Artist Jill Bliss organizes the vibrant mushrooms of the Salish Sea ecosystem into collages, which she then photographs. These exuberant works showcase the rich biodiversity of this unique region, which covers the coastal waterways of northern Washington state and the southern part of Canadian British Columbia. For her, “nature is my church.”
Many of her mushroom collages are assembled on islands — Decatur Island, San Juan Island, and Cortes Island, among others.
Bliss states that since discovering the Salish Sea, “I’ve been living, working, traveling and exploring” here ever since.
By trade, she works as a naturalist aboard a tour boat exploring the Cascadia region.
However, when tourist season is over, “I satisfy my nomadic nature by holing up in various off-grid cabins, preferably with wild animals and semi-feral people for neighbors, mentors, and muses. These are the months for hibernation, quiet reflection, close observations of discreet moments in nature, and art making.”
While architect Tadao Ando’s Hill of the Buddha opened more than a year ago, we are just now discovering this wonderful work of landscape architecture in Makomanai Takino Cemetery in Sapporo, Japan.
Ando told Domus magazine: “‘The aim of this project was to build a prayer hall that would enhance the attractiveness of a stone Buddha sculpted 15 years ago. The site is a gently sloping hill on 180 hectares of lush land belonging to a cemetery. The statue is 13.5-meter-tall (44-feet-tall) and weighs 1,500 tons. It is made of fine, highly selected solid stone. Until now, the Buddha statue has stood alone in the field, giving an unrestful impression. The cemetery wanted to give visitors a more serene appreciation of the Buddha.”
So Ando, who is famous for his spiritual buildings made out of concrete, convinced the cemetery to bury the grand Buddha, with just his head peeking above ground, to show respect for this ancient teacher. The Buddha is now surrounded by a hill covered in some 150,000 lavender plants. The only way to get close is to walk through a 40-meter-long (131-feet-long) tunnel.
As Ando explains, “the design intention was to create a vivid spatial sequence, beginning with the long approach through the tunnel in order to heighten anticipation of the statue, which is invisible from the outside.” The tunnel’s walls are formed out of folded concrete that feels both elemental and monumental.
When visitors reach the Buddha at the end of the tunnel, they see his head is “encircled by a halo of sky.” The cemetery says this view creates a “blessed moment.”
The surrounding lavender fields offer an ever-changing frame for the Atama Daibutsu: “they turn fresh green in spring, pale purple in summer, and silky white with snow in winter.”
Ando also created a water fountain, which can be seen in the video above, that serves as a “sacred boundary.” In Buddhism, water enables the quest for “calmness, clarity, and purity in our body, speech, and mind.”
According to the cemetery, “by detouring around the water garden instead of making a straight approach, one purifies the soul, and one’s mindset switches from the ordinary to the extraordinary.”
Spiraling upwards into the grand space of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. is the Hive, a trio of domed chambers designed to create unique acoustic experiences. Conceived by Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang, the Hive towers some 60 feet and is comprised of over 2,500 cardboard tubes. Within its chambers are chimes made out of building materials, like copper pipes and wrenches, and a giant tubulum, an instrument constructed out of pipes of varying sizes that produces warm, surprising sounds.
In a tour of the Hive, Gang explained how she used sound to define the space. In the vast expanse of the National Building Museum, “you can’t really hear someone just 10 feet away from you. The sound gets lost, as it does in a big field.”
Within the museum, Gang instead wanted to create an intimate acoustic space. She wanted to recreate the sense of being inside a forest clearing, open but enclosed by trees, where one can sense, acoustically, the bound space as sound waves bounce off trees.
Working with acoustic engineers with Threshhold Sound, Gang and her team accomplished a similar surround sound effect inside the Hive, using catenary structures, painted silver and magenta, to create a full, harmonious timbre.
Gang seemed particularly excited about the tubulum. “When everyone plays together, the chamber will be rocking!”
The structures are inspired by both built and natural forms — Gang talked about the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome and mused about pine cones. “We see spirals in nature, too.”
The Hive is open until September 4. Interactive sound experiences will be held on Saturdays. Tickets are $16 for adults and $13 for kids and seniors. Get your tickets in advance.
