin have announced the finalists in a landscape design competition for the historic Tempelhof Airport, writes Der Spiegel. Some 78 proposals were received for turning the abandoned airport, which once served as the lifeline to the city during the Berlin blockade, into a vast urban park. The six final proposals aim to turn the massive airfield, which closed in 2008, into a public space for all residents of Berlin.

Berlin’s planners decided that the designers must re-use the existing runways and other historical features, including the old but beatiful terminals. However, many of the finalists used the existing elements really as a jumping-off point for new landscape architecture elements like urban farming (including garden orchards and bee hives), new winding paths, or small hills.

Here’s a preview of the six final proposals:

Dresden-based Rehwaldt Landscape architects thinks the new park should be made up of “several concentric rings.”

GROSS.MAX of Edinburgh calls for new “fruit gardens and apiaries for bee hives in the inner city.”

Capatti Staubach design calls for the development of three zones: one will enable a range of activities “from strolling to sports,” another will provide a nature park, and the last will include edible plants.

Berlin design firm Topotek 1 wants to keep the airport largely the same, but add more trees and vegetation and create a low-impact path system. One new sector, though, will provide space for urban farming.

Another firm, Bbzl Böhm Benfer Zahiri, would also break the landscape into three distinct sectors.

BASE landscape architects, based in Paris, would allow locals “to vote on the most popular activities in the park — be it skateboarding, having a BBQ or walking a dog — and that the city then put money towards those things.”

The winning proposal will be announced in December 2010.

Read the article and see more images. 

Also, check out a New York Times article from 2008 on public debate over the future of the airfield and preservation of the buildings. There’s also a great slideshow of the closed buildings.

Image credits: (1) Agence-France Press, (2-7) Der Spiegel / (2) Rehwaldt Landscape architects, (3) GROSS.MAX, (4) Capatti Staubach, (5) Topotek 1, (6) Bbzl Böhm Benfer Zahiri, (7) BASE landscape architects.

Bing Thom’s Sensuous, Tactile Arena Stage

Architect Bing Thom’s new Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C. may be the pinnacle of biophilic design with its use of sensuous and tactile natural materials, access to sunlight, and natural ventilation systems. Biophilia, as defined by famed biologist E.O. Wilson, is “the innate emotional affiliation of human beings with other living organisms.” (see earlier post). When applied to buildings, biophilic design actually goes beyond functional environmental sustainability and harnesses natural elements to create wellbeing (see earlier post).  

The building makes a bold statement in its Southwest D.C. neighborhood, an area once ridden with crime but now coming back in part due to institutions like the Arena Stage. Managing director Edgar Dobie said theater companies “need to have a pioneering spirit” in order to help rebuild damaged communities. Arena Stage was the first desegregated theater group in the country and also had some of the first desegregated audiences. Now fifty years later, the new $135 million space, which took some ten years to finish, provides a “utopia” for the neighborhood, but its programs are still deeply connected with the local middle school and community groups. Local residents get discounted tickets.

By design, the community is physically connected in with the building. Arena Stage was comprised of two smaller theaters that looked away from each other along the D.C. waterfront. Instead of pulling them down to create something new, Thom placed a towering cantilevered roof over them that feels like a tree canopy, and added the new Kogod Cradle studio theater. The three theaters now face each other, creating “three jewels in a jewel box.” The interior space connecting them creates a rich public flow-through, which was designed to “create collisions” among the audience, actors, and administrative workers.

The interior promenade allows theatre-goers to recover from the “intense experience” of the live performances. “They can take a break during intermission by exploring the spaces,” said Thom. However, Molly Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage, instead thinks the new spaces actually reinforce the intensity of the performances. “The new building proclaims the sensuality of live theater.” She added that “theater should be sexy. It’s about the human body. So many buildings in D.C. are so square.”

Thom conveys the sensuality of live performance through the use of rich natural materials. The interior of the Kogod Cradle, with its undulating wood walls, feels like the inside of a forest.

