Bernard Trainor’s Ecological Californian Residences

Bernard Trainor: Ground Studio Landscapes / Princeton Architectural Press

Bernard Trainor + Associates, led by landscape architect Bernard Trainor, has transitioned into Ground Studio Landscape Architecture. To mark the change, the firm had released a new monograph, Bernard Trainor: Ground Studio Landscapes, to “reinforce our identity working to design timeless California landscapes.” Regardless of its name, the studio’s work is impressive. And the monograph makes the work look effortless. Of course, we know it wasn’t, and there was a rich design process behind each of the featured projects. We’re just not offered much insight into it.

The flaw in most architectural monographs is the emphasis placed on finished products over process. The best monographs leverage text, drawings, and photographs to build the reader’s understanding of a designer’s approach, in addition to cataloging their work.

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Photos of the design process / Joe Fletcher and Alex Suvajac from Bernard Trainor: Ground Studio Landscapes published by Princeton Architectural Press.

So what does Ground Studio’s monograph tell us of its approach? It tells us that Trainor tries to marry problem solving and beautiful place making. We learn that the search for the genius loci is paramount to him, and that his firm attempts to more fully reveal that spirit. We also learn that he has a unique ability to read the environmental patterns on a site. Trainor’s not sure how this ability came to him, but his studio’s best projects are strongly informed by it.

You will learn a bit more by searching online for lectures by Trainor. In a presentation given to the Santa Clara Valley Native Plant Society, we discover that he appreciates when planting and hardscape design are beautifully combined. That’s the sort of specificity one can appreciate and gives us something to look for in the book’s projects. The reader won’t have to look hard: Ground Studio deploys hardscape and planting with a strong sense for complementary materials and textures.

Gravel is a favorite hardscape material of the studio; its versatility is on display throughout the book. It’s used in the auto courts of several projects and often serves as the bed in which other stone pathways sit, becoming a common material thread running through each site. Low stone or concrete walls serve to frame and divide outdoor spaces. Hardscape materials will often be shared by the outer walls of the residential designs, creating a unified feeling between architecture and landscape architecture.

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Gravel connects the landscape at Arroyo Sequoia / Joe Fletcher and Alex Suvajac from Bernard Trainor: Ground Studio Landscapes published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Trainor’s lecture also gives us some insight into the specifics of the firm’s design process. Photographic analysis is critical to their work. The majority of the book’s projects are in the somewhat isolated mountains and valleys of rural California. Ground Studio creates catalogs of panoramic photos taken during site visits to create maps and diagrams of specific views and site features that will inform the design.

Given the context of Ground Studio’s sites, there is always an interesting mix of existing vegetation to respond to. Trainor highlights his firm’s expertise at suppressing exotic plants and re-establishing native ecosystems where appropriate. When it comes to favorable existing vegetation, Ground Studios’ designs are deferential and inclusive. Confronted with two mature trees at the entrance of the Arroyo Sequoia residence, Ground Studio constructed a wooden deck that runs up to and around the trunks.

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A wood deck wraps around an existing tree / Joe Fletcher and Alex Suvajac from Bernard Trainor: Ground Studio Landscapes published by Princeton Architectural Press.

This gesture gives the design authenticity. The firm connects their designs with the surrounding environment by blurring the edges between the two.

Tracing Olmsted’s Journey Through the South

 

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide / Penguin Press

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, a new book about Frederick Law Olmsted by journalist Tony Horwitz, is difficult to classify. It is popular history and a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, his America, and his writings. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times.

In Spying on the South, Horwitz travels in the footsteps of Olmsted, who was himself a political journalist before becoming the father of American landscape architecture we’re most familiar with. It’s worth noting that Horwitz seems to have been put on to Olmsted by his friend Charles McLaughlin, founding editor of the Olmsted Papers Project.

This recreation of Olmsted’s journeys takes Horwitz through the American south and Texas, towns and regions “hollowed out by economic and social decay” as well as environmental degradation.

Horwitz begins the book in the run-up to the 2016 election, and ample connections are drawn to Olmsted’s own political reporting, which occurred in the years precipitating the Civil War. Olmsted’s writing was commissioned to serve as a window into southern society in a time of rising tensions. Spying on the South fills a similar niche.

