Saturday, September 29, 2007

3 Quotes from Isolarion

My friend Levi sent me a book by James Attlee called Isolarion. It's the author's extended, personal pilgrimage down Cowley Street in Oxford. There are lots of tangential ramblings of thought to go with the physical pilgrimage. Here are three short parts that I dog-eared as they captured my fancy:

p.199 "I am usefully reminded that sometimes, when there is no train or plane fast enough to transport you beyond the reach of your troubles, a long walk may be your only way out."

p.273 Quoting Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques: "Humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilisation in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet. The same dish is to be served to us every day."

p.26 Quoting from A.C. Grayling's The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life: "--for our moods are like tunings on the wireless, picking up truths at different frequencies, so that if we don't know the gamut of human feelings, neither can we know the gamut of human truth."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sustainable Play Structures

Landscape Structures is one of the main manufacturers of play equipment in the U.S. It was encouraging to read this article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that highlighted how they're family run, and now that's transitioning to being owner operated. We talk a lot in landscape architecture about sustainability, and social sustainability is certainly part of that. Sure, just because someplace is owner operated doesn't mean they have values that promote green building practices, but individuals do have ethical standards. In private, publicly-traded corporations ethical standards are something that can suffer as accountability becomes muddy. So, it does make me feel a bit better to specifiy a product in a playground that is produced by people who have a personal stake in things.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hundertwasser Wine

The NY Times just had an article on the Quixote Winery in Napa Valley which was one of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s last buildings he worked on. Hundertwasser was an eccentric Austrian artist turned building designer whose felt the mechanization of building was killing modern homes. His structures try to integrate the built form and nature more closely, including all of the messiness that comes along with complex natural systems. The grid was to be scorned, as were right angles and solid swathes of color. I had never known anything about him before, but I had seen pictures of his Hundertwasser House in Vienna, and I really enjoyed the integration of the plant material into the building with vines, trees, etc. high up from the ground. His “Forest Spiral” building in Darmstadt, Germany doesn’t intrigue me as much. The scale of the green space doesn’t feel as personal as the house in Vienna. Still, I like the idea that you could walk up the height of the entire building. That ground floor to roof green access is nice.

Hundertwasser House in Vienna

The "Forest Spiral" building in Darmstadt, Germany

Chicago's Deep Tunnel

How could I live in Chicago at one point and not know that there were 109 miles of tunnels being built under it? Not just small tunnels, but big ones, 9 to 33 feet in diameter. It’s all part of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) also known as “The Deep Tunnel”. It is pretty deep, as much as 350 feet below the surface, excavated through limestone since the 1970’s using similar equipment to the machines that drilled the Chunnel between the UK and France. But this tunnel system does not transport people. It carries and stores sewage and storm water overflow from the area to reservoir sites until water treatment plants can catch up with the peak flow during big storms.

It’s curious to me to read different descriptions of the project. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago who runs the Deep Tunnel thinks it’s the best thing ever, and touts all the engineering awards it has won. Most of the $4 billion in funding has come from the EPA, and the project has helped improve the water quality of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River by keeping storm runoff from going directly into those bodies of water. Chicago has a mixed sewage and storm water system (like many cities) so that means sewage isn’t overflowing into the river or lake as well.

What I don’t like about the project is that it’s such an energy intensive/ engineering intensive solution. That’s such a 1950’s way of thinking to me (although I guess this did start in the 1970’s). Not only do you have to build and maintain all of the tunnels and reservoirs, but there must be some huge pumps to pull the water back up from 350 feet down and treat it. Hopefully future projects to deal with runoff in Chicago incorporate more greenroofs, bio-swales, reduced permeability of surfaces, etc. You know, Portland stuff.

