Category Archives: Thoughts

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.


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)


::  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?


:: 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)


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.


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)


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)


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. 




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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Hidden Hydrology Origins 3: Disappeared Streams Map

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 01/21/2011

Over the next week, I have been outlining some of the inspirations and precedents related to the idea of Hidden Hydrology of Portland, as this project has been shaped and has evolves across many years to it’s present incarnation.  As I mentioned in the preliminary overview, one of the main inspirations was the map of ‘Disappeared Streams’ that was produced by Metro.  My first encounter with this map was during a presentation at DaVinci Arts middle school, as part of the preliminary planning for what would become their beautiful water garden.  At the time I was working with local non-profit Urban Water Works – and the students were showing off many of their water-related side projects, including hand-made flowforms, studies of water movement, and mapping.   One student had a GIS application that was showing the disappeared streams – which has stuck in my brain every since.  Metro now publishes it in map form – available at the Data Resource Center – along with many other great maps.

As I mentioned there are a few methodological caveats to this map – as it is not a historical representation of actual streams, but looking more specifically at locations of potential water routes.  From the map, some of this language:

Development patterns in the Metro region have historically resulted in piping, culverting, or filling of streams and stream beds.  A computer mapping program was used to evaluate the terrain in the region, and to generate areas where major streams (those draining 50+ acres of land) may once have existed.  While this does not represent an authoritative analysis, it does visually describe the effects of urbanization on the regions natural systems.  This exercise indicates that an estimated 388 miles of previously existing streams are now underground.”

The coding of the map is pretty striking (the choice of ‘blood’ red I think fitting) when viewed as a whole (above) particularly noting the core area of Portland that has been denuded of streams over the course of 150 years (below, closeup of City of Portland), where flatter areas were developed for Eastside residential, and margins on the Willamette filled in for industrial development.

You can also get a close-up view,including the central business district – seen in closeup below.  Notice the existing pattern, where streams are kept somewhat intact in the west hillsides (topography being somewhat of an antidote to piping), then quickly buried when they reach the urbanized area.  Tanner Creek, one of the hidden streams we will be studying closer, is captured as it originates from the Oregon Zoo and cuts through the northwest corner of downtown.

A relatively simple map that is more evocative than accurate, but does much to reinforce the ideology of what is hidden beneath our developed urban areas.  As I mentioned, it has stuck with me (and I’m glad Metro still has these available).  One of the stronger and original inspirations for the project, it continues to entertain and inspire investigation into our hidden hydrology.

Hidden Hydrology Origins 2: David James Duncan

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 01/19/2011

Another inspiration for the Hidden Hydrology of Portland is the writing of David James Duncan (author of a couple of my favorite books, the Brothers K amongst the best).  In a book of essays from 2002 entitled ‘My Story as Told by Water‘ Duncan tells some stories with a Portland area spin about his youthful explorations in the area.  The idea of oral histories providing an additional layer to mapping and other on-the-ground study is intriguing, as the narrative is both informative and evocative of what these lost urban waterways meant, and what was lost along with them.

image via Wikipedia

Early in his childhood,  he mentions growing up on Mount Tabor (the volcanic outgrowth in East Portland – not the biblical version, seen above between downtown and Mt. Hood in the image), and his quote worth discussing hints at the disconnect between the modern city and the natural processes which shape and feed these places:

“My birth-cone’s slopes were drained by tiny seasonal streams, which, like most of the creeks in that industrialized quadrant of Portland, were buried in underground pipes long before I arrived on the scene. … I was born, then, without a watershed.  On a planet held together by gravity and fed by rain, a planet whose every creature depends on water and whose every slope works full-time, for eternity, to create creeks and rivers.  I was born with neither.  The creeks of my birth-cone were invisible, the river from somewhere else entirely.”  (p.4)

The water system from early in Portland’s history, was stored at high points like Mount Tabor and piped to surrounding neighborhoods.  This shot from 1912 shows one of the reservoirs that are still in operation today (for how long, is a good question).

image via Vintage Portland

The artificiality of the watershed is evident in Duncan’s discussions, as he makes do with building creeks using the hose and the power of gravity (much to his mothers chagrin) – using with water delivered to reservoirs and coming to his tap, as is common in many cities, from distant locales while burying the remnant hydrology that exists.  A map of the water system shows the existing Bull Run watershed in relation to Portland.

