Interview with Martha Schwartz

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, is president of Martha Schwartz Partners and professor of landscape architecture practice at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her most recent book is Recycling Spaces: Curating Urban Evolution: The Work of Martha Schwartz Partners.

In 2008, you wrote in BBC News that “landscape architects lag behind architects in the conversation around sustainability” and are relegated to dealing with green roofs. Almost four years later, do you still think this is true?

Definitely not as true. There has been a real ascendancy of the profession. We are now being recognized as able to lead urban-scale design and planning efforts, to define the issues, generate strategies for what needs to be done in the structuring and enabling of the project, set the environmental agenda, and then create the structure for community engagement. Of course, we are also able to bring this more strategic level of thinking into a physical design. We are often brought in advance of the architects since our agenda does not necessarily include building buildings. Clients feel more secure knowing that it is not a forgone conclusion that complex urban issues do not always resolve in buildings.  We now able to organize larger teams to tackle these complicated issues that cities have.

Right now, people are not that interested in building iconic buildings. They’re trying to figure out how to fix, expand, shrink or build their city. We are the profession most able to synthesize the many different systems that make a city work. As informed generalists, we can handle a huge amount of information across many topics and still come to a conclusion about what needs to happen.

The process is more open-ended and more collective. A site has a finite environmental holding capacity. Based on what those constraints are that are generated by the environment, the next series of “systems” that must be considered is what I call the “soft” systems – the social, cultural, and economically-based systems. All of these forces are played out upon the urban landscape. Cities are growing and so are now becoming a major environmental issue. We can build them so they are a positive effect on our global environment or we can build them so they are a detriment. So the topic of the urban landscape is becoming very urgent and important.

In the same article you call for a focus on the “softer side of sustainability,” which involves developing more sustainable communities where there’s a “sense of place, identity, and belonging.” One way to do this is “careful and inspired design which can make all the difference between a place that is viewed as no real significance to anyone and a place that attracts people creates vitality and is cherished by its inhabitants.” Do you think more communities have been getting the message?

I know that a few larger American cities are, but in general, I don’t think the U.S. has really gotten to this point. America has had an uneasy relationship with cities. The Europeans have lived in dense cities historically and therefore have been aware of the value of making their cities attractive for a long time. But even cities in developing countries understand that to attract people they need to make their cities attractive. Yes, insight is playing out around the world.

But for most Americans, the idea that sustainability is linked to the way our environment looks is a stretch. However, there is much scientific evidence now that proves that the quality of our physical environment has psychological and emotional impacts upon us. We are working on a hospital in Vienna where the landscape is incorporated into the financial pro-forma of the operation of the hospital. They know that if they build landscapes that the patients enjoy then they can move the patients out more quickly. In the U.S., physical design is viewed as “non-functional” and seen as just a cherry on top of the cake. It is a mystery to me why this close relationship between what something looks like and its value is not more fully appreciated by Americans.  It is understandable when it comes to electronics, cars or fashion, but when this is applied to cities people generally go blank.

The “softer side of sustainability” is just my way of saying that the urban landscape is not only about technical or science-based systems. The urban landscape is greatly shaped and organized and enables what people think, feel, and do. To design in the city, there must be a recognition of ALL the systems, the natural and the people systems that must be accounted for. A project designed without an understanding of these domains will not be able to resolve a landscape that is balanced, nor will it last long. One definition of sustainability is that something will have longevity. Longevity in the urban environment can only be achieved if people value it. If people value something, they will tend to invest in it and keep it. It becomes important to them and therefore sustains. But things and places that are not valued or attractive to people in some way, become degraded, and will eventually fail.

What design can do is create streets, spaces, and neighbourhoods that attract people. Everybody knows you pay more money to be in nice places and that almost everybody wants to be in beautiful environments. Beautiful environments and cities create desirability. This desirability creates value. People invest both economically and emotionally. The DESIGN and functionality of a city cannot and should not be seen as separate factors. Design does function on many levels. Without it, one cannot really create a liveable city and cannot compete in a globalized world.

In one session at the annual meeting, you said, “Green roofs are nice, but what about sustainable cities?” At Harvard, where you teach in the School of Design, you founded the Working Group for Sustainable Cities, an interdisciplinary group of professors who are focused on urban sustainability. Bringing in lots of different academic fields must be interesting. How does that change the conversation? What are the toughest issues limiting sustainable urban development according to this group?

We are still in the business of formulating exactly how we’re going to apply our collective knowledge and expertise. We hosted a series of lunches for local mayors around Boston that we ran as a fact-finding mission. We learned about the many dire issues cities are facing today.

Although many of the cities differed in specifics, in general, all the cities are hampered by money. Yet they still have to take care of the basics, while trying to plan for their future. They need to upgrade themselves so that they keep their people, their tax base, and attract businesses.

These “Mayors Luncheons,” hosted by the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government have been very valuable. Not only are we learning what we can do as a group, but we’re also learning what we need to be teaching our students so they can learn how to approach sustainability at a city scale. There is a great deal of information and expertise to be shared.

