Saving Water Is So Hot Right Now in Landscape Design – Wired, 3/4/16
“The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) asks hundreds of landscape architects around the U.S. to forecast the trends in outdoor design for the coming year. The point of the survey is to look beyond industry insider buzz and figure out what designers’ clients are actually asking for. This year’s results are in, and they show people are overwhelmingly concerned with water conservation.”
The Great Wall of Japan Divides a Country Still Reeling from 2011’s Earthquake – Lakes Mail, 3/5/16
“Within months, plans to build super seawalls of up to 17m in height along more than 400km of the coastline of the worst-hit Fukishima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures at a cost of $US10 billion were approved. The eventual aim is to stretch Japan’s seashore fortifications from a pre-existing 9,500km to cover 14,000km of its entire 35,000km coastline.”
A New Future Post-Chargers?– The San Diego Union-Tribune, 3/6/16
“Ever since the stadium opened in 1967, urban planners, politicians, Mission Valley residents and developers have eyed the site as an opportunity waiting to happen — to turn a centrally located, underutilized plot of city-owned land into something more than just an 18,500-space parking lot and occasionally used stadium.
Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them?– The Los Angeles Times, 3/6/16
“Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for ‘sustainable’ buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature.”
Houston Stakes a Claim as The Nation’s Emerald City– The Houston Chronicle, 3/9/16
“At a time when many cities are turning once-blighted infrastructure into iconic public spaces, Houston has emerged as a surprisingly fertile pasture – such a model green city that more than 1,300 landscape planners from across America will visit for a closer look this weekend.”
Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect with over 17 years of experience and a 3D modeling and visualization expert. He has authored two books: SketchUp for Site Design and Rendering in SketchUp. Tal runs a 3D modeling, visualization, and BIM studio for Stanley Consultants, a 1,000 person multi-disciplinary engineering firm and is the tech-editor at large for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
A few decades ago landscape architects weren’t working with complex software. Now that many software choices are available to landscape architects, how do these new technologies change what landscape architects do? What functions are now solely done through technology?
It has completely changed the way the profession functions. The expectation now is anyone out of school has to have some level of proficiency with AutoCAD, Photoshop and SketchUp, at a minimum. Knowing Rhino, 3Ds Max, GIS, and others is expected by some firms. It has become necessary to have some understanding of 3D modeling. This is even true for the landscape design industry.
Also, the workflow has changed. The nature of deadlines has changed because we’re so dependent now on technology. The ability for us to assess design and create revisions to design is remarkable. And among clients, expectations for how much we can change and incorporate have increased, whether it’s from a client overseas or a municipality in the United States.
And, of course, there’s the push for BIM, whatever that really means. I would encourage people to read the recent Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Dummies, which clearly explains the challenges landscape architects face in implementing BIM.
Are clients driving the use of these new technologies or landscape architects? Where is the demand for these new technologies coming from?
As consultants, our approach is client driven. The owners of offices recognize the benefit of being more competitive by having specialties in different software. And the expectation is landscape architects have to do it in a shorter amount of time.
Since the Great Recession, project budgets have gotten tighter and more competitive. Every edge matters. Keeping current matters. This means landscape architects will need to explore new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), 3D printing and fabrication, in-house programming. Soon enough, clients will expect these skills.
How do new technologies support the development of sustainable landscapes? Do they ease the process of design and implementation?
In some cases they do. Environmental assessment or modeling companies are starting to consult with urban design companies, landscape architects, architects, or they have an energy modeler in-house.
Something like Revit and other BIM applications help an energy modeler understand the levels of impact a building or structure might have on a landscape. And we’re seeing and pushing new technologies which measure flows and water for sustainability.
You’ve authored a few books on SketchUp. What do you see as the principal benefits and drawbacks of SketchUp?
SketchUp has become a somewhat standard tool for many offices. It’s expected as part of most professionals toolkits. I know of firms who test SketchUp skills during interviews. It’s proven to allow for quick site modeling and renders. This technology enables the ability to spread the work load among production staff like other typical software like AutoCAD and Adobe products. As a design and assessment tool, it’s invaluable. It’s also pretty easy to learn and fast so it’s well suited for typical landscape architecture firm budgets.
