Monthly Archives: February 2011

Theme Parks

A design without a concept is usually not worth much. Where is the boundary where a concept becomes a theme? Where is the boundary where a theme becomes kitsch? And where is the boundary where a concept becomes art? Is there a context in which we can compare Disneyland with the Garden of Cosmic Speculation? Or with Little Sparta? Is Rousham merely an Augustan Theme Park? And where does Portmeirion fit in? Many clients – particularly in young, brash economies – confuse themes and concepts, how can we advise them? Does the West still have noble, Augustan-type concepts to offer the world, or do we only do cartoons these days?

The images show the Qasr Al Sarab Hotel on the fringe of Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert, based on an image engineer’s imagination of Arabia and very Disneyesque in its dreamweaving – but ultimately inauthentic – attention to detail.

Quarry garden sculpture at Pedreres de s'Hostal as an example of the after-use of mineral workings

Quarries are famed for their propensity to create ‘a scar on the landscape’. But they can also produce wonderful results, as land sculpture on a supra-human scale and majesty. This has led me to conclude that the Permission for new quarrying projects should only be given when a restoration and after-use plan has been prepared and agreed with the planning authorities. BUT there is also a possibility of making something good, and something which is a work of art, when the after-use of the mineral working was not planned in advance. The Pedreres de s’Hostal quarry is a good example of this.
The Pedreres de s’Hostal stone quarry on the island of Minorca, Spain became disused in 1994. It was then taken over by a non-for-profit organization (Líthica) and is being made into a post-industrial heritage park

Image courtesy Carlos Pons

Is new urbanism old?

The 10 principles of New Urbanism are:

1. Walkability
2. Connectivity
3. Mixed use and diversity
4. Mixed housing
5. Quality architecture and urban design
6. Traditional neighbourhood structure
7. Increased density
8. Smart transportation
9. Sustainability
10. Quality of life

According the wikipedia entry “This new system of development, with its rigorous separation of uses, became known as “conventional suburban development” or pejoratively as urban sprawl, arose after World War II. The majority of U.S. citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last fifty years, and automobile use per capita has soared.

Although New Urbanism as an organized movement would only arise later, a number of activists and thinkers soon began to criticize the modernist planning techniques being put into practice. Social philosopher and historian Lewis Mumford criticized the “anti-urban” development of post-war America. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s, called for planners to reconsider the single-use housing projects, large car-dependent thoroughfares, and segregated commercial centers that had become the “norm.”

Rooted in these early dissenters, New Urbanism emerged in the 1970s and 80s with the urban visions and theoretical models for the reconstruction of the “European” city proposed by architect Leon Krier, and the “pattern language” theories of Christopher Alexander.”

New urbanism was fundamentally a social planning movement although it has morphed more recently to include at least a minimalist environmental agenda. Wendy Morris says new urbanism was “….Initially A Reaction to Sprawl…..Now A Basis for Sustainable Urban Growth/Smart Growth…….and a response to Climate Change and Peak Oil…and a Basis for Addressing Physical Health and
Social Well-being.”

Can the old theory of New Urbanism be adapted to adequately address new environmental concerns?

John Ruskin: picturesque tourism, poverty, love, life and sex

John Ruskin was one of the most brilliant writers of the nineteenth century. We all tread in his picturesque footsteps when exploring foreign cities and taking street photographs. But take care. Ruskin wrote that “Yesterday, I came on a poor little child lying flat on the pavement in Bologna – sleeping like a corpse – possibly from too litte food. I pulled up immediately – not in pity, but in delight at the folds of its poor little ragged chemise over the thin bosom – and gave the mother money – not in charity, but to keep the flies off it while I made a sketch. I don’t see how this it to be avoided, but it is very hardening.” Or was he a hard man? The beautiful Effie Gray (right) thought him oppressive. Her marriage to Ruskin was never consumated because, it is said, he knew of female beauty only from marble statues and was horrified to discover that real girls had pubic hair. Effie divorced Ruskin and had 8 children by his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Everett Millais.

Above image of India courtesy Dey Alexander. Below drawing, by Ruskin, of Piazza Santa Maria del Pianto, Rome.


Panda pandemonium

China’s number one mascot the giant panda (ailuropoda melanoleuca) are only found in the bamboo forests of south western China. “They occupy 6 small forest fragments in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi. (5,400 square miles).”

The panda is well travelled in popular culture, as well as being a local hero. With the recent release of Kung Fu Panda, the panda Po looks set to win over another generation of children to panda love.

Habitat fragmentation (by roads and railroads) and destruction and poaching (for their pelts) are still major threats to the Giant Panda, even though poachers and smugglers have received death penalties or long prison terms. Pandas are often injured in traps and snares set for other animals.

Emerging threats to the panda populations are mining, hydropower and tourism. A giant panda may consume 26-83 pounds of bamboo a day to meet its energy requirements.

