Tim Waterman

Landscape Studies, Food Studies, Utopian Studies

At Liberty: Place de la République, Paris

by Tim-Waterman on January 22, 2015, no comments

This article is from the April 2014 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) and I have re-blogged it from The Dirt.

Place de la République before aerial view / © Air-Images.net

Place de la République before aerial view / © Air-Images.net

Place de la République after aerial view / © TVK

Place de la République after aerial view / © TVK

A piece of Paris has been recivilized for walking (or skating, or scootering, or protesting). Taxi Drivers aren’t happy, but they’ll get over it.

Over lunch at the cheap and cheerful Gai Moulin restaurant near the Pompidou in Paris, I spoke with the man at the next table about his experience of the Place de la République. He replied that it was outside his usual haunts, but that he had always seen the space as “a sort of absence.” This is precisely how I remembered the Place from previous trips to Paris. It was somehow dark, cold, and wet in every season; a vortex of angry traffic that made fugitives of pedestrians, a margin, a nonplace. What a pleasure, then, to return to find a space filled with warmth and activity even on a damp winter day.

The design, by the French architecture and urbanism practice Trévelo and Viger-Kohler (TVK) with Martha Schwartz Partners and the landscape architects AREAL, has brought the city back together where it had been fractured by traffic planners and years of small streetscape adjustments unaided by strategy. TVK was responsible for much of the design, the meetings, the consultations. One of the great successes of the space is owing to creative input from Martha Schwartz Partners: the partial pedestrianization of one side of the square. The other is owing to a very sophisticated grading strategy.

The Place de la République sits at the corner of the 3rd, 10th, and 11th arrondissements and at the center of a spiderweb of streets with no fewer than seven roads connecting (and more diving into forks just before). There are also five Métro lines that converge underground and eject people at five points around and within it. The square’s current shape is the result of the talented megalomaniac Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s interventions in the Second Empire. The construction of the square and the adjoining boulevards involved the destruction of a row of theaters on the Boulevard du Temple. One of the earliest known photographic images, a daguerreotype of the Boulevard du Temple, shows the area before Haussmann’s picks began to swing.

The center of the Place de la République is the top of a gentle hill on which sits a gaudy statue of Marianne, France’s national emblem, brandishing an olive branch with bombast. Before the renovations of the square she sat marooned on a traffic island, her pedestal covered with graffiti deposited during demonstrations. Now she floats over the dome of space, and the topography bends away from her and down the many radiating streets. The hilltop has been gently smoothed in every direction, which gives it a decisive tautness. It doesn’t have “hospital corners,” tucked into itself nicely as so many squares do; rather the tautness extends beyond the square and down each connecting street. As Schwartz says, “The project’s big win was to attach the square to the rest of the city.” The decisive, perhaps brutal, confidence of Haussmann’s avenues has met its complement. The square and the surrounding streets have all been joined in grand unity.

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

The redirection of the traffic, which partially pedestrianizes the northeastern side of the square, is almost a photocopy of London’s Trafalgar Square, which was also a choked gyre of traffic until Peter Heath, at Atkins, and Norman Foster, at Foster + Partners, corrected it in 2003. Whereas Trafalgar Square is completely pedestrianized along one side, its Parisian counterpart allows bus and taxi traffic along its quiet side. It’s hated by taxi drivers, who claim that there is now a permanent bottleneck at the Place de la République. The London version is not loved by taxi drivers either, nor by the National Gallery, which, with characteristic English reserve, claims the space is now so overrun with tourists that it has turned into an undignified carnival. In 2009 the gallery actually tried to have the traffic returned to the square.

The city of Paris is willing to wait out the taxi drivers, though. The intentions are overall to make Paris a place much friendlier to alternative transportation modes, and the hope is that congestion will ease as car usage declines. Paris also gives over automotive spaces to the pedestrians, bikes, and other wheels along the Seine during the summer when a beach appears on the road, and on Sundays all year.

On my midwinter visit the tourist throngs that plague Trafalgar Square weren’t in evidence at République, but the square was certainly thronged on my arrival. Thousands of Kurds and their supporters had turned out to protest the murder of three Kurdish activists in Paris the previous year. Flags of a variety of countries waved from the hands of young protesters who were climbing Marianne’s pedestal. Food vendors set up at the edges of the crowd, and then, lining every street in incredible numbers, there were armored gendarmes with their vehicles, drinking coffee and waiting for trouble (which never came). From my hotel room just next door we could hear the indignation of the crowds and the speakers coming in waves.

At midnight the square was full of piles of refuse being gathered together and trucks with pressure washers. A couple of flags still fluttered around the statue. The next morning, a Sunday, was clear and bright, and early on in the day the traffic around the square was light. With a cup of coffee and a croissant I watched the Place de la République awaken. First there were just a few of us—a couple of homeless people on a bench, the other coffee drinkers, a few people whizzing by on bicycles. Gradually, though, a wide variety of other types of wheeled vehicles began to appear, attracted by the large, clear, smooth space. First a father teaching his tiny son to ride his bike, then a mother and a young girl both with pink Rollerblades, and a toddler on a scooter who let it fall to the ground in order to have a good full-throated cry. Later, two girls with unicycles carefully threaded their way through a group having a kickabout with a soccer ball.

While I watched all the activity dependent upon a clear, level space, a delightful paradox became evident. The space does, as I’ve mentioned, slope off into streetscapes in every direction. It’s far from level. However, along the pedestrianized edge of the square, a series of four flights of stairs provides balconies over the space below and helps to give the illusion of levelness. Thus it is possible to stand in the square and simultaneously comprehend it as both meticulously level and pronouncedly domed. What’s even better is that this isn’t an accident. It required some very canny and careful grading. Not one of the flights of stairs meets the slope in the same way, and there are cross slopes to the cross slopes.

There’s a particular irony that Martha Schwartz Partners should have helped to design a space where the design work flies so low under the radar. Her practice is founded on her flair as a provocateur. She has always wished to move the landscape profession by exciting comment and provoking debate, and always with highly visible design overtures. “I am the army ant that sacrifices its body to build a bridge,” she says. She utterly rejects the old dogma within landscape architecture that it is at its best when it is invisible. I couldn’t help asking whether such a minimalist space was enough for her. No, of course not. If she had her way she would have swept the old plane trees away that guard one side of the space, replacing them with a series of big fountains. But it was not to be.

She explains the Place de la République’s subtlety in terms of the fabric of Paris itself. Paris doesn’t need landscape spaces that shock it back into functionality. It’s already working in so many ways, and so sure of itself. Paris, she says, “doesn’t need a defibrillator.” Still, one gets the sense she would have used one anyway if she could have. Maybe it doesn’t need it, but it can certainly take it.