The sense of being in a forest is also enhanced by a set of 44 to 55-feet-tall tree-like pillars throughout the building made of Parallam, an engineered wood product consisting of 95 percent recycled douglas fir and cedar wood chips. These pillars, while biophilic design elements in themselves, are there to hold up the massive glass walls — each bears 400,000 pounds of weight. 

A love of nature is found in these pillars, but also in smaller details like smooth wood hand rails and rough concrete walls that are fun to touch. Thom said: “These small elements are how the designer shakes hands with the visitors. The tactile element is very important. These are things people lose sight of in the computer age.” Thom’s wife’s rich carpets, which Smith said “bring the fire to the building and give it energy,” create another tactile element and include overlaid drawings of the building. Almost all of the new building is made up of recycled or reused materials.

The subtle landscape architecture, designed by Chris Phillips, ASLA, of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, helps integrate the building into the community — a number of access points enable easy entry and flow-through the public spaces in the interior. Trees on site were saved, said Thom, and a few oaks replanted. There are also plazas where outdoor studio work can occur. Unfortunately, though, one of the more ambitious landscape architecture ideas — to create a running river around the building to mirror the Washington Channel — was cut because $20 million needed to be removed from the budget.

Also, check out The Washington Post’s coverage of the building and learn more about Thom’s work.

Image credit: Nic Lehoux, courtesy Bing Thom Architects.

Edward Tufte: “Good Information Design Comes from Analytical Thinking”

Edward Tufte, the “Galileo of graphics” or “Leonardo of Data,” is continuing his series of day-long lectures on the basic tenets of information design, one of which is PowerPoint is authoritarian. Tufte is well-known for his beautifully-crafted books including: “Envisioning Information,” which he says is about “pictures of nouns” or maps and aerial photographs; “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” which is about “pictures of numbers” or how to depict data and statistics with integrity; and “Visual Explanation,” which is about “pictures as verbs” or the representation of causes and effects, process and dynamics. He is touring to ensure analytical thinking pervades all designed graphics, tables, charts, figures, and presentations, particularly those coming from the government and business worlds where, he argues, PowerPoint has done major damage to the presentation of information, with often deadly effects.

In one example, he points to NASA’s culture of “hierarchical, authoritarian” PowerPoint presentations, with their “relentless sequentiality” as particularly problematic. Tufte argues that PowerPoint’s “cognitive style” is unsuited to the presentation of the complex engineering data needed to make quick, life-or-death decisions. The 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster was in part due to the mix of dumbed-down PowerPoint slides and reports produced by Boeing for NASA, which “provided mixed readings of the threat to the spacecraft; the lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic.” In other words, NASA decision-makers didn’t have access to accurate presentations of the data, which could have led them to decide to hold-off on the launch.

Instead, graphic representations of data should be taken out of PowerPoint and included in brief hand-outs to show “causality thinking,” or the cause and effect in the data. Presentations should be “content-driven” (not format-driven), and void of “chart junk,” which just confuse readers. “Presentations should be 100 percent content — content comes first.” To create credible presentations that decision-makers can act on, graphics should include labels, linking lines, sources, lots of detail, and function like maps. “Maps have been around for 6,000 years. Detail clarifies.” Furthermore, it’s on the onus for the presenter to “provide reasons to believe the presentation.” (In fact, as the NASA case demonstrates, presenters also have a moral obligation to be very clear and accurate).

Enabling people to use their own cognitive style when reading and interacting with information is the best way to go. “This interactivity is the genuine form of personalization, it’s real personalization.” While some may think the graphic (above) leads to “information overload,” in reality, it’s bad design or clutter that causes those issues. Eyes, which are a powerful “information through-put,” can download about 20 MB of content per second. As a result, “content is what is intriguing” and presenters should “maximize content exploring and reasoning time.” High-resolution graphics are about “finding patterns. Virtually no design is visible.” Tufte say if lots of information can’t be processed via a graphic, it’s not because there’s too much content: “Fix your design, don’t blame your audience.”

