Category Archives: Landscape Architecture

Landscape Urbanism vs New Urbanism


Here is a great video from Rob Cowan: he draws as well as he talks – and he talks as well as he operates a camera. Should we be Landscape Urbanists or New Urbanists? Rob’s answer is ‘let’s stop wasting time on theory and get to work on solving problems’. With an equally peace-making message I would say:
New Urbanist to Landscape Urbanist: ‘You’re so right: let’s love each other and work together’
Landscape Urbanist to New Urbanist: ‘You’re so right: let’s love each other and work together’
But then I would say to both of them ‘C’mon you guys. Stop thinking in 2 dimensions: that game’s a’gonna. You guys gotta work in 4 dimensions’.

Manifesto: Is the postmodern condition of landscape architecture its extinction? or is it landscape ecological urbanism?

postmodern_landscape_architecture
Landscape architecture: an apocalyptic manifesto, was the title of a landscape architecture manifesto published in 2004 by Heidi Hohmann and Joern Langhorst (and republished as ‘Landscape Architecture: A Terminal Case?’ in Landscape Architecture Magazine 95, no. 4 (April 2005): 26-45.). The original manifesto is still available as a pdf document. The Hohmann-Langhorst diagnosis was as excellent. Their prognosis was pessimistic and melancholic.
Having a nostalgic affection for manifestos, I responded with my own manifesto – and plan to mark its 10th anniversary with a revised version.
The above diagram, from the Hohmann-Langhorst article, shows the disciplines from which landscape architecture emerged and the disciplines into which they expected it to dissolve. Worldwide, this has definitely not been landscape architecture’s fate in the last decade. It has had a great many successes without, in my view, coming near to realising its full potential.
There is a great contrast between the two countries (Britain and America) which gave birth to landscape architecture as an organized profession. Landscape architecture is flourishing in the US and stagnant in the UK. It could be that the Hohmann-Langhorst article stimulated the US profession to examine its navel and engage in renewal and re-generation. In part, the regeneration has come from the body of theory known as Landscape Urbanism. Proponents have had many competition successes and advocates of New Urbanism feel themselves under threat. Andres Duany and Emily Talen have responded with a book on Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City. The blurb to their book (which I have not yet read) states that ‘While there is significant overlap between Landscape Urbanism and the New Urbanism, the former has assumed prominence amongst most critical theorists, whereas the latter’s proponents are more practically oriented.’ This is despite the fact that Landscape Urbanists have done a poor job of explaining themselves. They should be grateful to Ian Thompson for his account of its Ten Tenets – and I hope his clarity will stimulate the much-needed revival of English landscape architecture. It is of interest that one of the landscape architects with the clearest vision of where the profession should be heading was born in the UK and works in the US – see this interview, in which Time Magazine describes James Corner as an Urban Dreamscaper.

Freshkills Park, New York City – a Landscape Urbanism project by James Corner

With luck, I will have to change my mind when it is completed. But my present view of James Corner’s design for Freshkills Park is that it is a dull design for a dull place. It reminds me of many landscape reclamation projects completed in the north of England in the 1970s. ‘Before’ photographs, intended to shock the viewer, showed heaps of mining waste with scrubby vegetation. ‘DERELICTION’ we were told. ‘After’ photographs, were of several varieties: the mouse-under-the-carpet, the dog-under-the-carpet and the whale-under-the-carpet. The ‘carpet’ was an expensively created layer of greeny-yellow turf with a sparsity of dying trees. This is what the clients wanted, it has to be said, but the results were of very little ecological, visual or social value.
Another Freshkills puzzle is why it should be regarded as exemplifying a new approach to landscape architecture. I see Landscape Urbanism as postmodern and Freshkills as a good example of McHargian Ecological Design – which was a modernist approach. James Corner’s design for the High Line is excellent – so I remain optimistic that Fresh Kills will turn out well. I re-visited Richard Wilson’s wonderful 20:50 sump oil installation at the Saatchi Gallery recently and it made me wonder about Fresh Kills. As an access-route, why not cut a glass-sided trench though the heap of rubbish so that visitors can watch the decay progress? We could see leachate dripping onto old motherboards and the occasional pair of mating rats?. Then there could be a flare to burn off a tiny fraction of the methane.

