The Case for Austerity

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If abundance and variety characterize most gardens, then an austere garden is one marked by subtlety and restraint. Respectable qualities, especially in a society that aspires to opulence. But these same qualities make austerity much trickier to identify and thus admire. Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests in his latest book, Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending, that we must attune our senses to recognize austerity and its value.

“Experiential richness does not depend on complex form or an abundance of elements. It is how we look, and what we want to see, that makes a garden,” Treib writes. Decouple ornamentation from beauty and austerity will have its day. Treib’s book is a vision of what that day might look like, with examples of austerity from the past and present, from art, architecture, and landscape design. Japanese gardens make several appearances (Treib has studied them extensively), but so do peat quarries in the UK, an experimental forest in Sweden, and Salgina bridge in Switzerland.

These varied examples of austere works beg the question, how does Treib define austerity? You might get a different answer depending on which page you flip to. “State less, imply more.” “Simplicity, reduction, and compression.” “Restriction in means.” These are all true, of course, but only constitute individual aspects of austerity. One might say, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The challenge Treib sets himself is attuning readers’ eyes to it.

Austere Gardens begins with a description of the musical score 4’ 33” by composer John Cage. The score is performed in front of an audience, although it requires no instrument, just the periodic disruption of silence. The performer relinquishes control to the audience. Shuffling of feet, heavy respiration: ambient noise comes to the fore. Silence becomes music and austerity delivers riches.

4’ 33” possesses an effortlessness common to many of Treib’s examples of austere works. Tactical mowing, cutting, digging, and occluding are economical strokes with outsized impact. Treib gives as an example the construction fence, hiding from passersby what lies beyond. “What has been screened, withheld, or removed often stimulates greater intrigue.” Closure and revelation. Achieving more with less can be interpreted several ways.

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Tactical mowing adds color to a path in a German meadow. // Image Credit: Oro Editions

Patience is essential to appreciating austerity, writes Treib. “Without taking the time to look, perceive, and perhaps to think, any rewards may be meager.” Even the mundane, perhaps especially the mundane, deserves a prolonged gaze. The austere beauty we’re witnessing, Treib tells us, may be intentional, inadvertent, or the result of time and its effects.

The essay’s organization will frustrate some readers who desire more structure. It is, as the title implies, a series of thoughts. One can read it in a sitting, feel refreshed by its ideas, and then wonder, “What was the overarching point?” A call for austerity and all that implies, certainly. And yet an absence can be felt after putting down Austere Gardens, the sense of a lesson left incomplete. In a way, the essay practices what it preaches, leaving room for the reader to close the circle.

A New Look at the Trail Blazing David Williston

David A. Williston / TCLF
David A. Williston / TCLF


David August Williston
is a name little known today, even in the world of landscape architecture. But according to Dr. Douglas Williams, Student ASLA, Ph.D graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he is one of the trail blazers of the field. One of the first African American landscape architects, Williston designed some of the major campuses of historically African American colleges like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his lifetime, he never experienced full integration, having passed away in 1962 at the age of 94, but managed to accomplish a lasting legacy of built work.

In a talk at Howard University’s School of Architecture, Williams wondered why Williston is so little celebrated. In part, he blames the lack of diversity in core landscape architecture texts, like the Landscape of Man, published in 1970, and Landscape Design, in 2001. “Where are the black people in these texts?”

He also pointed to the paucity of published books on African American cultural landscapes. Celebrated African American landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, published a book of his own work, but that was back in 1997. (Apparently, he is at work on a second book on his “hybrid landscapes”). The 2004 book African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, an overview of some 100 designers, includes only 5-6 landscape architects. Williams bemoaned that mainstream attention to these designers only gets paid in a cursory fashion during Black History Month.

Williams highlighted a few examples of what he considers to be excellent African American scholarship on landscape: from J.B. Jackson’s The Necessity of Ruins and Other Topics, which states that “the garden landscapes of blacks are some of the least known and richest,” to We Shall Independent Be: African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, a compendium edited by Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander, which explores the stories of African American communities displaced by Frederick Law Olmsted in the creation of Central Park.