There are also difficulties trying to make a design splash in a public space where so many people have ownership. “The public landscape is the most contested of all spaces,” Schwartz says. “It is where everything overlaps. It’s more political territory than it is environmental or social, for example.” In addition to the many stakeholders, how much can happen in a project depends upon the political will of the powers that be—whether they will take on risks, which may depend upon where they are in the electoral cycle. “TVK took the largest part of the project—they were sitting there with the politicians.”

It is the big moves that work here, and perhaps also all that work with the politicians. Other gestures are much less assured. The square’s simple austerity allows the warmth of human activity to fill the space. TVK seems to have become frightened of such minimalism and added to the square a small wooden stage at the southeast corner, but it looks paltry and tentative. Worse, the square is dotted with wooden benches, the outsized timbers of which seek to reference overstuffed sofas. These appear jokey and compensatory. Finally, the northwestern end of the square is held in place with a small rectangular café, grandly named the Monde and Médias Pavilion. Its glazed walls allow a seamless interaction with the surrounding space, and a roof cantilevers out over seating next to a water feature—perfect for parents wishing to watch their children. There is gently glowing lighting that adds a delicate ambience. From the water side, this is a successful ensemble, but viewed from the street side the café’s lines are far less confident. The floating effect of the cantilever doesn’t elevate the building here—it is decidedly grounded. The heavy beam that forms the cornice and counterbalances the cantilever overpowers the building with top-heaviness, and as an otherwise unadorned box the architecture offers no other tactic with which to counteract this effect. Viewed from the major approach down the Boulevard Saint-Martin across the busy street, it is a graceless and unwelcoming presence.

I leave Paris in the midafternoon and walk to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. The southern expanse of the Place de la République is now filled with youths skateboarding, and the clatter of boards is so constant it sounds like the pop and crackle of a poorly tuned radio. To all the other wheels in the square I add the two of my suitcase. TVK created a beautiful bande dessinée graphic to convey the various programs and activities that were to be contained within the new Place de la République, and they’re all in there—the kids, the Kurds, the skateboards. Even the sullen taxi drivers might reluctantly find themselves in the mix.

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

So many of the groups that have ownership of the square have been there through the weekend. The grout is already coming away between the stones from all the pressure washing at night—a direct result of so much activity. It’s gone from being an urban margin to something that integrates the city around it, making it legible. The charming little cafés near the Square du Temple are now part of the same city that contains the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin, which, just on the other side of the Place de la République, dives into a tunnel through the same hill that is crowned by Marianne. What the graphic fails to show is that the site’s narratives aren’t contained here. They are now part of all of Paris’s trajectories again—they stretch outside, they connect, and they bring the whole place into focus again.

NB – I just visited Paris again recently with my partner in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The Place de la République was clearly a focal point for public sentiment. 

Place de la République, 15 January 2015

Place de la République, 15 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo memorial and Marianne statue, Place de la République, 15 January 2015.

Charlie Hebdo memorial and Marianne statue, Place de la République, 15 January 2015.

Contextual Twentieth Century Architecture in Fitzrovia and Soho

by Tim-Waterman on January 14, 2015, no comments

Two remarkable buildings (at least) are scheduled for demolition in Fitzrovia and Soho, my neighbourhood. Their loss marks a failure to value the city as a collective work evolving over time and a failure to see buildings as part of urban social, cultural, aesthetic and even ecological context. London’s landscape will be further impoverished as a result.

The first of these buildings is Richard Seifert’s Copyright House on Berners Street, just next to the pseudomodern atrocity that is Fitzroy Place, and the second is the art deco Drages Department Store at 68-89 Oxford Street, a bookend to the celebrated Ideal House on Great Marlborough Street. Though not as cleanly detailed and crisp as Ideal House, Drages epitomises the exuberant spirit of interwar commercial flash with its sculptural decoration in pink on gray. Drages is to be replaced by another leaden hunk of corporate architecture by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, wicked perpetrators of the execrable Fitzroy Place.

Last year I was interviewed in the Fitzrovia News about Copyright House, and I said the following:

“Fitzrovia is distinguished by a mix of buildings that have come to be cherished primarily because of their contribution to the lively but consistent scale and texture of its streets. Buildings of many eras, often designed with the élan and exuberance suited to a central location, provide both a record of each era’s aspirational aesthetics and a comforting assurance of continuity. Fitzrovia is one of the finest examples available that the city is a collective work of human endeavour over time,”

“Richard Seifert’s Copyright House, businesslike and muscular but with a touch of whimsy in its undulating canopy, is an important part of this cumulative work. Both its interiors and its exterior should be restored and maintained in this spirit. In particular its adjacency to the similarly important Sanderson building and other fine examples of contextual modernism in the area militate for its preservation as part of a local ensemble of twentieth century architecture.

“Sensitive restorations of other twentieth century buildings in Fitzrovia have helped maintain the area’s distinctive character. Development in an important area such as Fitzrovia should not fail to consider the contributions of twentieth century buildings and landscapes to its character and its value.”

It’s for too long been a lazy habit to see modernist architecture as buildings arrived from outer space on vast, cleared sites. This is perhaps more true of twenty-first century buildings than it ever was in the last century, particularly if one is looking about globally. Here are just a few of my very favourite examples of fine, contextual twentieth century architecture in my neighbourhood, taken from a quick virtual stroll around:

The Ideal House is located on Great Marlborough Street/Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TA. It was constructed in 1928-1929 by the architects Raymond Hood and Gordon Jeeves in the art deco style as the London headquarters of the American National Radiator Company. Image by Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons

The Ideal House is located on Great Marlborough Street/Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TA. It was constructed in 1928-1929 by the architects Raymond Hood and Gordon Jeeves in the art deco style as the London headquarters of the American National Radiator Company. Image by Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons

The incredibly confident and magnificent Ideal House on Great Marlborough Street and, below, its nearby art deco compatriot, the former Drages Department Store on Oxford Street. It’s so clearly both of and for its place; brash and beautiful, unabashedly capitalist bombast. Here is the Twentieth Century Society’s lament to its passing.

Drages Department Store, Oxford Street. Photo by author.

Drages Department Store, Oxford Street. Photo by author.

Incidentally, it is this bit of placeless, hamhanded blang (that’s bland + bling) by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands that will replace it. Look how it squooges out over the buildings to its rear like a roll of sweaty, overheated real estate fat. And I’m sure it’s meant to meet the sky in homage to Seifert’s Centre Point, seen behind, but it comes off as parody more than homage.

