Monthly Archives: January 2010

The sublime – in garden and landscape design

Sublime and beautiful in garden and landscape design

The sublime is a neglected quality in garden and landscape design. Edmund Burke  associated the sublime with terror, astonishment, admiration, wonder, and respect ” hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” In today’s terms, the view is also beautiful.

I have visited many designed landscapes and gardens without seeing anything as sublime as this photograph – of fog and sagebush in the Rocky Mountains.

Image courtesty Josh

Liveability: understanding quality of life

The Danish architects BIG (the Bjarke Ingels Group) have designed an extraordinary hybrid tower Scala Tower to house the municipal library, conference centre, shopping and a luxury hotel. It also provides public space to the city of Copenhagen.

Although it seems not quite fully resolved as to the programmatic and landscape elements, the way the building emerges from the ground ‘like a tree’ with a glassy bark trunk and yet sits well within the traditional urban fabric like a sinuous counterpoint is truly inspirational.

With a population of just over a million people and the famous Tivoli Garden, Kongen’s Have in the city centre  and the Fredericksborg Slot Baroque gardens in Hillerod the Danes have the benefit of aesthetics, cultural and recreational opportunities aplenty.

So apart from contributing to Denmark’s already stellar reputation for being on the forefront of design how does Scala Tower contribute to the quality of life in Copenhagen? Political measures of quality of life in liveability terms are both objective [divorce rates, safety and infrastructure]  and subjective [life satisfaction surveys].  So, the Danes have gained a great piece of civic infrastructure in a city which is already considered relatively crime free. I wonder whether that will show up on the next life satisfaction survey!


Urban design, GDP/capita and the theory of good city form

Is this the world's best city to live in?

This is the world's richest city. Do you want to live here? Where is it? Does it look really American?

Kevin Lynch wrote a book on the Theory of Good City Form (MIT Press, 1981). His criteria were vitality, sense, fit, access, control, efficiency and justice. None of the criteria are readily measurable and Kevin Lynch did not identify which cities best satisfy them. One imagines he would have given Boston a good position in the ranking of North American cities. Lynch does not mention sustainability – and doesn’t everyone want more money? And so shouldn’t GDP/head be on Lynch’s list? After all, its more measureable and one can even find a ranking of cities by per capita GDP on Wikipedia. It goes like this: Tokyo $1479/head, New York City $1406/head, Los Angeles $792/head,   Chicago $574/head, London  $565/head,  Paris $564/head, Osaka $417/head, Mexico City $390/head, Philadelphia $388/head, São Paulo $388/head. I am surprised that the city at the top of the list is four times as productive as the city in tenth position. Boston is not in the top ten and nor are Edinburgh, Rome, Kyoto, Isfahan, Munich, Hangzhou or many of the other places admired by urban designers. Are we barking up the wrong trees? Or are there no connections between the quality of the urban landscape, the desirablilty of a city as a place to live and the economic productivity of the settlement? And what has size got to do with it? Peter Hall argues that the best size for a city is about 1 million people. The top ten list of cities by GDP suggests to me that bigger cities tend to be more productive. Here are the top ten cities by size: Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City, Delhi, Mumbai, New York City, São Paulo, Manila, Los Angeles, Shanghai.

(Above photograph of Tokyo, courtesy riverseal)

Marking the prime meridian of the world in Greenwich

There was a time when the meridian line was neglected in Greenwich Park. This changed for the 2000 millennium celebrations and snow brings out the best in the markers. The green laser beam glistens when it snows and the sculptor who represented Queen Victoria (I assume) as a snow queen deserves a prize. I like low impact and temporary public art.

“My name is Ozymandium, queen of queens:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The most popular, permanent, meridian marker is 2.5 meters below the above pics. People like to be photographed with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere – but it is a terrible place for taking photographs: narrow, north-facing and ugly. I’d like to see a design for a Photographer’s Balcony so that people could photograph one another gazing, with the green laser, towards the North Pole. The Chinese are very keen on photographing each other in memorable locations and a really well designed facility would probably double the number of Chinese tourists visiting the UK, if not Europe.

Nothing but blue skies…

Vincent Callebaut has designed what he calls an ‘anti-smog parasite project’ for the city of Paris. He says “its role is to apply all the avant garde renewable energies so as to fight against the Parisian smog.”

