Inside the Garden, and Mind, of Peter Marino

The Garden of Peter Marino / Rizzoli USA

Peter Marino’s garden is about as unexpected as you would expect from the celebrity architect, whose name has become synonymous with high-end fashion lines like Chanel and Luis Vuitton. The Garden of Peter Marino offers a look inside the designer’s sprawling 12-acre Hamptons property, where over the course of two decades he has carefully curated a series of gardens that blend formal landscape elements with unexpected details.

The Garden of Peter Marino, azaleas / Jason Schmidt via Rizzoli USA

Marino organizes his garden by color. But he also agrees with a friend’s assessment that he’s created a network of outdoor rooms, which are home to his 42-piece collection of Italian artists Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s surreal, cast-iron sculptures. Spread after spread reveal a pristine, manicured garden dotted with art, often placed to interact with the plants. In lieu of a masterplan, these photographs of the sculptures orient the transitions between colors.

The Garden of Peter Marino/ Jason Schmidt, Artwork: 2017 ARS, NY, ADAGP, Paris

But perhaps equally as interesting as the images is the book’s insight into Marino’s design process, which is both thorough and technical, and random and personal. Sometimes, he goes to great lengths to explain the layers and spacing of planting, where at other times, he states unqualified preferences: “I don’t care for yellow flowers mixed with other colors, so I planted them all together in what I intended to be one big explosion of yellow.” He will detail his plant choices with Latin names and variety, and in the same paragraph use phrases like “mad amounts” to account for the density of hydrangeas.

The Garden of Peter Marino, yellow garden / Jason Schmidt via Rizzoli USA

Marino also gets personal. He describes the whimsical forest section of the estate as “Harry Potter-esque,” imagined for his daughter.

The Garden of Peter Marino woods / Jason Schmidt via Rizzoli USA

The Zelkova trees in this section of the garden date back to the Civil War, he was told by an arborist. One was among 16 trees lost in Hurricane Sandy. “I was devastated,” Marino writes. “But nature has a way of doing its thing, which is why I will never really consider any garden as ‘finished.’”

The Garden of Peter Marino / Manolo Yllera via Rizzoli USA

These moments, coupled with the photos, offer an absorbing visual essay of a decades-long pursuit of an architect designing a home for his art in the unpredictable medium of the garden.

Seoul Turns Aging Overpass into Botanical Promenade

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Seoul is the latest cities to reclaim a piece of aging infrastructure for public use. Last month, South Korea’s capital city opened Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, an inner-city freeway transformed into a pedestrian artery and botanical garden.

The elevated public park was designed by Dutch architects and urban designers MVRDV as a series of gardens with 24,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers. Fifty plant families and 228 species and sub-species are organized according to the Korean alphabet along the pedestrian-only walkway.

Ben Kuipers, lead landscape architect on the project, said the unique arrangement highlights plant nuances. “The species are organized by genus and family. So people can experience the differences between species,” he wrote in an email. “There are small, themed gardens, like the maple garden and the pine tree garden, and a surprising contrast walking from family to family, in Korean alphabetical order.”

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Over 600 concrete planters dot the approximately 3,000-foot linear park, which stretches across the city’s central train station and connects the Namdaemun market area to the east and neighborhoods to the west. Each pot has nameplate identifying the plants in both Latin and Korean. At night, the pots are illuminated in blue and white.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden at night / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

“The trees are the stars,” Kuipers said. “We turned the bridge into a ‘walk of fame’ with every tree in a pot like on a pedestal. And every season shows different features.”

With over one million visitors in the first 10 days, Kuipers said the high volume shows the concept resonates. “We wanted to create not just a pedestrian connection, but also a place to visit, be, and meet people. Therefore, we also added ‘activators,’ such as little shops and cafes.”

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

MVRDV won an international competition in 2015 held by the Seoul Metropolitan Government for the design of the park with their entry, The Seoul Arboretum.

The original freeway, known as the Seoul Station overpass, was built in 1970 at the heart of a city undergoing rapid economic and population growth. The structure was slated for demolition after a 2006 safety assessment determined it would soon be unsafe for vehicular use. Officials ultimately decided to recycle the freeway, incorporating the structure into its plan to make the city more walkable.

