Michael Heizer: From Archaeology to Land Art

book cover
Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments / The Monacelli Press

As a pioneer of the land art movement, Michael Heizer is responsible for some of its most famous and impactful works, including Double Negative and City. And yet even by the standards of an artist, Heizer is seen as obsessive, reclusive, and contradictory. He has, throughout his life, fought attempts to frame or analyze his work by anyone other than himself. This underscores the significance of writer William L. Fox’s new book, Michael Heizer: Once and Future Monuments, which contextualizes Heizer’s work and investigates his influences.

Heizer has a unique relationship to his influences. He cops to some but not others, often insisting on his intellectual independence. “My work…comes directly out of myself.” Fox’s central argument is not only that archaeology (Heizer’s father Robert was a renowned archaeologist) and the work of peers such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria strongly informed Heizer’s work, but that exploring these influences is a worthwhile endeavor that adds interest to Heizer’s art.

Double Negative by Michael Heizer / Wikipedia

Fox, who is also director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, draws on significant primary source material to support this exploration: namely, the files of Heizer’s close friend and project manager Guido Robert Deiro, made available to Fox through a donation to the museum. These files, which include correspondence, drawings, and hundreds of photographs compiled over the course of three decades, unlock new insights into Heizer and his singular vision.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Heizer did not give this book his blessing. His lack of input in what could be the definite text on his life and work ends up leaving a Heizer-sized void in the book. One senses this absence most acutely when comparing the book to Dana Goodyear’s 2016 New Yorker feature on Heizer. That article, which follows the artist in New York and visits him in Nevada, is saturated with his charm and off-color humor.

Fox’s erudition and keen insight is the Future Monument‘s draw. Fox knew and collaborated with Heizer for a time between the late 80’s and early 2000’s. The questions that drive the book’s narrative seem to have first emerged during that period. For instance, what was the extent to which Robert Heizer influenced his son, beyond instilling an intellectual passion for archaeology? It turns out many of Heizer’s more pronounced traits, including his obsessiveness and surliness, could be found in both his father and grandfather.

Fox takes these and other insights, gathered from personal conversations, interviews, and additional sources, and weaves them seamlessly with archaeological research, history, and art journalism to craft a cohesive text. Pocketing the text are interview transcripts with Deiro, who provides fascinating anecdotes of time spent with Heizer as well as details some of the technical and political efforts that went in to Heizer’s works.

Through Future Monuments, those works can be seen in a larger context. Levitated Mass, situated on pedestals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is what Fox considers Heizer’s most recognizable work. And its success partially relies on an imposition of size and material one usually associates with ancient monuments. City, a massive installation out in the desert of Nevada, has a cultivated sophistication and theatricality to its layout, the origins of which one could trace to the built environment of the Incas.

levitated mass - Eden, Janine and Jim
Levitated Mass / Flickr user Eden, Janine and Jim, CC
City by Michael Heizer / Google Earth

Through the exploration of Heizer’s influences and biography, we may find new meaning in his work. For what it’s worth, Fox, who is an admirer of Heizer, describes him as “stronger on method than theory.” You’re free to interpret Heizer’s work as you will, but it’s worth considering if the true significance of, say, City, lies in the sheer act of it.

Deep Insight into a Small Garden

Designing a Garden / Monacelli Press

Designing a Garden, the new book written by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is a lucid and candid examination of the process of designing and constructing a single project: the Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Van Valkenburgh intends the book as a sort of how-to guide to landscape design, not unlike a cookbook in terms of detail and clarity. Of course a garden is more than the sum of its ingredients, and a design brief is not a soluble equation. But the book’s generous number of sketches, photos, construction documents, and written correspondence help immeasurably to illustrate a general process “common to the making of nearly all built landscapes.”

Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Lexi Van Valkenburgh
Monk’s Garden / Michael van Valkenburgh Associates, Alex Maclean

This process of redesigning the existing Monk’s Garden at the museum in the early 2010s begins with a frenetic diagram sketched on a yellow file folder. Here, Van Valkenburgh faces his first challenge: how do you wander in a space so constrained? The space for the Monk’s garden, hemmed in by the museum, is a mere 52 feet by 150 feet. The wandering path becomes not only a central design element but also a device with which to engage the space.

sketch
The initial concept sketch for Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Monacelli Press

It is also this story’s charismatic central character. Van Valkenburgh and his team get to work tailoring it to the site. Instinct and experience help generate the first ideas, but those must be refined through design inquiry. For the path’s material, the idea of pine needles is considered and quickly withdrawn, deemed impractical. Bricks, initially dismissed as too common, come back in to the fold. But what size and material? Samples are procured and configured into mock-ups. The design team scrutinizes them from every angle and in every quality of light. Van Valkenburgh remarks that he’ll even hold the materials to his nose, testing for a scent and another data point. He admits it doesn’t usually help, but it probably doesn’t hurt. Black manganese bricks, rich in color with a clean edge, are settled on for the moment. But material is a question the team will regularly revisit.

Meanwhile, path layout tests are staged on site with a garden hose. When the result is too imperfect, the team falls back on surveyor string, until finally getting their hands on the bricks. Hundreds of iterations are born and fizzle on site, in scale models and sketches. Planting ideas begin to take shape and inform the path.

path-sketches
Marked-up iterations of the garden’s wandering path / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Monacelli Press

Van Valkenburgh, a renowned planting designer, illustrates his approach to plant selection in vivid terms. Branches are scaffolding, and the space between them is air. “Airiness,” like figure and spread, is a quality by which a tree can be judged, Van Valkenburgh assures us. “Don’t be confounded by the difficulty of finding words to describe what the space of a tree feels like.” Those fluid qualities are worth consideration and cannot be specified in a drawing.

