Category Archives: books

John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest

Those not hailing from the Pacific Northwest may be less familiar with John Yeon, one of the influential figures in architecture and conservation and the development of a unique brand of regional modernism.  If you don’t know Yeon, or you want to learn more, you will be pleasantly satisfied with the recent volume from Oro Editions by Marc Treib, “John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest”  The life and arc of Yeon’s career is carefully documented with many images and illustrations spanning his diverse and influential career.  And while I knew of and about much of his work, the detail unlocked a greater understanding of the key themes of regionalism, materiality, landscape, and conservation that are just as resonant and relevant today.

As introduced by Treib, Yeon is best know for his residential design, embodying the concept of ‘regional modern architecture’ and designs shaped by “sensitive siting, planning, masses, use of wood, and accommodation of contemporary living” the epitomy of which is the Watzek House completed early in his career in Portland in 1937.  This style “set the bar for many of the region’s houses that followed in its wake.”  The exterior rooflines juxtaposed with Mount Hood in the background, and the amazing interior wood detailing ground this as a touchstone worthy of exploration.

Beyond being a residential designer, Yeon, who was largely self-taught, brought a passion for many causes surrounding conservation and planning throughout his career, becoming a vocal advocate for landscape preservation, sensitive roadway design, scenic areas, all stemming from his regionalism of a different sort, his roots in his home place.  As Treib mentions,

“John Yeon lived in the present, held a deep appreciation for the past, but was always concerned with the future.  He understood and was troubled by the threats that development posed to the Oregon landscape and actively sought to confront and mitigate the problems they caused.”

This included work in the Columbia River Gorge, now an officially designated Scenic Area, and his purchase of land now known as The Shire, which “became a test ground, a playground, a retreat for the architect, and a tool to inspire key activists and funders of his preservation efforts.”

The area is now the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape, operated by University of Oregon and providing a legacy appropriate to Yeon’s passion for study and education specific to the region.  “The Shire is a center for Pacific Northwest landscape studies while being preserved as an example of landscape design. It provides an educational site for the study of landscape preservation, design, ecology, and management creating opportunities for individuals and study groups to engage in research and discussion of landscape architecture, planning, conservation and preservation issues associated with the Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Northwest region, and the nation.”

The book explores in detail many of these topics, and provides lots of in depth discussion on Yeon’s self-taught architectural vocabulary, his innovative use of materials, his advocacy and conservation efforts, as well as his life-long love of art and collecting.  It also focuses on his pursuit of architecture as a relatively solitary endeavor, and his eschewing both formal education and working for larger firms to pursue his own path. Coming from an affluent family, he had perhaps some unique opportunities to travel at a young age,  which influenced his thinking around architecture, and access to some clients that gave him opportunities beyond his age and experience.

That said, his intuition as a designer, along with his evolution among established Portland architects like A.E. Doyle (whose office Yeon worked briefly) and contemporaries such as emerging talents like Pietro Belluschi offered some structure and assistance on projects.  As Treib mentions, “It is evident that in the early stages of their training, an exchange of ideas and influences passed between Yeon and Belluschi”.

The interior and exterior relationship of Watzek house is thoroughly modern, and Yeon’s feel for exterior environment is deft.  The courtyard and pool engaged the house on all sides, as Treib outlines:

“The Watzek house and landscape were conceived as an interrelated unit, but within that unity, Yeon played an intensified landscape of native species against areas — such as the courtyard and the zone outside the living room — that stood out as designed spaces.”

The use of the borrowed native Pacific Northwest landscape seemed to fit the design more than the actual design plantings, which in a residential context makes sense, with some plantings strategically employed for functions like screening and directing views, or to create and reinforce outdoor rooms.  The strong connection of architecture and landscape influences my design aesthetic, embodied in the formalism of the Watzek house portico, where Yeon “projected the interval between the portico posts as lines of paving stones set within the lawn, in effect, using rows of stones to echo the rhythm of the house architecture in the softest of voices.”

These concepts were not unique to Yeon, but still define much of regional modern design today, and at the time, much like his architectural style, were fresh and new.  Architects will also appreciate his experimentation with ‘ventilators’ which allow for user control of interior environments.  I also appreciated the deep dive into the Watzek house, as well as some of his subsequent work with the use of plywood as a building material, and the experimentation with modular designs strategies, all of which referenced his favorite and most regional of material, wood, but showcased the level of design detailing Yeon became famous for, using 1:1 drawings to investigate specific joints and interfaces of materials for functional and aesthetic reasons.  The sophistication of this is seen, for instance in the Cottrell House (below).

Also significant were the other plywood houses were the epitome of regional style, 9 of which were built in the Portland metro areas, like this super simple Speculative House in North Portland, built in 1939.

This also started sporting the Yeon blue-green paint he became famous for, most visibly applied to the 1948 Visitors Information Center located along Waterfront Park.

