Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Object Lesson- Race Street Pier

[the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Delaware River, and the incredibly verdant Race Street Pier in Philadelphia, PA]

Recently we had the good fortune to spend a bit of time in the city of Philadelphia.  We took a few hours to go and check out the Race Street Pier, the new waterfront pier designed by Field Operations.  The Pier had been open for about a year, and it seemed like a good chance to take in the place now that the new car smell has dissipated.  For us, it was a chance to take in a project by the firm that has dominated east coast and national perception about landscape design since the opening of the first phase of the High Line (and which has been the object of much of our impotent fury, mostly because we begrudgingly respect them so much).  Like the High Line, Race Street Pier benefits from an evidently healthy capital budget (6 million) and an absolutely stunning historical and physical context- it is a former industrial workhorse jutting out into the Delaware River with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge framing views beyond.

The Pier is intended as the opening salvo in the remaking of the waterfront according to the strategic vision of the Delaware River Waterfront Redevelopment Corporation, which you can read all about here.  It seems very similar to the efforts throughout industrial cities to remaking the decrepit infrastructures into pleasure grounds.  Our particular interest in this project was the details, especially given our initial criticism of the High Line, and the fact that Field Operations is quickly amassing a huge body of built work.  But first a couple of comments about the overall pier situation:

The Pier splits in two levels, using a series of ramps and wrapping terraces to dramatize the vista out over the Delaware from the end of the pier.  This is fantastic- a thoughtful concept and well executed.  The proportions of the low zone, the high zone, and ramp and stairs that connect them seem nicely done.  This is a specific type of connection to the water- you remain physically separated (not a bad thing given the nastiness) and yet your are enthralled by the way it presents itself to you at the edge of the Pier.  The Delaware pulls you from the street through the pier to the edge, and once there you have many options, intelligently woven together, to negotiate your relationship to the River itself.

Given this, it seems odd that the design does not relate in any way to another working pier literally a stone’s throw from the Race Street Pier.  I’m talking of course about the pier ramp for the duckboat tours where tourists and school kids ride around the city in a ridiculous-looking amphibious vehicle and honking on kazoos in the shape of a duck’s bill.  This comes right down Race Street drives down the ramp and splashes in to the filthy water of the majestic Delaware.  But the Race Street Pier doesn’t deal with this, except to block any direct view of it from near the street with plantings.  I know the entertainment of a duck boat is crass and maybe you don’t want to set the ramp-pier up as the object of fascination when you have the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River right there, but when you are out there it does seem that the two should relate through materials, scale of water relations, or proportions, or otherwise.

On to the details.

The plantings are lush and beautiful.  And ambitious.  Large trees are planted in recessed containers, and some will not be happy in a few years.  But this is a small price to pay for the textures, color, shade, and habitat the plantings bring.  It is unclear who worked with Field Operations on the planting design, perhaps they took copious notes from Piet Oudulf while working on the High Line, but they are varied and beautiful, and seem to be leafing out quite nicely after their first winter on the waterfront.

A humble context.
The great objects of this landscape- the bridge, the skyline, the river- are rightly revered.  The humble objects are shat upon.  The duck boat ramp-pier has its charms.  The familiar concrete and guardrail highway materials plunging in to the Delaware River in the hopes of entertaining kids and tourists begs for the Race Street Pier to come out and play.  To no avail.

It should be noted that almost the entire Pier is decked in Trex.  Why?  Why, WHy, WHY???  This is horrible.  I suppose it will limit splinters, and we all know that it is a “recycled synthetic material”, which likely has some currency given the sustainability conversation taking place.  But Trex as it is currently manufactured and used gives synthetic materials a terrible name.  If it is going to be the material of choice here, could we not vary the proportion, the color, or at least do away with the insulting wood-grain stamp?  It’s tough to blame a corporation like Trex Company for the lack of courage in exploring the potentials inherent to the synthetic manufacturing process- their mandate is to make money, and they are conservatively doing that by meeting the known desires of the market.  But the landscape designer should be more daring.  If you have decided to use Trex, or some other synthetic lumber materials, and you want a stamped pattern to add texture, at least use some imagination and don’t default to the wood grain.  Wood grain exists in real wood for a real reason, not because it’s trying to look like wood.  Next time, please attempt adapt the famous Portuguese “mar largo” (open sea) pattern to the scale of the Delaware, or use polka dots, or simply “put a bird on it”.  But don’t stamp it with wood grain.

