Friday, October 21, 2011

Gardner Museum Fellowship

An interesting opportunity for the Gardner Museum Fellowship in Landscape Studies for 2012, which is open to a broad definition of " emerging design talent whose work articulates the potential for landscape as a medium of design in the public realm. This new initiative is intended to recognize and foster emerging design talent from across the design disciplines whose work embodies the potentials for landscape as a medium of public works."

Check out the all-star jury that will review applications, under the guidance of Charles Waldheim, Consulting Curator of Landscape, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Julie Bargmann, University of Virginia
Alan Berger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Anita Berrizbeitia, Harvard University
Julia Czerniak, Syracuse University
Walter Hood, University of California, Berkeley
Anuradha Mathur, University of Pennsylvania
Jane Wolff, University of Toronto

Start working today, as deadlines are due December 15th.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Unlocking LU 2: The Re-Representation of Urbanism

Continuing the thread of review for the new landscape urbanism website, I'm discussing 'The Re-Representation of Urbanism' by Gerdo Aquino, SWA Principal as well as educator and author of the book 'Landscape Infrastructure' (see L+U review here).  As a fundamental opening to his essay, Aquino mentions the major shift that has taken place towards urbanization and linking it to Odum's ecological idea of the 'carrying capacity' as these areas continually add more people.  It's interesting to think in these terms in numbers we can related to, so the example of the resource base for Los Angeles being about to support 1% of the current population is troubling - as it is a case in point (and a poignant example) of us living well above our means.

:: Los Angeles - image via City Photos

The other major theme mentioned is the use of adjectival modifiers of urbanism - ecological, new, everyday, combinatory, to name a few of the many.  The question isn't which of these is most appropriate, or 'right' but do they address the complexities of the city in meaningful ways and do they lead to appropriate actions.  In our search for solutions we tend to choose a dominant paradigm and stretch it to fit, rather than asking whether it is the right tool for a particular job.  As Aquino mentions:
"The study of cities needs to include many points of view in order to move beyond outmoded planning diagrams that no longer describe how to improve our cities. Despite so many variables, each of these terms argues for an ideas-rich platform for public debate, competition, and academic research in which the specificity of a particular factor can be magnified, examined, and explored in context."
Which is another way of saying a phrase I just heard again for the first time - "If you have a hammer, every thing looks like a nail".  So no self-respecting carpenter would carry one tool, but a box (or truck) full of potential solutions that work at varying scales.  Not to oversimplify cities - but you get the idea.  One of the most interesting ideas that landscape urbanism brings to the discussion, mentioned by Aquino in the article is that of a new relationship to graphic methods and imagery.  Many of the formative theories of LU look closely at mapping, representation, and as Aquino mentions:  "The collective visualization of our world..." which " even more important in influencing how we understand and think about urbanism and landscape."

The representation within disciplines is very important but sometimes missed as a key part of the discussion.  A softly rendered static watercolor perspective suffices for a view of a product, primarily because it is easier to convey than the complexity of urban systems and their dynamic properties.  The integration of science, particularly landscape ecology, chaos theory, and social dynamics, ramps up the number of urban variables to a degree where traditional representation crumbles.  Is the solution to retreat back to what is known and understandable (or more importantly, easy to convey as simplification to clients and others)?  Or do we take on the challenge of this, in Aquino's words - re-representation?

In this regard the essay references a 1997 article "Design by re-representation: a model of visual reasoning in design" by Rivka Oxman [link to PDF here] which Aquino summarizes below:
"...understanding design proposals requires both cognitive knowledge and visual literacy. Oxman’s research explores how emergence, or the way complex systems arise out of relatively simple connections, informs creativity and, particularly, the process of design. Design then can be understood as a culmination of thousands of decisions—and each representation offers a layer of meaning behind these complex ideas."
This is on the same theme as preliminary writings in 'Recovering Landscape' so again, this isn't really a new idea, but good to reinforce the concept of landscape architecture as a profession well suited for representational experimentation and the ability to capture fluidity and complexity, which is referenced in some of the major graphic convention evolutions during the first decade of this century.  Computers have became a significant tool not just in being able to automate techniques of collage, but also are beginning to aid in crunching significant quantities of data and more specifically, along with video and other media, represent motion and change over time, interrelationship of site actors, and to portray changes that occur on timelines too slow for our comprehension.

