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Ville de Lumière / Ville de l'Ombre

Posted by Sam Valentine on January 28, 2018 at 6:45 PM

Even before leaving the airport, a visitor gets a sense that something is up in Paris. A portion of it -- surely -- is that you have just arrived in a famed city among throngs of people who have come see if "Grand Paris" lives up to its reputation.

Image: Sam Jacob

Paris is affectionately called the "City of Light" (Ville de Lumière), and the nickname relates, in part, the metropolis' public-realm lighting, beginning in the mid-19th century and becoming only more dramatic as modern, electric lighting replaced gas lamps. Without effort, people around the world can call to mind the glowing Louvre Pyramid and a sparkling Eiffel Tower that projects lighthouse beams across the night sky. During my visit in June, I even encountered luster in surprising places, like a polished stainless-steel bench in broad daylight.

Images: Cyril Couture and Sam Jacob

So sure, light is a big part of what makes it Paris, but something else comes into focus as visitors walk its streets, its gardens, its parks, and its cemeteries: shadow also gives the city its strong character.

Images: Sam Valentine, Susan Sermoneta, and Adam Saul

It is the dark shroud beneath the city allées that makes penetrating dapples of sunlight something noteworthy. The long silhouettes that stretch across cobbles and stonedust turn simple pedestrians into photogenic compositions.

Images: Sam Jacob and Becky Lai

It is no secret that shadows on a building face are what grants architectural relief and contrast; without the disagreements between light and shadow, ornamentation cannot be read. During morning and late-afternoon, though, I was struck by the dark sides of Parisian buildings, appearing strikingly against a bright sky.

Images: Praer and Sam Valentine

In the visitor's plaza beneath the Eiffel Tower, there is an entire atmosphere of shadow. At many times of the day, you can find yourself walking across a dark lattice, projected down from the iron framing above. Looking skyward heightens a visitor's awareness of the intricate ironwork, standing as an inky lace against the blue backdrop.

Image: Sam Jacob

Second Glances in Budapest

Posted by Sam Valentine on December 30, 2017 at 4:45 PM

It may already be obvious to the reader that I have an admiration for works of art and landscape that are deceptively simple or, sometimes, simply deceptive.

Image: Maria Eu

In Budapest, Hungary, one of the city's most recognizable structures, Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd), was built at the end of the 19th century as a link between the towns of Buda and Pest. Today, as a visitor walks along the Danube River, the bridge beckons with its striking composition of elegance and muscle, in equal parts. Like the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges in New York City, the swooping sinew of Liberty Bridge promises chain- or cable-suspension, but when one gets up close, crossing by streetcar or shoe, the structure is all rivets and iron plates.

Image: Patricia Barden and Peter Velthoen

The deceiving nature of Liberty Bridge serves as an allegory of the Budapest I encountered while visiting for a few days last summer. The city calls you to take a closer look at its design and detailing, and what you find is a rewarding revelation. About two miles north of the Bridge, a very different place is also best understood at second glance.


Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Wrapping the eastern face of the Hungarian Parliament Building, Kossuth Lajos tér is an expansive public garden square. Having been recently renovated from an unceremonious parking lot, Kossuth Square is spacious, finely detailed, and invites celebration and even play.

Images: Sam Valentine and Sam Jacob

Robust granite walls and plaza paving establish an environment of clean, modern lines and enframe generous lawn and garden beds. Wood-capped walls provide visual warmth and comfortable seating. On central axis with the Parliament, misting jets and an infinity-edged reflecting pool activate the plaza and encourage participation.

Image: Sam Valentine

What you see only on the second glance, though, is a medley of security and counterterrorism measures. Observing rows of bollards, continuous planter and seating walls, and the change in elevation of the infinity-edge fountain, the collage of a security perimeter starts to take shape. (Unsurprisingly, I was not able to find advertisement of this protective design online.)

Kossuth Lajos tér's creative design approach can and should be carried onto all sites: public and private, large and small. On any project, a designer should ask whether a fence could be more (or less) than a fence. Utilitarian purposes can be revealed under more thorough inspection, but at first glance a landscape should be about what matters most - the people who use it.

