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Archive for the ‘HISTORIC LANDSCAPES’ Category

BY MIMI ZEIGER

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To revive downtown, the city appears poised to drive right through a masterpiece.

From the December 2014 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

The city of Fresno sits in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley. When you drive into town from Los Angeles, the landscape is agricultural and framed by roadside eucalyptus trees. It gives way to off-ramp clusters of gas stations, fast-food chains, and light industrial warehouses. Most of Fresno’s neighborhoods, after nearly 50 years of decentralization and flight from the urban core, sprawl north, tracking the edge of the San Joaquin River. The city’s historic downtown and civic center are a near ghost town.

At the heart of downtown is the Fulton Mall. In the early part of the 20th century, it was Fresno’s main drag, Fulton Street, six blocks lined with banks and department stores. In 1964, the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo turned the street into a modernist pedestrian mall as part of a master plan for downtown Fresno by Victor Gruen Associates. Photographs of the period show a wide promenade full of people flanked by the awnings of existing buildings. Daffodils peek out of Eckbo’s sculptural planting beds, fountains gurgle, and a clock tower by Jan de Swart, an expressive interpretation of a historic form, unambiguously marks the mall as the new town square.

Today, the mall is the center of a fight over downtown Fresno’s redevelopment. The city government, with a $14 million federal transportation grant, supports plans to put a new complete street down the center of the mall. Preservationists plan to file a lawsuit to block the scheme. The rhetorical standoff between sides comes down to revive versus destroy, but the conditions on the ground tell a more complicated story about the role of design as a catalyst and a scapegoat in a changing urban landscape.

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Washington Park, one of two sites being offered by the University of Chicago for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Credit:

Washington Park, one of two sites being offered by the University of Chicago for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Credit: Photo © Lucas Blair, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

From the June 2015 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

To the annals of things you thought might be sacred but actually aren’t sacred at all, you can now add 20 or so acres of a Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux park in Chicago that will be used to build the Obama presidential library. The Barack Obama Foundation, which had been considering four sites in Chicago, New York, and Hawaii, announced on May 12 that it had narrowed its choices down to a site in either Jackson Park or Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. Neither the foundation nor the University of Chicago, which lured the library with the promise of using public parkland after a transfer engineered by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, knows which Olmsted park they’ll decide on. But they seem sure that, despite dozens of empty acres owned by the city near each of the parks, only a park site will do.

When you consider who’s at work behind the idea, it seems inevitable that one of the Olmsted sites would be the choice. There’s Emanuel, who is a former chief of staff to President Obama and recently won re-election to a second term as mayor. There’s Susan Sher, a former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, who is now an adviser to the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, and managed the library bid for the university. There are the commissioners of the Chicago Park District, appointed by Emanuel, who unanimously approved the transfer of the parkland to build the library (except for the president of the park district’s board, Bryan Traubert, who declined to vote because he is married to Obama’s secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker). And then there are the Illinois legislature and the governor, who, in light of potential legal threats to the library project, quickly approved a bill in April to preemptively block legal challenges to the taking of public parkland to build it.

I might have counted on the huge numbers of Olmsted fundamentalists and preservationists, so conspicuous on other occasions, to emerge in force against the library foundation’s plans. But other than substantive counterarguments made by a couple of advocacy groups—the Friends of the Parks in Chicago and the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington—any opposition to the idea of appropriating parkland for the library was muted to nonexistent, notably among landscape architects. A move to develop part of Central Park or Prospect Park, also by Olmsted and Vaux, in New York, would create something close to panic, as would, I suspect, designs on a Mies van der Rohe building or the Tribune Tower in Chicago.

It’s not possible to know whether there are more people who opposed Chicago’s offering of the park but kept quiet owing to fears of political retribution—no more municipal work for you, grouch—or because they didn’t think it is wrong, or because they thought fighting was futile. Not that one reason is more terribly disappointing than the others. This was a moment (and a long moment since word of the city’s plan came out late last year) to defend something that landscape architects and park advocates say they hold dear.

The ultimate responsibility lies with the president and First Lady themselves. When they announced the decision and ended the charade of keeping their distance from the site selection process, they cited, of course, their deep attachment to the South Side of Chicago. This part of the city makes perfect sense for the Obama library for many reasons. But if the Obamas are so rooted on the South Side, you’d think they wouldn’t be quite so indifferent to the gravity of developing part of its most important park, which, for reasons that don’t require much explanation, is, or was, indeed sacred.

 

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BY JONATHAN LERNER

Now viewed across the lawn and meadow, the houses evoke the settlement's rural character.

Now viewed across the lawn and meadow, the houses evoke the settlement’s rural character.

From the September 2014 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Nearly 50 years ago, a cluster of old houses, set slightly askew, was “discovered” in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. They had been surrounded and concealed by newer structures aligned to the modern street grid. These modest cottages were the last physical trace of Weeksville, a self-sufficient farming settlement founded by freed African Americans after slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827.