The book holds obvious value to landscape architects, outside of those interested in dispatches from rural America. As landscape architects have become more self-aware and self-critiquing, we have logically looked to re-consider our heroes.

Frederick Law Olmsted, a paragon of American landscape designers, has been the subject of such re-consideration. Many have found him lacking for several reasons, including his friendly disposition towards the aristocracy and what we now recognize as some flawed urban design practices. Others, willing to see past Olmsted’s mistakes, ascribe them to the times in which he operated.

Horwitz seems to fall in the latter group, but has his reasons. Spying on the South’s most profound insight is that attitudes do not merely progress, but rise and fall. Horwitz describes Olmsted’s attitude towards slavery transforming from opposition on economic terms, to moral opposition, to righteous anger, to outright hatred of it and the society it supported. Unsurprisingly, these attitudes coincide precisely with escalation in the conflict between North and South.

After the war, Olmsted’s attitude towards the south warmed, as did society’s at large. The south had atoned through suffering, Olmsted believed. A well-known landscape architect at this point, Olmsted was more than willing to do business there. This, despite the continued efforts of southern states to oppress their black populations.

Horwitz’s suggestion that our political beliefs are more tied to our zeitgeist than we know is a fascinating one. Of course, we ourselves inform the zeitgeist. Perhaps the best we can do is raise the bar as far as we can before falling back into complacency. The sort of achievement, for instance, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had with Central Park.

Central Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Horwitz describes how Olmsted envisioned such a place long before he was in any position to deliver it, a vision informed by his travels in the south. Olmsted saw Central Park as an opportunity to showcase the democratic values he supported. The park, shared by the city’s inhabitants, would be a rebuke to the aristocracy of the American south and Europe, which were both economically and morally invested in keeping society stratified.

Olmsted saw himself, his brother, and his peers as social engineers, and wished to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions, which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good & bad, the gentlemanly and rowdy.”

Again, some of the language Olmsted uses in describing his ideas would put off those of us who don’t equate poverty with moral deficiency. But one senses his heart was in the right place.

Despite Olmsted’s flaws, something he and posterity have in common is the value we place on Central Park. Vaux, in a letter to Olmsted late in life, calls it “the big art work of the republic.” And in many ways, the progressive values that shaped Central Park were the result of Olmsted’s travels in the south.

The Absent Hand: A Memoir and Critique of Contemporary American Suburbia

The Absent Hand / Counterpoint Press

The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape by writer Suzannah Lessard is part memoir, part examination of the American cultural landscape. Lessard offers a unique and necessary perspective on the deterioration of our society’s connection to the landscape, manifested most prominently in the book as sprawl.

Lessard is an aficionado of sprawl. It transfixes and confounds her, creating a special tension. The reader can feel Lessard’s urge to aptly describe sprawl’s features, sometimes manufacturing new words when the right ones aren’t there. The right words are there often enough, though: schizoid, edgeless, and excrescent attached themselves to places like Rosslyn, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

This struggle to read and relay the suburban landscape is part of Absent Hand’s larger theme: as technology collapses space, context is lost, and with it the ability to understand our place and purpose. Machiavelli explains to his readers in The Prince that to best view a mountain, one must descend to the valley. Context offers the promise of objective evaluation and control.

So what happens when a force such as sprawl saps context from our landscape or climate change outstrips our capacity to solve it? Bad things, you can imagine. Lessard views a cohesive landscape as cultural glue. Without it, there is no common geography to bind inhabitants. Suburbia gets experienced as “individual, customary routes.” And climate change continues its own destabilizing course.

Technology has historically been the primary instigator of this anti-contextualizing process. Lessard points to its impact on war and labor. The Internet has siphoned people from mills and farms into the same offices in front of monitors that bring us everywhere and nowhere. Our relatively recent fascination with industrial and pastoral relics like warehouses and barns is no coincidence, Lessard argues.

Those relics suggest to us a tangible link between our work and our landscape. Modern work has a weak relationship to territory and leaves no such physical imprint (its infrastructure being another story).

Most of these insights dominate the second half of the book. Lessard’s anecdotes and experiences living and traveling, mainly in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, populate much of the first.

Her opinions are never watery, but neither are her introspection and self-critique. I’m a product of suburbia, and her descriptions of it renewed its mystery to me. As a current resident of Lessard’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I found she captured well the charm of the ubiquitous brownstones.