“This overpass has special meaning because it represents Seoul’s modernity,” Kim Joon Kee, deputy mayor of safety management for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told CNN in 2016, as construction was underway. “It was built to relieve traffic congestion and, after 30 years, it  became worn down, so we saw an opportunity for the city’s development.”

The name, Seoullo 7017, pays homage to the transformation of the freeway over time. The word Seoullo means “Seoul road,” and the numbers 70 and 17 reference its original constructed and when it reopened to pedestrian traffic, according to The Korea Times.

Implementing such a diverse planting design on an aging freeway structure came with a unique set of challenges. Kupiers explained there was little space for soil for the roots, given the load-bearing limitations and the inclination of the bridge destabilizes the soil. Designers also considered the safety of pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring no branches or trees would fall on the road or railway tracks below. 

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Furthermore, in a region with hot summers, cold winters, and typhoons, Seoul’s varied climate also posed a challenge. “We decided to create the right conditions for trees, shrubs and plants [by] making huge tree pots. These pots are isolated to prevent freezing and have a drainage, irrigation, and aeration system,” Kuipers explained.

The arrangement of over 600 pots, in varying sizes and depths, adds a distinctive, constructed quality to the design, a departure from the more organic style seen in many landscape designs in Asia, Kuipers said.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

MVRDV’s design envisions the skygarden as an “urban nursery.” Kuipers said they plan to use the bridge in combination with the city’s own tree nursery to grow new trees and species, eventually distributing the pots along pedestrian routes in additional neighborhoods.

Seoul is hardly the first city to build an elevated urban walkway. Many have drawn connections between this project and New York City’s High Line. In fact, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was inspired by the famous James Corner Field Operations’ project, according to the The Korean Times. Still, the projects differ in their relationship to the surrounding urban fabric and the way they use plants.

“Although the High Line is a great example, Seoullo is different in many ways,” Kuipers said, noting the Seoullo Skygarden’s elevated views of the city and central location at Seoul Station in the heart of the city.

Sowing Beauty: A Guide to Designing Meadows

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Sowing Beauty. Copyright 2017 by James Hitchmough. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

In Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed, James Hitchmough tells us about what we’ve lost. “Meadow-like vegetation” was once “much more abundant.” He traces its decline to industrial agriculture and development.

Hitchmough saw the design potential of meadow communities early in his career as a horticultural ecologist. He has spent the last few decades studying their characteristics and experimenting with their composition. The resulting knowledge compiled in Sowing Beauty will push meadow design forward.

Planting meadows is a departure from planting gardens. It isn’t planting with particularity; it’s painting with broad strokes. That isn’t to say meadows lack sophistication. Change can be observed in sown communities, and there is “nearly endless variation.” Spontaneity informs meadow communities more than gardens, which partially explains their charisma.

Artistic intention in the design of meadows appears through seed mixes, what you scatter on the soil to materialize a meadow. A good seed mix requires an understanding of how natural meadow communities occur and function. However, seed mixes don’t have to have to be identical to naturally-occurring communities. Hitchmough encourages experimenting with seemingly incongruous seeds to produce novel results.

Southern Hemisphere Garden, London Olympics park / James Hitchmough

“The choice of plants is the central challenge in all planting design,” Hitchmough writes. The planting site must factor heavily into any decisions. Meadows are complex communities, with ground, middle canopy, and upper emergent layers to consider.

Oxford Botanic Garden, UK / James Hitchmough
Meadow garden / James Hitchmough

Management of meadows must also be considered. Cutting helps manage weeds, but the cut material must be removed. Other practices, such as grazing and mowing are more suitable in some climactic zones or scales.

The complexity of meadows offers a lot of opportunities for the meadow designer, but also several possible pitfalls. Sowing Beauty, gracefully, does not deal in vagaries. Need to know a handful of species with high-design potential found within Rocky Mountain steppe communities? That’s on page 77.

The back half of the book is composed of case studies of Hitchmough’s own projects. Each case study is documented with species used, target numbers for seedlings, and the total plants required for each project. The projects discussed range in scale a from a couple hundred feet to over 24 acres (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London). Each study has a “What Worked and What Didn’t” section, where Hitchmough discusses in detail the successes and failures of the project.