For teaching landscape architects we can learn to discover what the issues really are, such as how do cities operate, how do politics affect and shape environmental and economic issues? Landscape architects are being taught how to think about, define, and solve urban issues and still design them to be wonderful and valued parts of the city.

In another lecture, you seem very pessimistic about the ability of Americans to connect with “real” nature, particularly in cities, arguing that “nature today is a commodity that is inserted in bits and pieces into an environment that is itself a constructed product of our will. It does what we want and sadly all we want is to enjoy the view without being inconvenienced.” Are you still pessimistic? Do you think that values are shifting towards protecting and reinvesting in nature with the younger generation?

I think that’s a wrong read. I’m not pessimistic, I am realistic. People are eager to connect with nature. Our issue is that we do not see with honesty HOW we are building the landscape in our cities. IF it is not natural, then it goes un-regarded. We Americans love nature and our national parks. We love nature, but what we don’t love is all the built landscape that we live and work in. We don’t plan our cities so nature can play a role in it. We don’t invest our money in urban landscapes because they cost a lot of money and must be planned well in advance. We don’t vote for taxes to maintain our landscapes. But the reality is that we build our landscapes and build them cheaply and without much ambition for them. Look at the landscape environment of our strips — all that in-between landscape between the gas station, the big-box developments. It is why most American cities are unattractive. We Americans have used up a great deal of our nature indiscriminately as it is viewed as a unlimited resource while still loving it at the same time.

We carry a nature myth within us as Americans. We love nature as wilderness but we don’t love any built, constructed environment as it falls outside our idealized picture of nature. There’s a great divide between what people consider to be landscapes of value and landscapes that are not valued. Once a landscape has been manipulated, it has no value. So we don’t bring our resources to it. Codes that might demand a higher quality for its planning, design, and execution have resulted in a tremendous, almost wall-to-wall visual degradation of our environment. Through demonstration, we have built our environment through an ethos that says, “If it’s not nature, we don’t care about it.” That’s what really pains me. Our abundance of nature has provided us too much of a good thing and we have used it indiscriminately. Our ability to sprawl and use our landscape in a wasteful and neglectful way will ultimately has already greatly diminished what was a very beautiful country. Our landscape is a natural resource that is limited and has value. It must be viewed in that way.

My frustration is that people don’t understand or accept the notion that we build and therefore shape our environment. We build our landscape like we build our buildings so that we could live in it. It’s a built artifact and, as such, we should be thinking more critically about how we design it. Our landscapes are our streets, sidewalks, median strips, train corridors, highway right-of-ways, parking lots, on and off ramps, the back alleyways– all that leftover space has been chopped up by roads and highways. We’ve built most of our constructed landscapes very carelessly and without real investment. Now most of us have to pass through miles and miles of degraded, ugly, and dispirited open spaces, which comprise our urban and suburban landscapes.

In recent years, you’ve been creating large-scale master and landscape plans in United Arab Emirates and Qatar. For Qatar Petroleum, you proposed a “verdant green oasis landscape” in the desert. What are the long-term sustainability issues involved in creating water-intensive developments in desert ecosystems?

In most countries, outside the United States, you can’t build landscapes that are not carefully calculated to be able to survive on the water systems that are being produced within nearby buildings. We would never actually build anything that required more water than what we actually generate on-site. So if readers are viewing this as an unsustainable landscape, it’s a misunderstanding of that plan.

We used planting in areas that both were shaded by the buildings, where there would be less transpiration, and in areas where most people would be. Where there would be little use by people, it feathered out into an absolutely arid landscape. We used the same principles in our design for the Abu Dhabi Corniche where we designed to the strict regulations required for Estidama, the UAE’s tight standards for sustainability in the landscape.

One of your projects for the late ’90s, the Geraldton Mine Project, is a bold example of how to turn a degraded landscape into an economic and cultural asset. Beyond simply creating a beautiful land form, you also restored soils, re-vegetated, and created trails in an effort to lure tourists to a small town in Ontario. Does this site serve as a model for restoration for the thousands of mining sites throughout the world? What have been the challenges to scaling up this kind of approach? Why hasn’t it happened more?

That’s a very good question. We have worked on three mining sites, all of which have created a regeneration of those sites and their surroundings. It’s an incredibly robust model for how to re-use a degraded landscape so it can be productive again. The issue with Geraldton, a very small post-mining town, is that it had run out of its economy. Post-mining, what remained was a devastated landscape and an environmentally toxic landscape. The only way the town could figure out how to survive was to try to capture the people travelling on the Trans-Canadian Highway and get them to stop. But, of course, as you were passing through this area, you would just put the pedal-to-the-metal to get out of there as quickly as possible.

The idea was to take the huge pile of mining tailings and reshape them into something that was not the natural landscape so that it contrasted with the natural landscape, which is very flat and monotonous. The concept was to take the tailings and sculpt them to create land art. As a result, people did stop. They wondered, “What is this?” or “What’s happening here?” People would slow down to explore and come into the town. As a result of capturing some of their economy, they continued to develop the other parts of the site into a golf course that generated more economy and so it started to generate a new economy.