73-89 Oxford Street as depicted on the website of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands at http://www.lds-uk.com/projects/73-89-oxford-street

73-89 Oxford Street as depicted on the website of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands at http://www.lds-uk.com/projects/73-89-oxford-street

There are two of these light-hearted blue-spandreled buildings on Great Titchfield Street just off Market Square, and they never fail to fill my heart with joy. As contextual modernism, I’m sure they’re unlikely to become listed buildings by themselves, but surely they should be protected as part of the conservation area. This image doesn’t do justice to the colour, which is decidedly cheerful.

Buildings at the intersection of Great Titchfield Street and Margaret Street. The second is behind scaffolding at the moment (please let it not be demolition). Photo by author.

Buildings at the intersection of Great Titchfield Street and Margaret Street. The second is behind scaffolding at the moment (please let it not be demolition). Photo by author.

Further up Great Titchfield Street there stands this masterpiece of firmness and cosmopolitan grace. I was excited when the restaurant recently underwent a refurbishment, as I had visions of a Dudok-styled modernist café in the European idiom, but no, we got a pathetic bit of neo-Edwardianism with the same old subway tiles and exposed filament bulbs … and dead squirrels mounted by taxidermists as wall sconces.

Building at Riding House Street and Great Titchfield Street. Clean, elegant, contextual and crying out for a proper European café to be housed within. Photo by author.

Building at Riding House Street and Great Titchfield Street. Clean, elegant, contextual and crying out for a proper European café to be housed within. Photo by author.

And then finally this beautiful building, on the northwest corner of Whitfield Street and Tottenham Street, which, to give credit where it is due, has been sensitively restored by the developer Derwent.

Building at Whitfield and Tottenham Streets in Fitzrovia. Such a fine staircase in a glazed shaft - sorry about the van in the foreground. Photo by author.

Building at Whitfield and Tottenham Streets in Fitzrovia. Such a fine staircase in a glazed shaft – sorry about the van in the foreground. Photo by author.

It is my fervent hope that eventually conservation areas might make better specific reference to good, contextual twentieth century architecture and landscape architecture, and preserve it as part of the ongoing work that is our beloved city.

San Francisco and Matthew Stadler’s “Landscape: Memory”

by Tim-Waterman on December 10, 2014, no comments

San Francisco fire after the 1906 earthquake, Sacramento Street, image by Arnold Genthe

San Francisco fire after the 1906 earthquake, Sacramento Street, image by Arnold Genthe

This is an unpublished essay I wrote in 2003. I have made some small changes for accuracy, but I have left my writing style of the time intact. I’m every bit as fond of Stadler’s book now as I was then. 

Literature provides a unique vehicle for the interpretation of landscapes, adding numerous senses to the experience described; a departure from standard non-fiction on the topic, which primarily concerns itself with the landscape as apprehended visually. The multi-sensory approach proves, if not more objective, a more faithful rendering of the way the individual experiences the environment. Further, it can help to point up the types of detail the subjective observer is drawn to, which could provide cues for design.

Matthew Stadler’s 1990 novel Landscape: Memory is an unusual, intelligent, and chatty coming-of-age novel set in San Francisco in the early twentieth century. Its setting, its lyrical use of the English language, and its precise detailing of the landscape of the time sets it apart from the average bildungsroman and makes it a most apt subject for the study of cultural geography and landscape. The novel also encompasses a wide range of landscapes, ranging from rural, pastoral, and seaside settings in Bolinas to bustling downtown San Francisco to the wedding-cake fantasy of the 1915 Panama Pacific World’s Fair; as well as a subplot located in the trenches of Belgium. The accelerating progress of the twentieth century is increasingly felt, but San Francisco has yet to explosively expand from its busy core into the surrounding countryside. Construction of the Fair may be viewed from the forest on the bluffs above, which are as yet unsullied by suburban homes.

The novel is narrated by its protagonist, Max Kosegarten, who while an astute observer, is prone to revery and flights of fancy. The narrative relates the story of his adolescence, punctuated with drawing lessons from Ruskin, ornithological excursions with his father, motoring with his anarchist friend Flora, the adulterous affair of his mother with his best friend’s father, and the budding romance between he and his best friend, Duncan. The story takes place in 1914 and 1915, during the building and opening of the World’s Fair, and with details of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 referred to in flashbacks. It’s appropriate that a coming-of-age story should be set at a time when San Francisco was experiencing the same sorts of growing pains; moving from urban adolescence to the full bloom of a world city.

The motion of the novel’s narrative is carried quite strongly by its physical movement through the landscape; each shift in voice, context, or plot is accompanied by a new setting that is lovingly described. The first pages set up the action with a description of the daredevil aviator Lincoln Beachey soaring above the Presidio in his fragile plane:

The wind is salty and cold in his nostrils, ripping in off the gray-green sea. It drags up the face of Mount Tam carrying sea birds who glide on its lift and pull, and birdmen, like Beachey, daring enough to take the free ride up on treacherous winds. This whole place is spread out wide below him. The yellow-blue waters of the bay, lying flat up to the lip of the land, the hills rising green, then brown and burned golden across the high ridges rolling on east and forever.

Imagine him south now. He’s come over the city, over the open green fields and thick woods of the Presidio, … down over Sunset and the dunes, south to the open hills running wild by the coast, thick fog pressing in on their western face. It’s rolling over the ridges and down into valleys, lying low and silent on the lakes.

The dunes, the waves, and the colours all seem to flash by in much the way an aviator must have seen them. This sets up both the overall context of the landscape in the book, and establishes the dream-like quality of San Francisco seen by a boy prone to flights of fancy. It also places the reader in time, with the visceral experience of flying in an early biplane, and the notable lack of development surrounding the city.

Aerial view of Bolinas Lagoon and peninsula, the setting for parts of Landscape: Memory. Image Army Corps of Engineers

Aerial view of Bolinas Lagoon and peninsula, the setting for parts of Landscape: Memory. Image Army Corps of Engineers

The narrative soon becomes more intimate, as Max and his friend Duncan explore the hills and gullies above Bolinas Lagoon, northwest along the coast from San Francisco.

We found a ruin to the south and back down into the thick woods of Weeks Gulch. Small and overgrown, barely one square room of tumbled-down stones, but a ruin nonetheless. It stood on a small rise up the north side of the gulch, peeling madronas bent high over the rough, crumbling walls. The view west opened up through the tops of redwoods growing from deep in the ravine. The hot sun had burned down all day on their broad green branches so the air was sweet and dry. The lagoon stretched out flat for miles, its lip lying on a muddy strip of land down beyond the mouth of the gully.