Landscape Ecological Urbanism

Landscape (Ecological) Urbanism is a better name

Landscape (Ecological) Urbanism is a better name

Wiki has the following accounts of landscape and ecological urbanism
Landscape Urbanism is a theory of urban planning arguing that the best way to organise cities is through the design of the city’s landscape, rather than the design of its buildings…. The first major event to do with ‘landscape urbanism’ was the Landscape Urbanism conference sponsored by the Graham Foundation in Chicago in April 1997. Speakers included Charles Waldheim, Mohsen Mostafavi, James Corner of James Corner/Field Operations, Alex Wall, and Adriaan Geuze of the firm West 8, among others.
The ecological urbanism project draws from ecology to inspire an urbanism that is more socially inclusive and sensitive to the environment, as well as less ideologically driven, than green urbanism or sustainable urbanism. In many ways, ecological urbanism is an evolution of, and a critique of, Landscape Urbanism arguing for a more holistic approach to the design and management of cities.
I welcome both initiatives as perhaps the most significant contributions to landscape design theory since the landscape architecture profession was launched in the mid-nineteenth century. But much the same group of people are involved in both initiatives and I am unpersuaded by the change of name. For the construct Ecological Urbanism to have a good chance of a long and happy life its two components would need careful definitions and accounts of their intension and extension.
LANDSCAPE Architecture has established itself as a design profession and uses the word landscape evaluatively – just as ‘a work of architecture’ differs from ‘a building’. ECOLOGICAL can be used evaluatively but is more often used to describe one of the natural sciences. The compound LANDSCAPE ECOLOGY uses both words descriptively. I would appreciate a justification for Ecological Urbanism’s claim, quoted above, to social inclusiveness. Mostafavi, in his introduction to a large book on the subject, provides no evidence of an interest in the social use of urban space – unless you include his final remark that ‘Guattari’s conception of an ethics of the ecological is an inherently political project with a commitment to countering the global dominance of capitalism’. I predict not many clients will brief ecological urbanists to overthrow global capitalism. So I suggest using the term Landscape (Ecological) Urbanism for a while – and then dropping the (Ecological) when people have recognized the ecological commitment. As Ian Thompson argued in 2000 (in his book on Ecology, Community and Delight: An Inquiry into Values in Landscape Architecture: Sources of Value in Landscape Architecture) the Vitruvian aims of landscape architecture already include Ecology. We just need to bang on about this important point.
See also Gardenvisit notes on Landscape and Ecological Urbanism
Note on the illustration: it shows James Craig’s famous plan for Edinburgh New Town superimposed on ‘the bark of a tree‘. The section of Craig’s drawing north of Princes Street was built and is a great success in its response to landform and views. The section south of Princes Street was not built and hardly could have been built. The land falls into a deep valley, occupied by a loch when the plan was drawn, and then rises steeply to Edinburgh Castle Rock – which is shown on the plan.

Happy New Year 2014 – and may it be free of GREENWASH

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Oxford English Dictionary offers this useful definition of greenwash (n)
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈɡriːnwɒʃ/ , U.S. /ˈɡrinˌwɔʃ/ , /ˈɡrinˌwɑʃ/
Etymology: < green adj. + wash n., after whitewash n. Misleading publicity or propaganda disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., regarded as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.
1987 D. Bellamy in Sanity Sept. 28/1 They create a lot of environmental ‘greenwash’, and thank god for it, because they create some very good nature reserves. But they’re also commissioning uneconomic nuclear power stations.
1989 Observer 5 Mar. 14/2 Six Ministers launched ‘Environment in Trust’, a clutch of pastel-shaded leaflets putting a greenwash over the Government’s environmental record.
1993 New Scientist 10 Apr. 22/2 While they can be useful, these sorts of standards are sometimes used quite cynically—as corporate greenwash.
2003 Managem. Today Jan. 45/2 Companies only report what they want to report, and it’s mostly greenwash and PR.

London's proposed new Garden Bridge

London's proposed Garden Bridge (image courtesy Arup)

London’s proposed Garden Bridge (image courtesy Arup)


Let us join the chorus of support for London’s Garden Bridge. The government and the Greater London Authority have promised to pay half the cost – so finding the rest should be a formality. The idea was conceived by the star actress Joanna Lumley in 1998 (she is also a patron of the Druk White Lotus School). But her idea slept for 14 years, until TfL asked for ideas about new ways of crossing the Thames. Thomas Heatherwick, working with Arup (coincidentally the architects for the Druk School), published the above design last summer – and half the funding was promised this month. The Garden Bridge will be 367 metres long and 30 metres wide at its widest point. It will connect a point near Temple station to a point near Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank Centre.
As an idea, it is wonderfully superior to Hungerford Bridge and, of course, to the London Eye. But what all three projects teach us is THE DESIGN PROFESSIONS SHOULD NOT WAIT TO BE ASKED. If designers, especially landscape architects (because of their concern with the public realm), have a good idea then they should draw it and publish it.
Useful links re the Garden Bridge:
TfL consultation on the Garden Bridge
Garden Bridge Trust website (with video)

Hermitage Wharf, Joseph Conrad, Norman Foster and the River Thames Landscape

hermitage_wharf
The above photograph from Tower Bridge was taken yesterday on my way to the cycle petition hand-in. It struck me as a real Joseph Conrad view of the river and Andrew Cowan Architects design for Hermitage Wharf looks much better than Foster’s design for Albion Riverside. Then I remembered having written a critical comment on Hermitage Wharf a few years ago. Checking it, I was pleased to find that I had praised the architecture and that it was the wretchedly dull riverside space I had criticised. Maybe Tower Hamlets’ planners mandated a bad landscape design because of the South Bank type crowds they were anticipating?
hermitage-wharf1

