Monday, October 6, 2014

Has ASLA Abandoned the Residential Garden?

Yes, No, Maybe so? By Susan Hines

2009 composed salad LA: Coen + Partners  Photos: Paul Crosby, Paul Crosby Architectural Photography

In just a few weeks, the recipients of the American Society of Landscape Architect’s 2014 Professional Awards will be hustled across the stage in Denver for a quick handshake and photo-op. The purpose of the ASLA Professional Awards is to “honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe.” Although, the society recognizes accomplishments in research, land planning and analysis as well as communications, the majority of submissions are in the general and residential design categories. Here, are completed designs of every project type, from corporate campuses and public parks (General Design) to rooftop terraces and country estates (Residential).

Given the talent pool, the best landscape architects of our time, practicing in diverse regions of the country, indeed, around the globe, one would expect a range of work across a broad spectrum of landscape styles. This would seem to be particularly true of the residential design category.  In theory, professionals submitting in this category must respond to clients’ needs and preferences as well as site conditions and varied architectural styles. The potential for diverse ideas, inspiration and just plain eye-candy seems pretty good. 

LA Blasen Landscape Architecture,  Photo: Marion Brenner Photography
Unfortunately, and ever increasingly, the anticipation of professionals and public alike quickly fades when the winning residential designs are revealed. Taken as a group they are almost invariably contemporary residences, actually modern in the true sense of that word—minimalist, rectilinear, frequently flat roofed, glazing galore, devoid of ornamentation. The landscape response resembles a composed salad: Beets here, shredded carrot there, a well-placed radish, a small pile of asparagus served on a bed of lawn. The problem with this comparison is that the salad described is much more colorful than the award winning projects and may contain a greater variety of plants.  

Yet the same jury selects the General Design awards. Within this category, gardens with intricate planting are ever increasingly among the winning designs. Last year, three gardens and the famed Highline (Section Two)—with its exceptional planting design—captured awards. The growing dominance of gardens in the General Design category is the exception that proves the rule. What is the jury signaling?  

Consider this possibility: Landscape architects do not want to be confused with gardeners, garden designers or, heaven forbid, landscapers or landscape designers. When a house is involved, rather than a major public or private open space, the line becomes murky. Historically the term “garden” is associated with a building, most often a house. In the UK the term is used colloquially to describe the front or back of any residence—improved or unimproved. In the US, we use the term “yard” in the same way, as in, ”I love the landscaping in your front yard. Did you use the same company that mows your lawn?”  

Status anxiety is at the root of this dilemma and is nowhere better displayed than in the ASLA residential design awards. Landscape architects are highly trained, licensed design professionals, constantly forced to distinguish themselves in the popular mind from landscapers—the hoi polloi “mow and blow” crowd-- and from gardeners with their unruly plants. If the ASLA national seal of approval were stamped on a residential garden, rather than a landscape with domestic adjacency it may be hard for your above-average landscape architect to take. After all, these professionals already labor in the shadow of a far greater being: The Architect.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

“Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

“Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.” 

My border in early July
I love this quote from reddit founder Alexis Ohanian because it reminds me of a thought that almost never leaves my head: I suck at planting. Of course, there are times when I don’t—glorious moments when a planting rewards me with a spectacle more fabulous than anything I imagined. But those ultimately fade and I am left with new shortcomings to address next season.

I remember thinking early in my career that I would look forward to the day when everything wasn't an experiment.  But the truth is everything is still an experiment. It always is. I practice, write, teach, and basically never stop thinking about planting design. Have I mastered my craft? Absolutely not.

In many ways, one never masters this craft. Planting design—particularly the naturalistic strain of it—is like playing chess against a computer (“nature” being the computer in this case). It is a perverse game: nature constantly outwits all attempts at control, ridicules all plans, and even when things are going well—even when it seems like we've finally got the upper hand—it taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that the second we stop gardening, all of our efforts will be swept away. Ours is an ephemeral art. 

Control: Cloud-pruned box for a median I designed with my firm RHI
To assert control, one could use formal gestures: clipped hedges, large blocks of single species, plants that rarely change though the year.  These are entirely effective. While I am ultimately interested in the idea of naturalism—that is, a style of planting more closely aligned with the way plants evolved in nature—my goal is to create effects with plants. So I will use every tool in the toolkit.

But even with plantings we can control, we still lose. And here’s the thing: sometimes losing is the best part. All gardeners know this. Some of the best moments in our plantings are not really ours, but a moment of self-seeded spontaneity, combinations we did not really anticipate, or the dull, overused plants that we’d almost ripped out only to discover they had become the anchors of our gardens.

