Battles Ahead: Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign

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Proposed Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hirshhorn Museun

The conceptual design for a new Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, designed by photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, was recently approved by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), following an approval from the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in May. This comes amid concerns from The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) that the current design, which was created by landscape architect Lester Collins in 1981 to significantly modify the original 1974 design by architect Gordon Bunshaft, is a masterwork of Modernist landscape architecture and should be preserved. The organization included the garden, which displays some 60 sculptures, in its “landslide” list, which aims to raise awareness about threatened culturally significant landscapes.

There are three major components of the redesign: reorganizing the spaces of the garden to meet the need for more event space, reopening the underground tunnel that connected the garden and the museum under Jefferson Drive, and creating new stacked stone walls. The reorganization and stacked stone walls would greatly shift away from Collins’ design.

Sugimoto’s design breaks the garden into three distinct sections, which the CFA called “lawn, pool, and grove.” The West Garden, or lawn, and the pool will house new forms of sculpture and provide spaces for performance art, while the East Gallery, or grove, will showcase the museum’s existing collection of bronze sculptures.

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Major zones of the redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, thinks this will allow the museum to better accommodate the increasing scale of 21st century art and growing popularity of performance art.

The reflecting pool, which was in the original design for the site by architect Gordon Bunshaft, will be enlarged to accommodate a performance platform. The design team proposed four options for the pool. NCPC vice-commissioner Thomas Gallas preferred alternative option 1, which integrated the existing pool, at a depth of 6 inches, with a larger pool, at a depth of 3 inches, and the performance platform. NCPC also asked for an option that retained the original dimensions of the reflecting pool found in Bunshaft’s design. CFA had reservations about the new design of the pool as well, critiquing the “generic quality and functional limitations in creating a flexible performance space.”

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Alternative 1 for the pool’s redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Restructuring the garden with a reworked system of ramps will allow for greater accessibility for wheelchair users and families with strollers. In Collins’ redesign, the only accessible entrance from the National Mall is on the north side of the garden. A visitor needing the ramp entrance coming from the museum would have to go around to the other side of the garden.

The new plan creates a ramp system that starts from Jefferson Drive, greatly increasing the accessibility of the garden. The ramp system would snake around the West Gallery before providing access to the rest of the garden. Many NCPC commissioners thought that increasing accessibility was important.

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Sketch of new accessible route from North and South sides / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

Reopening the tunnel running between the museum and the garden contains its own set of challenges. The passageway still exists, having been turned into ARTLAB+, a learning center for teens to engage with the latest technology. The tunnel was closed, in part, because it felt unsafe to visitors, who subsequently didn’t use it. The original opening into the plaza wasn’t large enough to light the length of the stairs.

The new design proposes enlarging the opening to the edge of the historic plaza stairs, an option NCPC commissioners thought was an appropriate balance to make the space feel safer and retain the historic character of the plaza. Based on solar angle studies, this would allow light to reach the bottom of the stairs and, when paired with a new stainless steel wall cladding, will brighten the length of the tunnel. Sugimoto based the shape of the wall cladding on a mathematical formula, a technique he has used before for sculptural work.

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Proposed entryway to connecting tunnel / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

The introduction of stacked stone walls received the most push back from the commissioners, although not for historical reasons. Sugimoto seeks to create a hierarchy of walls so that all of the proposed or reclad walls will be shorter than the existing exposed aggregate concrete walls. Almost all of these walls are meant to define rooms in which sculptures can be exhibited.

Commissioner Mina Wright felt that, although the new walls were successful in creating display rooms, they would be too busy and potentially distract from art work displayed in front of them. Vice-commissioner Gallas mirrored these concerns, although directed at the largest wall that would serve as a backdrop of the performances of the reflecting pool. He expressed concern that the wall was over sized and less successful at creating a room because it spanned across multiple sections of the redesigned garden.

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Rendering of stacked stone wall with bronze sculpture / Hiroshi Sugimoto

CFA also directed the design team to continue to study the stone stacked walls to ensure they acted as a backdrop for the work rather than a distraction. TCLF opposes the stacked stone walls because they believe they would diminish the legacy of Collins’ design.

