As people have retreated to their homes, fish have recolonized Venice’s canals, coyote have been spotted in downtown San Francisco, wild sheep occupied a Welsh town, and deer have started using crosswalks in Japan. And now nature is at least temporarily taking over arts institutions.
The closures of opera houses and museums have offered an opportunity for artists and arts institutions to create charming conceptual works that recognize nature’s new privileges.
Earlier this summer, conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia partnered with the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, to stage a performance of Puccini’s Crisantemi — The Chrysanthemums. But this time, instead of thousands of Barcelonan opera lovers enjoying Puccini’s melodies, the audience was nearly 2,300 ficus trees, palms, and Swiss cheese plants from a local nursery.
Perhaps the flora-themed music performed by the UceLi Quartet appealed to the plants on some vegetal level.
Ampudia told The Guardian: “At a time when humankind has shut itself up in enclosed spaces and been obliged to relinquish movement, nature has crept forward to occupy the spaces we have ceded. And it has done so at its own rhythm, according to its patient biological cycle. Can we broaden our empathy and bring it to bear on other species? Let’s start by using art and music and inviting nature into a great concert hall.”
Victor Garcia de Gomar, Liceu’s artistic director, called the piece “a visual poem, both a subtle metaphor but one which makes us smile.”
After the concert, all the house plant attendees were donated to Spain’s frontline healthcare workers so they can provide some much needed stress reduction benefits at home.
With both the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Missouri, closed due to COVID-19, administrators at the museum had an idea: Why not invite Humboldt penguins from the zoo to visit?
In the video, Randy Wisthoff, the zoo’s executive director, said: “we’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days. During this shutdown period, our animals really miss visitors coming up to see them.”
According to Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum’s director, Humboldt penguins, which are native to Chile and Peru, seemed to “really appreciate” when he spoke to them in Spanish. As they waddled from room to room, they are seen pausing at some paintings but not others. “They seemed, definitely, to react much better to Caravaggio than to Monet,” Zugazagoitia said.
Along 2nd Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida, an old pier launch built on landfill didn’t offer much beyond lots of parking and a long hot walk 3,000 feet out to a restaurant jutting into Tampa Bay. After a $92 million redesign, a new 26-acre walkable pier district now unites city and pier through a walkable green landscape that features Bending Arc, a sculpture with a social justice message by net artist Janet Echelman, gardens, a playground, and hundreds of newly-planted native Floridian trees.
The pier district project was planned and designed by multiple interdisciplinary teams. Barbara Wilks, FASLA, and her team at W-Architecture led the design of the 23-acre approach that brings visitors from downtown through the park space that features Echelman’s piece, her largest permanent installation to date. Architects at Rogers Partners and ASD/SKY Architect and landscape architects at Ken Smith Workshop designed a 3-acre plaza and pier found at the outer edge further into the bay.
W-Architecture started with a master plan devised by AECOM, which the team then revised by “moving things around,” including roads, bus stops, and parking lots, and then layering in multiple transportation systems. There is now a tram line, bicycle paths, and new circulatory system for pedestrians. Wilks said: “if you use Google Earth, you can clearly see we transformed the space from a car dominated place to a pedestrian park.”
As visitors meander through the new landscape, there’s a gateway lined with palm trees, a marketplace with stalls for local artisans, the striking artwork, gardens with a playground and constructed pond, and a beach. The pier district was “designed as a series of events that draw you in. We choreographed how the experience will unfold.”
Conceptual landscape design was already moving forward when city leaders alerted Wilks that Echelman has been commissioned to bring one of her giant pieces to the park. On the phone over a weekend, they reached agreement on the location for the piece, which is called Bending Arc, in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Echelman named the piece Bending Arc and incorporated multiple arcing forms because the site played an important role in the movement for civil rights. The place was “where local citizens began peacefully challenging racial barriers, leading to the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court case ruling, which upheld the rights of all citizens to enjoy use of the municipal beach and swimming pool without discrimination.” St. Petersburg was also later known for the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, one of the largest in the country in the wake of the assassination of King.