Yeon did venture beyond Portland to build a few houses in California, which is documented in the book, and he did live and work on the Oregon Coast (along with but most of his work was close to home and predominately residential.  And while he was known early for Watzek house, Treib posits that “the Swan house could claim first place as the most cohesive representation of Pacific Northwest regional modernism”

The book moves from residential architecture and design to art collecting and museum work which occupied much of his later life, along with the active conservation work mentioned previously.  This aspect will be enjoyable to those passionate about and interested in the history of Northwest environmentalism, as Yeon was a heroic figure in many of the fights for beautiful and ecologically significant places we enjoy today.  Chapter 7 highlights much of the work on the Oregon Coast, and the Columbia River Gorge, where Yeon served by appointment on the State Parks Commission at the age of 21 and fervently fought even then, using his own funds to buy land that was threatened, again owing to his not small amount of privilege.

He wrote letters on scenic beautification of highways, making cogent arguments on the impact of road designs that did not follow the contours of the land, and the need to plant wide enough areas to allow for visual impact and survivability.  As Treib points out “This knowledge of forestry and road design for a twenty-one year old is impressive, as is the young man’s confidence in lecturing men with decades of experience beyond his own.”

The early work on sensitive siting of roadways, such as the alignment of Highway 101 on the Oregon coast in the 1940s, evolved through the work in the 1960s dovetailed with larger interest in roadside beautification with work from designers and advocates alike striving for a more beautiful landscape experience and a more sensitive approach to road design, perhaps harkening back to the approach that Frederick Law Olmsted took a century before.  Yeon’s work focused this larger trend, with an eye towards the particular landscape experience, as Treib summarizes:

“Yeon was an evangelist for the Oregon landscape.”

The Shire was the major reflection of this trend, where Yeon fought against the wind and elements of the Gorge to shape a partly natural and partly designed space.  “Yeon’s design for the landscape, developed over decades, lovingly integrated land and water.  The tightly mown, and level-edged paths played effectively against the high grasses that blanketed most horizontal surfaces.  Paths traversed meadows, climbed outcroppings, and skirted the river — all aesthetically considered.”

The final chapter sums his focus on spending more time on projects benefiting the social good, and while he still did some residential work.  He fought for more scenic highways near Multnomah Falls, and championed designs for the Portland Waterfront Park, as well as holding the torch for a Pacific Northwest modern style that influenced architecture today.  It’s interesting reading the last chapter on how Yeon grappled with the concept of regionalism, and his role in defining it.  While the Watzek house and other residential designs were regional in form and material, he still presented that “the very existence of “a Northwest regional style of architecture is debatable”.  The connection to the land is an important factor, as well as the connections between folk architecture.

“We like to think that the visual character of the landscape shaped the vision of its inhabitants so that they conjured up [and] translated the spirit of the place into forms which were habitable.  Possibly people and landscapes have so modified each other that it is impossible to tell from the resulting composite regionalist landscape which influence is the primary one.  When we see this … phenomenon from the past, it is perhaps strongest where the inhabitants were unsophisticated — for knowledge of a broader world caused a seepage of alien influences which diluted the special regional flavor.” (251)

This concept of regionalism is perhaps the most compelling part of the narrative of the book and the life of John Yeon.  Regionalism as a stylistic element, but also regionalism as a way of living and loving the place you inhabit.  An amazing life makes for good reading, and Treib does a great job packing a lot of diversity into an easy to absorb story.  As a man with that took a unique path, John Yeon benefited much from his privilege to have the freedom to pursue his passions in a less formal way could have become a path of self-indulgence.  He was an artist, but his passion for the Oregon landscape and his life-long pursuit of it’s protection made him a true, regional hero.

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Austere Gardens

I received a little gem of a book from Oro Editions entitled Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending.  Written by Marc Treib, the book (at a slim and image-heavy 100 pages) is a meditation of a sort.  Having been immersed in some much heavier reading recently, I sat down and absorbed (reveled in?) this book in one sitting, and it was a breath of fresh air in contrast to much more academic writing.

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The word garden means implies form-making, so Treib contrasts the Edenic model, which aims “… to surpass our given environment in abundance and delight,” in contrast to that of simple “…landscapes of reduction and compression,” (10) which embody the idea of the Austere.

From the publisher’s website, a bit of the background:

The word “austere,” as used in this essay, does not imply asceticism, but merely modesty and restraint. Austere landscapes may first appear devoid of interest if noticed at all. To those who do not look beyond their surfaces, these sites, and the world outside them, usually appear plain and uninteresting, or even lacking of the very properties by which we define a garden. But there are sensual, aesthetic, and even philosophical, pleasures to be gained from these seemingly dull fields should we attempt to appreciate them. These qualities, normally associated with abundance and complexity, may be found in a different way, and at a different level, in austere terrain.

Many of the examples used in the book come not from traditional landscape architecture, where formal quality is typically the main driver, but from environmental artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Robert Irwin, and others.   The idea here is that austerity can emerge from both the unplanned, what Treib refers to as Traces, “the marks of human existence and its activities… result from wear, removal, and erosion.” (22) Artists use subtle clues but add the concept of Intent, or “considered action.” (24)

Using the example of Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking where he “walked back and forth in a meadow until he had trampled a recognizable line in the grass…” with the intent to “…produce a trace to be apprehended aesthetically.” (24)

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::  image via Richard Long

Another example is Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field – seen below, which is the culmination of a long passage in the book that explores the idea of geometric patterning, constructed compositions such as grids, bands, figural fields – popularized by Peter Walker and inspired by the work of minimalist artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd.  The simplicity of Walkers work can be considered austere in a way, “landscapes appear primarily in lines, extruded vertically as places that define spaces or trace streaks across the terrain.  In their repetition they create visual rhythms, playing the individual element against the repetition of the field as an entirety.” (80)
This is one of the few times in the book where actual works of landscape architecture are discussed, owing to the fact that much work in the field is not ‘austere’ but more garden-like, perhaps?

