Category Archives: context-sensitive design

The Royal Yacht Britannia deserves a fine landscape setting – not a trashy mooring

Britain’s last Royal Yacht, the Britannia, is now ‘permanently moored as a five-star visitor attraction in the historic Port of Leith, Edinburgh’ and the setting is a total disgrace. The ghastly building which dwarfs the yacht is Ocean Terminal ‘an urban shopping centre & entertainment complex designed by Conran & Partners in London and handed over to Keppie Design’. Though I am pleased Scotland has regained a parliament, I am very disappointed by its lack of design and planning vision. The nearest they have to a design policy is ‘Hey Jock, what the hell, let’s get it built asap’. That ugly slab of a building is as ugly inside as it is outside and one can imagine that the planning officers were promised a lifetime’s supply of haggis in return for mooring the poor yacht here. I would like to see a competition for finding a better landscape setting for the old lady. Where can one find the best examples of historic ships moored in beautiful and romantic settings?

Rule Britannia!
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
The nations, not so blest as thee, (eg Scotland)
Must in their turn, to tyrants fall,
Must in ,must in, must in their turn, to tyrants fall,
While thou shalt flourish, shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule Britannia!
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Getting wet: staying on the edge

As we await two expected tropical cyclones in North Queensland the following questions have a particular poignancy. What is the solution to coast inundation? Are there ways in which we can get used to getting wet and enjoy it as part of the experience – akin to playing in the surf?

While the Israeli port project may not offer the solution to the landfall of tropical cyclones, it might inspire ways to accommodate a slightly less defined and changeable boundary between the sea and land.

Mayslits Kassif Architects urban regeneration of the Tel Aviv Port is a landmark project which saw “the suspension of all the area’s rezoning plans” and set a precedent for “transformation not propelled by building rights, but by a unique urban design strategy.” The project received the 2010 Rosa Barba European Landscape Prize.

The geography and topography of place

Urban designers in the port city of Copenhagen are making quite a splash for themselves with the design of several exciting new urban spaces.

Dune city is the latest urban design offering by SLA in Copenhagen. “Like a giant dune of sand or snow it slips in between and clings around the buildings, thereby creating a spatial coherence in the design.”

The foldedplate design enables the visitor (pedestrians, cyclists, skaters and the walking impaired) to tranverse the elevated landscape between the buildings amidst a vegetated space of reedy grasses and trees. The landscape has been designed to appear flat and two dimensional from a distance but to reveal its true three dimensional character as you move through its spaces. The high albredo effect is said to produce a cooler microclimate during the warmer periods by reflecting the incoming heat and radiation.

Can the the world’s model climate citizen lead the way also with climate sensitive urban design and by its example also change the fate of nations like Mongolia?

Viewing the bigger picture

The big question for what happens next for the city of Brisbane and for many cities worldwide is the role of climate change in flood events.

The previous big flood event in the city was in 1974. Since then a dam has been built as flood mitigation and in 2011 it has protected the city from more severe flooding.

However, with climate change, the expected frequency and severity of flooding could be expected to increase. So yes, a competition too – looking at the bigger picture – to design floodable spaces and places for cities would be a great contribution to urban flood defences and urban design.


Saving the prickly and cute…

…And all creatures great and small.

Having recently experienced the flooding of my city I am keen to help some of the less visible victims as well. Having spotted a dead echidna by a tree next to a usually busy road in a flood affected inner city suburb, and realizing that he was most probably washed there in the flood waters from Toowoomba, I am keen to start an online charity to assist wildlife.

I am proposing an Ark Appeal for Wildlife. Would gardenvisit be happy to sponsor a charity and gardenvisit readers happy to contribute to it?

Which capital city's gardens are we looking down on?

Since this is a little difficult, I offer two clues (1) it is in Eurasia (2) it is not the city centre! What do you think of my modest proposal for a re-design, below? I think the whole project must have been ‘designed’ by crazed engineers with no knowledge whatsoever of the aesthetic, ecological, functional or financial roles of open space in the urbanisation process.

(left image slightly brightened)

Context sensitive landscape and garden design in Japan, by Haruko Seki/Studio Lasso Ltd

Japan was the first Asian country to modernise its industry but always wanted to retain its unique identity. This turned out to be more difficult for buildings than for gardens. Haruko Seki is a Japanese landscape architect based in London. Perhaps for this reason, she has a keen eye for something essentially Japanese which is not sentimentaly ‘Old Japan’ We saw this in her Silver Moonlight Garden at the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show and are pleased to see it again in the above photograph of the Garden of Pine Woods for Niigata Seiryo University Campus, Niigata City, Japan (completed 2010). The courtyard was designed to become a central event stage and a space where everyone can meet. The structural form gleams softly through the shadow of pines, reflecting and enhancing their beauty. There is a Wabi-Sabi combination of purity with imperfection, because the trees do not allow perfectly complete circles. Sitting beneath the colling shade of pine trees is a pleasant activity in the hot humid shade of a Japanese summer. It is a context-sensitive design, functionally, climatically, culturally and aesthetically. The V-sign is also a context-sensitive gesture. In England it symbolises vulgar aggression (with the palm facing backwards) and victory, as in the Churchill salute, with the palm facing forwards. In Japan and much of East Asia, it became associated with peace and happiness, after the 1972 Olympic Games.