Once again, the semi-wild character of San Francisco’s outskirts is described, and this time with attention to the other senses. The feel of the air and the sun, and the scent of redwoods are strongly evoked. Later in the day, Max and Duncan have set up camp, and he notes, “only the loons remain with us, still and perfect, floating in the absolute calm. Their small bodies bob in the strange dusk. They slip across the water. And their long, lowing song fills me, as full and enveloping as the sweet, cool evening.” Here the loons and their calls, and their gentle motion on the still water once again show the landscape animated. The progression from the hot sun of the day to the cool evening also illustrates beautifully the cycle of the day, that carries us from sleepy morning to the activity of the day, then again to sleepy evening. It is important to remember that our perception of our environment is experienced through the filter of our senses, which are differently tuned through the day, even as the sun casts a different light at different hours, and night has its own illuminations to which our diurnal character responds with a most pleasant lethargy.

George R. Lawrence, 1908: "San Francisco in ruins from Lawrence Captive Airship – 2000 feet [660 m] above San Francisco Bay – Overlooking waterfront. – Sunset over Golden Gate." Market Street leads directly away from Ferry Building tower, center foreground.

George R. Lawrence, 1908: “San Francisco in ruins from Lawrence Captive Airship – 2000 feet [660 m] above San Francisco Bay – Overlooking waterfront. – Sunset over Golden Gate.” Market Street leads directly away from Ferry Building tower, center foreground.

The metropolis exerts a completely different influence on the person than do the woods and fields. The delirium of constant activity, the blaze of lights at night, the jumble of cars (and in the novel’s era, of horses and carts), the hucksters, the hooligans, and the finely adorned; all of this works to confuse us, as they work against our natural cycles. Far from unpleasant, though, the city is like a drug; distorting our perceptions, attenuating the focus as at once one is saturated with the peripheral. Max writes;

We parked down by Stockton, in the midst of the busiest jumble. Trolleys clanged past four abreast. Horses and carts and cars and bicyclists wiggled in amongst the mayhem. It seemed some disaster had struck,, some terrible trembling from deep in the earth and this was the ensuing panic.

Ladies bustled into traffic, navigating boldly through the various conveyances, stopping to converse on thin islands of safety between lanes of traffic. One raised her little gloved hand and a jitney jammed its brakes and skidded to a stop nearby. Other cars swerved out behind into the trolley paths.

Earlier in the text he says, “The buildings seemed so incredibly tall, rising up on either side of Post like sheer canyon walls …. The inhuman speed and noise of the motorcar rattled through me. It worked inside me so I wanted to either sleep or throw up, the two seeming equally viable and, somehow, quite familiar.” We see the fascination in the clangor of the city and how its hubbub works upon the senses and emotions so that they become as cacophonous as the world around. In the latter quote we see, too, that this effect is simultaneously upsetting and calming; paradoxical, perhaps, but all too true, especially for those able to recall their first experience in the city.

The city’s hallucinogenic effect is yet magnified in times of crisis. In a flashback to his early childhood, Max recalls the catastrophic earthquake of 1906;

Nothing was familiar anymore. All up and down the street the houses were broken, fences fallen. I could see through places where before I couldn’t. Yards disappeared under rubble and the street did too, all tangled and blocked. Some places were big holes like one near me with metal pipes poking out into air and a horse’s head I could see reaching up out from the rim, wild-eyed, baring its teeth and foaming. It was on its side, fallen against the dirty wall of the hole, not using its legs right.

I walked away back into the play dunes where everything still looked okay and it was quieter if I got far enough in. I stayed there for a while. I couldn’t think much about things.

Sunken houses on Howard Street in 1906. Image from stereoscopic card.

Sunken houses on Howard Street in 1906. Image from stereoscopic card.

These phrases remind us that beneath the veneer of order lurks the possibility for disaster that exists in any landscape. While it may be unsettling to ponder this, it highlights the preciousness of the accustomed view with the intimation that it precariousness necessitates greater appreciation. This sensation is never more apparent than during a crisis, or most especially in times of war when we ourselves are the catastrophe being visited upon the land.

The Great War was in full swing during the time in which this novel is set, and reminders of it come in the novel in the form of letters from Max’s Uncle Maury, an English doctor and soldier in the trenches of Flanders. Throughout the book, the letters become more and more dour, until finally Maury describes curling up and succumbing to the numbness of the horror of war. He describes the landscape outside the trenches when he is assigned to scavenge salvage during a brief reprieve from the exchange of fire:

From a distance it looked plain enough, a sea of mud pocked by craters … There are no trees here, any longer, no shrubs or ground cover, no grass or wheat or rye, nothing. Good land is solid and the rest is mud, sometimes waist-deep and impossible to tell until you’re right in it. We’d been issued rakes and ropes for our operation. You can imagine the first find, my rake dragging into something heavy but manageable, the boot end coming up first and then it popping clean from the sucking mud just above the knee where it had been severed. One can be so willingly blind until slapped in the face, and then be blind again.

No Man's Land, Flanders, 1919.  Photo by W. L. King, Millersberg, Ohio; by courtesy of Military Intelligence Div., General Staff, U.S. Army.

No Man’s Land, Flanders, 1919. Photo by W. L. King, Millersberg, Ohio; by courtesy of Military Intelligence Div., General Staff, U.S. Army.

Just  as young Max witnessed the tearing apart of the earth during the earthquake in San Francisco, so his Uncle Maury is witness to the terror that can dwell just below the surface; literally, in both cases, though the figurative meaning is not far behind. Even in the midst of such terror, however, our trust in the power of the land to heal itself is manifest. Maury writes, “What sorts of birds should one expect with spring here? I find myself wondering about the reality this place once was. I don’t recognize it as land really … Perhaps the war’s a wound that will heal with the weather and the seasons.” Interestingly, I just traveled to Western Flanders near Diksmuide this winter, and even though the trees are grown and the fields are green and lush now, the spectre of the horror of war still hangs over the land in a most palpable way. As the title of the book suggests, memory is as distinct a part of the landscape as are the immediate senses. It makes the verdure seem but a thin pretense, a hasty excuse for the history buried in the soil.

San Francisco panorama after the earthquake of 1906. Lester C. Guernsey - Photo by Lester C. Guernsey Via Library of Congress Panoramic collection

San Francisco panorama after the earthquake of 1906. Lester C. Guernsey – Photo by Lester C. Guernsey Via Library of Congress Panoramic collection

Opposite to the novel’s approach to the war those thousands of miles away is its focus on the euphoric, exalted landscape of fantasy that was the Panama-Pacific World’s Fair. Though marred by wartime boycotts, it was still very well attended, and was celebrated for its ‘Tower of Jewels,’ its ‘Palace of Fine Arts,’ its many hundreds of sculptures, and its dazzling display of ‘Scintillator’ lights.