Still, it’s fair to wonder if Lessard’s worries are just fear of modernity. There’s a healthy amount of technophobia expressed in Absent Hand, and Lessard’s outward refusal of nostalgia for bygone landscapes is undercut by her own more elegiac descriptions of said landscapes.

And yes, it’s a familiar trope to fear the encroachment of McMansions, as Lessard seems to. But it’s also highly relatable. The only thing scarier than sprawl’s idiosyncrasies is its sameness.

Still, I imagine Lessard would be amused to learn, as I recently did, that critics initially panned brownstone homes for their uniformity.

The Pioneers of Postwar Landscape Architecture

Shaping the Postwar Landscape / University of Virginia Press

Shaping the Postwar Landscape, edited by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), and Scott Craver is the fifth in a series of books that serve as an encyclopedia of landscape architects and allied professionals who made significant contributions to American landscape design. The book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in American landscape design’s roots.

While the editors set out to provide a reference guide, they’ve achieved a relatively compelling read. Professional disciplines are comprised of people, ideas, and projects. Through the fastidious profiling of American landscape pioneers, Birnbaum and Craver have encapsulated a specific period of landscape architecture in an easily consumable text.

Per the title, the book focuses on landscape architects who were most active post-WWII through the bicentennial. This was the era of Modernist design and the move to incorporate environmental intelligence into design and planning. This era saw the first freeway-capping parks, rooftop gardens, and waterfront revitalization projects. And saw landscapes architects take on a broader range of projects in new territories and at new scales, from urban pocket parcels to suburban developments to greater ecological regions.

Freeway Park, completed by Lawrence Halprin & Associates / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

It was also a time in which the profession of landscape architecture experienced impressive growth. ASLA members numbered 540 in 1949, a figure that leaped to over 4,000 by 1974, according to Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA. With that growth came added diversity and strength of ideas. More women, minorities, and people without professional backgrounds in landscape architecture took on roles in shaping the discipline during this period. The individuals chronicled in the book are those whose professional and academic work guided and informed landscape architecture during an especially exciting time.

Postwar Landscapes’ profiles are well-written and include useful personal and professional information as well as analysis. For instance, we are told not only what projects landscape architect Satoru Nishita worked on, but of the renown of his father’s bonsai and that his portfolio demonstrated a keen eye for design details. In this way the writing avoids dryness in spite of the book’s encyclopedic format. The format does have the benefit of allowing one to telescope in and out of the book. But as one reads through, names of people, projects, institutions and movements recur to the point that one begins to recognize the larger constellation they form.

Babi Yar Yar Park, designed by Satoru Nishita with Lawrence Halprin / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

While Postwar Landscape’s format might suggest it’s suitable only for researchers, its reach should be much greater. Many landscape architects are well-versed on projects but fuzzy on the associated names and chronology. This book is an excellent tool for filling those gaps.

If you know of Lafayette Park in Detroit but not Alfred Caldwell, or admire Cornelia Oberlander’s work but want to understand her broader impact on the profession, Postwar Landscapes can be a rewarding read.

As founder and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, few individuals have done more to increase awareness of American landscape design than Birnbaum. His crusade has produced the sort of work that edifies and anchors a discipline, work that should not be taken for granted.

GGN Re-envisions the Monograph

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GGN Landscapes 1999-2018 / Timber Press

In 2013, urban landscape historian Thaïsa Way, FASLA, embedded herself in the office of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, Washington in order to understand the firm’s inner workings. That initial academic curiosity sparked a collaborative relationship, the remarkable result of which is GGN Landscapes 1999-2018, a compendium of GGN’s projects that interweaves theory and practice. The book sets a new standard for landscape architecture monographs.

It was the goal of both Way and GGN to improve upon the typical monograph, characterized by photos of finished, successful projects and not much else. Both parties were also wary of getting too much into the weeds of each project. GGN Landscapes struck that balance, presenting not only each project’s final design but its evolution, told through detailed written accounts and built upon by process sketches, models, and photos.

The book’s richness is the result of the access Way was granted at GGN. Way looked over shoulders, asked questions, and attended meetings. Details such as which team members led discussions, which incessantly sketched, and on what sort of paper were all taken note of. Way pored over working documents and memos to clients and consultants, seeking to understand how GGN made and maintained relationships. Not confined to the office, Way visited each of the book’s featured projects, accompanied by their respective lead designers (save for one instance in which that designer was unavailable). She stressed that this effort would have been impossible without the benefit of GGN’s trust.

