Category Archives: materials

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.



Hemp to the Rescue

We’ve heard of many plants that have phytoremediative qualities, that is, the properties that can absorb and neutralize toxic substances in soils.   For all the versatility of hemp, I hadn’t thought of it as possessing that ability until I read recent post on Roads and Kingdoms entitled Hemp and Change.  The crux of the story is one of pollution and the potential for Hemp as one of those plants that can aid in cleaning up our dirty messes.

The Italian town Taranto in Puglia, which like many areas had a rich agricultural and gastronomic history, specifically cheeses and other dairy products.  A large steel plant was constructed nearby in the 1960s, which was led to degradation of air and soil that led to conditions where animals were no longer fit for consumption.  There are also indications that the residents have and continue to suffer from ill effects of the plant.


:: image via Roads & Kingdoms

The issue is that the plant serves as the major source of jobs, so it’s a double-edged sword where residents are both in need of the economic benefit but suffer from the ill effects.  The plant owners were later charged with a number of crimes for the health and environmental issues, but beyond the legal culpability, there still remains the need for a viable clean-up of the sites, which is often too expensive and long term.

Thus phytoremediation provides a viable strategy for clean up of the toxic sites, with the potential to restore Taranto back to it’s agricultural glory.  A group called CanaPuglia and their founder Claudio Natile, who describes hemp and its use as a continuation of an Italian tradition.

“Hemp was a major Italian agricultural crop for hundreds of years. In the 1950s, the country was the second-largest hemp producer in the world after the Soviet Union. Italian hemp seeds provided some of the most resistant fibers, which were turned into clothing. However, with industrialization and the advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon, hemp started to disappear.”

They’ve planted 300 hectares of low THC hemp, which is also harvested to make a range of products, further providing economic vitality and helping to pay for the cleanup.  In this case, the toxicity doesn’t persist in the fibers, so it can be used, however there could be toxicity in the seeds so the hemp is not sold for food consumption.  The article doesn’t get too far into how hemp is working for pollution reduction, but offered a few links to explore.

According to the Huffington Post, in addition to hemp being a low-input and easy to grow plant, it “…was used at Chernobyl to harmlessly extract toxins and pollutants from the soil and groundwater. Hemp actually absorbs CO2 while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the get-go.”

Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.
Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.

:: image via Huffington Post

The use a variety of plants for phytoremediation of toxic sites, including Brassicas, corn, tobacco, sunflowers and trees, to name a few, all are viable methods to uptake and capture pollutants.   The site explains that Phytoremediation is a process that takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. For example, some plants can grow in metal-laden soils, extract certain metals through their root systems, and accumulate them in their tissues without being damaged. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless.


:: image via McGraw Hill – Botany Global Issues Map

The use of hemp is explained in a bit more detail “In 1998, Phytotech, along with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp, Cannabis sp., for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site.”  The uptake of pollutants at Chernobyl included cesium and strontium, which was bio-accumlated in root structures at high concentrations.  While some toxins are broken down in soil and plants, high-grade elements like radioactive waste are pulled from soils into plants, so there is obviously the issue of proper and safe removal of this biomass after this process has taken place.

One interesting link on the larger concept is from the United Nations Enviornment Programme, a site called “Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Remediation. ” which does offer a primer on the topic.  Contrasting it with traditional remediation, the site explains: “Remediation of contaminated sites using conventional practices, such as ‘pump-and-treat’ and ‘dig-and-dump’ techniques, is often expensive, has limited potential, and is usually only applicable to small areas. Additionally, these conventional approaches to remediation often make the soil infertile and unsuitable for agriculture and other uses by destroying the microenvironment. Hence there is the need to develop and apply alternative, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs), taking into account the probable end use of the site once it has been remediated.”

The process happens in multiple ways, but essentially has two methods – the first is breaking down and degrading organic pollutants; the second is to trap  metals or non-organics so they cannot move to other animals or areas.  The roots are the main source of phytoremediation, being in contact with pollutants directly through the extensive below-grade surface area.  When areas of contamination are deeper, trees are often used where their more extensive rooting systems can go further down than herbacous plants and shrubs.   There are also cases where water can be pumped from below grade and then treated on the surface using plants.


:: image via Intech

As the above graphic shows, there are many methods at work with the phytoremediation process, many of which are working on the ‘soil-root’ interface.  There are a number of compounds released by the plants, “root exudates” that activate microorganisms that can extract, stablilize, degrade and stimulate toxics.  This changes the bioavaiability of the toxins through, as the UNEP site states “changes in soil characteristcs, release of organic substances, changes in chemical composition, and /or increase in plant-assisted microbial activity.”