Image: Sam Jacob

A Town of Details: Prague, Czech Republic

Posted by Sam Valentine on November 27, 2017 at 9:10 PM

Image: Sam Jacob


When speaking to a person who has visited this Bohemian capital, the name "Prague" is often said with a knowing inflection. Sometimes this change of pitch is misinterpreted as snobbery or arrogance toward those who have not been, and sometimes that is exactly what it is. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Prague, I carried high expectations along with my luggage.

Prague is renowned for a vibrant arts scene, its progressive culture, and a well-preserved collection of centuries-old buildings and streets. In just an hour of walking the city, I felt these promises had been met, but there was more to the story.

Images: Sam Valentine and Sam Jacob

Most of my visit was spent in "Old Town" and the still respectably ancient "New Town." In my first few steps, I found myself hypnotized by something as unassuming as a security gate. With dynamic geometry reminiscent of a wind spinner, the wrought-iron gates into the Franciscan Gardens dramatically change perspective as one walks between them. The next day, outside St. Vitus Cathedral, I looked underfoot and found that a utilitarian cast-iron drain had been crafted as a piece of modern art.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Tilting one's eyes a bit higher, a tourist will find Prague's architecture exactly as advertized. Picturesque stone bridges stitch the city together across the banks of the Vitava River. Ornate churches, soaring towers, and even "dancing" modern works line the city streets.

Images: Sam Valentine and Sam Jacob

By the end of my second day, my sneaking sense had firmed up into something more concrete. Patterned cobbles, carved stonework, manicured parklands: nearly every inch of the Prague cityscape has been painstakingly considered. Perhaps this "Old World" craftsmanship is more pronounced to the eyes of an American, in whose homeland asphalt, sheet-metal paneling, and plywood all too often reigns.

Images: Sam Jacob

To me, Prague creates an illusion that the city was "finished" being built hundreds of years back, and that the time since has been spent merely fine-tuning and perfecting the composition. Viewing Prague, both up close and from grand vistas, reveals a city that is not fussy but has been fussed over.

Image: Sam Valentine

Blended Details in Granada, Spain

Posted by Sam Valentine on November 1, 2017 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (1)

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Studying built environments outside the United States reveals differences not only in architectural styles but also in cultural expectations.

In my previous post I described the Alhambra, a hilltop fortress situated over the historic city of Granada, Spain. Given the city's past, finding buildings, streets, and plazas rich with historical character was anything but a surprise.

Images: Sam Valentine

As I walked through the gardens and open spaces of Granada, however, I did not expect to find such proud strokes of modernity. Only a mile from the Alhambra, Forum Plaza abstracts the Sierra Nevada mountains in sharp, contemporary weathering steel.

Images: Sam Jacob

A few blocks closer to the city center, tucked behind the Parque de las Ciencias, similar angular forms soften themselves into a park-like setting. Here, under a welcome canopy of shade trees, slices of plate steel form short retaining walls and the edging for lush beds of planting. The color palette of the Parque is decisively streamlined: the rich greens of the foliage play nicely against the silver-grays of the birch bark, metallic edging, and concrete.

Back at the heart of Granada, twin runnels flank the central promenade of the Jardines de Triunfo. Flowing quietly in the shadow of a dominating display of fountain jets and waterfalls, these tilted water basins are by no means the headliner, but the patterning on their floors -- crisp, geometric, and modern -- speak volumes about the culture of Granada.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

What I observed in Granada exemplifies what can be seen with relative consistency in developed nations beyond the borders of the United States. In two public parks only a thousand feet apart, stand two very different metal fences. One dates back at least a century, the other is less than a decade old, and their styles are anything but congruent.

Images: Sam Jacob and Sam Valentine

Granada celebrates and preserves its medieval Moorish palaces as a testament to its historical lineage, but it is not afraid to plant its other foot in the future. As with many cities in Europe, the city unabashedly exerts its modern architectural might right alongside its heritage buildings and landscapes.

