Monthly Archives: June 2010

Batchelor Life in the Green Age

So what are the essentials of life for the modern batchelor in the Green Age? Is a good view to a natural setting a pre-requisite for happiness in habitation? Should he be provided with a balcony so that he can commune with the outdoors while still ensounced in his pad? Or does the modern batchelor still insist on his own patch of dirt? Perhaps a fast or all terrain vehicle would satisfy a desire to experience the outdoors…afterall what are weekends for?

Or in the Green Age has the batchelor become a totally urbanised creature? Is access to a good coffee shop, a waterfront promenade and urban night life the essential accessory for a good life?

Small harbours can become great cities. Great cities can be desertifed

Once upon a time there was a small harbour on the edge of a great desert. The people lived happily, worshiped Allah, caught fish and raided passing mariners. British galleons came to stop the piracy. Later, the infidels discovered oil and water lurking far beneath the desert sands – and pumped them up. The small harbour grew to be a great city. Allah made the people rich, but he disliked the western ways.
Then an oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico. It too was run by the British and it made the seas filthy. Everybody hated this. So the Americans, the Chinese the Europeans and the Australians (who foresaw a comparable fate) hurled resources into energy research. In the first decade of the 21st century the Americans had spent more money on pet food than on energy research. In the second decade, the money spent on energy research towered over that spent by Russia and America on Atom Bombs, Ballistic Missiles and Moon Landings. Europe decided that the Romans and been geographically correct, so they invited North Africa to join the EU and then carpeted half the Sahara Desert with solar cells. Solar energy became so cheap that 75% of the world’s oil wells were shut down.
The great city on the Arabian Gulf spent its last tourism and oil revenues on solar-powered desalination, but global warming had made the region so hot that no one wanted to be there, even in winter, and the fossil water resources were all gone. So the great city which had been a small port, called Dubai, was abandonned like the Roman towns in North Africa.
The last woman to leave was heard to say: ‘Sheik Yamani, peace be upon him, was right “The Stone Age did not come to an end because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age did not come to an end because we had a lack of oil”‘
The last man to leave turned out the lights and muttered: ‘Allah be praised, Allah be delighted, blessed be the name of Allah to all Eternity’.

Policy implications of desertification
So the question is: what should be done to prepare for desertification? My belief is that instead of beeing looted as it is vacated, which is the usual fate of abandonned cities, Dubai should be carefully buried in sand for the benefit of future archaeologists. As at Pompeii, everything should be left, including furnishings, computers, books, booze, gold taps and porno videos (if present). The strongest argument for this approach is safety. A near-empty city could be more dangerous than Afghanistan. To make the deserted desert city safe, I imagine the best policy would be to explode a perimeter ring of buildings and add in other debris (eg cars) to make a barrier which would cause blown sand to accumulate. Wind tunnel tests should be put in hand to see if there are any urban design and planning measures which could assist the accumulation. Previous work on coastal sand dune stabilization would be useful.

Image note: the left part of the image is from a NASA photograph of Dubai; the right part of the image is of Devonian sandstone laid down under desert conditions near the Equator and then moved to Scotland by continental drift. The ‘lumps’ are breccia which became incorporated in the sandstone at the lower horizon of the sedimenary deposition. In geological time, everything changes.

Another modernist housing estate in London bites the dust – the Ferrier Estate

After years of deliberation, they have begun pulling down the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke (London Borough of Greenwich). The estate looks decent, many of the external spaces are good and many of the residents were very happy living there. SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
See what the Ferrier Residents Action Group thinks. The London Evening Standard summarizes the situation as follows: “The Ferrier Estate is seen as one of London’s worst examples of Seventies planning, and its concrete towers were allowed to run down over three decades. Unemployment among its residents has been as high as 75 per cent. The estate was also plagued by crime and violence.” But unemployment, crime and violence (and drug-dealing) are not design problems and, as the Evening Standard‘s illustration shows, the morphology of the new housing is uncannily similar to the housing one can see being demolished (on the left side of the photograph).
I remember working on a number of projects like the Ferrier Estate during the 1970s and on one occasion the project team wanted to reduce the external works budget. I told them that ‘The oak trees on my drawings will be approaching maturity when they come to demolish your trashy little boxes’. On the evidence of the Ferrier Estate I might have added that ‘if you give me some money to spend on garden walls it might evey prolong their life’ (let’s hope they keep the good courtyards on the Ferrier Estate). If more musical, I should then have sung Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
Listen to Pete Seeger

The nicely treed courtyard in the photograph should have been (1) overlooked from the surrounding flats, as a traditional London Square would be (2) accessible to residents only (like the London squares around Ladbroke Grove). As presently managed, it should not be called a ‘yard’ or ‘garden’ – it is merely a public open space (POS) with no evident use. Bad management by Greenwich Council should not be used as an excuse for destroying the space.

