Nature and Structure Are One

When we think of paths through nature, we may first think of somewhat muddy trails carved out willy-nilly through the trees, covered in leaves. But a few landscape architects and architects have been showing how paths can be designed, set-apart, yet also enhance the experience of being surrounded by nature while carefully protecting natural habitat.

Reed Hilderbrand, a landscape architecture firm, created a narrow 2,700-foot wooden boardwalk through a previously “unreachable and unknowable” 50-acre wetland near their client’s house in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While the path did cut through undisturbed nature, the idea was to create environmentally-sensitive access to improve the stewardship of the unexplored land, 70 percent of which was made up of re-growth forest.

To complement ongoing “woodlot management, edge restoration, and meadow extension” efforts, Reed Hilderbrand proposed a circuit trail that would loop through the wetland. It took nine months working with “conservation biologists, permit specialists, contractors, the property manager, and conservation commissioners to ensure adequate protection of the resource and mitigation of limited construction disturbance.” According to the firm, the only way the team could get permission was if there was a careful evaluation of the “hydrologic and biotic” characteristics of the site, low-impact construction technologies, and design elements that enhanced the wetland. 

“Path alignments were studied in plan from air and then thoroughly tuned on site to navigate among trees and snags, woody thickets, beaver impoundments, significant perennial stream courses, and wildlife corridors,” writes Reed Hilderbrand. Invasive species were removed, to the benefit of local flora and fauna. Overall, the new boardwalk actually supports local habitat: “Since completion, beneficial plant communities including speckled alder and silky dogwood have responded favorably, improving shade cover and food sources. A corresponding increase in wildlife has been observed.”

Another project, Stone River, in eastern New York state, uses stones instead of wooden boardwalks to create a subtle, new way to experience nature. Landscape architect Jon Piasecki, ASLA, Housatonic, writes: “I joined the path itself to the pre-existing stonewall and woods in an attempt to offer the visitor the opportunity to experience a sense of fusion with nature. The goal of this project is to join culture to nature.”

Piasecki, a master with stone, actually moved each stone down the path in a small wood cart and hammered each stone joint into place. “I transferred tens of tons of gravel and sand as a setting bed with a wheelbarrow and I moved nearly 400 tons of stone in the wall and as paving over the 800-foot length of the path. I opened the existing stonewall, chose the course of the path within it and rejoined the residual wall stone in such a way that the path appears to have grown organically within this stonewall where it resides. I was able to personally lay stones so as to avoid individual clumps of ferns, standing trees, fallen logs and existing stones with mossy growths in the wall.”

The silver stone (a mica schist) used in the project is a highly sustainable material because it will last so long. To further cut down on carbon dioxide emissions from the quarrying and cutting process, Piasecki used machines running on vegetable oils. 

The poetry of the landscape is only enhanced by Piasecki’s gentle intervention: “In this instance by joining stone and by making a path into the woods with great sensitivity, I am working to heal, in a small way, the rift between culture and nature that is intrinsic to our modern relationship to the land.”

Lastly, one Japanese architecture firm, Tetsuo Kondo Architects, wound a path through the tree tops in a temporary 3-month project in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia last summer. In the Kadriorg forest, which is located in the center of the city, trees have grown there for three centuries, around a palace built for the Czar of Russia. To provide a startling new look at the trees, a 95-meter-long elevated path was created.  

According to Landezine, the elevated path is made of steel pipe and sheet steel, with no columns touching the forest floor. In places, the paths seem to lean on trees for support (apparently, both the city’s park managers and structural engineers signed-off on this).

The architects write: “Instead of looking up at the trees from the ground, people will be strolling near the leaves, making their way between the branches. A structure made for the forest, a forest that exists for the structure. With no change in the shape of the forest, it will seem that the structure and the forest are one.” 

In these instances, man-made structures complement nature and even enhance the experience of being immersed in nature. These contemporary yet environmentally-sensitive paths help renew these places.

Image credits: (1-3) Half-Mile Hand Built Line: Berkshire Boardwalk, Andrea Jones, Garden Exposures Photo Library, (4-6) Stone River / Jon Piasecki and John Dolan, 2010 (7-9) A Path in the Forest. Reio Avaste / LIFT11

A Memorial for the Witches

Vardø, a tiny town in northern Norway with a population of just 2,200, is the site of one of the world’s most haunting contemporary memorials: the Steilneset Memorial for the Victims of the Finnmark Witch Trials. In this spot, in the 1600s, 91 men and women were tried and burned at the stake for the “crime” of witchcraft. Now, 400 years later, in a ceremony presided over by Her Majesty Queen Sonja of Norway this past summer, there’s an attempt to honor the victims both in Norway and around Europe.