Planting a meadow / James Hitchmough
James Hitchmough at work / James Hitchmough

At one point during the film, I Heart Huckabee’s, the main character, an environmental activist, bemoans the over development of our landscape to the point “you can’t remember what happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk.”

“What happens in the meadow at dusk?,” asks an earnest Jonah Hill.

Some of us might smile at Hill’s ignorance, but too many others can relate. It would be wonderful if the advice and knowledge offered in Sowing Beauty resulted in many more of these endlessly-interesting and beautiful landscapes.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 16 – 30)

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Grant Park deck rendering / Smith Dalia

They Turned the Front Lawn into a Welcoming Extension of Their Woodland Hills Home The Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17
“What happens when an architect and a landscape architect renovate a front yard together? In the case of architect Carmel McFayden and landscape architect Louisa Relia, the result is a grid-based landscape that thoughtfully complements the lines of McFayden’s 1969 Midcentury home.”

Saving Bertha: The Effort to Turn a Piece of Seattle History into Art Seattle Magazine, 4/20/17
“After Bertha’s dramatic emergence from the nearly 2-mile-long tunnel she diligently, if erratically, drilled in service of a new, underground stretch of SR 99 (and re-opened Seattle waterfront), a certain post-drill pallor has descended upon the city. After all the fanfare and ceremony—not to mention millions of tax dollars—Bertha is scheduled to be dissembled and sold off for scrap, and soon.”

Using RPGs to Solve Environmental Problems PC Magazine, 4/21/17
“Landscape architects at North Carolina State University developed open-source modeling software that uses the basics of role-playing games to help solve environmental problems.”

World Landscape Architecture Month: Let’s Celebrate All Things GreenThe Missoulian, 4/25/17
“It’s been a long, hard winter here in western Montana, what with blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. As spring slowly emerges, it’s time to celebrate all things green. Let’s celebrate April – it’s World Landscape Architecture Month.”

Grant Park’s Zoo Parking Deck Redo Moves Forward with Greenspace and Restaurant Curbed Atlanta, 4/26/17
“Parking spaces and park spaces may be separated linguistically by only a syllable, but as urban features, the two are diametrically opposed.”

São Paulo’s Mayor Tries to Make the City Greener The Economist, 4/27/17
“The phrase ‘concrete jungle’ might have been coined for São Paulo. Brazil’s megalopolis has 2.6 square meters of green space for each of its 11 million inhabitants, a tenth as much as New York and a fifth of what the World Health Organization recommends.”

Understanding What Makes Plants HappyThe New York Times, 4/30/17
“First, we have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks.”

Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

On a tour of the new town, which will add 480 homes, including some assisted living cottages, to the 1,400 that already house some 3,500 people, Serenbe founder Steven Nygren explained how his vision of wellness was inspired by the sustainable Swedish city of Malmö. He and his wife Marie traveled there, and they brought back lots of photographs, which they then gave to their planners, architects, and landscape architects.

The community now under construction is organized around common spaces set in gardens. Nygren fears a scenario in which you have two older residents out on their porches, but both are waiting for the other to invite them over. In Mado, the ground-level shared patios may create more opportunities for interaction.

Also, Nygren reached an interesting conclusion from his trip to Malmö: “They always connect streets into nature.” He decided to recreate that relationship in Mado, organizing the housing and common spaces along a central axis with ends that extend into nature trails.

Mado development plan / Rhinehart Pulliam & Company, LLC

Once this central organizational structure was decided upon, they brought in landscape architect and University of Georgia professor Alfred Vick, ASLA, who then created an innovative “food forest” to realize the concept of wellness in landscape form (see the bottom portion of the image above). It will function as an accessible outdoor living room, given throughout the space the gradient is less than 5 percent. It’s also a place where people can gather and also learn how to forage in the wider Serenbe landscape (see a close-up of its design below).

Mado food forest / Solidago Design Solution, Inc.

Vick said his vision was of a “edible ecosystem, an intentional system for human food production.” Using the natural Piedmont ecosystem as the base, Vick is creating a designer ecosystem of edible or medicinal plants, with a ground layer, understory, and canopy that also incorporates plants with cultural meaning and a legacy of use by indigenous American Indian tribes.