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:: image via PWPLA

The result is described by Treib through the example of Edmund Burke’s “artificial sublime”, where he “suggested that a man-made creation of sufficient length and repetition might induce a similar effect…”  to that of the true sublime.  In De Maria’s work, this repetition is present but less distinct (perhaps due to the size and space in the landscape), where the steel poles “…fade into the landscape as the light changes or with any shifting in viewing position. The promenade through the field and the awareness of subtle changes in the surface, skies and the distance mesas equal in significance the precision of the stainless steel forest arranged mathematically.” (80)

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The idea of the connection of simple moves on the landscape that have been installed for functional reasons, such as hedgerows (and example from Jutland, Denmark below) which “make evident what to many had been only latent, with the rows of trees demarking the contours of the land.” (29) This hints at a powerful opportunity to mark space, as well as controlling wind and sunlight, that could be employed at large and small scales using very simple means.

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The influence of Japanese gardens, particularly the spare minimalism of the form and it’s simple palette, seen in Saiho-ji garden in Kyoto, the banner image above and repeated below.  For Treib, “Austerity does not always connote deprivation, however, but is user here to suggest a restriction in means.  Richness within austerity is a hallmark of Japanese visual culture, and pairing the words ‘austere’ and ‘beauty’ is no anomaly within its aesthetic thinking…”  He continues, “Austerity her lies in the acceptance – or adoption, if consciously made – of few prevailing materials, or even only one: in this case moss.  It also requires restraint. By restricting the palette to water, trees, and moss, one becomes more aware of each constituent element.” (17)

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A different Japanese form is the torii, or a gate without a fence, where it serves as a place-marker.  “Although one may physically pass through it, the gateway functions more as a sign and a mental stimulus… Figures like the torii gain presence from their contrast with the surroundings.” (46)

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Plenty more examples abound in the text, many that were new to me.  The simple tools of observation such as Trace, and the intervention using Intent, provides some interesting ways of looking at design in a new way.   Simple rules of Addition and Subtraction (Figure and Void) can be employed artistically in environmental art, but also give us opportunities to incorporate into more function-driven works on landscape architecture. The clues in the landscape (the ordinary and the functional) that are not explicity trying to capture the Eden-like garden of transcendence, but rather look to ways of making relevant austere spaces.

It’s interesting to note that, although often simple, it’s not just about removal (of materials, ornament, etc.) as Treib mentions was a possible flaw of modernist architecture where “simplicity was commonly achieved by elimination… what is experience close in is rarely greater that what can be seen at a distance.” Instead positing that: “Compression, in contrast to reduction, brings into seemingly simple surfaces and spaces constellations of details revealed only through movement and over time.” (63)

This can happen with erosion, patina, as well as playing on seasonality and light, even with few elements, as long as they are employed with the goals of experiential quality in mind.

It’s heartening to see a simple (austere) work that is so full of inspirations.  I’ve always been drawn to work of environmental artists, and this has reinforced the idea that there is much for designers to learn from to enliven their work.  The ordinary and functional landscapes also provide inspiration not just in development of contextual design, but in how they provide form and manipulate space and microclimate.

There’s also the biophilic and the concepts of inspirations of nature through biomimicry, which Treib mentions comes with an “economy of means”, with beehives, spider webs, birds nests and termite mounds representing “the transformation of minimal materials into an efficient and functional configuration.  Maximizing the minimal.” (91)

The book is a no-brainer, easy to access and inspiring on multiple levels. It will not make you work but will make you think.  About design.  About inspiration.  About purpose and what he calls Attending, or “in what way do we view, process, and evaluate what is before us?” (94)  As we focus on environmental sustainability as a means and an ends, Treib’s final words perhaps gives the reason to engage in the book: “Following the directives of environmental responsibility provides only the basis for our designs; an appreciation of the austere landscape can direct its making and enrich our experience of the garden that results.” (100)

All images via Oro Editions unless otherwise noted.

Marc Treib is a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, a practicing graphic designer, and a noted historian and critic of landscape and architecture. He has been published widely on modern and historical subjects in the United States, Japan, and Scandinavia. 

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PA35: Going Live

I was really excited to receive the latest version of  Pamphlet Architecture, published by Princeton Architectural Press.  While I’ve not seen all of them, i do have at least a dozen, and they offer focused snapshots of theory and practice both as well as a longitudinal section of though spanning decades.  My first experience was PA15: War and Architecture featuring Lebbeus Woods, which i picked up as an undergrad and was blown away.  I’ve since picked up issues sporadically, including the great PA21: Situation Normal featuring the work of Lewis.Tsrumaki.Lewis (1998), PA23: Sites of Trauma with Johanna Saleh Dickson (2002),  PA28: Augmented Landscapes by Smout Allen (2007), and PA30: Coupling featuring work and thoughts by InfraNet Lab and Lateral Office (2011).

The most recent version, PA35: Going Live: From States to Systems, was published earlier in November, edited by Pierre Bélanger and featuring work from his design research arm opsys.