Witches were first burned at the stake in the 1400s in England and Scotland. The practice then spread to Norway by the 1600s, with Vardø playing a central role in this dark period in human history. According to Norway’s tourist site, “As with most other witch trials, it was often part of the process to include ‘trial by water’ – the result being seen as ‘God’s will.’ Those accused were bound hand and foot and thrown into the water. If the person floated, it was sign of their guilt. If they sank, they were innocent. During the Vardø witch trials, all those that were subjected to ‘trial by water’ floated – thus guilty in the eyes of God.” Because fear ruled during this period, trials were then “quick and efficient,” so as to ensure that witches “could not seek revenge through spells cast upon the accusers and the population.”

In the opening ceremony for the memorial, Sturla J. Stalsett, general secretary of the Vardø Church City Mission, said the site “is meant to remind us of the ongoing danger of collectively creating scapegoats.” And while the monument commemorates the deaths of many innocent people, it’s also a powerful addition to one of the world’s great sets of contemporary landscape architecture and architecture projects, the National Tourist Route, which offers designed vantage points for seeing Norway’s rich natural beauty.

According to Architectural Record, the monument was sponsored by the town of Vardø, Finnmark County, the Varanger Museum, and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. Famed artist Louis Bourgeois was commissioned to create an art installation for the memorial, while Pritzker prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who recently partnered with Piet Oudolf on last year’s successful Serpentine Gallery pavilion, was hired for the building. Bourgeois was 94 at the start of the project, so much of it was executed by her longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, after she died a few years ago.

The building design was inspired by the powerful setting: “Arriving in Vardø, the architect was struck by the harsh, treeless landscape along the Barents Sea, and the indigenous man-made elements such as spindly diagonal wood racks for drying fish, once a major export item. He also found the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses had a certain poignancy.”

Inside, Zumthor created various window frames that “funnel out on to the landscape, a swaying bulb in each of them, one for every witch that was burned at the stake here in the 17th century,” writes Icon Magazine. “By each window is the story of the witch that the bulb commemorates, reproduced from court protocols and printed on a piece of suspended silk. Accused of demonic conspiracy and of exerting magical harm by the casting of spells, they were thrown into the icy sea to see if they sank or floated (the latter indicative of their guilt), tortured on the rack or with hot tongs and, after they’d signed a confession, burned to death at this very spot.”

Bourgeois wanted her own space for her installation, The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, so, at the south side of the building, an exterior “gangplank” was set leading to a “glass cubiform” pavilion with a Cor-Ten steel roof and columns that support panels of dark glass. Inside is a visceral, scary work meant to give a sense of what the victims must have experienced.

See more images and also explore Norway’s tourist route.  

Image credit: (1) Andrew Meredith / Icon Magazine, (2) Andrew Meredith / Icon Magazine, (3) Andrew Meredith / Icon Magazine, (4) © Matilda McQuaid / Architectural Record (5) © Lysholm Hege / Architectural Record

Thinking About Attending a Conference?

If you want to delve into the complexities of sustainable water management, multi-modal transportation systems, or ecological restoration, there may be a conference for you coming up this year. In an effort to aggregate all conferences in the U.S. related to sustainable design, ASLA has created a new guide to upcoming conferences, a tool for landscape architects, planners, architects, horticulturalists, and other design professionals.

The guide, which is updated monthy, offers nearly 100 national opportunities organized by month. A new list for 2013 is in the works. 

ASLA encourages organizations to submit their conferences. To submit, please contact Kasha Helget [] and include the conference title, URL, location, and key dates.

View the list.

Also, check out ASLA chapters for local or regional opportunities.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Annual Meeting, San Diego.

Walk the Green Carpet

Public artists Gaëlle Villedary helped the French village of Jaujac celebrate the 10th year of its arts and nature trail programs by cutting a new green path through its city center. Using some 168 rollers of turf grass, spanning 420 meters (or nearly 1,400 feet), the public artists wound 3.5 tons of natural material through the streets of the old town.

According to Landezine, one goal of the project was to “connect the heart of the village” to the valley’s rich natural setting. In this instance, the path is itself a “piece of nature” designed to create a “communion between nature and man through art.”

This thin slice of turf grass is a “resurgence of life” in a sea of “asphalt, cement, or tar.” The path “guides our steps” and we are “curious to see where it takes us.”

