Elephants and Rhinos Could Help Extinguish Australia’s Wildfires

Australia is now overrun with damaging African gamba grass that exacerbate wildfires. Almost impossible to eradicate without copious amounts of equally damaging chemical pesticides, these invasive plants may require fresh thinking, says Professor David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania. His solution: Bring in African elephants, zebra, or rhinoceros to control these species. This approach could also help ensure there are multiple populations of increasingly rare elephants and rhinos, which are still hunted across Africa. The Australian outback could become a kind of ark.

According to The Guardian, the giant African gamba grass was brought in to feed livestock in the 1930s. In fact, a team of Australian ecologists searched for plants throughout Africa and decided to test these out. Now, they are nearly uncontrollable, providing “dangerous fuel for wildfires” across northern and central Australia.

In an interview, Bowman explained: “Most of these grasses were introduced when the Australian government had people trying to improve range production. They found this plant in West Africa called gamba grass; they thought: ‘Beauty! It’s big, it has deep roots and it grows like fury.’ They did trials and one thing led to another and it escaped. Weeds often sit and then something happens and they take off. And that take off happened with gamba grass during my lifetime in the Northern Territory. I wrote a piece in 1999 saying that in the next two decades we’ll know whether this thing will go crazy or not, and it has. It’s a grass cane toad, if you like.”

At least 5 percent of the Australian continent burned in fires last year (an area three times the size of England). This is largely because gamba grass, which has eight times the “fuel load” of native grasses and grows up to four meters high, has almost completely replaced native vegetation in many areas, covering about 5 percent of the country.

Given gamba grass can grown really tall, kangaroos, cattle or buffalo can’t control it. Instead, Bowman calls for African mega-fauna species to be brought in as an “ecological tool” for managing the grass. He argues that other non-native species — camels, buffalo, and the banteng (an endangered Asian cattle species) — have done well in Australia, so it’s not a huge stretch. Understanding that elephants can bring their own challenges — they eat crops, destroy trees with equal opportunity, and can attack people — Bowman said wildlife managers could use GPS to track them and manage their fertility.

However, others in Australia still disagree, arguing that elephants would bring too many problems, even if they were managed. Ricky Spencer, senior lecturer with the Native and Pest Animal unit at the University of Western Sydney, said: “If we did go down the road of introducing elephants to Australia, we had better develop the technology to clone saber-tooth tigers to eventually control the elephants.” 

Perhaps not saber-tooth tigers, but Bowman also thinks Australia needs to bring back its top predators, which were effectively killed off by European settlers. The predators are needed to “control the ferals that periodically degrade ecosystems.” Dingos, packs of wild dogs, were killed off, but he says bringing them back could bring issues. Komodo dragons could be used to replace the giant lizards that use to exist on the continent. Actually, he thinks Aborigines could serve a better role, hunting animals, being employed in the type of land management they have been long used to. Also, this time around their way of life could even be supported and they could be paid for their work. This is important given Aborgines face extreme poverty and health issues and lack employment opportunities.

On his seemingly wild ideas, Bowman made a point worth considering: “We’re not advocating restoration of the ecosystem, rather reconstructing ecosystems to return ecological functions. All the big marsupials are extinct, so you use what’s on offer.”

Read an interview with Bowman.

In other news, just to demonstrate how difficult Bowman’s idea would be in practice, legal battles are raging over 63 bison that were recently reintroduced to the Great Plains landscape of Montana. According to The New York Times, just “three days after the transfer, a livestock and property rights collective sued, saying that the bison could spread disease and compete with their cattle for grazing.”

Image credit: (1) Gamba Grass fire, Australia / Annie Katec blog, (2) African elephant eating grass / Art.com

Cornelia Konrads’ “Moments of Indecision”

Like Andy Goldsworthy, German artist Cornelia Konrads creates pieces made for a certain place using found local materials. Many feel temporary, perhaps created just long enough to be photographed. Konrads, unlike other land artists though, also has a unique bent on gravity, creating works that defy Newton’s laws. In Passage (see above and below), fine wire or fishing lines hide the underlying machinery.

In the introduction to a book on Konrads, Michael Stoeber describes the tensions in her work: “Calm and motion, dissolution and density, the contrastive play with gravity and overcoming it, with reality and simulation—are the stones really flying up into the sky, or are they not perhaps falling down and settling on the pile?

