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.