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I thought Bélanger’s  essay ‘Synthetic Surfaces’ in the Landscape Urbanism Reader, was interesting, and was interested to see the work as well from he and others around this topic.  For starters, some context, via the blurb snipped below on Amazon:

“”If landscape is more than milieu or environment, and encompasses a deterritorialized world, then it is the contested territory, hidden actor, and secret agent of the twentieth century. Stemming from the early work of some of the most influential landscape urbanists–Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Benton MacKaye, Patrick Geddes–this mini manifesto explores underdeveloped patterns and unfinished processes of urbanization at the precise moment when environmentalism began to fail and ecology emerged between the 1970s and 80s. Informed by systems thinking from the modern atomic age, this slim silver pamphlet takes inspiration from Howard T. Odum’s big green book A Tropical Rain Forest and brings alive the voices of a group of influential thinkers to exhume a body of ideas buried in the fallout of the explosion of digitalism, urbanism and deconstructivism during the early 1990s. Catalyzed by Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor meltdown, a counter-modernity and neo-urbanism emerged from the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of South African Apartheid. What happened during this concentrated era and area of change–across design, from architecture to planning–is nothing short of revolutionary.” 

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The opening essays start provide some more context, and the crux is really what is said about the timing of the emergence of ecology in the 70s and 80s and how this is now fully integrated, after almost 50 years, into practice.  I do want to find a copy of Odum’s ‘A Tropical Rain Forest‘ after reading the introductory info – perhaps the biggest gem this small volume offers.

Readers should be warned, this is not a trifle, but a dense exploration with a number of unexplained references and jargon – the kind of stuff that makes people roll their eyes and dismiss academic posturing as oh so much BS.  Frankly the intro is probably one of the most annoying passages I’ve read in a while and the first sections were equally obtuse.  It evens out a bit as you continue, but coupled with way too small text and only black and white imagery, it’s a bit of a slog.  As in not enjoyable to read or engage in.

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So if you’re still with me – check out the diagrams, and maybe read a section or two.  When you get into them, are quite beautiful and the text has value – exploring some of the themes of landscape and infrastructure from Keller Easterling and Sanford Kwinter.  Go to well lit room, with a magnifying glass and a lot of coffee and have fun.

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I was initially put off by the reliance on only black and white imagery, as it seems anachronistic, more of a trope than a reason for its use in this particularly context.  But they work and the idea of communication that transcends color – in these densely packed montages attempt to communicate a ton of info – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Probably the best part of this volume – sometimes it’s amazing and you find yourself staring at a page for way too long.  If they were 2x as big it’d be even better.

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So as far as the takeaway for he at this point, I’m really intrigued by the graphics, and some of the experimentation.  While i was initially put off by the black at white imagery, as i mentioned, but after looking at it multiple times, and viewing digital images, it does have a quality that perhaps obscured by our typical splashes of color.

Even as a pamphlet – the writings, well, I feel would have benefited greatly from a tougher editor that reined in some of the language and obscure references.  I’ve read enough academic and dense writings that i can muddle through the most difficult, so  I definitely don’t need my hand held. But there were so many opportunities to add one small explanation of a concept, rather than just leave the reader hanging, or googling, to understand some obscure reference or word choice.  Belanger’s other writings didn’t seem so hard to parse.  This was exhausting.

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If you read it let me know what you thing.  Got some ideas or thoughts.  Let me know.

PE 1: Parallel Genealogies

As mentioned, it would be worth while to explore some essays of the Projective Ecologies book, and what better way to start than with the introductory essay by Reed and Lister, Parallel Genealogies.

The terms ‘ecologies’ and ‘ecosystems’ are co-opted for a variety of uses today beyond event these, which could lead to the eye-rolling misappropriation and leave us scrambling for a different term.  The word/concept is by nature cool.  It sounds cool, it’s integrative and connective, holistic and systemic, so of course it will be integrated into the lexicon to describe such things as media ecosystems, startup ecosystems, digital ecosystems, and others, predominately in the tech world.  Our gut reaction is to say ugh and come up with something new – resilience, regenerative, biophilic, etc. that hasn’t been corrupted, but ecology, in the true sense and applicablility, is still a valid construct.  I say rather than abandon it, we take it back.

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H.T. Odum. Energy and Matter Flow through an Ecosystems, adapted from Silver (p.25)

The parallel genealogies of the title are woven around ecology, and the interconnections between the natural sciences, the humanities and design.  These are broken down in turn, evolving the concepts from scientific roots of ecosystem and population ecology, through the connections of ecology to environmentalism which has led to it’s more popular usage.  The crux is a shift from, linear, deterministic ‘climax’ models to more of a focus on “open-endedness, flexibility, resilience, and adaptation… ecosystems are now understood to be open systems and behave in ways that are self-organizing and that are to some extend unpredictable. ”  In that vein (25):

“…change is built into living systems; they are characterized in part by uncertainty and dynamism.”

This makes it more difficult to understand, but infinitely more interesting, as things change and move in systems, leading to conceptual metaphors like mosaics which are compelling to scientists and lay-people (especially designers).  The application of ecological principles – beyond mere observation – implies the agency of humans, thus making our impacts become impossible to ignore.  We also tend to want to act in healing degraded areas, which requires sufficient data to make the correct course corrections.