Water from the Rock: Visiting the Alhambra

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 1, 2017 at 9:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Image: Salvador Fornell

Crouched atop a foothill of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Alhambra is many things at once: a castle, a palace, a fortified city, a museum, and a complex of gardens. Gazing upon the Alhambra's red-orange brick walls and stone ledges from an adjacent hilltop, the masonry emanates power, robustness, and beauty.

Image: Joaquín López Cruce

When a visitor breaches the Alhambra's tall, opaque perimeter walls, however, a different world is revealed. The sprawling gardens vibrate with life, movement, and verdancy. This world is powered and nourished by water.

Image: Working to Travel

From hundreds of spouts, the Alhambra's water jets bring action and excitement to the landscape. Arrayed in even staccato along linear pools, introverted around circular basins, and sometimes sited singly, jets of water arc through the Alhambra air, glimmering in the sun's rays and splashing pleasant sounds through the landscape.

Images: Adam Gimpert and Sam Valentine

At a visitor's feet, water flows within and across the dozen garden rooms in a deceptively simple network of runnels and rills.

Images: Sam Valentine

At moments, water is allowed to collect in large, still reflecting pools. The half-dozen of these mirror-smooth basins borrow sky into the Alhambra's courtyards and lay a calming atmosphere over the people (and animals) who occupy the spaces.

Images: Apostolis Giontzis and Sam Valentine

Perhaps most importantly, water supports life at the Alhambra. The jets, channels, and pools certainly add a layer of beauty to the majestic architectural complex, but the Alhambra's founders secured a generous supply of water for more than just aesthetic reasons. The hydraulic system is vast, and the landscape water features are just the visible components of a network implemented to irrigate vegetable gardens and fruit trees and supply buildings with fresh water.

Images: Sam Valentine

Here, atop an otherwise parched hilltop, millions of gallons of water bring life, elegance, and artistry to the Alhambra. From the top to the bottom of the complex, the same single drop of water cycles through many different personalities, but the landscape is much more than a scattered assortment of hydraulic moments. By walking alongside the water features, a visitor finds a carefully sequenced narrative of water features.


Image: Steve McFarland

Through the Billowing Bench

Posted by Sam Valentine on August 12, 2017 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (1)

Image: Bing Maps

Parque Güell in Barcelona, Spain is a landscape like none other I've experienced. It is a challenge to describe this Antoni Gaudí  landscape in just a few words, but if you imagine a less-monetized and more-lithic Disneyland, you will be on the right track. Grown from boulders, cobbles, stone slabs, tile shards, and grout, the Park is a fantasyland of brave forms and inventive details.

One of those details in particular, the continuous, curvilinear bench that wraps around the Teatro Griego (Greek Theater), has stuck with me since my visit earlier this summer.

Images: Charlene Lobo Soriano and Sam Valentine

From a hundred yards away the bench is already distinct. Its serpentine form encloses the 30,000 square-feet of open stonedust plaza and its colorful mosaic surface enframes the sloping view of Barcelona below. The mosaic pattern of the benchwall is informal, vibrant, bedazzled, and would be quite jarring if transplanted into almost any other landscape. It is not the surface decoration but the furniture's clever form that drew me in and got me thinking.

Images: Jake Bellucci and Liz Castro

The bench seat abuts a shoulder-height backrest wall, which -- despite its swoops and curves -- provides a continuous protective barrier against falling to a lower level of the landscape. The surface of the seat pitches gently to this backrest and provides for relatively cool and comfortable seating.

Image: Sam Valentine

Parque Güell is a generally strange landscape, but I found the trilobite-sized white bumps especially puzzling. Squatting down to bring them to eye level, a story of rainwater quickly opened up. The entire tiled seat slab, at least 700 feet in length, serves as a collection pan for stormwater. The bumps serve as guards, apparently to keep visitors and their clothing out of what must be a running stream of rainwater, and the backrest is perforated with weepholes that outlet the water to a gutter on the other side of the parapet.