Way’s research paints a picture of an especially collaborative firm that is interested in the intersection of analog and digital techniques and embraces experimentation. It’s worth emphasizing that many firms would claim these same traits. Way witnessed them at GGN. Her analysis is borne out in the book’s featured projects, all of which could stand alone as case studies.

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GGN associate Rebecca Fuchs sketching over a digital model / Kyle Johnson

The first project presented in the book, and perhaps GGN’s most famous, is Lurie Garden in Chicago. Way’s text tells the story of GGN’s involvement, from the project’s procurement through research, design, and resolution. The book describes the technical challenges encountered and thought process behind GGN’s decisions. Iterative sketches show variations on the garden’s iconic breastplate form and planting scheme. And, of course, there are plenty of photos that attempt to capture the power of the space (Way thinks that even GGN failed to foresee just how impressive Lurie Garden would become).

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Early studies drawn for Lurie Garden / GGN

If the Lurie Garden chapter shows us a young firm getting a feel for itself, India Basin Shoreline Park, the book’s final featured project, shows a mature practice in full command of its faculties and with a firm grasp of landscape’s agency. Shannon Nichol, one of GGN’s three founders, led the concept design for the park in the Bayview-Hunters point neighborhood of San Francisco. The concept is, as Way describes it, “emblematic of 21st century design,” negotiating issues of environmental degradation, access to the water, historic preservation, and neighborhood revitalization. GGN’s concept includes a large meadow reminiscent of a patent slip that once existed on site. Included in the chapter are Nichols’ sketches showing the meadow’s origin in the concept, and a series of plans show its refinement over time.

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An aerial view of India River Basin Park concept / GGN

The book also contains less project-oriented views into GGN’s process. Way believes understanding the designer is crucial to understanding their approach. As such, we learn how GGN’s founders came to landscape and their attitude toward design. We also learn of how their practice benefited early on from successful collaborations with outside architects and engineers and how this helped form their broad view of landscape architecture.

With GGN Landscapes, Way and GGN have constructed a monograph better suited for backpacks than coffee tables. I cannot think of higher praise.

Contextual Minimalism: The Landscape Architecture of Coen+Partners

Coen + Partners Contextual Minimalism / Princeton Architectural Press

Contextual Minimalism, a new monograph from the landscape architecture firm Coen+Partners, presents the work of founder Shane Coen, FASLA, and his firm into a well-organized book encapsulating over 20 years of design projects. With photography, some drawings, and minimal text, it tells the story of how Coen’s design instinct developed into a design philosophy, and how that philosophy adapted to different design challenges, primarily in the upper mid-west.

Coen describes his firm’s work as the “celebration of nature through contrast, deduction, and abstraction,” an approach he’s come to call “contextual minimalism.” This approach is apparent in the firm’s use of contextually-appropriate blocks of color, texture, and mono-cultural plants.

Much of Coen’s work feels painterly, with broad strokes and deliberate dashes. Coen writes with appreciation of the impact his father, a painter, had on his approach towards landscape. On many of Coen’s larger projects, this approach works to stunning effect, as in Jackson Meadow. There, on the 365-acrea planned-unit development, Coen’s firm planted the entire property with little blue stem to create a “unified ground plane” for the development’s all-white structures: splotches of white among a field of seasonally fluctuating color.

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The architecture and landscape at Jackson Meadows / Peter Bastianelli Kerze

Even after many years, Jackson Meadows feels unique among Coen’s projects, and much of that has to do with how Coen, in this book and public lectures, has described it. More than any other project, Jackson Meadows feels like a sandbox, a testing ground for what was at the time Coen’s philosophy.

Collaboration with the project architect elevated Jackson Meadows. This sort of collaboration has been a mark of the firm since its inception. Coen explains that working on projects with powerful architecture “brought meaning” to his practice. You can attribute some of that meaning to the holistic achievements that result from successful collaboration. But Coen exhibits an admiration for architecture that feels unique among landscape architects. It provides inspiration and a datum from which to design.