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Do we possess, or can we possess, adequate information to counterbalance the human-impacted changes in climate that have (Katrina, Sandy) and will influence millions?  We can’t not act, but with what information and certainty?  As the authors point out, the concept shifts “toward complex system thinking is to realize that we cannot manage whole ecosystems; rather, we can manage ourselves and our activities… [which] will have profound implications for the way we design.” (27)

The second genealogy focuses on the humanities (which i would maybe broaden to include many social elements) in solidifying our connections to the natural world.  Similar to deterministic linear ecological models, the way we live and govern ourselves, as in the text, quoting Botkin: “our management practices must adapt themselves to this new scientific understanding of the world – that principles of order, control, and limits will eventually doom the very things we want to protect.” (29)

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Our connection to nature, or the wild, is slipping somewhat in an age of hypercommunication and technological fascination, which is maybe an extension of our overcoming the fear of the wild by naming, and then taming what we once feared.  Or maybe we just stare at phones too much.  In perhaps a counterargument to the naming of places, is the idea of experience, as argued by Neil Evernden, in The Social Creation of Nature’ where “…he argues for qualities, as opposed to nameable things, that might describe that which exists beyond human control.”  (30)

“Wildness is not ‘ours’ — indeed, it is the one that that can never be ours.  It is self-willed, independent, and indifferent to our dictates and judgements.  An entity with the quality of wildness is its own, and no others’s”

And finally with design, and the historical origins of ecological planning traced in the modern sense to McHarg in the 1960s (but built on many, many others before him).  The quantitative as a design strategy was, and indeed still is, somewhat of a foreign concept, that has weathered the art v. science debates, but did galvanize a concept of designing with nature that still evokes joy when spoken aloud.  The language of the ecological – still vivid today – evokes visions that easily spur design intention.  R.T.T. Forman gave a new language to landscape architects, thinking about “matrices, webs, and networks… characterized by adjacencies, overlaps, and juxtapositions.”  This took us beyond the simple overlay into the concept of change and flux, or as mentioned “Adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility, which became understood as the hallmarks of ‘successful’ systems.” (33)

The examples start to emerge, with no perfect exemplar but many worth studying for elements or processes worthy of emulation.  The work of Haag, Hargreaves, and numerous earthwork artists used the armature, language and symbolism of nature into works, and also left (gasp) things unfinished somewhat, with slight references to indeterminacy, which dovetailed so well into the best aspects of landscape urbanism theory.  Thus the spatial fields of  Koolhaas/OMA  at Parc de la Vilette, or the work of Desvigne and Dalnoky, which “set out strategies in which growth, succession, and careful editing of newly planted urban or industrial forests could be seen to reintroduce environmental dynamics into sites and projects that had erased – or at least significantly dampened – ecological effects.” (36)

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It’s not a hands-off ecological succession, but strategic ‘curation’ that works for the ecological and the cultural, and the binary notion of nature and human.  This led nicely into works by Allen, Corner, and further competitions such as Downsview Park, Freshkills Landfill, and others to solidify an interdisciplinary, graphically rich, and temporally based approach to landscape architecture.  While the framing of it and subsequent labeling as landscape urbanism may have not stuck in it’s original sense, the literature of LU is the best that’s come out of the profession in a decade.  My opinion is the book we’re reading is the next iteration (or maybe continuation) of that concept.

Beyond the theoretical, the shift toward application of these projects (not just competitions but works being built) offers a validation of the action-oriented approach that connects ecology, humanity, and design in ways that have rarely been accomplished.  New approaches, ecological awareness, understanding of hybrid and novel ecosystems, the role and result of humans as parts of these system –  coupled with new technology – leads to a new urban ecological paradigm.  The book, and this first essay, continues the conversation, “toward a more rigorous, robust,  and relevant engagement across the domains of ecology and design – one to be fully explored in the coming years.” (38)

I’ll probably skip next the Corner essay as it has been covered extensively (but feel free to comment or guest post welcome!) – and jump to Hight’s essay on Designing Ecologies.  Stay tuned and comment on your thoughts on this essay below.

Books: Projective Ecologies

A recent conversation with a colleague reminded me of one of the best books of 2014 — Projective Ecologies, a collaboration between Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister that brought together a number of essays both new and old an framed the ideas in some interesting ways.

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You can also read an adaptation of this first chapter from this article in Design Observer from mid-April.  The book has been covered by other places, such as a quick guest post overview here in The Dirt.

Fold out paper maps and diagrams are stuffed in a pocket in the back of the volume – to show some more detail on images found in the books thematic interludes, which are ready made for some LA student studio desk.

There was some redundancy of essays that were previous published elsewhere, that are maybe worth a re-read – but the new content is worth the time for perhaps the necessary extension of the dialogue on Landscape Urbanism from a few years back, both in new ideas and relevant old ideas.

As with most things it makes sense to break it down into pieces so an essay by essay overview seems in order.  Anyone else reading this or read it last year, feel free to contribute ideas in the comments section?  I’ll periodically post some ideas from the essays.