There aren’t that many who understand that the landscape, the earth, trees could be seen as an artistic medium, like a box of paints. You have beautiful, living and inanimate materials, and one can create something that has cultural resonance. The narrative or idea can be about anything. All great art is, essentially, a very personal statement or inquiry. A built landscape is not required to look or mimic nature. If we are creating it, like any other cultural art form, it can be what we wish it to be. There’s no law that says it has to look like nature. What if all the books or movies or plays were about one subject matter or were dictated by the government? It would be stopping the evolution of culture. Without realizing it, people have very clear notions of what a landscape should be, while we’re much more open about what a building can be because we know it’s a cultural artifact. But to most in the U.S., a landscape must represent nature or the process of nature. I strongly disagree with this didactic view of how our landscape must be designed. It is a narrow view. Because in our cities, in the places we make for ourselves to live, the landscape could and should have cultural resonance and meaning. This is actually a necessity to making spaces that people will love and cherish and, ultimately, be sustained.

Also, do you know that the Sphinx is a mining site? That’s where they mined the stone for the pyramids. They just decided they didn’t want an ugly hole. They actually sculpted it and created art. It’s a wonderful example of what one can do with a quarry.

We worked in Winslow, New Jersey, on a clay quarry that had been a dump for 30 cars. It was a degraded and socially dangerous site. With the client, and an ecologist, we regenerated it so now it’s an informal nature conservancy. Now, people want to know if they can buy the land to develop it into housing (no). But the point is, that now, there is a whole new set of possibilities for the site and the town. We also worked in northern England in a small post-mining village so to help in the regeneration of the town. We provided a master plan for about 100 acres and then designed a village green on top of the filled-in mining shaft.

John Dixon Hunt, a landscape historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said your Exchange Square in Manchester is an example of how landscape artists can “transform history.” In this case, the site “designates a new boundary between modern and medieval.” What story do you think the plaza tells?

Wow. That’s a great compliment coming from John. Of course, I have my own narrative. I’m happy to tell you about it but it’s not important except for creating a way of directing the design concept as we developed it. What’s important is that there is enough visual content so that people can bring their own interpretation to a public space. There has to be a visual coherence that people “get” that there is a narrative of some sort; it needs to be able to be described and memorable. But is must also be open-ended so it is not prescribed or didactic. A space doesn’t work if you feel that the viewer must think and feel the same way you do or to “get” the story. I am not interested in those types of spaces and, frankly, I don’t think most people find them particularly interesting either. People like a mystery or riddle. And in order to make these spaces relevant to individuals, they need to be understood and appreciated in very personal terms. Allowing people to bring their own narratives to a space is a much richer source of narratives.

Our narrative was based upon knitting the city together after a bomb blast has made a hole in the city fabric. We spatially knitted the old cathedral district together with the more modernized shopping district. The yellow Yorkstone represented the historic district as this area was built upon a great geological outcropping of Yorkstone. The upper shopping district sat on a granite and glass plaza. They were stitched together along a “seam” of gentle ramps and linear benches.

Lastly, earlier in your career, you were known for your iconic, playful pop-art landscapes. My personal favorite is the Rio shopping center, using more than 350 golden frogs. But even your playful elements are often geometrical, with an underlying logic. Can you talk about how you use humor to create compelling landscapes, and maybe geometry, too?

My humor is a personal thing. I come from a pretty funny family. It’s just the way I grew up. When I’m with my family, it’s hilarious. They’re really funny people, highly goofy. But humor can also be a very powerful weapon and means of conveying ideas that are uncomfortable to face head-on. If you listen carefully, most of the greatest comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor, are the angriest people ever. But what they say is very serious. The idea comedy or humor is not serious is really simple-minded. Behind their jokes are issues that are extremely serious and difficult to digest. But through their artistry they’re able to speak about these difficult issues and allow people to face them in a way that is much more acceptable. A fire-and-brimstone lecture ends to turn people off. Humor is a way of making medicine go down in a delightful way. It can deliver contentious and critical information in a stealth way. I use humour to disguise a difficult message. There is something there for everyone — for those who “see” it as well as those who don’t. They are at the same time funny and critical.   

We did this one installation in Bavaria. It was the garden of Baron Von Munchausen (the real person). We were free to do what we wanted however we weren’t allowed to alter the garden in a permanent way. The concept we had was to create an outdoor gallery exhibit from garden ornaments that people put in their gardens. Half of the 50 ornaments were from a U.S. garden shop and the other 25 ornaments from a German garden shop. I set them up on large white plinths, like you would see in a museum, which were arranged in a point grid. We cut the grass over the course of two months, which created a mown grid of grass about 5 meters wide. The objects on plinths were set at the intersections of the grass grid in the midst of very loosey-goosey, overgrown garden. There was the tire with the geraniums, American flags, the jockey holding a lamp, the wishing well, and the deck chair. It had all this stuff that underpins a billion-dollar industry. Gardening is the second-biggest hobby in American economy, worth billions of dollars. It reflects that values and aesthetics of our culture. We put these objects it in our gardens as a way of expressing what we wish others to see. The show was a cultural snapshot of the American and German cultures.