Tufte said high-resolution graphics are especially needed now because the world is “rich, complex, multi-variate.” He added that “the world’s serious problems all have three variates.” In turn, presenters need to turn all this complicated and important information into “simple flatlands,” or take something three-dimensional and make it two-dimensional. Improving the resolution by bits of time or area is the way to do accomplish this. “Science is really all about improvements in resolution.”

The guru of information design guards against summarizing other’s information and data and potentially missing key arguments, but a few of his last points on presentations included:

1) Get good examples in the wild. “Copy, don’t create anew.” Look around for other excellent charts, graphics, presentations of data.
2) Find a good table format. Reports are usually about performance data. “Don’t use grids, but do use a decent typography.”
3) Create a powerful, interactive “supergraphic.” (see image above).
4) Use intellectual models that work — reports should read like reporting from The New York Times or Google News. The science journal Nature has “cutting-edge visualizations.” Any newspaper’s sports section is good model to use for the presentation of lots of data.
5) A story needs to be believable. “Don’t talk like an MBA.”

On Web design, he added that icons for Facebook, Twitter, etc are “not content,” but “administrative junk” that should be minimized. He pointed to the home page of The New York Times, which he said has “over 400 links” and gets millions of page views per day. Also, he added that 92 percent of any Web site should be content, leaving just 8 percent for navigation and “Web administrative tools.” For mobile design, he pointed to Apple’s iPhone, calling it a model of “content or user-centered design.” Lastly, if people must use PowerPoint, just “use it as an operating system only — no logos or boilerplate templates.”

Check out Tufte’s free online tutorials on a range of subjects as well as his books. Interestingly, Tufte is increasingly focused on land art and landscape design — his most recent book heads off in this direction. Also, see him live in New York City, Philadephia, San Francisco, and San Jose later this fall.

Image credits: (1) “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” Edward Tufte. (2) How to Look at Modern Art in America, Ad Reinhart /

Interview with Leni Schwendinger, Light Artist and Designer

Leni Schwendinger is a lighting artist and designer and owner of Leni Schwendinger Light Projects.

Recently, you’ve been giving guided evening tours of the light scapes of major cities. What are examples of well lit and poorly lit cities? What are some of the key things people seem to take away from these tours? What surprises people about the impact of good and bad urban lighting design?

I just did a light walk in Washington, D.C. In retrospect, I thought the lighting of the city was adequate but it wasn’t at all interesting. What we’re trying to understand better is who owns the lighting, who is responsible for the nighttime environment? Basically, it’s city agencies, sometimes utilities. The lighting system that we rely on and takes care of us at night is street lighting. It’s focused on the streets, but what about the sidewalks? What we learn from sidewalk lighting is that most is from storefront and private lighting — display windows and sconces on buildings and all the kinds of building-mounted lights that contribute to the sidewalk. That’s all very commercial.

The next layer, however, is quite unexpected. That is the layer that I call “found lighting.” Found lighting gives us animation, color, and surprise. The blinking lights of the ATM, Christmas lights, and billboards are contributing light but they weren’t really meant to light the sidewalks and the streets where we’re standing. It’s important to take a look at the textures of the night and light at night. Where does that come from and who owns it and who designs it?

People on the tours have begun to talk about them as a kind of treasure hunt. There’s a sense of adventure and sort of eye opening that happens on the tours. It’s important that people see a place where they’ve always been walking around at night and yet see it with new eyes. It’s an inspiring and enlivening relationship with the city that I’m happy to promote.

You’re a part of the Snohetta-led design team that will transform Times Square into a permanent pedestrian plaza.  You told The Architect’s Newspaper that it’s an opportunity to “redefine the role of light in the public space of Times Square for pedestrians.”  How do you see lighting as an opportunity to change the way people use Times Square, a place that gets upwards of 350,000 visitors every day?