Peter Marino’s garden is about as unexpected as you would expect from the celebrity architect, whose name has become synonymous with high-end fashion lines like Chanel and Luis Vuitton. The Garden of Peter Marino offers a look inside the designer’s sprawling 12-acre Hamptons property, where over the course of two decades he has carefully curated a series of gardens that blend formal landscape elements with unexpected details.
Marino organizes his garden by color. But he also agrees with a friend’s assessment that he’s created a network of outdoor rooms, which are home to his 42-piece collection of Italian artists Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s surreal, cast-iron sculptures. Spread after spread reveal a pristine, manicured garden dotted with art, often placed to interact with the plants. In lieu of a masterplan, these photographs of the sculptures orient the transitions between colors.
But perhaps equally as interesting as the images is the book’s insight into Marino’s design process, which is both thorough and technical, and random and personal. Sometimes, he goes to great lengths to explain the layers and spacing of planting, where at other times, he states unqualified preferences: “I don’t care for yellow flowers mixed with other colors, so I planted them all together in what I intended to be one big explosion of yellow.” He will detail his plant choices with Latin names and variety, and in the same paragraph use phrases like “mad amounts” to account for the density of hydrangeas.
Marino also gets personal. He describes the whimsical forest section of the estate as “Harry Potter-esque,” imagined for his daughter.
The Zelkova trees in this section of the garden date back to the Civil War, he was told by an arborist. One was among 16 trees lost in Hurricane Sandy. “I was devastated,” Marino writes. “But nature has a way of doing its thing, which is why I will never really consider any garden as ‘finished.’”
These moments, coupled with the photos, offer an absorbing visual essay of a decades-long pursuit of an architect designing a home for his art in the unpredictable medium of the garden.
Moving through the pristine vastness of the Great Hall at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. is like being inside a monument on the National Mall. But the museum’s new installation and permanent foray into the woods offers a different experience.
Just beyond the structured lines of the architect Phillip Johnson’s Modernist residence-turned-museum are “the woods.” Far from wild, this curated, yet un-manicured portion of the sculpture garden is found in the forested back area of Kreeger’s 5.5-acre property in the residential Foxhall neighborhood north of Georgetown.
Here are a series of mirrored columns clustered among the oak, maple, tulip poplar, and beech trees, and scattered along a wood chip path. These are the Portals.
Artist Sandra Muss designed the piece specifically for the Kreeger as it expanded its sculpture garden into the woods. Muss’ piece is a series of seven ten-foot mirrored steel rectangular columns, wound with rusted wire and vines.
Despite the size, the columns are unassuming and easy to gaze over, reading as green foliage when viewed from the concrete walkway that wraps around the museum.
But once down in the woods, the scale of the column becomes more palpable, and what appears from above to be a carefully-curated placement of columns becomes a more compelling maze of reflections. Moving through the mirrors distorts the carefully-orchestrated sculpture garden experience — reflecting, and at times framing, bending, and pulling images of the museum and other sculptures down into the woods.
The woods are a welcome juxtaposition to the hushed, untouchable quality of the building above and offer a more organic component to the museum’s sculpture garden.
“In general, the planting is pretty simple, because it’s the art that wants to be the focus,” said Julie Patronick, landscape designer with McHale, who designed the forested sculpture garden expansion and worked with Muss to incorporate vines on the columns from the surrounding area.
Ultimately, she said, as new pieces are added to the forest, the intention will be to let the art decide its surroundings — be it exposed with only ground cover underneath, or more hidden, and seamless like Portals.
New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with Community-resilience.org, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.
In many struggling small northeastern rural towns, the drug epidemic has ravaged communities already weakened by the loss of manufacturing jobs. But it’s clear there are also many using “creative economy” approaches to revitalize themselves. Through her organization, Hough has collected case studies of success stories in Vermont. The communities making themselves more resilient share some important values: “volunteerism, empowerment, ingenuity, creativity, cooperation, entrepreneurism, local ownership, and self-sufficiency,” Hough said, adding that “leadership is key.”
In Vermont, the farm-to-plate economy, a “state-wide but closed-loop” system, now accounts for $8.6 billion, up 24 percent since 2007. There are 7,300 farms, employing 61,000 farm workers, on 1.2 million acres of farmland. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) models have helped farms like Screamin’ Ridge Farm flourish (see image above). Screamin’ Ridge turns left-over imperfect vegetables, which are often discarded as food waste, into soups that are served in schools, hospitals, and other institutions. “They aren’t serving the metro areas.”
