Sunday, February 28, 2010

La Calle Es Una Selva de Cemento

When Hector LaVoe crooned these immortal words (the street is a concrete jungle) he captured perfectly that popular city sentiment; "it's a jungle out there"- full of unknown dangers, adventures and riches to be had, and wild animals on the prowl. And the modern city, epitomized by rough concrete- that most base of building materials- is all well and good if you're a Puerto Rican salsa king strung out on cocaine and making incredible albums titled "Crime Pays". However, the design community has tended toward the glass-and-steel hi-modern/hi-tech aesthetic in recent decades.

And this is too bad. There have certainly been some brilliant moments in concrete- Tadao Ando's body of work, the Soviet Constructivist movement, the Hoover Dam- but for every one of these there are 1000 shitty little row houses and retaining walls, and the majority of our concrete is clad in some thin, costly veneer. Indeed, the iconic concrete structure in New York City is not any particular masterwork by Wright or Saarinen, but rather the ubiquitous jersey barrier and the gum-stained city sidewalk. We here at FASLANYC may have an affinity for those rugged urban accessories, but even we would have to admit that they are rarely valued as fine cultural expressions. Rather, the are the building blocks of the seedy underbelly of the American Dream. But that is another post.

Today we are concerned about the future of concrete. It is well known that environmental rhetoric is a requisite part of any new proposal these days, and rightly so. Given this, and the fact that concrete has lost the culture war to the glass-and-steel crowd despite the best efforts of the Soviets and the Brazilians, the next best chance for a revival in concrete appreciation resides in the environmental imperative we now face. In particular, there is a group name Calera that we have had our eye on in recent years.

First profiled in this Scientific American article, Calera state their goal as being "to reverse global warming by capturing and storing greenhouses gases in the built environment"; they claim to have a process for flushing the emissions from power plants through tanks of common seawater to create cement. They then use the waste heat to dry the pulpy mash to create the cement. It is a promising panacea perilously lacking in specifics. Nonetheless, given that 2002 innovations in cement production processes are on schedule to begin operation in 2011, we can hope that Calera will have their science together by 2020, and it could be a game-changer.

[the moss landing power plant, where Calera intend to draw their emissions.
Photo courtesy of "mythlady" on flickr]

The production of cement is the most energy intensive part of the concrete process, creating at least one ton of carbon emissions for each ton of cement produced. Calera's process aims to invert this equation, sequestering approximately half a ton of power plant emissions for every ton of cement produced. If the concrete on a project previously contributed 10 tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, using their cement would sequester or take out 5 tons.

If we were able to make this most wonderful and versatile of building materials into a veritable carbon sink and combine that with that other great carbon sink- forests- through an aggressive reforestation and urban forestation program, we can make major strides in our battle to combat climate change. This would require that the glass-and-steel default be replaced by a more robust masonry aesthetic which will define this new ethos. No longer just a substructure or a pavement, the beauty and tactile sensuality of concrete will be again be embraced. While in North America we have been rather taken with glass and steel and have left the shitty leftovers of the built environment to concrete, some young firms in South America have been refining the ways concrete can be employed beautifully since the days when Kubitschek ran off into the jungle Fitzcarraldo-style to build his inland empire.

[Oscar Niemeyer Museum, Curitiba, Brazil.
photo courtesy of superflu2009 on flickr]

The defining characteristic of concrete is that it is possible. You want to create a translucent masonry wall? Ok, sure. You want to damn an entire watershed? It will take twenty years, but you can do it. How about a city of flying saucers and crowns with yonic and phallic forms all floating in space- why not? For my money, I love the little concrete things, the furniture and lounges and arches. I also love the big things- the bridges and damns and bulkheads. Concrete changes fundamentally according to the process used for mixing/pouring/curing; you must design the process too. Concrete is muscular but not masculine, it is never hot but always warm, it stores heat during the day and releases it at night. I'm going to take a cold shower.

In the meantime, the below projects are some recent projects of South American provenance which demonstrate the versatility of the material and the process. If concrete does become a great carbon sink we may one day be looking at the Latin Americans for cues, much as we were influenced by the Bauhaus over 75 years ago. And Hector LaVoe will be recognized for his clairvoyance- the streets, and the whole city, will be a concrete jungle. And that would not be a bad thing.