I’ll restate my statement: we hope to redefine the role of light in the public space of Times Square for pedestrians. Times Square and the Great White Way, which is more Broadway and the theaters of Times Square, has a reputation for strolling. From the beginning of Times Square, there has been a legacy of social space and advertising. So, the rationale for Times Square has been continuous, but it’s also gotten overly-crowded. The differing objectives of cars and pedestrians has become rather adversarial. People want to stroll, look at windows, take their time, and take photographs. The impact of taking photographs in our larger American plazas is just extraordinary. People stand still and take photographs. You see so many cameras in the air. People hold them up and take pictures. That’s a whole new activity.

Lighting has been mandated in Times Square. We have a minimum foot candle requirement. This is written as a regulatory guideline. It’s quite unusual — cities usually have maximum foot candle levels. We want pedestrians to stay and hang out, have fun. I hope that lighting will change from its role of entertaining and selling to enabling more down the earth activities we have yet to define. What kind of games can we play with light? What kinds of conversation areas can we create simply by defining boundaries with light?

In another New York City project, you transformed the vehicular and pedestrian experience in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, a pretty dreadful place for commuters, with a powerfully engaging lighting design. How have pedestrians responded to the new design? Has the terminal tracked the changes in traffic to see if the new approach has been successful?

The Triple Bridge Gateway started with a really smart infrastructural funding model. I always like to mention this because I think it was so successful. There was a paving and snow melting system improvement planned. Port Authority asked the Community Board there what they’d like to do aesthetically because this area under the bus ramps was so dreadful, dark, and scary — really a divider between these two neighborhoods. So they folded an aesthetic improvement into the infrastructure budget and it was brilliantly conceived in that manner. We were responsible for the color palette and the lighting. For those who’ve seen the images, the lighting is all white light and the color palette is paint infused with white light. It becomes a kind of of surface of light. We’ve really turned the bus ramps, which were so foreboding, into a canvas of color.
Now the question about how have pedestrians responded and whether the approach been successful is really good. When a very experimental, innovative, and unexpected project approaches, you would hope that the agencies and owners would do a kind of post-completion phase, a survey of some sort. We do so many projects where we would love to have some kind of survey afterwards, but everyone involved is pretty exhausted by the end. This one took eight years to construct, and, so far, we haven’t had an opportunity to go out and do a survey and get feedback.

I can only tell you anecdotally about feedback. I led a tour around the area and I can tell you how they responded. There were architects, engineers, and administrators and they were just enthralled and excited to get a close-up look. It was interesting to see who had noticed the new Triple Bridge and who hadn’t. It’s amazing how people can cast a blind eye on a piece of infrastructure. A lot of people had never seen it before even though it’s right in Midtown Manhattan. It’s on the edge of the city but it’s pretty accessible. It’s on the way to Times Square. They all thought that it was really made for pedestrians, which is true. It’s really designed to help the pedestrian crossing from one neighborhood to the other via the largest bus terminal in the U.S. To your point, though, it would be great to have these kind of design projects taken seriously at the level of a pre- and post-survey to see what people’s responses are but as of yet that doesn’t happen.

For HtO, a new park in Toronto created out of a waterfront brownfield, you used lighting design to create a place people feel they can visit late into the evening. The parks dunes are lit and underwater illumination creates the sense that the park is floating.  How did you work with the park’s landscape architects, Claude Cormier and Janet Rosenberg, to make the park both exciting and accessible at night? How did you use lighting to tell the story of a sustainable urban redevelopment, transforming a brownfield into a vital urban space?

HtO has really worked out beautifully. It was fantastic working with two very good landscape architects. I think Claude took on the conceptual design role and Janet worked on executing the project. It was collaborative and fun. The idea of lighting the dunes as a kind of dramatic space was something that we came up with to enhance the topography of the park. In part, that’s why we have these colorful dunes. We also did something that was pretty daring — we used high-mast lighting, which is something that’s gaining more and more acceptability although it’s hard to sell to communities. High-mast lighting systems are typically 120 feet tall. You have a number of lights on it. The reason it’s useful is that you don’t have lots and lots lighting poles.

