Sunday, July 20, 2008

DOT, bikes, and the like

A confluence of forces economic, ecological, and social has given rise to a number of changes in cities throughout the US in the last few years. Mass transit systems are being overloaded and upgraded, formerly traffic-snarled streets are being turned in to weekend promenades for pedestrians, cyclists, vendors, performers, and all the other uses that arise when a street is no longer dominated by cars, and even the president is talking vaguely about doing something, someday.

The most important and impactful of these, however, is the painting of bike lines with this wonderful green color on some of New York City’s busiest streets. The idea, according to the admirably proactive NYC DOT, is “to raise drivers’ awareness of the presence of cyclists and bike lanes”. The pilot locations, such as Bleecker Street in Manhattan, are in place and currently being monitored for effectiveness. In addition to adding hundreds of miles of standard bike lanes throughout New York City, we could see a proliferation of sexy green bike lanes in the city’s most congested and contested streets as the DOT searches for ways to minimize accidents between cyclists and drivers.

Now, I don’t know about their effectiveness as a safety measure, but I do know that these bike lanes look good. It is truly shocking in this city of grey to see a city agency do something. At all. And when they do, beauty is to be avoided at all costs, lest people‘s expectations be raised above mediocre. But lo and behold, here comes Commissioner Sadik-Kahn and her army of cool kids from the Ivory League. Now, everyone knows that pastels are in and that commuting on a bike is en vogue. And here we have the NYC DOT shutting down avenues, expanding bike facilities and routes, and painting some of said lanes a lovely chartreuse color.

Compare that to the contributions of the supposed guardian of public space in the city- the Department of Parks and Recreation. They too have been making bold moves, spending exorbitant sums to ring open spaces with chain link fence and cover them in synthetic turf. In fact, their commissioner, along with some of their initiatives, was recently featured in a lovely puff piece by that bastion of hard-hitting journalism and critical though- Landscape Architecture Magazine.

SO, the DOT has taken the baton and decided they will be the bold ones of the city workers who are making our city an interesting and innovative place to live, working to actually improve the quality of our lives, not just to keep working. Three cheers for Commissioner Sadik-Kahn and her minions.

Now, if only the DOT can get the hapless, hebetudinous police officers to stop parking in all those bike lanes and start ticketing people who do, people may actually be able to use them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


A quick perusal of any design journal or blog will yield literally tens of variations of the word ‘landscape’. In the sophisticated Germanic tradition of taking two dissimilar words and slamming them together to make a new word , our design lexicon is now blessed with delights such as ‘city-scape’, ‘road-scape’, ‘wall-scape‘, ‘waterscape’, ‘winterscape‘, and the always curious ‘dross-scape‘. We also have rural such as peculiarities as ‘farm-scape’ and ‘porch-scape‘.
There is even an entire European journal named ‘scape, claiming to be “the new international magazine for landscape architecture, city planning, and urban design”.

Now, this seemed like a good idea back when MVRDV was writing about data-scapes and the emergence of 21st century hedonistic urban culture going global. If not brilliant- and those guys usually are brilliant- it was at least a clever way of communicating an idea. However, this word game has become nothing more than a parlor trick, a cheap marketing gimmick to sell an otherwise also-ran design idea.

We cannot admit this, of course. When writing for peers or presenting to clients, we must beam at them- gleefully and smugly- and bellow ‘I have conceived of this space as a series of certain space-scapes’, for we are all Dante, inventing our own language because the ones we know are simply too banal for our brilliant ideas.

Therefore, inspired by the recent birthday of the USA (and the clouds blanketing the northeastern US for the last two weeks) it is with much smugness that I want to talk about the greatest ‘scape of all- SKYSCAPES! As beautiful as trees and buildings can be, they don’t really compare to:

the aurora lights

A thousand square miles of billowy nimbus clouds

A pollutant-infused sunset

Or a million-dollar fireworks display for whatever reason

I am humbled.
Nothing is more visceral, more ephemeral, more fantastic and more overwhelming than a skyscape. Verily, this is the apex of contemporary ‘scape design. Of course, the sky is always a part of any environment on the earth‘s surface, and its cycles and conditions should always be considered. But they usually aren’t. No matter, all I need to do is say the word, err… make up the word, then say it, and claim it as my own original idea. A not-so-new new level of complexity! My clients and peers will be quite willing to pat me on the back for that.