Images and information on Garden of Pine Woods for Niigata Seiryo University

The landscape setting of Dun Carloway Broch, Lewis, Outer Hebrides

Brochs are a unique building form, dating from the 1st century BC and indigenous to Scotland. They had internal wooden floors and they were inhabited. This is clear. But how they were located and why they were built is unclear. Gordon Childe interpreted brochs as fortifications from which chiefs ruled subject populations. Since no evidence for this could be found, this was followed (in the 1980s) by a theory that they were prestige dwellings for important families, but again there was a lack of evidence and it is often the case that brochs are not located in good agricultural land. But many brochs do have significant positions in the landscape, near cliffs, in valleys and by narrow stretches of water. This suggests, to me, that like so-called hill-forts and stone circles, they had a symbolic and aesthetic role in proclaiming that an area of land was in the ownership of a clan of closely related families. Brochs are early examples of Scottish landscape architecture.

Thank you to Maciomhair for his beautiful black and white photograph of Dun Carloway Broch in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The building form made good use of local materials and gave a high level of protection from wind and rain. Since travel by boat was easier than travel on land, the west coast of Scotland had relatively good links with Celtic Europe. The crofts on the left of the photograph are a survival of a medieval building-and-farming settlement type. When the brochs were built, other families lived in circular huts with mud or stone walls and thatched roofs.

Specialised public open space enriches urban landscape design

The ‘urban squatters’ skateboard park on the South bank in London is one of my favourite examples of a highly specialised, and unofficial, public open space. Benighted planners have as unimaginative an approach to POS as they do to education. It is ONE SIZE FITS ALL – a national curriculum and a national provision of ‘public open space’. The historic standard was ‘7 acres of open space/1000 people’, to go with a national diet of one glass of milk, four slices of bread, meat and two veg, with a fish on a Friday. Cooks have liberated us from wartime diets but wartime POS provision continues. ‘You can have any POS you want, so long as it is green’. But, as the video shows, London’s young, dynamic, agile and multi-ethnic youngsters have other ideas, other tastes, other skills and a harlequin love of coloured space. My conclusion is that the age of Generalised POS is over. The age of Specialised POS has begun. The above example cost the authorities nothing to make and costs them nothing to maintain. It is therefore more SUSTAINABLE than a stupid patch of neglected grass.
Notes (1) other examples of specialised POS welcome (2) I’m not sure but I think the urban space in the video is a consequence of the architecture professions onetime love of pilotis.

Holistic urban water management in Chinese urbanisation: Atelier Herbert Dreiseitl in Zhangjiawo New Town

River Park in Zhangjiawo New Town

River Park in Zhangjiawo New Town

中国城市化进程中的整体城市水管理:张家窝新城设计—Dreiseitl工作室   Thinking about the urban development which has taken place in mainland China since Deng Xiaoping repudiated the Cultural Revolution in 1977, the words which come to mind are: fantastic, astonishing, unbelievable and unprecedented. If, however, a laowai 老外 may be allowed a word or two of criticism (1) the work has been a little rushed (2) too few landscape architects were involved in the urban design (3) it is a pity that so much was learned from America in comparison with what was learned from Europe (4) nature in general and water in particular have suffered from the urbanisation (5) the work could have been done in a more Daoist way than it has been, with the reverence for nature which was traditional in Daoist and Buddhist culture.
With these thoughts in mind I was very pleased to read that Atelier Dreiseitl have completed a project in Zhangjiawo New Town. As noted in a review of Dreiseitl’s book on Recent Waterscapes, his work has the virtue which Lewis Mumford attributed to Ian McHarg of combining ‘scientific insight’ with ‘constructive environmental design’.
‘The Chinese seem to have been the first to perceive the relationships joining the flow of water with the shape of land and with the social and philosophical milieu.According to Joseph Needham, China produced two opposing schools of thought in hydrological engineering as in virtually ever other area of human endeavor: the Confucian and the Taoist. The Confucians were disciplinarians who believed in strict rules and strong measures of control. They advocated ‘high and mighty dykes, set nearer together’… The Taoists, or expansionists, were more inclined to let water take its own course as far as possible, giving it plenty of room to spread. The result was a very complex network of flow. An early Taoist engineer, one Chia Jang, wrote over 3000 years ago that ‘those who are good at controlling water give it the best opportunities to flow away; those who are good at controlling the people give them plent of chance to talk’ (John Tillman Lyle, Design for human ecosystems: landscape, land use, and natural resources (1999, p.236)
The American approach to water management was Confucian, in the sense of regulatory. But McHarg introduced a more Daoist approach in the famous project for Woodlands, Texas. It proved to be more beautiful, more effective and more ecological. And it came in at 25% of the cost of the US engineers ‘Confucian’ system. As McHarg observed ‘there is no better union than virtue and profit’. I therefore hope Dreiseitl is re-pioneering a Daoist approach to holistic urban water management in the formerly Daoist Middle Kingdom. Continental European cities, because so many of them were founded in the Middle Ages, have a long tradition of incorporating open water channels within the fabric of the city. American cities, because so many of them date from the nineteenth century, have tended to put as much urban water as possible into underground pipes. China seems to have done things the American way, so far.

Images courtesy Tian Yuan

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.

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.

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.