Echelman’s works are crafted for their specific locations and shaped by their surroundings. Raised in the Tampa Bay area, she was inspired by the colonies of barnacles that grow on the underside of piers and the blue and white parasols that can be found on St. Pete’s beaches. Her studio writes: “The sculpture’s design in aerial view can also be read as three barnacle-like parasols nestled together.”
On the ground, Wilks worked with Echelman to fine tune the position of the artwork so it avoided existing trees. Wilks then created circular landscape forms below Bending Arc‘s three apertures where visitors can look up.
Circles are prevalent in the new pier district’s design because the local limestone landscape naturally forms round pools of water, which also result in trees forming circles around the pools’ edges.
Under one aperture, a concrete lined circle is filled with oyster shells and forms an outdoor event space.
Below the two others, there are rounded grass-covered berms so visitors can more easily lie back and gaze at the pleasingly engulfing, undulating nets, which become even more dramatic at night. According to Echelman, the piece is “composed of 1,662,528 knots and 180 miles of twine, spans 424 feet, and measures 72 feet at its tallest point.”
Wilks purposefully designed the perimeter of the space with native oaks and pine trees to focus attention on Bending Arc. Diagonal pathways from the gardens direct visitors to the artwork. At some surrounding edges, bioswales with native plants, which are green infrastructure systems for managing stormwater, can be crossed by low wooden bridges.
Once visitors move past Echelman’s sculpture, they encounter gardens that contain a play space overlooking a new pond. Because W-Architecture planted native trees and plants, the site has become a mecca for wildlife, something its earlier incarnation as a parking lot could never have achieved.
From there, visitors can either veer towards spa beach or walk further out on the pier designed by Rob Rogers, Ken Smith, FASLA, and team. Pathways at the perimeters enable visitors to loop back to the central spine on bike or foot.
Wilks added that the park itself echoes the social justice message of Echelman’s artwork. “The new pier district is very much for everyone. It was designed to be free and open.”
Walter Hood, ASLA, is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lectures on professional and theoretical projects nationally and internationally. He is a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, 2019 Knight Public Spaces Fellowship, 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, and 2019 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
What change do you think can result from the killing of George Floyd by the police and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racial injustice and police violence? The movement has become global and supported by millions of people.
That’s a hard question. My first response is that we’ve been here before. In light of the pandemic and other things, I’m really hesitant to say there’s going to be some major changes in the way black people are regarded and accepted in our society. We’ve had these moments before.
What makes it really hard, as a person of color, is understanding our history. In my short life — I’m in my early 60s — I grew up in a segregated neighborhood. My school was integrated when I was in junior high. For the first time, at age 13 or 14, I started living with other people who didn’t look like me.
That’s the hardest and most difficult thing we’re not talking about: the racial construction of this country. We’ve only had 50 plus years where we’ve actually lived together in an integrated way. We have close to 300 plus years of living separately. So the idea that we can just all of a sudden flip the switch and people will change and accommodate the “other,” it’s a really tough one.
I don’t think we’re asking the right questions. You’ve listed these facts and metrics. Why are these numbers so high? When one looks back, why are we still policed in similar ways? Why are people of color harmed at a greater frequency?
In a country that was “separate but equal,” there had to be an institution to keep that separation and keep people in their place. We have had close to 100 years of the Jim Crow institution, keeping us in a subservient place. This is U.S. culture. Even post integration, we still have to look at these institutions, which go back to the founding and the development of the country. You can’t separate the two. We would like to, but they’re inextricably tied together.
It’s important to allow these issues and histories to come to a greater light and clarity, because now more people are interested in trying to understand this predicament than I’ve ever seen in any point in my life. The pandemic has a lot to do with it. People are thinking about the future. Everything is unsettled at this moment, and all the pieces have come together. It’s the perfect storm.
