Mount Umunhum, the third largest peak in the Bay Area, has long been sacred to the Amah Mutsun tribe. Its peak is central to their origin story. And for many years, the tribe would form a ceremonial circle there and stomp their feet as hard as they could so that creator would hear.
In the 1950s, the US Air Force purchased the top of the mountain, terraced it, and built an early warning radar station that included some 80 structures, such as a swimming pool and bowling alley. From the late 1950s up unti 1980, when the base closed, the station was off-limits to the tribe and all other visitors. Then in 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) purchased the land with the goal of restoring the landscape as a spiritual home for the Amah Mutsun.
After spending millions to remove asbestos, machinery oils, and lead paint from the site — and taking down all structures save the radar tower — Midpen reached out to landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Restoration Design Group (RDG) to make this spiritual place both physically and culturally accessible. Over seven years, RDG landscape architects Bob Birkeland, ASLA, Peter Rohan, ASLA, and planner Rich Walkling collaborated with the Amah Mutsun tribe to realize their shared vision. A new Mount Umunhum opened in late 2017 after many years and a $14 million investment.
In a phone interview, Walkling said RDG organized a half-day design charrette with the tribe to plan and design the spiritual revitalization. The tribe not only guided the placement and size of the ceremonial circle, but also its connections to the greater world and its materials.
“They needed to know where the four cardinal directions were, so we put in gaps in the seat walls” to indicate north, south, east, west. The tribe needed to enter the circle from the east, so the access trail to the space was set on the east side. And because the tribe stomps on the ground with their bare feet, the base of the circle was formed of a softer natural substrate.
Beyond bringing the circle back to the peak, RDG also started the process of ecological restoration of the multi-acre peak landscape, which is found within a “coastal influence zone.” Walkling said this has been tricky because “there are not a lot of reference conditions; it’s now much different from its natural state.” RDG worked with a botanist to create multiple restoration patches to see which plants would survive in a place that “receives up to nine inches of rain in a day, 100-mile-an-hour winds, snow, fog, and pounding sun.”
Walkling said the whole process “was very rewarding for the tribe — it’s a process of healing for them.” But perhaps with one caveat: the radar tower, which some groups fought hard to preserve, remains a potent reminder of the place’s military history as well.
Still, after being scattered for so long, the tribe has now been able to “reconstitute, re-ground itself” in its restored home.
In the wonderful video at top, tribal chairman Valentin Lopez explains why it’s so important to restore the greater ecosystem of the peak landscape. “We must heal mother earth — people, plants, wildlife, rivers, fog, rocks, the shadows. They are all alive. There is a responsibility to take care of them all.”
And he has an important message for other communities seeking reconciliation with the past: “Every inch of land was once indigenous land. Get to know whose land you are on. Say a prayer for them. Get to know them.”
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.
What makes a great photograph of landscape architecture?
The challenge of photographing landscape architecture is taking a three-dimensional space and making it two dimensional. The best photographs of landscape architecture make you feel like you’re in the space.
A good photograph tells a story. I don’t think of myself as making individual photographs. It’s always interesting to me when someone remembers one photograph, because my photography is about telling the story of a project.
Does taking photographs of natural landscape and works of landscape architecture require different approaches? If so, how?
I am not at all interested in taking pictures of the natural landscape. My role is taking pictures of the built environment. I’m most interested in how culture impacts the land and nature. How we want to control it; what we think of as beauty, and the political implications of a designed landscape.
I became aware of this in the 90s. I got a grant with a writer, Diana Ketchum, to photograph 18th century English-style gardens in France. They are based on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French are not particularly interested in them. Most people know about Le Nôtre’s landscapes: the classic French Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, which symbolizes the absolute power of the king. The English-style gardens were built just before the French Revolution. They are meandering, with winding paths, and views that are meant to make people feel and think and question the absolute power of the king. They were built at a time when people were traveling to Italy to see ruins. In Northern France there were no ruins so they built their own. One of the gardens in Ermenonville is now Parc Jean Jacques Rousseau. It has grottoes and a temple on the hill with fallen pillars.
Today, landscape architecture is political in its relation to how we think about climate change, parks, and water use. Also, there’s the issue of parks and gentrification.
How can you capture the feel of a designed landscape, taking a work that is in 3-D and making it 2-D?