So dear readers, I wish you many, many failures. I wish you grandiose plans that fizzle into hair-pulling messes, bold gestures that melt into formless puddles, and spectacular fireworks that fail to ignite. I wish you fail often and fail fast. Because out of this comes courage. And out of courage comes good design.

Friday, May 16, 2014

May Days: The Garden in May

In May we are gardening gods. This is the month where the fullness of spring meets the opening of summer, creating a moment in time where the garden in our heads matches reality. May is the month for horticultural hubris. For a few weeks, we are the masters of our plots. Like Midas, all we touch turns to flower.

Of course, May’s glory has nothing to do with us. Even the abandoned lot down the street looks like a field of Arcadia. The florets of the unmown bluegrass hold and toss the morning light like water, and drifts of dandelions emerge from of islands of lilac ground ivy. For a few blessed weeks, the cool nights and warm days grant us the perfect gardening climate. I know what it’s like to live in coastal California or Britain, or one of those places that the glossy garden magazines obsessively feature.

But that’s no matter. My plot is a result of my gardening genius. It has nothing to do with the fact that all of the plants have freshly leafed out, coating even the dowdy foundation shrubs with the glow and firmness of adolescence. Or that all of the perennials have recently emerged low and tight, as if the ancient gardeners of Kyoto had spent decades clipping them. It doesn’t even matter what you planted next to each other. The swelling border makes my impetuous April shopping spree at the nursery look wise and carefully composed. I look over my plot like a champion chess player, confident of my strategy. Gardening mistakes won’t show themselves this month.

May is the month for plants whose glory is short lived. The late spring geophytes—the tulips and the scilla—overlap with the early summer ephemerals like trilliums, bluebells, and trout lilies. These plants emerge from nowhere between the gaps and crannies of plants, bloom for a week or two of glory, then vanish as the heat of summer comes. Why can’t all plants behave this way? They do their thing, and then poof, they’re gone, making room for the other fat hens to swell during June. Gardeners know these are cheap tricks. Stick a few alliums in the ground in the fall, and voila!: nodding purple baseballs declare to your neighbors that you are, indeed, a plant whisperer.

It’s May, and gardeners everywhere should enjoy their mastery. For August is coming and will judge us all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Darrel Morrison's Addition to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Native Flora Garden

Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. Sources from top left: s p1te; DS.JPG; wirednewyork & ennead architects; Poulin + Morris; Prospect Park Alliance.

Conceptual Art in Borough of Trees

Article by Harry Wade

The 2013 addition to Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Native Flora Garden can be found just down a stunningly busy “parkway” from the borough’s symbolic hub, Grand Army Plaza.  

Originally designed in 1867 by Olmsted and Vaux as the pivot point where their pastoral Prospect Park would meet a densely urban neighborhood, the Plaza has undergone dozens of monumental additions, all the while also serving as the biggest and busiest traffic circle in the entire City.  

Major institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, Public Library and Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) were added to the Plaza in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anchoring its role as a crossroads of culture and everyday life. Today, the Plaza embodies Brooklyn vitality at its bluntest – high profile design for landscape, urban spaces and architecture, all thrown together with fine arts and diverse neighborhood life. It is the counterpoint to Manhattan, where the boundaries separating these disciplines are usually more strictly enforced.
The new BBG Visitor Center, literally reflecting the Garden’s commitment to reach out to the surrounding community. Structure designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, 2013.  Source: Albert Večerka/Esto

The neighborhood is an apt setting for Darrel Morrison’s new garden, the first addition to the century-old Native Flora Garden and part of the BBG’s Campaign for the Next Century, a comprehensive expansion program to bring more visitors in and to reach even further out into Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods. Set immediately alongside the original century-old Native Flora Garden, the addition reflects a pride and protectiveness of the Borough’s natural history, and a view forward into the way art, design and life will continue to merge so casually in Brooklyn.

The nicest nativist you'll ever meet

The BBG addition is also an auteur work, to borrow a phrase from Cahiers du cinéma, the 1950’s Paris-based journal in which film critic André Bazin first proposed the idea that great films, like great paintings, must be understood within the context of their creator’s style, traceable as it develops from film to film – thus qualities like Hitchcockian, Truffaut-istic and John Ford-inspired. 

