Documenting Beijing’s Real and Imagined Urban Landscape

Architect and artist Li Han from Atelier 11 | China documents China’s rapid urbanization in intricate, elegant renderings, part architectural drawing, part anime still. According to Alison Furuto at ArchDaily, Li presents the “spontaneous interaction between the urban environment and human activities.” The drawings not only document current conditions but also offer bold environmental visions for neighborhoods in China’s capital. 

Two of Beijing’s metro lines connect at Xi Zhi Men metro station (see image above). “The endlessness, crowdedness, and chaos shown in this one of the busiest spots in Beijing make the place a typical example of how people’s daily life and the urban space exert influence on each other.”  Here, Li isolates the busy transfer route within the station, visualizing the complex path.

In his drawing of Xi Ba He, which is described as a “a typical Beijing-style residential community built in the 1990s,” a neighborhood is transformed into an “environmental zoo,” a “paradise for animals and a city for human at the same time, without the fence between animals and human in the regular zoos.” Furuto says the drawing depicts a “beautiful fairytale,” but stories still matter: “As commented by architect Wang Xin, ‘(story) is always a long-term fulcrum for a city…is a invisible city structure…With stories, we will see life.'”

San Li Tun, the street where locals and expats meet in bars and restaurants and shop at high-end stores, is an example of a part of the city that has lost its “approachable and authentic Beijing-style atmosphere.” Now the area is a mix of local and global, a new kind of Beijing. Zooming in on building No.42 in South San Li Tun, Li sees a “6-floor apartment building constructed in 1980s and the apartments on the first and second floors are all transformed into bars, restaurants, DVD stores, tattoo stores, adult shops, and fashion boutiques.”

On the drawing itself, Furuto writes: “What this piece cares about is how the whole space is used and its atmosphere, and the interaction between the city and its inhabitants. The size recorded in the final piece may not be accurate, but the scale and atmosphere are very precise. A mechanical way for presentation – explosive axonometric projection – is used in this piece to depict the urban phenomenon.”

For 798, the art district in Beijing, Li and Atelier 11 created a drawing that shows not only the architecture but the roads, greenery, infrastructure, along with the “furniture, mechanical equipments, plantations, billboards, displays, and even tableware in the restaurants.” Li overwhelms with detail, but in doing so shows the “complexity and diversity” of the district, and perhaps all urban landscapes.

Read the article and see more of Li’s drawings.

Image credits: Li Han copyright / ArchDaily

The Rediscovery of Wonder

In a recent TED talk about taking imagination seriously, Janet Echelman, creator of billowing, voluptuous fabric installations the size of buildings, described the unexpected trajectory of her fascinating career. Echelman’s work has evolved from large-scale fishnet sculptures created from traditional craft methods to engineered installations designed with software and made from high-tech materials. This is an unlikely occupation for Echelman who did not train as an engineer, architect, or sculptor.

Fourteen years ago, Echelman was a painter traveling in India on a Fulbright. At that time, she had been pursuing painting independently after applying to and receiving rejections from seven art schools. She planned to exhibit a series of paintings in India but her paints never arrived. She tried to switch to bronze casting instead but found the process too expensive and the results too heavy. Unsure of how to proceed, Echelman took what became a fortuitous walk along the beach that took her career in a new direction.

While walking on the beach, Echelman noticed the local fisherman bundling their nets into mounds on the sand. Though she had passed by the same scene numerous times before, she suddenly saw it with fresh eyes as a potential new approach to sculpture, “a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.” She began collaborating with the fisherman, learning their techniques and creating her own variations, fashioning the fishnets into large sculptural pieces. She hoisted her first work, a self-portrait humorously titled “Wide Hips,” on poles to be photographed and found the result “mesmerizing”: “It revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns.”