The contrast between all this junk we place in our gardens and the loveliness of this overgrown and lush garden was brutal. The curator from the Bielefeld Art Museum, who funded it, came up to me and said, “You’re really an angry person, aren’t you?” and I said, “Well, I’m glad somebody got it.” 

But most people loved it. They had fun.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Martha Schwartz / Image credit: Fennell Photography, (2) Exchange Square, Manchester, UK. Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (3) McLeod Tailings, Geraldton, Canada / Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (4) Exchange Square, Manchester, UK Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (5) Rio Shopping Center, U.S.A. / Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (6) 51 Garden Ornaments, Germany / Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners

Designing Views of Nature

Lonely Planet, producer of travel guides, has just put out a new book on the 1,000 Ultimate Sights. One can spend hours just looking through the different lists of “ultimate” natural sights around the world, including sections on the “greatest wildlife spectacles,” “most iconic trees,” and “most impressive waterfalls.” There are also segments that explore extraordinary forms of human interaction with the natural world, such as “most stunning gardens,” “most interesting bridges,” and “greatest roman sites.” Our favorite was a list of viewing platforms, often designed by landscape architects and architects to create closer connections with nature:

Pulpit Rock, Norway

Lonely Planet writes that viewing platforms created by nature may be the most impressive. “Preikestolen – Pulpit Rock – looms 604m above Lysefjord, one of myriad incisions along Norway’s west coast. There are mountains aplenty hereabouts, but this summit seems built for purpose: its almost perfectly flat top juts out over the water (no safety barriers here), commanding uninterrupted if vertiginous views.”  If you are intrigued by Pulpit Rock, also check out this session at the National Building Museum on how Norway’s landscape architects and architects have designed a subtle yet beautiful set of platforms along the national tourist route.  

Sky Tower, Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland’s 328-meter-tall Sky Tower enables visitors to interact with the views and heights in different ways: “A handful of high adrenalin options are available, 192m up: gaze out from the enclosed glass rotunda; don a harness to walk a dizzying lap outside; or plunge (with safety wire) at 85km/h to the plaza below – less lookout than leap-off.”

Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk, Australia

If you want to learn more about how birds live close-up, the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk sets you within the forest canopy of Australia’s Southern Highlands. “Hovering 25m above the ground, between stands of eucalyptus, sassafras, blackwood and mulberry, this 500m-long platform gives the wingless a glimpse of the avian lifestyle. And the bird’s-eye views are spectacular, from close-ups of tree-dwelling flora to sweeping panoramas of the surrounding escarpment.”

Grand Canyon Skywalk , Arizona, USA

At one of the most-visited sights in the U.S., there’s the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which was created in 2007. The 20 meter-wide glass and concrete “horseshoe” with a see-through floor jutting out over a “side canyon” of Arizona’s gorge has been controversial. Some would rather leave nature’s work alone. However, Lonely Planet says that the Hualapai Indian tribe, which manage the site, approved the project. Visitors are charged $30 per use.

Knife-Edge Point, Victoria Falls, Zambia

Victoria Falls, one of the world’s greatest falls at 100 meters high, has a spectacular viewing bridge at Knife-Edge Point. “Walk over the footbridge to this sturdy buttress where – if the mist is being blown in the opposite direction – you can gaze at the falls and the churning abyss below.”

Waterfall Trail, Iguaçu Falls, Brazil

Instead of a viewing station, the Iguaçu Falls in Brazil actually has a viewing trail that takes visitors through the cascade. “This South American cascade – a 3kmwide, 80m-high tumble of 275 separate falls, dripping in tiers through the jungle – is shared between Brazil and Argentina. And it’s on the Brazilian side that the Waterfall Trail leads out to the viewpoint below the Garganta do Diabo (Devil’s Throat) – Iguaçu at its most thunderous and spectacular.”

Il Binocolo, Merano, Italy

In Italy’s South Tyrol, Architect Matteo Thun created a look-out “suspended over the trees” as an addition to Trauttmansdorff Castle. “It gives a fine focus to those who dare step out onto its transparent gantry: over the vineyards, orchards, rooftops and mountainsides around the sophisticated town of Merano. It’s a grand garden to gaze over, too. Arranged around the neo-Gothic palace are swaths of rhododendrons, terraced water gardens, exotic palms, a house of bees and the world’s oldest vine.”

Dachstein Sky Walk, Austria

Dachstein Sky Walk peers out over this 2,700 meter mountain in Austria, offering panoramic views across state lines and international borders. “If you can bear to look, that is – it’s a dizzying prospect. And the wind and snow frequently flurry, making this an exposed, if exhilarating promontory. The journey up is even more hair-raising: the cablecar from the Türlwandhütte rises nearly 1000m to the Hunerkogel station, skimming the limestone cliff face (you can see every crack and crevice) by what feels like mere inches.”