An organization soon coalesced to document the history and preserve the structures. These years later, the newly completed Weeksville Heritage Center has wider ambitions: both to celebrate the area’s black history and to foster its present-day cultural vitality. The historic houses have been restored and are joined by a dazzling new building with exhibition, performance, research, and classroom spaces. Between them is an outdoor area meant for active programming and historical interpretation. Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, the designer, says, “One challenge was to make the historic land use patterns apparent.” Another was to reveal the idiosyncratic route of long-erased Hunterfly Road, originally a Native American footpath, which the old houses had fronted.

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Many historic sites in Scotland, like Skara Brae, are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Courtesy Sylvia Duckworth via Wikimedia Commons.

The sudden loss of historic sites along coastal areas, and their just as sudden reemergence, are often among the unexpected consequences of sea-level rise. We recently came across this piece by Henry Gass at E&E Publishing on the vulnerabilities of Scottish historic properties to coastline erosion, and the inability of the existing regulatory structures to adapt to both the threats and opportunities it presents. This piece, originally published behind the publisher’s paywall, highlights some of these issues. E&E, which does excellent daily reporting on climate change and energy issues, has kindly allowed us to repost the article in full.

 

SCOTLAND FIGHTS TO KEEP ITS ANCIENT HISTORY

FROM VANISHING UNDER A RISING SEA

HENRY GASS, E&E PUBLISHING, LLC, AUGUST 1, 2014

A storm buried Skara Brae for centuries, and it would take a storm to unearth it again.

Roughly 5,000 years ago, a small community of farmers settled in the village on a small island off Scotland’s northeast coast. The villagers lived in geometrically identical stone houses, grew barley, raised cattle and sheep, and carved tools using volcanic rock from Iceland that washed ashore. Over 700 years, they built an ordered society until, archaeologists believe, the climate changed and powerful storms buried the village in water and sand.

Almost three centuries later, in 1850, another powerful storm tore into the island’s coastal dunes, revealing Skara Brae once more. Archaeologists have been excavating the site ever since, gaining detailed insights into the uniquely organized and comfortable Neolithic settlement. But now the climate is changing again, and it may not be long before Skara Brae is reclaimed by the ocean.

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CAP TBD  Credit: New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

A Mardi Gras parade passes by one of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s pilot rain garden lots in Algiers, designed by Spackman Mossop and Michaels. Credit: New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

This week, the Van Alen Institute announced Future Ground, a new, open, and international competition to develop ideas and policies for dealing with New Orleans’s nearly 30,000 vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Nearly 10 years post-Katrina, New Orleans has thousands of idle urban spaces that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, which owns more than 2,000 of them and is a cosponsor of the competition, wants to see turned into community resources.

The Future Ground RFQ stresses the need to develop workable policies for these vacant spaces as well as design solutions. It states that competitors should be multidisciplinary teams of “individuals and firms with expertise in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, urban planning, graphic design, policy, engineering, finance, real estate, community development, and other fields.” Competing teams need to include local partners. Winning teams, the brief says, will receive $15,000 to work on small projects that can have broader applications and also generate policies that can sustain the program for the next several decades.

This is not Van Alen’s first foray into vacant land—it sponsored the Urban Voids competition back in 2005 for Philadelphia, and this competition is part of the multiyear, multiproject Elsewhere: Escape and the Urban Landscape initiative.

The timeline is short: The deadline for applications is September 29, 2014, and teams will kick off in New Orleans in October 2014 and wrap up by the spring of 2015. You can find the RFQ and more information, including a list  of advisers, local sponsors, and jury members, on the Van Alen Institute site.

Tell us in the comments if you decide to submit, and what intrigues you about this opportunity.

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 Lincoln's Cottage sits on one of the highest points in DC. Copyright (C) National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Lincoln’s Cottage sits on one of the highest points in D.C. Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Tucked away among the 276 acres of the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home property in Washington, D.C., is a modest gothic revival home where Abraham Lincoln and his family went to escape the city’s oppressive summer heat.

President Lincoln's Cottage. Copyright © National Trust for Historic Preservation.

President Lincoln’s Cottage. Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It was here that Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was here that he was sometimes seen walking the grounds at night, wrestling with the country’s most difficult problems in the years before the Civil War.

Paths away from the cottage thread through the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. Copyright© National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Paths away from the cottage thread through the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The site, now known as President Lincoln’s Cottage, is managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It’s important for its associations with Lincoln, but also for its significance as a walking landscape, one that witnessed and perhaps nurtured some of our most enduring ideas of what it means to be American.

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Rich Haag with a clump of Equisetum, one of his favorite plants. Photo: Daniel Jost.

Rich Haag with a clump of Equisetum, one of his favorite plants. Photo: Daniel Jost.

On a recent tour of the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Washington, Richard Haag, FASLA, told a group of us, students from the University of Washington, two stories about the demise of the Garden of Planes. The garden was the first stop in the famous sequence of spaces that Haag designed at the reserve, and it was erased a few years after it was completed.

One story involves a fox. “A fox used to have a den there,” Haag explained as we passed by a giant stump that, ironically, Haag preserved for its habitat value. “And every morning, the fox would come out and leave his morning offering right on top of the gravel pyramid,” at the center of the Garden of Planes, he said. “That’s one of the reasons they got rid of it.”

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