Stoeber wonders whether her work is “rising or falling.” Perhaps they are at some stage in between, “moments of an irritating and fascinating indecision.”  

These pieces are “the arrow that never reaches its target, Achilles who cannot manage to succeed in overtaking the tortoise.”

Explore Konrads’ art, which is found in public spaces, sculpture parks, and private gardens across Europe, the U.S., South Korea, and Australia. See more photos of her gravity-busting pieces at the always well-curated This is Colossal.

Also worth checking out are these enormous fish sculptures made out of recycled plastic bottles. They were constructed on the beach in Rio for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

Image credit: (1-2) Passage, (3) Pile of Wishes, (4) Piled Forest, (5) Moment of Decision / Cornelia Konrads

One Guy, One Path

Jon Piasecki made stone river with a bunch of rock, some tools, and amazing dedication

By Melanie Rehak

“It’s very hard, in this world of stimuli, to make something in nature that’s strong enough to pull you into it.” This is what Jon Piasecki, ASLA, says to me as I come, thanks to him, as close as I ever will to walking on water. We’re standing near the middle of his ethereal Stone River, a winding 900-foot path of mica schist slabs that runs through the center of what was once a wide stone wall on the wooded grounds of a private estate in Dutchess County in eastern New York.

It is exactly what its name denotes—a collection of stones arranged and joined to follow a riverlike course—and yet it is significantly more than the sum of its parts: an eloquent reminder of the power of simplicity, the uses of labor, the passage of time, the beauty of craft, and the force of a single idea executed as nearly as is possible to perfection. Most astonishing, it is also a transfiguration from solid into liquid. The shimmer of mica dapples the path from moment to moment like sun on water, the curves flow organically through the trees and ground cover, and the low piles of quartzite stones drawn from the former wall that Piasecki stacked up along either side give the impression of creek banks. We are within the woods, but coursing along as if borne by a current—part of the surroundings even as our feet carry us slightly, dreamily, above them.

To Piasecki, this effect is, if not unsurprising, entirely plausible. He saw its possibility from the moment he first looked at the site back in 2008. At the time, the wall that once stood here was “solid and overgrown with vines and thorns and crawling with ticks,” but within the dense mess, he saw something fluid. “When you work with stone for a long enough time, you actually realize that the stuff is aqueous,” he says. “It was laid down in water. It’s an ocean deposit. It can move like water if you know what you’re doing.”

By his own account, he had precisely no idea what he was doing when he began the project, which won an ASLA Honor Award in 2011 (the jury called it “a vote for poetry”). It took Piasecki two and a half years to open the wall and assemble and join the stones, time he spent essentially alone in this forest gully, carting rocks and slabs, some of which weigh up to 300 pounds, in by hand on a small cart. “You can’t have a machine here,” he says, waving an arm at the ferns and dogtooth violets and everything else that conspires to make this spot so idyllic. “If you have a machine here, you kill all of this. The only way you can keep this is to do it by hand.” As he went, compacting sand and gravel to form the base for his path, his joinery grew more and more adept, as did his appreciation of what it made possible. “This is ancient technology,” he notes as we squat down to examine the crooked but perfectly joined seam between two slabs. “Wherever they touch, they essentially fuse, so the entire thing is a fluid. In the winter when there’s freeze, the whole thing moves. That’s the power of dry-laid stone. It all moves, and then it settles back down.”

Stone River grew out of a long fascination with stonework, dating back to Piasecki’s first jobs after he got his master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1995 (he also has a degree in forest ecology from Cornell). “I couldn’t go to an office because I couldn’t be inside,” he remembers, “so I worked in rural places and did construction because it was the only way I could make money. You lay stones and you make a lot of money because it’s dangerous and really hard, relatively speaking.” Eventually, his interests began to spread beyond just handling the rock himself. In 2004 he won the American Academy’s Rome Prize and spent his year in Italy studying stonework and boundary markers in the Mediterranean empires, primarily the Greeks and Romans.