Beyond its heroic environmental application Callebaut demonstrates some interesting architectural ideas some reminscent of Foster’s  Gherkin gone green! He also has a sensitive feel for creating interior space with structure….an effect present in the Gherkin, but enhanced to considerable affect in this project.

Undoubtably he was a fan of meccano as a child!




Recycling design ideas in architecture and landscape

Sydney Opera House in ParisDefinitely, ideas should continue to be re-cycled. Think how many generations have recycled the classical orders, always with variations on the theme.

The Sydney Opera House is a wonderful building in fabulous setting. If re-incarnated in Paris, I think it should be on as smaller scale and as a fast-food restaurant playing recorded classical music.

I’m not so sure about offering vegetarian turtle-burgers, but it is definitely a thought worth thunking.





PS  “A thunk typically occurs when a 16-bit application is running in a 32-bit address space, and its 16-bit segmented address must be converted into a full 32-bit flat address. On the other hand, if a 32-bit program calls a 16-bit DLL, then the thunk is in the opposite direction: from 32 bit to 16 bit.”

Seine it before?

If the Parisian plan to build a replica of the Sydney Opera House goes ahead half the world will be able to save their airfare to Australia and visit the Opera House and the Effiel Tower simultaneously. Perhaps Sydney need only build an Effiel Tower on the harbour and Australians will have no need of a trip to Paris?

Still, the Opera House undeniably looks good wherever you build it. You can’t blame the Parisians for their good taste!

Perhaps an enterprising young Australian or Danish architect will suggest to the French that they can come up with an original design that will do for the Seine River what the Opera House has done for the harbour in Sydney…..

The city of Graz in Austria has made a low-key addition to the River Mur. While the Brazilian architects Architectum have designed a mobile gallery for the Thames.

As for landscape design? Well tree-lined rivers are not always a priority.


Feeling blue seeing red


As many stakeholders in the redevelopment process recognise the issue of urban redevelopment is fraught. When young Swiss rioted during the Opera House riots the world wondered “how and why brutal contestation was possible in the land of wealth, stability, civic discipline” and almost full employment.

One Genevan philosopher of Polish heritage believed the riots were the result of youth who “didn’t know what to do with unlimited freedom in a world of unlimited opportunities.”

The disturbances broke out when in 1980 the young people of Zurich were unable to organise rock concerts due to an unavailability of money and accommodation at the same time as “large sums of money went to the renovation of the Zurich Opera House.”

Beneath the idealic view of Swiss society it was reported that young people were cheated out of a right to Utopia by a recession, did not have stable families, had overworked fathers, cramped and impersonal living conditions in large blocks of flats and that the nuclear family which had replaced extended relational groups had become too small.

 http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1129&dat=19830528&id=yU0NAAAAIBAJ&sjid=mW0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=4926,6708929



Urban landscape design in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum

The urban landscape of Dharavi, MumbaiKevin McLeod has shifted his gaze from Castleford to Dharavi. Properly critical of the sanitation, he finds much to praise in its community spirit and, like Slumdog Millionaire, criticizes the Bombay policy of trying to move the residents into Corbusian blocks of flats. He finds Dharavi as a happy place where everyone lives together and works together. Most people work within Dharavi so little money wasted on commuting. Kids don’t wear hoods and mug old ladies, because they have work to do. The crime rate is extremely low becuase everyone knows what everyone is doing. Dharavi is in fact like a medieval European town. We got rid of them in the mistaken belief that ‘foul air’ (rather than foul water) was causing infectious diseases. Now that this mistake has been cleared up, we should rid the world of highway regulations and let people build dwellings on narrow lanes if that is what they want to do.  Dharavi is sustainable and will survive unless the police clear it.

I remember spending a morning in a Roman town on the south coast of Turkey. There were no residents and no visitors. It was empty. One day, Dubai will be like this. The owners should have learned something from the Indians about sustainable urban design, instead of paying them peanuts to build Chicagos on the the Gulf.

