Monthly Archives: November 2010

Charles Platt: Pools of inspiration and transformation

The swimming pool and bathhouse at Manhassat Long Island by architect and landscape architect Charles Platt demonstrates the transformation in design thinking from European ideas that slowly began to characterise the design approach in the United States. The Manor House garden is remarkable for illustrating the genesis of this transformation in thinking with the ‘before’ garden centred on a fountain and the ‘after’ garden centred on the pool.

Gwinn, for which Platt contributed the architecture and collaborated with Ellen Biddle Shipman Warren Manning on the landscape contributes to the transformation of the Italian villa as inspiration to an American sensibility. There are particular elements of the garden design on the shores of lake Erie which introduce a genius for place into the American oeuvre, and are more suggestive of the quintessentially casual out-of-doors leisure lifestyle.

The turf maze as a game of love


A labyrinth has a single path to its centre and was a Christian pilgrimage symbol during the middle ages.
A maze, with many blind alleys, puzzling events and difficult choices, became the setting for a garden game for six unmarried youths and six unmarried maidens. In pairs, a boy and a girl make their way in opposite directions, one centripetal and one centrifugal. Cupid, who directs the game, encourages them to kiss if they meet. They all dance when the game is over. Ringhieri, an Italian author who explained the rules in 1551, appends some questions to the rules: ‘Why is the maze blind? Why is love a maze? Is human life a maze? Why is womens’ hair like a maze? Is philosophy a maze? Is human life an inextricable maze?
The game and the questions form part of the ‘labyrinth of love’ (see, for example: Boccacio’s Corbaccio o Laberinto d’amore).
A game of love on a turf maze would be fun during a university fresher’s week – when there is everything to play for.
The maze in the photograph is on the village green at Alkborough in Lincolnshire – and I do not know if it was used for the game of love. Arthur Mee says it was cut by monks in the 12th century and White (Lincolnshire Directory (1872) that it was made by the Romans. Others think it is medieval. The excellent Labyrinthos website states that the first record of the Alkborough Turf Maze dates from the 1690s. Eight English ‘turf mazes’ survive. They are actually unicursal labyrinths and may be old – but the earliest records are from the seventeenth century. Their locations are interesting in themselves. One is in a garden; three are in the hills; four are on village greens or similar places:
Alkborough, Lincolnshire – near the village church and overlooking the Rivers Trent and Humber
Dalby, North Yorkshire – on the hills between the villages of Brandsby and Dalby
Wing, Rutland – on the edge of the village green
Hilton, Cambridgeshire – on the village green
Somerton, Oxfordshire – in a private garden
Saffron Walden, Essex – on the Town Common
Winchester, Hampshire – on a hill on the south of the village
Breamore, Hampshire – on a remote hilltop

Image courtesy Lincolnian (Brian)

The classical gardening ideal of George London, Henry Wise and Virgil's Georgics

Here is the explanation of the frontispiece to The Retir’d gardener by George London and Henry Wise. Though England’s greatest Baroque garden designers, London and Wise dreamed of the simple life.
I. Agriculture, represented by a country-woman; her left hand upon a fruit-tree, her right upon a Zodiac, two genii supporting it.
II. Industry, represented by a woman standing on the other side of the tree, holding a book in her right hand, and a lamp in her left, with a crane at her feet representing vigilance; to show, that besides the labour and practice abroad in the day-time, to come to a perfect knowledge, we must read and study at night by the light of the lamp.
III. One of the naides or nymphs of the water, to water the tree; water being the soul of all vegetables.
IV. Terra, or mother-earth, with a wreath of flowers upon her head, a cornucopia in her right hand, and the globe of the earth in her left.
V. A view of a plantation of trees.
VI. Spades, pruning-hooks, &c. upon the ground.

The reference is to Virgil’s Georgics: Blest too is he who knows the rural gods.
And what more could any of us want: agriculture, the industry to seek perfect knowledge, water, earth, trees and tools?