Donor plaques.
The plaques located at the base of each of the quercus bicolor trees are an affront to thoughtful detailers everywhere.  This is always a tough position for a designer.  These were obviously a last-minute addition, probably required when a funding opportunity was discovered by the client who then put upon Field Operations to find a spot for something to carry names that could be associated with a park object.  And it shows.  The framing of the tree pits is poorly done in general; whether this is through bad detailing or shoddy carpentry is not clear.  But those plaques!  The dimension chosen for them was obviously intended to match that of the trex lumber, and yet the detail drawn for them did not account for the vertical edging that frames the tree pit.  What results is a pitiful looking offset metal plaque left sitting above the rest of the decking, in lieu of a simple metal plate inset in to the decking, nicely aligned, flush, and well constructed. 

The handrails and guardrails also deserve attention.  These create one of the most striking effects of the pier thanks to the 20-degree cant of the rails.  These must have been extremely expensive- thin, deep metal posts holding metal bars and topped with a wide wood leaning rail.  Unfortunately, as you can see here, the lengths of the two different materials- the wood leaning rail and the metal fencing and posts- were not coordinated, and so you end up with extra joints, some in very odd places (like 1’ from the end of the fence).  The flange where the posts attach is not offensive, but is thoughtless, and this detail unfortunately repeats throughout the pier when furniture and structures meet decking. 

When the guardrails are used to support a handrail along the steps at the end of the pier the result is catastrophic.  Bits of metal are welded willy-nilly, heights of hand rails are not aligned with nor contrasted against the form and elevation of the stepped seating.  The effect is something like a pimply-faced teenage boy asking his middle school crush to dance in the middle school gym.  Equally massive doses of arousal and embarrassment mix powerfully together to create a potent mix of shame.  Shame sandwiches for everyone, and a glass of shame punch.

This brings us to the most unfortunate detail of the whole bunch.  It’s the most egregious because it actively works to undo the most daring and thoughtful of the conceptual moves in the design- the dramatization of the river vista.  The placement of a freestanding leaning rail and a bench at the end of the elevated portion of the pier is bizarre.  If you want to go lean on the rail, then you are putting your pleated khakis right in someone’s face, and if you prefer to sit down then the leaning rail is nicely positioned to obscure your view out over the river.  There are many things one could say about this confused spot, but I think the ineptitude is self-evident.  Let’s pray they take the leaning rail out one day and just move on.

The array of details working to execute this composition are well done.  Moving from right to left, it’s not clear why the Trex boards do not continue the angle of the railing, but the decision to angle them is visually appealing and beckons to cyclists and toddlers (that’s a good thing).  The material shift for the ramp is plain and simple and successfully allows for the topographic alignment of the terrace landings with segments of the ramp (this wouldn’t have worked with a more linear surface element).  Lastly, the gently raised grass berm allows for more growing medium for the trees and articulates zones of use without separating them significanctly.  A lot of good things are happening here.  Solid, simple moves reinforcing a couple of more daring choices.