Echelman continued studying craft traditions and collaborating with artisans. She began working with lacemakers in Lithuania, appreciating the result of the fine detail in her work but also came to realize that she wanted to make larger pieces. Rather than creating an object to look at, Echelman wanted to make something more experiential, “something you could get lost in.” She returned to India where she again worked with fisherman, this time to create a net of 1.5 million hand-tied knots. The sculpture was temporary installed in Madrid where one of the thousands of people who saw it was urbanist Manual de Sola-Morales, who at the time was redesigning the waterfront in Porto, Portugal. He asked Echelman to create a permanent installation in a traffic circle in Porto. Though Echelman had doubts that she could create something durable, engineered, and permanent that would express her work’s idiosyncratic, delicate, and ephemeral qualities, she nevertheless accepted the challenge.

The Porto installation took three years to complete. Echelman spent two years searching for a fiber that could survive ultraviolet rays, salt air, and pollution, and was soft enough to move fluidly in the wind but strong enough to survive a hurricane. In an effort to give the form a precise shape that would allow for gentle movement, she sought the help of Peter Heppel, an aeronautical engineer who designed sails for the America’s Cup Racing Yachts. Since a hand-tied net would not survive a hurricane, she also worked with an industrial fishnet factory where she learned how to create lace from their machines. Lastly, in order to support the net, she had a 45,000 pound steel ring erected in the traffic circle. When the 50,000 square foot lace net was finally installed, it gave Porto a sense of place, and though it was a permanent, engineered piece, Echelman felt her aesthetic was not lost in translation. Standing under the net, she said she felt sheltered but also connected to the limitless sky, and the moment was life altering. She decided she wanted to “create an oasis of sculptures in spaces of cities around the world.”

Echelman has gone on to create installations in several other cities, including one for the Biennial of the Americas in Denver, where she determined a new soft structural method that would enable her to model and build structures at the scale of skyscrapers. The Biennial committee commissioned Echelman to create something that would “represent the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere and their interconnectedness.” Echelman had read about the earthquake in Chile and the tsunami that rippled across the entire Pacific Ocean. She was fascinated by the fact that the event shifted the earth’s tectonic plates, sped up the planet’s rotation, and shortened the length of the day. She obtained data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and translated it into a sculpture entitled 1.26 for the number of microseconds the day was shortened. Since the sculpture’s shape was too complex to support with a steel ring, Echelman replaced the metal infrastructure with a soft, fine mesh of fiber fifteen times stronger than steel. The result was a sculpture that was entirely soft and light enough to tie in into buildings, literally becoming part of the city fabric.

As a result of this piece, Echelman has decided that she wants to “create voluptuous, billowing forms at the scale of buildings” in cities around the world, especially in places she feels need them the most. She is also exploring new methods for other installations, including one for the Historic Philadelphia City Hall where she wants to create something lighter than netting to compliment the building’s architecture. Instead of working with lace, she has been experimenting with tiny atomized particles of water to create a dry mist that could be shaped by wind and that people could interact with and move through without getting wet. Using this capability, she wants to trace the paths of subway trains above ground in real time, revealing an “X-ray” of the city’s circulatory system.

In the meantime, Echelman says her artistic horizons continue to grow. Recently a friend called to tell her that an attorney in Phoenix who had never had an interest in art and had never visited the local art museum asked everyone in the office to go outside and lie under one of Echelman’s sculptures. They all lay out there together in their business suits sharing a feeling Echelman knows well, “the rediscovery of wonder.”

Explore Echelman’s work.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern

New Forms of Public Space: Parkmobiles

With the exception of maybe New York and Philadelphia, San Francisco may be the most innovative city in the U.S. when it comes to creating new forms of public space. In contrast with those east coast cities, though, San Francisco is also remodelling its public space at very low cost, with lots of support from its local business community. Its parklet models, which took shape with the help of local community groups and businesses, are already proving so successful it’s possible other cities will be copying them soon (see earlier post). One new element in its low-cost, yet effective pop-up park repertoire: the parkmobile, which John King at The San Francisco Chronicle defines as “portable landscapes.”  