Henry Wise retired to enjoy a life of rural retreat at Warwick Priory. In 1925 his house was sold for its bricks, which were used to built Virginia House in America.
The Undersecretary of State for the Home Department knew it was to be demolished, in 1925, and said that ‘financial reasons’ prevented his doing anything. As Thomas a Kempis put it, Sic transit gloria mundi. The foundations of Warwick Priory were partially excavated in 2002-3. .

Urban agriculture in Korea and in English public open spaces and parks


If the above open space was in England it would surely be managed as vacant gark-land, for two reasons (1) views of grassland are thought to have public health benefits, because it was once believed that dirty air (rather than dirty water) was the cause of infectious disease (2) because it is believed that any food which is not fenced-in will be harvested by marauding gangs of theiving youths. So England has hectare-upon-hectare of mown-but-scarcely-used urban grass land – and Korea, like Japan and other SE Asian countries, has agriculture which still prospers in urban areas. The photograph does not have the beauty so often seen in agricultural landscapes – but this would surely be achievable. I would not want London’s parks to be any less functional or any less beautiful. But I would like to see producing food and am sure it could be healthier and tastier than shop food which has been over-irrigated, over-fed and over-treated with pesticides. Does anyone know of any good examples ‘beautiful urban food’ to inspire Londons park designers and planners?

Image courtesy Steph L

Video on rooftop farming in New York City NYC:

What is beauty?

Many things.

The mirror art left is by Russian artist Francisco Infante-Arana who formed the Russian movement group in 1964. His simple gestures, while a subtle visual disruption to nature, reflects back to the viewer the essence of the invisible beauty which is accentuated in the visual perception of the artist when he contemplates nature.

Modern definitions of Western beauty have been given as ‘the unification of variety’, ‘the sensual manifestation of the idea’, ‘freedom in appearance’ and ‘the infinite expressed in the form of the finite.’ For Onishi, modern Western aesthetics in founded on the congruence of opposites (coincidenta oppositorum.) See ‘A History of Modern Japanese Aesthetics.’ ed Michael Marra 2001.

Recent Waterscapes by Herbert Dreiseitl – book review

Lewis Mumford, in his introduction to Ian McHarg‘s Design with Nature, wrote that ‘It is in this mixture of scientific insight and constructive environmental design, that this book makes its unique contribution’. It was a perceptive remark and I would like to pay a similar comment to the books which Herbert Dreiseitl has published with the title Waterscapes: Herbert Dreiseitl combines scientific insight with an ethical concern for sustainability and an enthusiasm for artistic creation. See Herbert Dreiseitl biography & cv. Waterscapes is already on our list of 100 best books on landscape architecture and in 2009 Dreiseitl published Recent Waterscapes.
Dreiseitl has the scientific insight to understand the water cycle and the negative impacts upon it from poorly conceived urbanisation. He also practices constructive environmental design and he makes a unique contribution. Landscape architecture would be a far stronger profession if more designers were able, simultaneously, to make the world more sustainable and more beautiful. But is it art? and, indeed, What is art? Leo Tolstoy asked this question and, in the Wiki summary: ‘According to Tolstoy, art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, one that “infects” the viewer.’ The Wiki entry on Art, begins as follows: ‘Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings.’ I think Dreiseitl passes these tests but I also remember Tracey Emin‘s declaration that one of her works was art ‘because I say it is art’. Dreiseitl could pass this test – and I think he should have a go at it, with a better explanation than Emin. He could say that he has analysed the nature of the world’s watery aspect and found a way of expressing his view in a 3-dimensional and visually dramatic way which depends upon the exercise of hard-won skills. His water sculptures are made in a studio at a 1:1 scale and then cut in granite. Similarly, Rodin worked in clay and had his sculptures cut in marble or cast in bronze. Rodin’s interest was sex; Drieseitl’s is also concerned with the future of life on earth. But my account of his work will not do: Dreiseitl needs to pen an account of ‘why I am an artist’ – and he should exhibit sculptural work in galleries so that it appears in catalogues and passes the commercial test for a work of art.
My favourite projects from Herbert Dreiseitl’s Recent Waterscapes, from left to right, below are:
The Nuremberg Prisma, Hannoversch Munden, Town Square in Gummersbach, Tanner Springs Park in Portland,

There is one problem with Dreiseitl’s projects: the vegetation is often managed on a habitat-creation basis and this tends to look ragged in the early years. In the fullness of time, they may well become beautiful semi-natural habitats. But one wonders if there is a way of making them more beautiful in the early years. The example below is a rainwater retention scheme on the Kronsberg in Hanover, Germany.

