Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Google has just produced a ‘heatmap‘ of the places people most like to visit. It’s a fascinating if not entirely reliable snapshot of the world’s most popular sites, based on the number of images posted on the photo-sharing website Panoramio.

Google sightsmap

Screenshot of Google Sightsmap from http://www.sightsmap.com/

The most popular place in the most popular city is perhaps surprisingly the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Nearby, Olmsted’s great Bethesda Terrace, the heart of Central Park, does pretty creditably as New York’s 5th most photographed site.

The most photographed place in Paris? Depressingly, it seems to be the super-touristy red windmill of the Moulin Rouge (original home of the can-can), followed by the nearby marble confectionery of the Sacré Coeur basilica. The great Paris parks (the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg) limp in at number 52 and 31 respectively. More encouragingly, the palace of Versailles is more photographed than Disneyland Paris (although not by much).

Of course such a map raises all sorts of issues. How far are the users of Panoramio representative of the public more widely? What makes us take a photo of one place but not another? Does posting a photograph of a site necessarily mean it’s somewhere we liked visiting? I can’t believe, for instance, that the tourist bedlam of Piccadilly Circus is really visitors’ favourite memory of London, even if it is the place more of them photograph than any other.

Despite these questions, the Google Sightsmap is an interesting new perspective on how we see and value the world, and well worth a look. I am cheered to see Google putting some of its mass of data to use in novel ways – I’ve written previously about its Ngram viewer, which plots how words and phrases trend over time, and which continues to be refined – and I look forward to more such developments.

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Joseph Allen Stein was a twentieth century American architect who spent much of his professional life in India. I have written before about his work at the India Habitat Centre, a late example of his blend of modernism and environmental care.

Stein argued that “reverence” guided the work of architects in previous centuries as they created “profoundly right structures, often on sites of great natural beauty” and that around the world “there are abundant examples of architecture enhancing nature.” In the face of twentieth century population pressures and mass industrialised production, he saw the role of architects as needing consciously to “seek not to spoil the earth.”

Today I joined a tour of one of his earliest buildings in New Delhi, and one of the few private houses that he designed.

Plan by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

Plan of High Commissioner’s Residence, New Delhi by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

The Australian High Commissioner’s Residence was built in the late 1950s in the Chanakyapuri district of New Delhi. It was one of a series of grand residences laid out for India’s burgeoning diplomatic community in the years following Independence. Unlike most countries, Australia chose an architect who was permanently based in India to design a home for its head of mission, and the wisdom of that choice is clear in the resulting building.

Stein’s design is beautifully simple. Using local materials and with a deep understanding of the harsh Delhi climate, he produced a house that related perfectly to the lush green landscape in which it sat. Local design details, such as open stone jalis or perforated screens, combined with large expanses of glass in a way that respected both traditional knowledge and modernist principles. The current High Commissioner’s wife confirmed to us that the house was a joy to inhabit, the space flowing around the splendid central hall and each room feeling airy and open, with ready access to the outside.

Less is more was one of the fundamental concepts of modernism and our guide for the tour, architectural historian Aman Nath, thought that it played out nowhere better than in Stein’s work in New Delhi, where it perfectly complements the Indian respect for simplicity. Nath was lucky enough to know Joseph Stein and his wife Margaret, and described them as self-effacing, almost – in Joseph’s case – to the point of hermitism. He did not care to publicise or proclaim his work and, perhaps as a result, it is not as well-known or documented as it might be. My explorations of his Delhi work continue and I plan to post soon on the India International Centre (1959-62), the American Embassy School (1960-70) and the Gandhi-King Memorial Plaza (1970).

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As regular readers will know, I am a great fan of the work of the US designer Dan Kiley. His spare, modern parks and gardens arguably made him the finest and most influential landscape architect of twentieth century America.

So I’m delighted to be contributing to two events this autumn that celebrate his work.

A 1970 photograph of Kiley's modernist North Court, from www.lincolncenter.org

A 1970 photograph of Kiley’s modernist North Court, from http://www.lincolncenter.org

In October I will be speaking at an ICOMOS conference in Chandigarh called “Filling the Gaps: World Heritage and the 20th Century.” At a session dedicated to historic urban landscapes of the 20th century, I will analyse the treatment of Kiley’s seminal 1960s design for the North Court at Lincoln Center in New York City, which was sadly neglected and then effectively dismantled.