Just around the Corner

The Architectural Association in describing ‘Landscape Urbanism’ says what Landscape it is not. It is NOT:

“…understood as a scenographic art, beautifying, greening or naturalising the city.”

And then what it IS;

“…scalar and temporal operations through which the urban is conceived and engaged with.”

Thus, Landscape Urbanism prioritises the phenomenological experience of the city, while distancing itself (perhaps defensively) from the visual aesthetic. Perhaps an ironcial realisation of this preference for the non-aesthetic is the prediction by James Corner of the disappearance of the city into the landscape. Perhaps this prophecy will be realised quite differently than the romantic post-industrial ruin?  Corner, typified by the high line project, focuses on the rehabilitation of the abandoned elements of the city and post-industrial landscape.Can landscape urbanism be artfully conceived? 

Perhaps the city of the future will afterall disappear under the advance of the landscape, but once again capture something of the beauty which is now itself abandoned by its favourite profession?

Theorising the possible

Whatever happened to beauty?

Modern art turned the viewer’s gaze inward to the inner world rather than outward to the external world. In doing so, modern artists prefiguring existential and phenomenological accounts of perception highlighting that art is not only seen, it is experienced.

In this first post of a series, with thanks to Tom for his comments and suggestions, I shall explore the work and artistic legacy of the Futurists.

At the turn of the twentieth century a young ecletic group of artists in a hurry collaborated under the banner of Futurism. The Futurists in particular grappled with the role of perception in artmarking.

They were concerned to portray the world as it is experienced and viewed, and perhaps more importantly as it could be, through a richer perceptual lens free of the constraints of the academie which had become ossified and rule bound.

The Futurists in their abstractions were concerned with expressing the emotional state of the artist rather than depicting nature. This interest in the emotional state of the artist/observer of life arose from in part from the sculpturer Boccioni insistence on the work of art as an essential manifestation of reality, an aspect of sensation, rather than as an activity of the spirit.

It is thought that the philosophy of Bergson was an important influence on the Futurists. Berguson espoused two types of knowledge objective and subjective. Objective knowledge is “conceptual knowledge directed towards the requirements of our practical life and lending itself to the analytical procedures of the natural sciences” while subjective knowledge “is a projection of our intimate self-awareness onto the external world.” Berguson termed this intuition.

Boccioni attempted to describe the proces of intuition the ‘terrible tension’ as he experienced it:

“the artist seeks to maintain himself continuously ‘in the inside of the object, to live its changeability and to grasp its unity.”

See article by Brian Petrie, ‘Boccioni and Bergson’.  The Burlington Magazine Vol 116, No 852, Modern Art 1908-25) pp140147.

It is possible to unpick this concern of the Futurists with close attention to the disappearance of beauty from the discourse of aesthetics. Arthur Coleman Danto in ‘The Abuse of Beauty’ believes beauty lost its descriptive power with the early Logical Positivists. Instead the word came to stand for an expression of overall admiration. He says:

“Beyond what could be dismissed as ‘its emotive meaning’, the idea of beauty appeared to be cognitively void – and that in part accounted for the vacuity of aesthetics as a discipline, which had banked so heavily on beauty as its central concept.” 

The Futurists in grappling with these concepts enriched our understanding both of artmaking and visual perception.

Modernist planning and design for Shanghai's urban landscape

How could the urban landscape design have been done better?