Final thought.
The landscape design for Race Street Pier builds on the spectacular site situation, makes some powerful conceptual moves (elevating and splitting the procession toward the water, verdant planting beds contrasting the concrete-and-steel aesthetic of the surroundings) and misses a few opportunities (no relation to the slab of concrete-and-guardrail that lets cars loaded with kids and tourists drive right in to the Delaware River; a furthering of their concept- a simple section of the pier that dips toward the water on the side of the duckboat ramp- would have done it).  However, the detailing could have benefited from an afternoon with old friends at DSR

What is evident is the prioritization of concept over execution, planning over building.  It is the materialization of an ethos and pedagogy that has been cultivated to great effect during the last 20 years at UPenn.  The quality of the design work is high despite several bad details and material choices.  And this only makes me more desperate to see evidence of a realization of the possibilities that exists in the space between concept and form.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Things that are Happening

[me, taking a moment from field research in the tobacco landscape of rural Puerto Rico to jot down some semi-coherent blog-thoughts]

Today’s post is an update on the state of this blog.  Readers (yes, that’s in the plural form, albeit not by much) have likely picked up on the fact that for the last few years we’ve been finishing a punishing (and rewarding) masters degree in landscape architecture at the University of Virginia.

Something of a capstone has now been put on that effort with the submission of the landscapes and instruments thesis project, and while I intend to continue this research in the future, the first proposal in that line of work is done and ready for your consumption.  If it has caught your eye for some reason and you have a few thoughts, criticisms, links to share, or ideas for making it better I would love to hear them via email or the comments on the tumblr (drawings) or the blog (theoretical and historical research).  

Excitingly, one of the early posts from that effort will be showing up in an intriguing collection of work in the forthcoming issue of Bracket 3: At Extremes.  In the fall I'll be presenting another piece of the thesis at the Society for Historians of Technology Conference in Copenhagen, and I wil return with a grey mustache, a gut, and elbow patches on my blazer.  I expect that after a rest of a few months I will pick back up on these projects, primarily using the tumblr to visually document the way instruments make landscapes.  I hope to use the LI blog to pursue some ideas about media and modeling related to landscape-making, especially focused on developing some approaches to landscape information modeling (NOT analogous to building information modeling- let’s just establish that now).  I anticipate this being a good chance to dive in to Bradley Cantrell’s new book, and to continue exploring some of the methods uncovered in the landscapes and instruments thesis.

I’ve very recently started tweeting things.  I imagine this to be a better outlet for some of the tiny-but-interesting factoids I’ve been elaborating in to overwrought blog posts over the years.  Follow me if you want @faslanyc.

Despite these diversions and developments you can expect continued, regular postings here.  I hope to maintain the sense of awe and irreverence, the theoretical and material interests, the use of an uncanny first person plural sense, and the cavalier roving all over seemingly random topics related to landscapes.  I expect the focus will get a little tighter and the posts shorter- because really, who wants to read 1000 words of landscape randomness every week?  The expected themes will not be a surprise- Latin America and the larger American landscape, material networks, speculative landscape histories, industrial shipping canals, thoughts on object-oriented landscapes, and on-the-ground criticism (occasionally).

In an immediate sense this will take the form of a forthcoming three-part interview with philosopher Graham Harman.  This is a project we are super excited about, and happy to keep pushing on.  Afterward, there will be a lot of posting on stuff in Latin America, because that’s where I’ll be for six weeks doing nothing important but hopefully having a lot of fun.

Lastly, in the fall I’ll be starting a job teaching in the landscape architecture department at Cornell University.  I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to join such an accomplished faculty and group of students, although I don’t anticipate sharing too much of that direct experience here; I’m never into that when I’ve seen it elsewhere on blogs, and I enjoy the heightened sense of remove the internet affords between my ideas and my everyday life- it gives everything a bit more space.  As always, feel free to drop me a note any time.
[perhaps now more than ever I aspire to attain the mustachioed heights of Raphy Leavitt on "Jibaro Soy", still one of the best american songs of all time]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Anti-Terraforming and Ecosynthesis, Planetary or Otherwise

[post office in Burkes Garden, VA; this area wasn't settled by Americans until the 18th century, at which time they immediately built this Post Office;  all construction stopped after that, evidently]

terraforming (v.)- to alter the topography, atmosphere, or ecology of a celestial body in order to make it habitable for terrestrial life.