(Image courtesy markhillary)

Note: Dharavi rhymes with laramie

Learn from wombats: earth sheltered homes have a lower environmental impact


Earth-sheltered dwelling house in California

The sunken garden looks nice but they could have done more with the external space for this earth-sheltered dwelling house in California

When reducing the total impact of humans on the environment becomes a necessity, we may have to learn more from the lifestyles of wombats, teletubbies and hobbits. If so, I hope our species will also become cuter, cuddlier, and friendlier. JRR Tolkien may prove correct in his view that diminutive sausage-eaters will save the world from the black forces of evil.
PS But is that a triple garage?
(image courtesy Christopher Line)


St Anthony's Monastery, in Egypt, and the monastic gardening tradition


St Anthony's Monastry in Egypt

St Anthony's Monastery in Egypt


Saint Anthony (c 251–356) is known as ‘the Father of All Monks’. Athanasius wrote his biography and it spread monasticism in Western Europe. He was not the ‘first monk’ but he was a Christian ascetic who went into the wilderness. The present monastery was built (c 356) on his burial site and near his retreat. Its fortified character was a response to Bedouin attacks. St Anthony gave his father’s money to the poor and ‘shut himself up in a remote cell upon a mountain’  so that ‘filled with inward peace, simplicity and goodness’ he ‘cultivated and pruned a little garden’. Presumably, the garden was his food supply and the wilderness was the subject of his contemplation. This may well be the origin of a Christian approach to gardens, seeing them primarily as functional places – not as symbolic or luxurious places. Cloister garths belong to a different tradition: they are symbolic; they probably did not have a ‘use’; they became places of luxury. See posts on Certose Cloister, Canterbury Cloister, Salisbury Cloister and a hypothesis concerning the origin of Christian monasticism. Islam does not have a monastic tradition, though there are Dervish brotherhoods, possibly because the Arabs had sufficient experience of living in deserts.

(Image courtesy Miami Love)

A hypothesis concerning the origin of Christian monasticism and cloister gardens

An Indian Rishi or Yogi or Holy man

Indian Rishi or Yogi or Holy man, today and yesterday

It is known that Homo sapiens sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated into Asia but remained an entirely nomadic species until c10,000 BC. Christ was born in 1 AD and monasticism was unknown in Christianity until the end of the third century, with St Anthony of Egypt (251-356) one of the first Christian hermits. The practice of retreating into natural landscapes was much older. It is found in the Bon religion, in Hinduism and in Daoism. Buddhist monks developed monastic communities after 400 BC. One can therefore hypothesize that the roots of Christian monasticism extend back to the habit of retreating into the wilds in Central Asia, as does the architectural practice of arranging residential cells around a square of grass. It is likely that the central square space was a symbol of The Earth, just as a circle was  a symbol of Heaven. Should this hypothesis be correct, there is a powerful case for managing cloisters as green voids with grass and wild flowers. See posts on Certose Cloister, Canterbury Cloister and Salisbury Cloister. If correct, the hypothesis supports the contention that early cloisters were not used as gardens or for any kind of gardening activity.

(The left image is the cover of the Indian Gardens eBook. The right image is a montage of a rishi onto a photograph of Egypt).

The importance of being landed














The Danish artistic trio N55 came up with the concept of the walking house based on the gypsy caravan. Although reminiscent of Archigram’s Walking City, walking house is not an aesthetically sophisticated piece of architecture. However N55 have amazingly managed to achieve real life rather than paper mobility via renewable energy sources – a remarkable feat in anybody’s language!

In Archigram’s Walking City on the Ocean Ron Herron addresses the concept of “indeterminacy” or the idea of an architecture that can change. While N55 are more interested in exploring the idea of property ownership. They describe the walking house as follows:

“WALKING HOUSE is a modular dwelling system that enables persons to live a peaceful nomadic life, moving slowly through the landscape or cityscape with minimal impact on the environment. It collects energy from its surroundings using solar cells and small windmills. There is a system for collecting rain water and a system for solar heated hot water. A small greenhouse unit can be added to the basic living module, to provide a substantial part of the food needed by the Inhabitants. A composting toilet system allows sewage produced by the inhabitants to be disposed of. A small wood burning stove could be added to provide CO2 neutral heating. WALKING HOUSE forms various sizes of communities or WALKING VILLAGES when more units are added together. WALKING HOUSE is not dependant on existing infrastructure like roads, but moves on all sorts of terrain.”

Based on the nomadic culture of the Romani the project asks whether land ownership means some people have more right to stay on the surface of the earth than others. This question is fundamentally anthoprocentric. Of course the basic question could be extended to encompass an ecological perspective and indeed is not dissimilar to eco-centric ethical viewpoints espoused by the conservationist luminary Aldo Leopold.