The Fair opened up below, rising like a fantastic dream of the Orient, all golden, pink, red, orange and blue. The domes looked more unimaginably grand than ever they’d seemed from land. Thin pillars and minarets, the Tower of Jewels, like liquid silver, washed in the sun—from the Presidio clear across to the marina, they rose, sparkling in the brisk salty air. 

This is Max’s impression of the Fair as viewed from the ferry in the bay. Like the urban experience, and like the war experience, the Fair is larger-than-life, other-worldly, and hallucinogenic. This was a landscape of dreams, of the greatest aspirations of human imagining, and just like a dream it was insubstantial. The great buildings and colonnades were mere wood and lath and plaster, painted to mimic the massiveness of stone; the sculptures were wire and Plaster-of-Paris, and most would be engulfed in fire and destroyed that same year. The many tons of fill, trucked into the wetlands, that it took to build it upon, would liquefy in the next earthquake, carrying away what remained in one convulsive heave.

Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Tower of Jewels is to the left, with the Scintillator lights behind. The Italian Tower is to the right. - Project Gutenberg eText 17625

Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Tower of Jewels is to the left, with the Scintillator lights behind. The Italian Tower is to the right. – Project Gutenberg eText 17625

It was easy to see past the ruse while at the Fair. Max illustrates the point in this passage:

If you flew by overhead, say in a Zeppelin, you’d see an impressive city of domes, gargantuan in aspect and harmonious in coloring. The festive avenues are lined with full-grown palm and eucalyptus. The Palace of Fine Arts is swathed in creeping vines and bordered by the finished lagoon, looking like it’s been there a thousand years. You might land to the northeast, where the aeroplanes land, or come in by yacht, docking at the marina. Perhaps you’ll just drop from the sky, piercing the thin plaster of the Dome of the Ages, breaking your limbs and revealing the flimsy wood lathing that supports these impostors.

The Festival Hall at the Pan Pacific World's Fair from an unmailed postcard

The Festival Hall at the Pan Pacific World’s Fair from an unmailed postcard

It was easier to participate in the suspension of disbelief at night, when the Scintilators played their “curtains of color across the black sky above the bay,” the drunken revelers in the Zone would be reeling around, and music and gaiety everywhere suffused the atmosphere. Then it would be as if one had been transported magically to a place where the glorious past and the tantalizing future had merged into one delightful confection; hope, memory, and the whirl of the present fused together mystically and maniacally. Max writes of the Fair at night, walking down the Avenue of Progress toward the water that, “Bright banners hung high the whole length of the avenue, beating about in the wind, casting shadows into stray clouds of steam. They looked like lurid poppies floating in a black pool, all poked and pushed by drunken fish, jumping around there in the night. I got to feeling dizzy, what with the long avenue leading off into infinity and the sky displaced by so many colors.”

Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory would surely benefit from a more thorough analysis. I have failed to touch on themes from Ruskin that surface throughout the book and further inform the narrative and the understanding of the landscape. There are many more than passing mentions of the feel of the sea breeze, the wheeling of gulls, the sensation of dewy grass against the calves, and of course the whole gay erotic subtext of the book that informs an entirely different sort of landscape—that of desire. I have, however, attempted to show the power that landscape has for the knitting together of narrative and setting and its capacity for establishing and enabling theme. I have also tried to show that literature is an excellent reference to the subjective experience of landscape; that to ignore the ever-shifting and multi-sensory aspects of it as exposed by writers is to miss the greatest opportunity for designers of the landscape—mastering the evanescent qualities of plants, sky, sun and moon, and the ephemeral motion of people and animals through them.



London Doesn’t Need a Garden Bridge

by Tim-Waterman on December 3, 2014, no comments

A friend told me a story recently about an urban designer who derided a landscape architect with whom he was working for not understanding urban design because his insistence on planting shrubs was in clear violation of the principles of ‘designing out crime.’ Designing out crime is a tick-box approach to urban design that will always shun the shrub as it is seen to provide a refuge for lurking criminals. Please ignore the fact that the lurking criminal is probably just a homeless person seeking a place to sleep and focus instead on the urban designer’s prejudices. His problem is that he views urban design not as a conversation between professionals and communities with different capabilities and perspectives, but as a work in which prescriptive principles, in the hands of a master designer (him), can, with great certainty, assure the success of a particular piece of design.

Two master designers are at present seeking to commit an expensive act of vandalism on London’s River Thames, and have just been given the green light by the two London Boroughs upon whose banks the bridge will rest.  Thomas Heatherwick designs beautiful toys and Dan Pearson designs beautiful plantings, but together they have wrought a beautiful disaster. Its construction is based upon the erroneous prescriptive principle that an ‘iconic’ structure is always a benefit – as if headlines alone will make a great city or a great nation. It only remains for London’s Narcissist-in-Chief Boris Johnson to wave it through – and self-aggrandizement through the construction of a useless bit of iconic bling is something he craves. Just look at that awful loopy red thing on the Olympic site in Stratford, for example.

The Garden Bridge (eventually to become the BP Garden Bridge or the Virgin Garden Bridge, certainly) will be a fitting icon. It will stand as a symbol of the corruption, greed, and narrow-mindedness of contemporary political, corporate, and urban (just try to separate them) processes. Our government’s greater act of vandalism, that of eviscerating higher education and the rest of the public sector in Britain, will need memorializing. What more fitting monument than a symbol of a lack of holistic and critical thinking in London and lavish spending on a project to benefit a central few rather than the many neighbourhoods (and many small landscape architectural practices) that could benefit so much from a fraction of that cash. We’ll have higher education only for an elite, we’ll have a bankrupt NHS, we’ll have rampant homelessness, but hey, we’ll have a garden bridge.

London's proposed Garden Bridge. Image by Arup - source Wikimedia.

London’s proposed Garden Bridge. Image by Arup – source Wikimedia.

When a landscape architect plants a shrub, it may indeed be in the knowledge that a homeless person might find refuge there. It may also be to slow stormwater runoff in order to prevent flooding downstream. It might also be for beauty and pleasure. This is the real meaning of green infrastructure. The garden bridge is vain greenwash. We need generosity and openness in our cities. We need to have urban designers and politicians who are engaged in meaningful conversations with each other and with places, not peddlers of ego and of false certainties. The garden bridge is a fine symbol of how sick and selfish we’ve become. London doesn’t need a garden bridge.

A Word … “Work”

by Tim-Waterman on November 29, 2014, no comments

A stroll in Vienna's Rathausplatz garden. Designing for this kind of leisure, pleasure, and play is anything but a 'bullshit job.' Photo by author

A stroll in Vienna’s Rathausplatz garden. Designing for this kind of leisure, pleasure, and play is anything but a ‘bullshit job.’ Photo by author

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Winter 2014 issue I argue for a better work/life balance for landscape architects.

