Monthly Archives: February 2010

What is landscape urbanism?

Charles Waldheim Landscape urbanism reader

Charles Waldheim's Landscape urbanism reader

[See notes on Urban design and landscape urbanism]

London’s Architectural Association has picked up the term landscape urbanism and come near to draining it of meaning. The programme’s ‘rationale’ states that landscape urbanism is understood as ‘a model of connective, scalar and temporal operations through with the urban is conceived and engaged with: the urban is conceived and engaged with: the urban is diagrammed as a landscape; a complex and processual ecology’. In social science, ‘processual’ means ‘of or relating to a process, especially to the methodological study of processes’. In physics ‘A scalar is a quantity with a magnitude but no direction’. So I would describe the above ‘rationale’ as profoundly vague.
Wikipedia defines landscape urbanism as ‘a theory of urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience’. This definition comes from The landscape urbanism reader edited by Charles Waldheim (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Waldheim associates the term landscape urbanism with James Corner’s essay Terra Fluxus. Corner, in turn, associates the term with a conference organized by Waldheim in 1997. But Corner’s essay, unlike the AA statement, is cogent and useful and has a simple underlying message: buildings and landscapes must be considered together, planned together and designed together (my phrasing). They comprise a ‘field’ on which we operate. Corner works with an architect (Stan Alan) and their firm has the name Field Operations. Corner’s essay allows one to understand what the AA means by processual. City planning should rest on an understanding of the ecological and social processes which underpin Ian McHarg’s Design with nature approach. The term Terra Fluxus is therefore a contrast with Terra Firma: the world is not firm – it is a flux (as Heraclitus observed). I commend James Corner for his clarity and abhor the AA’s obfuscation of the term.

For more discussion see Jason King’s landscape + urbanism blog. It is an important debate and I have provisionally added Charles Waldheim’s reader to the list of 100 Best Books on landscape architecture.

See also: the definition of landscape urbanism

Turf roof gardens for back to nature sustainable ecohouse living in the twenty-first century

Turf roof gardens for the twentyfirst century?

Turf roof gardens for the twentyfirst century?

Iceland is the most recently made country and has a great-and-abandonned tradition of turf building. Dwellings were built with stone foundations, birch frames and turf cladding for the roofs and walls. Interiors were probably damp but now that waterproof membranes are available they should go back to to cladding their buildings in turf. It would be good for insulation, sound-proofing, wildlife etc and could create jobs for an icy land now down on its uppers.
I expect the greatest difference between the cities of the 20th and 21st centuries to be the prevelance of a vegetative cladding on cities of the 21st century. Icelanders could export consultancy skills instead of cod – and we should all remember that this was the classic building technique in Neolithic Europe.

Adam, Eve and planting design in the Garden of Eden

What type of plants grew in Eden, apart from apples and figs?

What type of plants grew in Eden, apart from apples and figs?

Apart from fig leaves, bougainvillia and sin, what was planted in the Garden of Eden? We can say little  about the layout  but something about the location and something about the planting design. It may be argued that ‘every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food’ (Genesis Chapter 1) meant those plants which grow wild, while the the Garden of Eden (as described in Genesis Chapter 2) might have contained only those plants that grow as a result of cultivation. Cultivated varieties of plants have existed since approximately 10,000 years ago the description of the Garden of Eden in Genesis took its final form approximately 2,500 years ago, when the distinction between wild and cultivated species was well known – though its scientific origin was of course unknown.
On the wider question, we should consider whether Adam and Eve were wrong to seek knowledge – and whether we are wrong to continue the quest. George Steiner wrote, in Bluebeard’s Castle, that ‘We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle, even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, on to realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control.’ He thought it possible that humanity is engaged on an endless quest for knowledge and that, as in Bluebeard’s Castle, opening the last door will lead to doom.
And is humanity descending ever-further into a morass of sin? I hope not – but Eve on the left (by Michaelangelo) does not look as though she has been leading the good life and Adam on the right looks emasculated as a result of eating too much factory-farmed chicken. I prefer the medieval Adam and Eve (from the Très riches heures) and believe that the planners and designers of more sustainable ways of living have much to learn from the middle ages and medieval gardens.