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A residence in Jackson Meadows / Coen+Partners

Coen’s approach is often forced into tighter private and residential spaces. Still, there is an attention to materials and relationship between architecture and landscape architecture that bolsters these projects. In the Wood House in Chicago, Illinois, Coen uses blocks of color and material to blur the boundary between inside and outside.

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The Wood House / Christopher Barrett

The projects elucidate how Coen’s economical design approach shifts and adapts to different settings. In rural contexts, the preferred way of exalting nature is to contrast it with structures or work that is clearly artificial. In urban settings, the designer must abstract nature. If done well, the effect will be a sublime and uplifting experience.

One might dispute the logic behind this strategy, but not the results. Look at what is achieved in Minneapolis Central Library, which is hemmed in by depressingly-wide roads. Before, the approach to the library was routine at best and degrading at worst. Coen added slate gardens supporting a row of birch trees to the library’s north-facing sides. The jagged slate recalls Minnesota’s rugged terrain. Its layering and the pioneering birches suggests opportunity and positive disruption.

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The Minneapolis Central Library / Coen+Partners

Most monographs suffer from a surfeit of finished photographs in place of sketches and plans that provide real insight into the design process. Unfortunately, Contextual Minimalism does not deviate from this trend. But the book does allow one to see a clear connective thread between Coen’s projects, which is a significant achievement.

A New Vision of Coastal Resilience

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Structures of Coastal Resilience / Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new book by landscape architect Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, engineer Guy Nordenson, and architect Julia Chapman, draws on years of research in design, art, policy, and engineering to argue for a new vision of our coasts. As an analysis of trends in representation, mapping, and coastal design work, the book more than justifies its existence. But it is the thought paid to the evolution of these subjects over time that affords the reader a new view of coasts and establishes Structures as a significant contribution to the body of research on coastal resilience.

Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes in the book’s introduction that “there is no bigger challenge today than the management of coastal ecologies.” Landscape architects have laudably embraced this challenge and the attendant challenges of environmental and social justice, with no more recent and prominent national example than the Resilient by Design: Bay Area competition. Structures’ authors have concerned themselves with questions of coastal resilience for over a decade — and much of their own design work is featured in the book. The resulting research spans ecology, policy-making, engineering, and design, all of which contribute the physical and institutional structures of resilience.

For someone unfamiliar with the topic of resilience or wondering why the treatment of our coasts needs addressing, the authors’ premise is clear. Our attitude toward the coast has generally been to seek steady conditions. But ecological resilience theory, along with our own observations of this centuries’ worst flooding events, proves that the steady state is a myth. Ecosystems are in constant flux between states. Our coastal works should reflect this reality, with design leading the way.

In order to do so, landscape architects must learn how to better represent the dynamism of the coast. Historically, landscape architects, engineers, and cartographers have relied on motifs of the hydrological systems as static, with a defined line between water and land. This in turn has contributed to our proclivity for sea walls and levees for flood defenses.

Dynamic representations suggest and inspire dynamic treatments of the coast. The authors mine recent history for examples of dynamic representation, from Harold Fisk’s Map of Ancient Courses of the Mississippi River Belt to coastal section drawings produced by landscape architects Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. These drawings do away with the water/land boundary in favor of a gradient of conditions that shifts and pulses over time.

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A portion of sectional sketches through gradients along the Fall Line in Virginia. Each section illustrates the diverse transitions from water to land, and from high ground to low ground, in the region. / Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, University of Pennsylvania, Island Press

The authors provide a rich exploration of that gradient, its qualities and potential, in the chapter “Reimagining the Floodplain.” As they do with the subject of each chapter, the authors trace the history of ideas and attitudes towards the floodplain and evaluate new methods for engaging it as a site of design. The ideas profiled are speculative within reason, such as landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkins’ coastal forests for Narragansett Bay, which faces issues of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion. The strategy for increasing  resilience varies along the bay’s length, but generally relies on the planting of forests and shrub lands that attenuate high winds, reduce erosion, and shield community assets.

The strategies Van Valkenburgh and Elkins employ also involve moving community assets out of the floodplain. This strategic retreat from the coast will become more common as climate change exacerbates flood events. The authors also describe a strategy of adaptation through vertical retreat, which sees the lifting of buildings and critical infrastructure above the floodplain and, in phases, replaces lots and alleys with a system of canals and protective wetlands. Such strategies will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but what emerges out of the book is a portfolio of ideas and novel thinking that one can imagine being adapted to certain contexts.