If you look carefully at the pavilion-ettes on top of some of the buildings, you can tell this is a Chinese city. But I see the photograph as an illustration of the way in which context-insensitive modernist design theory is laying waste the ancient cities of China. There a surviving patch of the old city form in the foreground and glitch of marching blocks in the background. It is easy to criticise – but given the available resources, how could things have been done better? As suburban Shanghai demonstrates beyond the realms of doubt, they could certainly be a lot worse! The simplest change is that the blocks should be substantially vegetated: on roofs, balconies and walls. Shanghai is a warm wet city and this would be an adaptation to the geographical context. This policy is being adopted in a wealthy and Chinese-influenced city: Singapore.

(image courtesy leonardo_bonnani)


Originally uploaded by

The economic, asethetic and landscape case for the UK adopting a sustainable GM-free organic agricultural policy

Happy cows in Laxton Medieval Village

Sustainable landscape farming: happy cows in Laxton Medieval Village

Many scientists argue that ‘we’ should accept genetically modified (GM) foods – for a whole range of scientific and economic reasons. Though sceptical of the scientific logic I do not know enough about genetic modification to take issue with them. But on the economic issue I am convinced they are wrong in the specific case of the UK. So I was delighted to read that Professor Robert Watson, (chief scientist at the World Bank and also chief scientist of UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) said: “Are transgenics the simple answer to hunger and poverty? I would argue, no.A fortiori GM foods are not the answer for the UK. The benighted officials at the DEFFRA do not seem to appreciate the significance of the fact that England, Scotland and Wales are an island, or that our landscape is very productive and very beautiful. These geographical facts provide an amazing economic opportunity: Britain can become a niche supplier of the highest quality foods in the temperate world. If they are foolish enough, let everyone else go for low-cost, low-quality foods. It will not be possible to stop GM foods spreading across land borders. Island nations, like Britain and Australia, have the opportunity to become producers of exceptionally high quality foods. The UK should only produce organic foods. GM crops should be utterly banished. Everyone should know that buying British foods is a guarantee of quality. The benighted officials at DEFFRA should take note of the fact that in almost every market the producers who deliver the highest quality can charge the highest prices and, usually, generate the highest profits.
I love the English landscape and would be delighted to see photographs of wonderful crops and animals used, in beautiful surroundings, as marketing devices for The World’s Best Food.
PS Personally, I support the precautionary principle and have no wish to eat GM-produced Frankenstein Foods. But this is not my present argument.
Note: beyond the happy cattle in the above photograph one can see the remains of the last village in England which still uses the medieval system of land tenure. It is Laxton. I love it and the photograph was taken this week. Wouldn’t you rather your beef came from here than from a factory farm, awash with antibiotics? I was vegetarian between the ages of (about) 6 and 16. My father, who was a doctor, ridiculed me. But he went to visit a slaughterhouse about 40 years later and was revolted to see them cutting the abcesses out of factory-farmed cows and then sending the ‘good bits’ to the supermarkets. He then became a vegetarian.

Is there too much of Kew Gardens at Wakehurst Place?

urst Place on the cover of English Garden Design (left) and in June 2010

Wakehurst Place on the cover of English Garden Design (left) and in June 2010

‘Father, forgive them, for they know exactly what they do’. (adapted from Luke 23:34). I have always liked Wakehurst Place and have put it on the dustjacket of a book – but I criticised Wakehurst Place last year and after another recent visit am being driven to conclude that it is being over-Kewed.
A plaque near the house is dedicated to ‘Sir Henry Price Bt. who in 1963 presented these lovely gardens for the education and enjoyment of all who visit them’. Two questions must be asked ‘Education in what?’ and ‘Enjoyment of what?’ The apparent aim is to convert a beautiful place into a spotty collection of specimens.
When Wakehurst Place first appeared on, about 10 years ago, we received an anquished email along the lines ”Call us pigs or Pakis if you must but please PLEASE do not call us Gardenesque’. But why shouldn’t Wakehurst Place be a place for ‘education’ and ‘enjoyment’ related to the Gardenesque Style? Properly understood and executed, it is one of the most-English and most-appreciated styles of garden design. My recommendations for Wakehurst Place are:
– an Arts and Crafts area around the house
– a Gardenesque section at the head of the valley
– a full-scale Landscape transition to a Sublime lake at the foot of the valley
But as Geoffrey Jellicoe argued, Creative Conservation is often the best policy for historic gardens and landscapes. Should this be wanted, the garden managers could also consider
– seasonal and thematic ribbons interlacing the estate
But an even more important step would be to appoint a Design Manager for Wakehurst Place. If the manager’s skills are only horticultural then the future of gardens is to become more botanical, less Beautiful, less Picturesque, less Gardenesque and less Sublime. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Note1: the above photographs of the bridge at the head of the valley are looking in opposite directions

Note2: by ‘over-Kewed’ I mean ‘too much of an emphasis on botany’ – Kew Gardens are in fact getting better looking year-by-year.