King say the parkmobiles at $6,000 each represent the city’s “most ambitious effort yet to improve the large, urban landscape in small, fluid ways.” Found in red steel bins 6 feet wide by 16 feet long, which kind of look like painted dumpsters, these parkmobiles are “intended as a shot of mobile nature offering passers-by visual relief from asphalt and concrete.” In the first project, six parkmobiles will be set around Yerba Buena Gardens, each with its own “horticultural theme.” CMG Landscape Architecture, the firm behind the new Mint Plaza, which won an E.P.A. Smart Growth award this year (see earlier post), designed the installations. Calder Gillin at CMG told King: “We want each one to be showy and eye-catching, but also easy to maintain.” 

The dumpster park idea came out of an eight-month planning process led by the local benefit district, which is financed by nearby property owners, and included neighborhood residents and businesses and CMG acting as the design team. The result: a 10-year blueprint that is meant to serve as a “a vision and road map for a next generation of public space in the Yerba Buena District.” The new plan also calls for a new dog run, widening some sidewalks, and creating new “shared streets” where pedestrians can more easily walk during business hours, among other projects. King worries about some aspects of the overall urban revitalization plan and also notes that the neighborhood, one of the nicest in the city, is already doing pretty well in comparison with some other areas that could use some investment.

King reports that the parkmobiles will stay in a space for a few weeks or months and then be moved to another spot. The space inside the parkmobile will be “off-limits” but there will be benches so people can sit and look at the greenery. Two set on Mission Street featured different plantings: One includes arbutus trees and cotoneaster shrubs, while the other has Tasmanian tree ferns. Some are parked in tow-away zones so can’t stay for very long. “The hope is that the bucolic bins will draw people onto blocks that otherwise get little foot traffic – and that the design and vegetation will survive the moves and the crowds.” Gillen also added that the plants were chosen for their ability to survive in the urban jungle.

Image credit: Parkmobile / Michelle Terris. The San Francisco Chronicle

The High Line Upside Down

Like the High Line Park in Chelsea, a new esplanade along New York City’s East River smartly reuses transportation infrastructure. However, instead of taking shape on top of existing rail infrastructure, this new promenade on the water follows a path directly underneath and along side the F.D.R. Drive. The Architect’s Newspaper calls this the “flipside” of the High Line. Amanda Burden, NYC’s Planning Commissioner, explained the logic of leveraging the highway infrastructure: “Embracing the FDR seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t so obvious then. It provides important shade and it’s an organizing principle for all of the programming.”

The two block esplanade, designed by landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, and SHoP Architects, runs from Pier 11 at Wall Street to Pier 15 at South Street Seaport. This section is only a preview: It will ultimately head up to Pier 35, north of the Manhattan Bridge, making its total length about twice as long as the High Line Park’s current one-mile length. The Architect’s Newspaper says the park is part of a broader $165 million project by the NYC government to connect the promenades and bike paths of the west side to the “heavily trafficked spaghetti” of the east (see earlier post), and also link up with the bold new Pier 35 “eco-park” also designed by SHoP Architects.

The park has its own “signature designs,” but, more importantly, is designed to engage all types of people. The esplanade features chaise lounges, game tables, and riverfront benches. “At Burden’s insistence, seating is arranged in multiple groups of two or four, around chess tables, and, for the more harried New Yorker, alone.”  Clear sightlines enable visitors to see the river unobstructed: On top of the level park surface, a set of barstools sit against rails, providing an “unimpeded perch.” These railings double as tabletops, which Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, seems to love: “The waterfront railing is itself a wonderful piece of design. Its steel grating leans outward, pulling you toward the water; atop the steel is a broad, flat wooden surface, wide enough to lean on. In front of the high stools it gets wider still, so you can use it as a desk. If you feel like taking your laptop out of the house, it beats Starbucks any day.”

