Archive for November, 2012

It seems not much could rattle Shlomo Aronson, considering how much great landscape architecture work he has done in Israel, where the cultural sensitivities stack up well out of proportion to the country’s small size. In this new oral history filmed by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Aronson, who is 76, talks about his life, times, and designs, including his work in Jerusalem with his friend and mentor Lawrence Halprin. Many of his works navigate the tricky shoals of history on complex ground. Yet sometimes the answers are amusingly straightforward. “Every place where you don’t know what to do, you put an olive tree,” Aronson says. “It’s an obvious solution to me. It’s indigenous. It’s from here. And you don’t have to argue about it…both communities, Jews and Arabs, love this thing.” In the excerpt above, Shlomo talks about his work on the Suzanne Dellal Dance and Theater Center in Tel Aviv.

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SF Planning

From the November 2012 issue of LAM:

By John King, Honorary ASLA

If you’re a tourist who’s visiting San Francisco, you’re unlikely to find yourself on the 4600 block of Noriega Street near the Pacific Ocean, and until recently there’s been little to miss. It’s a comfortable but prosaic strip of low buildings that are home to the likes of a food market and a salon along a broad swath of asphalt. In January, though, it sprouted a new feature when three diagonal parking spaces outside the Devil’s Teeth Baking Company were turned into a semi-enclosed living room joined to the sidewalk, an urban oasis for anyone who might be passing by.

The new space sits within ledgelike seating walls made of weathered cedar, and the edge along the street forms a backrest and a protective wall—a wall that in spots doubles as a planter filled with clumps of Mexican feather grass that sways in the stiff ocean wind. Two interior ledges create triangular nooks where people can sit and relax. There are a large water bowl for dogs and a box of chalk for children to decorate the concrete floor.


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You may have seen our feature article on Via Verde, a housing development in the South Bronx, in our November issue. The writer Alex Ulam took the videographer Doug Forbes out to walk the site with the project’s landscape architect, Lee Weintraub, FASLA, and captured the tour.

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Debris floats in New York’s East River. Brennan Cavanaugh/Flickr

FEMA isn’t the only federal agency helping places affected by Superstorm Sandy. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has provided $5.3 million in funds through its Emergency Watershed Protection program.

NRCS has distributed the money equally between its state offices in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia—each is getting $480,000. Local sponsors can apply for funding for projects to get rid of storm debris from waterways and to restore places that have been scoured or washed away by floods. Funds are available for both public and private property. NRCS will pay up to 75 percent of a project’s total cost, and the sponsor is responsible for the rest. Local offices may also use the money for purchasing floodplain easements.

If you are involved in restoration efforts, also be sure to check out NRCS’s online portal Atlantic Coastal Restoration. It has information on stabilizing sand dunes and revegetating shorelines and is linked into the USDA’s wonderful PLANTS Database.

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Daniel Solomon, left, and Bert Gregory of Mithun

Mithun, based in Seattle, has drawn national attention for its sustainable architecture, landscape architecture, and planning work. Daniel Solomon Design Partners (DSDP) of San Francisco is one of the biggest names in New Urbanism, well known for its work on affordable housing. On Friday, the firms announced they had tied the knot, and the Mithun office in San Francisco will now be known as Mithun|Solomon. The Seattle office will continue to be called Mithun.

“Each practice has a lot of history in neighborhood revitalization,” says Bert Gregory, the architect who is CEO of Mithun. “They bring a tremendous array of talent in urban design, urban housing, and campus planning. We’re very busy in each of those areas.”

“We admire them very much,” says Daniel Solomon, the architect and founder of DSDP. “They have this conceptual framework about environmentalism at all scales, into which our skills fit very neatly.”

Both firms have received ASLA Honor Awards for their planning work. ASLA recognized Mithun for its contributions to the Lloyd Crossing Sustainable Urban Design Plan in Portland, Oregon (a plan created with Greenworks). And DSDP collaborated with GLS Landscape/Architecture on the award-winning plan for Hunters View Public Housing Neighborhood Redevelopment in San Francisco.