And if not, I can always pat myself on the back. As usual.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Landscape architecture in Brooklyn... pass the DeWar's

The streets of New York City are a veritable breeding ground of urban phenomena. The most ubiquitous of these is, of course, advertising. There is no limit to the ingenuity on display every day in every way to convince you to buy something, vote for something, or take up something as a cause. The neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, being a bit behind the times, is conspicuously lacking in messages to vote for Obama, buy SmartWater, and help save Darfur. However, there is this little beauty

Now I don’t drink DeWar’s, usually opting for something off the bottom shelf, but I am fascinated by this advertisement. The image is confounding- a very black man, impeccably dressed and carrying a doctor’s bag with a posture and a stride that suggests he is fleeing the scene with a purpose- all beside the motto “do nothing, be nothing, say nothing, and you will avoid criticism” with added emphasis on ‘nothing’.

I don’t know what this advertisement is saying- the conflicting metaphors and images drawn from our collective conscious and slammed together on the side of a brick wall are confusing- but I do know that I want to try some DeWar’s. Coincidentally, this also seems to be the motto adopted by ASLA and its allies. They seem to be much more interested in selling advertisements and facilitating the creation of benign and banal landscapes everywhere.

Despite being the self-proclaimed voice of a profession that is inherently cool- make places people like, plant trees, design stuff outside, all without the bothersome panache of being “important”- ASLA is content with a place at the back table in Washington or your local developer’s dining room. Save a few practitioners, the collective contribution of the profession tends to be places like this in Red Hook Brooklyn. In this new park, a couple of hallmarks of NYC park design are have been maintained including the ever-present chain-link fence surrounding the site and asphalt everywhere. I especially like the painted asphalt designs made to resemble a tiny baseball field or , made to look like a radiant rainbow sun emanating from a fence post. Some might say that painting a field on this space is a sensible urban solution that allows the flexibility to serve many more uses than a real field would. But those people are stupid people who lack imagination and the ability to think critically. I would often see people- both kids and adults- playing ball here before the ‘field’ was painted. We’ve all done it- you just pace off the distance of a base and drop a shirt and go from there. It’s insulting to insinuate that people need to have every opportunity to play spelled out for them. Indeed, I’ve never seen anyone playing ball there since the redesign. It communicates that if you play here now you’ve just played out the sophomoric vision of some poor bastard landscape architect. It‘s demeaning if anything.

It is perhaps not the worst place in the neighborhood, but most of its charm is borrowed from the Hope and Anchor across the street where you can get meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and a beer for $15. And on Sunday night, they have a 7 foot tall transvestite lead karaoke night.

Don’t know if they sell DeWar’s, however.

(For an example of interesting and meaningful reuse of a blacktop in Red Hook, check out the Red Hook Farm).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ballyhoo in the haberdashery... 2008 ASLA award winners announced!!

ASLA’s website shows that the 2008 award winners have indeed been named. In the words of ASLA’s president, Perry Howard, “These projects represent the pinnacle of design achievement by the world’s leading landscape architects.” (and by “the world’s” he means the United States’).
This is great news, not so much for the profession, but for the marketing specialists in each of these firms.

A quick perusal of the winners shows that the usual suspects have once again run roughshod over the upstarts. The big boys- Heargraves, Ken Smith, Van Valkenburg, Gustafson, Olin, etc.- are all going home happy, with Van Valkenburg Associates haven proven themselves especially versatile and adept in their ability to awe the staid and insipid folks of the jury.
There sure are some interesting projects there, and though there is likely more to be learned and enjoyed from actually walking down your block, the projects highlighted here prove to look fantastic in photos and to lend themselves well to the invention of “-scape” words. So there’s that.

But really, the problem is not the projects themselves but that they are held up to us by the powers-that-be as the goal of all our professional aspirations. A beautiful house in a breath-taking natural setting for well-heeled clients merits an award? “My, that is a wonderful planking pattern on your deck.“ Van Valkenburg has created some fantastic-looking places, but does that firm really merit three times the awards than the entire portfolio of Latin American designers? Either the American Society of Landscape Architects is a xenophobic, ethnocentric organization or they are saying that latinos just aren’t that good.

The GSD’s good ‘ol boy circle has once again proven themselves imminently competent at patting each other on the back, and any chance for serious and critical public discourse within the profession will have to wait for now. After all, there are press releases to get out!