Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.
Grove linked the current misalignment between public space and private development to the long history of “decoupling policy making and placemaking.” Urban planners have led in the policy and regulatory-making realm while landscape architects have proven expertise in placemaking.
Landscape architects can instead lead and participate in urban policy-making through “upstream urbanism” while prioritizing public spaces as the dominant placemaking strategy in cities.
To illustrate the importance of this approach, Jeneck discussed the typical block structure of San Francisco, which is 360 feet by 360 feet, as it relates to floor area ration (FAR), or the amount of building area in relation to the size of a lot.
A four-story building occupying 50 percent of the site would have a floor area ratio of 2, which Jeneck notes is on the low end for urban development. Assuming the lot is the entire block, the dimensions of this building would be 180 feet by 360 feet, a footprint with an impractical amount of interior space.
This undesirable set of dimensions for a building can result in design teams creating assemblages of towers, which to achieve the same FAR could take up 70 percent of the site, greatly limiting public space. Developments like this happen because policy makers haven’t accounted for public space corridors and connections from the beginning.
The speakers set out five scales in which urban design takes place: regional plans, city general plans, city area plans, city-specific plans, and project plans.
Landscape architects are intimately familiar with the project scale, but need to shift up in scale towards the regional plan, affecting policy that begins to shape the form of the city.
Scaling up gives landscape architects a larger role in designing the broader framework in which smaller urban, area, and project plans must exist, a crucial role the profession is currently lacking.
According to Johnson, landscape architects’ ability to work with complex systems makes them a natural choice for managing the goals that must be met at each scale.
He gives the example of a set of scalar jumps, 1, 10, and 100. 1 is the site scale, the place landscape architects are currently most comfortable, 10 is the city scale, and 100 is governance and public policy.
All presenters looked at lessons from past planning movements in order to inform what a future landscape architect-led planning framework could look like.
They traced the history of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham on the City Beautiful Movement. While the Garden City and the City Beautiful movements were highly influential, they were also ensnared in class politics, giving them a green veneer without truly being equitable.
Cities account for 3 percent of our land area, but 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Getting the next generation of urban planning and design right is imperative.
Revitalizing post-war plazas requires a deep understanding of the historical significance and degree of integrity of the existing conditions, which to Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, can then “guide the level of intervention and level of surgery that one is applying to the bone structure.”
Birnbaum provided a framework for how to measure success that operates on two axes: historical significance and integrity.
Historical significance relates to the importance of the plaza culturally, both locally and within the landscape architecture canon, while integrity focuses on the condition of the original design and implementation.
To demonstrate how the graph works, Birnbaum located three plazas within it: Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis (high significance and high integrity); Boston City Hall Plaza (medium significance and medium integrity); and Love Park in Philadelphia (low significance and low integrity).
Birnbaum then defined seven aspects of integrity for plazas:
Location: Place where the plaza is constructed. Setting: Physical environment around the building. Design: The form, place, materials, and structure of the plaza. Materials: What the plaza is constructed with. Workmanship: Physical evidence of the construction and craftsmanship of the plaza. Feeling: Quality and often intangible elements that constitute a place. Association: Historical and cultural ties to the plaza.
Birnbaum used his methodology to categorize Mellon Square in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (high significance and medium-high integrity); Lever House Plaza in New York City (high significance and medium integrity); Time-Life Building in Chicago (medium-high significance and medium integrity); and Nollen Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa (medium-low significance and low integrity), prefacing the case studies Rademacher and Smith detailed.
Rademacher explained how Mellon Square had maintained its integrity for many years after its construction but lost its character after an integrity-reducing reconstruction in the 1980s.
The 2007 update, led by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and implemented by Heritage Landscapes, aimed to restore Mellon Square to its original design, eliminating several of the changes that occurred during the 1987 reconstruction.
Rademacher laid out a few of the problems that came up with the restoration. Fountain function was dependent on a worker being present. Planting was overgrown or dead. And “most egregious was a redesign of the fountain” that led to a new double crenelated edge, which divorced the timing of the water feature from the original design and its intent.
Many of the materials were preserved in the 1987 reconstruction, but recreating the major elements of the plaza would be central to the 2007 reconstruction. The fountain was the most difficult piece to return to its historical character, with the original slow contemplative rhythm of the fountain being at odds with contemporary thought about how fountains should perform. Ultimately, the team decided on a flashy program on the hour and the slower contemplative program for the remainder of the time.