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in catalyzing synthetic landscapes, post-natural futures, and next nature, and fusion ecology.  Coupling that with the concomitant interest in geology as architecture’s new ally leads to one inevitable idea- TERRAFORMING!  Evidently terraforming was first put forth by Carl Sagan in the 1930’s when he speculated on the possibility of seeding the atmosphere of Venus with certain microbes that would eventually create habitable space on the hot planet.  While this particular idea was later debunked, the concept was later legitimated by NASA (not to mention loads of science fiction work) in a series of papers considering the possibility of terraforming Mars given the discovery of polar ice.  Thes papers propose that terraforming be better understood as "planetary ecosynthesis", a move that acknowledges that human habitation.  However, what interests us today are two examples of large scale ecosynthesis from the heart of Appalachia.

Deep in southwestern Virginia, on the edge of coal country, there is a place called Burkes GardenBurkes Garden is a valley more than 3,000 feet above sea level, the highest on the east coast.  The valley was created when the limestone and shale that once formed a huge peak slowly eroded and collapsed in on itself, leaving only the harder sandstone rim surrounding what is known as a “doubly plunging anticline”.  This geologic process created soils that are similar to the Tidewater coastal region, but at an elevation of over 3,000 feet.  These conditions offer not only some of the most fertile ground in Virginia but also harbor species that are evidently unknown elsewhere.  And morphologically, it weirdly resembles another landscape typology found throughout coal country- the strip mine.

Just down the road in Wise, VA there numerous mountains whose peaks have been removed through an anthropological process.  Mountaintop removal has been going on in the area since at least the 1960’s, and the number of sites was ironically increased by the Clean Air Act, which created a demand for cleaner burning anthracite and bituminous coal.  The effects in the form of acid mine drainage and the spread of an aesthetic of violence are well known.  What is taking shape might be called anti-terraforming, that is, the deliberate alteration of the topography, atmosphere, or ecology of a place in order to make it inhabitable for terrestrial life
[regional anti-terraforming in Appalachia; making a place uninhabitable for terrestrial life, though not without a certain sublime sci-fi attraction]
Interesting and serious work on these landscapes is underway by people such as Julie Bargmann and the Virginia Department of Mines and Minerals, and we hope that the tenor emanating from the GSD’s most recent infrastructure symposium indicates a more widespread interest and willingness to grapple with these landscapes more fully.  The possibility to use the material from another industrial scale excavation operation- limestone chips- to remediate acid mine drainage (amd) is established, though not without its limitations.  As the limestone is exposed to acid mine drainage its surfaces rapidly become coated with an Iron oxyhydroxide coating and its effectiveness diminishes to nothing. 

But we are curious to see what fantastical futures might be wrought by design studies taking a sci-fi approach to mountaintop mine reclamation.  If coal mining is a form of anti-terraforming, how might architecture and landscape practice contribute to the development of large scale ecosynthesis projects in the scoop out bowls of Appalachian mountaintops?  Is it possible to develop a 1,000 year long real estate project that prepares a mine site to become another of “god’s thumbprints” in coal country?  Perhaps when all of the coal is gone in 2073 Appalachia could become a network of distributed sites built on high, fertile ground, home to strange fusion ecologies and monster bucolic landscapes, refuges for long lost amphibians, cave beetles, stoneflies, boboheads, and loggerhead shrikes, great hydrological and biological reservoirs for the east coast.
[topographic map of Burkes Garden, giving the area the nickname "God's Thumbprint"; other mountaintop removal sites are literally under God's thumb, if God is the East Coast's desire for electricity, including the power for this macbook I write this on]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Total Landscape

Johan Cruyff, total-footballing in a total-landscape...

The 2012 Euro Soccer Cup marks the 30-year anniversary of the peak of the legendary “Total Football” tactical style developed by the Dutch and spearheaded by Johan Cruyff:
Space and the creation of it were central to the concept of total football…  “We discussed space the whole time.  Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should, stand, and when they should not move.” 
The constant switching of positions that became known as total football came about only because of this spatial awareness.  “It was all about making space, coming into space, and organizing space- like architecture on the football pitch.” 