There are over 30,000 sites in the US that require hazardous waste treatment, and many more worldwide.  While many plants that are viable for phytoremediation are available, many of these cannot be used for consumption because of issues with possible contamination. Hemp is perhaps one to consider as the fiber used can still be processed into useful, saleable products,  that could potentially fund the cleanup as well.  As marijuana legality relaxes somewhat, it may be more possible to use this plant to make our world a cleaner place.


Hortum machina B

Really like this experimental project (spotted on a post on Architects Newspaper) by Interactive Architecture Lab.  Called Hortum machina, B it’s a “rolling ecological exoskeleton” in the shape of a geodesic dome, the “half garden, half machine” hybrid is able to move through the environment using plant electro-physiology to drive the machine.  The idea of plant intelligence is worthy of a much more expansive post, but the execution here is quite brilliant.


A quick breakdown of the idea, from the Interactive Architecture Lab website:

“Electro-physiological sensing of the state of individual plants collectively and democratically controls decision-making of the orientation of the structure and its mobility. In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment. Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener.”



You get a feel for the scale of it here, which is part of the beauty.  The idea that these are larger than life, which gives them added presence.


There’s some more detailed ‘making of’ description, which delves into the prototyping, and further exploring the engineering and programming.



The controls are programmed using  Arduino, a scalable and programmable platform for hardware and software to make interactive objects.  Click on the screen capture below, and you can see the communication of ‘getting messages’ from the plant things like temperature, vibrations, humidity, lighting – and then being able to use that ‘intelligence’ for driving actions.


All Images above are credited to Interactive Architecture Lab – and accessed direct from their website or from the Architects Newspaper post.  Also, check out this video with it in action – more videos on their Vimeo page and website as well.

Hortum machina, B from Interactive Architecture Lab on Vimeo.


Azure Magazine shows off some ideas from Toronto-based Lateral Office on the concept of camp (outdoor, not kitsch) as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.  Through simple model, diagram and illustration (which are fabulously monochromatic, btw) they outline a proposal of modern outdoor [not necessarily recreational] living.



A short description:

“Co-founders Mason White and Lola Sheppard considered architecture at its most basic form – in the wild – to dream up Make Camp, a series of five concepts responding to the particulars of varied terrains. Installed at the Chicago Cultural Center as scale models on a 3.6-by-4.3-metre landform, they display modern ideas for campsites. Ideas presented include zero-footprint, suspended tenting; a high-tech experience; and a completely off-grid style. Each proposal is accompanied by a user manual, which describes the recommended gear, season, territory and camper for the approach.”



images via Azure

LA+ Journal

A fine addition to the ranks of landscape architecture journals that recently emerged is LA+, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, from the Penn.   From the website, the journal is billed as the “…the first truly interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. Within its pages you will hear not only from designers, but also from historians, artists, lawyers, psychologists, ecologists, planners, scientists, philosophers, and many more besides. Our aim at LA+ is to reveal connections and build collaborations between landscape architecture and other disciplines by exploring each issue’s theme from multiple perspectives.”


Interest piqued.  And they were nice enough to send me a copy of their inaugural issue, WILD which explores the concept of WILD and its role in design, large-scale habitat and species conservation, scientific research, the human psyche, and aesthetics.”  


Impressively curated and designed, this is a journal you keep around in your library long-term, for a follow-up read or to peruse the beautiful imagery.  As an introduction on the website, a short thesis on issue one:

“Wildness has long occupied a romantic and somewhat dormant position in the discussion of landscape theory and practice.  However, current initiatives aiming to “rewild” rural, urban, and suburban environments attest to its renewed significance.   It is no longer just a question of saving or protecting wilderness, but one of how we can design novel ecosystems that stimulate the emergence of new forms of biological and cultural diversity.”

The list of contributors is massive, and the breadth of topics ranges from the general, such as Mick Abbott’s ‘Practice of the Wild: A Rewilding of Landscape Architecture’, to the global, such as Richard Weller’s ‘World P-ark’, to the site-specific, like Mousseau & Moller’s ‘Landscape-Scale Consequences of Nuclear Disasters.”  I offered to do a review of the issue, and realized quickly that it was no simple task due to the amount of material contained within (which alas, i’m still reading with much enjoyment).

Thus, it is far more that can be elaborated on in terms of full reporting on every essay.  For that, order a copy and enjoy the density of information. Here’s a few snippets and thoughts of my own, in relation to landscape architecture practice and how the explorations of this concept seen through the interdisciplinary lens.


