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A Town of Details: Prague, Czech Republic

Posted by Sam Valentine on November 27, 2017 at 9:10 PM Comments comments (2)


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 (5)



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.

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 (2)


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

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




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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

 

 


Arborsculpture

Posted by Sam Valentine on September 30, 2016 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

 


Image: Wes Hanson

 

My previous posts have covered trees that look like sculpture, sculptures that look like trees, and sculpture woven from twigs and branches. Somehow I seem to have danced around a the clearest overlap: sculpture made from living, breathing trees.

 

Beginning in 1925, a Swedish-American farmer by the name of Axel Erlandson began a project at his California home. His "tree shaping" all started as a hobby, but by 1947 he had trained a veritable freak show of trees. Calling his project "The Tree Circus," Erlandson attracted local visitors and national publicity by growing trees into surprising forms.

 


Images: Axel & Wilma Erlandson and Wes Hanson

 

Tree shaping, a close relative of "pleaching," was by no means invented by Erlandson, but it is he who exposed generations of Americans to the sculptural, acrobatic forms that average trees can be forced into. With archways, basketweaves, picture frames, and what seem like extraterrestrial forms, Erlandson blurred the lines of classic gardens, creating works that were both plant and architectural folly.

 


Images: Wes Hanson

 

Some of Erlandson's sculptured trees still exist today. Thirty years ago, the pieces were moved -- or, more accurately, transplanted -- to form the central attraction at Gilroy Gardens an amusement park near San Jose, California.

 


Images: Peter Cook and Becky Northey

 

If not the works of Erlandson himself, the concept of tree shaping has influenced artists to create interesting works over the last few years. Both artists and furniture builders are employing methods similar to Erlandson's. Pooktre Tree Shapers uses a "gradual shaping method" to grow trees into predetermined sculptural forms. Another operation is using tree-shaping methods to make unique, sustainable furniture; formed like concrete or plastic but made of wood. Growing young saplings over mold-like forms means no toxic glues or binders are necessary, just pruning, training, and a massive amount of patience. Photos of their operation depict an outdoor, organic, but somehow still industrial chair factory.



Images: Full Grown

 

One artist, Richard Reames, may have found the best word for what he creates: "arborsculpture." If you are considering experimenting with this art in your own landscape, Reames warns that using the "artistic medium of a living tree" has "taught me even more about patience and acceptance than grafting and pruning."

 


Image: Heinz-Peter Bader

 

 

 


Holding It Together

Posted by Sam Valentine on July 31, 2016 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (0)

 


Images: Ken Dodds, Hoot Nonny, and Frank Vincentz

 

They can be found in a diversity of shapes and sizes. They are a familiar piece of American Southern vernacular, and yet there seems to be no consensus on what exactly to call them: wall washer, star anchor, stress washer, anchor plate, and Charleston bolt are a few of the many names that one might hear.

 


Image: The Post and Courier Archives

 

While most would file these iron bits under "rustic decor," there is a noteworthy functional difference between a "star anchor" and a purely ornamental "barn star". These anchors have been used for centuries as a means to reinforce buildings around the world against settlement and collapse, but they burst into popularity in the American Southeast 130 years ago when Charleston, South Carolina was struck with a devastating earthquake. Reading descriptions of the 1886 earthquake, a geologically rare but particularly damaging event, is truly shocking, but it explains why these "earthquake bolts" are so commonly seen along Charleston's historic streets today.



Images: Paige Henderson, Marie Beschen, Grover Schrayer, and Ken Dodds


Both authentic anchors and replicas are ubiquitous in Southern antique shops and in the online marketplace, and working these into your garden can inject a bit of borrowed character. If your garden calls for something more unique than the generic star pattern, architectural historians have catalogued a range of Charleston bolts from which to draw inspiration.


Image: R. G. Lubischer

 


Pulling Strings

Posted by Sam Valentine on June 28, 2016 at 9:15 PM Comments comments (3)

 


Image: Andrew Magill

 

A taut line of string is something of a rare find in the designed landscape. Neither stone nor steel, plant nor paver, and wood nor water, string has material implications of fragility, impermanence, and tension.