But I also fear SketchUp is falling behind. Don’t get me wrong, it enjoys widespread adoption in the landscape architecture industry and others and it will be around for years to come. But there is a need to incorporate more powerful tools that are becoming standard in other 3D modeling applications, like the ability to import LiDar and laser scans, automated modeling, and the inclusion of GIS and similar data. For example, there is UNDET, which allows for the import of LiDar data into SketchUp. What an amazing tool! But the price is prohibitive at $3,000 vs. something like AutoDESK Recap 360, which is free.
SketchUp’s development philosophy is to let the user and developer community create these tools. This has been great, as there are many amazing SketchUp Extensions, but also challenging, as more robust tools should require the SketchUp teams direct development. We’ll see what happens. For right now SketchUp is here to stay, but my hope is we see the genuine inclusion of new, powerful tools.
SketchUp and other technologies enabled you to design at large scale. What is the relationship between these new technologies and various design philosophies? Are technologists drawn to certain design and urban planning philosophies?
That’s a very good question because there’s been a dialogue that perhaps we’re too quick to go create something visually in 3-D, or in some other program, without actually going in and assessing the design aspect or the real-world impact.
There is a bit of a lag because the excitement has been that “we can convey anything,” but at the same time, we need to make sure what we’re conveying is responsible and correct for community and resource management.
More important, 3D modeling has opened the door for more accurate and powerful simulations and site analysis without having to be at the location. This is an aspect of BIM used often for buildings, structures, and power plants. But now we are now able to simulate traffic patterns for complete streets and pedestrian movement, weather, fluid dynamics, and plant growth.
Furthermore, as more powerful computers become available, and the smart algorithms that come with artificial intelligence and drones become prevalent, we will see another shift in how we work with the landscape. It will inspire new ways to think and design.
Open source software is getting better at meeting the needs of design professionals. Can you discuss some of the pros and cons with these?
One example is Unreal Engine, which is free even for commercial use. It is a gaming engine now available for landscape architects and others to use for their work. As important, it works with the Oculus Rift VR glasses. Really powerful stuff but it does have a learning curve. Many tutorials are available online.
Having free, open source software is important, obviously. For me, there’s the spirit of just having something available that’s free for everyone. We’re finding people go out and explore these things by themselves. They don’t have to have a budget of several thousand dollars to buy software. They’re picking up new skills to better represent their ideas. And we’re actually seeing that more and more. Within our office, there are different people trying out different software, coming to the table in a forum and saying, “This is what I got, and by the way, it’s free, and this is how you use it.”
What are some basic practical steps every landscape architect can take to better incorporate technology into their design and implementation process?
People need to make sure they’re familiar with what’s out there, and at least have a basic understanding of how they’re affecting the profession and who is using them. Hiring IT experts familiar with the landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering fields can help. For example, John Hanson in Denver, Colorado, does IT for several firms. He consults and builds high powered but affordable computer systems, using VR and experiments with 3D printing. Similarly, some students coming out of school can offer guidance.
There is so much new technology it’s hard to keep up with. It used to be that you just had to know your lessons about how things come together in construction and how people design. Every office now needs somebody that’s technologically savvy and knows how computers and hardware work, what programs are out there, and even how to program custom code for existing programs. It’s about making sure you’ve got the edge.
What do these programs mean for hand drawing skills?
I did a survey with Rodney Benton, a student from Auburn University, in 2014 that found hand-drawing skills are very much alive and in use, with 70 percent of firms saying it was still part of their practice and something they looked for from perspective employees. Similar findings have come out of industry surveys.
Knowing how to design, create specifications, administer construction, and manage projects are still the keys to success. 3D is just another tool in the bucket of landscape architects.
Depending on your perspective, Pershing Park, which stands on a central spot on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. is either a unique, Modern landscape that deserves to be protected under the National Register of Historic Places, or an outdated, unwelcoming park that fails to meet the needs of its visitors and needs to be redesigned. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) sees Pershing Park, which was completed in 1981 but has since fallen into a state of disrepair, as worthy of rehabilitation. Designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, with a subsequent planting design by Oehme, van Sweden, it was once a striking urban park and it houses a protected memorial to WWI General John Pershing. But the leaders of the World War I Memorial Centennial Commission, which was created under an Act of Congress, would like to see a new design for the site — the winner of its national design competition: The Weight of Sacrifice by Joseph Weishaar, a 25-year-old architect, landscape architect Phoebe McCormick Lickwar, ASLA, and sculptor Sabin Howard. Their more traditional design aims to improve access and use bas-relief on 10-foot-high walls to tell a rich story of World War I. The commission has raised about $6 million so far for an effort they say will cost $38 million. Meanwhile, all parties are awaiting word from the National Park Service, which should decide shortly on whether the park will be included in the National Register of Historic Places. If it is, the commission’s ability to alter Friedberg’s design will be greatly circumscribed.