In search of Sustainable Gardens…

So what is the sustainable aesthetic about? I suggest a few characteristics might be common to the sustainable garden aesthetic:

*  mimicking nature 

* minimal interference with the landscape

* native plant selection

* eco-material selection ie timber and stone

* bushland settings

* curved lines

* low water, low chemical and low maintenance

* absence of paths, boundary fences and made roads

For a garden see: 

For a plant aesthetic see: 

For an idea of how art & sustainability (green design) might have a more dramatic relationship also see the El Molino garden, a blend of formalism and naturalism which possibly focuses on reduced resource use (water and energy) and plant selection , rather than a strictly natural aesthetic in the form, layout and background to the scheme.

So just what is sustainability?

Is it possible to sign a declaration to say your home is Sustainable and yet not truly have a sustainable property?  Signing a declaration on the transfer of property is the approach that has been adopted in the residential sector in Queensland. The success of this approach depends on your definition of sustainability, and whether a number of  ‘sustainability features’ are sufficient to warrant the label sustainable.

The community debate about the benefits of the legislative reforms has started.  Some in the real estate industry have seized the initiative and have viewed ‘energy’ sustainability as a branding opportunity. This trend follow similar initiatives in the US.

However, what is being addressed here is ‘the below the line emissions’  on the McKinsey cost curve.

What is being missed?

Before airconditioning and heating, is passive solar design of the building envelope, before passive solar design of the envelope is the design of the garden, before the design of the garden is the orientation and siting building, before the orientation and siting of the building is the layout of the plan, before the layout of the plan is the analysis of the site, before the analysis of the site is the selection of the site, before the selection of the site is the design of the subdivision….

Sustainability as is demonstrated by Orchid House can be costly, so where does sustainability begin and end?

Image courtesy

Shared space street landscape in Nanjing Road Shanghai 南京路

Shared pedestrian-vehicle-plants-fountains-bike-space in Nanjing Street Shanghai

Shared pedestrian-vehicle-plants-fountains-bike-space in Nanjing Road Shanghai

The segregation of pedestrians from vehicles, by sidewalk pavements, has a relatively short history in China – and so the Chinese may find sharing space easier than the Europeans. The west has sold the souls of its cities to engineers – who are less public spirited and more concerned with the welfare of their own professions than one might wish. That is how the streets of Europe became highways with pedestrians squashed onto sidewalks. Nanjing Road in Shanghai, to the casual visitor, is a fine example of shared space dominated by pedestrians. Points to note:

  • the electric float for passenger transport – with a door for every seat loading and unloading is simple
  • electric and human-powered bicycles are allowed to mingle with the pedestrians where other streets cross the shared space
  • fountains overlooked by LCD screens make a lively piazza garden-type
  • ceramic pots decorate the street scene

I can’t imagine that the ‘imaginative’ engineers who control London’s ‘shared’ streets (eg around Covent Garden) would permit these innovations. They would for example want fountains and screens to be in plaza, pots to be screwed down and electric vehicles to be enclosed busses.
Before the Japanese invasion (as “Nanking Road”) it was a place the European’s to ‘ride’ in their vehicles. It ran from the Bund (which is still the Bund) to Shanghai Race Course, which is now the People’s Park. I congratulate Shangai’s urban designers on the transformations. The Chinese word 路, usually translated as ‘road’ is comprised of the characters for ‘foot’ and ‘place’ – making it an appropiate cagetorization for this type of space. The English word ‘road’ derives from the very ‘to ride’ and is therefore less appropriate. The English word ‘street’ would be a better choice. It derives from the Latin strata, from the verb sternere “to lay down, spread out, pave”. I therefore suggesting changing the name to ‘Nanjing Street.’