Other efforts to boost self-sufficiency: the Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT), a community-based group that trained 50 volunteers from the Thetford community and sent them out to educate other homeowners about weatherization and solar energy options. And on Water Street in the town of Northfield, the community undertook “flood recovery at the neighborhood scale.” A cooperative of 100 homeowners banded together to elevate the most-affected homes and turn the worst-flooded areas into a park.
Lynne Seeley, a community planning consultant, detailed positive bottom-up efforts in mostly-forested, half-uninhabited Maine, the “least dense state east of the Mississippi.” In Grand Lake Stream, a town of just 109 souls, a land trust was formed in 2001 to protect the renowned outdoor recreation areas where people come to fish for salmon. Some 370,000 acres of lakeshore, forest, and wildlife habitat was protected. Seeley said the trust, which has had a tough time raising money, sees their future selling their forest’s carbon credits in cap and trade programs.
In Lubec, a town of 1,350, which is the easternmost community in the U.S., and also the poorest in all of Maine, there’s a new community outreach center where 110 volunteers (nearly 10 percent of the whole town) provide some 1,100 hours of community service a year. An associated food bank serves 20 percent of the community. And in Deer Island, which has 1,975 people, there’s the 12th largest employee-run coop in the country, which now runs three stores, including the local hardware store. CEI helped organize the financing. “This is rugged New Ruralism,” Seeley said.
In New Hampshire, Jo Anne Carr, director of planning and economic development for the town of Jaffrey, highlighted the work of the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN), founded in 1984, which has grown from a pilot with 12 low-income women and now has 1,400 members. In Bethelem, WREN got the Omni hotel to create a gallery featuring artists in their network. Downtown, there’s a retail marketplace with some 300 vendors. If a woman wants to become a “WRENegade,” they have to “agree to put themselves out there and become a vendor at a market.” WREN also launched a new maker space in the city of Berlin where women can access “WiFi, latops, CNC machines, laser cutters and printers.”
The Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI) adapted the age-old concept of a community barn-raiser to create an “energy raiser” in which members volunteer two-to-three times a year at residential solar installations, in turn learning new skills. As volunteers do the installation, they also lower the costs for the homeowner. PAREI has completed 35 energy raisers in 11 towns, including one for the local homeless shelter, which saved the organization $5,100 in annual energy costs.
Lastly, Monadnock at Home, a program for a 10-town region, provides service for 90 elderly households “aging in place,” including helping them avoid frauds and scams, providing transportation to appointments, and organizing social events to help reduce isolation. The organization has pre-screened 100 service providers that can provide small jobs around the house.
Carr reiterated that New Ruralism is really driven by “community leadership, volunteerism, and creative financing.”
“A thousand years ago, China was very corrupt and chaotic. During the New Year celebrations, it was especially chaotic. This upset the gods. They didn’t like people to indulge too much,” explained artist Cai Guo-Qiang, in his New York City studio. “On the 15th of January, they decided to punish people by putting fire to the city. The god’s daughter was worried and came down to notify the people about the plan. The people lit thousands of lanterns. The god, looking down from the sky, saw the city was already on fire. He was pleased; the job had been done.” While there are many versions of the folk tale that inspired the Chinese Lantern Festival, Cai Guo Qiang connects with this one.
Now, Cai is bringing his story of Chinese lanterns to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Frankin Parkway this September. Fireflies, his first public work since 2009, will bring 27 custom-built, lantern-laden pedicabs up and down the parkway in a choreographed pattern. Seen from above, they will dazzle like a summer evening alive with fireflies.
People will be able to jump on and off for rides. But amid all the fun, Cai seeks to “warn society against the indulgence we are now enjoying.” If we look at the lanterns, “we can guard against that.”
Fireflies is organized by Philadelphia’s excellent Association for Public Art, headed by Penny Balkin Bach, and guest public art curator Lance Fung, founder of Fung Collaborative. Cai was receptive because he knew Philadelphia from his 2009 art work there: Fallen Blossoms, a giant firecracker flower that exploded in the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At the preview of Fireflies in Cai’s studio in New York City, Balkin Bach said the illuminated art work will bring “new life to the parkway at night, making it a destination.” She said in contrast to Cai’s famous exploding art works, this piece has a lightheartedness.