Black Landscapes Matter, a book you co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, which will be published November, came out of a lecture series you initiated in 2016 following police killings. In your book, TED Talk, and other writings, you have called for planning and designing landscapes that allow for a diversity of narratives and perspectives, instead of homogenized landscapes that just say one thing to one group of people. How do you bring out these different memories and histories in a landscape?
After the spree of police killings in 2016, we wanted to bring together people who could articulate different voices in the black community. I wanted the book to articulate what’s missing in how we design for other narratives, which is about difference. I say difference, not diversity — it’s about different ways of interpreting the world. When one puts out multiple narratives, they challenge the singular and its maintenance.
I’m thinking a lot these days about difference and sameness. Colonialism is about sameness. It takes difference and makes it into sameness. It does that to promote and maintain its construction. W.J.T. Mitchell talks about a double reading of landscape, a double semiotic.
Colonization is happening inside the colony, as ideologies are projected outside the colony. Our projection — America, home of the free, and the brave, diversity for all, “all men are created equal” — is sent out to the world. The Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired…” — all of these things. But inside, we’re being re-colonized to keep that narrative intact.
But that narrative is being torn. People are looking for other ways to see themselves and others around them. So in Black Landscapes Matter, we talk about different story lines.
If more people are aware of what is part of their environment, not just today but yesterday, and possibly even tomorrow, we’d have a different way of thinking about the world. In so many spaces in this country, something happened! It has not always been vacant and desolate, places exist! Placemaking is re-colonizing. Something is always there if you are interested in it.
Many of your projects are specifically focused on unearthing hidden layers, creating spaces for multiple consciousness. The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, tells the story of slaves arriving in the port of Charleston and their descendants. A master plan for the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, explores the history of the movement for racial equality. Double Sights, a public art piece at Princeton University, expands the interpretation of the many sides of former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Navigating through all these layers of history, how do you get to the essentials and make planning and design decisions that really resonate?
For me, it’s the willingness to want to unearth. Your previous question had to do with memory and history, which is a little different than unearthing.
Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.
Privilege at times only produces singular narratives, which is what happened with the Woodrow Wilson project. The students at Princeton still want his name off the building, so the piece has not resolved the issue. But what I hope the piece does is allow that issue to always be there. If someone at Princeton University said “remove the name of Wilson,” then the piece wouldn’t exist.
With the International African American Museum, there are clear, bold design statements. How do you really focus in on certain aspects of history and tell a broader story through design?
The design decisions for the landscape are very personal and I am consciously having conversations with those before me. I approached the Woodrow Wilson project through the narrative of W.E.B. DuBois, who has always been part of my thinking as a black man, and his idea of double consciousness. That gave me a point of view to criticize Wilson.
As for the International African American Museum in Charleston, the final was not the boldest design. We developed 29 different designs and worked through each one with the community. From my personal point of view, I wanted to put out imagery that had never been put out before. I took it upon myself to push the community. The Black Body in Space is something that really intrigued me conceptually.
For the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, I approached the project, again through history and identity. I’ve spent years with my peoples’ history. My research and design work has lived with these histories — not just American history but the history of black America.
Returning back to your larger question: I could have gone through practice with no interest in black history. I could have just accepted the privileged position of the designer. I could just work in the very homogeneous/standardized manner in which the profession trained me.
In my early years, that was really all I had to rely on, until I got to a point where it felt like something was missing. What was missing was myself. I did not see myself anywhere in landscape architecture, architecture, or planning. At the offices I worked, these ideas just didn’t exist. I had to create a context for my ideas to bear fruit, so I situated myself in the rigorous, intellectual world of academia and developed an art practice. This is what I’ve been doing the last 30 years.
Do you think because you’ve found yourself in your work, people can find themselves in it, too? Is that what creates a sense of resonance, when someone sees your work and connects with it?
No, they actually hear a different voice, which again, is playing off the homogeneous. Early on, I noticed the design decisions I was making were different than the decisions other people were making. I didn’t acquaint them because I’m black. It’s because of my advocacy for and interest in people and the particular places that they live, which comes from my experience of being black.