Darrel Morrison is a man whose personal kindness and unassuming manner is at odds with this kind of top billing. Hardly a Devo, Darrel happily adapts to the goals of his clients, even when it means working double-time to capture the essence of multiple plant communities in a very limited space and making it all look natural.   He agreeably rationalizes the presence of a giant English Oak (Quercus robur) in an otherwise strictly native garden, crediting its longevity and the fact that it looks a lot like the native Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa). He’s even willing to look the other way when a pretty “nativar” pops up in a garden or a conversation.

Monday, March 31, 2014

April is the Cruelest Month

"Primavera" Eugenio Gignous 

"April is the cruelest month . . . "

writes the poet. That line has confused me for years. Is it cruel? April is the springiest month, when elementary school teachers paste tulips and yellow galoshes to bulletin boards, and little old ladies dress up for church looking like pastel Easter eggs.

But the gardener understands the cruelty of April. The derivation of the word April can be traced as far back as Varro, where the etymology, omnia aperit, literally "it opens everything" may be a reference to the opening of flowers and trees. I have been thinking about openings lately as I contemplate the seeds growing in every window sill. Annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs splay across every surface of my house. Today I ate my cereal with a tray of zinnias and three naranjillas. For the last few weeks I have been a witness to the openings of seeds. Birth is an act of violence. These dry brown seeds burst into life, ripping off their skins, splitting cotyledons, thrusting root into ground and stem to sky. Sometimes I lean in, expecting to hear the cries and wails of these infants. We enter this world in an act of violence, as if to test our mettle and prove our worthiness to cross the threshold.

April is the most lavish month . . .

"Frühling in Worpswede" Hans am Ende, 1900
March left us with mulch and daffodils. April starts with mostly bare ground and the few cherished heralds of spring, but ends cloaked in a gaudy quilt of greens. Chartreuse, viridian, lime, olive, jade, and celadon foam and froth across the ground. The poverty of March yields the extravagance of April.

Even the old, dying maple next to the church parsonage has engaged in a fit of fecundity. The tree blasts an armada of twirling, papery helicopters into the parsonage garden. A mini forest of maples has erupted in the garden, making it difficult for me to tell my annual seedlings from the young trees. They say plants approaching death often go to flower, a last effort at immortality. I look to the knobby old tree and then to his sea of babies. I'm not sure I have the heart to weed them.

April is the maddest month . . .

February stirred in me a restlessness to get outside and start digging in the dirt; by April, I am consumed with a howling lunacy. For weeks, the only planterly life I've seen are the seedlings in my window sill. Now April spews life in every form, across every surface. The eye has no place to rest. I move around the garden like an ant, delirious and distraught by the riotous explosion of leaf and limb.

April is the month for madness. We mark the first of April by acting like fools. In France, the "days of April" (journees d'avril) refers to a series of violent insurrections against the government in 1834. In England, they mark St. Mark's Eve (April 24) by sitting on the church porch to watch the ghosts of those who will die this year pass.

This month I am a fool, a rioter, a ghost. I enter into the garden and find not asylum, but bedlam; not harmony, but cacophony. The desperation of winter has blossomed into the desire of spring, and I pass the murderous tulips with a suspicious eye.

Originally published, April 2010

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Muscota Marsh Park: A Lucid View of Troubled Waters

From left, a current day aerial photo of the site for Muscota Marsh Park; a graphic recreation of the site in ancient times; a 2012 designer’s rendering. Sources: Photo and illustration by Markley Boyer, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric W. Sanderson, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2009; designer’s rendering by James Corner Field Operations

This harsh winter seems sure to linger in New York City past the official first day of spring on March 20, and we will likely have a few more weeks to see things in our newest naturalistic City parks and gardens that might go unnoticed in growing season.  First up is this little park by famed designer, James Corner, that sits so unassumingly on the edge of an ancient estuary, yet manages to raise complex 21st century questions.  

In coming weeks, before things get too busy outside, we will also talk with Darrel Morrison about the deep structure of his recent additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, and visit the New York Botanical Garden’s newest big attraction by the team at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates.  Thank you for your interest so far in this off-season experiment.    -- Harry Wade for Grounded Design

Time + Space = Place

Here, a thousand years or more before the first Europeans sped up what is now the Hudson River on their way to India, a small estuary thrived where an easterly tangent of the river met a tidal strait at the northern tip of today’s Manhattan.