The concept of the wild is present in our conception of landscape architecture practice at many scales.  The vision of a global park (or Ark) as Richard Weller discusses, provides the context for connected ecological corridors that connect globally across countries and continents, providing a shared concept of our earth that hopefully transcends borders.  As mentioned, a north/south and east/west route “… could catalyze global cooperation and environmental investment to help augment connections between fragments along the way.” (16)

To look at the controversial and compelling issue of rewilding, as Adela Park does, is to investigate our core relationships about native-ness, genetic engineering, and our role in not just preserving, and enhancing but in recreating extinct systems as well as creating new natural systems.  The ability to connect or open up large swaths of land as wild spaces are tame in comparison to global examples like the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and the Pleistocene Park in Siberia, both of which plan the creation of lost landscapes left in a state of unmanagement.  As mentioned, “…landscapes such as Oostvaardersplassen – created almost entirely by scientists – embody the very indeterminacy and self-organizational potential that has been so much a part of recent landscape architecture discourse. “ (8)


The topic of wildlife and habitat is at play throughout, with the synergistic and conflicted relationships between humans and animals accentuated in multiple ways.  We want interaction with nature at a distance, such as the artistic wildlife viewing structure, the Reindeer Pavilion covered in Claire Fellman in ‘Watching Wild’.  We also want interaction through consumption as investigated in ‘The Taste of the New Wild’ by Orkan Telhan.

A popular strategy to engage the wild is through provision of wildlife crossings of busy roadways . as outlined by Nina-Marie Lister in ‘Xing: New Infrastructures for Landscape Connectivity,’ a movement growing in popularity worldwide and the knowledge of interdisciplinary approaches to what works is shaping the design of these systems.


The ability to predict and proactively engage with the ‘wild’ in this context, offers a new area of interest for designers and integrated teams.  As Lister mentions:

“By redesigning the road for two clients – animal and human – wildlife crossing infrastructure presents a timely opportunity to communicate both the problem and the solution to the public.  In this endeavor, landscape architecture has a significant new niche and a potent role role in designing safer roads with new infrastructures that are visible and legible, even beautiful.  Widespread deployment of this new typology of landscape infrastructure may ultimately change the way we move and live, and with this, reconnect landscapes and habitats through inspired design.” (50)

A specific topic of interest in our northwest fire season, it was interesting to read Steve Pyne’s essay ‘Firescaping’, which provides a meditation on fire as part of our ongoing landscape, and how to think differently about our relationship to fire, and the implications and opportunities of this in the context of global climate change.

As he mentions, “We can protect our built landscape where it abuts the wild… After all, our cities used to burn as often as their surroundings; now they don’t.  The same methods, adapted, can work along the fractal frontier of exurban settlement.” (97) With much of the west currently burning, the concept of wild does hit home with multiple meanings – directly related to design and management of landscapes.


As I mentioned, lots more content to devour, thus a full accounting of the contents of the first issue of LA+ would occupy multiple posts.  Look out for some follow-up on some topics of interest expanding upon these and other themes,  and if you’re interested, submit your work in their most recent call for papers.

And highly recommended to get a subscription to this to journal for topical, integrated ideas that shape the fabric of landscape architecture and urbanism.

Recent Landscape Art from Dezeen

Great recent posts at Dezeen relating to environmental art worthy of a few links and pics.  Spurred by the recent post for an installation by Olafur Elisasson at the Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art featuring the rocky stream web winding through stark while walls.



Next is a stunning colorful installation by Pier Fabre for the Horizons Sancy art and nature festival in France.



More interior art, but with a very organic form, this installation by Henrique Oliveira at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo museum blows the mind with the transformation from structural to natural.



Shifting back to the more colorful, this well covered installation at the Tower of London called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ by  ceramic artist Paul Cummins and set designer Tom Piper marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of WWI.  The flowers spilling out of the structure is a particularly poignant visual.



Finally, the whimsical, reminding me of some of the early Martha Schwartz work like the Necco Garden or Bagel Garden, is this use of compact discs in CDSea by designer Bruce Munro to create space within a field in the UK.




Field Trip: Getty Center

Last year around Christmas, we took a great road trip down the west coast and over through the desert.  Already mentioned is some tasty sites from San Francisco (deYoung + Cal. Academy).  Plenty more to come as i sift through pics, but the visit to the Getty Center, perched on the hillside in Los Angeles was a definite highlight.