For landscape architecture the value of land as place rather than passage and the capacity to garden and enjoy gardens are central values. Undoubtably the voice of landscape architects will be heard strongly as the debate proceeds and develops.

Tunnelling for thermal comfort

Probably the best incentive (but not the only reason) to consider our fellow mobile inhabitants of planet earth in our designs is their incredible cuteness. Unfortuneately, even the cutest of creatures, the wombat can be considered a ‘pest’ because they damage crops and fences and cattle may break their legs when they step in their burrows and because their burrows provide shelter for that other notorious crop damaging pest the rabbit. However the wombat apart from its cuteness has some interesting tunneling experience from which the astute engineer could learn. Wombat burrows are well designed and well ventilated.  “Since temperatures underground are more moderate (less variable), the burrows help keep the wombat cooler in the warm months, and warmer in the cooler months. The burrow’s design provides a stable micro-environment for the wombat by controlling the temperature, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels.”


Certose di Pavia Cloister Garden

Certose di Pavia Carthusian Cloister Garden

The cloister of the Certose di Pavia is not a place for the simple life: it is a place of luxury

The Carthusian Order was founded in the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps. ‘Charterhouse’ is the English name for a Carthusian monastery and ‘Certosa’ is the Italian name. Their motto is ‘ Stat crux dum volvitur orbis’ (‘The Cross is steady while the world is turning.’) A Charthouse was ‘a community of hermits’. Each member had his own cell and his own garden, in which to lead a simple life of work, prayer and gardening. But, like other monastic orders, there was a tendency for the order to turn, as the world changed, towards luxury. Simple cloister garths became richly ornamented gardens, as at the Certose di Pavia.
One could argue that the creation of beauty is a way of praising the Lord. But this does not accord with the founding principles of monasticism and one cannot imagine that St Anthony, St Benedict or St Bruno would have approved. Yet the world does change. So would anyone support a modern equivalent of a renaissance parterre at Salisbury Cathedral or Canterbury Cathedral or Westminster Abbey? A contemporary interpretation of an Italian cloister garden is planned next to St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow.

(Image courtesy Kenya Allmond)

Please change the inappropriate planting design in Salisbury Cathedral cloister "garden"


Is the planting in Salisbury Cathedral Cloister designed to hide the 'ugly' medieval stonework in England's largest cloister 'garden'?

Is the planting in Salisbury Cathedral Cloister designed to hide the 'ugly' medieval stonework in England's largest cloister 'garden'?


It takes one’s breath away. How can the managers of Salisbury Cathedral Cloister be so misguided in their approach to planting design? Do they really want to give one of the masterpieces of medieval  European landscape architecture (1280) the character of a Victorian vicarage? The apparent aim is to hide the floral tracery of arcades behind a shrubbery, and to hide those ugly stone columns with some nice green tanalized wooden posts – even the galvanized wire does not make them beautiful. Perhaps the trouble began when some past prelate had the idea of being buried in the cloister, making his successors think the place was a boneyard. Ugh. I wish the Church of England could resolve its problems with women priests, gay priests and planting design. The solutions are obvious and I would give them my advice with free and tolerant humility. Prima facie, I suggest (1) leave the cedars, despite their historical inaccuracy (2) remove the shrubbery (3) manage the grass as even more of a flowery mead than its present condition, (4) perhaps, have an annual design for the layout of mown paths in the millefiori.

(See yesterday’s post on the social use of cloister garths)

The use of cloister courts and garths for memorial plaques is fairly common in England. It can be compared to memorial plaques inside cathedrals and, of course, to the tomb gardens of Egypt, China, India and elsewhere. But it does not feel right and I think the Buddha had the right attitude when he asked for his grave to be unmarked. It was a sign of humility. Memorials smack of ostentation. But placing an engraved stone on a wall or floor is preferable to memorial stones in grass: they are often unsightly; they diminish the vegetated area; they are impure.