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“Amphibious Suburb” proposal for Chelsea Heights, a back-bay neighborhood of Atlantic City and a former salt marsh transformed by urban development. Phased future development would elevate roads and homes, create canals and wetlands, and construct protective edges. / Paul Lewis, Princeton University School of Architecture, Island Press

In the last couple of decades, the democratization of visualization technologies and data have helped to dissolve the boundaries between the disciplines involved with coastal resilience. This has provided landscape architects with exciting new ways of engaging with and designing for coastal environments. Using hydraulic modeling, bathymetric and topographical information, and environmental data, landscape architects can rapidly image an environment and the impact of proposed design interventions on that environment.

One crude example of this is the water tank model, which the authors used to evaluate a proposed intervention in Palisade Bay. While the method isn’t specific to the bay, the authors were able to design a series of wave-attenuating land forms, visualizing their effect on the Bay’s hydraulic conditions. The authors evaluate the impact of these and other technologies throughout the book.

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A water tank model allows experimentation, facilitating testing of the interaction of new landforms with current, tide, and storm surge. / Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, and Adam Yarinsky, On the Water: Palisade Bay, 2010, Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience is an excellent collation of current design research and trends related to our coasts. And through historical analysis, ecological research, and an exploration of representation, the book suggests new ways of seeing and responding to the opportunities our coasts provide.

Resilient Design for Low-Income Communities

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Resilience for All / Island Press

In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.

The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.

Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between social and ecological systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.

Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.

Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.

As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits. It’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. Brown calls this approach “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”

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Cully residents at work in the community garden / Barbara Brown Wilson

Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.

In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.

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“Safe Routes to School” planter box at Skinner Playfield. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.

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Skinner Playfield network map. This diagram shows the variety of organizations Denby high school students worked with to achieve their desired outcomes. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.

Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.

Designing for the Other Four Senses

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The Senses: Design Beyond Vision / Princeton Architectural Press

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new book from designers and curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, is a compelling survey of the emerging field of sensory design. The book accompanies an interactive exhibit of the same name by the authors on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum through October 28th. While The Senses is not quite the manifesto for multi-sensory design practice its authors claim it to be, the book captures the poetics and science of sensory design and in doing so conveys some useful lessons for landscape architects.

Sensory design’s historically-narrow application has broadened as our own understanding of the senses has gained sophistication. Add to that the potential of emerging technologies to create and augment sensory experiences, along with the urgent need for more inclusive design, and you have the swell in popular attention the field is currently experiencing.

It’s worthwhile to ask whether, as landscape architects, we are guilty of treating hearing, taste, scent, and touch as second-class senses. Put to any landscape architect that the senses other than sight are important and you’re likely get a nod of agreement. What isn’t as clear is whether this acknowledgment commonly manifests in our design work.

Sensory experience commands greater consideration in landscape architecture than most design fields, and so landscape architects are better attuned to their designs’ effect on the senses. But we often conceive of and deploy landscape architecture as a palliative to harsher environments than rich sensory environments in and of themselves. As to how we might improve and innovate in this regard, The Senses offers some inspiration.

The first step is to bring to sensory design the same level of critical thought brought to visual and spatial design. What are the qualities of an environment where all five senses have been weighted equally in the design process, not simply manufactured under “the tyranny of the eye”?

The Senses features an interesting case study in San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired. There, light and space are maximized, materials are chosen for their acoustic properties over their appearance, and details such as tapered handrails and textured steps are integral elements, not tacked-on details.

© 2017 don fogg | all rights reserved
Stairwell, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 2015 / Photo by Don Fogg.  The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

One recurring practice among The Senses’ featured designers that has an application for landscape is layering. Layering allows for the creation of environments rich with hierarchy and nuance.

Snarkitecture’s undulating wallpaper, Topographies, is one example, as is the Rich Willing Brilliant Studio’s attitude towards lighting. According to these designers, sound, smell, light, flavors, and texture can be layered to form thresholds and barriers, ceilings and corridors. If this seems architectural, that’s intentional. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel stresses the multi-dimensional quality scents take on when layered and allowed to develop volume. Laudamiel is a master of evoking landscapes with his scents, such as meadows dense with wildflowers and the Bosporus Strait.