In a briefing at the National Press Club, WWI Memorial Centennial Commission vice chair Edwin Fountain said the style of the park should be “recognizable to the veterans of the war. It should appear timeless.” But he added that the new park, if it moves forward, will not be a “living memorial” for veterans, as the last WWI veteran died 5 years ago. Instead, it will be a commemorative, educational place that allows both children of veterans to grieve and visitors to learn about the war.
Architect Joe Weishaar added the site should also be a great place to have lunch and work as a neighborhood park, which he conceded it does well enough now. But he said the park’s sunken center is a “blind spot” and he wants to raise that up and turn it into a lawn, giving people more green space (see image at top). The sculptures, which will run across a 10-foot-high expanse, would be a tactile, sensory experience. Sculptor Sabin Howard envisions bas-relief in three segments that deal with the time prior to the war, during the war, and then the aftermath. He wants to create an “uplifting story of transformation, showing how noble the human race can be.” He wants visitors to have a “visceral response to the emotional aspects of the war,” but to leave with the idea that “there is sense of unity in the universe.” Weishaar and Howard also want the sculpture’s movements through periods of chaos to order to be reflected in a new planting design.
While Fountain, Weishaar, and Howard imagine a new design for the site, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and CEO of TCLF, Darwina Neal, FASLA, former president of ASLA, and others, want to see a protected and rehabilitated Pershing Park, which has deteriorated due to decades of lapsed maintenance. The fountain, which used to a great draw, is now defunct. It used to become an ice-skating rink in winter, but the underlying infrastructure that made that happen has been moribund for years.
Cracked, uneven pavers are now one of the defining features on the ground. And lots of the trees aren’t in good shape either. But Birnbaum and others argue it could once again become the draw it clearly once was if it was rehabilitated, which would involve “making some changes, but keeping the signature and character-defining features intact.”
In a recent release, Birnbaum said the commission knew the park may end up on the National Register of Historic Places, but they decided to go ahead with their own designs anyhow. “They opted for conflict over collaboration.”
When asked to share his most recent thoughts after the National Press Club briefing, Birnbaum elaborated: “A critical failing of the WWI Memorial design process has been a lack of collaboration by WWI Commission, which has created a severe threat to an important work by M. Paul Friedberg, the most recent recipient of the ASLA Medal. WWI Commission vice-chair Edwin Fountain stated at the March 2, 2016 National Press Club event that he and the commission are ‘in conversations’ with TCLF, which suggests there’s an ongoing dialogue – that is simply not true. In fact, in my only substantive conversation with Mr. Fountain – a telephone call after the competition was first announced – it was clear that Mr. Fountain had no interest in anything we had to say about how a sympathetic rehabilitation of this significant Friedberg design, which we believe will be determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, could also satisfy the aims and objectives of the commission.”
More collaboration among all parties will be needed after the National Park Service announces its decision. And Fountain partly acknowledged this, saying that a public regulatory process is underway, and any changes to the park need to be approved by the Commission on Fine Arts, National Capital Planning Commission, and, finally, the National Park Service, which manages the park. Whatever the outcome, one long-term question is: can this park be well-maintained moving forward? If not, we may be back to where we are now 30 years in the future.
Traditional land development and land-use decisions often underestimate or ignore healthy ecosystems. Sustainable land development is cost-effective, better for the environment and fosters resiliency. Last year, GBCI expanded on its vision of speed to market transformation for the built environment to cover nearly every facet of sustainability, including sustainable landscape design and management. GBCI now administers the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®), the most comprehensive program for designing sustainable landscapes. To recognize those who have made significant contributions to sustainable landscape design, GBCI is excited to announce new pricing that rewards the early adopters. From March 1 to May 31, GBCI is offering a $1,500 reduction in paid registration and registration/certification bundle fees.