Is the planet in dire straits?

The Berring Straits Project asked designers to imagine an element to connect the Russia and the United States. A peace bridge perhaps? Off Architecture were awarded second place for this imagining of a sometimes occupied space between two parallel 10 metre walls.

As architects contemplate the perils of global warming marine architecture is emerging as a serious discipline. However the genesis of this architectural discipline can be found in iconic structures such as the Miami Marine Stadium designed by Candela in the early 1960s. The stadium is expected to achieve landmark listing status.

Obviously, marine architecture presents a new challenge to the land-scape profession because imagining a sea-scape and the propogation of corals and algae in the enclosed gardens – hortus conclusus – of the ocean is conceptually different.

In the petrified seagarden, Richie Park, we are challenged to rethink our ideas about the natural boundaries between land and sea.

Yet, in explorations of the seaside, are potentially the sparks of inspiration for seagarden designers.

What makes travel a great experience?

Design schools are starting to tackle questions of urban scale city design in their masters programs. The key to future transit systems is to make that form of travel the best it can possibly be. Ask, what would make people choose this form of transport over other alternatives if they had many equally accessible and affordable options? Why might they want to travel this way? What would be unique, good or special about the experience?

Densification of urban landscapes

Good urban densification requires good urban landscape design

Jonathan Solomon tells a CNN inverviewer that ‘Dense cities use less energy per person than more dispersed suburban equivalents. When you consider a city in relation to its larger region, the ecological footprint per person in a city may be significantly smaller than rural inhabitation’. Similarly, public transport systems use less land than private cars. So it is likely that if we must make our cities more sustainable then we must adopt densification policies. The main possibilities include: make more use of airspace (eg by building higher); make more use of underground space (eg for transport and parking); make more use of waterspace (eg with houseboats, tunnels etc); make better use of roofspace (eg for parks and gardens); make better use of ‘space between buildings’ (eg with new structures, cantilevers, balconies etc). In comparison with Tokyo, London is a very low density capital, and profligate with its use of transport space. The urban density in London (5,000/km2) is one eigth of the density of Manila.
OK, but all these measures require ingenuity and design imagination. They require studies from urban designers and landscape architects to discover how densification can take place in conjunction with improvements to the quality of life in cities. And we should remember the sceptics, like Jan Gehl, who argue that low density cities are more sustainable. My instinct is that there is no ‘one right answer’: cities need high density nodes with lower density peripheries.

Above image courtesy Jake Hirsch-Allen

Will we live to see the End of Suburbia?

The beginning or the end of the car?

Is peak oil, sustainability and climate change the beginning or the end of the car as we know it? With the advent of modernism carparks became first part of a highrise building to be constructed and were considered as part of the foundation system. There are a number of concerns with parking in urban areas. Will pollution and noise issues be meet by electric cars? Will innovative greened multistacking carparking arrangements be proposed for multi-density dwellings? How will congestion be addressed?

How will car supply and demand issues be thought about? Should urban residences be carfree with the possibility of outer-urban garaging accessible beyond the urban core area? Should urban work and commuting also be limited to the periphery of the inner-core? If so, who should be able to access this inner centre by car? Why?

Will eco-traffic engineers be engaged to design flow throughs and do capacity modelling for all new development sites so that designers can innovate and demonstrate best practice? Who will dream of the transit and traffic organisational schemas of our new cities?

More questions than answers!

Re: cycling It is Cost Effective

What is needed to induce the die-hard city commuters to leave behind their cars and adopt cycling as a mode of transport? Should the cost of using the car in central city areas be so cost prohibitive that only the those willing to part with large sums for the privilege persist? Or should urban designer adopt a range of innovative measures to entice inner city commuters to adopt what is afterall a healthier lifestyle alternative?