Returning the plaza to its original design was important for it to retain its integrity and to maintain its historical significance for the City of Pittsburgh.
Smith elaborated on three projects that his firm has worked on, each project approaching the historical legacy of plazas in different ways.
First, and the most historically significant, was the Lever House in New York City (see image at top). Smith’s team relied on a set of photographs by Ezra Stoller to recreate the plaza in lieu of many architectural drawings for the plaza space.
Stoller photographed the project during construction, upon completion, and for several years after the project was finished. This helped Smith to understand the changes throughout the first few years of the project, particularly in planting and usage. The analysis resulted in a near-identical reconstruction of the space.
The Time-Life Building plaza features a distinct terrazzo patterning that carries through into the building’s lobby, which is the only part of the building complex that is part of the historic registry. The tile patterning was then paramount to the design of the plaza. Smith’s team recreated the terrazzo look in concrete. The major change was relocating the fountain to “reframe the plaza relative to the sidewalk,” creating a connection between the Avenue of The Americas and the plaza.
Cowles Common’s, formerly Nollen Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa received the most change while retaining the tilted orientation of the plaza in relation to the street grid.
Major changes included eliminating a wall separating the north and south sides of Des Moines, the addition of a new fountain feature in the center stripe of the plaza, and the installation of a new sculpture by Jim Campbell.
Each of the plazas hold some level of historical significance as post-war plazas, but as Rademacher and Smith noted, the measure of the success is not dependent on the funds spent on the projects, but on identifying and enhancing the spirit of the places.
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.”
A few decades ago, when you thought of Orange County in California, “you didn’t think of the citrus growing here, you thought of the color of the sky,” said Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at the opening general session of the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
Air pollution grew worse and public pressure increased on government at all levels to solve the problem. Then, finally, in 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. Since then, “air pollution has been reduced by 75 percent, while we have tripled gross domestic product (GDP).” This led McCarthy to state: “So don’t tell me solving climate change is beyond our reach.”
The technological side of fixing the climate crisis — renewable energy, a clean power grid, electric vehicles — are easy to envision and within reach. “The clean energy train has left the station, and there’s no way it’s turning back.”
The harder problems to solve are the greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment, and the “loss of the sense of community.” The solution to both problems is to build communities that can be “the foundation for a more sustainable tomorrow.”
Sustainable communities create opportunities for children to get outside and play, which is why McCarthy was one of the first to create a No Child Left Inside program in Connecticut when she served as commissioner of environmental protection.
When McCarthy was commissioner, she remembered meeting school children in Hartford who lived a few miles from the Connecticut River, but had never seen it. “No one drove them there.” And “there was no green space to connect them to the river.”
“How can children love nature if they don’t see it? How can they become the next environmental stewards if they don’t care about nature?”
To achieve sustainable communities, green infrastructure must also be interwoven throughout the built environment. “By moving away from concrete pipes to green infrastructure, we can also make our cities finally look good again.”
McCarthy called for “transforming the built environment to integrate nature into everything.” For this, she said landscape architects play a crucial role, as they are experts on how to design with nature.
Landscape architectural solutions like urban forests and green roofs will reduce the impacts of extreme heat. “Heat stress will kill more people than all other climate impacts put together. Heat is a silent killer — it kills people in their homes and on the streets.”
McCarthy believes “climate change is the most significant public health, security, economic, and environmental challenge of our time.” And all progress made on the environment and climate change under the Obama administration is now under assault.
While some 92 percent of EPA regulations formulated under the Obama administration withstood legal and other challenges, “all our life-saving efforts to reduce air and water pollution and clean-up contaminated sites are under attack.”
Still, she found hope in the fact that some 25 states and hundreds of cities have stated they are still abiding by the terms of America’s contribution to the agreement. Together, this coalition of states and cities represents 55 percent of the U.S. population. If this group were a separate country, it would the third largest economy on Earth.
Regardless of party, “Americans want a stable, clean environment in which they can live, work, and play. I’ve worked under six governors, five of which were Republicans, and not one said to me, ‘we really need more pollution.'”