Then we’ll have to think of some NEW use for the Deep Tunnel. Fresh water storage for drought? Future “L” routes? Underground linear museum? What else?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Zinfandel

A diocese in Hayward, CA has converted some of their surplus cemetery space into a vineyard, growing Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir grapes. The nearest graves are about 60ft from the grape vines, which would worry me a bit if I was the grower. This is mainly because god knows what embalming fluid and other preservative chemicals might migrate underground through the soil. I would generally think that formaldehyde does not go well with food. Another consideration is how the breakdown of the bodies affects the soil. What nutrition is added? What unusual chemical concentrations are created? A British Environmental Agency report gets into great detail about this, including nice tables like this:

Maybe this will produce some unique wines with unusual flavor qualities. It’s about time the blood of Christ had some competition.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Naming of Things

This Thursday I went to the Castro Theatre to see Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt’s The Animation Show, which consists of a number of animated shorts from the past year or so. It’s traveling around the country, so if it makes it to your town, I’d recommend it.

The first short was a piece called “Rabbit”, which is actually posted on Atom Films. It brings to life a bunch of 2D images form a children’s vocabulary book, with all of the objects in world of the film being labeled. "Rabbit" brings to life a bunch of 2D images form a children’s vocabulary book, with all of the objects in world of the film being labeled. You can get an idea of what I’m talking about from this image:

It’s a darkly funny piece, and it got me thinking about how when you have a bunch of nouns presented to you the verbs that they engage in can be quite unexpected. There’s a lot of creative potential in not being too limiting in your expectations of how an object will act or, if it’s inanimate, how it will be used. Lars Lerup describes this in his book Building the Unfinished: Architecture and Human Action. In it, Lerup uses the example of a staircase that a child plays on and imagines as a mountain to climb or a cascading waterfall when sliding down the stair in a box. An elderly woman may put flowerpots on the stairs and think of it as a plant stand. Lerup describes the stair as a “lump” that has “inherent patterns common with many things.” By naming it and only thinking of the object or noun in one way, as a staircase, we limit the object. Lerup states: “the singular designation by the culture reduces the object to a one-dimensional concept, when in fact the object is a lump of material… in order to know an object we must embrace and study all its sides… we must also act if we want to see.”

This concept connects to another idea I remember from a landscape architect on a review jury of mine who said that you shouldn’t start with defining what objects a client wants, instead you should start with what verbs they want to engage in. For example, if they say, “I want a bench”. Then you should counter with, “so, you want a place to sit?” This strategy leads to a lot more constructive questioning of desires and activity in a space. It also allows for more flexibility of use, and that can be very important in the design of public spaces where you have various groups of people with different desires and wants.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


There’s something that’s very grand about freeway interchanges in the US. It’s the scale combined with the overlapping planes and the curving shapes, and the motion of the vehicles. Actually, I think even if you took the vehicles away they’d still work well… maybe even better because you’d have some silence instead of constant traffic drone. These ramps and interchanges are very photogenic, as you’ll find in this flickr group on Highway Overpasses and Ramps.

I was doing some research the other day at work on the development of city forms, and I came across this image in Gallion & Eisner’s The Urban Pattern.

I had never seen a diagram that broke down the different type of interchanges, so I thought the image intriguing. Doing a web search after that pulled up several other images that are pretty great. This site has aerial images of Los Angeles interchanges.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Greenroof Gardening

One thing that is amazing to me is that Germany has had legislation encouraging greenroof development since 1989, but it’s just now that the thing is catching on in the US. I guess we finally paved enough that stormwater management costs have opened the door for this “natural” technology with its additional benefits of energy savings, habitat value, heat island reduction, etc. It seems like the value-add of alternative infrastructure is an area where landscape architecture can continue to grow.

Anyhow, back the greening of roofs. The most popular green roof option these days is the extensive green roof. That is one with waterproof barrier, topped by a shallow growing medium profile, and capped with planted plugs of low water use plants. The plants fill in after about a year or so, and succulents are a very popular variety because of their suitability for the conditions on top of roofs: increased wind, little shade, etc. But, rooftop gardening still captures the imagination (and stomachs) of many city dwellers. If you think about how global populations have been shifting away from rural areas into more concentrated urban environments, it makes sense that a desire to grow some food in cities might travel with that migration. But where do you find the space available? How about flat roofs? Of course, there are challenges: not only the climatic ones mentioned earlier, but access, structural integrity, and water sources are also big questions. How do you get on the roof? How much weight can it hold? Is there a water faucet or will you be hauling up buckets?