Aiguill e du Midi, Chamonix, France

The viewing platform of the Aiguille du Midi gives awesome views of Mont Blanc. The Aiguille itself is quite a mountain at 3,842 meters. “But it’s a democratic peak: a two-part cablecar ride from the town of Chamonix below zips from valley bottom to the top – a 2,800m altitude gain – in just 20 breathtaking minutes. This enables anyone with a head for heights to get intimate with the legendary massif – a perspective usually reserved for expert mountaineers.”

Petronas Towers, Sky bridge, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

For a few years at least, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers were the world’s tallest buildings. That record was recently beaten by the World Financial Center built in Shanghai, and now the just-opened built Burj Khalifa  in Dubai. A Sky Bridge at the 41st and 42nd floors is an “engineering marvel; with its huge supporting ʻlegs’ it looks like the bolt holding the twin 452m-high skyscrapers together. At night it’s even more impressive, when the entire complex glitters brighter than a Christmas tree.” At 170 meters up, the views from the Sky Bridge, which are accessible via a “super-fast lift” are worth seeing.  

Check out Lonely Planet’s 1,000 Ultimate Sights.

Image credits: (1) Pulpit Rock / Pixelhaus, (2) Pulpit Rock / Sandro Mancuso. Flickr, (3) Sky Jump / Auckland Now, (4) Illawarra Fly Treetop Adventures, (5) Grand Canyon Sky Walk / Fodsup, (6) Knife Edge Bridge / Dave Clark. Smug Mug, (7) Iguazu Falls waterfall trail / Argentina’s Travel Guide, (8) Trauttmansdorff Castle Tree Lookout / Holiday Check, (9) Dachstein Sky Walk / Miradores Del Mundo, (10) Aiguill e du Midi / Nathan A. Flickr, (11) Petronas Towers Sky Bridge / Science Photo Library

The Rediscovery of Wonder

In a recent TED talk about taking imagination seriously, Janet Echelman, creator of billowing, voluptuous fabric installations the size of buildings, described the unexpected trajectory of her fascinating career. Echelman’s work has evolved from large-scale fishnet sculptures created from traditional craft methods to engineered installations designed with software and made from high-tech materials. This is an unlikely occupation for Echelman who did not train as an engineer, architect, or sculptor.

Fourteen years ago, Echelman was a painter traveling in India on a Fulbright. At that time, she had been pursuing painting independently after applying to and receiving rejections from seven art schools. She planned to exhibit a series of paintings in India but her paints never arrived. She tried to switch to bronze casting instead but found the process too expensive and the results too heavy. Unsure of how to proceed, Echelman took what became a fortuitous walk along the beach that took her career in a new direction.

While walking on the beach, Echelman noticed the local fisherman bundling their nets into mounds on the sand. Though she had passed by the same scene numerous times before, she suddenly saw it with fresh eyes as a potential new approach to sculpture, “a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.” She began collaborating with the fisherman, learning their techniques and creating her own variations, fashioning the fishnets into large sculptural pieces. She hoisted her first work, a self-portrait humorously titled “Wide Hips,” on poles to be photographed and found the result “mesmerizing”: “It revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns.”

Echelman continued studying craft traditions and collaborating with artisans. She began working with lacemakers in Lithuania, appreciating the result of the fine detail in her work but also came to realize that she wanted to make larger pieces. Rather than creating an object to look at, Echelman wanted to make something more experiential, “something you could get lost in.” She returned to India where she again worked with fisherman, this time to create a net of 1.5 million hand-tied knots. The sculpture was temporary installed in Madrid where one of the thousands of people who saw it was urbanist Manual de Sola-Morales, who at the time was redesigning the waterfront in Porto, Portugal. He asked Echelman to create a permanent installation in a traffic circle in Porto. Though Echelman had doubts that she could create something durable, engineered, and permanent that would express her work’s idiosyncratic, delicate, and ephemeral qualities, she nevertheless accepted the challenge.

The Porto installation took three years to complete. Echelman spent two years searching for a fiber that could survive ultraviolet rays, salt air, and pollution, and was soft enough to move fluidly in the wind but strong enough to survive a hurricane. In an effort to give the form a precise shape that would allow for gentle movement, she sought the help of Peter Heppel, an aeronautical engineer who designed sails for the America’s Cup Racing Yachts. Since a hand-tied net would not survive a hurricane, she also worked with an industrial fishnet factory where she learned how to create lace from their machines. Lastly, in order to support the net, she had a 45,000 pound steel ring erected in the traffic circle. When the 50,000 square foot lace net was finally installed, it gave Porto a sense of place, and though it was a permanent, engineered piece, Echelman felt her aesthetic was not lost in translation. Standing under the net, she said she felt sheltered but also connected to the limitless sky, and the moment was life altering. She decided she wanted to “create an oasis of sculptures in spaces of cities around the world.”