SITES-certified projects provide ecosystem services and create ecologically resilient communities, help reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, involve no or limited pesticide use, conserve or restore natural resources, and provide wildlife habitat. They also offset development impacts, reduce energy consumption, help sequester carbon, improve air quality and human health, and provide essential benefits that humans and other organisms depend on for survival.
In June 2015, GBCI launched project certification for v2 of SITES. Already, SITES v2 has seen projects registering across the world, from New York to Los Angeles, from Vancouver to Hong Kong. SITES certification is available for development projects located on sites with or without buildings, ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, from streetscapes to gardens. SITES is being used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, architects, developers, policy makers, and others to align land development and management with innovative sustainable design.
Just as LEED undeniably transformed the built environment, SITES has the ability to transform land development and use under the administration of GBCI. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) is produced by the Green Business Certification Inc., which owns exclusive rights to the SITES rating system, its publications, and its trademarks. The material on which the SITES rating system is based was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.
Gina Ford, ASLA, a landscape architect and principal at Sasaki Associates, keeps coming back to the same question: “How do we make the hand of the landscape architect visible?” Ford posed the question during a lecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design. She then identified two projects from the multidisciplinary Urban Studio she chairs at Sasaki that demonstrate just a few of the visible roles landscape architects play.
Ford and her team played the roles of planner and designer for Lawn on D in Boston, a 2.5-acre project that grew from Sasaki’s commission to create a master plan for the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which Ford called “this ginormous spaceship that landed in the seaport.” In the middle of what was then surface parking and scattered industrial buildings, Ford’s team imagined new development and open space to create meaningful connections between the waterfront, convention center, and the historic South Boston neighborhood.
“The community kept wanting open space, open space, open space,” Ford said. “The question was: How do you create open space that will appeal both to convention-goers, who are here for a weekend, and also to the South Boston community that wants to see this as an extension of their neighborhood?” She said,“this idea of the Lawn on D emerged. We created a landscape that’s temporary, so we can test some ideas about what a park might be like here and what resonates.”
After only nine months for design, bids, and construction, the Lawn on D opened in 2014 on a parking lot abutting the convention center at a cost of $10 per square foot. Using what Ford called “modest means,” the Lawn on D features lawn, asphalt, tennis court paint, a canvas tent, light fixtures, and minimal plants. The plan was to keep it open for about 18 months, to see what users liked and didn’t like, and then to collect design and programming ideas for a permanent open space that would be incorporated into the convention center expansion.
18 months later, the convention center expansion has stalled indefinitely due to budget constraints. But in that time, the Lawn on D has become a Boston landmark. Sasaki’s simple design template — green edges framing a path, a paved lighted plaza, a tent, and a big lawn — accommodate food trucks, movie screenings, concerts, art installations, snow chutes, and other creative, Boston-themed events dreamed up by the firm HR&A Advisors. Ford said one of the art installations — Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture — has become the selfie capital of Boston.
Ford’s team now faces the enviable challenge of how to retrofit and make permanent a space that was meant to last 18 months but instead became a beloved community destination, enlivening a part of town that used to be simply a midpoint between other iconic Boston neighborhoods.
Another project of Ford’s urban design studio is A Delta for All, the winning proposal from the Changing Course design competition, which seeks to “re-imagine a more sustainable Lower Mississippi River delta.” Sasaki joined a team of specialists led by Baird & Associates to answer the central question posed by the competition brief: As the coastal wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico disappear at the rate of one football field per day, is it possible to save the cherished communities and ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi Delta?
Here the hand of the landscape architect was perhaps subtler but no less important. Ford’s role was to communicate — to consider the human element and then explain to stakeholders the function and impact of a proposed engineering marvel.
The plan devised by the team’s engineers and specialists, which boast expertise in everything from wetland structure and sediments to river navigation and oysters, essentially would undo the effects of human channeling of the Mississippi River. Ford explained that before human channeling, the river moved like a hose over the landscape, shifting its mouth over centuries, redistributing upstream sediments to create the wetlands as a series of ridge lines with freshwater basins in between. After human channeling, which created set channels, those valuable upstream sediments ended up running off into the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing the wetlands, therefore failing to replenish them.
A Delta for All proposes diverting the mouth of the Mississippi River and then feeding its water and sediment into neglected inter-tidal basins. Over time, “like spigots on a faucet,” the river mouth could be shifted to feed the inter-tidal basins in rotation, mimicking the natural shifts of the pre-channelized river.