 

In gardening and landscape construction, string and wire often serve a supporting role, but they are often kept backstage, intentionally concealed from view. Gardener's twine makes espaliers possible and trains everything from tomato plants to young trees. Mason's string guides the building of straight walls and is critical in laying out paths, concrete forms, and other hardscape elements.

 


Images: Monaghan Inc., Alan Buckingham, and Sparkle Motion

 

When strings get really interesting, though, is when they are put brightly on display. Perhaps the most commonplace instance of ornate string in a garden is the woven hammock. Popularized, if not invented, by ancient South and Central American cultures, hammocks become works of art when a web of colorful cords come together to suspend a resting body above the garden floor.

 


Images: Anna Ban, Lee Tishman, and Li Tsin Soon

 

Around the world, artists and designers have followed this thread on a larger scale, stringing their work significantly higher in a way that defines and redefines outdoor spaces.

 


Images: Elizabeth Graf and M. G. Stanton

 

Last year in Boston, the city's newest park system was treated to a months-long string installation by artist Janet Echelman. Tethered between skyscrapers, "As If It Were Already Here," became a colorful landmark, changing color with time of day and weather.

 

 


Images: John Hill/World Architects

 


This year, a young team of architects pulled fluorescent cords across a largely bare courtyard at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa PS1) in New York City. Following the project's name, "Weaving the Courtyard," a young architecture studio brings the courtyard walls together with colorful lines that also serve to establish a ceiling for the space.



Images: Sam Valentine

 

During a visit to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico a few years ago, I approached the Galeria Nacional, an art museum housed in a stately but staid old monastery. Entering the central courtyard, I was surprised to walk right into an art installation. Using just string and cloth, artists Doel Fresse and Vladimir García powerfully and vividly redefined a 16th century building, and created this strong new character without any permanent alteration of the building.

 


Image: Sam Valentine

 

 

 


A Composition of Curves

Posted by Sam Valentine on April 28, 2016 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (1)

 


Image: Nicolas Mirguet


For those reading this who walk the woods, you know the surprise of coming across a curved tree in the landscape.

 

Often a lone bent tree standing in a forest of straight trunks, it is something of a freakshow quality that draws the eye to the crooked, swooping form, but the composition is anything but unpleasant. The forces causing these dramatic bends can vary. Decades back, soils may have shifted or eroded, requiring the trunk to reorient from a tilted root base. Or perhaps another nearby tree, keeling over from natural decline or a sudden storm may have pinned down this tree in its younger years, requiring it to grow around and up. Or, as is often the case, the tree's natural growth pattern may have been disturbed by a meddlesome human visitor early in its life. In all cases though, as the tree recovers, readjusts its aim, and reaches straight for the sunlight above, the trunk traces an elegant curve.

 


Image: Kilian Schönberger

 

Not too unlike finding a tree in the forest, I recently stumbled upon a unique series of photographs. In a small stretch of forest in western Poland, one photographer, Kilian Schönberger, has captured an entire regiment of bent trees.

 


Image: Kilian Schönberger

 

The pines all bend in the same northern orientation and are roughly the same age. Theories abound as to how exactly this stand of curved trees came to be, but there is no consensus. A reasonable explanation suggests the cause for the arcs was lumber production for ship building, but other hypotheses include freak snowstorms, the scars of World War II, and of course, aliens.

 


Image: Kilian Schönberger

 

There is something poetic about the forms captured in each of Schönberger's photos. The compelling perspectives he used and the layered shroud of fog certainly helps, but what is more revealing to me is seeing a whole forest of curves, rather than one isolated specimen.

 

Like all crooked trees, these pictured appear as living question marks. While the curved trunk lingers as mysterious evidence, the storm has long blown over; the fallen tree has rotted back into the earth; the hiker or logger has long trudged away. We are left with a compelling, sinuous expression of overcoming an obstacle, reminiscent of meandering rivers or the path of one's life.

 


Image: Kilian Schönberger