The high-mast lighting poles for the dunes create a threshold of light, a carpet of light, that gives us the base safety layer. We’re using them in Dallas and some other places, too. In Staten Island, we are using to reduce the number of penetrations into the ground and blockages of circulation. The less poles the better as far as I’m concerned, but then you also have a tradeoff in having something a bit over-sized and over-scaled. It takes a while to get the right scale and convince people. Early on in public lighting history, there were moonlight poles. In Austin, they use super-high moonlight poles and just use a few lights to cover a large area. I think it’s a good approach to save energy and keep technology out of the way of park users.

For Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall Kreilsheimer Promenade, you worked with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol to create illuminated metal mesh scrims that define and echo the entry architecture.  The light public artwork called “Dreaming in Color” turns the scrims into canvases for an orchestrated light performance.  How did you conceive of the piece? What design elements in the landscape or elsewhere in the site inspired you?

The McCaw Hall project was really a delight. I was called by a Public Art Commission in Seattle to apply to be a technical advisor. So we started already with a hybrid — calling an artist to be a technical advisor. The mandate was to advise LMN Architects on an idea they had, which was several vertical layers of mesh or perforated metal that would receive video projections. We did a feasibility study for this idea and everyone on the design team as well as the owner agreed that video wasn’t the best idea. They said, “Leni, we’d like to give a commission to create an artwork here.” That was great because we’d done so much research into the physical layout of these scrims and the passageway that connects a Seattle public street with the Seattle Center, this great landscape, fountain, and cultural space.

However, we knew there were a lot difficulties, especially around budget and maintenance. So we wanted to do some kind of a color project, because, budget-wise, we couldn’t do things that were very complex. I came back to the studio after some brainstorming and said “if only we could just use one light, just one perfect light for this project.” I often approach my projects that way: what is the one light we could use? Obviously, one light is the sun and the other is the moon but with electrical light, you generally have to use more than one light. We found a panoramic light that would cover a lot of area and ended up using two lights per scrim. Each scrim is about 30 feet by 50 feet. They’re made of Cascade Coil Drapery, a woven metal mesh.

It really was a true collaboration — the design team included architects, landscape architects, scenic designer (an opera designer who would work at the McCaw Hall), engineers, stakeholders, and owners. We all worked together and did presentations to each other in a brainstorming style. It was an exciting kind of mind meld. The owner wanted to bring a sense of  theatricality outdoors for all Seattle Center visitors, whether they were going to the opera or the ballet or not. One of my objectives is to make the meaning of the buildings and spaces understandable to the public. “Dreaming in Color” is really a stage set in a sense, but it’s immersive. The viewer and the visitor is immersed by color. In another sense, it’s a three dimensional color filled painting that the viewer walks within.

There’s been lots of discussion about how cities and communities can incentivize the use of public transit by integrating transit stations into communities. This involves creating walkable, bikeable transportation networks that can easily interconnect with public transit stations.  However, lighting is often left out of the conversation. How do you light smart growth? What are the most effective strategies?

When people think about cities and large developments, streetscapes, transit-oriented development (TOD), they’re generally thinking about the daytime. When you see a rendering, it’s generally a daytime view. My job is to remind people of the nighttime and say “look at this as a canvas of darkness.” We have the opportunity to define the nighttime environment to such a large extent because if the buildings and the spaces and the sidewalks were not lit, you wouldn’t see them at all. Lighting is such an atmospheric effect. It’s really the element or the atmosphere that brings texture and form to bear at night. Lighting design can be very powerful.

We think that lighting is a way-finding discipline. We can help people get from the subway to home. We think lighting is a communication form. We announce things, give the news, show a sign, communicate about places. Lighting can help us feel new feelings and generate new ways of understanding and identifying places. Light is also an identifying element.  Because of the strength of light, there are just a myriad of options that haven’t been explored.