If implemented, A Delta for All would be a complex undertaking, with major implications for communities and industries, natural ecosystems, and long-held ways of life. Ford’s team created graphics and a website to break down the issues, proposed solutions, and expected immediate and long-term benefits for coastal communities.
And they also tackled the challenge of possible re-locations for the wetland communities whose homes wouldn’t be spared. “Most of the federal programs to migrate people out of high-risk zones are just one household at a time, but as we came to understand, people in the delta live in these really tight-knit small communities,” Ford said. “So we suggested maybe there’s a way to phase their inland migration over time, providing some safe haven in the short term for small communities to move inland during storm events, and over time that inland safe haven could become a permanent home.” She added, “perhaps this is a way to start thinking about moving people in the right direction, over a larger period of time, together.”
These projects get to the heart of Ford’s mission to make the hand of the landscape architect visible, or as she also put it, to help people recognize “that landscape is more than the parsley around the pig.” How can we help people to value their landscapes in the same way they value their buildings? When landscape architects transform a community’s physical spaces — whether it’s at the scale of a new park in an evolving urban district or an entire region faced with deep ecological change — they can improve quality of life and nourish the human spirit. Surely that kind of impact will help people to see and value their landscapes and those who design them.
This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.
The Salt Season– Metropolis, 2/23/16
“This mixture increases winter road safety, melting ice and providing needed friction on slippery surfaces, but its application also produces a number of negative side effects, including a very toxic impact on plant life adjacent to roadways.”
Any new studio reference book needs be beautifully illustrated. In this respect, Harvard University landscape architecture professor Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, and landscape architect Kate Kennen, ASLA, don’t disappoint with Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design. But while we all like to look at beautifully-crafted, well-curated imagery, that’s not the point. This book is illuminating, a careful and coherent, critical and constructive analysis of the Phytoremediation movement, which calls for using plants to remove toxic chemicals, metals, and other contaminants from the environment.
The book begins by acknowledging an accomplished group of contributors, who bring credibility to a subject critically important but too often dismissed in the “real world.” Early on, the book provides a thoughtful sequence that explains the rationale for the book’s structure and answers the question: why are we dedicating another book to this subject?
Well, the answer is clear: because no other book has provided the thoughtful and accessible bridge long needed between theory and practice. While providing justification for the book could come off as a bit self-conscious, instead it reads as an honest depiction of an emerging field. (I also feel that if more authors were forced to go through this process of self examination, we would have both far-fewer volumes, but many-more excellent books like Phyto from which to choose).
The first two chapters cover the history and fundamentals of phytoremediation. After clearly articulating the knowledge gaps that exist in the field, the book contextualizes the movement’s early failures. Phyto then provides an expansive re-branding of the discipline, empowering potential users of these plant-based technologies to think more strategically about opportunities at hand.
The text provides a clear and comprehensive vocabulary for landscape architects and designers to use in practice. From there, the book shows how to apply these technologies in real-world situations. The book delves into common contaminants of concern and how they can be targeted with precision; a summary of planting assemblages that can be deployed in concert representing best in field technologies; and typical examples of spatial designs that produce common contaminant profiles and likely site characteristics. Variation of type and scale creates flexibility, showing landscape architects and designers how to find just the right application of phytoremediation technologies.
As knowledge-based considerations continue to find their way into public landscape design and management, inventive designers and enlightened clients interested in looking at all the alternatives would do themselves a favor by adding this book to their library and its knowledge to their practice.
This guest post is by Christian Gabriel, ASLA, National Design Director of Landscape Architecture, General Services Administration (GSA).
The galleries of the Center for Architecture in New York City provide a small view of the large scope of the Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new research and design project from Princeton University. The project is sweeping: new designs for resilience on the Atlantic coastline from New England to Virginia. The exhibition displays just two proposals for Atlantic City, New Jersey, and New York’s Jamaica Bay, but the in-depth, companion web site shows all four proposals, including those for Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and Norfolk, Virginia. The straightforward exhibition design — mostly architectural boards pinned to the wall — details solutions for buffering against storms in the next hundred years.
A team from Princeton University’s School of Architecture led by architecture professor Paul Lewis, also a principal at Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL) Architects, proposes to storm-proof a suburban neighborhood of Atlantic City by creating “amphibious suburbs,” elevating road and houses and softening edges between private yards and wetlands (see image above).