Ebenezer Howard, the father of the garden city, whose diagrams of garden city relationships of 1898 have consistently been mistaken for blueprints ever since, would, were he alive today, be aghast at both that fact and at the fact that we have fallen so far short of the ideal social relationships that he envisioned as well. Howard was a radical with a keen sense of social justice, who believed that people should be in charge of their own environments and their own destinies, and that they had a right to do meaningful work that would benefit themselves, their families, their communities, and the natural world around them. Listen to his tub-thumping tone here: “The true remedy for capitalist oppression where it exists, is not the strike of no work, but the strike of true work, and against this last blow the oppressor has no weapon.” He meant both the work of the traditional workplace, and also the work that we do as part of our communities to build a better world together.

Most who work in the landscape professions can actually lay claim to doing true work that makes an actual difference, a rarity in this age where many people work what anthropologist David Graeber has called ‘bullshit jobs’ (such as telemarketers, corporate lawyers, or people suspended in the middle of vast bureaucratic structures who can see for themselves that their work is meaningless). In order for these people to have self worth in such jobs, society has been restructured such that the value of work is in the act of work, and not in that value created from it. In this skewed world, someone who works fifty hours a week producing nothing has greater value than someone who works a few hours a week producing something that makes the world a better place, such as beautifully illustrated children’s books or solar panels or delicious pies. Graeber believes we should judge the value of labour by how well it cares for people rather than by any other conventional measure.

This attitude of work-for-work’s-sake means a few rather dreadful and dangerous things for designers. First, because the work of design is both enjoyable and can produce things that make the world a better place, it is suspect. You shouldn’t enjoy your work, and if you do, you should be paid less. People who genuinely do good things in the world are often paid a pittance – care-givers, teachers, artists, designers. Second, the creative lives of creative people are now governed by an insane work ethic that keeps them in their desks for fearfully long hours, despite the fact that creative work requires copious quantities of down time, thinking time, and lots and lots of time to make mistakes and learn from them.

Finally, and I think this might be the most damaging consequence of long working hours in design – particularly landscape design – is that everyone is working so hard that they have forgotten how to live, how to relax, and how to enjoy those spaces that they are straining themselves to design. You wouldn’t ask someone who never eats delicious pies to make some for you any more than you would ask someone with no experience of leisure to design the places you need for fun and conviviality.

So, next time you find yourself in the office at 8pm do yourself and everyone else a favour and leave. Go to the pub – no, better yet go to the park. Live a little, relax a little, and then when you go back to work what you do will be all the more meaningful for it. Strike a blow at those capitalist oppressors by doing a lot more true work -and stand up for your right to work and be compensated for something that’s not a bullshit job.

A Word … “Landmark”

by Tim-Waterman on September 16, 2014, no comments

"... that awful loopy red thing" at the site of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.

“… that awful loopy red thing” – The Orbit – at the site of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games in London’s Stratford.

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Autumn 2014 issue I demolish a couple of Norman Foster buildings and “…that awful loopy red thing”. 

Our cities are places defined by what the architectural historian Spiro Kostof called ‘a certain energised crowding’. This is an understated way of describing the intoxicating density and intensity of action, interaction, and spectacle that defines the urban experience. The fine-grained texture of our cities, though, is not one of continuous hyper-stimulation. Even in the wealthiest and most congested city centres, where the greatest number of buildings and other elements of urban topography vie for attention, there are still calm and dignified stretches of unified cityscape.

The same concentration of totemic features that many cities display is evident in the design of theme parks, which are typically a dizzying mishmash of emblematic structures, logos, and loaded imagery. The back of one attraction is the front of another, and no matter which way one turns there is a landmark loaded with signification. This way Paris, that way Venice, over here Tomorrowland, and here dinosaurs grazing in primordial swamps. Both cities and theme parks overload the senses, resulting in an intoxication that can be euphoric or disorientating or both. Each requires an eventual escape. With a theme park this is a simple matter of finding the exit, but with a city those mechanisms for release must be found within. The city as a whole cannot be constantly and everywhere in a state
of climax.

Landscape architects, within planning processes in urban design, need to be constantly vigilant to carefully moderate the urges of both clients and of building architects to make every edifice a monument or a logo. Even the most celebrated architects are guilty of designing objects displayed on plinths that are utterly acontextual. When a number of such buildings are crammed together, as they are in such orgies of bling as Dubai, the overall effect is camp writ large – as though every street corner were one of Liberace’s extravagantly jewelled knuckles.

A good landmark, whether a building, a sculpture, or a feature within a park, should be of its place and for its place, or perhaps in radical contrast to its place; but overall the effect should be to punctuate and to anchor. In striving for logo buildings many architects have gone too far and plugged up a landscape with buildings like bungs. Foster’s London City Hall and his Sage in Gateshead are both rounded in plan and section and both are designed as though on plinths. Neither building will allow for the city to flex and change around it. Neither, I would imagine, will still be standing in twenty years’ time. Neither is as much a landmark, a marker of place, as it is a monument to itself. Rather than the grain of sand that forms a pearl, each is an irritating foreign body that will eventually be rejected.

Note how I’ve mixed my metaphors? I have bungs and corks, sand and pearls, orgies and jewels and knuckles. I’ve spangled this column with the same sort of overwrought conceptualism that is so problematic in our cities. There are places, though, where this approach can actually work. This is in a park where many conceptual structures can be a collection of follies. London’s Olympic Park is a good example, where a stadium, a ‘wave’, a ‘Pringle’ and that awful loopy red thing all conspire to provide an exquisite balance between theme park and peaceful haven, reinventing the grand tradition of Stowe, Stourhead, Castle Howard, and Kew. Kew has only preserved a fraction of the number of follies it had when it was built (there were once fully twenty classical temples), so there is comfort that Stratford’s ensemble will still have integrity when the Orbit is demolished.

Joined-up Thinking

by Tim-Waterman on September 16, 2014, no comments

This is an article that appeared in last month’s Garden Design Journal in their ‘Talking Point’ opinion section. 

I love to travel by train, because of certain negatives – because I hate car traffic and airports and because I’m too tall to fit into the aeroplane seats that I can afford. There are also distinct positives, such as the ability to watch the gradual changes in the landscape between cities, to have the luxury of time to contemplate those changes, and also to peer into so many back gardens. The orderly world of the surveyor’s geometry is often quite obscured, and all of the different scales at which the landscape professions operate are possible to easily comprehend from the train, nested into one another. Buildings, too, are viewed differently from the train, as their frontages rarely face the rails. All of the lumpy structures that accommodate the lives we actually live, rather than the face we show the world, are in evidence in the view from the train.

