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Archive for the ‘Shoulders of Giants’ Category

Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

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Via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I see that Olmsted is even credited with bringing us that all-American virtue, cleanliness. Katherine Ashenburg wrote about this in her 2008 book, The Dirt on Clean.

Oddly enough it was the Civil War that got Americans interested in being clean. The army’s initially derided Sanitary Commission, headed by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, had proved that simple soap and water could significantly reduce military mortality, and by the end of the war cleanliness was seen as patriotic, progressive and distinctively American. Good hygiene had other virtues: it was a way to mark status and civility in a country without an aristocracy, and it could “Americanize” the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who began arriving in the 1880s.

 

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Each year, I begin my course on Ecology and Design with quotes from astronauts who have seen Earth from space, and I remind my students of the first time humans were able to get this awe-inspiring view of Earth. After 40 years of Earth imagery, we take this perspective for granted, I’m afraid. The 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble image, shot by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, is celebrated in a short film by Planetary Collective.

The quotes that I use in my class are the following:

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
- Edgar Mitchell, USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
- Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
- Aleksei Leonov, USSR

Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
- Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

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Karl Linn

On the planning academic listserv, Planet, a recent string of posts debated the emerging interest in tactical urbanism (also known by several other names including pop-up urbanism and insurgent urbanism). Ellen Shoshkes from Portland State University pointed out that the conceptual forerunners of activist urban design include people like Karl Linn, a landscape architect who worked with communities in the San Francisco Bay area since the early 1960s. Ellen is right to suggest that we all can benefit by knowing more of this history. Karl Linn died at the age of 81 in 2005, but a website lives on in his name at karllinn.org.

A brief description of Karl Linn’s life is found in a SFGate article that announced his death. An excerpt is provided below. A more thorough description of Karl’s long and generous career is found here.

As an 11-year-old Jewish boy in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, Karl Linn knew about persecution when he fled with his family to Palestine.

The conflict he saw in both places launched him on a lifelong quest for social justice and harmony, notably through landscape architecture and community gardens, three of which he established in his adopted city of Berkeley.

“My experience with racism motivated me to devote my life to contribute to the emergence of a humane society,” he said in a 2003 documentary film that focused on him and one of his community gardens. “That’s the way I’ve attempted to live my daily life.”

Very fitting to be thinking of Karl Linn on the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday.

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Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted’s endeavors as a Civil War journalist and head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the first years of the Civil War have been featured in the NY Times Opinionator/Disunion series twice in the past 3 months. The latest article is in today’s edition, featuring Olmsted’s map of The Cotton Kingdom and the effects of a slave-based economy. An earlier article in July described the broader body of Olmsted’s work over that period of just a few years. Olmsted considered it his greatest contribution to his country. As a Southerner, I cannot help but note this part from today’s article:

For the next several years Olmsted sent back voluminous reports — published in three volumes — of disorder, poverty, inefficiency, backwardness and chaos. We might dismiss these as hopelessly biased Northern observations, yet these accounts gained a wide audience, and challenged the contemporary picture of the cotton south as an economic powerhouse. (emphasis added)

Um, yeah. But who can defend the status quo of the times?

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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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When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite landscape planning books was Design For Human Ecosystems by John T. Lyle, and it is still a favorite. It was originally published in 1985, with a paperback edition published in 1999. A major premise of the book, and, indeed, of all landscape planning, is that careful analysis of landscape resources leads to land use planning and design solutions that achieve a balance between different, and often, competing interests. If that could just be the case more often than not! A reminder of how intractable some issues can be comes from the world of renewable energy.

We have heard for some time that wind turbines kill birds, and we keep hoping that a solution may be found to this problem, like the development of slower moving turbines. A report today from Umair Irfan of ClimateWire (subscription service from E&E Publishing) tells us that the problem has not been solved. While house cats and windows kill many urban bird species, turbines pose a unique threat to many more species of birds, including whooping cranes and raptors. Less reported, though, is the significant threat to bats. With white nose syndrome devastating the hybernating bat species, it is especially distressing to hear that wind turbines are killing migratory bat species.

“Many more bats than birds are killed by wind turbines, and they are killed in two ways: simply by being hit by the blades, and some are killed by pressure changes due to the sweep of the blades without even being hit,” said John Whitaker Jr., a professor of biology and director of the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation at Indiana State University, in an email.

Because bats use sound to navigate and can detect moving objects, like insects, exceptionally well, many are better able than birds to avoid striking the blades. However, they can’t detect the invisible swath of low pressure left behind turning blades. Bats then fly into this area, and their internal airways rapidly expand, causing internal bleeding.

This phenomenon, known as barotrauma, accounts for more than half of all turbine-related fatalities in bats, according to a 2008 paper in the journal Current Biology.

Simply mapping landscape resources and locating the best areas for wind energy generation and the most significant migration areas, ala Lyle, McHarg, and others, will not lead to a solution to this problem. From a land use planning perspective, it is an issue of conflicting values. As wind energy proliferates around the globe, we have to hope that a technological solution can be found soon. That would seem to be the shortest path to resolving the dilemma.

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