Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Memorial Fort by David Wilson. Wildcat Canyon, CA.

About a year and a half ago a stranger, who is now my friend, created a sculpture in the woods.

As a memorial to his father, David Wilson began collecting sticks from all over Wildcat Canyon and assembled them in a sweeping vortex in the understory of a particularly spectacular stand of Coast Live Oaks.

A place that was already special became even more uniquely so.  It's reminiscent of the work of Patrick Dougherty, but willfully more spastic and messy.  Additionally, the sticks that comprise the work are from the forest itself, and thus the imported quality of material I find questionable of Dougherty's work is absent.  

I have visited this place three times since it's creation, and it's aging splendidly- I actually prefer it looser and it wears wrinkles well.  As entropy sets in, it looks more like a freak natural accident, perhaps the result of some unfathomable storm or bizarre set of events.  But what I appreciate most about it is how anonymous it is.  Though I wasn't present, there was some sort of initial show/debut of the work, but since that time it's been largely left alone.  I imagine days and weeks go by where it doesn't have a single visitor.  One sign still remains as an indicator of its purpose, but it doesn't really explain anything.  The oak grove it lives in is off the beaten path and one would only come across it if they were hiking intentionally off trail.  This I like- it's a secret spectacle.


You decide.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Absence of Overkill: Guadalupe River Park, San Jose CA

Does everyone else love the work of Hargreaves in the 80s and 90s as much as I do?  George was just killing it in those years!  Ammiright?

Guadalupe River Park is a flood control project executed to prevent ongoing flood damage, which San Jose was experiencing every few years.  San Jose is relatively dry, but typical of Mediterranean climates, winter is rainy and sometimes destructive, because it's hard to plan for rain when it rains so infrequently.

Like Byxbee, the elements introduced are small in quantity but executed with repetition, fluidity and grace.  Gabions, berms, seatwalls and stairs undulate and ebb.  The park is tremendously long and best navigated with a bicycle.  Away from the downtown city core, the park is wild- the riparian corridor is truly riparian, slightly overgrown and chaotic.  But as you navigate the park from the outskirts into downtown, Hargreaves designed an incredible metamorphosis- the upswelling of the architecture is mimicked by the grandeur of the landscape.  When you finally arrive in the center of the city, freeways spring up around the park, entombing it with a grandeur like that of a cathedral- the gabions sway and flow and direct, the river now enters a more constructed urban channel.  It is a landscape as layered as it is long.

The greatest merit of the park, like Byxbee, is the restraint.  The absence of overkill.  This landscape was designed to change both with seasonal fluctuation and through the decades, and as the edges have blurred and vegetation filled in, its original understated effects disappear and nature is just doing its thang.  There was room left for surprises- note the two banks of reddish grass surrounding the river- and these unplanned spurts coalesce elegantly with the constructed elements.  I appreciate simplicity, and these design gestures, though bold and large, are devoid of pettiness.

And here is a short video I shot of the river with the roar of the freeway.  Interesting how pastoral it still seems.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Shoreline Park. Oakland, California.

Designing and constructing a public park is an enormously complex undertaking.  Shoreline Park in Oakland, California, is one type of fruit that falls from these trees of bureaucratic messiness.

The backstory: This park was paid for by the Port of Oakland, initially operated by the East Bay Municipal and Utility Department, but at the end of 2010 the maintenance was turned back over to the Port of Oakland for financial reasons.  And now that I've acknowledged these design destroying entanglements,  I will now proceed to judge the crap out of it.

There are aspects of this park that are deftly executed and thoughtful, and others that "hurt me."  

Incorporating the history of a site into its future design is oftentimes totally ugh, and this site is no exception, as it spews historical significance.  Native peoples once hunted here (check), a train ran through here (check), people worked here (check), boats came here (check), wetlands were destroyed here (check) and so on and so forth.