These higgledy-piggledy back alley perspectives, seen through murky windows, also serve as an allegory for the interrelationship of the landscape professions. Connections are haphazard, boundaries are unclear, some areas are derelict because no one can figure out how to put them to profitable use, but still the whole messy ensemble somehow manages to form a coherent setting in which people are able to operate more or less effectively.

Garden designers, landscape architects, planners, and architects all manage to get on with their jobs despite the disputes at the boundaries and the prejudices and misconceptions that we hold regarding each other’s work. Our relations could be so much better, though, and perhaps the way to this is to ask what the landscape needs rather than what our professions need – and what we need to know to work with it. This requires framing our knowledge carefully so that we help each other to understand all the various elements of landscape work. Some of these elements are obviously shared and fun to talk about, like plants, but other issues are more convoluted and difficult – issues of society and communities, class, the construction of green infrastructure, public and private space, and so on.

I had hoped, when I began to write this piece, that I could demonstrate that what divides landscape architects and garden designers is not scale, or plants, or any particular, but rather that garden designers work largely for private, often wealthy clients, whereas landscape architects tend to be employed on public projects. Simple. Garden designers are right wing, landscape architects are left wing, and never the twain shall meet. The desire, however, to make a simplistic and provocative point that might raise a few hackles and start a few conversations, is thwarted by the fact that this simply isn’t the case.

I have come to realise that the greatest divides between professions of all sorts (the divide between landscape architecture and garden design is merely typical) are caused by the fact that all we understand how to do what we do, but few are able to put their work in context in the broadest terms of geography, history, politics, and sociology alongside the scientific aspects of our work.

Neither landscape architects nor garden designers have historically been very good at thinking and writing critically and contextually about their work, but landscape architecture in Britain has been getting much better in recent years at doing so. Architects are good at criticism, but often hostile to context – and context is what they most need to come to terms with, especially in our cities.

A lack of context is what leads to assumptions such as that landscape architecture is a subset of architecture, and that garden design is a subset of landscape architecture. Certainly the areas of practice overlap, but the realms of knowledge required for each role are vast, and vastly different.

The cure for the prejudices that plague our professions and hamper our work lives would begin in education. Architects need to be taught not just by architects, but by garden designers, landscape architects, civil engineers, planners, and so on. And the same is true in any other combination. We can’t hope to understand each other without teaching each other. Garden design has a unique situation amongst these professions in that it is most often taught on short diploma courses. We need far fewer of these very short courses and far more full degrees in garden design, and all the way to Master’s level. We must take garden design as seriously as we take landscape architecture and expect practitioners to be as highly qualified.

Finally we need far better communication and collaboration between our institutions in order to protect and promote all land-based work because it is all under threat. Landscape management has all but disappeared, for example, and it needs the combined might of  the whole sector to rectify this problem. Highly skilled horticulturists are often treated – and paid like – unskilled labour, which again is a tragedy, but also a problem for all of us and for the landscape. We must put our collective energies to solving this problem.

Those of us who work on the land are all part of the same murky picture, and we must begin working towards bringing that picture into focus in education, in our institutions, in our collaborations, and in government policy.

Through landscape our professions have immense power to re-envision the practice of everyday life to effect more sustainable human behaviour and habits of occupation and land use. This is why it is powerfully important that garden design is treated as both an intellectual and an instrumental profession, and one that operates alongside architecture and landscape architecture as a natural equal – and all of these professions has considerable work to do to make that happen.


The Banality of the Sublime: On Height, Hubris, and Artificial Mountains

by Tim-Waterman on September 4, 2014, no comments

The superlatives of contemporary expression reach as far as possible to the extremes of human experience. The sheer awesomeness (or awfulness) of everyday life leads us to select descriptors such as ‘epic’ or ‘iconic’ for every object or environment or atmosphere we encounter. An offhand internet search for ‘iconic pencil sharpener’ and ‘iconic toilet’ yields pages of results. If everything is to storm us with shock and awe then either we will begin to live in a state of permanent exceptional transcendence or we will merely cease to give a damn. I submit that the latter is far more likely, and that the sublime has been rendered banal.

There are, of course, biblical injunctions against such fevered hyperstimulation and hubris, as evidenced by the myth of the Tower of Babel. In this story of pride’s punishment, the tower’s erection and subsequent collapse is the classic parable of the consequences of overreaching. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s two surviving paintings of the tower from the mid-1500s show it as an inexorably ascending spiral, its mountainous bulk contrasted against a typically low and waterlogged Flemish landscape. The cities Bruegel would have known would have been dominated by Brabantine Gothic piles such as those found on the Grand Place in Brussels, thus it was probably politically apt for him to represent Babel in the Romanesque style, taking a lesson from the past rather than rendering arrogance as a particular problem of his contemporaries.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel. Source: Wikimedia

“Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (Vienna) – Google Art Project – edited” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) – Levels adjusted from File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg, originally from Google Art Project.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg

Bruegel’s versions of the Tower of Babel are sometimes described as referencing Rome’s Colosseum, but this is a simplistic comparison. Of course this comparison may be made, but its real representational strength is that it is a monstrous hybrid. It is part grim fortress, part cathedral, part theatre, but it is also a mountain, freakishly misplaced, and an obsessive piling of rocks into an expression of the urban sublime. The mountain is a sort of madness of the genius loci, or perhaps a cancer.

Bruegel’s magic mountain is a mythical one, but there are plenty of extant examples of buildings that have radically reconfigured landscapes throughout history. Various groupings of pyramids  echo montane forms, such as those at Giza in Egypt, Teotihuacan or Palenque in Mexico. Later structures such as Borobudur or Angkor Wat accomplish much the same trick. The Bayon at Angkor Wat, its spiritual omphalos, represents the multi-peaked holy mountain upon which the gods dwell and which forms the axis of the universe. The function of any of these buildings was surely to induce awe.

The Bayon at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Source: Wikimedia

“Bayon-temple” by Charles J Sharp – Cannon EOS. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bayon-temple.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Bayon-temple.JPG

There are, of course, real mountains that are sites of sublimity and that glow with spiritual significance such as Mount Kailash in Tibet, Mount Fuji in Japan, Kenya’s Mount Kilimanjaro, or Australia’s Uluru. There is definitely a certain something to the combination of singularity, difficulty of access, and the many metaphors triggered by the act of ascent.