He imagines visitors to the forest foraging for berries, fruits, and nuts, including serviceberries, blueberries, mulberries, and chickasaw plums, as well as acorn and hickory nuts, which can be processed and turned into foods. Mado residents and chefs can harvest the young, tender leaves of cutleaf coneflowers, which are related to black-eyed susans. Or reach up to an arbor, which will be covered in Muscadine grape vines and passion flowers. Or take some Jerusalem artichokes, which were used by Cherokee Indians and today cooked as a potato substitute. Or pluck rosemary or mint from an herb circle. Vick left out peach and apple trees because they require fungicides.

“The primary goal is to engage residents,” Vick explained. There will be interpretive guides to explain how plants can be consumed, which will also “help encourage wider foraging when they are out in the Serenbe landscape.” Nygren wants everyone in the community connected to the productive cycle of nature and to know when the serviceberries, blueberries, figs are ready to be picked.

And the landscape is also designed to both provide a safe boundary — so grandparents can let kids roam — but also provide a natural extension into the rest of the landscape. While the Mado designs are still being developed, we hope that universal design principles, which call for fully-accessible seating and nearby restrooms, will be incorporated to ensure an 80-year old as well as an 8-year old can comfortably access and enjoy the landscape.

Learn more about Serenbe in this interview conducted with Nygren in 2015.

Watch Now: Inside the Landscape Architect’s Studio

Each year at the ASLA Annual Meeting, some of the world’s top landscape architects and designers explain themselves in front of audiences of hundreds. These designers give in-depth presentations, explaining the logic behind their designs and their latest projects. Now, ASLA has made these presentations available online for free. From the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in Chicago, you can watch more than 6 hours of videos:

Inside the LA Studio with DesignJones (see video above)

Join speakers Diane Jones Allen and Austin Allen as they discuss their years of professional and academic practice. They will share their experiences pursuing environmental justice projects, ground up approaches to planning and design, intricately linking Research and practice on all projects regardless of scale, and unique approaches to community outreach regarding critical social and infrastructure urbanism problems.

Watch Austin Allen, ASLA, associate professor, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, LSU, New Orleans; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal landscape architect, DesignJones.  Moderated by Jennifer Reut, senior editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Inside the LA Studio with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The leaders at MVVA see new projects as more than just business. Each design is an opportunity to challenge our assumptions, learn through experimentation, and grow both individually and collectively. In this session we will use case studies to explore the value of teaching and learning through practice as means to achieve design excellence.

Watch Chris Donohue, ASLA; Scott Streeb, ASLA, landscape designer; Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO; and Andy Wisniewski, ASLA, senior designer, all with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. Moderated by Shannon Nichol, FASLA, founding partner, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

Inside the LA Studio with Oehme, van Sweden & Associates

An award-winning practice, OvS has garnered international recognition for pioneering a systemic approach to sustainable design. The firm’s body of work illustrates what is possible when art, science, and environmental sensitivity equally drive the design process. Now, under its second generation of leadership, the partners will discuss the firm’s continued innovation.

Watch Sheila A. Brady, FASLA, vice President, principal; Lisa E. Delplace, ASLA, CEO + principal; and Eric Groft, FASLA, principal, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Moderated by Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, president/CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Inside the LA Studio with Rana Creek Design

Rana Creek is a renowned ecological design firm specializing in landscape architecture, environmental planning, native plant propagation, landscape construction, and habitat restoration. This diverse team believes passionately in the mission to design and build landscapes that connect people, places, culture, and ecology.

Watch Blake Jopling, ASLA, project manager + designer; Marta Kephart, vice president and COO; Sina Yousefi, design associate; and Matthew P. Yurus, ASLA, principal landscape architect; and Paul Kephart, ASLA, ecologist, all with Rana Creek Living Architecture. Moderated by José Alminana, FASLA, principal, Andropogon Associates.

Best Books of 2016

Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape / Rizzoli Press
Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape / Rizzoli Press

There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust, 2016); Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli, 2016); and Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape (Unicorn Press, 2016).
All three books were published this year to celebrate the 300th anniversary of English landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. Together they paint a rich portrait of this master landscape designer and his most influential works.