From there, he moved on to examining how other cultures mediated their relationship to the world around them through design, which brought him to the Inca. “In Rome and around the Mediterranean world, power and empire were expressed by building walls between nature and culture,” he explains. “The Inca Empire tried to latch onto nature and in fusing to it make the impression that the emperor was a force of nature. That’s what this is all about for me, the man who made it.” As we amble along the path, which somehow doesn’t seem to allow for any faster motion, he points out invasive garlic mustard and then a small scraggly bush branching out over the quartzite on one side of us. “That’s a blackberry. It was alive before and I treated it with respect,” he says. “It stayed because it was alive. I moved this thing this way a little bit to keep it there. It’s an engagement with nature as opposed to a reference or representation of something.”

On a good day at the site, Piasecki could do six joints, painstakingly hewing the rough edges of each slab with an ever-tinier array of chisels and handsaws. It was agonizing at times. He doesn’t regret a moment of it. “In landscape architecture, we’ve divorced ourselves from labor,” he says. “You can’t envision this. It doesn’t come in a plan or in a concept. I’m very worried that we can pay as much lip service as we want to natural phenomena and the leftover residuals of a floodplain, but there’s no one who’s touching nature. Design and build are so separate now, and the thing that made Olmsted so powerful, that has made working the landscape so powerful for humanity, is disappearing.”

As a dry wind, far warmer than it should be in mid-April, whistles past us, he adds, “I think people are divorced from nature and they think nature is not important. They think humanity can solve this”—by which he means the fact that it’s 80 degrees outside in early spring—“but all these plants are in hell. The ferns are dying, there’s no snow pack, and it was 70 degrees every month this winter because of climate change. Who’s going to fix that? Who feels it? We’re part of nature. We like to think we’re in control of nature, but we’re not in control. And it’s going to come back and bite us on the ass.”

To that end, Piasecki has changed the way he lives as well as how he works. About an hour from Stone River, in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he and his wife and children live on what he refers to as “kind of a homestead.” He grows most of the family’s food, and they raise animals and heat their house with wood. “We’re essentially preparing to live in a world that’s radically different from the one we currently live in because of the changes that are happening vis-à-vis energy,” he tells me. But there’s something else at the base of Piasecki’s mode of existence, too—something, like Stone River, far more elemental. “I’m trying to make it so my kids and my family are connected to the world,” he says simply. “So the seasons mean something to us because we plant in the spring and we harvest in the fall.”

And whereas not all of us wish to move to the country and raise chickens and crops, by building Stone River Piasecki has managed to distill the idea that informs those choices into a single work. A visit to it is more than enough to ensure that one never takes nature for granted again. Weeks later, back at a desk in the big city, the sensation of standing on the stones, in the ever-shifting light, is still with me, as are Piasecki’s words. “This was a stone dump in a waste area,” he said as we reached the end of the path and lingered before stepping to the ground. “And it’s alive and it’s magical. If we forget it and lose sight of it, our humanity is diminished.”

Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, a New York Times best seller and winner of the Edgar Award, and Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid. She is currently writing a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the 21st century, to be published in 2013. She lives in Brooklyn.

The July issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine is available online for free. Be sure to check out Dan Jost’s “Lawn and Saguaros: A Geek’s Guide to the Phoenix Landscape” on page 78 to plan your ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO trip.

With Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Aims to Become the “Botanical Capital of the World”

Singapore’s national flower is the orchid. So UK-based team Grant Associates, a landscape architecture firm, and Wilkinson Eyre, an architecture firm, decided to use the structure of this epiphytic plant to model their new $545 million, 54-hectare Gardens by the Bay project in that city-state’s Marina South Gardens, which is just the first piece of a much bigger project (two more gigantic garden parks are coming). The design team explains: “First, the garden takes root on a piece of new garden infrastructure and grows out towards the city. Leaves (earthworks) and roots (water, energy, communication systems) and shoots (paths, roads and links) create an integrated network across the space and beautiful flowers (feature/theme gardens) occur at key intersections or nodes.”

With this massive project, which was built on reclaimed, restored land, wealthy Singapore aims to become the “botanical capital of the world.” There are many elements (almost too many to go through), which include more than 225,000 plants. Just a few are new theme gardens that “showcase the best of tropical horticulture and garden artistry.” Within these gardens, there are multiple horticultural collections, including the “Heritage Gardens” and “World of Plants.”  

