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Archive for the ‘Landscape Urbanism’ Category

The new documentary film, Urbanized, by Gary Hustwit premiered in Toronto on September 9. It may be coming to a city near you – check out the list of screenings here. Otherwise, you have to settle for the trailer and wait for it to be televised or become available in DVD format.

Two Norwegian bloggers, Lise Breivik and Kjersti Hagen of buildinghappiness.org, paired the Urbanized trailer with the following clip, and the result is an amazing contrast in the urban design issues/challenges facing cities in our globalized era. Detroit Wild City, by French filmmaker Florent Tillon, has been making the rounds in film festivals this year, and it is said to capture both the haunting images of ruin as well as the human dimension of people living and working in inner city Detroit. There’s an interesting interview with the filmmaker and Detroit locals here.

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On Thursday, around the time I was showing the Waldheim video (mentioned here) to my class, the video that includes the West 8 Dutch “Shell Project” as an example of landscape urbanism, an interesting post was going up on the new Landscape Urbanism website. The author, Laura Tepper, discusses the ephemeral nature of the project, a fact that she says is not mentioned when this project is used as an example today (true of the Waldheim video also). The key graph is this one, in my opinion, but the entire article is definitely worth reading.

The contrast between the barrier’s austere utility and West 8’s erstwhile shell installation force us to confront challenges beyond the project’s early acclaims. The storm surge barrier—with its complex programmatic functions, sophisticated engineering, and costs—illustrates what landscape architects and urbanists face with ambitious infrastructural projects. Generally speaking, when infrastructure washes away unintentionally, it is considered a failure. The integration of infrastructural and public programming can impel social, ecological, and practical transformations. However, we must take on the seemingly contradictory synthesis of permanent armatures and dynamic cycles. We must modify our objectives against empirical evidence and clarify our intentions, lest the works of the landscape urbanist discussion become decorative and slip away unnoticed.

As it turns out, stripes of white and black shells on a surge barrier are not sustainable. Perhaps they washed away; it is unclear what happened to them. Of course, there are ways to explain this as being the original intent of the project, but that fact is omitted when this project is referenced. This is where theory and concept meet praxis. Can the ambitious ideas of landscape urbanism, especially those that suggest that ecological systems can be effectively harnessed to meet design goals, become realities in the sense that we usually ascribe to landscape architecture, or is the emphasis on temporality and long-term dynamics a mask for pure speculation?

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Image of McHarg on this 2007 book by Margulis, Corner, and Hawthorne

It’s a curious thing, the haunting, and conflicting, influence of Ian L. McHarg on landscape architecture. He is certainly one of a very small number of widely acclaimed, internationally recognized, landscape architects of the 20th century, and his influence extended well beyond the discipline. He’s been called “legendary.” Nevertheless, landscape architecture academics (perhaps others, but that’s the group I know) have been tied in knots over McHarg for the better part of the past few decades now.

Last week, I asked a group of 30 3rd-year landscape architecture undergraduates if they had ever heard of McHarg or the book Design With Nature. I have been asking this question for several years now, but this year is the first in which no one in the class raised their hand. This result did not come as a total surprise since the number of hands raised has been very small over the last couple of years, but it still startles me. I think there’s a very good chance that students in programs across the U.S. today graduate without ever hearing about this prominent, however polarizing, figure in the profession.

My first encounter to vehement …dislike??… of McHarg among my academic colleagues came when I started teaching 12 years ago. I was photocopying an excerpt from Design With Nature to use in class when a fellow professor said something to the effect of “Argh, what a misanthrope that guy was!”  I have tread cautiously ever since, mindful of what seemed to be a mounting volume of journal articles and book chapters that have dissected McHarg’s legacy in the profession, much of which casts it in an unfavorable light. Contrasting this with what is written about McHarg from those outside of landscape architecture, and how many times his writing continues to be cited favorably today, reveals a paradox, in my opinion.

So it is with great curiosity that I observe a number of landscape urbanists prominently featuring images of McHarg and the book, Design With Nature, in their public presentations. For example, in this video of Charles Waldheim‘s November 2010 address to architecture and urban design students at the University of North Carolina, Waldheim discusses McHarg’s ideas of ecological planning, drawing a line between landscape planning of McHarg’s generation and the newer ideas of landscape urbanism. And Waldheim’s perspective is critical too, referring to the “failed McHargian project.” But the failure that Waldheim cites has nothing to do with a schism between art-based and science-based perspectives, often the root of conflict among LA academics to date, but instead is about the reliance of the “McHargian project” on planning bureaucracy. (That’s another story – the demonization of planners who are a weak force in the U.S., at least, in the face of the moneyed interests of the Growth Machine.)