The existing plan is subject to a Section 106 review, a stipulation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). Every federal agency has to assess the effects of proposed changes to historic resources. Furthermore, public values need to be considered when determining the historical significance of a project. In the case of the Sculpture Garden, this is complicated by a classification called the period of significance (POS), which for the Hirshhorn complex ends in 1974. The POS is set by the Smithsonian and determines the explicit time frame that should be considered for historical significance.

Gordon Bunshaft was the architect of the Hirshhorn building and the original designer of the Sculpture Garden, which was completed in 1974. The garden was entirely exposed aggregate concrete, making it miserably hot during the D.C. summer. The sunken garden was only accessible from a series of stairs, making it inaccessible to visitors in a wheelchair. Public backlash was harsh, and a redesign of the garden was committed to by 1976.

Bunshaft’s Sculpture Garden as built in 1974 / Smithsonian

Enter Lester Collins, who at this point was a well-known D.C.-based landscape architect. He worked with the character of the garden, incorporating plants and trees for shade as well as introducing a ramp from the North entrance, off of the National Mall, that was the beginning of an accessible route through the entire garden. As TCLF puts it, “the redesign aimed to afford every user a dignified arrival and a comparable spatial experience.” The space became enjoyable to spend time in, a place to contemplate art and the gardens relation to the larger museum. At the time of its unveiling in 1981, even Bunshaft felt the redesign was “sensitive and well-proportioned.”

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Collin’s 1981 redesign greatly increased green space in the garden / The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C. photo: OLIN

But the POS doesn’t extend to include this addition, only the original Bunshaft design. The Section 106 review only has to account for designs within the POS. The TCLF has two fights ahead of them, extending the POS set by the Smithsonian and then ensuring the new design doesn’t interfere with the cultural resources of Collins’ design.

Because of the limitations of the POS, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and by extension the Smithsonian, currently has every legal right to change the garden to better meet its perceived needs. Both NCPC and CFA found that the configuration of the garden has been subject to changes based on use and accessibility concerns throughout its lifetime. The proposed redesign is a new layer in its history. Neither commission took the Section 106 review as a limiting factor during the conceptual design phase of the review process.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of TCLF, who is a strong advocate for Collins’ original design, posits that “if the Smithsonian deems a work of landscape architecture that is part of its material collection culturally insignificant that sends a dangerous message about the worth of landscape architecture more broadly.” Others have joined TCLF in opposition to the redesign, including Docomomo DC, a group aimed at promoting Modernist works, and District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO), who were a part of deciding the POS time frame for the Hirshhorn.

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Current state of the sculpture garden / Smithsonian

Only the conceptual phase of the project has passed the CFA and NCPC, meaning there are at least two more rounds of approval with each commission. During the intervals of this meetings the Section 106 battle will continue, as only the first step out of four has occurred. The second consultation meeting for the Section 106 review is tentatively scheduled for July or August of this year.

All parties involved agree that something needs to be done to revitalize the garden, but the debate focuses on what and how much should be changed. The Hirshhorn museum currently holds the upper hand. But the debate is far from over and will only become fiercer the closer it comes to a close.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16 – 31)

Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden / The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C., image: OLIN

A Hirshhorn Museum Garden Redesign Looks Forward. Others Look Back.The New York Times, 5/16/19
“The vibrant, eye-catching works that fill the sculpture garden at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum make it easy to overlook their environs.”

Inside the Most Spectacular New Stadium in Tennis Architectural Digest, 5/21/19
“Just in time for the 2019 French Open, Court Simonne-Mathieu—complete with its own network of greenhouses—is ready for play.”

Art of the LandComstocks Magazine, 5/22/19
“Public art has always had a place in the designed environment, but art in landscape is becoming more common in the public sphere.”

Landscape Architect Behind Princess Diana Memorial Commissioned For €70M Paris ‘Green Lung’ Around Eiffel Tower The Telegraph, 5/22/19
“Anne Hidalgo has announced plans to transform the passage linking Trocadero Square to the Eiffel Tower into a pedestrianised “green corridor” by 2024.”

2019 ParkScore Rankings Now AvailablePlanetizen, 5/22/19
“Washington, D.C. has the highest ParkScore among the 100 largest U.S. cities, according to an annual ranking announced today by the Trust for Public Land (TPL).”