The Jamaica Bay team broke down its analysis into a series of booklets on display, from a catalog of resident fauna to a history of infrastructural interventions. Unfortunately, the most captivating element of their work is not on view. A series of topographical models of Jamaica Bay cast in soap are a missed opportunity to take advantage of the physical exhibition space to understand the area in question and the modeling processes behind the design proposals. See a few brief videos:
The project’s website provides a better introduction to the design proposals. A team led by landscape architecture professors Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkin at Harvard University Graduate School of Design examines how best to add redundancy to the storm protection capabilities of coastal forests and shrub lands in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.
And a team lead by landscape architecture professor Anuradha Mathur, ASLA, and architect and planner Dilip da Cunha at the University of Pennsylvania proposes “fingers of high ground” for refuge and new settlements in the tidewaters of Norfolk, Virginia.
These complex and rigorously-scientific proposals have been far less publicized than the work of the other major design research projects prompted by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The winners of the Rebuild by Design competition are now in the planning phases for pilot projects supported by the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The projects of Structures of Coastal Resilience focus on less densely populated landscapes, with the goal of developing recommendations for ongoing projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As a result, they appear far less engaged with the human and political dimensions of adaptation to climate change. However, there is more than ecological modeling and housing prototypes to the wholesale transformation of a residential neighborhood. Amphibious suburbs are a response to the political impossibility of total retreat from the sea, but elevating homes and redefining boundaries of public and private space begs discussion, too.
Exhibitions are a great vehicle for bringing such questions to the public sphere, but, for that, they need to speak in a language more compelling than that of the architectural studio.
This is the question landscape architect Shane Coen, ASLA, founder of Coen + Partners, asked as he began his lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. For him, the answer is his father, the painter Don Coen. He emphasized the importance of teaching sight, saying “it’s our job to get people to see. It’s our job to inspire spaces that inspire people.”
Coen’s lecture showcased a selection of projects Coen + Partners have completed since its unlikely beginning 25 years ago. Shortly after graduation, Coen was asked suddenly to co-start a landscape practice by the son of the creator of Herman Miller’s famous Aeron chair. The practice began with “no money and no experience, but the unbelievable opportunity” of a five-year, rent-free space. With time and a stable foundation, he applied his “ability to see” to the mid-Western countryside surrounding their Minneapolis-based office.
Coen made clear his work does not replicate nature but rather works in contrast to it. Emphasizing the importance of working with collaborative architects, Coen’s work is in many ways itself architectural, capitalizing on “the simplicity of form and color sitting in a landscape.”
His firm’s guiding principles are manifested in Jackson Meadow, his first project, which was designed in collaboration with architect David Salmela. The award-winning 1999 planned residential community features 64 uniquely-designed but all-while pitched-roof homes, carefully placed in a rolling woodland, with porches precisely oriented toward the community’s 5-mile nature trail.
Awarded a 2015 National Design Award from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Coen + Partners’ projects cover a range of types and scales, each aesthetically adjusted to their particular context. Despite its expansion, however, the firm’s work remains 40 percent residential, with Coen noting the importance of these projects as educational and exploratory projects for the firm. Yet it is his series of award-winning public and institutional projects have led him to his latest and perhaps most challenging work in Saudi Arabia.
Coen received a sealed letter inviting the firm to interview to design the master plan and open spaces for the lands surrounding the skyscrapers of Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District. Coen soon found himself in the driver seat behind a 1,220-acre project, with a need to “create a vision and build a team” — a role he sees as critical for landscape architects going forward.
Drawing on the star dunes and wadi streams of the Saudi Arabian desert, renderings of the project reveal large star-shaped sun shades and water-centric linear park space.
Considered the first inclusive public space in Riyadh, the project was recently approved by Saudi Arabia’s High Commission. With Coen + Partners ”design vision and aesthetic leadership” on the project, it will be interesting to see the firm’s minimalist design approach at this new scale.
This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
“Someone once asked the nature photographer Ansel Adams, ‘why are there no people in your photographs?’,” said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., at the opening of Luminous Landscapes, a new exhibition featuring the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, a principal at Sasaki Associates. “Adams replied that there are always two people in his photographs — the photographer and the viewer.” Piedmont-Palladino added that in Ward’s photography of landscape architecture, there is always a third unseen person: the landscape architect. The exhibition covers landscape works from before 1900, “before the profession of landscape architecture,” then the period from 1900 to World War II, and, lastly, post-war modern and contemporary landscapes.