When McHarg attended Harvard in the late 1940s, he found that the works of Olmsted and Charles Eliot were barely acknowledged (according the McHarg’s biography A Quest for Life). Olmsted was essentially rediscovered in the 1960s (it’s hard for current students to believe he was ever forgotten), while Eliot remains obscure for most. As the academics of the 1980s and 90s retire and what has seemed like personal baggage among some becomes irrelevant, will McHarg be rediscovered? Is that already happening?

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The roots of landscape planning and design extend into many disciplines. Just communicating what this knowledge domain entails is complicated, and new terminology seems to arise almost yearly. It is interesting to compare the rise and fall of these terms over time, and Google Ngram Viewer makes it easy, thanks to Google’s 5 million+ scanned books. Here are two comparisons I explored (click on images to enlarge):

Google Ngram Viewer

Google Ngram Viewer

Response to a reader’s question about what these graphs show: Google has digitized over 5 million books that cover a long expanse of time. All the words in those 5 million books are now searchable. The key to the graphs would be the specific books that were scanned. I have searched for some pretty unique phrases, like carrying capacity, and found that the graphs reflect my personal observations/familiarity with the literature pretty well.

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Search online for “sprawl is dead” or “end of sprawl,” and, not surprisingly I think, you’ll find a lot of articles and blog posts (e.g., How History Killed the Suburb and Beyond the Requiem for Sprawl). The Great Recession has decimated sprawl for the foreseeable future according to a growing consensus. But talk to a group of die-hard sprawl warriors, and you’ll find them still engrossed in battle planning or, at a minimum, on guard for sprawl’s return. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the amount of passion that some people devoted to the anti-sprawl effort, but it is now time to redirect those passions. Dan Bertolet of the Citytank blog provides a handy list of “well-documented and intensifying megatrends” that suggest it’s reasonable to redirect energy.

And now there’s speculation that we’ve even reached “peak car use” in cities all across the developed world. Eric Jaffe of The Infrastructurist makes this argument yesterday, giving us 6 reasons why driving has peaked in the U.S. Can you wrap your head around that idea? It’s more amazing than the collapse of the homebuilding industry. I think these megatrends mean that we can stop railing against the bubble-fueled Growth Machine, which was a monstrous force, no doubt, and now focus on another set of forces that are also beyond our control – the ones listed in the Citytank and Infrastructurist blogs. These forces are much more in line with what planners and designers have been hoping for. Perhaps now is the time to act on those dreams, limited budgets notwithstanding.

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And you get an article in the New York Times. (The shooting stick reference is found in this earlier post.) The Times featured a proposal by the architectural firm, Taller 13 Regenerative Architecture, to daylight three rivers in Mexico City and turn the now-buried rivers into urban amenities. If you read between the lines, the article reveals both the promise of this landscape urbanist vision (a bold re-imagining of the cityscape that is intoxicating in its sweep) and the pitfalls if the proposal is totally unrealistic. At some point, bold vision has to meet scientific knowledge, technical expertise, and implementation savvy. From the article, “Prophets and young dreamers are rarely very good at diagnosis.” Where is the balance found between dreamy proposals and practical issues of implementation?

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Ever since the Boston Globe published an article on the “smackdown” between Landscape Urbanism and New Urbanism in January, landscape urbanism and Harvard’s Landscape Architecture Chair, architect and urban theorist Charles Waldheim, have been the subject of a surprising amount of national news coverage. Nothing like a good fight, I suppose. The latest installment is Waldheim’s plenary address to the Congress for the New Urbanism meeting (CNU 19) earlier this month. Waldheim was interviewed by Duany at the end of his talk, and the video has just been released. Waldheim’s introduction is at the 27-minute mark, and he speaks for 50 minutes.

Where this takes landscape architecture is an open question. It is interesting to see how news organizations portray landscape architecture when they discuss landscape urbanism. Waldheim has been the Chair at Harvard since July of 2009, so landscape architecture does get mentioned in that context, but the emphasis is on architecture. I cringed when I read this paragraph in the now notorious Boston Globe article:

As the New Urbanism was growing in influence, another movement concerned with city-making was quietly beginning in an unlikely corner of the academy: landscape architecture. The field had spent most of the 20th century being seen as something of a backwater, an ornamental craft whose practitioners were responsible for making things pretty once the work of designing buildings was complete. But landscape architects had expertise in something that most planners and urban designers were not trained to think about: ecology. Starting at the University of Pennsylvania in the ’80s, landscape architects started to argue that their training meant they shouldn’t just be consigned to “putting parsley on the pig,” in the words of Australian landscape urbanist Richard Weller.

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