["La Maquina Vegetal", by Tryptyque, located in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Note the perforated concrete facade and rough exposed facade irrigation.
The concrete is the structure for the plants and tha volumes]

[a close up of the perforated wall and cantilevered stair]

[home, by Marcos Acabaya, Sao Paolo, Brazil]

[thin shell concrete lounges by Marcos Acayaba]

[El Monolito Verde, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen Arquitectos, San Pedro, Chile]

[Hector LaVoe and Willie Colon, NYC, 1983]

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lo-fi landscapes

On the infamous Cuyahoga River there is a weird little landscape growing in the stagnant waters of the shipping channel running through Cleveland. Like most rivers that empty into the great lakes in metro areas, the Cuyahoga is deepened, channeled, and lined with steel pilings and concrete bulkheads. And like most rivers it is part of the migration and spawning patterns of the species that make up the local fishery.

 The adult fish leave Lake Eerie and head upstream to spawn. However, when the new young fish come back downstream they often do not make it through the shipping channel. Because there is no current to aid them and there are not plants for food due to the channelized banks and depth of the river they cannot get enough calories to swim the 6 miles through the stagnant water. They need food.
[CHUB at steel piling bulkhead, courtesy of]

The Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization (CRCPO) has developed a system to provide the steelhead trout and smallmouth bass a boost to get to the lake; they hang a series of specially designed bags from chains attached to the bulkhead pilings which contain growing medium and specific plants that can both tolerate the harsh conditions and provide food and habitat to the migrating fish. I love this intervention- it is a cheap, dispersed, and didactic constructed microecology that creates opportunity from the conflicts inherent to a contested urban site. It is a simple intelligible intervention that yearns to inform the community about its function and beckons involvement.

 The little pods, called CHUBS (Cuyahoga Habitat Underwater Baskets) are utterly utilitarian and subtle; you may not ever notice them. In some ways they look pathetic hanging there against that hulking steel piling, a metaphorical David being valiantly facing Goliath. However, the genius of this intervention is that it is not a counter proposal to bulkheads and industrial work but rather takes advantage of the structure and protection offered by them to diversify and enrich the uses of the shipping channel, a stance with positive ramifications for the regional ecosystem and fishery. In this sense, it is a landscape infrastructure writ small.

These pods remind me of a little study put out by Janette Kim of the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University titled Beyond Recreation. It is an adorable little idea that examines a number of themes we are interested in here at FASLANYC including the demystification of the professions, crowdsourcing, community involvement, and dispersed strategies. One can imagine community volunteer days being organized around the planting, distribution, and eventual gathering of these CHUBs according to spawning seasons.

In addition to garnering praise, this project serves to stimulate other ideas. It doesn't take much imagination to see variations of these pods set afloat on certain days like so many Japanese lanterns celebrating the industrial-ecologic economy of Lake Eerie. Perhaps they can be distributed in conjunction with data sensors to give a sense of the health of local fish populations, lighting up when fish pass within one meter, creating a system of sentient tributaries on the shores of Lake Eerie. Maybe they will serve as foot soldiers marking territory and establishing migratory patterns for the future establishment of a new generation of mexican-style chinampas. Their versatility and dispersed nature begs for integration into other systems.

In that vein the CRCPO has identified 5 separate sites along the shipping channel as areas of study for new initiatives. In their words, "efforts to keep the channel working for maritime commerce can go hand in hand with restoration of fish habitat and, in most cases bring both nature and humans back to the last five miles of the Cuyahoga." These new initiatives- more in keeping with standard and admirable landscape practice- include the restoration of riparian wildlife habitat, the excavation of toxic sediments, reconstruction of steel bulkheads, and the creation of park areas. These types of highly technical, costly reconstructions may be combined with intelligible, lo-fi stabilization wedges like the CHUBs to encourage community involvement in the entire initiative, creating a landscape that is a symbiosis of hi-tech professional constructions and community labor and leisure which harnesses and serves ecological and industrial processes.
[floating lanterns in Hiroshima, Japan, courtesy of]

It is this combination of low-tech, inexpensive, short-term tactics with overarching long-term strategies that we admire here at FASLANYC. The initiatives that work on both temporal and spatial scales of all sizes is often the best approach to intervening in the landscape. Too often we focus on the massive, capital-intensive reconstruction when what is most appropriate is a good CHUB.