Language of Landscape

A great article in the Guardian  on an upcoming work (Landmarks) by nature writer Robert Macfarlane on the ‘rewilding of our language of landscape’.  I was not familiar with Macfarlane, but the takeaway of the connection between language and understanding of natural systems is captured in the subheading:

“For decades the leading nature writer has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. It’s a lexicon we need to cherish in an age when a junior dictionary finds room for ‘broadband’ but has no place for ‘bluebell’”

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Macfarlane tells the story of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and the culling of words – ostensibly to make room for more relevant words – often was at the expense of nature.  As he mentions:  “A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. “

Through travels and noting place words for nature, Macfarlane captures what he terms a ” …Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.” 

While the list would be interesting in a cultural sense, he captured, gleaned, found contributors, and collaborators in the collection, and the potential of such a diverse lexicon.

“It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language.”

Divided into 9 sections “Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands” the collection is admittedly incomplete due to the sheer variability in language and place.   As he mentions “There is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages. ”  The goal is not comprehensiveness, but to evoke feeling of wonder in the shape and sound of the words and their connections to the places they are connected to.

Tons more in the article to read – and it also hints that the book may be well documented visually, with some stunning photographs captured in the article (all images from the Guardian) by Macfarlane and others to illustrate the ideas.

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Wurr – ‘hoar-frost’ (Herefordshire). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane
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Cladach stony beach
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Shreep – ‘mist that is slowly clearing’. Photograph: John Macfarlane

The lexicon is predominately around the region encompassing Britain and Ireland where Macfarlane ranges, but it   brings to mind classic texts like The Language of Landscape by Spirn, and Home Ground – a more specific lexicon of the American landscape edited by Gwartney and Lopez.

Our connection and disconnection with the concepts of landscape as a word and as a concept is long-standing.   This goes for the general public, but is also acute in dialogue on the role and focus of landscape architects, where dialogues about landscape span decades and include the cultural landscape of JB Jackson and the landscape urbanism of Waldheim and Corner to boot.

Few other professions are so fully rooted in the concept of landscape, and as we debate the mandane labels for our new creations (green roof vs. ecoroof; green stormwater infrastructure v. sustainable stormwater; etc.) it’s good to find ground (literally and figuratively) in a rich heritage of language of the landscape.

Surely worth a read, and perhaps some regional repetition around the globe – a world lexicon of nature literally defined by culture.

Main header image :  Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane  (via Guardian)

(story via twitter from Geoff @BLDGBLOG)

Rebel Cities Pt. 1

David Harvey is somewhat of a urbanist hero, and after reading reams of his work in grad school studies, I was  really excited to nab a copy of this 2012 book ‘Rebel Cities’ online for free download in PDF format.  The subtitle of this book is ‘From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’, and with that Harvey evokes the work of Henri Lefebvre and a wealth on interesting scholarship on the modern interpretation of public space, freedom, and how these related to the modern metropolis.

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In the Preface, Harvey mentions stumbling upon a poster from a group from Paris called The Ecologistes “…a radical neighborhood action movement dedicated to creating a more ecologically sensitive mode of city living, depicting an alternative vision for the city.”  This vision was:

“It was a wonderful ludic portrait of old Paris reanimated by a neighborhood life, with flowers on balconies, squares full of people and children, small stores and workshops open to the world, cafes galore, fountains flowing, people relishing the river bank, community gardens here and there…”

Utopian visions aside, the 1960s was a time of massive change for Paris (and the rest of the world), which was when Lefebvre published ‘The Right to the City’ with, as mentioned by Harvey, an eye towards creating ‘an alternative urban life that is less alienated, more meaningful and playful but, as always with Lefebvre, conflictual and dialectical, open to becoming, to encounters (both fearful and pleasurable), and to the perpetual pursuit of unknowable novelty.” (x)

Looking forward to digging in more.   Read it?  Haven’t but want to and create a bit of ongoing dialogue?  Something conflictual and dialectical?

Let me know.

Guest Post: From Honolulu to Paris MONU #20

by Gabriele Baleisyte

“Nature” or nature? Does natural geography still mater much to today’s city? What is the current relationship between our conception of nature and its role in urban life? Which nature is dominating now; the pure or the second one_- man made nature? During my current stay in Rotterdam, I have heard these questions widely discussed at the 6th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), examining the theme “Urban by Nature“. I found a lot of answers to them in the most recent issue of the Rotterdam- based magazine MONU: #20 – “Geographical Urbanism

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The first answer appeared to me as soon as I looked at the magazine’s cover. I got the impression that the visual representation of the issue was picked out deliberately by the magazine’s editors with the purpose of introducing the topic of “Geographical Urbanism”. The picture from the contribution entitled “Seduction and Fear” of the photographer Edward Burtynsky obviously represents the dialogue between human and nature (natural geography and human made geography). On one hand I understood the repetitive military planes with their covered windscreens as a metaphor of the uncountable faceless buildings that urbanize nature all over the planet while, on the other hand, that the natural geography of our world is manipulated dramatically by the brutal invasion of humans.

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If we look at the topic from an historical perspective, first I would highlight the article entitled “The Geography of Geology” by Sean Burkholder and Bradford Watson. This particular story explains how the city of Buttle in Montana was formed by geology (mining claims), and reminds us about the traditional dependency between cities and natural geography. However, Nikos Katsikis shows in his article “On the Geographical Organization of World Urbanization” how the meaning of physical geography has been almost completely reversed since the early 19th Century. As an example of this, in his article “Niagara waterfall” Kees Lokman introduces man made geography as a significant success: artificial geography becomes a mass tourism attraction point which is as well known as the Seven World Wonders are.