The Munsee tribe of the Lenape people lived among these waters. At low tide, they could walk across the mudflat from the mainland to their Manhattan village, Shorakkopoch.  They shared the estuary for work and play – harvesting oysters, clams and crabs; using intricately woven reed weirs to trap striped bass and bluefish as the tide ebbed. Skilled small boaters, the Lenape would paddle almost silently and low in the water, face-to-face with the estuary’s flora and fauna. 

Estuaries like this have always been among the most fertile areas on the planet.  The daily ebb and flow of both sea and fresh water deposits a unique blend of nutrients and diverse species, without high salinity levels. For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil.  The hills also protected the cove from storms, allowing the Lenape to hunt the densely wooded hills of Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus rubra right down to the water, where they fished and farmed in gentle turn.

This setting, with its natural forces in balance with modest cultivation, may seem like an unlikely site for the British landscape architect and urban planner, James Corner, whose highly aesthetic tableaux of seminatural forces at work upon one another have become iconic of ecological urban design.  But here sits Corner’s newest park – also New York City’s newest – on the edge of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, in the shadows of the City’s last original growth trees. 

What is it about this site that has brought the team from James Corner Field Operations 11 miles uptown from The High Line, one of the City’s proudest parks today? What does his eye for urban decay and reclamation see here? 

From left: The overgrown elevated train track platform in lower Manhattan before restoration and reconstruction began on The High Line in 2006; The High Line today. Source: Friends of The High Line

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The New Perennial Movement: Exhausted or Just Getting Good?

Is the New Perennial movement losing its integrity? Or will its expansion reinvigorate it artistically?

This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.

But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun. And Michael should know: he is a veteran writer and designer. His work documenting and experimenting with naturalistic perennial design (his preferred term is “perennial meadows”) is vast and impressive. Here is the core of his critique:

Now that the Dutch Wave has been renamed all we are left with is the look. New Perennial Planting has become pan-global with the same formula, using the same “new” plant assortment, being trotted out over and over again. Its success is fuelled by the sheer beauty of the plants it contains, but its integrity has been lost – leaving us with just another style of decorative planting. Michael King

Ouch. This well-written, stinging review left me thinking: is my enthusiasm about contemporary naturalism in all its diversity naïve? Is it all a bunch of imitative knockoffs of a few original practitioners? Or is there something more to it? 

After some rumination, my impression is that Michael is right. The appellation of the term “new” to any of these ideas is not accurate. There is a long history in the 20th century alone of herbaceous planting inspired by nature. Both the New Perennial movement and the American native plant movement owe much its intellectual credibility and artistic expression to earlier generations. Michael’s article was a refreshing, well-reasoned call for a more honest, more pragmatic approach to gardening.

New Horizons

But while none of this is technically “new,” this does not mean that naturalistic perennial design is exhausted.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Off-Season Visits to New York's Newest Naturalistic Parks and Gardens by Harry Wade

The First in a Four-part Series on Seeing Garden Design In the Light of Winter

Article by Harry Wade

I'm delighted to introduce Harry Wade to Grounded Design. Harry and I started corresponding last fall about naturalistic gardening. For me, it was one of those thrilling exchanges with a keen mind who understood the naturalistic garden trends in terms of their broader artistic and cultural contexts. I invited Harry to write a few posts for this blog, and he graciously accepted. Harry Wade is a part-time student in the New York Botanical Garden’s Certificate programs for Landscape Design and Horticulture and has a small residential garden practice with his husband focusing on agrarian-inspired design in Schoharie County in upstate New York. 

He has a Master’s in Critical Theory from The University of California at Irvine, has directed a number of award-winning documentaries, and is currently a communications consultant for the healthcare industry in New York City, where he lives.  He says “I've worked with a lot of brilliant experts in all kinds of fields, and the best of them always welcome an outsider’s perspective.” Hoping you enjoy this series--Thomas

Hibernation Hermeneutics

There are many things that occupy gardeners and designers in the wintertime, though they rarely include time in gardens considering design.

Instead, as gardeners, we tend to displace this time of year by thinking about other times – reconsiderations of past seasons and plans for what we will do next.  For designers, it too easily becomes a time to dwell in the abstract, pushing through imaginary planning or theoretical agendas, but rarely spending time with gardens themselves.  And while it is a near universal experience to be awe struck by snowfall or stark winter tableaux, these are more emotional reactions to natural forces, not design.  

But there is another side to a garden in winter – a way in which it conspires against us in small ways to undo our warmer weather certainties and linear productivity to insist instead on its own slightly alien autonomy.   In the garden, winter’s effect on perception and thought is gradual, accumulating meaning in layers, like the season itself.   