In the Heritage Gardens, there’s a range of garden collections that reflect the unique cultures that make up diverse Singapore, along with the city-state’s colonial heritage (It was a British base for many years). A new Malay Garden “tells the story of life in a traditional ‘kampong’ (village),” while the Indian Garden’s layout “echoes a traditional illustrated flower motif.” The Chinese Garden illustrates the role of gardens as places of “inspiration for writers, poets, and artists” — places of tranquility — in Chinese culture. The Colonial Garden tells the story of plants as “Engines of Empire,” featuring the many spices and other crops that served as a foundation for regional, British-controlled trade. 

The “World of Plants” Garden then showcases the rich plant biodiversity of Southeast Asia. There are gardens dedicated to ancient plants, fruits and flowers, trees, tropical palms, and the understory, which looks at the “forest root zone,” the plant species that make up the forest floor.

Perhaps the iconic element of the new super-park are the 18 “supertrees,” ranging from 25-50 meters high, which Grant Associates describe as a “fusion of nature, art, and technology.” These multifunctional engineered structures act like, well, trees, except they also create power for the park and light up at night. According to the design team, “they are at one level spectacular vertical gardens and landmark features, at another they are the environmental engines for the cooled conservatories, incorporating devices for water harvesting and storage, air intake, cooling and exhaust, photovoltaic arrays, and solar collectors.” 

During the daytime, the trees provide shelter and shade, like any tree. But at night, says Grant Associates, the trees “come alive with lighting and projected media that activate the city skyline.”  Built into the supertree line is a 128-meter aerial walkway. The biggest supertree has a bar, offering a treetop view to go with your cocktails. Grant Associates seem to say that they needed to get large trees up fast and couldn’t wait for real ones to grow: “Given the relatively short time span to create a garden from reclaimed land, the Supertrees provide an immediate scale and dimension to the Gardens while marrying the form and function of mature trees.” 

Working together with the outdoor gardens and supertrees are “cooled conservatories” that use “sustainable energy sources” (from the supertrees) to create new micro-climates indoors. “The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean and semi-arid sub-tropical regions such as South Africa and parts of Europe like Spain and Italy. The Cloud Forest Dome replicates the cool-moist climate found in tropical montane regions between 1,000 to 3,500 metres above sea level, such as Mt Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, and high elevation areas in South America.” The Cloud Forest alone has some 130,000 plants.

Sounds like a lot of energy and air conditioning for those cooled conservatories. But Grant Associates argues that the “suite of technologies used” actually means about 30 percent energy savings on a conventional (if there is one?) climate-controlled conservatory. The design team used “spectrally selective glass and light sensor-operated shadings” to reduce solar heat gain and maximize sun exposure for the plants. There are more complex systems like “thermal stratification, an efficient de-humidification cooling process, and a Combined Heat Power (CHP) biomass steam turbine” to control the indoor climate and create electricity. 

As a final note, the signage by Thomas Mathews graphic design is really fun. The design team used the colors of the local Mangosteen fruit as the palette, with a dark purple as the unifying color.  

We would have liked to hear more from Grant Associates about how they will harvest Singapore’s heavy rainfall to water the garden year round. Will there be cisterns to store some of that water for drier periods? Also, there is little info about the biodiversity benefits they are expecting, beyond the plants. What kind of insects and birds can be supported by the new park?

Still, the gardens are expected to be a huge tourist draw. The Wall Street Journal writes that tickets will be $28 Singapore dolllars for tourists and $20 for locals. Restaurants, bands, bars will also help draw people in late into the night.

Image credits: (1) Grant Associates (2) Chinese Garden / Craig Sheppard Photography, (3-4) Supertrees / Robert Such Photography, (5-6) Cooled Conservatory / Craig Sheppard Photography, (7) Branding design / Thomas Mathews, (8) Signage / Craig Sheppard Photography

Designing the Sustainable Site

Designing the Sustainable Site: Integrated Design Strategies for Small-Scale Sites and Residential Landscapes by Heather Venhaus, who worked on the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) guidelines and benchmarks at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, provides a broad overview of sustainable landscapes from concept to implementation.

Venhaus cites the common definition of sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). She further describes sustainability as a recognition of the interdependency of the environment, human health, and the economy. Venhaus argues that sustainable landscapes need to be regenerative, not only easing environmental damage but actively reversing it. In order for a design to be regenerative, we cannot simply add sustainable elements to the end of a conventional design. Instead, ecological systems must be integrated into every step of the design process. For this reason, Venhaus has written a book that is aimed not only at landscape architects but also planners, architects, contractors, and home gardeners.

