Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Off Roading

Alaska has been in the news a lot lately, thanks mainly to the exploits of Sarah Palin and Ted Stevens. While I'm happy to let them drift away from memory, one news show comment that has stuck with me is that Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, is inaccessible by road. And it's certainly not alone. Many cities and towns in Alaska have no roads that go to them or have seasonal ice roads. So much of the United States has boundaries and roads demarcated by the rigid Jeffersonian grid (explored so nicely in James Corner's "Taking Measure Across the American Landscape") that you can feel confined in it. Environmentalists who opt to live "off the grid" could in many ways be referring to the Jeffersonian grid instead of the utility grid.

I think the rise of Google Earth and Google Maps has had a similar impact on our sense of the known, except on a world scale this time instead of a country scale. Sure the images aren't always the highest resolution, and they can be years old, but they do make the whole surface world feel very knowable. There is no uncharted Africa of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".

So where do people go to really escape to the unknown? They need to shift vertically to underneath the aerials and the roads. The oceans remain largely un-surveyed. There are still caves to be discovered, and underground urban infrastructure to be reclaimed. Eventually, though "off-the-planet" may become the new "off-the-grid".

Monday, September 08, 2008

Infrastructure as Art

I found this link on a comic images blog that had some photos of Brazilian stormwater gutters that inject a bit of whimsy into the urban fabric, something that I certainly enjoy.

I don't know if this was a commissioned art project or just an extensive art graffiti undertaking. It reminded me of research I did on art bollards for a public plaza space that I was working on for my previous job. There was money in the budget for artist-created elements in the plaza, and at the same time there was a need for bollards to control circulation. Plus, maybe a unique bollard would catch the eye and keep cyclists from accidentally hitting it. Anyhow, here are a few samples that I found during a more recent online search.

I think with this sort of commissioned personalization of standard landscape element you get a couple of positive things out of it. First off, it helps to establish the identity of the location as someplace unique. The Baywalk Bollards in Australia certainly have become something that people photograph, sketch, and probably know well in the community as a landmark. Of course, there are over a hundred of them, so that scale of things certainly ratchets up the impression made. The second benefit connects more to community involvement, and it is predicated upon a certain development process that not only involves artists, but also community members. If you can get those people directly involved in producing objects that are part of the space that they will use, then they will have a personal connection to that place and are more likely to be protective of it. This can translate to spaces that are better maintained because of that sense of ownership. There were several projects at my last job where this process was brought to fruition. One of them was a playground renovation where local high school students created art tiles that were then incorporated into seatwalls and the paving.

I guess what I really like about the art becoming the infrastructure or vice versa is that the art does not become just an object in the space. It becomes a functional component of the space. Certainly as a designer, I want my design to be the thing defining the space, and the art should work with me, not against me. So, I guess the goal should be to either be the landscape artist yourself in the design or do your best to develop a constructive collaborative relationship with the artists involved as early as possible.

Where does the graffiti art fit into this? My favorite graffiti art by Banksy and others seems to have a dialog with the space where they have implemented it. But how would I feel if they decided to comment on my space I designed and add to it? Should I prepare for this? Should landscape architects purposefully create blank canvas spaces for such work? Is it even possible to do so? Can the spontaneity of graffiti be anticipated? That's probably a hard thing to do, but what about going back later to a space and responding to such things in a spontaneous redesign? That's one funny thing about landscape projects... that they end, but certainly the landscape keeps changing. Maybe the contractor gets a 2 year contract to keep plants alive, but the landscape architect may never be involved again once they sign off on the final punch list. I guess that's why some landscape architects and designers work more on personal estates and gardens where they can have this long term relationship. For the rest of us, it's just landscape architecture one night stands.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Artifical Hippo

The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects just announced their 2008 National Award winners, and I spent some time perusing through them last night. There's lots of EDAW in there, incidentally. Anyhow, the one that I was most interested in was project by Urban Initiatives that developed a wetland infrastructure design for the Kubu River Hippos' Exhibit at the Werribee Open Range Zoo. Traditional zoo water enclosures use a huge amount of energy in their constant water recirculation, and Urban Initiatives came up with a bio-filtration system that not only provided a more energy efficient solution but also helped connect the design conceptually to the Okavango Delta wetland in Botswana that is the natural habitat of the hippos housed in the exhibit. Here's a constructed view of the wetland followed by a design diagram of the system:

Now, the rest of the exhibit starts to look like Disney's Jungle Cruise Adventure as they delved into replicating some of the human cultural elements of Botswana region, but I guess zoos aren't that far away from theme parks to start with.