Panorama of Uluru, Australia. Source, Wikimedia

“Uluru Panorama” by Stuart Edwards. – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uluru_Panorama.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Uluru_Panorama.jpg

A combination of technologies including the elevator and the curtain wall have allowed cities to create skylines that recall mountain ranges, and certain buildings can serve as key ceremonial peaks within those ranges. In film, the Tower of Babel is the name of the building that serves as the focus for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and that other great twentieth century dystopian film Blade Runner consciously quotes some of the scenes of the Tower, aligning film history and myth along the axis of the western cultural universe. Manhattan’s Pan Am Building, though less graceful than Lang’s visions, also fixes an urban streetscape through sheer force of height and bulk. The World Trade Center towers did the same for the whole of Manhattan’s skyline until they volcanically expressed the sublimity of terror in September 2001.

The World Trade Center site, with its enceinture of faceted curtain walls around the twin pits of the National September 11 Memorial strikingly resembles the caldera of a shield volcano such as that of Ball’s Pyramid in the Pacific Ocean to the east of Australia. So, eerily, do other major towers of our day such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Ryu-Gyong hotel in Pyongyang, or London’s Shard. The church steeple pitches of their facades emphasise their improbable eruption from the surrounding city.

"Ball's Pyramid North" by Fanny Schertzer - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ball%27s_Pyramid_North.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ball%27s_Pyramid_North.jpg

“Ball’s Pyramid North” by Fanny Schertzer – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ball%27s_Pyramid_North.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ball%27s_Pyramid_North.jpg

In the past few years there has been a curious rash of magic mountains proposed for various European cities that merge techniques of building and landscape architecture and which also mash together images of the urban sublime with that of the wilderness. Given the increasing propensity of contemporary governments to throw money at big signature projects instead of management or multitudes of small, meaningful projects, it may simply be a matter of time before someone builds one. The three proposed mountains are (in chronological order) as follows:

The Berg, Tempelhof, Berlin, was proposed by architect Jakob Tigges. Ringed with mist and Nazi architecture, it would rise to a 1000 metre height so that aerial perspectives of Berlin usually only attainable through aviation could be gained. The blog Pruned wrote in 2009, “The proposal is not a serious idea, admits Tigges; rather, it’s a provocation to use the site for something other than mediocre apartment buildings.” http://pruned.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/mountain-tempelhof.html

Tempelhof Mountain, by Jakob Tigges and Malte Kloes

Tempelhof Mountain, by Jakob Tigges and Malte Kloes

Die Berg Komt Er (The Mountain Comes), the Netherlands: 7.7 billion cubic metres of sand would be required to build this mountain to a height of two kilometres, presumably to park an ark should a flood necessitate it. Feasibility studies have shown that the mountain would probably have to be constructed as a hollow building because of the extensive impact of its weight upon surrounding ground levels. The proposal was mooted in 2011 by Thijs Zonneveld, a journalist and cyclist, and the architecture firm Hoffers & Kruger has created renderings.  http://diebergkomter.nl

The Dutch Mountain - image from Die Berg Komt Er website, unattributed

The Dutch Mountain – image from Die Berg Komt Er website, unattributed

Mount Copenhagen, Denmark. Writers Mik Thobo-Carlsen and Kaspar Colling Nielsen first dreamed up the idea 12 years ago, but first aired the idea around the same time that the Dutch mountain was first proposed. The Mount Copenhagen website states that it will be “…3.5 kilometers high. It will have a circumference of 55 km, take 200 years to build, and cost in the area of $,-“ http://mountcopenhagen.com

Mount Copenhagen, from www.mountcopenhagen.com, image unattributed

Mount Copenhagen, from www.mountcopenhagen.com, image unattributed

The last, Mount Copenhagen, might take generations of work to complete, as did so many of the monuments of the landscape sublime mentioned so far in this article. If any of these were to be built, would they become the sacred ruins of the future? Would they be icons of wilderness or of architecture? Are these proposals delightfully ridiculous or merely banal?

A Word … “Petunia”

by Tim-Waterman on August 7, 2014, no comments

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here I ruminate on hanging baskets.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s imagine a scenario. You’re out walking on a sunny day and the streets are full of colour and cheer.

You might even be whistling. You’re transported with delight, until your mood shifts suddenly as you feel a cold trickle down your neck. You’ve walked under a freshly watered hanging basket. Instantly you’re reminded of just how much you loathe hanging baskets. Your mood darkens as you contemplate the vulgar annuals, the enormous wasted expense, the extravagance with water, the unsustainable use of peat in potting mediums. People could be doing something useful with their time instead of planting these damn baskets! The sky has blackened with clouds, and you can hear distant thunder. Petunias. Bah!

The US-based Project for Public Spaces, however, exhorts us to ‘start with the Petunias’ in its Eleven Principles for Turning Public Spaces Into Civic Places, ‘Short-term actions, like planting flowers, can be a way of not only testing ideas, but also giving people the confidence that change is occurring and that their ideas matter.’ Hanging baskets and other floral displays are more than just ‘quick wins,’ though. For many local authorities they are not just a way of demonstrating commitment on the way to a sweeping solution, but they are consistent, everyday ‘wins’ that are a visible show of continued care and action.

Many years ago, when I was working for Rummey Design, we took a field trip to see the Coventry Phoenix Initiative, a sparkling regeneration project that our practice had undertaken. It was crisply executed and studded with public art and architectural features; a typical display of the showers of New Labour largesse characteristic of the time. Right in front of the BBC’s spanking new office and ill-fitted to and overhanging the angular stone stairs were a series of bulky stainless-steel planters filled with showy annuals. There was no doubt about the fact that these shipwrecked planters looked tokenistic next to the cool and sophisticated design, but on the other hand, could the local authority be faulted for wishing to decorate its new civic rooms?

In a way, organisations were simply moving in and becoming inhabitants, much as one might hang pictures in a new house.

What is the answer, then? Do we continue to specify hooks on lamp standards so that ‘pimp my street’ bling can continue to be applied? Do we try our best to ignore it? Do we legislate against the pelargonium? Actually, as I write, my window boxes are filled with the most garish pelargoniums I could find, and it pleases me to hear people pause and comment. Recently a fashion photographer posed a model in front of my planters. A windowsill is a natural place for a bit of decoration, and a window box is a token of pride and ownership and a gift of beauty to one’s neighbours. We need to include a few windowsill equivalents in our landscape designs, but also to use our skills to rethink display planting. Freiburg im Breisgau has wreathed many of its central streets in wisteria, for example. Arching over the street, it has much greater public meaning as a sign act of beauty and fragrance than it would climbing a private building.

It is important to contemplate what the sustainable, contemporary equivalents of display planting might be. We should, for example, incorporate the WSUD technology of flow-through planters in our streetscape designs. The answers may well emerge from much of the valuable research that has gone into green walls, living roofs, and other such technologies. These have yet to fully connect with the daily civic life of the street. Let’s start by rethinking the petunia.