This Richard Meier designed complex clad in copious amounts of marble features an array of interesting site elements, with Laurie Olin as a major contributor to the site layout and circulation, along with the central garden by artist Robert Irwin.  The following images show the breadth site spaces.  Definitely worthy of a trip (and it’s amazing even in December) – and other than paying for parking – entry is free.

The terraced spaces and marble are sculptural forms are sculptural in their own right, while making spaces for outdoor sculpture, seating, and views of the city.





Around the site, small moments were captures through terraces, stairways, water features, and smaller plazas all of which were tied together with materials (both plant and hardscape) along with a simplicity of form and function.





Simple in form and function, I really appreciated the shade-canopy elements of bougainvillaea on rebar trellises, which made for a nice seating zone, while also provide a dynamic visual element from other areas of the site.




The focal point of Irwin’s Central Garden – probably my least favorite element of floating topiary zone – which seemed a bit overdone – particularly in the context of the sparse minimalism of the rest of the site.


Some of the garden’s circulation, however, was interesting, with a zig-zag path, seating, corten steel, and crossings of a central water feature.






We walked the grounds, never actual visiting the galleries inside, but the experience, views, and integrated architecture and landscape was pretty amazing – and definitely a must-see for the traveler to Los Angeles.


More field trip and photos to come.

(Photos ©  Jason King)

PDX Modern – Robert Rummer

Perhaps nestled within the Landscape and the Urbanism is my love for mid-century and modern architecture and design.  An ongoing series will feature pics from this years Portland Modern Home Tour from March 9, 2013 – and perhaps some others.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to see a true Robert Rummer house, and it’s worth a drive out to the burbs, because, hey, what could be more mid-century than that.  Rummer, an Eichler protege, built this fantastic mid-sixties gem is 13770 SW Bonnie Brae St. in Beaverton.  The unassuming exterior frontage notwithstanding, the experience did not disappoint.



The entry opened into an open courtyard, which was glassed in, and allowed access to the kitchen to the left and living room straight ahead, as well as hallway to bedrooms and office to the right.  The massive center beam provides a connection through the spaces, and the space acts as a visual centerpiece, and one could see this open air in a warmer and drier climate than ours.


The kitchen had been remodeled, with some built in cabinets opening up the floorplan (a good move i say) and allowing for better connection through to living and outdoor space.  It’s definitely interesting to see mid-century with authentic furnishings, which just seem to blend in with the architecture.



From the Portland Modern Tour site:

This original RUMMER home was built in 1966 and is one of only two known homes with this floor plan. It went through a complete remodel in 2009 with an eye to maintaining the mid-century appeal while updating the mechanicals, kitchen, and bathrooms. Jeffrey Wiseman, homeowner and proprieter of Rose City Modern, has decorated the home with mid-century furniture and accent pieces from his own antique store as well as others around Portland.

The connections from interior to exterior, beyond the central courtyard, expand through living space, here with exposed beams and a brick clad fireplace oriented towards the backyard and the flow from interior to exterior patio.


Nothing earth shattering with the outdoor spaces, but lots of potential and the extension of the geometry into the paving patterns was a nice architectural touch.



Extra bonus, that day they had an open house for another Rummer house next door – which although not as nicely restored and much darker, was going to be a gem snatched up by someone on a short-sale.  The kitchen/dining area had original partiion walls


The living room, as in the neighboring house, had distinctive exposed beams, brick fireplace, and opened to the backyard.


all photos © Jason King

The Urbanist – Podcast (80)

107-5156dd9c4461eA great podcast worth checking out is The Urbanist, a weekly show hosted by Andrew Tuck and found on Monocle 24 (or via your favorite podcast download spot like I-tunes).  I subscribed a bit ago, and now have finally started working through the catalog in reverse chronological order, with an eye on doing a quick post about the episode. The latest, #80 takes on Science:

“we turn our noses up at planners and mayors and ask what neuroscientists, psychologists and ecologists have to say about our cities.”