As best as I can make out, winter changes our awareness of gardens in three phases.  First, like the old design chestnut about black and white photography revealing the deep structure of a garden, winter eliminates many transitory details.   But since it exists in four dimensions, winter clarifies much more than a photo, allowing us to walk among the chiaroscuro lines and curves, feel how wind amplifies negative spaces, how ice activates small textural contrasts, how cold and fog reveal the shifting optics of atmosphere.   Who would not benefit from a greater awareness of these nuanced dynamics?  

A second effect that winter works on awareness is more related to our own physicality than the landscape –

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Piet Oudolf: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall

This year, Grounded Design is celebrating the idea of contemporary naturalistic design, and its great diversity of expressions across the world. It is my contention that naturalistic planting design may be in its finest hour, with numerous new designers whose work represents a contemporary vision of planting in the Anthropocene. Last week, we looked at the work of Adam Woodruff, one the rising stars in American planting design. In the next few weeks, we will hear directly from many of the world's leading designers, hearing their own interpretations of the zeitgeist. As well as a few reviews of some of the newer naturalistic parks and gardens here in the U.S.

Of course, it is hard to pay homage to the idea of naturalistic planting design without giving credit to one of its finest practitioners. I've been accused many times of making this blog too Piet Oudolf-centric, perhaps accurately, but like many in the design and planting world, it is hard to overstate his influence and artistry. Which is why I'm thrilled that Thomas Piper, an award-winning nonfiction film maker that I've been corresponding with, is working on a feature of Piet Oudolf and his gardens. 

The great thing about capturing Oudolf's work on film is that cinematography can create the experience of being present in the gardens, a feat "impossible through any other medium," writes Piper in his proposal. 

Piet Oudolf documentary teaser from Thomas Piper on Vimeo.

What's really thrilling is that the film will capture Piet's process of designing his new work, including a major new garden for a contemporary art center in England, Hauser & Wirth Somerset as well as recent projects in New York, Chicago, Nantucket, Germany, Sweden, and Holland.

It is a moving teaser, as it speaks to the emotional aspect of Piet's work. Really looking forward to the full film.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sabbatical

What happens when America’s most promising planting designer takes time to study the world’s leading designers?

Adam Woodruff is thinking about plants. 

Woodruff, the St. Louis garden designer best known for his traffic-stopping seasonal displays at projects like the Bank of Springfield in Illinois, has spent much of the last three years quietly studying the work of the world’s leading designers.

In that time, Woodruff has crisscrossed North America and Europe to see some of the most spectacular plantings in the world. From the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc to the horizontal meadows of Hermannshof; from the flamboyant gardens of Chanticleer to the understated elegance of Hummelo, Woodruff has filled his passport seeking out groundbreaking planting designs.

Woodruff’s sabbatical was not initially something he set out to do. But Adam’s work changed when he and his partner moved to Massachusetts. “Circumstances in my personal life took us to the East coast and forced a change in my business model,” explained Woodruff in a recent conversation.  “I soon found myself living in Marblehead with less work and more time.  I eventually embraced a more balanced life and took the opportunity to travel.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Year Ahead

What to Expect this Year on Grounded Design
Tokachi Millenium Forest by Dan Pearson Studio; image by Syogo Oizumi/TMF

It is the first of January, and like many of you, I am taking a few moments to think about the year ahead. The past few months were full: a blur of deadlines, new projects, travel, late night writing, a sick child, and somehow in the midst, the holidays happened. Yet in this blur of activity, perhaps even because of it, I am looking ahead with intention and inspiration. I have never been so inspired.

I am inspired by a big idea. It is an idea about a new kind of garden, part designed and part wild, found in every corner our cities and and along every road of our countrysides. It is an idea about planting as an art, perhaps the most important art of this century, expressing both our longing for nature and our loss of it entirely. It is an idea about the potential of designed plantings to be fecund, self-creating communities.

It is not my idea, and it is not entirely a new idea. But for the first time, it is an idea being expressed artfully by some of the world's brightest designers and writers.

This year, Grounded Design will be intentionally more outward focused. We will celebrate the ideas of designers and writers on the edge of this new frontier. There will be a feature article on one of the fastest rising stars in design; there will be an interview with one of the most original thinkers in horticulture; and there will be several exclusive one on ones with internationally renowned plantsmen and plantswomen. And there will be guest posts with focused reviews of some of the most important new gardens of the last year.

So stay warm, and stay tuned!

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.     

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