See more images.

Image credits: Copyright David Monjou

The Star Maze

In northern Netherlands, the historic Groot Vijversburg park is not only expanding physically but also going contemporary with the addition of a new Star Maze, which will be designed by LOLA landscape architects, Deltavormgroep, and Piet Oudolf, plant designer for the High Line Park and last year’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion.

According to Bustler, the idea is to use new works of landscape architecture to transform Groot Vijversburg park, a “romantic public park,” from a historic site into a national destination with a more contemporary feel. Beyond the Star Maze, lots will be added like “two new park chambers, which create a link between the historical park, a post-war recreational area, and a nature reserve.”

The Star Maze is a “remix” of two historic park shapes, “the star shaped forest” and the “labyrinth.” Tall hedges will work like “room dividers for the existing meadow and create several park spaces suitable for various use.” The structure is also designed to connect visitors into other components of the park. 

The design team writes: “Each ending of the Star Maze has a function, such as a landscape balcony with a view over the nature reserve, a pier for canoe travelers in the recreational area, a window with a vista to the main park villa and a shed with rubber boots, to explore the marshland.”

An additional “park chamber,” which can be flooded, will be a bit of The Sound of Music, with hills featuring perennials in a “field of pollard willows.” The hills will be accessible via a series of small dikes.

The landscape architects write that the changes to the way visitors flow through the site represent the shift from “romantic” to contemporary landscape models: “The central space gives an overview in all directions but at the same time doesn’t impose any direction. By doing so, the design goes beyond the ideals of public cultivation and public health on which the nearby romantic park and the Modern recreational landscape are based, and it gives the visitor maximum freedom to use the park however he wishes to.”

Image credits: LOLA

Sonja Hinrichsen’s Snow Drawings

The east coast may not be getting much snow, but Sonja Hinrichsen, a land artist and photographer, has been putting what snow has fallen in the west to good use, creating a massive drawing stomped into the drifts at Rabbit Ear Pass, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. An installation reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s land art or even Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Snow Drawings creates a temporary landscape with a sense of movement.

According to Colossal, an art and design blog, five volunteers helped Hinrichsen set her looping, intricate spirals, which seem to incorporate the area’s trees, into the ground cover.

Aerial photos of this impermanent art piece were taken during a flyover in local pilot Jack Dysart’s Cessna aircraft.

An additional video was produced by Cedar Beauregard using a camera mounted on a remote-controlled helicopter.

Also, for more art inspired by snow, check out Kate Bush’s latest album, 50 Words for Snow.

Image credits: Cedar Beauregard

Videos: The Second Wave of Modernism

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) put together The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a powerhouse conference held last fall at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC, which featured some of the top landscape architects around. Now, TCLF has posted full videos of the entire conference online.

Above, check out the conference introduction by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, Founder of TCLF, who explains how landscape architects must now work with complex systems, including cultural and ecological systems, when transforming early Modernist sites into more functional, people-friendly spaces that also enhance the natural environment.

While all sessions are worth watching, featured below are some of our favorite talks by landscape architects transforming Modern landscapes. Each landscape architect talks about the people who artistically influenced them, their evolution as designers, and then their own projects, which reimagine sites rich with history.

Lisa Gimmy, ASLA, Lisa Gimmy Landscape Architecture, explained how she created a new landscape for famed Modern architect Richard Neutra‘s Kun 2 house in Los Angeles.

In Miami, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, collaborated with Herzog + de Meuron on their 1111 Lincoln Road project, creating a new streetscape, plaza, and two lush interior courtyards inspired by Modern sidewalk designs.

Julie Bargmann, ASLA, Founding Principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, made a powerful case for the derelict “urban voids” that are a “byproduct of urbanization but are vital to contemporary culture.” She said these “left-over places,” the space abandoned near waterfronts and highways in cities, which are so often featured in Jim Jarmusch films, “can’t be designed with a capital D.”

Read a three-part series covering the sessions or delve into all the videos.

Shoo! Teenagers, Shoo!

As you come up the escalator in the Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro in Washington, D.C., you are serenaded by loudspeakers playing Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven. But why? It turns out that certain sounds really annoy teenagers and cities are now using them to keep young people out of public places. As an effort to control crime or reduce vandalism, though, the use of high frequency noises, classical music, or nature sounds raise questions about whether cities are in fact serving their younger citizens well.

In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Museum first had the idea of blasting classical music from outdoor speakers at night. The city then ran with it and began offering a selection of classical hits at the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro station, where teenagers had been congregating and robberies were occuring.