The Brain on Cities:

The research into the brain – particularly the Hippocampus (which is in charge of memory) and it’s role in urban wayfinding is the topic for Dr. Hugo Spiers – University College London.  Using imaging technologies, Spiers delves into the process of the brain in navigating London, particularly the “Deep structures” of memory.LondonAxial

One study used taxi drivers, who study for up to four years to learn the complexity of London, and are tested on their wayfinding, and how their brains work in navigation.  Using virtual reality simulations and brain imaging scanners, it was shown that the drivers typically have a larger Hippocampus, and that while vital, it is only used at the beginning of a trip to orient and direct.  This understanding of the physiology and workings of our internal GPS (or the taxidrivers inherent SatNav) is intriguing, especially as more digital navigation tools replace this internal memory.45021577_taxi_brain466x270

We have shifted to tools like GPS, but these lack the ability to evaluate – either in terms of amenity (i.e. the route for scenic quality) or for logic, such as people driving into rivers because they were told to by nav systems.  So even with the digital assist, we still need our brains to get from point A to B.  This builds on other research, including the work of Shayna Rosenbaum and others.

Additional research looked at smaller scale navigation in London’s Soho district, using movies instead of virtual reality, and looking at how some people are better than others in navigation, which may be due to different sizes of Hippocampus, but is also influence by nature (genetics) v. nurture (experience).

Materiality: Copper

An interesting twist on copper is it’s use as a antimicrobial material in cities – particularly for high risk fixtures like railings, doorknobs, and countertops.  The research arm of large Chilean copper producer, Codelco is a research institute in InCuba first investigated anti-microbial properties of copper in reducing infections in hospitals.  They found a 40% reduction in infection rates for surfaces people touch often – handles, rails, etc.  The logical jump was to market and implement, copper materials in urban areas.  While 15% more expensive than stainless steel, they see a market for copper surfaces in cities such as the Santiago Metro (below) which is visited by millions.chile-amc-handrail-02

Urban Ecology

The future is urban, so the concept of urban ecology, or “the study of plants and animals in and urban environment” will become more vital to our understanding of cities.  An area of Berlin, the Südgelände Nature Park, is a wilderness of trees and shrubs abandoned railline that has evolved over the past four decades.


Urban ecologist Ingo Kowarik describes this remnant of urban forest – different than natural existing forests.  Isolated by Berlin wall areas of East and West Berline that were overtaken with vegetation – recovery of nature.  A imperative emerged for urban ecology, the study of urban nature, where people live – and where they rely on “ecosystem services” – in cities.  Difference between non-urban and urban systems.

Kowarik’s perspective was interesting, not the native purism often heard in the US but a nuanced approach that values both Natives and non-natives, a mix – as urban spaces often have limited nutrients, such as gravel and sand, where pioneer nutrient fixers can establish.  As he mentions, in these novel types of urban woodlands “it is not interesting whether the species are native or not.”  It is important to understand and establish a mosaic/matrix of vegetation based on different soils and climates.  Tree of heaven is an example – a non-native that thrives in city, often called the ‘Ghetto Palm’ in parts of N. America, and is often the first to arrive on difficult sites.aa_TX_Marfa_2010_09_02


He mentions a protected Trees of Heaven in Vienna, which had a very different, positive connotation of nature’s recovery, and was celebrated, not vilified.  There can be both preservation where we enhance diversity and allowing novel ecosystems, which is important because “we are living in an urban millenium” with rapid changes of land use.  Cities could, for instance, become areas to give clues to understanding climate change, as Cities are already being impacted, such as urban heat island impacts which raise city temps up to 2-3 deg. Celsius.  This difference will be more globally felt, so we can study urban ecology for clues as to impacts on vegetation.

What Time is this City?

There’s definitely been plenty on the cultural differences of time, and this is no different in cities.  Psychologist Robert Levine of Cal State Fresno, author or  “A Geography of Time:  The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist” has studied how these cities and cultures keep time differently, looking for “objective indicators pace of life” such as “walking speed, talking speed, work speed, reliance on clocks/watches”.  While none of these definitively describe the pace, they collectively tell stories about place, such as hotter cities being slower and bigger cities being faster.  While fast-ness is considered a benefit in some places, like London and New York, other places value the slow.  For instance in Mexico City, if you show up on time you risk offending people who have a more fluid understand of time.  The differences give insight on our cultural differences.


Science sometimes miss the narrative of human life.  The methods of different discplines is an important part of the University College London project exploring different methods of city science, Cities Methodologies.   From their website:

“Cities Methodologies aims to promote cross- and inter-disciplinary work, and to showcase recent research on a wide range of cities. Visitors to Cities Methodologies encounter diverse methods of urban research in juxtaposition‚ from archival studies to statistical analyses, practice-led art and design work to oral history, writing, walking, film-making and photography.”