Shadow-Casted Artwork Tells the Story of Time on an Indian Street

We can feel the passage of time as we watch the sun chart its course across the sky. But we have also become accustomed to the daily arc of our closest star. To bring the movement of the sun — and the progression of time — into the foreground, Indian street artist Daku leveraged the sun’s shadow-casting power to create a temporary installation — Theories of Time — for the St+art India art festival along a commercial street in Panjim, Goa.

Theories of Time / Daku

A street-long awning holds up stenciled adages that project shadows forming a tapestry of words on the ground: “Things take time; time is a great teacher; time heals all wounds; lost time is never found again.”

Theories of Time / Daku
Theories of Time / Daku

Light, shadow, and words figure in earlier works as well. In 2016, Daku created Time Changes Everything, installing words on the side of a white-faced building, letting the movement of the sun form and then slowly disintegrate words like ability, hour, definition.

The artist seems to enjoy incorporating surprising words and sentiments into the built environment — in particular humorous messages aimed at motorists.

Street sign / Daku
Ad space artwork / Daku

Daku’s shadow-casting artwork adds an interesting layer to the streetscape and offers an approach filled with possibilities for other public spaces.

Interview with Marion Brenner on Photographing Landscape Architecture

Marion Brenner

Marion Brenner is one of the leading photographers of landscape architecture. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Landscape Architecture Magazine, Gardens Illustrated, The New York Times, and Garden Design. Books of her photographs include Private Gardens of the Bay Area, Outstanding American Gardens, The Bold Dry Garden, New Garden Design, Living Land: The Gardens of Blasen Landscape Architecture, and In and Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights. Her photographs are in the collections of the Bancroft Library at University of California at Berkeley, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Berkeley Art Museum. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.

What makes a great photograph of landscape architecture?

The challenge of photographing landscape architecture is taking a three-dimensional space and making it two dimensional. The best photographs of landscape architecture make you feel like you’re in the space.

A good photograph tells a story. I don’t think of myself as making individual photographs. It’s always interesting to me when someone remembers one photograph, because my photography is about telling the story of a project.

Walden by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

Does taking photographs of natural landscape and works of landscape architecture require different approaches? If so, how?

I am not at all interested in taking pictures of the natural landscape. My role is taking pictures of the built environment. I’m most interested in how culture impacts the land and nature. How we want to control it; what we think of as beauty, and the political implications of a designed landscape.

I became aware of this in the 90s. I got a grant with a writer, Diana Ketchum, to photograph 18th century English-style gardens in France. They are based on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French are not particularly interested in them. Most people know about Le Nôtre’s landscapes: the classic French Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, which symbolizes the absolute power of the king. The English-style gardens were built just before the French Revolution. They are meandering, with winding paths, and views that are meant to make people feel and think and question the absolute power of the king. They were built at a time when people were traveling to Italy to see ruins. In Northern France there were no ruins so they built their own. One of the gardens in Ermenonville is now Parc Jean Jacques Rousseau. It has grottoes and a temple on the hill with fallen pillars.

Temple on the Hill at Ermenonville, Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an English-style garden in France / Marion Brenner

Today, landscape architecture is political in its relation to how we think about climate change, parks, and water use. Also, there’s the issue of parks and gentrification.

How can you capture the feel of a designed landscape, taking a work that is in 3-D and making it 2-D?

I do it in collaboration with the designers. I find that incredibly helpful as they hone my vision. I work with a medium-format digital camera that sends an image to an iPad so my clients can can react to it in real time. They can tell me, “no, no, this is what I meant.”

Is there one photograph that tells the whole story? Sometimes. But not always. I leave things out. But I also put in a lot in. One photo is just one part of the story. I need multiple photos to tell the story.

If I have a lot of time in a space I can kind of figure out the logic. But my clients have designed sight lines, they’ve thought about the space, they know the way the light works. They don’t know how to document it, generally, but they know what they want. And, so, it’s this back and forth that I find extremely exciting.

What process yields the best photos?

For me, it’s definitely working with the designer. My clients generally humor me when I go off on a tangent. They encourage me to see what I see.

I always say: “turn around.” I was taking a photograph of what I was supposed to be photographing and then I turned around and the light was coming through the trees on the hillside. That photograph ended up being the cover of Living Land, Blasen Landscape Architecture’s book. It was just a moment that captured some essence.