The new classical soundtracks replaced a “mosquito” device, which emitted a “shrill noise at 18 KHz, a high frequency that only young people can hear.” According to Greater Greater Washington, the devices, which were put in place by a local development company, were “wrong” and probably “illegal.” The city, responding to pressure by local community and youth groups, eventually forced the developer to stop using it. The local Web site said it was unfair anyone for under 25, especially those not out to cause trouble, to face sounds as obnoxious as a chalkboard being scratched. “Toddlers, teenagers, and young adults waiting for the bus or emerging from the Metro” had to endure “a shrill screech purposely aimed at annoying them and driving them away.” 

The bigger issue for them may be a lack of accessible public spaces for teenagers in cities. Greater Greater Washington bemoans that teenagers have been pushed out of all public areas. “Before the age of suburban development and private shopping mall, cities always included grand public spaces for relaxation and socializing. Sometimes these spaces were formal, grassy parks and sometimes these places were paved plazas like the piazzas in Italy. Unlike private shopping malls, which serve as the de facto gathering places in most suburbs, public streets, squares, and parks in cities are by their virtue open to the public.” Indeed, part of Chinatown’s charm as a public place may be that it’s filled with young people out on the town. Instead of driving teens away, they argue that curfew times could be made earlier, or police patrols can be beefed up to deal with kids committing crimes.

Communities, developers, and institutions seem to be using sounds to keep trouble teens away because they can’t afford the cops or security guards they need. In a recent example, a regional transit system in Portland, Oregon, has been adding opera to the mix at light-rail stations, bringing down loitering in the process. The Huffington Post writes: “At one station, an aria from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ serenaded commuters waiting to board. ‘There’s no one that just hangs around,’ said Scott Nielsen, who has met the train at the stop for 18 months. Before the music ‘they wouldn’t get on the train, that’s how you’d know they were [loitering].'” For Lt. John Scruggs, a local policeman who created the program, it’s a success: he points to lower crime levels and a sense of “feeling safer” on the platforms.

However, the long-term effectiveness of these soundtracks may be in doubt. The Huffington Post queried Denis Crispo, Portland’s assistant city commissioner, who argued that “as a crime reduction strategy, it may work for a short period of time, but the criminals always adapt to police strategies. It really doesn’t have a lasting effect.” Vandals particularly annoyed by the music are also just ripping out the speakers. 

Teens may also soon have to contend with a new variation. In Lancaster, a town in California, a crime-ridden stretch now has 70 speakers blasting the birdsong of robins, wrens, tits, and blackbirds. “The warbles and twitters, mixed with soft synthesiser tones and water sounds, is broadcast five hours a day.” British sound engineer Julian Treasure, whose firm has created soundscapes for clients such as Nokia and Harrods, said the birdsong works by reducing cortisol and adrenaline. Apparently so: bird sounds he added in lavatories at BP service stations “contributed to a 50 percent increase in customer satisfaction.” 

Still, birdsong may actually be better than classical music and certainly better than the awful mosquito devices. The Los Angeles Times writes that noises’ effectiveness as a annoyer may be tied to the neuro-biological responses people have when they hear something they don’t care for. “When people hear music they don’t like, their brains suppress the production of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure and other emotions — which puts a damper on their spirits.”

In contrast, birdsong may actually stimulate positive effects in everyone instead of just annoying some. The UK is financing a three-year research study on the benefits of being exposed to birds singing on people’s moods. The Guardian writes that the lead researcher will “recruit subjects through social media and examine the effect of birdsong on their brains and behaviour, as well as testing whether recorded birdsong – played on an iPod for example – could have the same impact as listening to birdsong in cities and in the countryside.”

Now if communities would only invest in safe, accessible places designed for teenagers. What would also be nice: Instead of piping in birdsong via speakers, communities could create public green spaces that actually attract real live birds.

Image credit: Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro Station, Washington, D.C. / Fivesixzero::Erik Hess. Flickr

A Valentine for Times Square

Does Times Square need a large pulsating interactive heart sculpture? Perhaps no, but BIG, the architecture and urban design firm led by Bjarke Ingels, thought so. Kicking off a “month of romance” in New York City, BIG’s installation is another example of the total transformation of Times Square from seedy peep-show central into a tourist-friendly entertainment center and outdoor mall.

According to BIG, “BIG♥NYC,” its 10-foot tall glowing heart sculpture, is made up of 400 transparent, LED-lit acrylic tubes, which form a cluster of lights around the heart. 