But the firms are as well-known for their leaders’ extracurricular activities as their design work. Solomon was one of six architects to found the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993. Gregory played a key role in the development of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system. And Debra Guenther, FASLA, a partner at Mithun, was awarded the President’s Medal from ASLA for her contributions to the Sustainable Sites Initiative.

There are many similarities between the firms, not least an eagerness to practice across disciplines. But Solomon seems to depart in his thoughts about performance metrics, which are a growing area of focus for many design firms. He wrote in a tract that reflects on 20 years of New Urbanism that although he agrees with the intent of LEED for Neighborhood Development, “the system as a whole is egregious non-sense.”

He continued: “LEED-ND is reductive modernist thinking, just like the thinking that produced the places that New Urbanists banded together to resist—the cities of sprawl, erasure and slab block modernism. Real cities, we should have learned, don’t fit universal formulae, let alone simple ones. It is not a matter of fiddling with the system until it is right; the problem is the very idea of schematicizing.”

Asked in a phone interview about those views, Solomon says: “That doesn’t mean that I think metrics are without their utility and their place. You just can’t measure everything, including some very important things.” He says he is finding “plenty of room for lively discourse” within the Mithun and Mithun|Solomon offices and hasn’t found their differences of opinion to be a big deal.

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Photo by Alex via Wikimedia Commons

Alongside the celebration, there’s been some grousing about the $100 million gift that John A. Paulson made to Central Park last week—that it’s extravagant, inequitable, etc. On the Huffington Post today, Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation lays out the reasons to welcome such generosity to support public open spaces. He speaks with several parks conservancy heads, and with Tupper Thomas, the former longtime president of the Prospect Park Alliance, who says: “If the city had to shoulder Central Park’s entire operating budget, rather than just 15 percent, how would that impact the budget for the rest of the City’s park system? There would be nothing left.”

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Riverside Park South, photo courtesy of Thomas Balsley

So, all that speculation around the “Rising Currents” show at the Museum of Modern Art about the inundation of New York—not so speculative, right? And all those new waterfront parks designed to submerge against hopes they never would? Well, they did submerge, some more than others. The designers are starting to see the results. Whether most of the civilian world was thinking much of New York’s capacity for major flooding, there have been landscape architects, architects, planners, and public officials thinking about it for several years now. This week, with Hurricane Sandy, the thinking has been put to a harsh test across the city and a huge section of the mid-Atlantic region.

“Yes, this really can happen,” says Catherine Seavitt, ASLA, one of the people who helped get all this thinking started among designers. In 2009, Seavitt published an ambitious proposal with the engineer Guy Nordenson and the architect Adam Yarinsky for “soft infrastructure” around the Upper Bay of New York and New Jersey to show ways to counter the effects of sea-level rise in a big coastal city. The proposal, called On the Water/Palisade Bay, anticipated a catastrophe much like the one that occurred this week. The project, funded by a Latrobe Prize given by the American Institute of Architects, began in 2007, when “hurricanes weren’t on anyone’s radar” in New York, Seavitt says. But On the Water went on to inspire the 2010 MoMA show, “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” which posed structural ideas for coping with climate change in cities. People have been talking about it ever since.

Susannah Drake, ASLA, the principal of dlandstudio and one of several landscape architects who led a design team for the MoMA exhibition (with Yarinsky and his partner, Stephen Cassell, of Architecture Research Office), has been getting calls from the New York Times and Bloomberg this week, among other media. “It was a sort of an, Oh my god, we were so right moment when all the electrical transformers started to blow up,” Drake says. “They need my waterproof vaults to put the infrastructure under the sidewalks.”