Fung said, in the past, “Chinesey-ness was a derogatory term.” But Fireflies makes the stories from Cai’s upbringing, the stories from this gifted Chinese American immigrant, accessible to a wider audience. “Fireflies is social advocacy, with a deep empathy and understanding.”
Cai himself said he was inspired by Benjamin Frankin Parkway, with its rows of flags of countries around the world. “The parkway commemorates the diversity of immigrants.” The light from hundreds of lanterns will “illuminate” the uniquely American melting pot.
Fireflies opens September 14 and runs 6-10 pm, Thursday through Sunday, until October 8. Rides will be free and open to everyone.
See a brief video of this exciting artist’s work:
First video credit: Cai Guo-Qiang Fireflies, video by Studio 33.
In her book The Eye Is a Door, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, contemplates the ubiquity of the digital camera. “Never have so many people owned cameras,” and never have images been disbursed so widely. “Our world is being recorded,” Spirn writes. “But to what end?”
Author Charles Wolfe proposes an end in his new book Seeing the Better City. And that end, suggests this environmental and land-use lawyer, is the improvement of urban environments. The first job of the book, a how-to guide on maintaining a photographic diary, is to answer the obvious question: what role do photographs play in improving cities?
Every day, Wolfe writes, people living in cities encounter changing skylines and neighborhoods. They often have strong opinions on those changes. Oral arguments are made and editorials are written advising on what changes should be made, and often these arguments lack even the most basic visual aid of a photograph. Perhaps the term “multi-family housing” conjures a specific image in your head. But if assessing whether a multi-family unit belongs in your neighborhood, you’d have an advantage if you could view precedents.
Still, there’s a gulf between taking photos and improving cities. How does one apply what can be gleaned from photographs to the world of decision makers and developers? Wolfe offers several case studies of projects that make use of community photography to inform civic debates.
WALKscope in Denver has users submit photos of sidewalk quality, obstructions, amenities, and maps those observations. California King Tides invites users to submit photos of the sea taken at high tide to spread awareness about sea-level rise. Beyond these novel uses of photos, the simple incorporation of photos into presentations that inform civic decisions would greatly improve the decision-making process, Wolfe argues.
As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.
As for actually shooting photos, Wolfe eschews prescribing techniques in favor of offering basic guidelines. He draws upon well-regarded photographers such as Ansel Adams and other visual thinkers. Diarists should know to make a photo, not just take one. Light is critical, as is where one stands. People are more critical still. Visit locations multiple times; light changes, but so do uses, the presence of people and animals, and small details such as litter. Juxtaposing the old and new can be interesting, if a bit derivative. Juxtaposing form, material, and use can yield rich photos.
Wolfe wants us to ask ourselves: what is being evaluated through our lens? Wolfe provides 10 parameters for seeing the city. The relation of building to street, standards for roads and signage, and the role of nature are just a few.
Wolfe also suggests activities for inaugurating a diary, such as visiting your five favorite neighborhoods and recording the sights and sounds you encounter, filming your next bike ride, or writing a couple paragraphs about your morning commute.
Many people effectively keep an urban diary without realizing it. The next step is to organize one’s thoughts and photos, reflect on them, and build off them.
Scattered through Seeing the Better City are Wolfe’s anecdotes on his own diary keeping. His observations often demonstrate a deep knowledge of urban policy and land-use issues. Your observations may not, at least initially. But at the very least, urban diaries expand the diarist’s understanding of their city, and that’s enough to start the process of improvement.
If you’ve herring-boned over to a trail map, or swished to a stop to take out your handy pocket map at a ski resort, you’ve probably seen the work of James Niehues, “the Michelangelo of snow,” but not even known it. For the past three decades, Niehues has painted the topographical trail maps that grace many of the major ski slopes in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He has created over 160, writes The Washington Post. Interestingly, Niehues only considers himself an intermediate skier.
His process for mapping a slope is intensive. He will fly in a Cesna plane to take aerial photographs. He told Cabinet magazine about his in-depth approach: “I’ll try and shoot the mountain from every angle possible, starting at about 4,000 feet over the summit of the mountain to get some very high altitude stuff, and then I’ll drop down and get more of the detail around the lower part of the mountain.”