Continuing this discussion on Johnson Creek on a youthful visit, showing the degradation of some of the existing waterways that has been occurring for many years.  “It was just one of Portland’s dying creeks.  Really, one with a much-needed but long-lost Indian name.  Johnson Creek was now its anemic title.  But it was twenty-six miles long, hence a little too big to bury.” (p.10)

image via OregonLive

It’s heartening to see the restoration of the creek, which is one of the few to remain on the east side in some natural form, through the work of a number of local groups such as the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and recently there were reports of dead coho salmon found 15 miles upstream – which is significant as it is the furthest upstream anyone has noticed these species in many years, and a testament to the work on restoration and improvement.   Something Duncan would appreciate, no doubt.

image via OregonLive

While water and rivers was of importance to Duncan, the main driving force for him was fishing – which drove the explorations to the wilds of the city.  After leaving Mount Tabor, the family moved further east towards Gresham, and lived for a time on Osborne Road, the future route of I-205.  Duncan mentions the lure of possible fishing holes, but the inaccessibility:   “A spring a quarter-mile from our new house flowed into a series of backyard trout ponds for neighbors, but these ponds were picture-windowed, guard-dogged, private.  The closest fish-inhabited waters to my house, so far as I knew, were the Columbia, three miles due north.”  (p.17)

The story continues around the small town of Fairview, under Halsey Street, where Duncan spotted a kid and discovered a hidden world amidst the underbrush:  “…the shocking thing, the magical thing, was that he was standing knee-deep in clear, lively creek water.  A creek surrounded on all sides by briars so dense I’d never noticed it before.”  (p.17)   Later in the same spot, he saw  a guy catching a trout there “a secret trout stream” and found his new exploration spot, as mentioned “Fairview Creek, it turned out, was five miles long, two-thirds wild, and amazingly full of life.” (p.18)  See the location on the far right edge as it interfaces with the Columbia Slough watershed.

Following the course, he found gravel pits headwater at Mud Lake that were stocked rainbow trout, near the Kennel Club, a pond with bullheads, and always adventure in the streams. “In the plunge-pool below the Banfield Freeway culvert, I caught a thirteen-inch Giant Pacific Salamader that stared straight into my eyes, flaring and hissing like something out of Dante Volume one, till I apologized, cut my line and released it.”

The approximate area is interesting to see and compare – although the historical imagery from Google Earth (which is awesome btw) only goes back to 1990, there’s a telling transformation in a twenty year time-span (although still a fair amount of stream left intact with development.  I remember this area, as my mother used to live just North of the Salish Ponds park (south of Halsey) and we took the trails through behind the Target and over into Fairview, which is a real gem and one of those places that, like Duncan, you may walk by many times without realizing it’s there.  I’ve highlighted Fairview Creek in Blue.

The same area in 1990 where you can see the residential development along Fairview Creek

The denouement to this story of youthful exploration comes after a few years of fishing these urban creeks and streams:

“At six-thirty or so on a rainy April morning, I crept up to a favorite hole, threaded a worm on a hook, prepared to case – then noticed something impossible: there was no water in the creek. …I began hiking, stunned, downstream.  The aquatic insects were gone, barbershop crawdads gone, catfish, carp, perch, crappie, bass, countless sacrificial cutthroats, not just dying, but completely vanished.  Feeling sick, I headed the opposte way, hiked the emptied creekbed all the way to the source, and there found the eminently rational cause of the countless killings.  Development needs roads and drainfields.  Roads and drainfields need gravel.  Up in the gravel pits at the Glisan Street headwaters, the creek’s entire flow had been diverted for months in order to fill two gigantic new settling ponds.  My favorite teacher was dead.”   (p.22)

A case of disappeared streams, captured in a moment of time from someone that was there.  The sadness in this loss is palpable, as it isn’t just a line on a map, but a leaving & breathing part of someone – both their history and their essence.  This sort of study of writings offers many opportunities for exploration through history, and can reveal much about a place in the past.  Combined with oral histories from residents and other qualitative study, it offers a dimension that maps just can’t on their own.  Thus looking beyond the map to the history is vital and inspirational going forward.

(all page references are to:  Duncan, David James. My Story as Told by Water.  Sierra Club Books, 2002.)