I do it in collaboration with the designers. I find that incredibly helpful as they hone my vision. I work with a medium-format digital camera that sends an image to an iPad so my clients can can react to it in real time. They can tell me, “no, no, this is what I meant.”
Is there one photograph that tells the whole story? Sometimes. But not always. I leave things out. But I also put in a lot in. One photo is just one part of the story. I need multiple photos to tell the story.
If I have a lot of time in a space I can kind of figure out the logic. But my clients have designed sight lines, they’ve thought about the space, they know the way the light works. They don’t know how to document it, generally, but they know what they want. And, so, it’s this back and forth that I find extremely exciting.
What process yields the best photos?
For me, it’s definitely working with the designer. My clients generally humor me when I go off on a tangent. They encourage me to see what I see.
I always say: “turn around.” I was taking a photograph of what I was supposed to be photographing and then I turned around and the light was coming through the trees on the hillside. That photograph ended up being the cover of Living Land, Blasen Landscape Architecture’s book. It was just a moment that captured some essence.
The exciting thing about photographing landscape architecture is that there are no rules. I showed a photograph of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Texas, at the field session at the ASLA Annual Meeting. There’s a pole going right down the middle of the photograph. You can see the base of the pole.
Chris McGee, art director at Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), said: “Oh, I was looking at that and saying, ‘which photograph do I like better?'” But it was one photograph. I broke the rules. I guess there are rules to break.
How do you capture seasonal change and the progression of time?
There aren’t many projects I do over time. They have to be very significant projects for my clients, because hiring me is a big expense.
I just did a private house this summer for Surface Design, which I’ve documented over time. The landscape has a big meadow that’s great to capture in different seasons, but this is a rarity.
How do you capture people inhabiting a landscape in a way that doesn’t feel staged?
You can try to use real people. But one of the problems is that when I shoot dawn or and dusk, there is nobody there. Or if people are there they walk straight through the picture, and you don’t see them. There’s not even a blur, because the exposures are so long.
I sometimes bring a whole team of people. When I photographed the San Antonio Botanical Garden that Christy Ten Eyck designed this summer, the botanical garden invited families so there were kids there. We were able to do the photographs in the right kind of light with people in it.
As Chris McGee says, “we just don’t want to see the same person in every shot.” You want people to be comfortable and look natural. I sometimes have people walk through a site in order to get movement through it. The problem with real people is they can go too fast or too slow. They can be carrying a big plastic bag, just not looking right.
What will visual landscape representation look like in 25 years? Will photography always have a place in the world of drones, virtual reality, mixed media, or some other technology that we don’t even know about?
I am not interested in using a drone, but I have been on shoots where drones have been used to great effect. I’m happy to have them, because I hate hanging out over edges where there’s parapets and stuff and you can’t really see, and you’re not getting the angle people want. Landscape architects love things from above.
Drones are not great quality, but they’re great for a certain kind of image. They’re less interesting to me, because, again, it’s flat. I’m not interested in shooting flat. I’m interested in the relationship of near and far and how you make that three dimensional space a photograph.
I may be virtual in 25 years, but I don’t think I’ll be around in 25 years. I have grandchildren and I wonder what their lives are going to be like in 25 years.
Images are ubiquitous now. We live by images. But how much time do you give to an Instagram photograph? It’s not really about the quality. It’s about: does it grab me or not? I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. I like seeing what people are doing and interesting things. The thing I hate about it is: “Well, why am I stuck home here at the computer working when you’re in Nepal on a mountaintop looking at this beautiful sunset!?”
Lastly, what is the most important advice you have for amateur photographers who want to improve their photography of landscape architecture?
Look at landscape photography you admire and try to figure out what you like about it. Imitation is a way of getting where you want to go.
Trial and error; that’s it! Keep doing it. Do it, do it, look at it. Judge it, figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
I had a wonderful mentor at one of the magazines. She wouldn’t let me go out unless the light was right. I learned a lot about light from her. My photographs are about light. The right light is generally not the middle of the day. Early or late.
When you’re photographing architecture, you can have full sun on a façade, and it shows the shapes. But when you’re photographing landscape, anything with texture and plants, trees, you end up getting dark pools underneath trees, even the trees themselves are broken up by dark shadows.
You’re not seeing form; you’re seeing light. The forms are light and shadow.
Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.
Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.
He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.
He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.
In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”
He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”
In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.
He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:
“Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
Restore and protect wetland systems.
Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
Establish native plant nurseries.”
Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.
Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.
Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.
At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.
And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”