Referring to Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that geniuses are less isolated phenomena than important nodes in deep and rich social networks, Williams argued that Williston also collaborated widely. He tried to imagine Williston’s African American contemporaries, many of whom remain unknown. He tried to imagine how Williston was able to create an entirely African American system to achieve his landscape designs in the segregated deep South. And he tried to imagine how Williston, without access to white-owned nurseries, could have sought out native plants in the woods and cultivated them on his own. (Williston was one of the first African Americans to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cornell University; there, his love of plants grew into a considerable expertise on plant propagation and cultivation.)

Williston taught horticulture to African American college students while also serving as a campus landscape architect for numerous historically black colleges. He spent 20 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also worked with African American architect Robert R. Taylor to lay out the physical campus. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, he then settled in Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Great Depression, where he started his own firm. He designed the expansion of Howard University, and numerous other colleges, working well into his early 90s.

Williams’ hope is to completely digitize Williston’s archives and make them accessible online for future researchers, using them as a basis to create 3-D models of now-lost planting schemes, so more people can experience a Williston landscape.

A Universe of Interactive Art in Tokyo

In a leap for interactive art environments, Team Lab, a collaborative of Japanese artists, has put together a fascinating and bizarre collection of works in a 3,000-square-meter space in Tokyo. The pieces are truly responsive: visitors impact and shape the ever-changing works in real-time.

In the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity, visitors wade up to their calves through a shallow pool surrounded by mirrors, which creates the effect of being in an infinite space. As visitors walk through the water, underwater lights that mimic koi fish dart by.

The Dance of Koi - Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab

According to the artists, the “trajectory of the koi is determined by the presence of people, and these trajectories trace lines on the surface of the water.” The even-more amazing part: “When the koi collide with people, they turn into flowers and scatter.”

The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab

This art work is derived by an algorithm in real time; it’s not a “pre-recorded animation nor on a loop.” It’s a work of continuous interaction and constant change.

In Wander Through the Crystal Universe, visitors interact with a giant pointillist sculpture in which “the particles of light are digitally controlled, and change based on the viewer’s interactivity with the work.” As visitors move, light shifts; as more visitors enter, light accumulates. Visitors can also use their smart phones to chose colors and shapes that will be included in the evolving piece.

In Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers, visitors enable seasonal change. As visitors walk through, “flowers are born, they grow, bud, bloom, and, in time, the petals fall, and the flowers wither and die. The cycle of birth and death continues for perpetuity.” The piece also enables visitors to select butterflies with their smart phones and send them off into the surrounding “flower universe.”

And, lastly, Soft Black Hole, creates a dark space that plays with “the borders of floors, walls, and ceilings,” creating perhaps a startling version of a space you may find in a contemporary Korean spa. As visitors get into the space, their body weight shifts the environment, and so visitors impact the space of other visitors. “Your body changes the space, and the space changes the bodies of others.”

Soft Black Hole / Team Lab
Soft Black Hole / Team Lab

If in Tokyo, visit DMM.Planets before August 31.

Building the Next Generation of National Park Advocates

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Grand Teton National Park / Image Credit: Flowvella.com

The National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate its centennial on August 25. One hundred years after its creation, the U.S. national park system stands as the “best national park system in the world,” according to National Park Service (NPS) director Jonathan Jarvis, who spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. But he insisted that future success should not be taken for granted.

“Our centennial goal has been to create the next generation of visitors, supporters, and advocates for our national parks and our public lands,” Jarvis said. Failure to do so will result in losing the parks to “selfish interests,” or private development for short-term gain.

One way that Jarvis and the NPS have tried to create this next generation of park enthusiasts is by advertising the parks as part of America’s story.

“When I became director in 2009, we recognized that there were gaps in the American narrative as told by the national parks.” During Jarvis’ tenure, the NPS has taken into its stewardship 22 new sites, including several that speak to the contributions of minorities to America and America’s history of slavery and oppression. The latest place to be designated a national monument is The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, considered the birthplace of the gay liberation movement.