Designing the Sustainable Site is a broad introduction to a variety of concepts and tools, most of which will be quite familiar to landscape architects. The book discusses, among other things, how to assemble multi-disciplinary design teams, write construction documents, conduct site analysis, and formulate maintenance plans. The remaining bulk of the book is devoted to “Sustainable Solutions,” which mostly reads as an overview of current sustainable design technologies. These chapters cover techniques for addressing air pollution, water pollution, flooding, water conservation, invasive species, and loss of biodiversity.

Experienced landscape architects are not necessarily Venhaus’s target audience. Instead, Designing the Sustainable Site could be an introductory textbook for students of planning, architecture, or landscape architecture. In many ways, this book looks and reads like a textbook: it’s full of diagrams that are clear, legible, but uninspiring. More successful than the diagrams are the extensive, photographically-documented case studies of residential sustainable design. These case studies begin to communicate the aesthetic potential of sustainable design, lending the book a bit of graphic interest.

By stressing the importance of integrative design – working sustainability into all aspects of a project – Venhaus makes it clear that sustainability falls across multiple disciplines. While the concepts presented in this book may be obvious to landscape architects, unfortunately they may be news to other design professionals and much of the public. By specifically addressing residential landscapes and small-scale sites, Venhaus moves sustainability out of the exclusive domain of landscape architects and into the hands of anyone involved in the design and building process, including all those prospective clients.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

A New Home for a Bee Colony

The University of Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning seems especially respectful of nature. After the success of their bat tower, a beautifully-designed structure for a bat colony that the bats themselves seem to love, the school’s architecture and urban planning grad students moved on to designing new spaces for bees. According to the school, a massive and thriving colony was living in an abandoned, derelict office building in Buffalo owned by Rigidized Metals Corporation, a metals manufacturer. When the president of the firm was visiting the old space, which is targeted for rehabilitation, he discovered the gigantic hive. Instead of calling the exterminator, he decided to launch a design competition to find the colony a new, safer home. They’ve since moved into the grad student’s winning design: the 22-foot-tall Elevator B, a “free-standing steel, glass and cypress tower.”  

The bee colony had been living in the walls of the old office for some time. Given the hive was humongous — and therefore a successful home for the bees — the students didn’t know if the bees would actually move. The students decided to use hexagonal shapes, inspired by natural honeycomb, and mimic the tubular design of the nearby grain silos. Inside the bee tower, a “bee cab” or elevator made of cypress and glass was created. The shape was designed to provide the colony “protection and warmth.”

The bees did indeed make the shift, and now there’s safe access for both bees and people. “The bees will enter the cab through holes near its top, about 10 feet above the ground in its raised position. The cab can be lowered to the ground to permit the beekeeper to attend to the health and safety of the bees.” Furthermore, the glass wall enables people to better interact with the colony. “The bee cab typically will be in a raised position to allow visitors to step into the tower, look up and watch the colony through a glass window.”

Bees are under enormous pressure. The Scientific American reports that one-third of all honeybee colonies have died out in the past six years. Possible culprits include viruses, mites, the spread of unnutricious plants, or pesticides. Now, two studies have recently implicated insecticides in colony deaths. The issue is very serious for us as well: without bees, there won’t be much agriculture. “They pollinate about one third of U.S. crop species, including almonds, apples, grapes, soybeans, cotton, and others, the failure of which could lead not only to food shortages, but also to large economic hits for farmers—and consumers.”

Beyond building hives bees like, landscape architects, designers, and gardeners of all kinds can help support these hard workers of the natural world by eliminating the use of chemical insecticides and incorporating the plants bees love. The College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, has created a list of these plants.

See the details of the Elevator B design and more photos.

In other news from the natural world, scientists discovered that the shark fin soup beloved in many parts of Asia is not only terrible for sharks but also for people. The New York Times reports: “Shark fins contain high levels of a potent neurotoxin that scientists have linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.” Demand for the soup leads to about 73 million shark deaths annually and the destruction of the delicate food chains in marine ecosystems.