Very early, one of my projects in a disinvested neighborhood involved planting an allee of a hundred and fifty flowering trees at one time along a decomposed granite walkway. This was 30 years ago, and people weren’t doing stuff like that. To me, I wanted color to manifest in a bold way in a place that didn’t have color.
Those design choices came out of me seeing a black community in need of something. As a person making landscapes, that is what I could give them. I always go back that very simple act — that purity of impulse one has in a place where you’re engaged but also giving of yourself. And this relates to the questions: what are you feeding yourself? Where’s the inspiration coming from?
I try to bring in as much culture as I can to the work, which can offer multiple narratives and layers. I’m really not interested in singular gestures, but multiplicities.
People are yearning for difference. I just recently stopped using diversity and started using difference, because diversity is not really about difference. Difference is about opposition. Opposition is good. Double negatives are good. They exist in our world.
The doubles begin to tell stories we don’t tell. We see it in the language that is manifest over time by culture. You’ll see spaces given double negative terms, like Plaza Park. I was in San Jose, California, when Hargreaves was working on Plaza Park. I was like, “Plaza Park? Oh, this is interesting. Why does it have both?” If you go and look at the history, you know why it has two. These are the kinds of things people create over time through naming, adopting. Landscapes have a language.
If we’re critical enough, we can begin to read the landscape in different ways. Once you do, it changes you forever. There’s no way to go back.
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city government have painted “Black Lives Matter” in street-bounding yellow letters down 16th Street, NW in front of Lafayette Square and the White House. This was widely viewed as a response to President Trump’s order to teargas protesters and close off Lafayette Square — a key protest space and site of a former slave market — from public access. How do you unpack everything going on in that space? What is the role of public space in the protest movement?
In the history of this country, streets have been that number one space for protests. We can go back to women’s suffrage and civil rights. The streets are the public domain. In D.C., what’s public and what’s federal? That’s the interesting dichotomy in D.C. Lafayette Square, which is federal, gets acted upon differently than the city public. When I heard that, I was like, wow, I didn’t know the President had dominion over that particular space.
Protesting has always taken place in the public realm. You can go back to Kelly Ingram Park and the Edmond Pettus bridge. These are my first memories: people protesting in the streets. This is nothing new. The marking, particularly with the branding, might be something new, a kind of guerilla tactic. I applaud the mayor for doing it, because she was able to demark a space. People are calling it the plaza, but again, this it is about nomenclature. I applaud her for marking a space that was taken away from her.
Lafayette Square, like a lot of public squares, was among the first public parks in our country. They were also places where atrocious things happened in our country like slavery auctions, so they’re on hallowed ground to a degree. If we’re interested in changing how we think of ourselves, we can also be critical of the places where we’re actually protesting. To me, that could give credence to, or help articulate, issues we’re facing, particularly with the pandemic.
We know most low-income areas have higher cases of COVID, which you could also probably correlate to redlining policies and expulsive zoning, which was an institutional pre- and post-war planning practice. Redlined landscapes are still the same today if we are still in them.
Public safety is important. People should be allowed to use the spaces we have seen over the past few weeks, whether it’s the I-5 in L.A. or bridges in Minneapolis. These are spaces the public pays for.
You have equated the value of environmental diversity with that of social and racial diversity. Just as land comprised of diverse ecosystems are more sustainable and resilient, racially diverse or different communities also increase social sustainability and resilience. How can the fight for racial equality and justice support efforts to combat climate change and vice-versa? What are the connections?
The first connection one might think about is duplication. There really are two Americas, and we’re actually trying to support both of them, not equally though. There’s one America for one group of people and another for the other. It’s just not sustainable, because we’re having to spend more money on communities that are different, which is a result of the after-effect of not investing in these places in the first place. How to make communities more racially diverse is our next challenge.