Meadow by Blasen Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

The exciting thing about photographing landscape architecture is that there are no rules. I showed a photograph of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Texas, at the field session at the ASLA Annual Meeting. There’s a pole going right down the middle of the photograph. You can see the base of the pole.

Klyde Warren Park by Office of James Burnett / Marion Brenner

Chris McGee, art director at Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), said: “Oh, I was looking at that and saying, ‘which photograph do I like better?'” But it was one photograph. I broke the rules. I guess there are rules to break.

How do you capture seasonal change and the progression of time?

There aren’t many projects I do over time. They have to be very significant projects for my clients, because hiring me is a big expense.

I just did a private house this summer for Surface Design, which I’ve documented over time. The landscape has a big meadow that’s great to capture in different seasons, but this is a rarity.

How do you capture people inhabiting a landscape in a way that doesn’t feel staged?

You can try to use real people. But one of the problems is that when I shoot dawn or and dusk, there is nobody there. Or if people are there they walk straight through the picture, and you don’t see them. There’s not even a blur, because the exposures are so long.

I sometimes bring a whole team of people. When I photographed the San Antonio Botanical Garden that Christy Ten Eyck designed this summer, the botanical garden invited families so there were kids there. We were able to do the photographs in the right kind of light with people in it.

San Antonio Botanical Garden by Christy Ten Eyck Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

As Chris McGee says, “we just don’t want to see the same person in every shot.” You want people to be comfortable and look natural. I sometimes have people walk through a site in order to get movement through it. The problem with real people is they can go too fast or too slow. They can be carrying a big plastic bag, just not looking right.

What will visual landscape representation look like in 25 years? Will photography always have a place in the world of drones, virtual reality, mixed media, or some other technology that we don’t even know about?

I am not interested in using a drone, but I have been on shoots where drones have been used to great effect. I’m happy to have them, because I hate hanging out over edges where there’s parapets and stuff and you can’t really see, and you’re not getting the angle people want. Landscape architects love things from above.

Drones are not great quality, but they’re great for a certain kind of image. They’re less interesting to me, because, again, it’s flat. I’m not interested in shooting flat. I’m interested in the relationship of near and far and how you make that three dimensional space a photograph.

I may be virtual in 25 years, but I don’t think I’ll be around in 25 years. I have grandchildren and I wonder what their lives are going to be like in 25 years.

Images are ubiquitous now. We live by images. But how much time do you give to an Instagram photograph? It’s not really about the quality. It’s about: does it grab me or not? I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. I like seeing what people are doing and interesting things. The thing I hate about it is: “Well, why am I stuck home here at the computer working when you’re in Nepal on a mountaintop looking at this beautiful sunset!?”

Lastly, what is the most important advice you have for amateur photographers who want to improve their photography of landscape architecture?

Look at landscape photography you admire and try to figure out what you like about it. Imitation is a way of getting where you want to go.

Trial and error; that’s it! Keep doing it. Do it, do it, look at it. Judge it, figure out what works and what doesn’t work.

I had a wonderful mentor at one of the magazines. She wouldn’t let me go out unless the light was right. I learned a lot about light from her. My photographs are about light. The right light is generally not the middle of the day. Early or late.

Getty Museum in Los Angeles by OLIN. Light in overcast sky / Marion Brenner
Getty Museum in Los Angeles by OLIN. Light before sunset / Marion Brenner

When you’re photographing architecture, you can have full sun on a façade, and it shows the shapes. But when you’re photographing landscape, anything with texture and plants, trees, you end up getting dark pools underneath trees, even the trees themselves are broken up by dark shadows.

You’re not seeing form; you’re seeing light. The forms are light and shadow.

Pulsating Public Art Brings New Life to Dilworth Park

Pulse, a new work by artist Janet Echelman, may be the stickiest public art ever conceived. Sticky is a term used by web developers to explain compelling design elements that bring users back again and again. In the case of Pulse found in Dilworth Park, at the western edge of Philadelphia City Hall, you wait there — and also return later — because you are uncertain when the sculpture made of light and mist will appear and, once it does, each sequence of color and motion is unique. Later, you realize the blasts of atomized water and light actually mark the arrival in real-time of the green line subway pulling into the central transit station just beneath the park.