Lord Norman Foster's Thames-side Boom Boxes

We are pleased to publish the hitherto-unseen concept which so evidently inspired Lord Norman Foster’s pair of Thames Boomboxes. As previously agreed, Lord Norman does ‘an awfully good box‘. His heart is in the right place: he speaks with enthusiasm about urban design and works with good landscape architects. The problem, I fear, is that his head is in the wrong place. He sees buildings as objects, not as the creators of space. His own office (the left-hand building, above) is a fine box. But, like a hifi box or another consumer product, it could fit equally well in any context. There is nothing-London and nothing-Thames about it or the curvy adjoining residential boombox – except of course for its wannabe name: The Albion. The above photograph was taken on a warm day in late summer. Re-visited last week a howling gale was being funneled through the arch under the Albion. The ambient temperature was 11C and, with wind-chill, felt like -1C. So, while perfectly able to admire Foster and Partners architecture, I condemn this example of the firm’s the landscape architecture and urban design. The half-doughnut building faces due north, so that its wings keep out all sunlight except for mid-day in mid-summer. This is not my idea of good conditions for enjoying a good outdoor life beside a great river.

Useful info for the mayor and leader of Royal Greenwich Borough Council

Stupid landscape architecture and mediocre architecture in Woolwich, London

Dear Councillor Angela Cornforth and Councillor Chris Roberts
Respectfully, I draw the following points to your attention:

    • You were elected to represent the people of Greenwich
    • The people you represent do not want to pay for mowing useless grass

. They prefer gardens.

  • The people you represent wash their clothes. After that, they want to dry them – but not in a communal space (inset photo, bottom right)
  • The people you represent ride bicycles. They and do not want them to be stolen and they do not want to hang them from the Juliet balconies you have allowed to be built (inset photo, top right).
  • Your council’s riverside path is 36 feet wide (=10,973m). It has hardly any users. This is a waste of land. The heavily used riverside footpath in Maritime Greenwich is called the Five Foot Path and is 5′ = 1.524m wide.
  • The buildings your council allowed to be built c1995 look like relics of the 1930s with double glazing. I believe Councillor Roberts was in charge of Planning at that time. Past errors should be rectified
  • Your council still employs a lot of town planners. They have powers which could be used to secure good urban and landscape design. Since they continue to permit unustainably bad urban landscape design, you should sack them.

The reason your Council should have landscape architects on its staff is not to do design work. It is to ensure that planning applications have appropriate landscape conditions attached to them – so that public goods can be secured through the planning process. The town planners who do this work at present do not have the  necessary skills in design, construction, planting or the social use of small outdoor space in urban areas. Think about it: if either of you has a heart attack, do you want a gynecologist to look after you? If your car needs to be repaired, would you take it to a vet? If your house has subsidence, would you cal for a decorator?  I guess not, so why not employ landscape architects for landscape architectural work?

Yours truly

Tom

The skyline, architecture and landscape of the River Thames in Central London


I see the Banks of the Thames as a place where, during the twentieth century, unimaginative planning and selfishly mediocre architecture often conspired to produce designs better suited to a rundown provincial town than to the heart of a great city. Skylines, landscape and architecture should be considered together, looking to the past and looking to the future. ‘Protecting’ views is important but insufficient. Proposals for ‘high buildings’ ‘tall buildings’ and ‘towers’ should be viewed in context, never in isolation. Studies of their visual and environmental impact require scenic quality assessments, a policy context and full testing on a digital model of the city. As the below quotations reveal, London’s river is both a Place of Darkness and a Place of Light.
William Blake, in 1794, found ‘in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ where ‘the Thames does flow’.
William Wordsworth, 8 years later found the Thames a river of beauty and romance. He declared that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ (1802).
Joseph Conrad, in 1899, knew the Thames as a place of history, romance, toil, darkness and light. He saw London as ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth’, a place which had known ‘the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires’ and was yet ‘one of the dark places of the earth.’
Since 1945 property developers have seen the Thames as a place to make a quick buck
Since 2000, some wealthy immigrants have viewed riverside apartments as great places to launder the ill-gotten gains of financial scams and miscellaneous corruption.

Recent blog posts about London’s River Thames skyline landscape

See also:  Rem Koolhaas on London’s skyline. Koolhaas remarks that ‘London has always changed dramatically and it’s still is not a very dramatic city. So it can go on. I think that in London whatever you do you do not disturb an earlier coherence. You do not disturb an earlier utopia like in Paris. It can stand a lot of development without suffering’.  I read this comment as a polite way of saying that most of London’s riverside is pretty dull, as the above video shows, it has its moments – but not enough of them.