We’ve been talking recently about a few new mixed-income housing projects in Oakland, California. When we think of mixed incomes, we think race, right? We can think of brown people, low-income; non-brown people, higher incomes. What might allow them to share the same space? That’s the question we’re beginning to ask. It comes back to public space, right?
We can develop parks and other types of landscapes that are more integrated into peoples’ patterns and practices, so they can begin to share space. The architectural question is a bit more difficult, because a lot of that is driven through the market.
As for environmental diversity, I’ve lately returned to reading Olmsted and early Central Park history. In Go Tell It On the Mountain, written by James Baldwin, he describes an experience in Central Park one day. He goes to this hill. It’s his favorite hill. When he gets to the top of that hill, having walked from Harlem to Central Park, with all the white eyes upon him, he’s king of the world. He could do anything. He’s standing there looking out to Manhattan. He’s on this hill in the middle of nature, and he could do anything, and then slowly reality comes back to him. He descends the hill and runs into an older white guy. Immediately, he’s about to apologize, but instead the man smiles. That moment is how I think about what landscape can do. In a certain way, how do we put ourselves together in a place where there is no label or stereotype of the other? That’s really tough to do, as we recently saw with that woman in the Ramble.
Gentrification of urban Black and brown communities most often results in their displacement. Some communities have viewed efforts to add new green space and trees to their communities as a gentrifying agent. So one response has been the “just green enough” design movement, which calls for adding green amenities but not to the extent that they would raise property values. What is your take? What approaches work best to stop displacement? And how do you think the protest movement can change conversations in communities where gentrification is happening?
All communities should be healthy. If we have the opportunity to increase biomass and improve the public-realm facilities in any community, we should do it. The fear of making something better particularly for those most vulnerable — really.
We should look at the issues that create the vulnerability. In many places, you have a high percentage of renters and low ownership. Some places you have little to no tax base. You have these institutional issue that don’t help. The first steps in some places are to figure out new and diverse housing types, increase ownership, and stabilize communities.
When communities were most healthy, successful, richest — whatever word you want to use to characterize them– they were diverse places. West Oakland has the moniker of having always been an African-American neighborhood. If you review its early formation, people came here because it was the western terminus of the railroad. Different communities of people worked and lived here: Latinos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Portuguese, Italians, etc. Post-war we see white flight, and then desegregation. First immigrant and then middle-class African Americans had opportunities to move into the places that whites had left. We then abandoned those redlined neighborhoods and left the most vulnerable.
That’s the dynamic of the city. We have to articulate these dynamics to communities in which we work and help them understand these processes.
I live in an area that was once redlined. There are single-family houses mixed with light industrial. It’s a pretty diverse, mixed neighborhood. Next to my building, there was no green space at all. People reacted to vacantness in various ways, which was to tag the walls, dump garbage or leave abandoned elements. I took it upon myself and started planting trees and shrubs adjacent the building. My little piece is the greenest part of the block.
What’s been refreshing and a reminder is watching how people reacted. Almost every day, the neighbor across the street tells me how great it is to see the green. People walk on my side of the street, and the behavior has changed. These are just little things that I just think we forget.
Part of our job is to help educate communities in which we’re working, based on shared knowledge. We can build an infrastructure to help with change, because change is going to happen. Cities are dynamic.
Very early in my career, I had a conversation with a black family here in the East Oakland neighborhood about moving out of the city. They wanted to move to the suburbs because the schools were better, and the crime was lower. I couldn’t change any of that from my position.
So the issues become more structural. We have to improve these basic infrastructures like public education and environmental factors. In many of the places where gentrification happens, they’re so easy to topple because all of the infrastructure is eroded.
In 2013, ASLA’s member leadership made diversifying the profession a top organizational priority. The number of diverse people entering the profession remains stubbornly low. The high cost of landscape architecture degree programs and lack of alternative degree programs are issues. So is the lack of diverse landscape architects who can advocate for the profession in diverse communities. What do you think are the most important steps that can be taken to bring more black and brown young people into the profession?