La Défense

Some of the magnificent groves of plane trees laid out by Kiley at La Défense

In the US, The Cultural Landscape Foundation is organising a major retrospective of Kiley’s work. Having offered to contribute, I was surprised to find how many articles I had written and how many photographs I had taken of Kiley designs. They are now all available to the Foundation as it finalises its plans for a Landslide compendium and a travelling exhibition of photographs that will display some of his most important commissions, including his work at La Défense.

La Défense

The water feature at the end of Kiley’s esplanade through La Défense

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The splendid website ThinkinGardens hosted a discussion a while ago on sculpture in the garden. One commenter argued that a garden setting can enhance a sculpture, but that she had never seen sculpture enhance a garden. Instead  “as you drop a sculpture into a garden setting, it takes centre stage shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ … The garden becomes a backdrop.”

It’s an interesting notion, and I decided to test it by an entirely unscientific trawl through my photo archives, looking for images of sculptures in gardens. These are not sculptures designed and installed at the same time as the garden, where you might expect a thoughtful balance between the two; they are pieces added subsequently, most of them as temporary exhibitions in established gardens.

First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 16-day display The Gates in New York’s Central Park in 2005 (OK, it’s not a garden, but it’s a good match in other ways). I was lucky enough to discuss the project with its creators shortly before installation (see photo of the duo with their plans). They intended the 7,500 saffron-coloured structures weaving through the park to encourage people to look at this iconic landscape in a new way. Sadly it seemed to me not really to work. The boxy shape of the gates did offer an interesting mirror of the rectangular skyscrapers around the park, but the thousands of structures somehow seemed like they had just been plonked in the park, shouting “Look at me!” without adding any new perspectives.The GatesThe Gates 2 The Gates 3Here’s a more successful example from summer 2011: woven willow and chestnut structures by the American Patrick Dougherty at the chateau of Trévarez in Brittany, northwest France. Some of Dougherty’s works do undoubtedly overwhelm their surroundings, but at Trévarez it seemed to me the organic structures helped you look afresh at the garden.The shape of this temporary shelter offered a sinuous modern version of the adjacent stone building, and the windows framed surprising and pleasing views of the sumptuous planting.

Trevarez 2

Trevarez 3

Trevarez 1

Another set of willow structures, this time by Tom Hare, was installed at Kew Gardens as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. They represent seeds – some of them more interesting than this one of a devil’s claw – and they have a nice sinuous quality. But for me they don’t really enhance our appreciation of the surrounding garden, especially with that rather naff little barrier to keep the sculpture decidedly separate from its setting.

Kew1Another temporary display in a botanical garden, with another intrusive barrier, is this 2012 example of dancing figures by Zadok Ben-David, in Singapore. The figures are smaller than you might think, much smaller than actual size, and seem somehow fiddly, and disengaged from their surroundings by that distracting chain barrier.

Singapore Botanical Garden3 Singapore Botanical Garden2 Singapore Botanical Garden1Here’s another figurative set of sculptures, but I think these work much more cohesively in their surroundings. These are some fine Rodin figures, installed as a temporary display in the square outside the CaixaForum art gallery in Madrid. The building is a striking mix of oxidised cast iron and brick, set off by a large Patrick Blanc vertical garden to one side. The traditional figures provided a lovely counterpoint to their contemporary setting and make us admire both the building and the green wall all the more.



A very simple example next, from Le Nôtre’s vast gardens at Sceaux, south of Paris. The sculpture by René Letourneur is not temporary, but it is a late addition – being installed around 1950 in this seventeenth century landscape. Called L’Aurore (dawn), it is positioned carefully to catch the morning light in a shady corner, and makes us notice and admire a quiet space that otherwise would get lost among the grandeur and dazzle of the rest of Sceaux.

Sceaux1Here’s a very different use of sculpture in a Le Nôtre garden, this one by Takashi Murakami at Versailles in 2010. I wrote at the time how much I loved the juxtaposition between the obscene extravagance of the Sun King’s palace and the mad plastic manga creations displayed incongruously in its midst. The snarling Oval Buddha in the gardens offered wonderful visual links with the gilded fountains and gates of Le Nôtre’s great design, and a thought-provoking contrast with its many baroque statues. Not many places could stand up to that vast gleaming sculpture, but it makes us admire Versailles anew that these gardens definitely could.