It is situated in one of the most breathtaking notches in the San Francisco bay coastline.  Port cranes border it on one side, it backs up to a container yard, and it peers into the guts of the Bay Bridge.  Despite all this present-day bodaciousness, the park's designers curiously decided to embrace the past rather than the infrastructural magnificence that now surrounds it.  The views and location were simply freebies.  But the design of the park dwells on its history as a WWII supply depot and the fact it was once the end of the cross continental railroad- and does so through tired and trivial landscape features.  Old ship bollards serve as points along a path, a structural vestige (which as an object, is magnificent) of previous buildings are now the site for picnics, etc.  

This landscape fundamentally disappoints at levels macro and micro.  Macro: there is just way too much fucking grass, which is curious, because besides the grass, most of the plant material selection was  thoughtful, coastal, and native.  These disparate ideologies are self-contradicting and upset me.  Pick a side, and stick with it.  The salt in the wound is that all of this grass is now completely covered in excrement from Canadian Geese, so even if someone wanted to partake in a sportingly activity, they wouldn't, because they'd get poopy shoes.  In trying to appease the ability of the park to be both ecologically sensitive and a place for sports, the design lost its identity and its ability to actually communicate with the user.  

Micro: the construction details just aren't there.  The benches are store bought and look exactly so.  Though I'm sure a whipping coastal wind is an issue here, it wasn't considered with enough diligence and entire tree rows are crooked in the same direction.  On planted berms some species have thrived and others have perished completely, leaving bald patches scattered throughout.  And the informational  kiosks are completely empty, a free metaphor that I'll grab on and use as a symbol of this park's deep down emptiness.  There is nothing new to learn here.


Where the park succeeds and pleases is in the wetlands, which appear from the few times I've visited, to be thriving.  They melt with the sunset as only wetlands can do, and appear to be home to countless bird species from my pedestrian birding eyes.  And the scale, the size of land given to make the park- whoever fought for this deserves a hearty slap on the back.  Its bigness and extreme horizontality provide a formidable plateau upon which to gaze out.  A horizon line this wide in the East Bay is few and far between, and it is simply delicious. 

"What about the port?" you cry, dear reader?  I know, I know, it's a shame.  The plan literally turns its back to it- the one vehicular road in the park bisects the connection between the park and the container yard, severing it like an untrained surgeon.  To observe the container ships arrive and watch the cranes unload them is truly a grand spectacle, undoubtedly impressive to adults and children alike.  The simple and profound pleasure of observation is an afterthought in the design.  If only this park had layered the ecological and shipping infrastructures as it could have, it might have become the sublime hallucination of a landscape that it only hints at as it stands now.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Albany Hill Park

Albany Hill Park is an interesting foil to the Albany Bulb.  Unlike the Bulb, which is an emergent, non-defined space that exists because people have never really dictated what it is or isn't,  Albany Hill Park exists because everyone, plus their mothers, seems to have an opinion about it.  It is perpetually stuck in a mindless bureaucratic purgatory, it has both a Yelp and Wikipedia page, and it is completely covered with fucking eucalyptus.

When driving in the East Bay the park is a striking point of visual relief.  Out of nowhere a hulking green hill protrudes from suburbia, dominating the skyline.

The interior is mildly spooky.  The Eucalyptus creak and sigh like old floorboards.  I have been twice and it has been virtually empty both visits, despite the fact that it is surrounded by a residential area.
Besides a few benches and a renegade swing, it is non-designed and non-maintained.  Paths are desire lines and informal.

It turns out that everyone has plans for this land, build more apartments, build a better park, tear out the Eucalyptus, make money- change it, improve it.  And that's the precise reason why it hasn't changed in years nor likely will in the future.  Too many meetings, too many approvals, people screaming "Nimby," etcetera.  And so it stays just like it is, a giant green mascot of the shortcomings of bureaucracy.  If Kafka were alive, this is where he would hang out.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Landscapes Change

Time makes landscape, and landscape makes time. Trees grow, water moves, rocks roll, program changes, and on and on and on. In landscape architecture, time is a permanent consideration and the great equalizer. To work outside its shadow is to labor under a misapprehension.

In the United States it is quite rare to find an older designed landscape with the original vision still intact. This is tragedy and truth- our maintenance skills are poor, our tastes or notions of a successful landscape are fickle and we too often prefer to bulldoze and build something completely new rather than to take on the challenge of refurbishing or improving an existing landscape.