Landscape architects: just set the example. Make it interesting for people of color, so they want to come into the profession. This means you have to change the narrative. Reach out, do the work. Approach the way we make things through a cultural lens. Look for difference, so people might get excited by seeing and experiencing something that has them in mind.
Throw away the stereotypical and the feel good tropes — basketball, barbeques, community gardens. It would be attractive for people to say, “wow, this is how I can improve my neighborhood. Look at what they’re doing,” rather than settling. Really dig deep and contemplate these histories, the years of living separate.
How do we talk about living together? If enough of us are out making change and having a different conversation, the idea of attracting a diverse group becomes secondary.
Years ago, I was part of a landscape group that was pushing for diversity. You can’t expect to attract people if there is no interest in change.
I get excited when people of all persuasion get excited by the work we’re doing. It’s not about whether the project gets into a magazine and wins awards. To me, the best reward on any project is to get people excited, empowered, bringing them in, and making them part of the project.
I had recalled years ago as an undergraduate, I met a black landscape architect, Everett Fly, who had uncovered some of the histories of these towns that were built during Reconstruction. That experience stayed with me, and when I had the opportunity to have a conversation with that work, I immediately began to ponder the semiotics of this term used to describe black and brown people. What does it mean to be F-R-E-E-D!
It took a lot of nerve for me to start this conversation since it was something I had never entered into a conversation with a community about. I can’t describe the kind of excitement and conversation that began from there.
We can bring more voices to the table when we discuss, gender, race, and difference. Tell the truth about colonization and its impact not just on native and immigrant communities, but on the black and brown communities as well. If we don’t talk about it, we are reinforcing a post-colonial view.
This will bring difference into our profession, so it’s not simply just about making beautiful things. It can become about what those beautiful things mean. Once we can attach diverse meanings to the things we make, our profession could be much more inclusive.
For maybe two-thirds of my projects, race never comes up. To me, that’s where we should be heading. I don’t want the moniker of “black designer.” I can design for anyone, because I’ve had to learn how to. This skill came from being the “other,” and having to learn about white America and how to navigate, which is what we (others) don’t see happening from white America, right? I don’t see that kind of investment in me.
All I hear is, “Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.” No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.
The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Protest — 06/15/20, The New Yorker
“A week ago, on Wednesday night, the third night of a citywide curfew in New York, police officers were seen confiscating bicycles.”
After COVID-19, What’s Next for Landscape Architecture? — 06/09/20, Metropolis
“Parks, plazas, and other outdoor urban assets are no longer being seen as superfluous, but instead finally being recognized as essential. And so are the masterminds behind them. Since the start of the pandemic, landscape architecture has become one of the few areas for cautious optimism within the wider architecture, engineering, and construction sector, which is poised for a downturn.”
The Mimetic Power of D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Mural — 06/09/20, The New Yorker
“The idea for the mural was conceived late on Wednesday, when Bowser asked her staff to find a way to reassure protesters that the space would be safe for them, in advance of the larger protests planned for the weekend.”
Racism Is Built into U.S. cities. Here’s How Architects Can Fight Back — 06/03/20, Fast Company
“In America today, we can predict that a person from a zip code in a black or Latino community will have a lower life expectancy than a person from a zip code that represents a primarily white community. How can we ensure that more communities extend their life expectancy?”
Christo’s Billowy Visions, Fleeting but Unforgettable — 06/01/2020, The New York Times
“I’m sorry I never got to ask Christo about Gabrovo, the Bulgarian city where he was born in 1935. He died this weekend, at 84, a dreamer with a cultish following to rival the Grateful Dead’s and a legacy that has always seemed a wry, humane retort to the cultural diktats of the Soviet bloc.”
The empty streets of our cities are a cause of anxiety but also wonder. With our ability to travel now limited, we can get a sense of the strange, melancholy state of the world’s urban centers from the constant stream of video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo.