The second part of Aquino's essay focuses not on representation, but on actual places and the lack of a modern method of visual vocabulary for landscape architecture.  The profession is still mired in the pictorial scenery in the Olmstedian tradition (especially in North America) and architecture/urban design in the 'Main Street' utopia - so it becomes more difficult to give tangible examples of new ideas when the dominant visual and cultural paradigm is based on powerful, established imagery.  As Aquino mentions, "Landscape architecture... suffers from a poor collective visual vocabulary. The absence of prevalent and progressive design precedents hinders our ability to communicate our ideals for a better urbanism to a broader audience."

Part of the issue is in communication, the other part is more political - in actually convincing people that there is a better urbanism, and that the natural (or native) should not be the proper 'frame' for the ecological.  The debate of cultural frameworks and perceptions will continue to evolve as mentioned as we integrate more ecological thinking and systems into projects - but will they be required to fall into the fate of such techno-ecological marvels as Olmsted's Back Back Fens project - a landscape ecological urbanism in disguise as a natural wetland park?

Aquino then comes to the crux of the solution - and that is to build the work.  As he mentions:  "Educate through practice. Landscape architects, planners, and urbanists need built precedents to demonstrate that a more integrated approach to landscape and urbanism is possible. Policy and planning does not spark a collective re-imagination of our future in the way that tangible, built work does." 

This goes to the heart of the debate about landscape urbanism - and really becomes perhaps the wicked problem that we all face in trying to elaborate a new representational and methodological process.  At this point we have some of the fundamentals we want to achieve... flexibility, adaptability, indeterminacy and multiplicity... driven by ecological principles and woven into complex social and economic milieu - in response to cultural and market conditions.  This is the urbanism parts - the working aspects of cities and systems we want to address.

The problem with implementation - and with re-representation, is that we haven't actually figured out the representation part - so it is a giant leap to building.  While he offers examples - these are good works of urban planning and design, interdisciplinary landscape architecture, and innovative ecological solutions at work - but they aren't built works of landscape urbanism, and they aren't even really physical examples of the representational transformation of the disciplines... which haven't yet matured on the drawing boards, and definitely haven't been realized in the field.

I just don't see the connection between theory and practice being strong enough to justify a new label - and resistance within disciplines to new ideas notwithstanding, perhaps it will just become a natural maturation of all of the above disciplines with infusions of some aspects of new theory from all of the various 'urbanisms'.  It isn't really worthy of a label like 'landscape urbanism' or even 'landscape infrastructure' - although we do love new labels.  Is is okay to modify urbanism as 'study' and keep the disciplinary frameworks of applied methodology intact - so LU can influence and change and expand landscape architecture or architecture or planning without being considered a failed theoretical attempt?  I'd much rather see that than to try to formalize it into a method (ala New Urbanism) or to force projects into a new category of definition as Landscape Urbanism. 

Either way, I'm with Aquino partway, and agree that:  "Over the next decade, as the work communicated in words and pictures transforms into real places in the world, the public understanding of both urbanism and landscape architecture will expand, while new challenges and opportunities emerge for designers to tackle."

What we will call these works... these re-representations and re-implementations... that's the question?

Unlocking LU 1: Indeterminacy & Multiplicity

So as promised, I was planning on posting on some of the great content related to the initial issue on the Landscape Urbanism website.  The introduction by Sarah Kathleen Peck and Eliza Shaw Valk brings up some of the questions around the concept - with a focus on 'indeterminacy' and 'multiplicity' as well as looking at what drives the theory and discussion around landscape urbanism - namely what it is (or can be).