The Urbanist interviews Ben Campkin, Professor from from UCL and author of the upcoming “Remaking London“, mentions the value of these “works in progress” and their layout in a “progression of galleries – like a street or marketplace” where people can encounter work from different disciplines and perspectives, and develop new methods to collaborate.  These are eclectic, practice-led and less formal, so they don’t have the reductive trappings of academia, but use different methods for understanding – narration, imagery, materiality – perhaps just as different ways of seeing, not to achieve specific results.CMeflyer13

Mentioning a few of the current projects, he summarizes the main takeaway – not didactic teaching, but to engage “a “richer narrative of what is happening”.


As just one example – there’s a lot going on – from art to ecology; materials to psychology and beyond.  I like the medium, something you can multi-task and absorb – and the expansive idea of ‘Urbanism’.  Another recent episode touches a soft spot in my heart, the connection of music and cities.  Stay tuned for more on these.  Also, any other podcasts you like to listen to on landscape + urbanism?  Love to hear from you.

(RE)Building Coastal Dunes

The goal to stabilize coastal dunes impacted by development is not a new endeavor, but has been made visible recently with the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard.  The dunes are vital to the overall integrity of coastal zones, elimination of vegetation is often the result of development and other disturbances, and is exacerbated by strong storms and surges that are the result of climate instability.  We’ve impacted these naturally resilient ecosystems to the degree where they can no longer self-heal, and thus require our conscious action to return this to functional integrity.

A slideshow in the Cape Cod Online shows a project by a group of professionals and students to use ‘biomimcry’ principles to help restore coast dunes.  As noted in the BEN Blog“Harwich High School Environmental Studies students learning about how natural vegetation stabilizes dunes, and how they can mimic natural vegetation’s structure and patterns by placing cedar shims in the sand.”



The students are working with a group called Safe Harbor, which takes an interesting approach to dune restoration a “simple system mimics the matrix profile of native vegetation to collect and stabilize sand. Like native vegetation, this system demonstrates performance inversely proportional to it’s profile.” 

There’s a fair amount of research on the Safe Harbor site, including a PDF of of their Biomimcry work (30.9 MB PDF File) and in an interesting twist, they are offering the results in the public domain in the hope it will be used broadly for dune restoration.  A video of the approach is found below:

The original article was published on the BEN Blog (from Biomimicry 3.8) and it begs the question of dune stablilization and whether the establishment of plants is considered biomimicry?  Replanting the original species isn’t really mimicking anything, but is rather restoring the ecosystem to it’s reference state that is considered to be analogous to a natural, self-replicating system that would have been present pre-disturbance.  From late 1800s restoration of the Back Bay Fens by  Olmsted to 1960s dune restoration documented by McHarg in Design with Nature, to much restoration work today, the idea isn’t new.

Biomimicry, it seems, comes in with the intermediate ‘cedar shim’ installation that holds sands in place to allow berms to be shaped and re-established, prior to the planting of vegetation.  The BEN Blog takes up the question at the end.

Is habitat restoration considered to be biomimicry? This can be a tricky question. If we are learning from the local organisms and ecosystem and mimicking natural processes, structures, and patterns, then the answer is yes. We want to learn what functions different organisms play and how they provide those functions. Usually this is done by planting vegetation, preferably native vegetation if it’s available. Sometimes an intermediate step is needed. Use of cedar shims on this beach is a short-term effort to mimic the sand-holding function of the dune vegetation. According to Safe Harbors’ website, “Biomimicry uses the same storm wind energy which eroded the resource area to rebuild it.” If this works and they can stabilize the beach, then the vegetation should get a chance to grow back and resume its role in stabilizing the dunes and creating conditions for other dune inhabitants to thrive.”

For this to be biomimicry, we need to make the leap to insert this intermediate stage into the ecosystem to create berms through use of the shims and active management (configuration, adjustment of depths, demarcation of paths).  The question is, then, why not just skip the stage of cedar shims and use vegetation, which is the planned eventual end condition and the material that is being ‘mimicked’ rather that use an alternative material (such as this dune restoration in Louisiana, below)?


One answer may be cost, as plantings would cost more and be prone to die-back in interim stages of dune development as sand aggregates.  The other may be time – as the plantings establishment and subsequent colonization may be accelerated through use of analog (cedar shims) along with strategic plantings, with greater survival and more vigorous dune establishment as a result.  As i mentioned, the thrusting of the idea into the public domain, and the monitoring of existing installations for viability will be interesting to see how they do, and compared to more traditional berms established by just planting, or perhaps landform manipulation (imported or graded sand) and plantings.

A continuing conversation on this to happen for sure, and more upcoming on Biomimicry later this week.  3.8 billion years of background is a lot to cover!