The airiness of trees in the Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Lexi Van Valkenburgh

All of these decisions are made via trial, error, and regular conversation between Van Valkenburgh and Anne Hawley, the museum director at the time. The book opens with a semi-formal letter from Hawley to Van Valkenburgh requesting his services and describing the desired outcome for the garden. Among other attributes, it should be a garden “where Proust could contemplate.”

As for the path, Michael and his team feel it come to life when they decide to incorporate schist as a balance and foil to the manganese. In an email to Hawley explaining the decision, Van Valkenburgh, writes: “All too often people reduce Proust to madeleines, forgetting that the real magic is found in madeleines and mint tea together.”

Manganese and schist bricks combine in the Monk’s Garden / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Scott Shigley

Designing a Garden is a small but outstanding text culminating in a smaller outstanding text, The Gardner Gets a Garden, an essay by Laurie Olin, FASLA. Olin offers effusive appreciation. He contextualizes the garden in relation to other art works and Van Valkenburgh’s own body of work. Van Valkenburgh, Olin writes, has demonstrated a career-long interest in the sensual and perceptual. In this book rich with illustrated and photographic insight, we can understand that conclusion.

Designing a Green New Deal

Environmentally beneficial transmission line easement / LOLA Landscape Architects, .FABRIC and STUDIO 1:1

Close to 1,400 attendees and several thousand online viewers watched the day-long Designing a Green New Deal conference hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, which brought together for the first time the policy experts and activists driving the Green New Deal (GND) with landscape architects, architects, and planners.

“It is really important to think about what it would mean to build out a GND,” said event co-host Billy Fleming, ASLA, Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center. “The policy experts didn’t have anybody that could help them think through what it would look like and how it would work.” Fleming hoped the event would spark a conversation between policy experts and designers about what kind of built work might arise from and hasten a GND, and how those projects could address both climate and social issues.

Some of the most inspiring ideas came during the event’s first session “Beyond Hagiography – Mining the New Deal Legacy.” Nick Pevzner, ASLA, senior lecturer of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, presented speculative and built projects that put energy infrastructure to creative use and deploy renewable power in sensitive ways (see image at top).

“The GND implies a rapid expansion of renewable energy infrastructure,” Pevzner said. How and where this infrastructure might be situated in the landscape, and what co-benefits it may provide, are issues that landscape architects should be considering.

As Pevzner pointed out, conflicts are already arising between renewable energy infrastructure and existing land use. Landscape design and careful planning can help navigate those conflicts.

Landscape architect Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, who spoke at during the event’s “Bold Visions for a GND” panel, emphasized the ability of design workshops to spark policy. She asked attendees to think about ambitious projects that would transcend municipal and state boundaries, projects that would inspire “new, casual coalitions of self-interest,” and a stronger, greener federal mandate.

Among these ideas were a Mississippi River National Park, as well as a coastal “shore-way” featuring “equitable, managed retreat, investing in living shorelines, and stemming the collapse of coastal biodiversity.”

“We need to visualize and give form to this exciting, new, low-carbon landscape,” Orff said. But is a GND necessary to realize projects of such scope and ambition? Yes, Orff told me. “This kind of change requires federal, state, and local cooperation in ways that are currently elusive.”

Fleming agreed, saying “it’s impossible to imagine a world in which we’re able to take on challenges like climate change, climate justice, and social justice at the scale at which it is occurring without a GND. We’ve reached the limits of what we can do through the project-by-project, private firm-driven development of the world.”

One of the event speakers, Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at University of California at Santa Barbara, elaborated on the challenges of de-carbonizing the U.S. power sector with or without a legislative package as transformative as the one the GND implies.

“We’ve been living on borrowed time” in terms of our energy resources, Stokes said. The potential of hydro and nuclear power has for the moment been tapped. Wind and solar represent our best hope at de-carbonizing the power grid and transportation system. In order to do that, the U.S. will have to approximately triple its current capacity in the next 10-20 years, according to Stokes.

In other words, “we have to get really good at building stuff better and quickly,” Fleming said. Beyond projects that foster renewable energy or low-carbon modes of transportation, landscape architects have a role to play in ecological restoration, environmental justice, and social justice. Fleming pointed to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Emscher Landscape Park in Germany as projects that took on critical issues outside of energy, such a biodiversity and adaptive reuse of industrial land.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative / Y2Y.net
Emscher Landscape Park / Latz+Partners

Architect Peggy Deamer, representing The Architecture Lobby, laid out several principles that designers can hold themselves to that are in line with the GND’s principles. “We have a say in what we build,” Deamer told the audience. “We need to build projects that aren’t just objects of capitalist consumption.” She also emphasized that project stakeholders are not just the owners, developers, or users of a project, but the environmental and social community in which a project sits.

Several other speakers echoed this sentiment, including Orff and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy director for New Consensus, who advised the designers in the room to “meet people where they are” in order to listen and share how planning and design can benefit their communities.

Fleming said he expects the conversation between policy experts like Gunn-Wright and design experts to continue, with the McHarg Center facilitating dialogue between greater numbers of design firms and GND policy experts.

Watch the full day-long event:

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.

Bernard Trainor_p13_small
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.

BernardTrainor_p47_small
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.

BernardTrainorp39right_small.jpg
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 a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted and a history of his America. 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

cover_small
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.

sketching_small.jpg
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).

concepts_small.jpg
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.

india-basin-small
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.

Coenpp22-23bottom_small
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.

Coenp25topleft_small
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.

Coenp134_small
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.

Coenp178_small.jpg
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

cover-small.jpg
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.

Figure 2_18_small
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.

Plate 12e/f
“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.

Figure 2_35_small
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.