Surprising to many (but not surprising to most) - the goals of LU and many of the questions are not simple.  They are not about supplanting new urbanism, promoting suburban sprawl, evoking a nostalgia for le corbusian mega projects, or the many ill-conceived criticisms that have been thrown about by those threatened or at least too lazy to actually understand what's going on before condemnation.  The LU project, if you could call it that, is very succinctly presented in by Peck and Valk:
"We believe that we are trying to do something different. We are in uncharted territory because we are spinning new narratives. We are taking on new responsibilities, and we are approaching challenges with faceted lenses, recognizing and incorporating—with sense and sensibilities—the vast variety of interests, concerns, investments, and collisions that are the landscape of cities."
The interesting twist in all of this, and the reason for all this speculation - is also the root of most of the criticism of landscape urbanism.  The endeavor is about 'urbanism' as a concept related to study of urban areas, and not about creating solutions to specific problems.  This is old-school scholarship and theorizing - not using those two pathways in order to provide some semblance of a framework on which to hang an operational method.  So LU is criticized for its messiness, it's lack of coherence and clarity, and its willingness to acknowledge some of the ugly truths in our society.  Guess what?  That's what is being studied - so the methods have to match the context.  Cities are messy, they lack coherence and clarity, and often they are ugly both historically and currently - in terms of environmental pollution, social inequity, and as is being made evident in the recent occupation movement, economic disparity.

So we do the one thing we can.  We look, interpret, gauge, measure, hypothesize, and theorize.  As mentioned by Peck and Valk, "We err in the belief that landscape urbanism is a study, with parameters, but not an ideology. One conundrum among many."  Or, simply, we don't know - so we ask.  These are educated inquiries, but are driven by a lack of knowledge, not the knowledge that we have things figured out and want to offer a solution.  I feel that perhaps that is what is missing in the world right now.  The ability to look, and discuss - not in terms of solutions but in terms of asking the right questions and defining the right problems. 

So the issue tackles many of these themes in this vein, as Peck and Valk explain in their introduction, such as landscape urbanism "origins and future potential; its coherencies and incoherencies; and working definitions that hold the seemingly conflicting factors of space, time, indeterminacy, and multiplicity."    These are not just isolated questions about landscape urbanism theory that involves uni-disciplinary verbal masturbation or lionization of "new" methods for solving the worlds problems, but are related, fundamental questions about urbanism in general.  The goal is neither purely theoretical or academic or disconnected from on-the-ground practice, but is also fundamental to a greater understanding and application in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and urban design.   The study, not as mentioned by the editors, is not an idealogy.  It is a journey and not a destination.

In subsequent posts I will look at some of this original content on landscape urbanism (the site) and focus on these fundamental questions related to landscape urbanism (the concept)... starting next with Gerdo Aquino's essay on 'the re-representation of landscape'.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Europe Journal: Home Base

An interesting aspect of the European journey was the ability not to stay in hostels or hotels, but to live in some of the places that people actually inhabit in these cities.  This was done courtesy of crashing on my sisters couch in London, and utilizing the fabulous air.bnb for finding amazing flats to stay at along the way (highly recommended btw). 

This yielded an interesting experience in understanding cities not as a tourist, but in the words of Rick Steves - as a "temporary local".  More on some of these home bases and the ways in which one connects with a certain neighborhood, but for now, I found it interesting, via Google Earth, to look at the locations in comparison of urban form - each one at approximately the same scale - with a yellow dot on where we lived.

London  (Waltham Forest)

Barcelona (Gracia)

Rome (2 locations in Coliseum/Forum area)

Siena (near the Duomo)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Europe Journal: Diana Memorial Fountain

Located at one of the far ends of Hyde Park in London is the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, an elegantly curved ring of water opened in 2004 (design by Kathryn Gustafson  from her London office of Gustafson Porter).  Although somewhat controversial, I found the feature quite engaging, even experiencing it late in the day in somewhat rainy weather.  The flattened perspective gives subtle hints to the overall shape, but invites exploration.

Simple pathways were added after the fact due to some issues with sogginess, but are done pretty well.  You can never really see the entire feature in one view due to some subtle berming of the interior areas as well.

The movement and sound of water is subtle as well, with a variety of textures and smooth falls that glide along - not rushing rapids, but a trickling and bubbling that is peaceful.

Some details show the different water flow characteristics, and you see the construction technique of the individual computer-cut pieces of granite connected together at intervals - a sort of sculptural feat in it's own right.

The aerial shows the overall configuration of the oval, with some of the context of the adjacent Serpentine Lake.