Echelman has gone on to create installations in several other cities, including one for the Biennial of the Americas in Denver, where she determined a new soft structural method that would enable her to model and build structures at the scale of skyscrapers. The Biennial committee commissioned Echelman to create something that would “represent the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere and their interconnectedness.” Echelman had read about the earthquake in Chile and the tsunami that rippled across the entire Pacific Ocean. She was fascinated by the fact that the event shifted the earth’s tectonic plates, sped up the planet’s rotation, and shortened the length of the day. She obtained data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and translated it into a sculpture entitled 1.26 for the number of microseconds the day was shortened. Since the sculpture’s shape was too complex to support with a steel ring, Echelman replaced the metal infrastructure with a soft, fine mesh of fiber fifteen times stronger than steel. The result was a sculpture that was entirely soft and light enough to tie in into buildings, literally becoming part of the city fabric.

As a result of this piece, Echelman has decided that she wants to “create voluptuous, billowing forms at the scale of buildings” in cities around the world, especially in places she feels need them the most. She is also exploring new methods for other installations, including one for the Historic Philadelphia City Hall where she wants to create something lighter than netting to compliment the building’s architecture. Instead of working with lace, she has been experimenting with tiny atomized particles of water to create a dry mist that could be shaped by wind and that people could interact with and move through without getting wet. Using this capability, she wants to trace the paths of subway trains above ground in real time, revealing an “X-ray” of the city’s circulatory system.

In the meantime, Echelman says her artistic horizons continue to grow. Recently a friend called to tell her that an attorney in Phoenix who had never had an interest in art and had never visited the local art museum asked everyone in the office to go outside and lie under one of Echelman’s sculptures. They all lay out there together in their business suits sharing a feeling Echelman knows well, “the rediscovery of wonder.”

Explore Echelman’s work.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern

Playing Games with the Urban Landscape

In some parts of the world, urban environments are being transformed into playscapes, sites for new creative expression, exercise, or games. Some of these new forms of interaction are amusing or exciting but also risky as well. Also, in some cases, these new ways of interacting with the built environment are outright illegal or at least frowned upon by local authorities.

As an example, take parkour, perhaps the most widespread of these new urban activities (see image above). Parkour, also known as “free running,” started in France and involves non-competitive running, climbing, and jumping through the urban landscape. A “traceur,” a practitioner of parkour, runs along a set route, navigating obstacles using his or her body. Participants can vault, swing, scale walls, and roll. Despite the obvious dangers like concussions or broken arms or legs, there’s now an official “Urban Freeflow” site with more than one million users and a magazine called “Jump.” Parkour also now has a rich history in pop culture. Watch “My Playground,” an introduction to a Danish film that explores how parkour is “changing the perception of urban space and how the space is changing the traceurs and freerunners.” Also, check out other videos on YouTube.

Perhaps more a flash in the pan than parkour, planking, or the “lying down game,” recently went viral worldwide, with The Wall Street Journal stepping in to track its development. Planking involves lying down in an unusual and often heavily populated location with arms pinned to your sides. To play, a photo must be taken and posted online. According to Wikipedia, to date, more than 315,000 images of plankers have been uploaded to Facebook and other sites. Two guys from northeast England claimed to have come up with the idea in 2007. The fad took off in the UK in 2010 and spread globally this year. Before attempting, it’s important to note that one Australian man just died trying to plank.

Another urban game to have popped-up and gone viral: urban golf, which is becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. and U.S. Urban golf courses are streets and neighborhoods. Wikipedia writes: “As in normal golf, many holes include hazards, but these are natural to an urban environment and are not bunkers (or sand traps), but street furniture and drains. Often many unexpected situations can arise from the environment such as dogs not kept on leashes tend to chase balls, players dropping clubs down drains, traffic, etc.” There are different sets of rules, but one group has tried to create a set of somewhat sensible ones, including playing away from people in less populated areas. In another example, Australian urban golfing apparently involves playing to the beach or pub. The player with the lowest strokes wins. Bonus points go to those who can pop a ball around a corner or bounce one off a tree “freestyle.” Helmets required for all unless tennis balls are being used.  

Lastly, the least dangerous of these new urban forms of play, but perhaps the one with the most vivid artistic impact is “yarn bombing.” The New York Times recently reported on this form of “artistic vandalism,” which involves making street art out of yarn. “Yarn bombing takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape. Hydrants, lampposts, mailboxes, bicycles, cars — even objects as big as buses and bridges — have all been bombed in recent years, ever so softly and usually at night.” Seattle even has a “YarnCore collective,” called “Hardcore Chicks with Sharp Sticks.” Etsy gone bad. See a slideshow of “grandma graffiti,” and what this one Parisian yarn bomber did with cracks in the pavement (see image above).

Image credits: (1) Parkour / Live Journal, (2) Planking in Taiwan / Reuters, (3) Chicago Urban Golf tournament / Broken Bat. Flickr, (4) Yarn Bombing / Juliana Santacruz Herrera. Flickr.