Pulse / Jeff Fusco

Dilworth Park opened in 2015 after a two-year, $55-million revamp by landscape architects at OLIN and architects at KieranTimberlake, as part of an effort led by the Center City District. The new park — perhaps really more a plaza — was designed to be a flexible event space, with fountains, a small lawn, restaurant, and moveable tables and chairs set within lush gardens. But the park itself was designed from the beginning to incorporate the work of Janet Echelman. As Susan Weiler, FASLA, partner at OLIN explained, “there was a consensus decision to integrate Pulse into the project, which removed the potential of it not being installed later.”

Dilworth Park, Philadelphia / KierenTimberlake

Echelman is known for deeply researching a site where her works will be. This research adds depth and meaning to her enigmatic, enveloping sculptures. Echelman said two elements of Philadelphia history inspired her: water and transportation.

Philadelphia’s industrial and manufacturing success was only made possible by the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers that flank its sides. “So I decided water needed to be used as a material.”

Transportation has also been critical to Philly’s development. “In the 1960s, they tore down the old Penn railroad, but from vintage photographs, you can see trains running on steam.”

Furthermore, just below Dilworth Park is a central transit hub for the subway — a key node in the city’s circulatory system. “I wanted to reveal through a simple gesture above ground what was happening below ground.”

Pulse actually pulsates with mist — mimicking the steam trains of old, but also to express “the pulse of the city.” Echelman didn’t want the pulsations, which only appear when the green line train pulls in below, to be predictable, but “fun and playful.” Indeed, when I visited kids were lined up on the pathways between fountains waiting for the explosions of steam to envelope them and would joyfully scream when they did.

Pulse / Jeff Fusco
Pulse / Sean O’Neill, Arup

The light that infuses the mist is made of three different colors — a predominant color that is tied to the subway line’s color and two undertone colors — that are programmed via computer algorithm to never be exactly alike. Thirteen different pulsations are sequenced that way, too. The result is each combination of pulsation and color is unique.

Pulse / Melvin Epps

“God bless OLIN for protecting the artwork.” By working Pulse into the final construction documents, the landscape architects prevented the artwork from being value engineered later. Pulse was purposefully embedded into the entire park’s complex water and energy systems.

Weiler said the project was a “huge collaboration” between Echelman, OLIN, CMS Collaborative (the fountain designers), and Arup (the lighting designers). In Palm Springs, California, the team evaluated full-scale mock-ups of the art work, tinkering to make sure the system would work in a highly-trafficked area amid Philly’s rugged environment.

There was a multi-year lag in building Pulse because when the park opened, “there wasn’t money for the art,” Weiler said. Philadelphia-based philanthropists and foundations stepped in to make it happen.

Susan Weiler with OLIN enjoys the art / Melvin Epps

The artful illumination of the green line is just the beginning. A similar art work for the orange line will soon cut through the length of the park, and one for the blue line will run perpendicular to the west entrance of Philadelphia City Hall. Also, worth noting: the center court of City Hall will soon be revamped by WRT.

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.

Charles-Joseph Minard: A Legacy of Beautiful Data-based Maps

The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard / Princeton Architectural Press

Edward Tufte, the world’s best known information designer, said Charles-Joseph Minard’s statistical map of Napolean’s 1812 invasion and then retreat from Russia was the greatest information graphic ever made.

Hannibal’s March over the Alps and Napoleon’s Russian campaign / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

In a delightful new book, The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard, author Sandra Rendgen uncovers the man who made the graphic as well as his many data visualization innovations.

Born in Dijon, France in 1871, Minard spent his career as a civil engineer, with much of it as an inspector of transportation infrastructure. It’s only in retirement that he was able to delve into his passion for the visual representations of statistics.

Minard’s engineering education and career deeply informed his approach to statistical maps. He had a “general appreciation of fact-based scientific practice, which tends to value empirical evidence over abstract reasoning and intuition.” His graphics were driven by the desire to best enable the “systematic gathering and evaluation of facts.”

But for a man so interested in scientific precision, there is also real beauty to his visualizations, with their “clean and minimalist aesthetics.” Rendgen argues that experts know a Minard visualization when they see one: “Not only are they refined in every detail of their rendering, including the lines, the dotting, the hachure, and the concise labeling, they also have a very ‘modern’ appeal to them.” He was then not only a engineer and statistician but also a designer.