Image: Sam Valentine

It is rare to wish for rain during a landscape visit, but with the system dry as a bone the day I toured the Park, it was necessary to fill in the blanks with a touch of imagination. Fortunately, the narrative of rainwater moving across and through the billowing bench is expressed clearly in slopes, channels, holes, gutters, and, finally, gargoyles.

Image: Elias Rovielo 

Tea with a View

Posted by Sam Valentine on July 17, 2017 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Elena Svirya

Having landed in Morocco a few hours prior, my friend and I pushed through the bustling market streets of Tangier to find a good sunset perch. Our trek took us up and over hills, twisting through the ancient medina and past a few modern plazas. We had been tipped off to make a stop at the famed Café Hafa, and as we neared that pin on our map, we could feel an urban energy building.

People were descending in droves, arriving by foot, bicycle, and motorcycle on the oceanfront café that -- except for a quick read of a travel article -- we knew nothing about.

Images: Ruben Mediavilla Blanco, Bolbo Laan, and Alessandro Rumi

Entering between stuccoed walls, Café Hafa spilled down before us from the city towards the sea. As we soon realized, we were arriving at one of Tangier's best sunset-viewing venues, and doing so during Ramadan, when the day's fast is broken with the sinking of the sun. Suffice it to say we were not alone.

Café Hafa is situated on a precipice over 200 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. From this overlook, one peers out over the Strait of Gibraltar, and Spain seems so close one could (almost) imagine swimming to it. So close that it is easy to forget you are on African shores.

Image: Sam Valentine

The Café is more landscape than building. The interior shops are scattered and ancillary, places not so much to sit as to order and make payment. Meanwhile, the white-stuccoed terraces, narrow strips of masonry hugging the hillside, dominate the environmental experience. The construction is makeshift and the details quite crude. The stair tread widths and riser heights are each singular and unpredictable. The compartmentalizing walls are quite literally cobbled together. Overall the aesthetic is more ratty than refined, but somehow there is a dignified and durable undercurrent.

Each terrace is screened from the next, buffered by robust plantings of geraniums and seaside succulents. These plant masses create semi-private pockets for socializing, but they also frame views out over the Strait.

Images: Till Jacket and Xuoan Duquesne

It is rare for an American to see the sun setting over the Atlantic but arguably rarer for one to see an unpolished landscape in such high demand. As the sun sank, the Café endured as a vibrant social scene, with every chair occupied and a strong sense that the guests would linger well after their stomachs were full.

Image: Toni Pamuk

Enclosure in the Landscape

Posted by Sam Valentine on May 18, 2017 at 9:50 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Tim Green

In my last post, I described how visual massing, especially that created primarily from plant material, can enframe landscape views. The same trees, shrubs, grasses, and vines used for enframement of landscape vistas can be used to shape the edges one perceives in an exterior space.

Much in the way that drywall, wood, and metal define the edges of an interior room, plant material of varying heights and densities is commonly used to limit, or enclose, one's surroundings in the landscape.


Image: Jojo Vriens

In its most basic sense, enclosure is achieved by the implementation of one or more walls. Think of the various forms that a hedge can take on; aligning shrubs and trees into a hedgerow, a screening hedge, an aerial hedge, or a windbreak creates a plant "wall" that obstructs visibility and limits passage. By planting a hedge, a landscape designer is actually delineating a small piece of the earth's surface, enclosing a finite amount of land as "in" and marking the rest as "out."

Images: Micolo J., James De Tuerk, and Putney Design

When the same single hedge is grouped with others or planted in an encircling curve, a designer can create a landscape corridor or an outdoor room.

Images: Phil Pickin and James DeTuerk

Like any respectable composition, an outdoor room is created through exerting control. A successful outdoor room can create a sense of privacy, security, and intimacy. Enclosing walls can not only block undesirable views but can also allow a central feature such as a fountain or seating area to be emphasized. One landscape that stands out from my travels as an especially effective and tranquil outdoor room, is the Ellipse at Dumbarton Oaks. A lawn and central water feature is encircled by seventy-six hornbeams.