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016)
Larry Weaner, one of the world’s top meadow designers, and Thomas Christopher have created a reference book on ecological design for gardeners and landscape designers and architects. They write: “By following ecological principles, we can have landscapes that are alive with color, friendly to local wildlife, and evolve over time—with much less work and effort.”

Environmentalism of the Rich (MIT Press, 2016)
Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, asks the hard questions: is environmentalism, as it’s practiced in the developed word, failing? Is the mainstream sustainability movement, with its focus on incremental gains, failing the planet? Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute, writes that the book “is required reading for anyone wanting to help ram the movement off its current dead-end path and build a new deep green movement.” Read The Dirt review.

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liverlight, 2016)
In his latest book, renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. Read The Dirt review.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016)
Peter Wohlleben, who spent twenty years with the German forestry commission, and Tim Flannery, a scientist and author, ask: “Are trees social beings?” They are convinced the forest is actually a social network.

The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)
Fiona Stafford, a professor who focuses on romantic poetry at Oxford University, has published a lyrical volume on the history of seventeen common trees, including ash, apple, pine, oak, cypress, and willow. She delves into history, paying homage to important specimens from the past, and also explains trees’ critical role in the future fight against climate change.

Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative in Urban Planning and Design (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016)
In their new book, editors Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell have made complex ideas about urban ecological design incredibly accessible. They make a convincing argument that “ecological literacy” is an “essential base” for anyone involved in urban planning and design today. There are 17 thought-provoking essays from leading landscape architects and planners from around the world.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (Jewish Museum, 2016)
The Jewish Museum in New York City has put together the definitive book on the influential Brazilian landscape architect and artist. In addition to designing more than 2,000 gardens, Burle Marx created paintings, drawings, tile mosaics, sculpture, textile design, jewelry, theater costumes, and more.

Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (The Monacelli Press, 2016)
Kate Orff, ASLA, and her team at SCAPE have created a beautiful book with engaging full-page color photography that delves into Breakwaters, their Rebuild by Design project in Staten Island, and others. The goal of their projects is to “bring together social and ecological systems to sustainably remake our cities and landscapes.” They describe the book as “part monograph, part manual, part manife­sto.”

Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, who has just retired from University of Pennsylvania, collects twelve of his recent essays in one book. He takes the reader on an intellectual ride, explaining the ways we perceive landscapes, and in turn asking us to examine our own baggage when viewing them, so that we may gain greater insights into landscapes’ true meaning and our own emotions.

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2016)
In this new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people. Read The Dirt review.

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems (Columbia University, 2016)
Developed for the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, S. Brye Sarte and Morana M. Stipisic, with the Sherwood Institute and Columbia University Urban Design Lab, have created a well-organized guide to resilient green infrastructure for developing-world cities. There are smart solutions for water pollution, climate change, and multiple types of flooding, with real-world examples.

Wild by Design (Island Press, 2016)
A leading advocate of the “wild” landscape movement, landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, explains how she carefully balances ecological conservation and restoration with a strong sense of design. Ruddick is the 2013 winner of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Learn more about Ruddick and the book.

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 1 – 15)

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A rendering of an overhead view of San Jose’s St. James Park as re-imagined by CMG Landscape Architecture / Courtesy City of San Jose

Land Bridge Could Transform a Section of I-94 in St. PaulThe Star Tribune, 10/8/16
“A land bridge over Hiawatha Avenue includes Longfellow Gardens. The idea is not a new one, but it is catching on among highway planners.”

The Key to Creating Sydney’s Friendliest Streets Is to Add PlantsDomain, 10/11/16
“As Sydney’s population grows with expectations it will reach 6.25 million in the next 20 years, one added side effect is the increased anonymity that comes with big-city living.”

Gardens by France’s Most Revered Landscape DesignerThe New York Times, 10/12/16
“Gardens are ‘an expression of faith’ and ‘the embodiment of hope,’ wrote the revered English landscape architect Russell Page in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener, in 1962.”

How to Remake San Jose’s St. James Park The Mercury News, 10/12/16
“San Jose will host one of the more fascinating design competitions in its history: The ambitious goal is to try to remake downtown’s most gaping urban sore, St. James Park.”