Ward said photography is his second career, but his decades-long immersion in this art form is symbiotic with his day-job, which is planning and design. His first photograph, taken back in 1978 with 30 pounds of equipment, including an unwieldy tripod, was of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see image above). The cemetery, which features prominently in the first part of the exhibition, opened in 1831, so it even predates Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. It was one of the first picturesque Romantic landscapes in America, and Ward’s photograph similarly evokes that style’s wild feel.
The exhibition features Ward’s black and white photography, which he seems to prefer to color. As he explained, “color photography can just have too much information. Black and white helps simplify and also abstract the forms in the landscape designs.” Ward mostly takes his black and white photos in the early morning or late afternoon in order to capture the “very soft light and not over-expose.” He looks for ways to “put all the information together into a coherent image” and create a story of a landscape defined by both stark contrasts and subtle shifts of tone. Capturing all these complex layers, Ward says, is made possible through black and white, which is best at isolating the effect of light on the landscape.
Color photography, Ward added, is “often treated at face value, like reality.” But all photography, color or black and white, is highly manipulated to achieve correct tones and sought-after representations. All of photography plays with the idea of what is real. “Photography is not quite a lie, but not quite the truth. There is a lot of abstraction.”
Leaving the heavy camera behind in favor of a Canon Mach 2, Ward today contemplates the challenges of digital photography. The old camera forced photographers to be very deliberate in setting up shots, but now with a digital camera, “most take dozens of photographs and figure one will come out well,” he laughed. “Digital photography may diminish your looking and framing.” It’s important, Ward said, to continue to apply “rigorous seeing and visualization” when using a digital camera.
As we wander over to the last room filled with the modern and contemporary landscapes, we reach the photographs that made Ward so well-known among landscape architects — his shots of Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana. Because the garden wasn’t open to the public then, most designers only got to experience the site through Ward’s photographs. Seeing Ward’s consideration of the garden for the first time, I began to understand why so many contemporary landscape architects find the landscape so appealing. Kiley took traditional French garden forms, like allees of trees and rectilinear arrangement of hedges, and made them modern. But it’s Ward’s photographs of them, with his Modernist framing, that further “amplifies the design.”
Ward riffed on why photography can amplify the design in some landscapes and not others. He argued that Olmsted’s picturesque Central Park is so hard to shoot because the curved paths and vast meadows recede away from you, proving too elusive for the photographer to capture. The totality of the experience is somehow beyond representation. But modern landscape’s bold shapes and orthogonal forms seem to be only heightened by the framing of the photographer. “The bold use of geometry lends itself to powerful images.” Ward said that taking those photographs helped him understand what Kiley set out to achieve, and that understanding greatly influenced his own designs.
Piedmont-Palladino added later that one can see a great difference between architecture that predates photography and architecture from the era of photography, perhaps speaking to the influential role of photography in shaping our expectations of the built environment. Ward, who started out as an architecture student and first took photographs of buildings, said still to this day, the ideal architectural photograph shows sharp light cutting across a building facade — quite different from his “soft light” used to capture landscapes. Those shards of light are now often found in actual building designs; just look at Daniel Libeskind’s work.
One question the exhibition brought up: What is the role of fine black and white photography today? It can now be considered an ancient art form when compared with today’s iPhone and Instagram-generated ephemera. Piedmont-Palladino discussed the ubiquity of Apple’s new advertisements lauding the photographs taken with its latest iPhone, which make anonymous and interchangeable the person who actually made the image. She questioned whether the technology — the phone camera — mattered as much as the photographer, “the person with the great eye,” who makes the photograph possible. In the era of instant, throw-away photography, what happens to the appreciation of what Ward achieves?
And if black and white or even color photography doesn’t quite tell the truth, does another representational art form get us closer to the experience of a landscape? What about video, used more and more to convey both idealized and real landscapes? In the future, will we go to exhibitions of landscape video art, which can better capture landscape change and sound and may have new resonance in our multimedia world? Or will we continue to delve further into abstraction, with online collections of landscape Instagram or Vine works, just as there are now collections featuring animated GIFs from the 1990s?
The most reasonable conclusion may be that all media are “not quite the truth.” And, as Piedmont-Palladino said, “perhaps the truth isn’t what we are after.”