[thanks to Ohio native Erik M for the tip about the CHUBs project]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

All Hail Sadik Khan- Midwinter Ululating

Well, it's the middle of February and it seems that spring will never come. So, in the interest of pitiful and weak-minded self-preservation I thought it would be good to prime the Springtime pump and head out to the streets to report on bicycled-themed developments which promise big changes in our city landscape, should the god-forsaken winter ever break and fairer days finally start to peak through.

Firstly, last week while waiting in line for a "slice of plain" I regrettably found myself paging through the NY Post. While it's true that the Post is the rebellious, sleazy kid-brother to the Times' stately and dignified journalistic voice it can be a good time-killer. No one covers a melodramatic non-story as hysterically as they do. Occasionally they even impart knowledge of real significance.

Case in point is this announcement- tucked neatly next to a photo of a buxom Kardashian Sister- that city parking meters are being turned into bicycle racks. While you may or may not like the aesthetic of this particular rack, the ingenuity with which they are being installed- use the existing footing and surrounding paving of the old parking meters as the structure to attach on of these racks- is surely worthy of a slow clap.

The fact is, the lack of bike parking in the city sucks- this is not Portland- and a simple rack can go a long way. 'Til now, I have been critical of the new NYCity Rack by Beetlelab. However, if enough can be in place by the spring time that we no longer have to lock haphazardly to scaffolding and street signs- easy prey for bike thieves- then I am all in.
[new NYCity Racks along Broadway]

[traditional street sign/bike rack]

[olde skool theft-encouraging scaffolding/bike rack]

In other news, last week I was paging through the day's AM New York while riding the elevated 7 Train when I stumbled across a tiny news release. Mayor Bloomberg has announced that Broadway will be permanently made into pedestrian space at Times Square. A capital project will be created to refine and further implement the changes spearheaded by transit demigod, hipster-chic celebrity and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.
[new condom wrapper!  oh yeah, and Times Square is being redone]

This project holds particular interest for Don Roman and myself here at FASLANYC. We wrote back in November about the possibilities for changing Broadway and the lessons to be learned from the first steps taken by the NYC DOT and the fact that they were looking for feedback on those steps. In fact, they finished up that report and have published it here. Some of the findings are eye-opening, including across the board decreases in traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries despite increased traffic volumes. Travel times varied from a 15% decrease on 6th Avenue to a 2% increase on 7th Avenue.

As mentioned in our previous post, the efficacy of the automobile transit system is critical to the viability of the project. In the report, which I recommend you page through if you're a New Yorker or planner/urban designer, one of the most telling sentences comes on page 1:

"Given the improvements in mobility, safety and satisfaction noted above and in the following report, DOT recommends that the new network changes be made permanent and built upon for the continued vibrancy of West Midtown. This includes enhancing the Broadway corridor by upgrading the temporary materials used in the Green Light for Midtown project through future capital projects."

Alas! Jailbreak for landscape architects!

The truth is, this project has the potential to be one of the most significant landscape initiatives in the city, at least since the west side parks on the Hudson were begun in the 1980's. The symbolic significance of Broadway- that old indigenous trail, the anomaly in the famous city grid, running the length of the island, creating famous plazas at every avenue intersection (Columbus Circle at 8th Avenue, Times Square at 7th, Herald Square at 6th, Madison Square Park at 5th, Union Square at 4th)- cannot be overstated. In fact, it's worth of a clever NY Post-esque title: JSK power slams the Power Broker!

In addition, the critical mass of pedestrians afforded by subway stops all along the route, the well-known parks and plazas, the uniqueness of its geography compared to the other streets, its name recognition, and the city wide push for "sustainable streets" and environmentally conscious initiatives all provide potent raw material to draw from. The pedestrian mall experiments of the 60's and 70's provide perfect precedent studies and test cases, and the sophisticated and forward-thinking way the DOT has gone about this- combining community input and temporary projects with dizzyingly fast decisions and the heavy-handed backing of the billionaire mayor- has been incredibly effective thus far and serve as inspiration.

For us here at FASLANYC, many questions remain. What are the most appropriate precedents? How does this fit into larger patterns in the city? Will a high-profile firm be brought in to reconceptualize the former Longacre Square (the name of Times Square prior to the New York Times moving there and convincing Mayor George McClellan to rename it) or a design competition held? How will the DOT's designers fit in (yes, they have recently taken advantage of the downturn to hire young landscape architects cast off from the Field Operations' and MVVAs of the city)? Most importantly, what are the implications of a redesigned and repurposed Times Square for the other major avenue intersections up and down Broadway?

