Monthly Archives: March 2011

Is Ken Yeang's brilliant landscape architecture sustainable?

Or is Ken Yeang’s landscape architecture subject to the same criticism as Patrick Blanc’s green walls? I would of course be much happier if these approaches to landscape architecture were genuinely sustainable. But I have my doubts. My guesses are (1) the planted balconies will be great features for wealthy residents who have more than enough indoor space (2) less-wealthy residents, especially in inclement climates, would rather have more indoor space than a big balcony, though sliding doors would offer the choice of indoor or outdoor space (3) the extra habitat space will do a little good for biodiversity, accoustics, carbon balance etc (4) but all these benefits could be obtained at less cost by other means (5) real people would not produce the nice green fluff on Ken Yeang’s drawings: there would be no visual unity at all to the balconies. Some would be richly planted. Others would provide storage for mountain bikes, or washing lines, or bird cages, or plastic furniture and dead plants in ugly containers. That’s life.
So I am a sceptic who hopes to be proved utterly wrong.

Clean, green and responsive: the future of architecture?

Lumenhaus inspired by Mies Van der Rohe’s Fansworth House is described by Virginia Tech students as responsive architecture. Responsive architecture according to Nicholas Negroponte’s definition is “a class of architecture or building that demonstrates an ability to alter its form, to continually reflect the environmental conditions which surround it.”

The aim of Lumenhaus designers was to “maximise user comfort with environmental protection” to make the user’s life “simpler, more energy efficient and less expensive.” They say the goal was to balance design quality, resource conservation and energy efficiency to produce architecture which achieves “beautiful enduring sustainability.”

One of the most significant benefits of the Lumenhaus construction concept is that it is off-grid (with options for feeding energy to the grid where appropriate), prefabricated and transportable making it an ideal solution for remote housing (increasing production standards, optimizing costs and providing improved accessibility to remote locations), temporary housing (mining and student communities) and emergency housing (after natural disasters).

Landscape architects could contribute significantly to the concept by, among other strategies, incorporating green wall technology on the wall cladding and designing a compatible site responsive green roof space beneath a solar panel shaded umbrella roof.

Much ado about zero energy buildings

With the European Parliament mandating under the amended ‘Energy Performance of Buildings Directive’ that all new buildings are to be ‘zero energy’ by 2019 the heat is on to produce architecture and environments that contribute to more sustainable energy equations with a zero or positive bottom line.

According to 2006 figures from the US Department of Energy, energy use in the building sector in the US continues to increase “primarily because new buildings are constructed faster than old buildings are retired.” Essentially the net building stock in the US is increasing. The government is not predicting any reduction in demand for new buildings and so is pursuing a Zero Energy agenda. The authors of the report ‘Zero Energy Buildings: A Critical Look at the Definition’ say “because design goals are so important to achieving high performance buildings, the way a ZEB goal is defined is crucial to understanding the combination of applicable efficiency measures and renewable energy supply options.”

Under the (Zero Energy Building) ZEB definition four aspects of energy are considered: 1) net-zero site energy 2) net-zero source energy 3) net-zero energy costs and 4) net-zero energy emissions.

Chicago architect Zoka Zola has designed a zero energy urban home with a green roof for passionate gardeners. The green roof is designated as the zone for the home to extend in the future and for the installation of renewable energy infrastructure. The accessible green roofs encourage “bio-diversity and absorb water runoff, while insulating the interior and protecting the roof from thermal shock and ultra violet deterioration.” The tree in the south facing garden provides both beauty and summer shade. The garden also provides the outlook from the rooms with large south facing windows.

With designers giving functional, structural and aesthetic consideration to the zero energy buildings the green future is looking bright.

The passing of a friend: Anna Mendelson of the Angry Brigade

Passing time on the web, I discovered that a long-lost friend died in 2009: Anna Mendleson.
I knew Anna for 3 days only. Drinking hot sweet tea with a friend at a cafe in Bodrum in 1968, I watched her climb out of an old landrover. She came over and asked if we were looking for a place to sleep, explaining that she had come to collect someone who had not arrived. We said ‘yes please’ and were driven on a rough track to a peaceful villa in a remote seaside village, where we spent time swimming, cooking and eating – for which Anna took no money. One night there was a village wedding. The unmarried girls from the village, in long dark clothes, took it in turn to do modest shuffles on a low stage. Each was greeted with mild applause. There was a little moonlight and a glow from some tungsten bulbs. Anna, in a very short orange dress, then took the stage and lit up everything. She did a wildly energetic dance with bare limbs shooting in every direction. All the fire of the 1960s was there. This led to a storm of applause from the menfolk and dark frowns of frozen fury from the girls. The next I heard of Anna, she was arrested for being a member of the Angry Brigade. The police arrived and were horrified to find a large room with many people and a doorless doorway beyond which was a visible toilet with a girl using it. The police were genuinely horrified and, not for this reason alone, Anna was sent to jail for ten years. They released her on bail after four years. She changed her name and became a poet. I believe she was a kind person and wrongly convicted. Given all the police fabrication of evidence for terrorist trials since that date, I am convinced that Anna told the truth at her trial – and that the police lied. One can but remember Kipling’s words, after the death of his son in the First World War: “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Here is one of Anna’s poems, published under the pseudonym Grace Lake:

i.m. Laura Riding
if thought be woven from the brain wished ill may learn to love again
a moonlit dusk by lamplight’s side a less anxious life
where proof of purse is not in pride nor strife a jokey vendetta
beginning twice more to examine extremes of sanctioned shapes
which knew to lighten mechanics with previewed disfunction
once the essentials are proven and normalities intergraved
it will not be mine to decide who are the damned and who the saved.