The New Yorker captures life during quarantine in New York City — the largely uninhabited streets, parks, and landmarks. One scene pans New Yorkers lined up down the block to get into a Whole Foods supermarket. Another features overflowing Amazon boxes sorted by delivery workers on a make-shift tarp on a street. One store’s sign reads: “Temporarily closed. Focus on the positive.”
The smooth, robotic pace of a drone adds to the otherworldly feel of San Francisco’s barren streets. Citing the Grateful Dead’s song, Touch of Grey, one store’s sign reads: “We Will Get By. We Will Survive.” Another shot pans a building-sized mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. With a lack of people, birds become a focal point in many of the vistas.
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a video by cinematographer and film maker Jean Counet, has gotten attention for capturing the strangeness and beauty of the Dutch city without street life. (Watch video). Street trams weave their way through the old city, but without passengers. A lone kayaker makes their way down a canal.
Counet told art blog This Is Colossal, “we walked through the old city center of Amsterdam between 8:30 (and) 13:30, which is normally teemed by walking people and bicycles. What we witnessed felt like a dream. Sometimes beautiful and mesmerizing, sometimes scary and worrying.”
As people stay home and noise and pollution have abated, wildlife have expanded their boundaries and started exploring the built environment with confidence. In this amazing compilation, sheep explore a Welsh town, a coyote strolls through San Francisco, deer use the crosswalks in Japan, and Nubian Ibexes walk down a promenade in Israel.
With the absence of people and maritime activity, shoals of fish can be seen in Venice’s canals and dolphins have reclaimed a port in Sardinia.
How Essential Is Construction During the Coronavirus Pandemic? — 3/30/20, Curbed
“While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to the nationwide housing shortage. Meanwhile, industry groups are pushing for federal-level designation of construction as an essential business.”
“Why ferns? Because some are 350 million years old.” The world’s oldest living plants show the incredible resilience of nature’s best designs. Looking closely at ferns under a microscope, Washington, D.C.-based artist Sophia McCrocklin found that their “spores are in fact little springs,” perfectly engineered for propagation over the megaannums.
McCrocklin grew up in Kentucky. Appalled by coal companies strip-mining the landscape, she decided to fight them and became an environmental attorney. At the same time, McCrocklin explored her interest in fiber art and began showing in galleries and Ky Guild of Artists.
Her interest in ferns started about six years ago by chance. “I have always loved trees and had never thought about ferns. But I was on a hike one day in Rock Creek Park and had to go around a tree that had fallen. As I was scrambling around the log, I came face to face with a fern. It was winter and the fern was the only thing green out, so it caught my attention.”
She had been out in the forest looking for something to make in 3D, so when she got home she cut off a branch of a Boston fern in her house. She ended up replicating a stalk that was 3-4 inches long and showed people, but they were “not impressed.” She realized she needed to make a fern much larger so that people would notice it as much as they do a tree.
Someone told her that there were many types of ferns at Dumbarton Oaks Park (DOP) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the space as the naturalistic companion to the formal gardens above at Dumbarton Oaks, had planted 8 types, but there were also 7 others native to the area.
After speaking with DOP Conservancy staff, including landscape designer Ann Aldrich, the park’s resident plant expert, McCrocklin started to catalogue and investigate the ferns. She then decided to undertake a series of large-scale art works, organizing them into categories: Farrand’s ferns, other native ferns, and inspired ferns, which include some of her early explorations. She later became the park’s first artist-in-residence.
McCrocklin essentially photocopies the ferns and blows them up to a very large scale. She also looks at ferns under a microscope at the Smithsonian’s US Herbarium to ensure the details of the plant scale up accurately.
In Annapolis, McCrocklin purchased junk Dacron boat sails, a durable polyster material, for around $1 a pound. She cuts ferns out of the Dacron, sews them, and inserts copper wire to support the stalks and leaflets. Color is added through acrylic paint or pencils. Spores are made of anything from mustard seeds to beads of glass. The fuzzy parts of the ferns’ stems crafted from shredded canvas fiber or sometimes cotton. “I try whatever works.”