New York’s Biggest Ever Green Wall Flies the Flag for Eco-Friendly CitiesThe Huffington Post, 10/13/16
“Recent reports that global carbon dioxide levels have hit an all-time high have also reinforced the need for action, and the quest for sustainability is more pressing than ever.”

The Case for Austerity

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If abundance and variety characterize most gardens, then an austere garden is one marked by subtlety and restraint. Respectable qualities, especially in a society that aspires to opulence. But these same qualities make austerity much trickier to identify and thus admire. Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests in his latest book, Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending, that we must attune our senses to recognize austerity and its value.

“Experiential richness does not depend on complex form or an abundance of elements. It is how we look, and what we want to see, that makes a garden,” Treib writes. Decouple ornamentation from beauty and austerity will have its day. Treib’s book is a vision of what that day might look like, with examples of austerity from the past and present, from art, architecture, and landscape design. Japanese gardens make several appearances (Treib has studied them extensively), but so do peat quarries in the UK, an experimental forest in Sweden, and Salgina bridge in Switzerland.

These varied examples of austere works beg the question, how does Treib define austerity? You might get a different answer depending on which page you flip to. “State less, imply more.” “Simplicity, reduction, and compression.” “Restriction in means.” These are all true, of course, but only constitute individual aspects of austerity. One might say, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The challenge Treib sets himself is attuning readers’ eyes to it.

Austere Gardens begins with a description of the musical score 4’ 33” by composer John Cage. The score is performed in front of an audience, although it requires no instrument, just the periodic disruption of silence. The performer relinquishes control to the audience. Shuffling of feet, heavy respiration: ambient noise comes to the fore. Silence becomes music and austerity delivers riches.

4’ 33” possesses an effortlessness common to many of Treib’s examples of austere works. Tactical mowing, cutting, digging, and occluding are economical strokes with outsized impact. Treib gives as an example the construction fence, hiding from passersby what lies beyond. “What has been screened, withheld, or removed often stimulates greater intrigue.” Closure and revelation. Achieving more with less can be interpreted several ways.

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Tactical mowing adds color to a path in a German meadow. // Image Credit: Oro Editions

Patience is essential to appreciating austerity, writes Treib. “Without taking the time to look, perceive, and perhaps to think, any rewards may be meager.” Even the mundane, perhaps especially the mundane, deserves a prolonged gaze. The austere beauty we’re witnessing, Treib tells us, may be intentional, inadvertent, or the result of time and its effects.

The essay’s organization will frustrate some readers who desire more structure. It is, as the title implies, a series of thoughts. One can read it in a sitting, feel refreshed by its ideas, and then wonder, “What was the overarching point?” A call for austerity and all that implies, certainly. And yet an absence can be felt after putting down Austere Gardens, the sense of a lesson left incomplete. In a way, the essay practices what it preaches, leaving room for the reader to close the circle.

Detroit Aims for Food Sovereignty

Plum street market garden / Jared Green
Plum street market garden / Jared Green

There are 165 acres of urban gardens and farms under cultivation in Detroit, Michigan. In a tour, Ken Weikal, ASLA, co-founder of the non-profit GrowTown and the firm Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, explained that everyone from Capuchin Monks to non-profit cooperatives, university labs to self-sufficient farmers, corporations to small businesses are involved in using Detroit’s vacant lands to produce food. The goals of these efforts are to increase food production “for Detroiters and by Detroiters,” generate new sources of income, and build community. The grand, long-term vision: “food sovereignty” for this resurgent rust-belt city.

A few farms we toured downtown were examples of corporate social responsibility efforts — spaces for company employees to volunteer. For example, an empty lot next to the MGM Grand casino and hotel in downtown Detroit was transformed into Plum Street Market Garden, where everyone volunteering the day we went was wearing an MGM employee t-shirt (see image above). The 2-acre garden produces 20 types of fruits and vegetables. MGM has invested some $600,000 in the project so far, and partnered with Keep Growing Detroit, a local non-profit, to hold some 60 community classes there a year.