The Rooftop Garden Project in Canada has come up with some innovative, low-cost solutions to rooftop gardening. Most of their plantings are hydroponic for the main reason that it combines low weight with high moisture and nutrient delivery, perfect for lettuce and vegetables. Two of my favorites involve pipes and tin cans:

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Green Those Bus Shelters

A link to these Soviet era bus shelters has been floating around, and I enjoyed browsing through the photos. They range from very modern concrete form to folk-art mural inspired to Route 66 attraction marker. Looking at them, the shots make the landscape around them so lonely, although some of them show some obvious care and maintenance from people in as much as the paint looks to be in pretty good shape. There is only one picture with a shot of a person in it, and I do wonder more about how the shelters get used. How often does the bus come? How long do people wait there? What do they look like in the winter?

This got me thinking to bus shelters in general, as they're one of those small sturctures that I feel as a landscape architect I could probably design without killing someone. It's kinda' like a trellis or something, after all. They let me build those. But I don't think landscape architects often do design these shelters. Reading on the industrial design site Core77, sounds like industrial designers and architects duke it out for the chance to build them. But I think landscape architects should step into the ring more often.

After the Rebar Group here in San Francisco had their Park(ing) event, I started thinking about what other elements of the urban environment were under-appreciated. Bus shelters soon came to top my list. They're a place to sit and wait, to step out of the rain, etc. Clearly their visual impact has a value or else advertisers would not pay good money to advertise on them. What if some more of that money was put back into making them more hospitable? They also are good potential placemaking structures for a neighborhood. Each district could adopt their bus shelters in a city and the unique design elements would represent place.

Where specifically do landscape architects get into this? Well, what I have found to be pretty rare is a bus shelter that has any plantings or greenery at all. Not that landscape architects are around just to shrub things up, but I think plants can be used to help differentiate areas, provide seasonal change, shelter from wind, shelter from sun, allow some sun in, etc. Here are a few examples from the Project for Public Spaces photo gallery:



Beyond aesthetic purpose, maybe each shelter has a mini-greenroof that mitigates a little bit of stormwater impact. If you add up the surface area of all bus shelter rooftops in a city, that's probably a decent amount of runoff slowed captured and/or slowed down. Maybe on top of that you get some habitat value, some visual value, etc. There are options. We just need to explore them further.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Road Ain't Supposed to be Sometimes Thing

According to a recent AP article, during construction of a train line in the Netherlands, a section of the ancient Roman "limes" were uncovered outside of the town of Houten.

"The Limes" were ancient Roman fortified roads, with this stretch operating from A.D. 50 to A.D. 350. Other stretches are found throughout Germany, into Israel, etc. This ancient border line is Europe's largest archeological monument, and it has been a UNESCO-World Heritage Site since 2005. The path of many limes are known from medieval copies of ancient maps, but the changing course of the Crooked Rhine near this Netherlands site has made the location of sections there difficult to locate.

The Latin noun "limes" (the plural is limites) has the root of "limit", and "limes" has many meaning around the idea of path, limit, and boundary. Wikipedia has a pretty informative entry which gets more into the etymology.

There are a few intriguing ideas to me in this story. The first of them is the idea that a road can be lost. It's like the physical reverse of a Richard Long art project, although conceptually it's a very similar thing. A road or path is the result of action and movement. If this human impact is taken away, then the road vanishes. I guess it's just that roads feel so permanent in many ways, or somehow in my mind it seems more likely that destination will change, but roads keep on going.

Another thing that interests me is that "The Limes" have this "world heritage" designation. It's seldom that I think of infrastructure as something deserving such a title. I suppose the Roman Empire did shape Europe in lasting ways, and these roads were its limit. But is a road really something worth preserving in this way? I like the idea of the train taking the same path, so the road comes back to life in some different way, but I don't like the idea of some tourist stop while driving on some other road. And what about all of the roads we build in modern times? Will the American freeway system someday be equally important? Or are there just too many roads now for it to matter? A shift seems to have happend in how roads define posistive and negative space. It used to be with a few roads that the line itself was the positive space, and that was important. Now there are so many roads, that they define the negative spaces, or land parcels, which are the important space. At least that's how it seems to me.