She died age 61 and here is her obituary. RIP

Clean: but is it green?

Vermont’s thirty eight year old Yankee Nuclear Reaction is scheduled to be shut down in 2012. The main cause of concern is the leaking of tritium which is linked to cancer.

The life expectancy of nuclear power plants is forty years. Seventy five percent of all current nuclear power plants are in the second half of their expected life span.

After a plant is decommissioned there are a series of steps that must be taken including “removal and disposal of all radioactive components and materials, and cleanups of any radioactivity that may remain in the buildings and on the site.”

Machinery breakdown in the differing reactor designs is the major cause of nuclear insurance losses. Loses due to fire most frequently occur around six years of age.

The Convention on Nuclear Safety was adopted in 1994. “Its aim is to legally commit participating States operating land-based nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety by setting international benchmarks to which States would subscribe.”

Beyond the design of nuclear power plants and their landscape surrounds is the question of the disposal of nuclear waste.
How confident are designers, engineers and geologists of the long term safety of nuclear waste storage strategies?

Can landscape architects make a contribution to the safety of nuclear reactors, like Fukushima?

Large scale planted and reinforced earth mounds would provide use protection against Tsunamis

With much sympathy for the plight of North Japan, I make the suggestion that the Fukushima Nuclear Reactors might have been much better able to resist the force of the Tsunami if there had been a 50m+ planted grass mound between the four reactors and the sea: (1) it would have cost very little money in proportion to the good it might have done (2) it would have made the Fukushima site more beautiful, because most industrial clutter is at ground level (3) it would have had ecological benefits (4) the earth might have been of use in an emergency.
So if any of our readers manage coastal nuclear reactors and would like help with the design of a protective bund, please use our contact form and I will find a former University of Greenwich landscape architecture MA student to do the job for you: there are few countries without them. If the above suggestion is impractical, they will be able to help you with energy saving through sustainable landscape architecture and planning – so that your country will have less need for nuclear power.
Image courtesy Beacon Radio

From the ground up, the sky is the limit…

Turned upside down land-scape becomes sky-scape. So what happens when the city meets the sky? 56 Leonard Street by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron disrupts the orderly rhythm of both the street-scape and of the skyline of New York with its jagged form from base to crown.

The base of 56 Leonard Street is firmly part of the city, while the crown of the building challenges the city limits: the blue space. Another blue space on the edge of cities is the coastal edge. The NSW government have included guidelines for protecting coastal edges near settlements.

At the limits of the green space of southern Californian cities according to biologist Paul Beier is cougar territory. While in Lincoln County efforts have been made to have developers include tree plans in their development applications (with fines for non-compliance).

In Germany there has been a conversation since the end of last millennium about ‘quality growth’ and ‘optimal growth’ at the edge of cities. In this paradigm according to Bruns and Schmidt in their paper ‘City Edges in Germany: Quality Growth and Urban Design’ “Land is valued for its own right, as landscape, as having character, contours, and limits. ‘Green walls’ instead of built walls are to be designed to border the city.”

How should a city meet its landscape in the twenty-first century?

The separation between City and Landscape was very clear in the Middle Ages: the city stopped and the landscape began, as in Carcasonne. This was the relationship in Europe, India, China and elsewhere. Twentieth century cities learned to sprawl. The city centres were dense enough, but the suburbs often had too much wasted land and the surrounding countryside was littered with so many lumpy buildings that it came to be called Nowhere Land.
So what should we do in the twenty-first century? Some of the problems are (1) putting limits on city size has proved impossible (2) poor people always want to move to cities from the countryside (3) rich people, in Europe and America want to move from city centres into the countryside.
My answer to the question at the head of this post is: define greenspace as ‘landscape infrastructure’ in advance of city expansion. McHarg-type landscape assessments should be made of the land around cities and long-term designations should be made to create an extensive web of land on which no building will ever be allowed. My guess is that the web will be based on (1) the existing pattern of rivers, streams and ditches (2) skyline ridges. Urban edges should be defined on the margins of this future greenweb and these margins will become the future equivalent of medieval city walls.
The IFLA student competition on Urban Boundaries is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Photograph of Carcasonne, courtesy John Wesley Barker.

The Earl of Moray's Pleasure Ground, in Edinburgh is an excellent example of a greenway with an urban edge (just visible on the skyline)

Image of St Bernards Well in Edinburgh courtesy Jonny Ho

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.

Living green bridges are vernacular landscape biotecture

Living bridges? I found a nineteenth century drawing of living green bridge in 2009 and was delighted to find that they still exist. We can see it as vernacular landscape biotecture (using the word biotecture as a contraction of biological archiecture). The above example of a living root bridge is near Mawlynnong in the Khasi hills, in the Indian State of Meghalaya. Before you rush out any bridge construction detail based on this photograph please remember that ‘Meghalaya’y means The Abode of Clouds. Assam is to the north and Bangladesh on the south. A village near Cherrapunji in the Khasi Hills is the wettest place on earth with an annual rainfall of just under 12000mm (ie 24 times London’s average annual rainfall of 500mm). One could attempt a living bridge with willows in England, but I think it would turn into a dam, because the branches would root into the water.
Image courtesy Seema KK.