Just to note: Unfortunately, all those railings and bench slats are made of a rainforest hardwood called ipe, which can’t be harvested sustainably given they grow very sparsely. According to Wikipedia, New York City’s parks department has used ipe in its riverfront parks since the late 1960s, largely because, as a natural hardwood, it lasts up 25 years. There are adverse effects though: “Large areas of forest must be searched and cut down to create paths to harvest and fill orders for boardwalks and, to a lesser extent, homeowner decks.” While FSC-certified ipe is now available, there are far easier ways to harvest more sustainable domestic natural hardwoods like black locust.

Ken Smith, who’s work often includes vibrant pop-art elements, uses “multi-hued grey hexagon pavers riffing on a highly pixilated photo of the water.” There’s also a series of planting beds made up entirely of native coastal plants. He told The Architect’s Newspaper: “There’s an emphasis on native plants, while the modulated seating and dunes create a meandering walkway.” The overall effect is several berms that function as “seat walls” made of sculpted concrete, but are also edged in stainless steel to enable skateboards to use and not destroy. 

Also, a new dog run, which has a huge bone, tree stump, and “bear-sized squirrel,” and are all constructed of concrete, was viewed very favorably by Goldberger, who calls it “the city’s most imaginative dog run, a kind of modernist adventure park for dogs.” 

Additional features include “Get-Downs,” which are stairways that look like widened bleachers, and enable visitors to move towards the river itself and splash around (if the water toxicity levels are low that day).  

Overall, Goldberger had some very positive comments about this new public space: “If it is possible for something to be sleek, gritty, and urban at the same time, that’s what the East River Waterfront Esplanade is. Some of it is directly under the highway structure, to which has been added a new girder painted a pale purple and lit at night, a horizontal strip of light. If the elevated highway isn’t quite the pergola that Amanda Burden, the chairman of the City Planning Commission, wants it to feel like, in its spiffed-up state with café tables and other seating it is surprisingly welcoming, and a lot more tranquil than you would expect.”

Final phases running from Broad Street to Old Slip and from Pike and Allen Streets up to Pier 35 will be completed by 2013.

Learn more about the new esplanade.

Also, check out a new Google Sketchup animation that explores how to use transportation infrastructure to create public spaces.

Image credits: (1) East River Esplanade. Peter Mauss / ESTO, (2) Bar stools. AN/Stoelker, (3) Bar stools. Maria Lokke / The New Yorker, (4) Edged Berm. AN/Stoelker, (5) Dog park. AN/Stoelker, (6) Chaise Lounge. Maria Lokke / The New Yorker.  

Updated Guide: Healthy and Livable Communities

The prevalence of low-density, automobile-dependent communities has resulted in unsustainable lifestyles that increasingly threaten human health and well-being. In addition to inflating housing and transportation costs and increasing carbon emissions, disconnected communities reliant on cars create sedentary lifestyles. The lack of access to environments that encourage daily exercise, provide clean air and water, and offer affordable services and nutritious food has meant growing epidemics of depression, obesity, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.

Working with landscape architects, communities can promote human health and well-being by encouraging the development of environments that offer rich social, economic, and environmental benefits. Healthy, livable communities all improve the welfare and well-being of people by expanding the range of affordable transportation, employment, and housing choices through “Live, Work, Play” developments; incorporating physical activity into components of daily life; preserving and enhancing valuable natural resources; providing access to affordable, nutritious, and locally produced foods distributed for less cost; and creating a unique sense of community and place.

Landscape architects help communities maximize opportunities for daily exercise like walking and biking. Landscape architects encourage communities to move towards compact, transit-oriented land-uses by designing Complete Streets and other transportation networks that connect mixed-use developments, neighborhood schools, and a range of affordable housing choices. They assist communities in developing healthy green buildings and open spaces that promote efficient water and energy use and provide substantial amounts of vegetation to clean air and cool temperatures. In doing so, these communities can avoid the expensive health epidemics associated with automobile dependence, sedentary lifestyles, along with the high costs to the environment brought by dysfunctional patterns of living.