Permaculture as an approach to planting design for landscape architects

Permaculture at Glovers Street Organic Community Garden in Sydney

Permaculture at Glovers Street Organic Community Garden in Sydney

Permaculture is an attractive idea and may become an economic necessity (as argued in the video below) when the oil supply begins to run out. Permaculture relates to the ancient agriculture of West Asia but, in its modern form, originated in Australia and was popularised by Bill Mollison. My worry is that too often it looks cheap and nasty, with coloured plastic, rusty iron, wire and junk. My hope is that landscape architects will make it more beautiful and more efficient – so that food forest gardening can become one of the standard approaches to managing vegetation in urban and rural areas. I can add to my concerns about London’s 2012 Olympic Park the fact that it is being designed for recreation, aesthetics and biodiversity only – not for urban food production.
The above image, of Permaculture at Glovers Street Organic Community Garden in Sydney, illustrates the point that if Permaculture is to win the success it deserves then it must look good as well as being good. See the video, below of a beautiful Devon farm and also these links http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6370279933612522952#docid=-918331001764551597 http://urbanhomestead.org/

A 2008 paper from DEFRA examined the UK’s food supply and supplied these figures

  • pre – 1750 around 100% (in temperate produce)
  • 1750 – 1830s around 90-100% except for poor harvests
  • 1870s around 60%
  • 1914 around 40%
  • 1930s 30 – 40%
  • 1950s 40 – 50%
  • 1980s 60 – 70%
  • 2000s 60%

The amazing figure of 70% in the 1980s was caused by the fabulously generous EU agricultural subsidies. Food prices and the proportion of GDP spent on food has been in decline for half a century. It is now rising and this could be the stimulus to make the UK self-sufficient in food. This ignores the UK’s reliance on oil to produce the food but, as argued in the video, this problem could be solved by a change to forest gardening and permaculture techniques.

See the entire world as a blazing inferno. Then, when all has turned to ashes, enter bliss.

I often light candles for people I know in European churches and cathedrals. I don’t really know why I do this because I am not a Believer. I am also fascinated by the use of incense in Asia. I like the habit even more now that I have just read this:

The practice of offering incense, with a bow, to the Taoist altar is called Baibai. As the incense burns, smoke rises, and ashes fall. The ashes represent impure air that sinks; the smoke, pure air that rises. So the offering represents the separation of pure from impure – the refinement and purification of internal energies. It also symbolizes the human body as being the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth: as the smoke rises, and the ashes fall, we make a connection with both earth and sky.

This temple is in the countryside around Chongqing and houses a rock Buddha some 9 meters tall, the building makes its own connection between the earth and the sky. The title quote is from the Vijnanabhairava Tantra.

How green is my neighbourhood?

One of the unfortuneate consequences of the fight against urban sprawl, which has been largely taken up in the name of Jane Jacobs, is the loss of green space and the urban forests of many communities. They are disappearing in the manner environmentalists call ‘death by a thousand cuts’, that is (sometimes) slowly and incrementally.

Sherwood Forest is one of the old, upscale, districts of Detroit, ‘the city of Neighbourhoods’;

“Developers thought that the area should resemble an English village; thus, they selected appropriate English names and curved and winding streets. You will not find a rectangular street pattern here or in old English villages. There are about 435 homes, most of them built before the Depression terminated housing construction in the city. Many of them are Georgian Colonials or English Tudor homes in keeping with the English theme. Some of the homes are newer, having been constructed after building resumed in 1947. They are large, even by the standards of early 21st-century architecture since they average about 3,600 square feet with four to six bedrooms.”

In the adjacent suburb of Palmer Woods is the Dorothy Turkel House by Frank Lloyd Wright, which undoubtably also relies on its leafy surrounds for its ambience.

British biologist Professor Jeff Sayer in his lecture at James Cook University asked the apt conservation question, ‘Conserving the forests for whom?’

The Englishness of English policy, English gardening and English gardens


A video clip of a 71-year-old lady using her handbag to stop a gang of thieves robbing a jeweller is being shown everywhere. Ann Timson deserves to be memorialised in a park or garden. She encapsulates a strand in English foreign policy and English garden design. Instead of making a permanent alliance with any foreign power, England’s aim was always to maintain a balance of power and to support the rights of small countries. Burglars had to be fought. Bullies had to be defeated. It was self-interest. Nor was any foreign style of garden design ever adopted in its entirety. Nor is any one plant allowed to dominate a garden. Young plants are cherished like children – and then ruthlessly cut back when they begin to overwhelm their neighbours. A good place for a statue of Ann Timson bashing the burglars would be at the other end of Victoria Tower Gardens from Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.

Note: if the Youtube link does not work, the video can also be seen here and here or, with an advert and an American commentary, here.

The prospects for an International Society for Garden Archaeology

This is not a disused railway siding in Birmingham. It was once the grandest garden court in Europe's grandest palace: the Palace of the Emperors on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Something should be done. But what?

I was very pleased to hear from Kathryn Gleason about the foundation of International Society for Garden Archaeology. The Gardenvisit blog has a number of posts on garden archaeology and I have gleaned the following thoughts from them:

1) the work archaeologists do on archaeology is of great value, for the information it yields and for the carefulness of their approach. But the work archaeologists do on garden ‘restoration’ and ‘management’ is generally terrible. It tends to lack each of the three essentials for dealing with historic garden sites: (a) a broad perspective on garden history (b) design judgment (c) technical knowledge of construction techniques and building materials (d) technical knowledge and skill with plant material and techniques of plant management
2) garden archaeologists should take an interest in two separate but related issues (a) the investigation, care and management of what are primarily archaeological sites (b) the investigation, care and management of what are primarily garden sites
3) I admire the garden archaeological work of Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski (at Pompeii and Herculaneum) and of Barry Cunliffe (at Fishborne Roman Palace) but I do not admire they ‘resotrations’ of Roman gardens.
4) the archaeological principle of preserving evidence should have a strong position in the care and management of historic gardens
5) the current condition of the garden courts in Rome’s Palace of the Emperor’s (on the Palatine Hill) is depressing
6) the vast crowds who course through the Emperor’s garden in the Forbidden City (in Beijing) are wearing away the wonderful pebble paving.

Turfing the grand courtyard on the Palatine was wrong. But what should be done? To answer the question one needs historical and design judgment underpinned by a detailed knowledge of Roman planting and construction. But I am doubtful about any kind of restoration on such an important site.
Image of the Palatine courtesy Jeff, Jen and Travis