Bird’s Nest Designers Take on the Serpentine Pavilion

The design team for the now iconic Bird’s Nest stadium created in Beijing for the Olympics — Artist Ai Wei Wei and starchitect duo Herzog & De Meuron — just took on the Serpentine Pavilion, perhaps the world’s most reviewed temporary summer space. Each year, the Serpentine Gallery in London commissions some of the best architects to design their seasonal pavilion. In the past, they’ve hired Pritzer Prize-winning architects like Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor (who partnered with famed Dutch New Perennial gardener Piet Oudolf), and Rem Koolhaus. While we’d love to see them put a top landscape architect in the lead on one of these years, the pavilions do reflect some of the latest bold ideas from contemporary architecture.

Given Ai Wei Wei has been engaged in ongoing combat with the Chinese government, he’s largely been under house arrest so he worked on the designs from home, corresponding with Herzog & De Meuron via Skype.  On this unique design process, Ai told The Independent: “Using Skype is lovely. I think all projects should be done with Skype. You only have to communicate the spiritual part.”

Azure magazine writes that the trans-national, online design team first excavated a “circular cavity” in the ground, about 1.5 meters deep. In an homage to the past 10+ years of pavilions, the team “traced the contours of the previous years’ foundations and dug them out in stepped, meandering levels upon which visitors can sit, lean or lie. At the site’s lowest point, a well reminds guests of the water table just below the surface and even accepts the rainwater that runs off the round roof.”

A floating platform, which hovers 1.4 meters above ground, was then added. Supported by 12 pillars, the roof is topped by a “large, shallow basin of water.” The water is set low enough so that it can act as a reflecting pool for people standing on the lawn outside the pavilion. The pool can also be drained and serve as a stage for performances. 

The interior provides another, perhaps darker experience. It’s purposefully unlit, with just a few bulbs for light. “Sheets of cork cover every surface, a material chosen for its ‘haptic and olfactory’ qualities, and for the visual reference to the excavated earth. The low light, stalagmite-like cork stools, and the uneven subterranean ground together evoke the interior of a cave.”

The reviews from other architecture critics were largely positive, although some don’t start out that way. For example, Edwin Heathcote with The Financial Times called it a “real corker,” writing: “Covered in cork, the musty subterranean space does, in fact, smell a bit mouldy, a bit wrong. What it tells you is that the architectural formalism, the incessant shape-making and enforced sculptural originality of the pavilion programme has, perhaps, gone a bit off.” Heathcote then says the project may be another instance of architects being too self-referential: “Instead of creating a new sculptural object, this year’s designers have delved into the past, into the memory of the site, to exhume the remains of pavilions past and recreate their foundations and their traces as if this were an archaeological dig. This is architecture consuming itself.” 

However, he ends up arguing that the pavilion is “one of the most compelling, most eccentric, and most engaging pavilions so far.” The site takes on the shape of an archeological dig, resembling the “layers of a city exposed simultaneously, from ancient foundations to the invasive subterranean networks of more recent cabling and conduits.” Heathcote thinks this is “very London, a reflection on a city built on a hugely complex set of entrails comprising everything from Tube tunnels to air raid bunkers, a city in which liquid is never far from the surface (held in place symbolically, perhaps, by all that cork).” The experience: The dark interior is “spongy and musty. The scattered mushroom-shaped stools resemble huge champagne corks. It is oddly sinister, dark, playing with scales and layer.”

In The Telegraph (UK), architect Jacques Herzog finally explains himself: “So many pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built [here], that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape.” Instead, the focus is on the memories dug up.

Interestingly, to offset the costs of hiring these big-name artists and architects, the Serpentine Gallery is now selling these pavilions after the summer is over. The New York Times reports that billionaire Indian steel magnate Lakshmi N. Mittal and his wife, Usha, will be buying this year’s piece.

See more photos and also check out last year’s pavilion by Peter Zumthor and Piet Oudolf.

Image credits: (1-3) Herzog & De Meuron and Ai Wei Wei. Copyright 2012, (4-7) Iwan Baan. Copyright 2012

Nature Animated

“From water waves to light waves, the same patterns emerge across all scales of space and time,” writes Sosolimited and Plebian Design, who created Patterned by Nature, a wonderful installation for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Natural Research Center in Raleigh. An animated “scupltural ribbon” weaves through the museum’s plaza. Sequences flow through migrating small birds to a flock of noisy geese. Drops of water transform into ocean waves, and then, beneath the waves, we see the pulsating skin of a cuttlefish. The museum writes: “The exhibit celebrates our abstraction of nature’s infinite complexity into patterns through the scientific process and through our perceptions.”