In a completely revamped Healthy and Livable Communities guide, which is part of ASLA’s series of sustainable design guides and toolkits, there are hundreds of vetted Web sites, research studies, and projects to explore in the following areas:

  • Public Health & Community Design
  • Affordability
  • Low-Carbon Land Use
  • Placemaking

Go to Healthy and Livable Communities and check out other guides in the series.

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award. Rooftop Haven for Urban Agriculture, Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago, Illinois. Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects.

An Elegant Frame for Rodin’s Masterpieces

OLIN, a leading landscape architecture and urban design firm, has rejuvenated the garden landscape of the jewel-box Rodin Museum, which is found on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. The $5.5 million site refresh was designed to “enhance and amplify” the original 1929 designs of the garden by French architects Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber, but is also part of a bigger project to “re-imagine and renew” the entire Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the central “artery” for the arts in the city, and connect with the Philadelphia Museum of Art master plan.

One highlight of the re-opened outdoor museum: the return of the great French sculptor’s The Burghers of Calais to the outdoors after more than 50 years of being locked inside. The sculpture was moved from within the sculpture gallery to a new spot in the east garden. In addition, two life-sized bronzes, The Age of Bronze, and Eve are now back in the museum’s facade. Adam and The Shade will find new homes in the garden. These five works, along with The Thinker at the Parkway entrance and The Gates of Hell at the doorway to the museum, means the site once again serves as a elegant frame for Rodin’s figures. 

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the landscape had a number of issues caused in part by the deterioration of the parkway, but they were solved by OLIN’s careful interventions. “The landscape surrounding the Rodin grew so thick with hedges and underbrush that the pavilion was almost hidden behind a scrim of green. OLIN’s landscape architects devoted much of their efforts to clearing away the growth to reveal forgotten views of the diminutive museum and its free-standing stone gate, a replica of the one at Rodin’s 18th-century country estate.”

While keeping to Cret and Gréber’s formality, OLIN added new plantings and made “practical improvements” but largely focused on ensuring the site’s flow. Susan Weiler, FASLA, a partner at OLIN, said: “The garden’s parterres allow the eye to register the symmetry of the courtyard and the significant changes in elevation in the garden, allowing visitors to easily take in its many elements.” She added: “As we were designing the garden, we didn’t see it as divided into sections. It’s all about movement through the entire space: up the stairs, through the gate, into the courtyard, up to the museum. Visitors can take in everything from the east and west gardens to the stairs to the parapet.”


In the interior courtyard garden, the landscape architects created a “formal perennial garden” that will change in color and texture thoughout the seasons. Also, the team repaired the walls, stairs, and paving; planted trees, shrubs, and perennials; removed a few shrubs; added a new irrigation system; and create new lighting schemes. The Philadelphia Inquirer writes that OLIN removed “the fusty pillows of boxwood that dominated the planted borders. The beds now tumble with lavender, yarrow, and thyme.”

Here are a few close-ups of the new plantings.

Outside the garden, lawns were restored, new trees and groundcover were planted, along wth new pedestrian circulation routes (including stairs, curbs, pathways, and a drive to improve accessibility). Outer areas also feature the native plantings Cret and Gréber used, under a canopy of trees. 

Still, more work needs to be done. While 80 years of grime were removed from the exterior limestone, the indoor parts of the sculpture gallery will close in September for a three-month renovation, which means some more Rodins may also move outside. 

The Rodin Museum, a must-see in Philly, is next to the Barnes Museum and near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Image credits: OLIN

From One Crisis to the Next: Congress Must Pass a Transportation Bill for All Users

As Congress wraps up its work on a debt ceiling deal that will avert a world-wide financial catastrophe, another crisis is looming down the road – literally. In less than 60 days, our nation’s surface transportation law will expire on September 30th, leaving the country’s highways, roads, streets, bridges and other infrastructure vulnerable. Today, our infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of repair, congestion is clogging our transportation arteries, impeding commerce and economic development, and families are incurring major costs to travel to and from daily destinations. Congress must take action to pass a comprehensive transportation bill that will not only repair our current infrastructure and better expedite the movement of goods and services but also meet the current demands of American households.