The McDonalds Cycle Centre in Chicago’s Millenium Park is leading the way in rethinking what it means to cycle and the sort of facilities which may transform the way commuting and recreational cycling is viewed. Philip Modest Schamberlan and + Anton Fromm’s Bicycle Hotel intends to entice the cyclist into the mountains in pursuit of a recreational touring lifestyle by providing an intriguing Fractal experience perched above Lake Garda.

Gardening on the dole: workfare, punishment or pleasure?

The Daily Mail reports that under a UK government policy announced yesterday ‘the feckless unemployed will be forced to take part in a punishing US-style ‘workfare’ scheme involving gardening, clearing litter and other menial tasks’. It is a bad account of what could be a good policy. Giving people money for doing something is better than giving them money for doing nothing. Work is not a punishment; it is what the world does. But gardens already suffer from a skill shortage and gardening is not a ‘menial task’ and it should not be assumed that the unemployed are feckless or unskilled. Many over 40s know about gardening and lose their jobs because of market conditions or bad management. Surely it is healthier and more pleasurable to work as gardeners, or to help for elderly people living at home, or similar, than to get the dole and watch TV.

Style Conscious

In 1730 Queen Charlotte ordered the damming of the Westbourne River as part of a general redevelopment of Hyde Park and Kennsington Gardens by Charles Bridgeman. The Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park is the remnant of the Westbourne River which since 1850 has been diverted into a culvert and runs into the Thames near Chelsea. “The Serpentine Lake was one of the earliest artificial lakes designed to appear natural” and was widely imitated. The Long Water because of its relatively undisturbed nature is a significant wildlife habitat.

Hyde Park and its surrounds has changed considerably since its inception. Contextualising the statute of Achilles by Richard Westmacott which was said to have originated in the classical taste of the Countess Spencer, demonstrates the remarkable changes that have taken place both in the use of the park and in the urban environment which surrounds it. The Queen and Prince Albert are drawn taking air in their carriage as they pass by the statute c1840.

Achilles meanwhile remains a most admired archetypical hero.

The definition of landscape urbanism

Landscape urbanism in Safavid Isfahan - with hills on the horizon and a recent water feature

A previous post considered landscape urbanism and led to this definition:
LANDSCAPE URBANISM is an approach to urban design in which the elements of cities (water, landform, vegetation, vertical structures and horizontal structures) are composed (visually, functionally and technically) with regard to human use and the landscape context.
I am content with this definition for the time being but would like to give a little more explanation.
(1) The idea of ‘compositional elements’ comes from the history of garden design. It is a field in which water, landform, vegetation, buildings and paving have been composed, for at least 5,000 years – and it has always been done with regard to exiting landscapes and specific human uses. This has often made garden design a crucible for urban design, with the famous examples of Late-Renaissance Rome, Safavid Isfahan, Yuan and Ming Beijing, Georgian London, Late-Baroque Paris, even-later Baroque Washington DC and the Garden Cities of the twentieth century.
(2) The classification of design objectives (functional, technical, visual) is based on Vitruvius: Commodity, Firmness and Delight.

Under landscape urbanist programming, the design of urban space begins with the design of urban space. Buildings are then arranged and designed to surround and contain the urban space. Designing the buildings before the space will almost always diminish the potential quality of the urban space: visually, socially and ecologically.

Above image courtesy François Bouchet

History of Isfahan urban landscape from maidan market to western park (photos 1737, c1930, c2000)

History of Isfahan urban landscape from maidan market to western park (photos 1737, c1930, c2000)

Who should we blame for Nottingham's urban landscape architecture?

Whodunnit? A wordsmith writes of ‘Poor torn-up Nottingham, with its smell of saturated fats and the ubiquitous roar of passing cars circling its city centre like Apaches in a cowboy movie’. But who did it? And what can be done about it? The Sunday Times art critic (Waldemar Januszczak, 31.10.10) also says this mess is ‘fully representative of Britain today’. Should we blame the town council? the city engineers? the planners? the architects? central government? immigrants? the landscape architects? All of them? Diagnosis comes before treatment, so the question needs to be answered. Could an Oberbaudirektor have prevented the mess? Or would he have contributed to the stench of saturated fat?

Image courtesy Maddy Lou