Transport of mineral fuels in France, 1845-1860 / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

Before Facebook created the Like button, Minard perfected a number of essential and elegant infographic elements that are now core to our global visual vocabulary.

For example, starting in 1845, Minard perfected the use of proportional circles on maps to indicate the amount of certain goods or populations in any given place.

Maritime ports in France, 1857 by Charles-Joseph Minard / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

Minard is also know for his simplistic yet also precise “flow maps” that indicate overall traffic volumes of goods or people over territories. Minard expected his detail-minded viewers to carefully examine his maps, perhaps even with a ruler, so he drew the flow intervals or widths to be exact to the millimeter. For example, in the graphic below, Minard visualized the tremendous decline in cotton imports (the blue band) from the U.S. to Europe during the American Civil War to the tons.

European cotton imports, 1858 / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press
European cotton imports, 1862 / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

The flow maps had to be both accurate and easy-to-understand: they were designed to help traffic engineers “predict demand on existing or projected routes,” or policymakers understand the bigger picture and make necessary policy, tax, or regulatory changes.

As Minard honed his craft over the years, Rendgen says his work only improved. “He gradually developed an understanding of the intricacies of integrating many different flows into one coherent representation and continually worked on avoiding clutter in his multi-flow representations.”

During his lifetime, Minard’s visual innovations were immediately and widely copied because they were so intuitive. His legacy is found in nearly every data visualization we see today. And the Minard system is perhaps needed more than ever before — to wade through the ever-growing sea of data and see clearly what it all means.

Glenstone Slows You Down

Glenstone / Jared Green

Emily and Mitchell Rales, the founders of Glenstone, one of the largest privately-owned museums in the U.S., want you to slow down.

As you get out of the car park at their expanded museum in Potomac, Maryland, you embark on a 10-minute journey along a gravel path, over a small creek, and between two large hills. Walking the path becomes an act of meditation, but also a journey of discovery as you come across surreal bits of hyper-nature.

Glenstone / Jared Green

After a few minutes the new pavilions designed by architect Thomas Phifer emerge into view.

Glenstone pavilions / Iwan Baan

The crunch of the pale grey gravel, the charismatic trees set in swaying meadow grasses — mostly little blue stem and purple top — are all designed to slow your heart rate and heighten your senses.

At the preview of the expanded museum, which is set within a 230-acre landscape, Emily Rales explained that it’s only when you are most attuned to your environment can you really take in the post-World War II artworks in their monumental new concrete pavilions.

Visitors descend stairs or an elevator to get to the main level of the pavilions where most of the modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures are found.

Pieces include a phrygian cap by African American sculptor Martin Puryear, a calendar of icons by Lygia Pape, an expansive Rothko painting, and epic site-specific installations by land artist Michael Heizer.

Phrygian cap by African American sculptor Martin Puryear / Ron Amstutz

Collapse, one of Heizer’s works, called for the special configuration of an entire wing. Only six people are allowed to experience the piece at the same time — a 16-feet-deep hole partially filled up with rusted steel beams, set in a small ocean of rust-colored gravel, which creates a Martian monochromatic landscape.

Michael Heizer installation / Jared Green

But the building is not only a portal to the art, it’s an entry into a whole other landscape: a water garden.

Glenstone / Iwan Baan

Adam Greenspan, ASLA, principal at PWP Landscape Architecture, who has been working on Glenstone for the past 15 years, said the “center pool is the culminating moment.”

The entire landscape has prepared you for this. “We designed the site as a holistic experience — from the region to the site. We knitted it all together.”

The landscape that leads you to the building was molded from the soils dug up to make way for the pavilions. Hundreds of tons of soil were sculpted into hills. Some 8,000 trees were planted. There are now 40 acres of meadows within the sweeping estate. The early agricultural landscape has been transformed.

Some of the 8,000 trees planted amid the 40-acre meadow at Glenstone / Jared Green

There is an underlying Japanese influence to the landscape and architectural design with the use of minimal gestures for maximum impact. Greenspan said the water garden is really “Ryoan-ji a couple of steps removed.” (Ryoan-Ji is one of the most famous Zen Buddhist gardens in Kyoto). The water garden itself is partially inspired by an Iris garden found in Hakone. “It’s similar in scale and size.”