Congress passed the last omnibus transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, in 2005 and has “kicked the can” down the proverbial street by merely extending the measure multiple times since its first expiration in 2009. But now Congress’ dawdling on the issue is accruing a significant price tag for the nation. A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that “the cost of failing to invest more in the nation’s roads and bridges would total $3.1 trillion in lost GDP growth by 2020. For workers, the toll of investing only at current levels would be equally daunting: 877,000 jobs would also be lost.” Already, the report found, that “deficient and deteriorating surface transportation cost us $130 billion in 2010.”

More importantly, individual households are feeling the economic pinch from the lack of a comprehensive transportation policy that fits the needs of today’s American family. Currently, many Americans are forced to take costly automobile trips for all their daily activities, including routine activities less than one mile from home. Schoolchildren cannot safely walk or bicycle to and from school and instead must rely on lengthy school bus trips that many school districts can no longer afford. Now, more than ever, Americans are clamoring to get out of their cars and have more transportation options than the car-centric approach first envisioned and deployed in the 1950s is providing. Recent studies have shown that an increased number of communities want nearby bicycle and pedestrian paths not only for recreational opportunities, but also to provide accessible networks to transit, shopping, school, work, and other daily routines. Not only will this save individuals and families thousands of dollars in transportation costs each year, it will also increase the value of their homes and other nearby real estate, and attract economic development. 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently surveyed its members about transportation infrastructure priorities, revealing that 75 percent of the polled mayors would support an increase in the gas tax if a greater share of the funding were invested in bicycle and pedestrian projects. These mayors went on to disclose that the lack of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects was the biggest challenge to using transportation as part of their communities’ broader strategies to reduce congestion, improve livability, and increase economic competitiveness. 

Further, with the nation’s unemployment rate still hovering at nine percent, the impact of bicycle and pedestrian projects on job creation must be underscored. According to a recent Political Economy Research Institute study, bicycle and pedestrian projects create about 11.4 jobs for every one million dollars spent compared to 7.8 jobs created through road projects.

The federal Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, first established in 1992 as part of the surface transportation law known as ISTEA, is the major source of dedicated federal funding to create bicycle and pedestrian projects. Given the needs of today’s communities, a robust TE program must be a critical component of any comprehensive surface transportation bill. Since its inception, the TE program has provided communities across the country with dedicated funding to design and construct bicycle and pedestrian projects.  But clearly more is needed. The TE program is oversubscribed in many states, with requests about three times the available funds. Moreover, the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking reported that bicycling and walking make up 12 percent of all trips made in the United States, but receive less than 2 percent of federal funding.

Recently, both the House and Senate unveiled blueprints for a new transportation policy. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica’s (FL) proposal is a six-year bill with a 35 percent across-the-board cut to existing transportation programs and the elimination of dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs, including the successful Transportation Enhancement program. Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (CA) released an outline of her bipartisan Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), a two-year reauthorization that would consolidate several core transportation programs, leaving the fate of TE unclear.

When Congress returns from its recess in September, it must immediately return to “crisis mode” and focus its attention on crafting a well-balanced surface transportation policy that can repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and meet the present-day needs of the citizenry, all while spurring economic development and creating much-needed jobs. A final bill must include policies and programs that promote the efficient movement of cars and other motor vehicles, invest in transit, and strengthen our bicycle and pedestrian networks. Continuing the Transportation Enhancements program will go a long way in achieving these and other national transportation goals.

Now is the time to contact your legislators to urge them to support the Transportation Enhancements program in the next reauthorization of the surface transportation bill.

This guest post is by Roxanne Blackwell, Esq., Federal Government Affairs Manager, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Image credit: Wydown Boulevard. Clayton, Missouri / APA Great Places in America: Streets