Each is then mounted on a heavy canvas board, or otherwise it would collapse. The canvas is painted with a cherry blossom pattern, reflecting how they can be seen in spring in Dumbarton Oaks Park.
Each fern takes about 6 months and is either 4.5 feet square or approximately 2.5 feet wide by nearly 7 feet tall.
Some are more challenging than others to engineer at large sizes. Sword ferns like the Boston or Christmas fern, which have one stalk with attached leaves, are relatively straightforward.
Tassel ferns, on the other hand, are like small trees, with many branches, each with leaves. “They are very time consuming. If I had tackled tassel ferns in the beginning, I’m not sure I would have done this project,” she said, only half-joking.
After spending many years with them, McCrocklin has grown to love ferns. By enlarging them and making them such tactile works, she wants to convey how important they are.
“We easily look up at big trees because they are magnificent and awe-inspiring. We rarely look down at ferns, but the loss of these plants and the forest’s understory is the canary in the coal mine.”
She said some areas of Maryland fence out deer. The result is a “dense and lush” understory. But in D.C., where deer roam, “there is just bare ground, which is bizarre.”
“I want to make people aware that the understory is vital to the health of the forest. People need to pay more attention to the little things, as they signal the condition of our ecosystems. A forest may look healthy if it is filled with trees, but trees are really the last to go.”
McCrocklin’s exhibition, which was to be free and open to the public in early April, has been cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for next spring or fall. Explore her work at her website and on Instagram.
Malda focused on three ways that GGN uses drawing in their practice: “drawing out, drawing in, and drawing together.” He was quick to question landscape architects’ proclivity to create drawings at a resolution that exceed the resolution of information, noting “we are putting more information in than we actually have.”
In contrast to the ubiquitous Google Earth photos, which are commonly used to quickly understand a place, Malda highlighted a drawing by Keith McPeters of GGN that pulls out the topography and road infrastructure as a means to understand what is important to the place. “It is as much about what is not drawn as what is drawn.”
In a similar vein, Batts discussed integrating technology, namely tablets, into his drawing process as a way to quickly and iteratively test ideas over photographs taken on the device or downloaded from Google Earth.
The capabilities of drawing apps allowed him to subdue information and call forth and alter elements of the existing site with speed and ease. In many ways, the digital surface acts as a digital form of trace paper. He joked that this is the “Power of the Apple Pen.”
All emphasized the variability of drawing styles and types. There is a place for exploratory or abstract drawings investigating materials, form, and ideas, as much as for representational and observational drawing. The trio emphasized that different types of drawings are necessary to think through different stages and processes during design development.
For Gray, drawing is a form of thinking. He realized early on in his life that “because I could draw, I could help solve problems.” Drawing is now a way of extracting an idea from his mind using the hand, a process that is instrumental to exploring thoughts quickly without being burdened by crafting the perfect drawing.
Malda noted that 40 quick sketches of different ideas can be produced in a fraction of the time it would take to produce a finished rendering.
Iterative drawing can also be taken into client meetings, a technique Olin highlights in the video interview, and all speakers highly encouraged during their talks. Gray and Batts emphasized the power of the pen to forge connections between clients, but also with people of different cultures.
Gray draws with clients in real-time, on-site if possible, allowing them to explore ideas together. This can help bring out local knowledge of the place. Real-time drawing in charette processes allow the community and the designers to inspire each other.
Batts echoed the power of drawing as inspiration through an anecdote about a trip to a small village in Mexico. Each evening they set up a craft table, which brought together villagers who didn’t have access to these materials, while Batts sketched the local landscape.
A local man named Joel was curious about Batts’ sketches, and finally asked, through a translator, if Batts could teach him to draw perspective, which was a new view of his familiar landscape. This moment reveals drawing’s potential: its ability to “transcend disciplines, language barriers, and cultures.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.