Anyhow, this project's water filtration system connected with my interest in this type of plant-based human infrastructure. It's a popular landscape architecture topic these days as cities try and tackle non-point source water pollution. Portland, OR is the poster child for this with their Sustainable Stormwater Management Program. But while you see bio-swales (aka. planted water filter ditches), water quality ponds (aka. larger planted stormwater holding basins) and the like all over the place, few places take the infrastructure to that next level, such as purifying sewage. And the hippo pond is, of course, treating a lot of hippo poop. When I was in Spain last year I picked up a book called "Waterscapes" by Helene Izembart and Bertrand Le Boudec that presents a lot of conceptual examples and specific case studies of mainly European projects that use plants systems to treat wastewater. So, if the hippos example interests you, I recommend checking out that book.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

luaka bop bicycle racks

CityRacks is a design competition in NYC to develop a new standard bicycle rack that will replace the old standby loop rack that is currently used throughout the metropolis. David Byrne was involved in the competition as a judge (who knew he was a big cycling enthusiast?), and he also got in on the design work, creating temporary, bicycle rack art pieces:

I think that some of these could be much more fun as clustered objects, such as a group of the people bicycle racks standing around or the same with the cars. And shouldn't there be at least a pair of shoes? One of my main complaints with bicycle racks is the lack of quantity. In San Francisco I felt like I was always hunting for the one bicycle rack on the block, and this would be in areas like the Lower Haight where you have a ton of bars, bicycles, and, of course "The Wiggle". My other pet peeve with bicycle racks, especially with commercial box developments, is that they put them in stupid, out of the way places. Or if they don't do that, then they only leave about foot of space between the rack and the wall of the building. Clearly the people designing these things don't ever park bicycles themselves.

Anyhow, back to CityRacks. I'm not blown away by the finalists, but then again that's the case with most racks I ever see in site furnishing catalogs. My favorite was this one:
They did a good job with the NYC branding, and they thought about locking folding bikes and even unicycles for god's sake. What's your favorite? And do you have any favorite bicycle rack designs you've seen or perhaps you have a gripe about bicycle parking? Please share.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Map Your Mind

I took a seminar workshop called "Groundworks" my last year of graduate school with Professor Jennifer Brook that explored the concept of "site". It was a small group of us, and during several class sessions we were presented with short exercises to complete, present, and then discuss in relation to the day's lecture topic. One exercise that I enjoyed most was a simple cognitive mapping task. Jennifer asked us all to draw a map of California. We had about five minutes to do so, and when we taped them all to the wall they were totally different. Some people focused on geographic features such as mountain ranges and rivers. I had an awful lot of structure defined by freeways (a result of my time spent driving the roads of Los Angeles, perhaps?). Most everyone had some political boundaries with other states, and many of them, including mine, were very poorly located. I still don't know if I could place where Nevada ends and Arizona begins.

So try it. Next time you have some friends over for drinks or something have them all draw a map of the town you all live in. If you want to keep drawing, borrow some ideas from the Surrealists.

Garden Zombie Attack

This is a link that I found over on boingboing for a Zombie Garden Sculpture in the Toscano catalog. It's a shame there's only one variety. Zombies usually attack in large groups. And what exactly would a group of zombies be called? A gaggle? A herd? A brood? A mob?

Friday, February 15, 2008

There's lakes, and then there's "lakes"...

A recent Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UC San Diego article about the possible drying of of "Lake" Mead above the Hoover Dam had me curious about the fate of Arizona and the rest of the southwest, but mainly it got me thinking again about what bodies of water we call "lakes". We need some better word that describes large manmade, reservoirs and other engineered water features that, generally speaking, have ecologically dead (if existent) shorelines. This characteristic is a shame, as the wetland transitions between land and water that should exist are very richly diverse in terms of ecology. Sometimes these "lakes" are not as arid or artificial looking as Lake Mead or Lake Powell, but they never look quite right. Lake Merritt, in Oakland, CA, for example, has a hard-edge shoreline that just drops off into the water.
There's one little swatch of beach that I can recall around the mile plus perimeter, and then there's the backflow dam to prevent tidal flux from affecting the water level too much and to let stormwater push its way out.