And that is why the attacks on environmental regulations are particularly galling for her. “The EPA really isn’t an environmental agency; it’s a public health agency. The EPA is focused on fewer asthma attacks and heart attacks.”
Phasing out dirty power sources like coal in favor of clean, renewable energy means cleaner air. In the U.S. some 4,000 kids develop asthma each year. “If you have seen a child having an asthma attack, you never forget it.” And thousands die prematurely from bad air quality.
Climate change is also about people’s health, perhaps more than nature. “No one relates to glaciers. What they relate to is the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren. Health is the best way to get people to care about climate change. Communications must be personal, and health is incredibly personal. Focusing on health impacts will create action.”
She exhorted the crowd of landscape architects to fight the good fight: “Do not sit on the couch. Stop being angry and anxious. Taking action is what being adult is all about. And we must demand action. We can’t turn our backs on our children and grandchildren.”
“Stop following the latest dramas in Washington, D.C. The Beltway isn’t the real world. Have you ever heard of an innovative idea that was initiated at the Federal level?”
She urged landscape architects to “speak up, challenge the status quo, and make your families proud. Design the future; show people what it looks like; tell the story.”
“We need landscape architects to design a world that is healthy, safe, and beautiful — and more just. Landscape architecture can kindle hope in all of us.”
There has been an evolution in public education about historic landscapes where people were once enslaved. Just a few decades ago, the story of African American slaves would have been brushed over, sanitized, or, even worse, left blank. Now, a few brave public educators, academics, photographers, and historians are showing how complicated, layered stories can be told that honor the truth and dignity of those who were enslaved. They show that landscapes can tell the story of American history in all its beauty and horror.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architects, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the reality of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind.
The colloquium, which was held in preparation for a two-day symposium in spring 2020 on the legacy of segregation on cities, delved into studies and projects related to landscapes of enslavement in the U.S. and Caribbean. Way explained these academic conferences are part of a broader three-year investigation financed with grants from the Mellon Foundation.
The Daily Life of Enslaved People in Jamaica
Jillian Galle, project director, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, is coordinating a collaborative research study on 85 sites in the U.S., Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Kitts, and other countries that have yielded 4 million artifacts.
Through her archeological research, Galle found that the global trade in sugar, cocoa, spices, and coffee resulted in a “new material culture” of luxury products. Excavations of slave dwellings in Jamaica yielded fragments of porcelain from southern China. “Slaves were active participants in the consumer revolution.”
Analyzing 33,000 artifacts from Stewart Castle in Jamaica, Galle and her team found “costly objects from Europe” while excavating slave structures, including “glass beads, metal buttons, furniture ornaments, iron pots, shells, and utensils.” Machetes and hooks, which were used by slaves as weapons during rebellions, were also found.
Over three centuries, some 9 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean to plant and harvest sugar, citrus, lumber, cocoa, and other products on plantations overseen by white workers. Due to the incredible violence of slavery, “there was no natural increase,” meaning slaves weren’t able to have children. As the enslaved Africans were worked to death, one million new slaves were imported.
Instead of feeding slaves well, portions of plantations were given over to them as “a system of Negro provisioning grounds.” So in addition to their work, there was the stress of having to “cultivate gardens, fish, grow livestock to meet their own food needs.” Famine was a regular occurrence and constant threat.
Unearthing shellfish shells, fish bones, and other food remains from these sites gave insight into their diet. While slaves often sold fish they caught in markets, clams and other shellfish made up a large portion of their diet, which was partially foraged. Galle hypothesized that African slaves who were stolen away to Jamaica brought their “Gold Coast fishing culture,” which has been passed down to Jamaicans who live there today.
After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, the life of enslaved people in Jamaica improved somewhat, at least on a relative basis. Some gained access to island-wide Sunday markets where they could purchase or trade those luxury consumer products. With the ability to participate in commercial life, “they achieved a margin of economic and reproductive success in a brutal environment.”
Telling the Story of Slavery at the Whitney Plantation
Dr. Ibrahima Seck, director of research of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum and a member of the faculty at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Senegal, said the 2,000-acre Whitney Plantation, which is about a one hour drive west of New Orleans, Louisiana, is dedicated to explaining the history of slavery in the South. The museum opened to the public in 2014 and receives around 100,000 visitors annually, a number growing 10-15 percent each year.