The 122 Leadenhall Cheesegrater and protecting London's skyline landscape view of St Paul's Cathedral from Fleet Street

St Paul's Cathedral, the Fenchurch Cheesgrater and the London Skyline from Fleet Street

London has had controls on tall buildings since the Great Fire of 1666 and views of St Paul’s Cathedral have been protected since Faraday House was built in 1938. A recent consequence of this protection is that No 122 Leadenhall Street, dubbed the Cheesgrater, was shaped like a wedge of cheese. The planners and the designers (Rogers Stirk Harbour Architects), sought to lessen the impact on the much-loved view of St Paul’s Cathedral for those traveling east along Fleet Street. As the above photographs show, the west elevation is shaped like a church spire on its south face and a rectangular block on its north face. This reduced the floor area by almost 50% (and the rental income by approx £4.5m/year). I commend the sacrifice of profit to beauty but is the result beautiful? My answers are (1) the north and south elevations of the Cheesegrater drive an ugly wedge into the City’s once-harmonious skyline. So the endeavour was worthy but the result is only a partial success. (2) The most important street view of St Paul’s Cathedral, from Ludgate Hill, would have been unaffected by an any-shaped building at 122 Leadenhall Street (3) I would prefer a spire, in keeping with London’s traditions, or a curvilinear building to harmonise with the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie (also known as Vinoly’s Bulge). Please consider the following questions, with the above images from left to right:

  • Was the skyline better before the addition?
  • Is the Cheese Grater a good shape for this skyline?
  • Would a rectangular block be OK?
  • Is this a place for a ‘Pepper Pot Skyscraper’?
  • Would a Shard-type spire be more in keeping with London’s historic skyline?

THE most important surviving views of St Paul’s Cathedral are from the River Thames embankments and Waterloo Bridge. The Greater London Authority GLA should commission a digital model of Central London for use in generating accurate perspectives of development proposals. They need to be seen in relation to each other and to the existing urban landscape. And/or, they could ask David Watson to produce a complete verified photomontage and ZVI analysis. As the photograph below shows, the architecture and planning professions have allowed a chaotic skyline to appear. Quite possibly they are surprised and embarrassed by what has happened – and puzzled as to how a better outcome might have been achieved.

St Paul's Cathedral, the Heron Tower, Tower 42, the Gherkin, a Blob, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie - seen from Waterloo Bridge. Simon Jenkins and many other commentators view this skyline as

The view of St Paul's Cathedral from Ludgate Hill is unaffected by the Cheese Grater. Thames views are much affected

Paul Finch, consultant editor of the Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, commends the public space which will be created below the building and summarizes his view of 122 Leadenhall Street as follows: ‘All in all, the Cheesegrater is a speculative office development of extraordinary quality, built in an exemplary way by Laing O’Rourke, with engineering by Arup. It sets standards that few are likely to emulate.’
Finch read history at Cambridge and has edited BD, the AJ and the AR. A history degree should give him impartiality but a life in architecture could be counter-productive. On high buildings in London my views are closer to those of another Cambridge man, Monty Don, who is a scion of the architectural Wyatts and the marmalade Keillers. Reflecting on the protected views of low-rise Paris from the Arc de Triomphe, Don is delighted that Paris ‘has resisted the indiscriminate spread of skyscrapers. There is nothing wrong with these per se, after all, Manhattan is stunningly beautiful precisely because of them, but they diminish any otherwise magnificent buildings they adjoin. They destroy the scale. Look south-east and the city is flat-topped, the individual roofs of buildings smoothed to one harmonious plateau’ A French garden journey, Simon and Schuster, 2013 p227). But could Paris have become the world’s financial capital if this policy had not been instigated? If they had also switched to the use of English, possibly.

Note: I have included a pepper pot shape in the above montages in response to one of the conclusions from the 2001-2 House of Commons report on Tall Buildings: ‘Tall buildings should be clustered rather than pepper-potted across a city’. ‘Pepper-potting’ can refer both to the shape of a pepper grinder and to the sprinkled distribution of the pepper which falls from its jaws.