David Winner’s 2004 book Brilliant Orange explores this architecture and makes the case that this style of football is actually a direct extension of Dutch spatial creativity and polder politics.  This seems dubious, though perhaps in the case of Dutch football it applies, but that type of analysis simply doesn’t apply in the Americas [case in point:  Zizek’s famous and wrong-headed equivalence between national ideologies and toilet-types].  The difference being this:  European heads of state can proclaim “multi-culturalism has utterly failed” and they might be wrong, but at least people would know what they meant.  In the Americas, that statement is quite literally meaningless. 

But if Winner’s book discussed soccer and the creation of space as architecture, then we might say that Michel Serres’ TheParasite considers it from a landscape perspective:
A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it… Let us consider the one who holds it.  If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player.  The ball isn’t there for the body; the exact contrary is true:  the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun.  Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it… Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance.  The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws.  Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. [p 225-226]

Applying this materialist reading to a soccer match shows offers compelling conceptual tools for understanding space that begin to suggest how designers might conceptualize the forces at play in any landscape- kids playing, slopes eroding, a summer of drought, or a new apartment high-rise opening around the corner.  Rather than blaming sagging maintenance budgets, philistine users, or simply shrugging it off and saying “meh… what can you do?”, we might develop concepts and tools to grapple with the ambiguities and troubled interiors of retaining walls, geotextiles, concessionaires, and chimney swifts.

would this installation for World Toilet Day be any more or less awesome if these were German toilets?  No, because they did it in Berlin and it was rad there too.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

1989 Blackout Landscape

[Manicouagan Lake in the eponymous crater in the glaciated landscape of Northern Quebec; a 70 km diameter annular lake from an impact 215 million years ago, the lake is now one of the primary power producers in the mighty Hydro-Quebec power grid]
While charting a course for an attempt at an undocumented Canadian- border crossing the other day, we came across something caught our eye in the upper corner of the map.  A huge annular lake in northern Quebec with tendrils snaking down towards the urbanized ribbon of southern Canada.  It turns out to be a key 215 million-year old figure in the most notorious electrical blackout in history...

At 2:44 am on March 13th, 1989 a disruption in the Hydro-Quebec power grid ripped through the high voltage transmission network.  Single-phase 735 kV transformers were blown offline due to the tripping of seven static compensators critical to maintaining the stability of the massive La Grande network.  The instability caused overloading in the Manic and Churchill Falls networks, leveling the entire 20,000 MegaWatt electric grid of Quebec in 92 seconds and rocking large portions of the electrical grid in the northeastern United States.  

It is well known that the immediate cause of the disruption was a massive geomagnetic solar storm; that and the fact that Hydro-Quebec is a socialist state-run commie enterprise (that's right, socialist and commie!) and deserved to go down.  Hard.  In the subsequent twenty-three years a raft of papers have been produced by everyone from independent researchers to NASA to Hydro-Quebec itself looking at the solar event and electrical disruption, and the blackout has become an important benchmark for testing and modeling the robustness of North American electrical infrastructure as US and Canada have grown more reliant on electricity in general and their respective power grids have further intertwined.

But what we're interested in today is the question what might be gained from theorizing the blackout event as a landscape, and how might landscape practice contribute to the future evolution of the North American power grid?  
[the Forbush Decrease measured by a neutron monitor in Moscow indicates the high level of geomagnetic disturbance caused by the solar winds impacting the Earth's magnetic field in the early morning of March 13, 1989]
As the Friends of the Pleistocene has noted before the electrical infrastructure of northeastern North America is a bewildering network of twentieth century public works projects, the desires of modern urban inhabitants, and geological forms hundreds of millions of years old.  Taking the singular case of the 1989 blackout is helpful for understanding this landscape of power.  In particular two factors of the Hydro-Quebec system contributed to the disturbance effect instigated by the solar storm, and each of these has a history:  the “highly resistant igneous rock” of the Laurentian Shield, and the technologically innovative 735kV transmission lines pioneered by Hydro-Quebec.