It is for all these reasons that Alvarado Park, in Richmond, California, completely blows me away. First laid out it in the 1940s, it has aged with both grace and scrapiness. It contains both a sense of adventure and humor (the Egyptian theme), and provides a lovely level of danger that children have undoubtedly reveled in for decades. From it's inception to the present day it was never over-programmed, rather, it is simply a quirky, magical-real place that allows its users to choose how they want to use the park rather than impose that upon them.

Alvarado Park was designed with growth and nature in mind, and the simple fact that it has persevered for all these years is symbolic of the fact that such considerations have served it well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hay Bales

Arata's Farm designs a new straw labyrinth every year from tens of thousands of hay bales, and for a small fee, passersby can get lost in an absolutely insane maze. The scale is tremendous. I've been blabbing a lot about hay bales recently-as informal parterres, garden seating, mulch, oh, and horse food (I guess) they get a big thumbs up.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Graffiti Cactus

A cactus in Hawaii which had been tagged. The plant scars white-ish after the initial wound, and makes for a rather nice writing template. It makes both sad and happy. Not sure how I feel about it at the end of the day.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Albany Bulb

The Albany Bulb is a former landfill and a park.  It is near my house, and over the past several years I have gone there many times, largely because it is a compelling, gorgeous, and troublesome landscape, and a charming place for a walk with a dog or a friend.

One of the more interesting conundrums that landscape architecture is forced to reckon with is the simple fact that quite often, non-designed landscapes are often more beautiful and functional their constructed brethren.  The Albany Bulb is a stalwart example of this phenomenon.  It functions as a park, a landfill, a home for the homeless, a wetland, and as a place where plants, both native and non, spar and thrive happily.

The Bulb is as close to an anarchist landscape as I have every come.  It is self-policed, non-maintained, self-perpetuating, and visually and ecologically post-apocalyptic.  It is a hyphen.

It is a landscape that tests what you expect of a park and questions the essence of both beauty and recreation. By bringing together elements that are normally not, it challenges you, psychologically, but also physically, because there are about a million ways you could injure yourself here.

When the tide is low enough, you can just barely navigate across a mostly submerged jetty of rocks.  HOW FUN!

Burner art, flowering meadows, rebar, riprap, the roar of the ocean, and a whipping coastal breeze.  Bring your bong.

Friday, April 30, 2010

PLANT BASTARD: Fallopia japonica

So here's another plant bastard. This one's a real fucker. Fallopia japonica, or Japanese knotweed, is native to Japan, China, and Korea. It is extremely invasive and has been found thriving throughout North America and Europe. It is currently found in 39 of the 50 states in the U.S.

Take a good look at this guy. This bastard is on the World Conservation Union's list of 100 worst invasive species. It looks somewhat like bamboo, but is not related. It is extremely resilient, tolerating temperatures as low as -31°F. Its roots can spread to a radius of approximately 25' around the center of the plant and extend 10 feet deep into the soil. Unless all roots are completely removed Fallopia will continue to resprout.

The real reason Japanese knotweed deserves the title 'PLANT BASTARD' is because it destroys the foundations of buildings. If one bit of the root of the Fallopia plant is left underneath a new development, it can slowly grow and eat through the concrete of the new buildings. A £2 million housing development in England was recently halted due to the discovery of Fallopia. They are currently uprooting the plant and hauling it off in sealed containers to ensure no new seeds are left on the site.

Japanese knotweed has spread widely throughout the United Kingdom, where over £150 million are spent annually to keep this weed under control. It is such a bastard that there are businesses that exist solely to eradicate its presence. Japanese Knotweed Control is a British company that uses herbicide stem injections (technology from an American company in Washington) to destroy the Fallopia that grows throughout several of the royal parks of London. The process takes nine months to take full effect, but it is extremely more cost-effective than excavation, which was the former solution to Japanese knotweed infestation.

Interestingly enough, Japanese knotweed is also edible. So if you happen to find some of it in your garden, carefully dig out every single root, taking delight while ripping it to shreds and then take some of the shoots and make cake, wine, sherbet or eat it boiled with dashi and sake! Relish in this bastard's demise.