The ribbon, which is about 90 feet long and 10 feet wide, winds itself through a 5-story atrium. The installation is made up of 3,600 LCD glass tiles. Amazingly, the whole thing runs on 75 watts, about the same amount of energy needed to power a laptop. 

While the clip above shows just a few snippets of the full animation, there are actually twenty sequences. According to the museum and design team, these range from “clouds to rain drops to colonies of bacteria to flocking birds to geese to cuttlefish skin to pulsating black holes.” Real footage of nature and “algorithmic software modeling of natural phenomena” were used to create the fascinating visuals. There are also eight different soundtracks, corresponding to different parts of nature. 

For another, perhaps somewhat more disturbing animation of nature, see a project by Ivan Henriques and Professor Bert van Duijn from the Netherlands’ Leiden University. Fast Company says Mimosa pudica isone of the few plants in the world that can sense touch stimulus and move its leaves immediately in response.” Henriques, with the help of the professor, “upgraded the plant’s responsiveness with the capabilities of a motorized wheelchair.”

Global Pessimism Before Rio+20

Twenty years ago, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, a hugely important event in the history of global action on sustainability. The conference was attended by 108 heads of state and 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A total of 172 governments participated. The summit called for a transformation in the way we live and brought the concept of sustainable development to the mainstream. Covering such issues such as climate change, biodiversity, toxic waste, alternative energy, public transportation, and water scarcity, the conference produced a comprehensive environmental action plan, Agenda 21.

Now 20 years later, the Rio+20 conference, a foll0w-up on the original summit, seeks to address many of the same issues and check in on progress. The conference identifies its two main themes as: “a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.” Additionally, the conference identifies seven priority areas, including green jobs, sustainable energy, sustainable cities, food security, accessible water, ocean management, and disaster resiliency.

Like the first conference, Rio+20 is huge in scale. Described as, “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it’s expected to draw upwards of 50,000 participants, with representatives from 180 countries. Yet unlike the original conference, many important world leaders are conspicuously missing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.S. President Barack Obama are all not attending the conference.

This apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of the United States and Western Europe has been blamed on recent economic and politic turmoil. In an interview with The New York Times, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said: “Europe has been the great leader of environmental action but Europe is hardly functioning now.” Similarly, former head of the U.S. E.P.A. William K. Reilly told The New York Times: “The international community is going to have to learn never to hold a big global conference during an American presidential election year.”

Others have blamed the lack of western enthusiasm on a general loss of idealism. When President George H.W. Bush attended the Earth Summit in 1992, he was riding a wave of idealism following the end of the Cold War. John Vidal in The Guardian writes that, “the days of hope and idealism are over. Rich countries have little new to offer, and China, Brazil, India and other rapidly emerging economies are now in the development driving seat.”

Today, with sustainability firmly in the mainstream, we are left to consider the tangible environmental consequences of the 1992 conference. Despite increasing awareness, many do not see actual environmental progress being made. With record greenhouse emissions, melting polar icecaps, and a rapidly expanding global population, environmentalists argue that existing policies have done little to alter the trajectory of development and environmental degradation. In a pre-recorded video speech to the Rio+20 conference, Prince Charles stated, “Like a sleepwalker, we seem unable to wake up to the fact that so many of the catastrophic consequences of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ are bearing down on us faster than we think, already dragging many millions more people into poverty and dangerously weakening global food, water and energy security for the future.”

Some of the harshest criticism has come from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Director General Jim Leape, who condemned the recently released draft text on green global development, stating “despite a late night negotiating session, the revised text is a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats. They should be embarrassed at their inability to find common ground on such a crucial issue.” He went on to criticize the text’s lack of hard language, concluding, “World leaders ‘recognized’ problems 20 years ago, and they’ve done little about them since. How long are we going to accept ‘we’ll look into it’ as a solution?”