Glenstone / Jared Green

However, the water courtyard at Glenstone also differs in some notable ways from its Japanese inspirations. PWP Landscape Architecture put the plants on a grid, which provides an underlying geometrical depth to the space. They did this for not only aesthetic reasons but also for practical ones.

The squares found within the grid enable the landscape architects to create areas of different soil depths, so they can contain and define the different plant life. “Irises need 4 inches of water or less; pickerelweed needs 8-10 inches; but water lilies need 8 feet of water.” Each get their own squares.

Glenstone / Jared Green

Within the modular approach, plants can also easily be re-arranged depending on how well they are doing in one micro-climate or another. “We have a living system that can move.”

Up and out amid the hills again, you may notice that meadow grasses seamlessly extend into a green roof that covers part of the buildings. And that the glass banisters purposefully minimize the difference between building and landscape.

Glenstone / Jared Green

Beyond these banisters, you come across an awing site-specific work by Heizer, called Compression Line, opposing ditches set in his rust-metal gravel.

Michael Heizer installation at Glenstone / Jared Green

Trails off the main building take you to large works by Richard Sierra, Jeff Koons, and Tony Smith, as well as the first part of Rales’ museum, which opened across a pond from their home in 2006.

Atop of a hill on one of those trails, an arching Sierra entitled Contour 290 looms and then storms into full view. A matted-grass and dirt path takes you to right up to the piece, creating a journey to a more elemental realm.

Richard Serra artwork at Glenstone / Jared Green

As you spend more time at Glenstone, you may think the art, building, and landscape must be explored again in a different season or sky. Emily Rales’ call for deeper awareness lingers: “we want you to notice the changing light.”

Trolls Invade Morton Arboretum

Rocky Bardur troll dislikes cars / Thomas Dambo

Trolls live in caves, rocks, or mountains. They live long lives, are very strong, but are known to be slow and somewhat dim-witted. They aren’t fond of humans and have even been known to eat a few.

In Morton Arboretum in northern Illinois, six wooden trolls have taken over, thanks to the inventive Danish artist Thomas Dambo. Each is about 30-feet-tall, except for a reclining one that is 60-feet long, and made of recycled wood. These installations are part of Troll Hunt, an inspired exhibition that will take families on nature walks in search of these dangerous creatures.

Troll snack / Thomas Dambo
Troll snack / Thomas Dambo

Visitors can take a hike along a 6-7 mile route through the 1,700-acre arboretum to find all six trolls, drive or bike to them, or take a “troll tram ride.” There’s a fun troll hunt map that only adds to the sense of adventure.

Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, has called for bringing mythology back to our landscapes, to imbue them with deeper meaning that can connect us to stories from the past.

Wood troll / Thomas Dambo

Through thousands of years of Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, trolls have been seen as powerful supernatural beings who are capable of great mischief.

Troll trap / Thomas Dambo
Troll net / Thomas Dambo

They have been stirring our imagination for centuries — and in Morton Arboretum the myth is so much fun.

In Madrid, a Green Circle in a Square

To mark the 400th anniversary of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, which was built during the reign of Phillip III, urban artist SpY temporarily transformed this hard urban place into a turf-covered green space. Over four days, some 100,000 Spaniards and tourists came to sit and chat on the circular lawn, simply named Cesped or Grass.

Cesped / SpY

According to Design Boom, the circle spans some 3,500 square meters, with a diameter of 70 meters. It’s a surprising new form for a space once used by Spanish Inquisitors to torture and execute heretics.

Cesped / SpY

SpY has done other intriguing projects using urban nature as a canvas. Grow in Besançon, France, involved pruning climbing vines into a circle. For SpY, these works demonstrate “an artist’s route through urban space.”

Grow / SpY

And SpY also playfully subverts security infrastructure. In another inventive project, Labyrinth in Ordes, Spain, the artist turned the steel barricades now-ubiquitous in cities into a fun puzzle. A parking lot temporarily became a maze kids can enjoy.

Labyrinth / SpY
Labyrinth / SpY

Ordinary materials plus design equals big impact.