The Many Benefits of Public Art

According to Linda Slodki, Mt. Airy Art Garage, the arts are a highly cost-effective way of driving economic revitalization in urban areas. However, the arts not only spur economic development but also “shape our consciousness, create a collective attitude, inspire, remake behavior, and reduce stress.” In a session at the national Brownfields conference, both public artists and arts policymakers discussed how this process works.

Art Has Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, said the arts industries are deeply connected with economic development in his city. However, there’s still a raging debate over whether art has more intrinsic or instrumental value. Intrinsic value relates to the aesthetic value of any work of art, its own value as a piece of individual expression. Instrumental value relates to the ability of art to educate, create jobs, increase real estate value, build citizens, increase tourism, and provide other benefits.

While in 19th century France the argument was “art for art’s sake” because “art can’t support any political or social agendas,” Steuer says most artists working in the city today think “art can do both: provide aesthetic value and change the world.”

As an example, Steuer pointed to MASS MoCA, a 13-acre site in North Adams, Massachusetts. An unused building was turned into a space for “huge art installations.” MASS MoCa has had a “transformative effect on its community.” The building also houses creative design businesses like Web design firms. The museum itself has attracted 100,000 visitors, contributed $15 million to the local economy, and increased local property values by $14 million. In another example, Steuer explained how the Brooklyn Art Museum draws in half a million visitors a year and has helped preserve a multi-cultural neighborhood filled with old buildings. In addition, both of these projects had positive benefits without kickstarting gentrification.

Future Farmers Use the Land to Create Art

Amy Franceschini, an artist with Future Farmers, explained how her group reintroduced the concept of Victory gardens in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (image at top). Victory gardens were an initiative of the U.S. defense department during World War II designed to improve the self-sufficiency of the U.S. population. Families were encouraged to grow food in back lots or yards. Furthermore, President Roosevelt’s WPA put a lot of great artists to work creating “printed propaganda.” Franceschini believes “the imagery was key to the success of the project.”

To get their own massive public art project going in a major civic space, Future Farmers created their own imagery and tools. Their logo was a “pogo-stick shovel.” They designed a fun wheel-barrow bike. Seed banks were created for San Francisco’s distinct micro-climates. An online garden registry was created. With a $60,000 grant from the city, they also created a set of test plots throughout the city, which included raised beds, seeds, and water. In addition to educating residents about self-sufficiency, urban farming, and American history, one tangible result of this project was a directive that formalized the city’s committment to urban agriculture. Also, the art project brought in lots of visitors to City Hall.

In Philadelphia, Future Farmers has just launched an innovative project called Soil Kitchen. Given the building the team used is near a scultpure of Don Quixote, Franceschini decided to add a windmill on top of the building. Within the building, Future Farmers set up a soup kitchen for local residents. In a sort of interactive art piece, residents get free soup if they deliver a soil sample. Soil samples will be tested for contaminants and then plotted along a map of the city. The goal is to get thousands of samples to determine a broader soil remediation plan in the city.

Mel Chin Makes Fundreds

Mel Chin, public artist and provocateur, leapt to the stage at the conference, ripped off a staid suit to show an undercover miltary uniform, and brought out a large shovel. Leading the crowd in a marching cadence, he sang about his Operation Paydirt and Fundreds Dollar Bill project.

Chin said New Orleans was a “disaster before it was a disaster” because its soils were the most contaminated in the country. Extremely high levels of lead meant that “more than 30 percent of the population was poisoned before they reached adulthood.” He found that $300 million would clean up the city’s soils but he quickly realized getting a hold of those funds from the federal government was going to be very difficult.

Chin decided to create a public art project that would raise awareness about the dangers of soil contaminants and the need to remedy the soil problems in New Orleans. With a revamped biofuel-run armored truck, Chin travels to communities and schools around the country, asking students to create their own Fundred Dollar Bill. His goal is to create millions of these (he already has more than 350,000). Chin said “because we don’t have the funds, we must create something just as valuable as money. Human creativity is worth more than $300 million.”

Within communities, he’s created “safe houses”, buildings with fake bank vault exteriors. Using guards, a safe house stores some 10,000 Fundred dollar bills. Schools gather the community, waiting for the safe house to be opened, only for the kids to discover they need to create their own Fundred once they get inside. The armored truck also drove these bills to Philadephia, the site of the original U.S. Mint. His ultimate goal is to send these to Congress to get them to act on soil health. After coming to D.C., these bills will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum. Chin said they may end up at either the American History Museum or Hirshhorn.

Chin sees himself as merely a conduit or channel for collective action, not a clever conceptual artist. “Intense collaboration is the only way to get something done. I play a subservient role. I am just a delivery guy.” Given he’s too old to be an emerging artist, he believes he may be “submerging.”

Learn more about the Fundred Dollar Bill project and see a slideshow.