Despite the prevailing negativity, some people are still hopeful that the conference will have a positive impact. In a green energy forum hosted by The Atlantic magazine, former head of the E.P.A . and recent climate change czarina Carol Browner acknowledged that the enthusiasm of twenty years ago simply no longer exists, though she still holds out hope that the conference will produce “measurable, concrete steps.” Furthermore, Browner was optimistic regarding the future of sustainable energy in general. She expressed that now is the time for the United States to support the nascent clean energy industry, discussing the ways smart environmental regulation can lead to innovation in new technologies and produce economic growth.

Still, the meeting does serve as a useful tool for keeping sustainable development high on the international agenda. And many countries do use these conferences as goal posts, deadlines for achieving significant environmental progress. As an example, just days before the meeting, Australia recently announced it had created the largest marine nature preserve in the world. If only the U.S. and European countries were able to make similarly grand commitments — either to finance developing countries’ efforts to improve their environment or to do more good in their own backyard.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Australian Marine Preserve / Australian Geographic. Getty Images.

Somewhere Between Art and Nature

In his new book, Woodcut, artist Bryan Nash Gill displays wood stump prints that read as personal histories. In the book’s introduction, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes op-eds for The New York Times, describes how “Gill’s art – his ability to capture the individuality of these trees – is a reminder that there is something generic or platonic in the mere working out of the life force in each organism. What separates each organism and gives it its distinctive, living shape is experience.” In other words, the form of the tree results from its history, with each experience registered in its interior rings. Through a process of cutting, sanding, and burning, Gill makes this history legible; each print reveals lifetime of interactions with human and non-human forces.

In Spruce, 2008, we see that this tree was 97 years old when it died. It had a branch cut at age twenty, and a metal spike was driven into it when it was thirty. The white lines are tunnel holes from insect invasions, typical of soft-wood species such as Norway spruce. The pruned branch and metal spike reveal interactions with humans, and the insect scars reveal interactions with nature. All of these factors result in the form of the tree. However, the print itself is just as much a product of Gill’s creative process as it is the tree itself.

The progression from wood to wood block to print represents a series of creative decisions. Gill salvages wood from anywhere he can find it including his own property and local farms. He chooses his wood based on the qualities he’s interested in investigating. Once he has found an appropriate piece of wood, he will cut it up with a chainsaw, paying particular attention to areas within the wood that he finds interesting. This process transforms the wood into a wood block. He continues cutting until he is satisfied.

In preparation for print, the block undergoes a treatment of sanding and burning as well as additional manipulation with a variety of tools. The exact method of preparation depends on the species of tree and the quality of the wood. Next, the wood block is inked. This is not a simple matter of applying ink but instead a subjective decision based on Gill’s aesthetic judgment. Gill writes, “the print is not a fingerprint of the wood; it’s not a stamp. It’s the feel of the wood that I’m after.” Similarly, the choices of paper and printing process are artistic choices. Therefore, the resulting print is not simply documentation of the life of a tree but an aesthetic object in its own right. In the print below, Southport Oak, we see a series of cracks that resulted from the block air drying in Gill’s studio.

Abstracted from their source, the tree rings form beautiful printed patterns. Gill’s process heightens the contrast of the rings, allowing his prints to achieve a level of intricacy and detail that does not exist on a typical piece of cut wood. Still, Gill never allows his work to become completely abstracted from its origin: each print indicates the species and age of the original tree.

This relationship between nature and art is central to landscape architecture. Landscapes are continually shaped by human and non-human processes. It’s through intentional design that a landscape becomes an aesthetic object. While at first glance Gill’s prints are unbiased reproductions of natural objects, they are actually highly designed art pieces, just as much about Gill’s own artistic impulses as they are about the trees. In the same way, while a park may appear to be natural, it’s actually the aesthetic result of an intentional design. 

In addition to bridging the gap between art and nature, Gill’s work is a reminder that people and nature are interconnected, often in invisible ways. Interactions with human and non-human forces influence the forms of trees, and these histories are permanently registered in their rings. Sometimes the relationship between people and nature can become convoluted. In the case of Cedar Pole, Gill’s print reveals a mundane telephone pole to be built from a 200+ year old cedar tree.

Just as trees are influenced by a variety of human and non-human forces, we are subject not only to dealings with other people but the ecology of our surrounding environment. While we do not create rings to register our experiences, our lives are still influenced by a variety of daily interactions with a host of cultural and ecological processes. The design of our landscapes facilitates these interactions.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: Bryan Nash Gill / Woodcut. Princeton Architectural Press