Unfortunately, videos of the features didn't make it back from Europe with me - so there is the missing experiential aspects and the sound and movement of water - which is really part of the experience.  If you are in the area, definitely worth a side trip to check it out for yourself

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Europe Journal: Signs of the Times

A photographic exploration of a few of the more interesting tidbits of signage from the recent travels to Europe.  Enjoy.

Sad day when you need prohibit street musicians (London)

Excellent advice for those from the states (London)

Creative sign manipulation (London)
The Catalan spirit continues (Barcelona)

Closeup of doors of the Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
Taking advantage of contrast on the Mediterranean Sky (Florence)
The Communal Water - Gaia Fountain in Il Campo (Siena)

A metaphor riffing on 'Dead End Street'?  (Rome)

Remnants of Roman Power - Obelisk in the Piazza de Popolo (Rome)

Cardinal directional markers in St. Peters Square (Vatican City)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Unlocking Landscape Urbanism

Right before I took off on my travels, the brand new Landscape Urbanism website launched with its first issue.  Due to the rigors of travel (you know, scenic vistas, wine, great food, etc.) I was not able to dig into the content before I left - but finally did manage to get all of it absorbed. And there's a ton of great content, as founder and editor-in-chief Sarah Kathleen Peck has assembled a wonderful group of editors, advisors, and amassed a great initial take on LU on this issue.

A bit about the overall concept of the site.
"Landscape urbanism (dot) com is a website for and about landscape, architecture, and urbanism—a resource and ongoing publication for people interested in cities, landscape, and design.  Landscape urbanism is an idea that process matters in design, that collaboration between disciplines is critical, and that complexity should be embraced as part of urbanism and landscape architecture. While many have argued that the ideas of landscape urbanism are too undefined or complicated, we think that through this publication and website, we can better explain and explore the ideas of landscape urbanism."
I think the key to this site, and perhaps it's most engaging idea, is the concept of a forum for understanding the concepts around landscape urbanism.  The ongoing debate varies widely, and to date there hasn't been an attempt to collect and more importantly engage with some of the key issues that make up the foundations of LU theory and practice.  It has the potential to provide a more systematic methodology (than a singularly authored blog) - proposing to explain all of the varying modes of thinking and the connections within - rather than to promote a particular ideology.  It also has the ability for ongoing dialogue and debate (not possible in print media).  The multiplicity of voices, some not typically heard until now, is another strength, in addition to the inclusive approach and interactivity - seen in this initial offering that is definitely exciting.

The focus of Issue #1 is fundamental to understanding of landscape urbanism, talking the concepts of indeterminacy and multiplicity, with a wide range of contributors including "...Christopher Gray and Shanti Levy illuminating the antecedents and legacies of landscape urbanism, SWA president Gerdo Aquino calls for more built works to bolster its role. Editor Eliza Valk haunts New York City’s parks puzzling terms and definitions, while Laura Tepper scurries across Dutch highways wondering what happened to a West 8 installation. Finally, website founder Sarah Peck interviews longtime blogger and landscape advocate Jason King; while further south, architects Thom Mayne and Karen Lohrmann and a UCLA design studio examine the future of America’s regional cities." 

In addition to the issues and an on-going blog, another aspect of the site in its initial phase is the section on 'Strategies' which aims to amass "a collection of built projects + conceptual work advancing the ideas and practice of landscape architecture and landscape urbanism."    The realization of work related to landscape urbanism has definitely been an ongoing topic of conversation, and a collection and critical dialogue related to works, if they do in fact exist, is long overdue.

I will provide some review of the content (maybe even a somewhat self-referential meta-review of my own interview on the site) in subsequent posts, so check out the articles and be ready with comments - as it is some thought-provoking stuff.

To everyone involved - a well-deserved thank you and congratulations!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Europe Journal - Green Wall Art

Sep. 17:  On a rainy day next to Trafalgar Square we discovered a somewhat odd installation of a living wall adjacent to the National Gallery which I of course had to sprint over to check out. 

Closer inspection shows it to be a living representation of Van Gogh's 'A Wheatfield with Cypresses' painted in 1889 and rendered here in a variety of plantings.  As sponsor GE mentions, the idea is to bring art to life... and they also have developed a companion website that includes a montage of photos from viewers that tweet photos of the installation.

Is the translation from art to living wall a success... I guess that is in the eye of the beholder.  Decide for yourself.