With a backlog of $12 billion needed for park services and repairs, Jarvis was asked how the NPS considered taking on even more sites into its stewardship.

“In almost every case, we have minimized the actual amount of land or resources we need to take care of, and we have brought in philanthropic partners to assist with that. It does add to our overall responsibility, but I think we’ve been very judicious in ensuring it does not add significantly.”

No one can suggest that the park system has not been successful under Jarvis’ leadership. 2015 saw 312 million people visiting the park system. That is more than the visitors to Disney, the NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, and NASCAR combined, according to Jarvis.

Still, support for the NPS has been steadily declining in congress. According to the Center for American Progress, members of Congress filed at least 44 bills or amendments that attempted to slash protections for parks and public lands in the last 36 months.

Jarvis said that he and his team are doing their best to partner with corporations and philanthropic bodies to offset certain costs. “The basic operation of a national park is the responsibility of appropriators. Philanthropy gives us that margin of excellence on top of that.”

Jarvis smiled as he waved off suggestions that sponsorship of parks on the part of private partners might lead to signage reading, “The Grand Canyon, brought to you by Exxon.”

“We have always had relations with corporate America. It was the railroads that built most of the major lodges. We are protecting these assets from branding and labeling.”

Asked where he sees the future of the NPS heading, Jarvis reiterated the importance of inspiring a new generation of conservationists and preservationists to “bring the concept of conservation back into their own communities. Many of the initiatives that we have launched, like the studies around the contributions of Latinos and women and Asian American Pacific Islanders, and LGBT community, will be carrying on into the next administration. I don’t see this ending.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16 – 30)

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Photograph by Simon Norfolk / Institute for the New Yorker

Are Seawalls the Best Answer to Rising Sea Levels – or is Retreat a Better Option? The Guardian, 7/18/16
“The extraordinary pictures of subsumed gardens and a swimming pool wrenched from the ground by the giant waves that battered Sydney’s northern beaches last month have revived debate about seawalls and the impact of human attempts to keep the rising ocean from our doors.”

Cleveland’s Great New Public Spaces Helped Make RNC 2016 a Success The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/22/16
“The Republican National Convention, where Trump gave his acceptance speech Thursday night, was a great, crashing success for its host city – and especially for the revitalized public spaces that framed the event and made it possible.”

The Secret Behind the Floral Mural of Fiddler’s Green’s Living Walls The Denver Post, 7/22/16
“Live music isn’t the only animate attraction at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Greenwood Village. The concert venue, owned and operated by the Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA), also boasts North America’s largest living walls. Picture vast, lush gardens with a total of 25,000 plants tipped on their sides, an aerial Eden.”

Changing Skyline: New Dilworth Park is Busy with Everything but Protests Philly.com, 7/22/16
“You only have to spend a few minutes in Dilworth Park to see what a people magnet it has become since the Center City District completed a dramatic, $55 million makeover two years ago. Besides regular attractions, like the cafe and sparkling fountain, there is something special going on 186 days a year – that’s every other day – ranging from concerts and farmers’ markets to bocce tournaments and Lupus Awareness booths.”

What It Takes to Clean the GangesThe New Yorker, 7/25/16
“The Ganges River begins in the Himalayas, roughly three hundred miles north of Delhi and five miles south of India’s border with Tibet, where it emerges from an ice cave called Gaumukh (the Cow’s Mouth) and is known as the Bhagirathi.”

Obama Chooses Historic Jackson Park as Library Site Chicago Tribune, 7/27/16
“Rejecting a rough-edged urban site for what could be a showcase near the lakefront, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have selected Chicago’s historic Jackson Park as the site of his presidential library, sources said Wednesday.”

The Obama Library Is Going in Jackson Park – What That Means – The Huffington Post, 7/28/16
“The last major remaining question about the Obama Presidential Library—which Frederick Law Olmsted-Calvert Vaux-designed park would become the building site for the facility—was answered yesterday when news leaked out that the First Couple had decided on Jackson over Washington Park. This is a good-news/bad-news result.”