Another example is Lafayette Greens, a nearly half-acre garden set in the empty lot where once stood the historic Lafayette building. The garden was financed and administered by Compuware Corporation, which has its headquarters a block away, but is now run by the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit. Designed by Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, a partner at Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, the market garden won an ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Weikal said the garden helped start the conversation downtown among everyone from policy-makers to school kids and tourists about the opportunities with urban gardening.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Within the garden, raised beds, with smart benches at the end, grow a range of herbs and vegetables. “The beds are programmed like a museum exhibition but for flavor and color. They are vegetal exhibitions.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Detroit’s bottom-up food movement was the focus of a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Ashley Atkinson, who runs Keep Growing Detroit, explained that urban farming and gardening is not a new thing in Detroit. In the 1890s, Republican Mayor Pinzen Stuart Pingree, who was elected to four terms, encouraged the poor and hungry to grow food. “He was the laughing stock of the country, but hunger was reduced dramatically.” Urban farming was seen as “low value, low education work,” but decades later, during World War I and World War II, nearly “every major city practiced urban farming.”

The mission of Keep Growing Detroit is food sovereignty in Detroit. “We want the majority of food vegetables in Detroit to be grown by Detroiters.” Her goal is to transform some 40 square miles of vacant land in the city into productive assets. Keep Growing doesn’t differentiate between “family gardens, school or market gardens.”

In 2003, Keep Growing Detroit started a garden resource program to grow seeds and transplants. They had to build this whole system from the ground-up, because “no one knew where to get these.” They now grow 250,000 organic transplants a year that are given away to the community. “We distribute them equitably” through local educational workshops and training sessions. In every district of the city, local farmers lead these training sessions. There are also tool sheds where hand tools and shovels can be borrowed for free, and compost centers where some 200 tons of compost worth $1.5 million is also distributed at no charge. And “we use shared work days and community events to build community infrastructure. Plus, we eat a lot together.”

Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit

Her group then formed Grown in Detroit, a collaborative network of some 80 gardeners and farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. According to Atkinson, “some $100,000 is made and 100 percent of that money goes to the growers.” There is also a network of 1,400 community gardeners who help bring healthy food to the neighborhoods. They are part of an effort to establish healthy eating behavior among very young children. “If we can introduce healthy food recipes and cooking at a young age, we can impact them their whole lives.”

Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow
Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow

In 2013, the Detroit city government finally changed regulations so urban farming is now legal. While Atkinson considers that a win, she has a much broader vision: 25 percent of the 40 square miles of vacant land, which is some 5,000 acres, under cultivation. With that much farming, “we can produce 70 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruit consumed in Detroit and raise incomes.”

Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green
Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green

Devita Davidson, who heads communications for FoodLab Detroit, made the moral argument for local food production. “If you look closely at the supermarket, it’s a facade. The industrial food system is the site of injustice; the food system is failing so many people.” While she sees Detroit as the “comeback city,” she still sees major issues: 70 percent of adults are obese as are 40 percent of kids. “Detroit is dying from diet-related diseases.” She wants some of those locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be transformed into value-added products like ketchups, salsas, jams, and sauces. Her group’s innovative effort — Detroit Kitchen Connect, which was been lauded by Oprah Winfrey — enables local entrepreneurs to use restaurant, church, and other facility kitchens during off-hours to develop their products. Such a smart variation on the sharing economy, with food justice and social equity at its heart.

Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org
Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org

And Pashon Murray, a co-founder of Detroit Dirt, sees access to good-quality compost as central to the entire food sovereignty effort. She said Americans are incredibly wasteful, disposing of $218 billion in uneaten food, which is then dumped into landfills. “Some 52 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, while 10 million tons is just left in the fields.” Much of that food waste can instead be collected and turned into compost, revitalizing soils in the process. Plus, “waste recovery equals revenue and jobs.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club

She has partnered with GM and Chrysler, collecting their food waste from factory cafeterias weekly and turning it into compost that is then distributed to local gardeners and farmers. To do this work, she hires ex-cons, “people we associate with dirt, the forgotten and left-behind.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub

Her dream is to raise enough funds for an “in-vessel composter digester” that will help her scale up compost production. She hopes to realize this in 2017. “Compost is the root of the soil, and soil is the foundation.”