The Shard architecture and skyline landscape symbolic reviews

Salisbury Cathedral, The Shard (with a cross) and the Albert Memorial as Christian architectural symbols in an urban landscape

If you build a skyscaper in London you can expect a shovel of reviews. Here is a selection of opinions about the symbolic impact of Renzo Piano’s Shard on London’s landscape.
Tom Turner: If The Shard had a Christian cross on top most of the critics would change their minds
Nathan Hurst: The Shard is an irregular pyramid with a glass exterior, evoking a shard of glass.
Fergus Feilden: I find the Shard lacks soul
Richard Rogers: The Shard is the most beautiful addition to the London skyline.
Owen Hatherley: The Shard is rammed unforgivingly into Southwark
Peter Buchanan: The Shard is much too big, as is Piano’s building rising beside it, and completely out of character with the surrounding area − the evocation of spires and sails is fatuous.
Simon Jenkins: This tower is anarchy. It conforms to no planning policy. It marks no architectural focus or rond-point.
Paul Finch: Like any icon, the Shard demands attention and has received it in spades from London cab drivers (split views), architects (benefit of the doubt), and the non-fraternity of architectural critics puzzled by this south-of-the-Thames phenomenon.
Terry Farrell: In its overall shape, the tower is to my mind a bit of a 1960s Dan Dare version but as with all Renzo’s buildings it has its own elegance.
Simon Allford: I am delighted to see it standing tall on the skyline in an unexpected place confidently breaking rules.
Patrik Schumacher: The form is insufficiently motivated. The project seems to sacrifice efficiency for the formal purity of the pyramid.
Jonathan Glancey: The Shard is in the wrong place. It would be better off in Shanghai or Dubai.
Aditya Chakrabortty: It’s expensive. It’s off-limits. It’s largely owned by people who don’t live here. And it is the perfect metaphor for what our capital is becoming.
Chris Leadbeater: Henry VIII would be furious. Apoplectic. Red-faced with rage. Heads would surely roll.

Underneath it all, London remains a city of spires: St Paul

My guess is reviewers can be placed in two camps: left-wing and right-wing. Aesthetic conservatives would be happy to see a traditional spire towering of London, as the spire of Old St Paul’s once did. Aesthetic lefties enjoy breaks with tradition and feel sick at the use of a traditional building forms in the twenty-first century. Both groups of critics are happy to sneer at Towers of Mamon and/or at foreign involvement in London. Symbols have a profound influence on aesthetic judgements. While the UK economy has languished for a century, London’s economy has rarely paused since the time of Henry VII. It remains one of the most financially productive places on earth and subsidises what remains of the British Empire (including the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)

The worst view of The Shard is More London in the foreground. It is dissonant ('in the musical sense of 'a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant '). Is the red arm removing a speck of dust from Lord Foster's eyeball?

Sunlight, tall buildings and the City of London's new urban landscape architecture


I had a short walk and ride around the City of London at the weekend. It is an unusual place and, though I have never had the experience, thought about being  in a crevasse. The City has a medieval street pattern overlaid on a Roman street pattern. It can’t be changed and land values are sky high. So they keep building higher and with steel and glass. You might think this would produce gloomy canyons but, in fact, there is a phenomenon akin to total internal reflection, as in a ‘sun tube’, which brings light down to street level. The odd aspect of this is that the light is normally less-bright than sunlight and has a ghostly quality (as when sun shines through ice). An exception results from the Walkie Talkie.

As it neared completion in 2013 Rafael Viñoly Architects design for 20 Fenchurch Street began to act as a solar mirror. It focused so much sun in the pavements that it became possible to fry eggs. Londoners therefore changed its name to Walkie Talkie Scorchie – though Fryscraper is a popular alternative. The above video begins where Lovat Lane runs south from Eastcheap – so the sunlight is coming from the north! It shows the once-dark alley blazing with solar glare. Viñoly should have known better: he had the same problem with the Vdara skyscraper in Las Vegas. The effect is known as a ‘death ray’ but, properly directed, the sunlight reflected from tall buildings can be a welcome addition to dark pedestrian spaces.

 Viñoly’s response to the problem has been to point his fingers and toes at other consultants. He whines that [in London] ‘the superabundance of consultants and sub consultants dilute the responsibility of the designers until you don’t know where you are’ so that ‘architects aren’t architects anymore’. In truth, he did not have the right consultants. What he needed was a physicist to calculate what would happen and a landscape architect to make best-possible use of the reflected light. Gillespies are working on the design of the Fenchurch Street Skygarden and I am sure they would have been pleased to help out with the street level design problem.

Architects (notably Richard Rogers) often argue that high buildings save the green belt, save on transport infrastructure and are good for sustainability. All true but this does not mean tall buildings are always best. Simon Jenkins tried to discuss them at the RIBA  and reached the conclusion that ‘Talking towers with London architects is like talking disarmament with the National Rifle Association. A skyscraper seems every builder’s dream. At a Royal Institute of British Architects seminar on the subject last April, I faced an audience almost entirely of architects who treated any criticism of tall buildings as nothing to do with aesthetics or urban culture but to do with denying them money.’  An expert House of Commons committee (2001-2) and the City’s Chief Planning Officer (Peter Rees) argue that high buildings are unnecessary and undesirable – because similar densities can be achieved by other means.

The planning and design of tall buildings should form part of an imaginative scenic conception of the future urban landscapes they will help create. Conservation is not enough. Innovation is not enough. Past and future concepts must be brought into harmony. This requires design imagination.