But this big heart is plugged in, responds to its environment, and brings a touch of human interactivity to the overwhelming sea of billboard ads. In the middle of pedestrian traffic, the “hovering heart will appear to pulsate as its tubes sway in the wind.” And here’s the fun part: when people touch a “heart-shaped sensor,” the heart will glow brighter and beat faster as “energy from their hands is converted into more light.”

Ingels said: “The heart reflects what Times Square is made of: people and light – the more people, the stronger the light.” BIG project leader Daniel Kidd added: “Like a daisy chain of human contact, the more people who hold hands or make contact with others while touching the heart, the brighter and faster the heart will pulse.”

Tim Tompkins, President, Times Square Alliance, wants couples from around the world to come to Times Square to declare their love this year: “What better place for couples to celebrate love and public art than in the heart of Times Square.”

Even usually brusque Times Square safety officers seemed to bask in the heart’s glow.

This is the fourth year Times Square has created a public art work for Valentine’s Day. For this one, the Times Square Alliance partnered with BIG, Flatcut, Local Projects, and Zumtobel.

Visit before it’s gone on February 29 (2012 is a leap year) or see a slideshow.

Also, learn more about the upcoming re-design of the Times Square pedestrian mall.

Image credits: (1-3, 5) Ho Kyung Lee, (4) David Sundberg / ESTO

With Transportation Enhancement Funds, Communities Can Create Smarter Options

Three separate communities in Vermont recently planned new pedestrian and bicycle connections thanks to federal Transportation Enhancement (TE) funds and are ready to move forward with several projects:

The Town of Shelburne, Vermont used TE funds to find the most appropriate means of linking two existing sidewalks on either side of a narrow bridge on a curve at the bottom of a hill. The grant funds sponsored several local public work sessions where the community helped develop the best alternative for a long-term link. They also developed a short term fix that could improve conditions for bicyclists and walkers now by widening the paved shoulders, narrowing the motor vehicle travel lanes, and adding a painted pedestrian space. The new space allows pedestrians to walk in the grass away from the paved travel way after they leave the sidewalk. Long term, a separate pedestrian bridge is planned. The improvements are going to greatly increase the safety and sense of security of pedestrians and bicyclists as they pass through this existing difficult area.

The Village of North Bennington, Vermont has been working for the last few years to increase business activity in its village center. Several new restaurants and other business are now located there, and pedestrian activity is increasing, but the existing sidewalk system, where it exists is old, often uneven and narrow.

The Village used TE funds to examine the entire village center as well as several adjacent streets to determine what improvements are needed to create better walking and bicycling conditions. The resulting plan identifies several projects that the Village can pursue independently to work towards a unified, well-constructed pedestrian and bicycle system extending outward from the core to the village grade school. The Village is getting ready to pursue the development of one of the first recommendations. The improvements planned through the enhancement grant will help maintain and even increase the economic growth now beginning in North Bennington.

The Town of Fairfield, Vermont is finishing up the study of its two village centers to identify the best ways to improve bicycling and walking conditions there. In one area, Fairfield Center, the community identified locations for new sidewalks, paths, wider paved shoulders, crosswalks and pedestrian zones as well as a few locations where minor work on the roadway surface could greatly increase safety conditions for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

Together, the improvements will make it much easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to move between the Fairfield Center School, the library, the local markets, the ball fields, and local residences. The Town officials and residents hope that in addition to fostering more active lives, the improvements will also help to reduce the number of motor vehicle trips between these closely-spaced destinations.

In East Fairfield, the recommended improvements include the extension of an existing sidewalk, the conversion of a wide paved parallel parking strip along the side of the road to a sidewalk and narrower parking area, wider shoulders on low volume roads, and the addition of shared lane markings through the middle of the village area. The Town anticipates similar improvements in pedestrian activity between the community center, a church, the post office, the stores and local residents. They want to provide easy pedestrian and bicycle access to the village center from the future rail trail now being designed.

This guest post is by Jim Donovan, FASLA, Broadreach Planning & Design, Charlotte, Vermont.

This is the third in a series of guest posts by landscape architects across the country who use federal Transportation Enhancement (TE) funding to design projects that improve their communities and create jobs. This series illustrates how landscape architects help create the active transportation infrastructure  that cities and towns across the country  are demanding. Current legislative proposals would eliminate dedicated funding for the TE program. Use the ASLA Advocacy Network to let Congress know that walkable, bikeable communities are a priority in your community.

Image credits:  Jim Donovan