Hidden Hydrology Origins 1: The Yellowwood and the Forgotten Creek

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 01/15/2011

As I mentioned in the previous post, there have been a number of inspirations that led to the current work on the Hidden Hydrology of Portland.  I will take this week outlining a few of the past words and images that have led to the current work.  A seminal work, by Anne Whiston Spirn, is part of the great book ‘The Language of Landscape‘.  This particular text was adapted into a short prose piece in Arcade Journal – although I can’t seem to find the exact issue (so anyone who knows give me a heads up).

The imagery has stayed with me, and the resonance is echoed by Spirn in a different quote in the book about the revelatory power in searching for and expressing hidden hydrology: “Revealing the presence of the buried creek is an important part of the proposal because many who live here do not even know the creek exists despite its persistent influence on their lives.” (Spirn, 2000: p.213)

The Yellowwood and the Forgotten Creek

…One day the street caved in.

Sidewalks collapsed into a block-long chasm.

People looked down, shocked to see a strong, brown, rushing river.
A truck fell into a hole like that years back,
Someone said. A whole block of homes fell in
One night a long time ago, said someone else.

They weren’t sure where.
Six months later, the hole was filled, street patched,
Sidewalks rebuilt. Years went by, people left, new folks moved in,
Water seeped, streets dipped, walls cracked.

Once a creek flowed—long before there was anyone to give it a name–coursing
Down, carving, plunging, pooling, thousands of years
Before dams harnessed its power,
Before people buried it in a sewer and built houses on top.

Now, swollen with rain and sewage, the buried creek bursts pipes, soaks soil, floods basements,
Undermines buildings. During storms brown water gushes from inlets and manholes into streets and,
Downstream, overwhelms the sewage treatment plant, overflowing into the river from which the city
Draws its water…

…Signs of hope, signs of warning are all around, unseen,
Unheard, undetected. Most people can no longer read the signs whether they live in a floodplain,
Whether they are rebuilding a neighborhood or planting the seeds of its destruction,
Whether they are protecting or polluting the water they drink,
Caring for or killing a tree.

Architects’ drawings show no roots,
No growing, just green lollipops and buildings floating on a page, as if ground were flat and blank,
The tree an object, not a life.

Planners’ maps show no buried rivers, no flowing, just streets, lines of ownership, and
Proposals for future use, as if past were not present, as if the city were merely a human construct,
Not a living, changing landscape…

…Humans are story-telling animals, thinking in metaphors steeped in landscape:
Putting down roots means commitment,
Uprooting, a traumatic event.

Like a living tree rooted in place,
Language is rooted in landscape. Imagining
New ways of living means relearning the language
Which roots life in place.

The meanings landscapes hold are
Not just metaphorical and metaphysical,
But real, their messages practical;
understanding may spell survival or extinction.

Losing or failing to hear and read
the language of landscape threatens body and spirit, for the pragmatic
and imaginative aspects of landscape language
have always coexisted.

Relearning the language that holds
Life in place is an urgent task.
My work is dedicated to its recovery
And renewal.

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.

Pages from ZQ_issue_02R_final

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.

Pages from ZQ_issue_02R_final-3 Pages from ZQ_issue_02R_final-2

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.”

Pages from ZQ_issue_02R_final-4Pages from ZQ_issue_02R_final-6

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?”

Pages from ZQ_issue_02R_final-52

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.

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.


The newest addition to the Terra Fluxus brand is the reintroduction of the blog Landscape+Urbanism in a new format – tied to my firm but with a separate life that allows for exploration of topics in greater detail – making a bit of breathing room between the professional and the .  There will, however, be a strong connection between the built work (showcased on the TF website) and the more abstract thoughts and explorations (to be found here).

Strangely enough, I looked back and realized that i started the original L+U blog around the same time of year over five years ago, so obviously there’s an itch that needs to be scratched in late November as winter sets in.  This is not an attempt to recreate that blog – but rather an outlet for thinking on things landscape and urbanism – of which inevitably my brain works its way back to.  I’m also phasing out of involvement with THINK.urban, so needed a spot to write and reflect a bit.


The other part of the blog is that it have a very strong connection to Portland as a subject and an inspiration, so photos, history, politics, and other activities.  My home place is the urban laboratory worthy of its name as innovation hub and catalyst for change, and there’s plenty of material just within our tight urban growth boundary to fill volumes.  It will alas be featured prominently.