Image: Jidan Chaomian 

Enframement in the Landscape

Posted by Sam Valentine on December 1, 2016 at 8:45 PM Comments comments (1)

Note: My next two posts will explore how "enframement" and "enclosure" are achieved in the landscape, with a focus on plant massing.

Image: Sam Valentine


Plants -- like all matter in the universe -- have mass. While mass means one thing to chemists and physicists, there is another type of mass that landscape architects and garden designers rely upon: "visual mass."

Visual mass, which can be created from wood, stone, metal, or -- often -- living plants, is one of the most important tools in a site designer's toolbox. It is through the perceived mass of trees, shrubs, grasses, and vines that a garden takes shape.

Image: Henry Vincent Hubbard, An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design and Bob Radlinski


To varying degrees of effectiveness, all plants can be used to enframe landscape views. Solid, opaque tree trunks can provide a vertical edge to a picturesque view. Lighter, billowy leaves and branches can form the top of a framed view as shrubs or tall grasses can make up the bottom.


Image: Humphry Repton


By selectively revealing pieces of a landscape and masking others from sight, a designer controls the composition. Modifying plant massing can provide visual balance to a scene and it also allows the designer to highlight key thematic features. Some of the clearest demonstrations of this idea of the controlled view is seen in the visuals of Humphry Repton.



Image: Humphry Repton


Humphry Repton was a British landscape designer who was masterfully framing landscape views over 200 years ago. He presented his designs to clients in signature packages he called "Red Books," and included within them ingenious overlay paintings. The overlays, a fine-art equivalent of "before and after" shots, documented an existing landscape condition and allowed the client to flip a panel to reveal the proposed composition.

Images: Humphry Repton


Enframing with plant material can be as simple as the addition of a new shrub or two, but in some cases, controlling a view can require much bolder design moves, including the removal of mature trees or regrading of the landscape. For the right view though, even extreme measures are worth it.


Image: Bob Radlinski







Just a Dash of Color

Posted by Sam Valentine on October 29, 2016 at 10:35 AM Comments comments (0)


Image: Sam Valentine


In my recent travels, I had the opportunity to tour El Jardín Japones, a Japanese-themed garden park in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was remarkable to observe one foreign country's distinct style transplanted into the center of another far off land. Coming from the United States, I certainly did not expect to find Asian gardening in South America.


However, as I strolled the Jardín's dozen acres, what stood out far more than the cultural juxtaposition was a special visual effect: the powerful and judicious use of the color red.


Images: Richard Lemmer, Nancy Waldman, and Miranda Jan


After my visit, just a bit of research suggests that red lacquer is actually more of a Chinese signature than a Japanese one, but that does nothing to undermine the striking visual experience I observed. The bold choice to cover the Jardín's bridges and gateways with bright-red paint results in dramatic vistas across the lawns, ponds, and rock gardens. The painted structures "pop" against a backdrop of shrubs, trees, and city skyline.


Across cultures, the color red has unique social and psychological associations. Red sports cars, red lipstick, red sunsets, and red stop signs undeniably demand human attention. Lurking behind these cultural meanings there is an array of scientific explanations for red's prominence.


Images: Turenscape Landscape Architecture


The photos posted above show examples of the color red used in both historic and contemporary landscapes far from the single park I visited in Argentina. In the landscape, red stands out even more dramatically than it does on a city street or a paper page. An autumnal maple leaf, a glowing holly drupe, or a lacquered "torii" each reads in strong contrast to the shadowy greens and browns of a garden. The result is even more painterly when that landscape is covered in a fresh blanket of white snow.


As in all types of composition, the design of landscapes calls for the artist to use his or her tools judiciously. Red is only so effectual in El Jardín Japones because it is applied sparingly, precisely, and strategically.


Images: El Bitio and Duncan Harris


While an unbroken red field of blooming poppies is certainly a sight to see, the view lacks the dynamic force of a few lone poppy blooms standing starkly against a green field.

Image: Peter Kurdulija