Versailles 3  Versailles1Versailles 4Le Notre gardens

Here’s my final example: it’s a temporary exhibition in a traditional display space, not a garden at all. But for me it illustrates perfectly how even the most enormous, preposterous installation that shrieks “Look at me!” can still profoundly enhance its surroundings. This is Anish Kapoor’s bonkers Leviathan sculpture that filled the Grand Palais in Paris for five weeks in 2011. It was a vast purple rubber cathedral swelling up into the belle époque exhibition hall, making the visitor gasp at its size and audacity. But it did not overwhelm the setting; instead its mad shape and size drew equal attention to the beautiful ironwork and glass of this most majestic of spaces.

Monumenta3 Monumenta2 Monumenta1These are personal choices and views of course. I’d be interested to know what others think.

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One of the pleasures of landscape history is the often surprising places where information can be found. Trainspotters’ model drawings,  last wills and testaments, records from a convent, romantic novels, legal opinions, photographs on Facebook – all have in their time helped me understand and interpret historical landscapes. And this month I was shown another unexpected example.

A couple of years ago, I published a book on Fresh Pond, a historically rich landscape in Massachusetts, now the main source of the water supply for the city of Cambridge. No central archive exists on the landscape, and so I had spent several years digging around in obscure places for information and images. The task was made harder because in the late 1800s, to protect the purity of the water, the city had rapidly cleared the land of all its historical buildings, and quarried the surrounding glacial hills for gravel to make the shoreline more regular. This left steep, raw wounds over much of the landscape, ugly gashes of exposed rock and sand, much criticised by the Olmsted firm of landscape architects which was subsequently brought in to ‘beautify the borders’ of a new park planned on the shores.

The quarrying left the landscape unattractive and unloved. Virtually no photographs seemed to exist from this period, and my book had to rely largely on descriptions and occasional 2D plans. Then last week a colleague in Cambridge sent me a link to a cache of rediscovered photographs put on line by Harvard University, 23 of them of Fresh Pond, all from the winter of 1887/88. It turns out that the exposed gravel and sand had appealed to a new group of visitors: the Harvard geology department had sent professional photographers to capture images of contorted glacial gravels, shored kames, faulted sands, and upturned and overfolded shore-strips of ice at Fresh Pond. The man-made structures caught by the lens were of no interest to the geologists, and were left unlabelled and unremarked, but for many of the historical buildings at Fresh Pond these long-forgotten images serve as the only known photographs. Within five years all such structures had been swept away by the city.

I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours matching the dwellings, icehouses and bridges suddenly brought alive in the photographs to the plans so familiar to me from years of research. And I thought again of the unexpected reasons why people document and photograph the land, and how we landscape historians need to seek out and relish every example.

1888 map

An 1888 map of Fresh Pond, showing the ice houses and dwelling owned by the Fresh Pond Ice Company. Image from the Massachusetts Archives.

A newly rediscovered image from 1887/88 of the Fresh Pond Ice Company’s properties on the shoreline, from the George Augustus Gardner collection of photographs, Cabot Science Special Collections, Harvard University.

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Having lived on three continents, I am increasingly struck by the similarities and connections between gardens in seemingly very disparate countries. What confirms my location is not the plants or the layout or the use people make of the landscape – but the wildlife.

In Massachusetts, it was raccoons trotting along the tops of fences, the mongoose on the doorstep, and the occasional skunk lurking in the shrubbery that told me I was no longer in England. [One eagle-eyed reader has pointed out that native Bostonians would have been equally amazed by the mongoose; it was probably in fact an opossum.] A friend who lived only two hours north of Boston could entertain me for hours with tales of the moose and bears in her cornfield. It was as if she was on personal terms with space aliens. When we were in Paris, I was struck by the complete absence of grey squirrels in any park or garden, even though we were under three hours by train from the squirrel-laden London parks. Now in India, it’s the monkeys who confirm I am indeed a long way from home.

Last week I spent some time up on the northern ridge, researching the impact of the British on the Indian capital. The ridge is an ancient geological feature that runs diagonally across the city and was home to various grand colonial figures in the nineteenth century, and site of much of the action during the 1857 Uprising. Originally scrubland, it has for a hundred years been managed as forest. It is neatly planted, with park benches, wide paths, fences and litter bins. In the softer light of the Indian autumn, you could almost imagine you were in the UK (although the bougainvillaea slightly gives the game away).

It’s the bundi monkeys everywhere who are the real signal. To locals they may be nuisances who rip up gardens and carry TB, but to me they are an otherworldly joy, frolicking and leaping and just gathering in big social groups, in the same way that the jaunty raccoons never failed to delight in the States, even while locals muttered about vermin and rabies.