Attorney John Cummings purchased the land for $8 million, spent 15 years restoring the site, and commissioned life-sized clay sculptures of enslaved Creole adults and children that humanize them and breathe life into the history. Many of the sculptures, which were created by artist Woodrow Nash, are found within the historic African American Antioch Baptist Church, which was moved to the property.
Over a 90-minute tour, mostly outdoors, visitors get a sense of what life was like for the enslaved laborers, “who spent most of their lives outside, whether it was very hot or cold.”
Seck said some 13 percent of the slave population in Louisiana died each year. “There were also large numbers of children who died — either stillborn or due to disease.”
What makes the Whitney different from other Southern plantations is the Wall of Honor, where Seck and his team have listed the names of enslaved people they discovered lived there over the 18th and 19th centuries. “There are 400 names, African names.”
Also, Rush more recently created an art piece to honor the slaves who led and participated in the German Coast uprising on January 8, 1811. By June 13, the slaves had been defeated by the local militia. “And they had to pay the price of failure.” Those captured were shot, decapitated in front of their families, and then their heads were put on spikes. “The artwork represents this but also presents them as an army.”
Ashley Rogers, who is the executive director of the museum, said “many visitors have an idea in their mind of what slavery was like that doesn’t line up with reality. It’s a bucolic, beautiful setting, with cypress swamps and egrets, but the landscape is deceiving — it obscures the hard labor and violence.”
Rogers emphasized the industrial nature of the plantation. “The fields were like factories.”
Starting in the 1820s, steam-powered mills and conveyor belts led to a “methodical division of labor.” Then, beginning in the 1840s, field work became mechanized through machines first sold as “iron slaves.” These machines were marketed as “better than human, the ideal slaves.”
After slavery was abolished, a system of bonded labor developed that “was similar to slavery in so many ways.”
Many of the plantations along the Mississippi River were later purchased by oil and chemical companies, which were attracted by easy access to water and transportation. On top of the violence and trauma came “toxicity and environmental degradation.”
Today, St. John the Baptist Parish is the most polluted in Louisiana. “And the energy and chemical companies still receive tax-free status.”
A Bold Re-Interpretation of Slavery at Montpelier
Elizabeth Chew, executive vice president and chief curator at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Virginia, which is about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., said Madison owned enslaved people, who grew tobacco and grain on his property.
After being purchased by the Montpelier Foundation in 2000, the home was restored to near-original condition as part of a $24 million multi-year effort. As the restoration neared completion, one member of the community of descendants of Madison’s slaves asked Chew: “where are my people?”
The realization that the story of the enslaved had been largely omitted led to archeological excavations, architectural studies of slaves’ quarters, and the eventual recreation of their quarters in the south yard of Montpelier. A $10 million gift from David Rubenstein made that work possible.
Montpelier Foundation made a concerted effort to engage the descendant community in the creation of new interpretation program and telling personal stories about Madison’s slaves. “Their advice was to emphasize the humanity of their ancestors, and don’t leave slavery in the past.” The main message the Foundation wants to convey now is: “slavery happened to one person at a time.”
Through inventive exhibitions, the forms of slaves are projected on walls while recordings of oral histories of descendants play in the background. “You feel human presences in the spaces.” Chew said they hoped to convey the “psychological torture of slavery; that loved ones could be sold and stolen away at any moment.”
With support from multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the Montpelier Foundation has also created new curriculum for teaching slavery in schools and engaged visitors and descendants in the excavations and discovery of the past. Chew seemed proud that the descendants are now a “major stakeholder.”
Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, who moderated the session, said Montpelier, through its thoughtful interpretative work, powerfully expresses “the magnitude of loss and horror, and the persistence of the intangible and invisible impacts” of slavery.
Chew said once visitors “see the evidence and experience the spaces with their own bodies, it overrides any concern” that the reinterpretation is too threatening to “white fragility.”
There are growing numbers of visitors of color. For many, “Montpelier is a pilgrimage; it’s a stand-in plantation.” And about “40 percent of our visitors thank us every day for what we are doing.”
Their concern now is remaining relevant amid declining visitor numbers. “Older white folks make up the largest demographic of visitors, and that has to change.”
At a day-long colloqium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies, assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architect, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the truth of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind. (Read Part 1 in this series).