Anyhow, I don't know these constructed Fake-Lakes, Flakes, etc. should be called, but don't try and confuse people into thinking they're lake ecologies because you can drive a jetski in them. We shouldn't take for granted such large engineering feats, or else we start to forget about them as artificial, and the next thing you know we assume the water will always be there. Then you wake up one day and the "Lake" is dry.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dr. Eugene Tsui's Eighth Wonder of the World

A co-worker of mine used to work at Eugene Tsui's office, which is in Emeryville, CA. Judging from the text on the Tsui Design & Research website, Tsui is definitely a character, and it's hard for me to tell if there's any validity in some of his ideas because that constructed persona gets in the way. Anyhow, when he's not playing flamenco guitar, winning senior gymnastics medals, and designing sci-fi clothing, this renaissance man is developing biomorphic architecture. The planning project that caught my eye is for a bridge spanning across the Strait of Gibralter. Here's an aerial view of a model of what it would look like:

The spans are actually underwater, arched tunnels linked by a floating island in the middle. Here's a section view:

These fish-shaped tunnels would not only have car lanes and train tracks but linear parks for people to move through, complete with trees, pools, waterfalls, and areas for music and dance performances. The whole project would, according to Dr. Tsui, double Spain's tourists, increase Morocco's by 2600% and would "no doubt be the Eighth Wonder of the World".

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The (Landscape) Architecture of Happiness

About a year after I received the book as a gift, I finally got around to reading Alain de Botton's "The Architecture of Happiness". The main idea in the book as I read it was summarized in one of the photo captions that states "The buildings we call beautiful contain in a concentrated form those qualities which we are deficient." Earlier in the book, the author writes that "what we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects that touch us through their beauty." And what of the notion of what is beautiful? Is that not subjective, or are there universal patterns which our minds strive to see realized? In Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near", he talks a lot about the great facility for the human mind to recognize patterns. Something in the parallel structuring of our brains allow for this. In his book, de Botton suggests that these patterns of beauty are not universal, but rather cultural constructs. He cites the extreme difference between western ideas of beauty to those found in the Japanese idea of "wabi". In wabi there is a"a love of irregularity rather than symmetry, the impermanent rather than the eternal and the simple rather than the ornate." Decay and weathering are not shunned, and this reminds of J.B. Jackson's essay "The Necessity of Ruin". In it, Jackson (one of the father's of the study of cultural landscape), writes about how there must be an interval of neglect to provide the incentive for restoration. He says it is "religiously and artistically essential". This is more of a linear view of things than the parallel existence that I interpret from the eastern idea of wabi, but still there is a connection. Maybe the eastern and western ideas are not always so different.

Near the end of "The Architecture of Happiness", de Botton writes that "we owe it to the fields that our houses (and our landscapes?) will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced." I think this is true, although I also think we should strive to improve our non-virgin land in a similar fashion. There's no excuse for bad public design, and our decisions on how we construct the public realm can have a lasting impact. The author also states that "the same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds which are visible from outer space." So go out there an strive to create beauty. It will make people happy.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Ha Ha Funny, Not "ha ha" Cow Barrier

For some reason I got it in my mind that it was important to develop some landscape architecture jokes, so here's what I've got so far:

How many landscape architects does it take to screw in a light bulb?
-How many?
-We have a very qualified electrical sub-consultant for that.

What's black, white, green & striped all over?
-A Peter Walker landscape.

What do landscape architects call a Brazilian wax?
-A Roberto Burle Marx

Why did the landscape architect cross the road?
-To get to the other bulbout.

Your momma's so fat she can't fit in paper space.

Knock, knock
-Who's there?
-Kobori Enshu
-Kobori Enshu who?
-Enshu glad I gave you this borrowed view?

wakka, wakka, wakka....