It's an exciting development, one I can only hope doesn't get mired in the muck of professional ambition and clamoring for credit. At any rate, it is heartening to read news of bike racks and new pedestrian squares in the dead of February, that meanest of northern months. Let the ululating begin...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Infrastructure = Policy + Engineering

A couple of interesting posts during the past few weeks over on Free Association Design and Infranet Lab hearken back to a series of projects by Israeli landscape architect Shlomo Aaronson done in the mid-80's in the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. These projects- the sculpting of excavated fill from a phosphate mine into abstractions of the natural topography for hydrological and aesthetic purposes, and the siting of an 18km conveyor belt through protected desert terrain from the mine to the train depot, are significant in their scope and scale and were harbingers of the work of the landscape urbanists/infrastructurists (though Alan Berger would have you believe he has entirely invented the interesting work he is doing).

[an 18km conveyor belt is built on a transparent truss allowing wildlife movement]

[existing landscape largely intact, contrasts belt structure]

Much of the work being developed and talked about in the fields of landscape/architecture is currently focused on this trend, including the Rising Tides and WPA 2.0 competitions, and the forthcoming little-kid-sister, the MoMA's "Rising Currents" exhibition. Here in New York City we have Field Operations directing the cultivation of a park on top of the Fresh Kill's Landfill, an arduous but fascinating task, and P-Rex and Pierre Belanger are hard at work on models for bringing more large-scale infrastructure projects under the auspices of the landscape/architecture.

This work, together with the push to rebuild the national infrastructure, is the generator of much speculation and excitement regarding the future role landscape/architecture. Recently on mammoth their expansive "architecture of the decade" post turned into an interesting discussion about the definition of landscape/architecture and its future role in constructing the built environment. Additionally, Conditions Magazine is currently having a call for papers examining the possibilities for added value in architecture. And that got me thinking.

The term infrastructure is less than one hundred years old, originating in the US in the 1920's and quickly becoming commonplace with the WPA and post-war building boom. The term was specifically an engineering term and the dictionary definition is illuminating:

in·fra·struc·ture (ĭn'frə-strŭk'chər) n.
 1. An underlying base or foundation especially for an organization or system.
 2. The basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.

Usage Note: The term infrastructure has been used since 1927 to refer collectively to the roads, bridges, rail lines, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function. The term also has had specific application to the permanent military installations necessary for the defense of a country. Perhaps because of the word's technical sound, people now use infrastructure to refer to any substructure or underlying system.

Infrastructure is historically defined as follows:


Given that, a critical question to debate if landscape/architecture is going to have an integral role in the future conceptualization and construction of infrastructure: what is the added-value of landscape/architecture in this equation?
[Negev phosphate mine]

[new earthworks blend with surrounding hills]

In answering this question, it is important to remember works like the Negev Phosphate Works and the Dead Sea Conveyor Belt. The focus of landscape/architects is always shifting, but we the consitent thread has been that generalist craftsmen. We have always been generalists, competent to both influence and interpret policy-makers’ decisions (who are often removed from the building professions by at least a factor of 2) and directing, siting, and integrating engineers' decisions. At the same time, we are rarely the builders ourselves, instead working with the tradesmen and scientists to effectively intervene in realspace, not just in abstract documentation of space.

It seems that the trend in the profession is toward generalist policymaker, and this has certain beneficial effects, given that for generations we confined ourselves to a medium of “site“ as opposed to “ground“ [see “Groundwork“ by Robin Dripps for a brilliant explanation of this difference]. However, we must not forget the craftsmen aspect of our legacy. It is the ability to conceive and direct well-executed details that reinforce that larger theoretical and conceptual framework defining any given intervention that separates landscape/architects. It is there that we add value; the landscape/architect is the catalytic agent that creates a positive feedback loop between the scientists, politicians and planners that make policy, and the engineers and tradesmen that execute them.

I hope Belanger and Joe Brown and Berger continue to expand the practice of landscape, but we must not lose our ability to execute policy. Speculation is fun and ideas are cheap, but execution is necessarily a narrowing of possibilities; for that reason it carries responsibility.  And so responsible and innovative execution is the real added value.