Canterbury Cathedral and the social use of cloister gardens in English monasteries

Canterbury Cathedral Cloister garden

Domestic use of Canterbury Cathedral Cloister is appropriate, but I do not think it should have been used as a graveyard


Canterbury Cathedral has beautiful cloisters. They were rebuilt in the fifteenth century on the site of the eleventh century cloisters built by Archbishop Lanfranc (c. 1005–1089) for Christ Church Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia (Italy) and brought to England by William the Conqueror. A water system was installed and a plan of the cloister drawn c1165. ‘This is a bird’s-eye view of the entire convent, drawn in accordance with the artistic methods of the time, and exhibiting the cathedral and monastic offices, viewed from the north. The water-courses are minutely shewn, with all their arrangements from the source to the convent, and its distribution to the monastic offices, supplying lavatories, cisterns, fish-ponds, etc., and finally flowing, in conjunction with the rain-water from the roofs and the sewerage of the convent, into the town ditch. As the drawing was probably made after the system was completed, we may for convenience assume its date at 1165, two years before the death of Wibert, and five years before the murder of Becket’. But what was the cloister used for? We can discover something from The monastic constitutions of Lanfranc By Lanfranc (Archbishop of Canterbury), trans David Knowles and Christopher Brooke:

p. 27 After their meal they shall sit in the cloister until the servers leave the refectory.
p. 35 There shall be a precession through the cloister as usual on Sundays.
p. 49 On Maundy… the cellarer and almoner and others appointed shall lead the poor into the cloister and cause them to sit
p.65 When all have received Communion the board shall be struck and the evening prayer take place. When this is done they shall go out into the cloister and wash their feet in warm water, and put on their day shoes.
p. 75 On Rogation Days… no sleep is taken in the afternoon… but at a fitting hour the masters shall waken the children as quietly as possible, and when these are reading in the cloister those who are still abed shall rise without delay p. 109 If it be an abbot who is received, he shall stand before the dore of the chapter-house and kiss the bretheren as they come out.
p. 131 Whossoever wishes to speak with the abbot, prior or any monk of the cloister shall use the guestmaster as his ambassador.
p.139 On other days when there is talking in the cloister, he who needs to he shaved may, by permission of the abbot or prior, be shaved in the cloister.

Note1: Technically, the ‘Cloister’ is the part of a monastery to which the public do not normally have access. The ‘Garth’, or garden, was the green space we now call a cloister.

Note2: in view of the appalling revelations of what catholic priests did to children in the 20th century, one worries about how much worse things were in earlier centuries. Rogation Days were set apart for solemn processions to invoke God’s mercy.


Can sustainable urban design and landscape architecture help combat global warming?

Designing urban landscapes for motor vehicles discourages human-powered transport

Designing urban landscapes for motor vehicles discourages human-powered transport












Watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth at one sitting led me to the following conclusions:

  1. The film is excellent and has much to teach college lecturers, both about the analysis of complex issues and about the the use of words & images in presenting an argument.
  2. Gore’s argument is weakened by his homepage link to a Buy Now button on climatecrisis.net – regardless of how he shares the profits. It makes him seem like a greedy evangelist on TV.
  3. Gore’s list (below) of Thing’s You Can Do Now, is ultra-trivial and may have set back the cause by encouraging politicians to believe that little change is necessary. The film mentions population growth but it is not on the list, doubtless for ‘political’ reasons.
  4. The best commentary on the issues comes from Justice Burton. He said the film is ‘broadly accurate’ but listed nine inaccuracies
  5. A landscape approach to urban design can do more to combat climate change than Al Gore can imagine. We can and should:
  • use all roofspace:  for vegetation, gardens, power generation or the daylighting of interior space
  • plan cities for extensive use of human-powered and solar-powered transport (above image courtesy TouringCyclist) – but see my recent post on White Commuting
  • compost as much as possible within the boundaries of each and every property
  • infiltrate as much water as possible within the boundaries of each and every property
  • make all buildings energy efficient, by orientation, vegetation, insulation, durability, daylighting, avoidance of lifts and escalators etc
  • design new homes so they can become home offices, when eCommuting becomes the norm, with a smooth transition from indoor to outdoor spaces with differential climatic and temperature characteristics

For landscape architects and urban designers thinking about new jobs and professional opportunities in sustainable urban design, the above are  very convenient truths.



Al Gore does not say enough about urban design

Al Gore does not say enough about urban design



Another ‘inconvenient truth’ ignored by Gore, is that the environmental impact of bottled water has been calculated, by SGWA, to be 1000 times greater than that of tap water. So ban it, as a small town in Australia has done: Bundanoon, in New South Wales. Perhaps the American language needs a new word: an ‘ingored truth’