Brilliant design for public safety in London's Finsbury Park contrasts with horrific design in Germany

Safety conscious park design in London

Wonderfully safety conscious park design in London

Here are two great ideas for protecting the public from the natural hazards of life in parks. The left photograph is of the New River. It is more than 150mm deep and therefore a considerable risk to public health and safety. Trees can also be very dangerous if one tries to climb them and one has an accident. Thank goodness for London’s vigilant park managers. Sadly, the Germans have no idea how to protect the public from danger. As the below photograph shows, Germany has so much to learn from England. We hope and expect that the 2012 London Olympic Park will show how the 1972 Munich Olympiapark should have been designed. It was such a good idea to assess the quality of English landscape design – and then hire an American landscape architect to oversee the project. The Germans had to make do with local talent back in ’72. Phew. And isn’t it disgusting that nudity is permitted in German parks? One might as well start putting beer gardens in parks and allow people to have BBQs and eat sausages. It makes one so proud to be unenlightened – but I am not that “one”.
Dangerous behaviour in Munich's Englischer Garten

Dangerous behaviour in Munich's Englischer Garten


Buddhists and the bicycle: use of the Great Green Machine could join the Pancha Sila

Buddhist urban design and bicycle planning“It must be asserted that the Pancha Sila (Five Precepts) do not necessarily make a person a Buddhist, but to be a real Buddhist, one has to observe the five precepts”. Furthermore, to be a good Buddhist one should ride a bicycle instead of driving a car. Is there such a thing as a Buddhist approach to urban design? I wish there were: urban design based on bare scientific rationalism has produced, and is producing, ugly and unsustainable cities throughout Asia. The above photograph of the Great Green Machine was taken beside the canal in Kenzo Tange’s preposterously bombastic baroque design for the Buddha’s birthplace: Lumbini.

The River Thames in London may soon have safe swimming beaches

A brave girl going for a swim in the River Thames near St Paul's Cathedral in Central London

A brave girl going for a swim in the River Thames near St Paul's Cathedral in Central London

I guess she is going to be OK. If wild swimming takes place in the River Thames upstream, as it does, then the biological hazard should be less in the tidal Thames – because the water is salty and salt is a disinfectant. ‘The discovery of a colony of short-snouted seahorses (Hippocampus hippocampus) living in the Thames means that the London river is becoming cleaner, conservationists said…Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have discovered five seahorses during routine conservation surveys in the Thames estuary in the past 18 months, evidence which they say indicates that a breeding population exists.’ The River Thames Website explains the position as follows: ‘The water quality is very good and in fact the tidal Thames is now acknowledged to be one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world’. Thames water is pleasantly warmer than sea water with about 75% of its ‘thermal pollution’ coming from power stations. One man’s thermal pollution is one girl’s heated water. There is also a good supply of mud for her fair skin and she will be able to save money on spa treatments and make a sustainable contribution to combating climate change. One thing which does worry me though is whether she has a sufficient layer of Factor 30 sun screen. If the brave girl is poisoned there will be a public outcry and the River Thames Cleanup, underway since the 1960s, wll then be driven by a popular outcry. I regret that it takes a tragedy to effect reform but as Tertullian remarked, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’.

Peak Oil Group Taskforce and the need to plan for greener transport – urban design with veloways and cycletubes?

Planning cycle routes is the healthiest, fastest, cheapest, greenest and most ecological approach to greener rural and urban transport in the coming age of Peak Oil

Planning cycle routes is the healthiest, fastest, cheapest, greenest and most ecological approach to greener rural and urban transport in the coming age of Peak Oil

When I heard that the UK’s Peak Oil Group Taskforce is calling for greener transport, I thought at once of leafy lanes in country areas joined to panoramic cycletubes in urban areas. No such luck. In the greasy shell of a small nut, what they want is taxpayer subsidies for public transport engineering and the ‘ongoing introduction of lower carbon technology and trials of sustainable bio fuels’. There is no mention of the Great Green Machine – the bicycle – in their shamefully self-serving report. The above photograph is of the Eastway Cycle Circuit before it was bulldozed to make way for London’s 2012 Olympics.