We’re on the verge of a new lighting discipline, a melding of lighting and urban design, which I call public design. Public design is an exploration of environmental lighting design at night. One of the great options we’re now getting to use in the U.S. is lighting control, which allows us to really interact with light in a more direct way. We can brighten the street lights at certain hours, dim the street lights at other hours, and look at it as an economic development tool. We can decide Main Street will be brighter or dimmer at certain hours. Community groups can define what the right time is to make that light brighter and dimmer. That interaction with the communities is very important. Lighting and the communities that we are lighting should be connected in this way.

Lastly, conventional landscape lighting must be creating lots of CO2 emissions. How have you incorporated sustainable technology and materials into lighting systems to reduce the amount of energy used for lighting, as well as the amount of lighting needed overall?

This is the big controversy. There is a global dialogue about the standards of lighting in terms of brightness. There are also a lot of misconceptions about how to address sustainability. Many of the touted sustainable lighting solutions do not result in good lighting! Control systems are a good solution because they allow us to implement quality lighting design and save energy by simply turning lights off and on or diming them. We can have the best of both worlds: light when areas are active or when we feel that they might be dangerous or reduced light when we feel that the private lighting layer is sufficient. We can create guidelines for brighter private lighting scenarios and reduce public lighting, or the opposite, at varying points during the night. The control of lighting is one of our best tools for sustainability.

Who decides how much light is needed? There are Illumination Engineering Society (IES) guidelines. I’m telling you right now IES committees are debating how much light is needed for any particular city or any district. You’re going to find some people who say let’s bring the light down. I’m comfortable in dim light, it’s more sustainable, and we don’t need so much light. You can also find people in inner cities where you’re just building a park for the first time saying give me some light so I can play, give me more light, I want to recognize that person as they come toward me. It’s not an easy answer. We have to be concerned with CO2 emissions. We have to be concerned with energy use but we also have to add to our sustainable precepts the vital health of people congregating and using the city streets at night.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Kit Noble, (2) Port Authority Bus Terminal, New York City / Archphoto, (3)  Ht0 Park, Toronto, Canada / Archphoto, (4)  Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall Kreilsheimer Promenade / Archphoto

Patrick Dougherty’s Easy Rider

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, a Washington, D.C. museum and institute affiliated with Harvard University, installed “Easy Rider,” a new contemporary art project from land artist Patrick Dougherty, in its extensive gardens. The maple sapling sculpture was created over three weeks with a team of volunteers. According to Dumbarton Oaks, Easy Rider “is particularly evocative of the organic or rustic architecture that was a feature of 18th century garden arbors, pavilions, and furnishings, especially in England.” 

Arriving at Easy Rider, one first feels it’s appropriate for the Halloween season — it’s gothic, something from a Tim Burton film. Once you enter the conical structures (what Dougherty calls “running forms”) and are completely surrounded by the sculpture’s interwoven saplings and leaves and mulch floors, the experience becomes richer. It’s becomes an immersion in nature. The way the sculptures are set up also enables play. You discover there are windows and doorways in the structures that allows you to jump between the conical shapes. 

The artist combines a hands-on approach using his capentry skills with a love for nature, creating sculptures that have grown in scale over the years. Dumbarton Oaks says: “Beginning about 1980 with small works fashioned in his backyard, he quickly moved from single pieces on conventional pedestals to monumental site-specific installations that require sticks by the truckload. To date, he has built over two hundred such massive sculptures all over the world.”

Easy Rider will be on view through the spring of 2011 in the Ellipse garden, which was originally designed by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand during the 1920s. Docent-led tours of the Gardens are offered to the public Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday at 2:10pm. Private group tours of the Museum and Gardens are available by advance arrangement.

Learn more about Dougherty’s work and check out a new book on his sculptures, “Stickwork,” by Princeton Architectural Press.

Image credits: (1) Walter Howell / Dumbarton Oaks, (2) Patrick Dougherty