He sometimes skis the mountain to get a “better feel for its features,” but admits he “has tried only about 5 percent of the resorts he has painted.”
He then paints each ski resort by hand in water color, painstakingly documenting every contour, trail, ski lift route, and, yes, every single tree.
He told Scout: “Hand painting offers more variety of expression in that each brush stroke is different, making each tree (which usually has the base shape, a shadow and a highlight) individual and natural. A ski resort trail map represents the great outdoors and the better this presentation portrays the natural vast scenery of the slopes the more inviting it is to the viewer. I used to have a slogan that I used in my mailing to potential clients: ‘A quality trail map reflects a quality ski experience.’ A trail map must first be accurate, but a very large part of the equation is for it to be as beautiful as possible to entice the viewer. I just haven’t seen any computer-generated images that do that better than a hand-painted image.”
For Niehues, the hardest slopes to depict are those that criss-cross multiple mountain faces, instead of just one. “The most challenging part of any multiple-faceted resort is moving all the elements so the entire system of runs can be shown in one view, without the viewer seeing any reason why it not just as it is portrayed!”
Niehues explained to The Washington Post that he “likes knowing that skiers take a piece of him in their pockets whenever they ski the mountains he has painted.” He said: “One of the more special things is that they come down the mountain and have a beer and open up the map and talk about their experiences and they’re reviewing my art.”
When reductionist artwork, like a Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian painting, succeeds, it succeeds in part because of the role it affords us, the viewer. Faced with a vacuum of meaning, we impart our own identities on the work, gratifying ourselves in highly-personal ways. Artist Barbara Grygutis, whose sculptures are featured in the new book, Public Art / Public Space: The Sculptural Environments of Barbara Grygutis, practices a different reductionism. It’s not us, but the sculpture’s setting that completes the composition.
The book’s subtitle tells us a bit about how Grygutis sees herself, not just as a composer of materials, but a composer of environments. Many of her sculptures cast intricately woven shadows, filter and disperse light, or consolidate it into beacons. The resultant spaces are elevated by the sculptural work and reconstituted environmental qualities. Bronx River View is one such example. This collection of sculptures transform the walls of an above-ground subway station into windows and seating. The view works both ways, and the light cast inward onto the train platform illuminate the sculptures and the passage of time.
“If you look back at civilizations, we learn about them through their art,” Grygutis says in an interview at the outset of her book. That’s an edifying thought if we consider Dawn’s Silver Lining, a sculpture that epitomizes Grygutis’ most successful work (see image at top). Set in Salina, Kansas, the surrounding rural landscape is flattened into a silhouette of trees and vegetation and pressed onto perforated aluminum: the reduction process. The silhouettes are then re-extruded by the light, the quality of which is constantly changing.
It’s not always enough to simply reduce. There must be a re-introduction of substance into the artwork. Without this — or with too uncritical a reduction — the piece can suffer from a poverty of meaning. Grygutis’ Drop in Prewitt Park is a 35-foot steel and glass sculpture of a water drop. Set centrally to rippling landforms, the sculpture is intended to read as the moment of congruence between water and earth. Instead, because of the drop’s very recognizable and very flat form, it reads as a corporate logo, a symbol rather than a system.
This logo-ization of complex system holds back a few of Grygutis’ sculptures that seem to have powerful ideas behind them. Weather, an oblique steel and glass structure located in North Richland Hills, Texas,is meant to evoke the meteorological systems that our landscape is subject to. But the pattern emblazoned in the glass says less about our weather systems than a barometer. Grygutis’ sculpture Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs, is quite literally a giant symbol, π, comprised of several other symbols borrowed from keyboards and calculators. There’s literalness in this and other Grygutis sculptures may put an expiration date on them.
Other projects, like Flaming Arroyo in Las Vegas and Frequencies, a project slated for completion in 2017 in Palo Alto, feel timeless. The latter, which is comprised of five perforated aluminum sculptures and set on a tech campus, indexes electromagnetic frequencies that are ordinarily invisible to us.
This is Grygutis at her most impactful, manifesting the unseen or ignored forces of our environment with sculptural interventions that beg people to slow down and take notice.