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While I continued reading the magazine I tried to find out what natural geography can still mean today to cities in a globalized world, in which they are becoming more and more influenced by networks. I noticed that some articles in the magazine complemented each other on this topic, and it intrigued me even more to read further. One contribution entitled “Urbanism after Geography: The Network is Context” that was written by Clarle Lyster shows, for example, that cities can no longer be understood merely as locations at particular places. After the network has become the context, replacing natural geography, global networks (from social media to fast track shipping, from fiber-optic communication to high speed travel) have become responsible for the shift in the longstanding relationship between geography and urban development. Such a network is, for example, created by the low cost airline Ryan Air and its airports within 100km distance of major cities. Places no longer seem to be defined by geographic coordinates, but more by communicational axes that are made possible through the network.

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In relation to this, I found a completely different opinion from the Dutch architectural historian, critic and curator Bart Lootsma, in his interview entitled “Beyond Branding”, in which he emphasizes about the fact that due to the growing opportunities to work from home thanks to the Internet, and people’s increasing independency to choose their living locations in relation to particular geographical aspects, such as localization or climate conditions, natural geography is actually becoming more important.

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These were only a few aspects from MONU magazine’s new issue. While reading it I felt like traveling, such as Edward Burtynsky does while taking photographs of urban phenomena: from Honolulu to Paris; Mexico or Qinto; from Sydney to the “unknown” Charleroi; or even to Innsbruck’s famous panorama of the Nordkette mountains. I could continue listing up things that you can find in the magazine forever, because it seems endless and full of serious analytical essays and researches that invite you to the world of urbanism. MONU has showed once again to be a great platform to provide fresh ideas and answers to challenging topics.

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Gabriele Baleisyte is a student of Architecture Theory and History. Focus on new urban theories, strategies and research methods in both analytical and experimental ways. Currently she is doing an internship in a Rotterdam- based architecture office.

Bio-inspired Design

The latest issue of Zygote Quarterly, an online journal with a focus covers Bio-inspired design, and offers another opportunity to explore this topic (and the back issues as well).  A really beautifully illustrated online magazine, ZG is worth delving into in depth, but also sitting back and and in this case, getting into a bit of depth on the topic.

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An essay that gets me excited about the concept is the opener from Tom McKeag, Case Study Auspicious Forms, which tracks the process of engineering a Japanese bullet train to attain high speeds with less noise on the track and when entering tunnels.  The breakdown of process looking both at the serrated wings of owls in creating ‘quiet’ air flow, to the specific beak orientation of a Kingfisher influencing nose shape to lessen sonic booms in tunnels is a fascinating exploration of how traditional engineering can look to nature for solutions.  The concept of natures patterns applied to the unnatural is the major benefit of bio-inspired design.

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The nature inspired engineering is relevant to Buckminster Fuller and the application synergistic patterns, and notably his calling card, the ultimately scalable and strong modular geodesic structure.  These geodesic structures area also found in nature, such as the eyes of insects (below) or the bones of birds – nested, scalable triangular structures that can be combined build infinite structures with stability and strength far greater than their perceived mass.  As mentioned, Fuller the biological provides not a pattern to mimic but the answer:

“Unlike many biologists, Bucky insisted that his “energetic-synergetic geometry” was ‘natural’ in the sense that it was there, all worked-out, as a mathematical principle employed by Nature to give optimum advantage to the system.”

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Fuller would be ones of the forerunners, obviously, of biomimicry, due to his understanding and application of natures rules and strategies.  This continued a long-line of thinkings throughout history who have looked to nature to inspire them, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or Antonio Gaudi, to name a couple.  The engineering/product angle is what i think is most applicable and successful biomimicry path, with the gecko-foot inspired fasteners (above) being perhaps the touchstone of that nature to useful product transition.

Outside of the realm of the mimic is the concept of blending of art and science, which is captured perfectly in the work of and featured prominently throughout ZG such as the biological art of David Goodsell, who captures scientific processes in beautiful and simple illustrations.

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The challenge then lies in the differentiation of the biological (ecological) from the biomimicry and the bio-inspired, all of which inform and apply to design but existing in gradations from actual nature to abstract nature.  The one essay that focuses more on the design side is an interview with Thomas Knittel from HOK, a firm that has been intimately nested in the Biomimicry world more than most firms.  His work on Project Haiti, below, is indicative of the bioinspired approach.  “Bio-inspiration is in the variable second skin forming a building boundary layer to reject heat and harness natural ventilation.  A wooden branching support structure facing the courtyard is based upon patterns in nature and observed by da Vinci and Fuller and, more
recently, Bejan’s constructal law. I will admit our solution is not pure, but it serves the building
functionally and metaphorically. What better place to display mother-daughter branching?”

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The other notable element that HOK has done is the Genius of Biome design resource, which desribes “…how lessons from the temperate broadleaf forest biome, which houses many of the world’s largest population centers, can inform the design of the built environment.”

Additional essays touch on topics such as Biomemetics, the connections between Engineering and Biology, and additional study on Bucky Fuller and his nature-inspired design strategies, but i will leave you to explore on your own.