According to reports by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric ReliabilityCorporation, the impact of the geomagnetic storm on the Hydro-Quebec grid was intensified because of the subsurface geology of the region.  The “highly resistant igneous rock” over which the transmission network passed made it difficult for the excess voltage to pass through the ground, thereby contributing to the overloading of the transmission lines.

Perhaps more interesting are the 735kV transmission lines of the Hydro-Quebec grid which can be understood historically as the materialization of the transition from “city to urban society” as Henri Lefebvre explored in his classic-yet-Eurocentric (not mutually exclusive terms, as it turns out) work The Urban Revolution
Here I use the term “urban society” to refer to the society that results from industrialization, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production… An important aspect of the theoretical problem is the ability to situate the discontinuities and continuities with respect to one another.  (Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p 2)

Only in this case the revolution was taking place at the temporal and spatial scale of the American landscape, unlike anything Lefebvre was looking at in his native France, and this landscape necessitated technological adaptations including the 735kV transmission lines.  This technology was pioneered by Hydro-Quebec during 1962 under the guidance of engineer Jean-Jacque Archambault as a response to the necessity to span the massive distances between where the hydroelectric power was produced in Northern Quebec and the populous belt near the Canadian-US border.  This effort to create energy and economic independence within the province of Quebec through large public works projects was also intricately tied to the Quiet Revolution separatist movement within Quebec that was taking shape at that time.  To transport the power generated from the massive new Outards and Manicouagan hydroelectric projects 735kV lines were proposed, an increase of more than double the 315 kV lines that were standard.  While this technology was necessary to link the Manicougan-Outards project to Montreal and other cities in the south, it also left the electric grid highly susceptible to disruption from geomagnetic interference.
[Delta pylons near the Canadian border city of Saint Jean Sur Richelieu carry 735kV transmission lines south to New York State; Richelieu was historically an important transportation hub, being located at the northernmost navigable edge of Lake Champlain; the Chambly Canal provides a navigable freight connection it to the St. Lawrence River]
That the Manicouagan Lake would become the object of Quebec engineer’s fascination is not surprising.  It’s size, geographic location and geologic structure enable it to contain a huge amount of water and keep it in reserve for electrical power generation; it is the highly glaciated remnant of an impact crater created by an asteroid nearly 215 million years ago.  What is surprising is the way that this artifact, now a primary powerhouse for the urban population Northeastern North America, is connected not only to urban centers such as Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and New York, but also to impact sites in France, Manitoba, the Ukraine and North Dakota.  Incorporating plate tectonics has allowed researchers at the University of Chicago to map geographies in geological time.  With respect to the Manicouagan Crater, this research suggests that all five seemingly disparate impact sites resulted from a single event, possibly an object that broke up as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

What begins to come in to view when theorizing the 1989 blackout from a landscape perspective is a complex geo-socio-technological object that is massively distributed in space and time; though the event is singular it implicates 215 million year old asteroid events, separatist Quebecois, pioneering engineering concepts, 735kV delta pylons, glacial melt, and one particularly nasty solar flare on March 10th that rocked the Earth’s geomagnetic field.  Through the work of people like Lefebvre we can understand that the city is the urban are not the same, that each has a history.  In many ways, this insight from 1970, and later so clearly articulated by Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis, seems to be gaining a new appreciation with the recent declarations out of the GSD that any concept of landscape urbanism must mean a lot more than simply city landscapes.

But the 1989 Blackout Landscape suggests to us that perhaps Timothy Morton’s concept of the hyperobject is the most challenging and useful contemporary landscape concept right now.  If that’s the case, given how much Morton has drawn from Graham Harman in recent years, and the predilection of landscape architects to study and design spaces that change through time, perhaps it is time to grapple with Harman’s assertion that “you can never go back in space, you can always go back in time.”  -[brutally paraphrased by us from page 251 of Guerrilla Metaphysics, by Graham Harman]