Iran landscape architecture, urban design and politics

Modern landscape architecture, Tehran, Iran

Modern landscape architecture, Tehran, Iran

I share the general optimism about Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s future. Many of the country’s problems were caused by western interventions. Others are indigenous. My own experience of Iranians is that they are kind, courteous and peaceful. This has made it difficult for me to understand their demonisation in the west. The new President has both liberal and authoritarian credentials. He gained a PhD in ‘no mean city’: Glasgow. He wear’s a cleric’s clothes and buys from Armani (I do not know how this is possible). If you are also wondering what relevance this has for this blog then I recommend Louise Wickham’s interesting book on Gardens in History: A Political Perspective. Garden design, like urban design, has always been influenced by politics. You can read something of Iran’s last half-century in the above photograph. The design is inoffensive: a little Iranian, a little European, a little modern and not much of anything. So my modest suggestion, assuming President Rouhani reads this blog, is to show your people what you can do for them by encouraging them to draw on the best of Iran’s traditions and the best of contemporary landscape, garden and urban design wheresoever in the world then can be found.
Photo (courtesy jturn) of Park-e Laleh, Jamshīdīyeh, Tehran, Tehran, Iran.

Landscape and green open space planning strategy in London

Richmond exemplifies the best in London Open Space Planning for London parks and green space strategy
Richmond exemplifies the best in London Open Space Planning – and can inspire a new green space infrastructure strategy

The Gardenvisit.com website has a history of, and commentary upon, the planning of parks, park systems, public open space and green infrastructure in London. It was written and published about ten years ago and is due for an update. While this is in hand, we offer links to several pdf documents:

The diagrams, below, show the open space/green infrastructure diagrams from the Country of London Plan and the 1991 Green Strategy.  From 1951 to 1991 London open space planning was dominated by the modernist idea of an open space deficiency – which should be corrected by a hierarchy of small, medium and large parks. The odd, and unstated, implication of the ‘deficiency’ concept is that there should be large-scale demolitions in the London Borough of Islington (which has 0.011ha per 1000 population) and large-scale building on open space in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (which has 13 ha per 1000 population). I’d like to see the results of public consultation on these ideas – they are wealthy boroughs with highly articulate residents. In 2013 the average house price was £545,301 in Islington and in £614,633 in Richmond. Could the profit on selling park land in Richmond could go to buying park land in Islington? Or was the concept of open space deficiency stupid in 1951 and absurd in 2013? One-word comments welcome!

Abercrombie’s idea that open spaces should be connected slept from 1943-1991 but has been revived and is now embodied in the idea of making a ‘Green Grid’. This term appeared in the Thames Gateway South Essex Green Grid Strategy and is now formalised in the All London Green Grid. Personally, I would rather it was described as a Green Web. Its primary geometries should be more circular and centripetal than rectangular. As a Germanic word, used to describe the product of weaving, a ‘web’ entails the use of overlapping strands (as in the green gtrategy diagram, below). The concept also gains from association with the spiders and caterpillars, which make organic and non-rectangular webs of great strength and flexibility, and from other biological use to describe ‘a tissue or membrane in an animal body or in a plant’. Also in 1991, 1991   Tim Berners-Lee gave ‘web’ another useful connotation. He wrote that ‘The web contains documents in many formats. Those documents which are 
hypertext,  (real or virtual) contain links to other documents, or places  within documents’. Comparably, I think of a Green Web as having overlapping strands which inter-link different kinds of space which are green in the sense of ‘good from an environmental point of view’. Some of the links and spaces should be green in the sense of ‘vegetated’. Others should be water bodies, urban squares, streets and cycleways – which may, or may not, contain green plants.

London Open Space Plan, Park System and Green Infrastructure Stragety

London Open Space Plan, Park System and Green Infrastructure Stragety

 