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Topographies, 2017/ Photo courtesy of Calico Wallpaper. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

If there’s one project in the book the offers a more grounded idea of how landscape architecture and sensory design can interface, it is Tactile City. Expanding on existing tactile paving systems, Tactile City illustrates how streetscapes can be designed to benefit the visually impaired. Highly-textured paving tiles can signal features of the environment to someone relying on a walking stick. Indications of street furniture, bus stops, or construction can be imprinted in the landscape. “Sensory design can shape the beauty and function of a place – and address dangers and obstacles,” the authors write.

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Tactile City, 2015 / Image courtesy of Theodore Kofman. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Much of the exhibition and book is concerned with new technologies: The Scent Player, emitting smells instead of music,  or a device that converts reverberations against the skin into dialogue for the deaf. These technologies, while not immediately translatable to landscape architecture, underscore the fluid nature of our senses. The authors do an excellent job of conveying how senses feed and play off of one another. Sights can trigger smells can trigger tastes, with past experience setting some of the rules for these exchanges.

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Scent Player, Cyrano, 2017 / Photo by Wayne Earl Chinnock. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Experience of the landscape should engage all of our senses. Sensory design is about maximizing that experience and making sure others of differing abilities can as well. The Senses is a worthwhile read for landscape architects wanting to pursue these goals.

The Desert Gardens of Steve Martino

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Desert Gardens of Steve Marino / Monacelli Press

The work of landscape architect Steve Martino, FASLA, derives its interest and relevance from a simple notion: the desert landscape should be celebrated, not ignored. This notion is expertly manifested in the 21 gardens featured in the new book Desert Gardens of Steve Martino, edited by Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, and photographed by Steve Gunther.

Gunther’s photographs give great insight into how a desert garden can not only be robust but even lush. It’s Martino’s brisk and charming introduction, however, that provides the book’s greatest insight into the catalogued projects.

Martino came to landscape by way of architecture, which he studied at Arizona State University in the 1960s. It was through this education that Martino says he experienced a set of epiphanies.

The first epiphany was that landscape was mostly eyewash. A client could spend tremendous amounts of money and achieve a sub-par result.

Another was: why weren’t all architects also landscape architects? It seemed irresponsible to leave the site design to someone else. Martino pursued this instinct, working for architectural firms on their site designs.

And, lastly — as for the native desert plants he was told to avoid using — Martino suspected they held more potential than expected.

This suspicion was confirmed by Ron Gass, a nursery-owner with an encyclopedic knowledge of native desert plants, whom Martino holds in great esteem. Martino, out of a job at one point during the 1970s, went to work at Gass’ nursery and learned as much as he could.

In the meantime, Martino marketed himself as a designer of “outdoor space,” a term many of the architects he interviewed with found unnerving. Much like the desert gardens Martino wished to promulgate, outdoor space seemed an oxymoron.

Martino persisted and received opportunities to expand the use of desert plants in his work, “connecting a project to the adjacent desert.” Their use did much more, Martino soon realized. They lent his projects an ecological intelligence and environmental stability that only proved more prescient in the following decades.

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Many of Martino’s projects reinforce the connection between the garden and their larger landscape context, like this example from Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

Martino’s work often juxtaposes desert vegetation with architectural structures, a relationship he describes as “weeds and walls.” One such example is the Palo Cristi garden, where the heavy influence of architect Luis Barragán, as requested by the garden’s owners, can be seen. The simple, clean lines of Martino’s walls frame and complement spindly, spiky plants that seem like colorful guests at a garden party. Sun is a design material that Martino deploys or limits in turn.

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The Barragán-inspired walls of Palo Crisit Garden / The Monacelli Press

Martino often plays up the space demanded by desert vegetation — the effect is to put certain specimens on display. And sculptural works are used to reinforce the character of these plants. In the Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona, steel rebar evoking woody desert plants crowns a fireplace.

Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

In other instances of Martino’s work, the hand of the designer is adroitly hidden behind a more naturalistic planting scheme. The Greene-Sterling Garden, also in Paradise Valley, Arizona, features desert trees that were allowed to grow to the ground, much the way they would grow in their natural habitat. This also did away with the need for understory plants.

When Martino started out, he had to argue for the incorporation of environmental intelligence such as this into his design work. The ensuing decades have proved Martino right.