Perhaps because these essays aren’t trying to over-reach and frame Biomimicry as a new approach to landscape ecological design and urbanism, they are more inspirational and less frustrating in this way.  Can biomimicry really truly be a methodology for landscape architecture and ecology?  I’m not sure, as the medium and the method are too closely aligned to make the jump to mimesis – so perhaps the concept of ‘bio-inspired’ is perhaps a better metaphor with less baggage, and a truer sense of the concept of design with nature.

Principles of Ecological Landscape Design

I’ve been busy reading through the new book ‘Principles of Ecological Landscape Design‘, an interesting addition to the growing literature blending science and design in a practical sense.  Author Travis Beck is a landscape architect and currently the Landscape and Gardens Project Manager at the New York Botanical Garden, and he has used his horticultural and design background to illuminate some of the connections, challenges, and opportunities from designing ‘ecologically’.principles_ecological_landscape_design

 

As seen on the web blurb:

“This groundbreaking work explains key ecological concepts and their application to the design and management of sustainable landscapes. It covers biogeography and plant selection, assembling plant communities, competition and coexistence, designing ecosystems, materials cycling and soil ecology, plant-animal interactions, biodiversity and stability, disturbance and succession, landscape ecology, and global change. Beck draws on real world cases where professionals have put ecological principles to use in the built landscape.”

It’s too much to cram into one post, so I’m going to be regularly updating on the information in bits and pieces, starting with this intro.  As mentioned by Carol Franklin in the Preface, the book builds on a small but important foundations of landscape ecology from Richard T.T. Forman in such books as Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions, and Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land Use Planning – both of which are more accessible in terms of ‘designer-friendly’ science.  Rather than take on the entire ecological spectrum, the focus of Beck on the horticultural, particularly the translation of plant ecology into planting design, is important, because the focus makes it a very useful resource for landscape architects and designers.

The Introduction offers some context for the book, with Beck outlining our complicated history with the concept of landscape and the roots in the pastoral and picturesque.  He mentions Olmsted and Vaux and their “Greensward” Plan for Central park, inspired by Capability Brown’s English countryside.  The hidden illusion of ‘nature’ and the massive human effort involved is a common theme in historical references to style that we’ve battled with for over 100 years.

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Now, we’ve evolved to a more nuanced idea of ‘urban’ nature, but still struggle with the idea of what the poster child of this new style being Field Operations’ High Line, the highly designed and maintained landscape atop the abandoned elevated rail corridor.  As Beck mentions, we evocation of ‘spontaneous’ vegetation required significant engineering and requires on-going maintenance to keep viable – not unlike the Central Park from a century and a half earlier.

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As urban landscapes, it is expected that we can’t perform pure ‘ecological’ restoration, but is there a more informed and ecologically appropriate approach?  This is the premise of ‘Principles’, as Beck asks “What if, instead of depicting nature, we allowed nature.” (3)  This is done through ecological landscapes, not the restorative but the actively design, “that are imagined and assembled by people.” (4)

The relevance to our better understanding of design and science can be framed in numerous ways.  One is the ecological view, that less input will be more ‘sustainable’ and a landscape that is more ‘fitted’ to it’s context would be more resilient and regenerative, or as Beck posits to be “flexible and adaptive and continually adjusts its patterns as conditions change and events unfold.” (5).  Second is a economic view, as it would be less expensive to build and maintain these sites, which allows for more green in cities, and better spaces.  Third is a professional view – one that imagines a true and relevant blending of design and science would free us from the art v. science battles and the criticism of create hollow, misinformed or ’boutique’ ecologies. It would also enable us to create landscapes to aid in larger scale assemblies (cities) or to combat global catastrophes (climate instability).

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apocalyptic landscape – image by Giacomo Costa

With the proper tools, designers are freed to have explore formal possibilities with real and testable constraints.  This greater understanding of where we plant, what we plant, and how they interact, gives us a solid foundation to justify new design modalities and forms of expression.  This, coupled with an understanding from clients and maintenance staff of the the long view of how sites will evolve and grow over time, expands the possibility of a new paradigm shift in our use of plants.

As Beck mentions:

“An ecological landscape knits itself into the biosphere so that it both is sustained by natural processes and sustains life within its boundaries and beyond.  It is not a duplicate of wild nature (that we must protect and restore where we can) but a complex system modeled after nature.” (5)

The underlying theme of ‘self-organization’ as an important aspect of this process, allowing for continuation without continual input and human agency.  This regenerative quality of establishing a self-sufficient landscape that meets all of it’s needs is important in ecological restoration to determine success.  It is more difficult to thing of this in terms of managed and urban landscapes which are extreme conditions that lack analogs in nature.

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apocalyptic landscape – image by Giacomo Costa

The range of landscape contexts and types, along with aesthetics, safety, financial, and other considerations will create a continuum of landscapes that will lend themselves to varying degrees of self-sufficiency.  Some will be able to thrive with little to no additional inputs, while others will need higher levels of care.  Our expanding set of tools driven by scientific knowledge, allows us to more directly engage in the ‘fitness’ of our materials to fill the roles we assign them, which is inherently different from our current approaches.  Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, it seems, may allow us to expand the toolbox in even more robust and novel ways.

More on initial chapters upcoming.