Northala Fields – the landscape planning of a public park

Northala Fields landscape design

Northala Fields opened as a public park five years ago and I have been slow in making a visit. From the photographs I judged it ‘good but not very good’. After this morning’s visit I have upped this to ‘very good but not excellent’. The landscape planning, however, is excellent:
– the conical hills look good, shield the park from traffic noise, provide destinations for walkers and runners and offer fine views over London. They were made out of rubble from demolishing the old Wembley Stadium. That’s good too – but I wish they had salvaged some features instead of reducing everything to rubble.
– the water park to the south of the hills is an attractive place with ponds, trees, shrubs and wild life
The landscape design was by FoRM Associates, a London practice which was run by Igor Marko, Peter Fink and Rick Rowbotham (the firm operated from 2007-2012). The founders were an artist, an architect and a landscape architect but the latter is not credited with the project: it was regarded as public art.
My visit was a deviation from the route of London’s Capital Ring, which I have been following. It links a number of greenspaces of varying quality. I suppose I could set up a system to assess their quality and, if doing so, would remember the four lunches I have enjoyed in a four day trip. Each time I asked for a ‘bacon roll and cappucino’. Much the best was in a cafe near Eltham College – maybe the boys have trained them. The cost was £3.70. Next best was from a caravan in Richmond Park: £5.20 – good coffee and a very well cooked bacon roll for £5.20. Next best was from a cafe outside Harrow School: £7.20 for a decent coffee with a disappointing bacon sandwich. Worst quality was from a transport cafe beside Streatham Common: £2.70 for flabby white bread and tough bacon. ‘This is not coffee’ I complained after the first sip ‘Yeah – we don’t do coffee’ they told me. The compensation was free newspapers to read (Sun and Star only). Price is the easiest thing to assess but does not correlate with gastronomic quality (for which my assessment criteria were: quality of coffee, quality of bread and quality of bacon. Price does however correlate exactly with quality of service. The most expensive provider also had the best interior design, though it was very traditional. The seating area around the caravan in Richmond Park was a total disgrace ‘wood effect picnic seating made of solid plastic’. So is it true that ‘you get what you pay for’? No: if you want a coffee and bacon sandwich the best buy cost £3.70. The same is true of public open space: the largest budget does NOT produce the best design. Much better to deploy imagination, ingenuity and wisdom.

Is Grannary Square London's finest new public open space?

An Architect’s Journal comment welcomes Grannary Square as ‘London’s finest new public space’. So, many congratulations to the designers: Townshend Landscape Architects. It opened as a public open space in 2012 and had a great season in 2013 because of the fine summer weather.  Rory Olcayto rates it a better contribution to King’s Cross than the work of its panoply of big name architects (John McAslan + Partners, PRP,  MaccreanorLavington,  Glenn Howells,   Carmody Groarke,   Stanton Williams,  David Chipperfield,  Allies & Morrison,   AHMM,  Feix & Merlin, etc). Olcayto could have added that Grannary Square is likely to outlive ALL the buildings – just as St James’s Park has, so far, outlived Whitehall Palace by 300 years.

I see the design as a great start on what may become a great public open space. The design is strong and simple. The water feature is big and bold. The grove of trees with unfixed chairs and tables is a welcome homage to W H Whyte. The artificial grass steps, facing the sun and the canal, are a great success.  All good. Grannary Square is a little blank and empty – but can be expected to fill up with people and uses as Argent’s King’s Cross Development gathers steam.

As I was pressing the button to take the photograph, below, a distraught mother ran to me and cried ‘Excuse me – why are you photographing my children?’. She accepted my explanation and said that her husband was a photographer and often had similar complaints. I asked why she was troubled. ‘I don’t know’ she said ‘I just feel that it is my job to protect my children’. It reminds one of primitive peoples’ idea that something belonging to them them has been ‘taken’ when the camera clicks – and of girls who both want to be looked at and do not want to be looked at.  Lin Yutang commented that ‘All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress’. Do mother’s want their children to be admired?
The zany zig-zag is an installation by the Swiss artist Felice Varini and is entitled Across the Buildings. I believe it will only there in 2013 and will be sorry when it goes. See http://vimeo.com/kingscrosscouk/varini

Beijing urban landscape: architecture, planning, design and conservation

Should the old urban landscape of Central Beijing have been conserved?


The montage, which is rough, shows a 1914 plan of Beijing superimposed on a recent Landsat image of the Beijing metropolitan area. When the reconstruction of the old city began, after 1949, Chen Zhanxiang recommended that a new city should be built outside the old walled city – so that the central area could be conserved. He had worked with Sir Patrick Abercrombie in London and understood the need for a city to engage in both conservation and development. Professor Liang Si-cheng commented that ‘demolishing the old wall is like peeling off my skin’ (Turner, T., Asian gardens: history, beliefs and design 2010, pp307-8). Beijing’s old walls, which became the 2nd Ring Road, are shown in the below photograph.

Osvald Siren's photograph of the old walls of Beijing, before they were demolished to make a ring road

Were the academics right or were the municipal authorities right? My vote goes to the academics. Central Beijing should have been as well protected from the twentieth century as Haussmann’s Paris.  The two capitals have comparable design histories. But, for Chinese urban designers and landscape planners, there were other problems. The old map makes a distinction between the ‘Tartar or Manchu’ Inner City (which contains the Forbidden City and the three Seas) and the ‘Chinese’ Outer City. The Manchus were invaders who spoke a different language. Their walls were a symbol of exclusion and repression, like the Berlin Wall, and were demolished by Chairman Mao’s government. Had the French and British not demolished the Yuan Ming Yuan, Mao Zedong might have done it for political reasons, much as he destroyed Buddhist monasteries. Mao’s position in Chinese history is peculiar. He will always have credit for modernising the country and educating women but, one day, he is likely to receive even more blame for the Cultural Revolution. He will also be blamed for destroying too much of China’s architectural and landscape heritage. So here is my advice to municipal authorities everywhere: find the best parts of your heritage FROM EVERY ERA and apply the most stringent conservation measures possible. This will require landscape assessement technqiues. The ‘blocky landscape’ of early 21st century Beijing will be disliked, sooner or later, but a good-sized zone should be subject to strict conservation measures – including those ridiculuous ‘flower beds’ which line any roads wide enough to have them.