Sunken Forest, Sponge Street Network, by dlandstudio/Architecture Research Office for “Rising Currents” at the Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Image courtesy of dlandstudio

For the MoMA show, Drake’s team rearranged much of lower Manhattan’s infrastructure in anticipation of a heavy saltwater soaking, with three kinds of streets designed to take huge amounts of water, and, of course, her system of protected electrical vaults. “It’d be everywhere—make it all waterproof,” she says. “The city was looking at all these fuzzy green edges and green swales, all of which is great low-hanging fruit, but this is a combination of engineering and landscape design. It’s expensive and complicated.” As is having one-third of the city without power for at least two days.

Designers of New York’s new waterfront parks, which have been a huge part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to transform the city, are taking stock of what they’ve kept and what they’ve lost. Signe Nielsen, FASLA, of the landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen, has checked out her section of Hudson River Park in Tribeca, and sounded pretty sanguine about it. “The pier for the most part fared well. It was completely inundated,” she says. “The biggest crisis was in this one area where the Styrofoam under the pavement had water underneath and pushed the Styrofoam up and completely destroyed all the paving.” One shallow-rooted tree came down. Nielsen said that in looking around the city, she noted that the trees already bare were fine; those blown over had leaves. “A lesson we learned some time ago is to use very small-leaved trees, and salt-resistant too—zelkova, honey locust, hackberry.” Callery pears were down all over the city, Nielsen says, unsurprised.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, had been to the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park on Tuesday, the day after the storm, and things seemed not to have broken or eroded much. Many of the plantings are elevated, but some were close to the edge, planted to meet a tide. He wondered how they will come out. “It depends on how long the salt water was there. It wasn’t five minutes, and it wasn’t six hours,” he says. (A surreal image of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, surrounded by water inside its pavilion designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, made its way around Twitter this week.)

But when we spoke, Van Valkenburgh still hadn’t been to Teardrop Park in Battery Park City, Pier C Park in Hoboken (which is basically a small island in the Hudson River), or his Segment 5 of Hudson River Park. “You know when your dog runs out in the road and gets hit by a car? This is that kind of feeling,” he says.

Governors Island is, of course, surrounded by water just south of the Battery, where the surge rose to nearly 14 feet, higher than that seen during Hurricane Donna in 1960. West 8 is building out the first phase of its master plan for a new park on the island, which won a 2012 ASLA Professional Award for Analysis and Planning and is scheduled to open next year. Leslie Koch, the president of the Trust for Governors Island, says a small number of trees are lost and there is “a lot of debris” on the island, including shipping containers, but that the original historic areas of the island were above the surge. “It’s all intact,” Koch says. “The point of the proposal was to raise the lower south island. We’re building 30 acres above that. The island’s already higher than it would have been.”

Ken Smith, FASLA, says in an email that he had not been to his East River Waterfront Esplanade and Piers, designed with SHoP Architects, but that a member of his staff, John Ridenour, had gone to see it and reported that the fixtures and plantings were “in pretty good shape.” Ridenour added that there had been an oil spill somewhere on the water, and the whole area reeked of petroleum. “The East River Waterfront is mostly pretty durable design,” Smith writes, “and the plantings are relatively salt-tolerant since they regularly get some degree of salt spray.”

Uptown, along the Hudson at Riverside Park South, Thomas Balsley, FASLA, said his design lost some riprap, but “all is well,” though he sent a picture (top of post) that shows a bit of cleanup will be needed. His other waterfront projects around the city, including Hunters Point South Park 9, designed with the architects Weiss Manfredi and still under construction, were fine, as is Balsley’s West Shore Park in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

All of these waterfront spaces have had a good amount of surge resistance baked into them. Catherine Seavitt says that the close call with Hurricane Irene in 2011 reminded people generally that sea level rise is something to take seriously in a densely populated port city. In the wake of Sandy, Seavitt says, she has seen very little she didn’t expect, having pored a lot over 100- and 500-year flood maps—though she was curious about flooding around East 96th Street between First and Second avenues. The Viele map of 1865 shows a marshy area with a small stream that flows from what is now the Harlem Meer in Central Park. “There are all these old watercourses where water wants to go,” Seavitt said. “It’s pretty straightforward.”

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