Image credit: (1) MASS MoCA / More Intelligent Life, (2) San Francisco City Hall Victory Garden / National Empowerment Network, (3) Soil Kitchen / Future Farmers, (4) Fundreds / Arts USA, (5) Fundred Safe House / Good Magazine

Landscape Architects Improvise with History

At Dumbarton Oaks, landscape architecture historian John Dixon Hunt examined how contemporary landscape architects deal with history, arguing that many of these designers, being artists, are actually “improvising with history.” Improvisation may even be a key part of their job, but they must do it well. Unbound from “memory and context” but still knowing a site’s history, landscape architects can then be free to invent their own versions of history.

Today, many landscape architecture students don’t want to bother with history. “They want to design something new,” says Hunt. A site’s history can be about the natural history of the site, the site’s development, the changing ownership, and also “memory,” which “doesn’t even need to be historical,” but can be “fabricated.”

Hunt pointed to a number of contemporary landscapes to illustrate his ideas. For example, at the GasWorks Park in Seattle, an old industrial site turned into a park, the site’s history literally leaches out of the ground in the form of toxic sludge. Even though park visitors can pay close attention to the site’s history if they want, much of that history has been repurposed. Old tanks are now used by scuba-divers to explore. Walls are now meant to be scaled. Bunkers are now gardens designed for meandering. In a similar example, Park Bercy in Paris features old wine storage facilities and casts embedded into the new park. In a contrasting example in Paris, Citroen, a French car manufacturer, completely demolished its old car manufacturing plants to create Citroen Park.

One Parisian park Hunt spent time exploring in his talk about landscape and memory was Park Atlantique, which sits above a high-speed rail station. The park has a maritime theme with seaside plants, games, a promenade, and weather station. “The site isn’t derived from historical events. However, it successfully creates a memory of trains and the seashore on an anonymous location.”

Jumping to New York, Hunt said Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, has created a new form of history with his fake rooftop garden for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which can only be seen by those working in the huge buildings looking down on it. Smith created a “camouflage-like painted garden” in this instance. In another example in the UK, Martha Schwartz, ASLA, transformed history in her Manchester Exchange Square project by “designating a new boundary between the modern and medieval times.” There’s a sloping edge indicating the space where a bomb hit, and other key “story elements” incorporate into the site. In Portugal, Joao Gomes de Silva used a set of consecutive gardens to “bring home distant memories of distant colonies to Portugal.” Each garden uses native plants and design elements from those colonies, like Macao, to create a “memory of empire.”

Finally, he pointed to Maya Lin’s masterful Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which makes a painful history abstract and accessible to all. “With its sunken descent into the ground, we follow the litany of death.” 

Landscape architecture is one of the few arts in which history can be created. “Landscape doesn’t have to honor history.” Pillaging an “endless bank of history,” landscape architects play the role of “critical historians.” That being said, these artists of the built environment should “always study history. If they are good, they can then invent their own.”

These days, Hunt said, there’s an awful lot of terrible landscape architecture out there, “really bland stuff,” that could be picked up and put anywhere. He’s also “fed up” with many landscape historians who want to spend a week on a studio trip to a foreign city. “This is just like some sort of tourist trip, and helping to create a global, homogenous view of landscape.” In other words, to invoke history properly, the landscape architect has to be “sensitive to that place.”

Check out Hunt’s book on the “afterlife” of gardens.

Image credit: (1) Seattle Gasworks Park, Ping Chen / Picasa (2) Parc Atlantique, Paris.

Christopher Gielen’s Aerial Photos of Sprawl

In one session at the TED Mid Atlantic conference, German photographer Christoper Gielen showed his startling aerial images of American sprawl, but asked viewers to consider them as an “aesthetic experience.” Shot while hanging out of a helicopter, Gielen’s photos demonstrate that very similar sprawl shapes appear across the country.

To find his sites, Gielen first examined statistical databases and honed in on areas with the highest foreclosure rates, which he said indicate where the most unsustainable development is. In Houston, he found perfect web-like networks of prefabricated houses with trees exactly in the same place. One community in Nevada (see image above) is “so perfect” incoming aircraft use it as a marker on their way to the airport. As for the community, “it’s sold as active living, but it’s isolated in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a prison of our own making. People are really inside their cars or homes watching TV.”  

The high foreclosure rates among communities in Florida and Arizona demonstrate that many of these sites are economically unviable, but Geilen says they are also environmentally destructive. In one Florida sprawl community (see image below), the wetland was drained then water was reintroduced into managed channels. “The flow of the Everglades is being slowly cut off by development.”

While land-use policymakers want to “reconnect the severed arteries of the Everglades” and create “archipelagos of development” in a sea of of untouched landscapes, many sprawl communities continue to be built.

On a more existential note, Gielen also asked why he was seeing the same forms over and over again in different parts of the country. “There must be some geometric sociology. Why do these shapes — circles, stars, or webs — come into form? Is there something deep in the human psyche?”

See Gielen’s photographs, which he will publish in a book next year.

Image credit: (1,2,3) Untitled / Christopher Gielen