Monticello: Liberty and White Supremacy
Before moderating the discussion on Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Eric Avila, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, took at tour there. He said his guide started with a joke: “Monticello, it’s complicated.”
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., is considered a founding father but he also owned 600 slaves at his 5,000-acre estate. His beliefs and writings helped lay the foundation for American liberty but only for white males. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence but fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, one of his mixed-race slaves.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation manages Monticello and employs Fraser Nieman, who is head of archeology. At the historic estate, “the landscape of slavery has vanished.” Instead, he and his team have had to deduct what the past looked like from available data, in this case, oral histories, documents, and layers of sediment.
Jefferson grew both tobacco and grain, but they required “radically different” agricultural methods. To grow tobacco, enslaved workers would kill trees, leaving the stumps. Then, they would abandon a plot 4-5 years later and cut down more trees starting the cycle over again. “Tobacco required a gang labor system; everyone was at the same time at the same place.”
In contrast, wheat production required all tree stumps to be dug up and removed so that fields could be plowed by livestock. Wheat production demanded an elaborate divisions of labor: slaves to manage livestock, fertilizers, mills, and then blacksmiths to make the plows. “Wheat production required spatially-dispersed task groups.” Nieman thinks the experience of slavery may have differed based on what was being grown. “Tobacco production required more control, while there was slightly more freedom with wheat.”
Without any physical remains of slave dwellings or farmland, Nieman and his team decided to investigate the accumulated layers of sediment, which are an “encapsulation of history.” Pollen samples from those many layers tell the story of the transition from tobacco to grain.
Branden Dillard is an anthropologist who oversees interpretation and the instruction of tour guides at Monticello. While he said “no one can recreate the landscape of enslavement at Monticello,” which was a “forced labor camp in a botanical garden,” his job is to convey “an understanding of what it was.”
Interpretation involves bringing historical data and facts to life for diverse, contemporary audiences, making information relevant on a personal level. One important way the foundation does that is by using facts from documentary records to tell the stories about individual slaves.
Dillard acknowledge that tours can become very tense, particularly when visitors hear things they perhaps don’t want to. “Staff have been yelled at; fights can break out among visitors.” He said “about 15 percent of the reviews of the tours basically say ‘how dare you;’ another 15 percent accuse us of white washing; and 70 percent say we are doing a good job.”
For Niya Bates, who manages the oral history projects at Monticello, it’s important to have “up-front conversations with visitors who have been miseducated on the history of slavery and its legacy.”
She said Jefferson was “obsessive about taking notes, marking the weather twice a day.” From all these records, they were able to piece together the names of the 600 slaves who lived there, and then trace descendants, who have become critical stakeholders in Monticello.
Oral history interviews with descendants about the lives of their ancestors at Monticello and after slavery, and the after-shocks of slavery among the descendants themselves, helps enrich the story of this historic landscape. “Monticello is really a black space, even though it is not thought of as such. We can re-frame it as a black history site.”
The foundation has organized events where descendants plant trees to honor their ancestors. Visitors can sleep overnight in rebuilt slave quarters. Through the incredible Getting Word project, they can hear the stories themselves both online and in exhibitions. And there are also grants available to descendants to pursue their own projects and development.
The Legacy of Slavery in East End Cemetery
Introduced by landscape architect Sara Zewde, Brian Palmer, a photographer, journalist and professor gave a heart-felt talk about his explorations in the South, both photographing white supremacist rallies and exploring abandoned African American cemeteries.
In 1892, Jim Crow, which was a system of laws and regulations that enforced racial segregation across Southern states, “followed people to the grave.” African Americans had to be buried in their own cemeteries. The fact that many of these places are so neglected today plays into “our community’s residual shame.”
East End Cemetery, which is near Richmond, Virginia, is a historic 16-acre site where an estimated 17,000 African Americans are buried. It was one of many neglected African American cemeteries in the South.
After discovering the site through a photography assignment, Palmer and his wife later returned to volunteer, clearing out invasive plants, making the cemetery more visible and accessible, and posting images of gravestones on “Find a Grave” in an effort to identify descendants. Palmer went on to become the president of the non-profit managing the clean-up.
Reviewing microfiche of old newspapers, Palmer also discovered some of the famous African Americans buried at East End, including a doctor who became a bank president. “Reclaiming the cemetery is about reclaiming the history there.”