The snowball effect

Tom once the winter is over you will be free of snowball throwing teenagers! Then perhaps, given your recent acquisition of expertise in the art of dodging snowballs through firsthand experience, you can give lessons on snowball etiquette in urban and rural areas and advice for the unwary…

I found this description of teenage snowball warfare that might be of assistance in compiling the necessary advice.

Here are several scenerios with which to contextualise your advice:

Scenerio One: A seventy year-old was arrested for allegedly pointing a gun at snowball throwing teenagers.

Scenerio Two: The police and hoodies engage in snowball fight.

Scenerio Three: A man kidnaps a teenager for throwing a snowball.

Scenerio Four: Girl throws a snowball at a boy.

Scenerio Five: Police hunt teenagers throwing snowballs at traffic.

Here is some helpful opinions from the general snowball fight interested public. Overzealous teenagers, snowballs and transportation seem to be a particularly potent mix.

Bagh-e Fin garden in Iran – restoration and conservation plan

Bagh-e Fin garden in Kashan, Iran

An interesting conservation resulted from shoving myself into the wall of a garden pavilion in order to take this photograph of the Bagh-e Fin garden in Kashan, Iran

When visiting the Bagh-e Fin, on 15th June 2004, one of the curators noticed me in a painful position outside his office. I was taking a photograph. He asked why I was doing it. I said I was interested in garden history. He asked if I thought the Bagh-e Fin was of equal historical importance to the great gardens of Europe. I said ‘Yes – probally more so, because it is the best surviving example of the world’s oldest garden design tradition, originating in the Fertile Crescent’. But, I said, it could be looked after even better than was then the case. ‘What should we do?’, he asked. I said I would make a proposal and send it to him. As we drove north into the desert, I sketched in the back of the car. A friend translated my comment into Farsi and we posted it to him. A reply is still awaited. In case the Bagh-e Fin Conservation Plan has been mislaid, it is now  published it on the Gardenvisit website.

A Persian garden pavilion, with Ardashir and Gulnar

Ardashir with a slave girl, Gulnat

Ardashir with the slave girl, Gulnat, who loved him

I wish Iran would devote less effort to enriching uranium and more to enriching Iranian gardens and conserving  Persian gardens. Persia was one of the central powers in garden history, drawing upon and influencing Mesopotamia, Central Asia, India and Islam. My own modest proposal for conserving the Bagh-e Fin will be the subject of a future blog post.
Omar Khayyám (1048-1131), born in Nishapur, was an astronomer and a garden poet. The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam, 1120 CE, begins:


Wake! For the Sun behind yon Eastern height
Has chased the Session of the Stars from Night;
And to the field of Heav’n ascending, strikes
The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
Awake Morning: For the sun behind yon eastern height.]
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
Why lags the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted – “Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.”
Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n – ring’d Cup where no one knows;
But still a Ruby gushes from the Vine,
And many a Garden by the Water blows.

February in a medieval garden in France

A medieval French garden - on a cold February day 600 yefars agoEurope is still frozen but we should not complain – and perhaps our predecessors did not mind the cold either. This brilliant painting of a medieval garden yard is from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The painting is dated to c1410 – so we can celebrate its 600th annniversary. The wattle fencing is exquisite. The sheep are better protected than on a modern farm. The beehives are in good order and produced a more nutritious sweetner than our refined and dangerous sugars.  Mum is modest but  the young girl and boy are exposing  their genitals to the warmth of a fire. It reminds me of a lecture from the president of the students union in my first week at university. He solemnly informed his audience that if, before intercourse, a man spent an hour with his testicles between two lightbulbs it would reduce the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. I never put the theory to the test.