The 2nd Ring Road in Beijing follows the walls of the old city - on which it stands


Images of Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road courtesy of ernop and poeloq

Triumph of the City – destruction of the Green Belt

Chandni Chowk: a low-carbon sustainable street in Old Delhi

Etymologically, economics is the study of the laws (nomos) which govern homes (oikos). But economists work with a rarely-spoken assumption that what matters is how to get wealthier. I have been reading a book by the Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Despite the long title, what he really wants is to make America ‘richer’ and less dependent on carbon fuels. He praises Chinese cities for the low carbon consumption of their residential areas and criticises people who live around San Francisco (eg Marin County) for opposing as much new building as they can. The city of Houston is praised for encouraging as much development as possible but criticised for letting it take place a low densities. The city of Paris is praised for conserving its central area (within Périphérique) while allowing high buildings at La Défense.
Glaeser does not say much about London but his views can be assumed: (1) London has a less-sensible high buildings policy than Paris (2) London should retreat from its policy of restricting high buildings (as Boris Johnson is doing on London’s South Bank) (3) London should convert its Green Belt to a Development Zone for a Chinese-style high-density city.
China does not, in fact, have a city on the Wiki list of the world’s 50 most densely populated cities. Eighteen of them are in India and I guess Glaeser knows that this is not how Americans, or Europeans, want to live – however good this urban style may be for reducing carbon emissions. The Wiki list is topped by Manila (at 43,07/km2 ). The densist city in America is New York (at 10,640/km2). Delhi has 29,495/km2. Paris has 21,289/km2. London has 5,285/km2. Sydney has 2,058/km2.
Image courtesy Deivis. I once took my bicycle through Chandni Chowk (‘rode’ would be an inappropriate word) and, having marvelled at its low carbon usage, urge western advocates of sustainability to follow my example.

Detroit urban landscape architecture, planning and design

Detroit urban landscape architecture and design

Detroit is bankrupt, derelict, ruined and dangerous to know. So anyone with an interest in urban landscape design and planning should ask two questions

  • Why did it happen?
  • What can be done about it?

Many people are in fact asking these questions and they could put be on school curricula – in Europe, in America and, most of all, in China. Similar catastrophes happened in Europe yesterday and may be expected in China tomorrow. In Britain, as the Guardian explains, the school history curriculum is too focussed in Hitler. It is a preposterous state of affaris: the man is dead. His ideas are dead. Everyone hates him. Really, one would think school history teachers had heard about this.
So why is Detroit going down the drain?

  • Is the CIA behind it? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American engineers don’t know how to design cars? (Probably not)
  • Is it because Detroit is, largely, an African American city? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American managers are obese? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American trade unions are so strong? (Probably not)
  • Is it because Asian workers work much harder for lower rates? (Probably not)
  • Is it because the US has dumb policies on gun control and drugs (Probably not)

So I cannot answer the question – but other cities have found ways of dealing with the declines of their auto industries and, in due course, it will be interesting to see what policy China adopts for its soon-to-be rustbelt industries. Karl Marx explained that creative destruction is integral to capitalism – and China has become a capitalist country.
So what can be done about Detroit? Edward Glaeser, in Triumph of the city (2011 pp 64-7) recommends a policy of ‘shrinking to greatness’. Following the examples of Leipzig in Germany, and Youngstown in Ohio, he recommends demolishing empty buildings. He writes that Mayor Bing, ‘knows that Detroit can be a great city if it cares for its people well even if it has far fewer structures’. Instead of ‘demolition’ I recommend a plan for regenerating the city’s ecosystem. It needs a habitat plan: for humans, fauna and flora. Humans need safety. Perhaps the 25% of the city which is now un-inhabited should be demolished, or perhaps the empty buildings should be fenced off. I don’t know – but high schools would surely learn more from studying Detroit than from studying Hitler. A class could begin with an old Detroit-made car. Kids could learn to take it apart, clean it up,  put it back together and drive round the playground. While doing this they would learn about physics,  architecture, chemistry, industrial design, labour relations, politics, economics, trade unions, finance, pensions, international trade, entrepreneurship, urban design, database management, landscape architecture, ecology – and, of course, an approach to art and music which draws upon the Nature of Detroit. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘good idea –  but school teachers know nothing of these subjects’. Well then: they should not be teaching kids who need to know about these subjects.

(Images courtesy nic-r and LHOON)