He called out the injustice that continues today in Virginia, noting that the state has provided over $9 million over the past 100 years for the upkeep of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, where many Confederate figures are buried, but exactly zero for the maintenance of African American cemeteries. “There’s affirmative action for Confederate cemeteries.”
Through a number of grants, East End Cemetery has been able to create a community for descendants and an ambitious preservation plan. Palmer said it’s slowly becoming a tourist destination, along with Evergreen and Woodland cemeteries nearby, which are also being restored. Read more in Palmer’s op-ed in The New York Times.
Uncovering the Truth of Slavery at Universities
Nathan D.B. Connolly, a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University moderated a discussion on how universities are dealing with complicated pasts intertwined with slavery. Given we now know that “slave money built many American universities,” including Ivy League institutions, how can universities create an inclusive community? Donnolly believes that “racism is still rampant in higher education,” adding to the challenge.
Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University, has worked to uncover the full story of slavery at his university, which has been in the news because Jesuits sold some 275 slaves in 1838 for $115,000 to get out from under “crushing debt.” While this information was publicly known at least since the 1960s, it has been “rediscovered” and taken on a new life.
To date, the university’s official response has been to offer a formal apology, institute a new process for engaging descendants of those slaves, and give descendants privileged position in admission considerations. However, current students recently found this didn’t go far enough and voted for giving reparations to descendants, arguing that one dormitory paid for with proceeds from the sale of slaves generates more than $1 million in revenue annually.
As the Georgetown Memory Project calls for more research and students demand reparations, Georgetown is “seriously wrestling with the facts of history.”
Hilary N. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, who runs the Hallowed Grounds project, a walking tour of slave history on campus, said her university has a “dismal retention rate for diverse students and faculty” perhaps in part because the past there hasn’t been fully acknowledged.
While the university created a marker honoring slaves and their legacy on the campus, Green decided to dig deeper, looking into the archives, and uncovering personal stories of slaves on campus. All this information has been presented in a walking tour to over 4,300 people, in rain or shine.
Her efforts have yielded progress: the university has formed a new commission to study race, slavery, and civil rights. Green has also created a pop-up museum on racial history at the university and is seeking a dedicated space.
And Elgin Cleckley, assistant professor of architecture and design thinking at the University of Virginia, described how he brings his empathetic design approach to complex sites on campus and in Charlottesville.
He said the walking tour on enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia inspired him to work with students to create a new project and exhibition called Mapping, which is now on view in the Rotunda until 2020. The project features documentation from the University of Virginia president’s commission on slavery and an orientation model laser-etched in slate roof tiles that enslaved workers on campus created.
UVA recently commissioned Howeler+Yoon to create a new monument to enslaved labor on campus, which will feature 973 names. (Some 4,000-5,000 workers were enslaved on the campus). Cleckley participated in the monument’s planning and design, stating that it adds an African form that contrasts with axial structure of the traditional campus. The monument is expected to open in 2020.
Cleckley said UVA is a complicated place to work because it “has produced both white supremacists and African American civil rights leaders.”
In the Q&A, conversation veered towards what to do with the Confederate statues that still take center stage in many Southern parks, plazas, and streets, serve as daily reminders of the “Lost Cause,” and are major flash points in race relations.
Some cities like Baltimore and Austin have removed all Confederate monuments, while other cities are moving cautiously, deliberating over whether to reinterpret the sites for a contemporary audience. The conclusion seemed to be to go slowly in removing them and focus on building new monuments to enslaved people first, rather than tearing down the old.
Another question arose about how to represent the influence of African slaves in historic American places like Monticello through design. The landscape isn’t just a white landscape, but also a black one.
Bates at Monticello said one way would be to contrast the “Western, rigid, grid forms” with something antithetical and African, “with movement, color, asymmetrical and curvilinear forms.” Intervening in the symbolic Western forms can “disrupt the landscape of white supremacy.”
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.
Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.
Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”
In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.
A few highlights from the conversation:
On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”
“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”
“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”
“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”
“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”
On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”
“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”
“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”
On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”
On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”
On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”
“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”
On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”
Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.
The Gentrification Effect of Urban Parks– Planetizen, 10/21/19 “New research finds that different types of parks correlate with different gentrification effects, adding to the complexity of urban change.”
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.