Fellow blogger Jack at Sequoia Gardens writes about the baboons who occasionally wreak havoc in his South African garden, and I find myself relishing the unfamiliarity of his homeland in a way that descriptions of similarly native species like phygelius or crocosmia would just not achieve.

So I am grateful to our little urban monkeys, desperately displaced as they are from their native habitat by human encroachment, for reminding me daily that, despite the clipped shrubs and English-style lawn that cover so much of Delhi, this really is a different country.

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The US architect Joseph Allen Stein (1912 – 2001) spent the last forty years of his professional life in India. A man driven by humanitarian and environmental passions, he worked on cooperative and low-cost social housing in California and then, troubled by McCarthyism, he took up work in Calcutta and later Delhi, exhilarating in the idealism and socialist enthusiasm of India as it emerged from almost a century of colonial British rule.

Inspired by the work of modernist architect Richard Neutra and others, Stein has been described as “building in the garden” – using the wider natural landscape to inspire appropriate structures made from local materials. He characterised his approach as “modern regionalism” and it can perhaps be seen as a precursor of today’s achingly trendy landscape urbanism movement.

Yesterday we visited one of Stein’s major buildings, the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Designed in the late 1980s, this is a place that provides office, conference and exhibition space for organisations working on habitat- and environment-related issues.

The design reminded me forcibly of London’s Barbican. It is monumental in scale, with concrete structures arranged in vast horizontal and vertical slabs, laid out around large airy courtyards, linked together by stairs and walkways. Given the heat of the Indian summer, many of the exterior spaces are shaded by delicate blue patio covers, casting intricate shadows and further blurring the distinction between inside and out. The courtyards are planted with a pleasing array of greenery – large pots and beds of evergreen shrubs and tall trees, providing a more human feel and scale amongst the concrete monumentality. Although rarely credited, Stein’s wife Margaret was responsible for much of the interior and planting design in his work, and the successful combination of their two styles is well illustrated at the Habitat Centre.

It was Stein who brought Garrett Eckbo to Delhi to work on Lodi Gardens (about which I blogged below), and who also designed the splendid American Embassy school attended by my daughter. Joe and Margaret Stein are a couple whose work I intend to research further.

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A recent post looked at the vagaries of park signage in Paris. Since then, I have been keeping an eye out for good examples. And last week, on a trip to the US, I found some. The City of Philadelphia has, in my opinion, got it right.

So, what makes these signs work? It is nothing extraordinary or magical. They are simply located in places where people congregate. There is an appealing balance of colourful images and scant text. With eye-catching titles, they tell the reader one or two digestible pieces of information, and they relate clearly and explicitly to their location. That’s it.

And what’s the evidence that they work well? Simply that I have never seen signs so frequently consulted and discussed.

Post script: If you’re interested in signage, you might like to visit my gallery of other wonderful and woeful examples.

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Next week I’m off to Philadelphia for a few days.  I’ll be speaking at a symposium at the UPenn School of Design, called Foreign Trends on American Soil. It promises to be a fascinating look at the many influences on landscape design in the US. My paper will compare Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris with its American interpretation at Mount Auburn in Massachusetts.  And I’m looking forward to attending a related lecture by Blanche Linden at UPenn on preservation problems in historic rural cemeteries, and to visiting the gardens of fellow blogger and shade plant specialist Carolyn Walker.

Sadly I’ll just miss the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is happening this week. Its theme this year is “Springtime in Paris.” Philadelphia is a city with strong historical, political and cultural links to the French capital; it would have been fascinating to see how exhibitors are interpreting the topic.

Instead, I shall console myself with a few photos taken this morning in parc Monceau of, well, springtime in Paris.

corylopsis ?paucifoliaPhotinia leavesForsythiaMagnolia budsCherry blossom

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Lincoln Center 2Damrosch Park at the Lincoln Center was designed in the 1960s by master landscape architect Dan Kiley. Much diminished through neglect and misuse, the park is about to host New York Fashion Week, which is moving from its old home in Bryant Park.

I am a huge fan of Kiley (see my previous posts on his designs in Brussels and Paris) and was lucky enough to discuss his work at the Lincoln Center with him, and to review his files on the project (since sadly destroyed in a fire).

Lincoln Center 3

Early plan of Lincoln Center, showing Webel’s design for the park (left). Image from Lincoln Center Inc.

He was commissioned in 1959 to design a courtyard to the north of the Metropolitan Opera House. The firm of Darling, Innocenti and Webel was to design Damrosch Park, to the south. As the early plan reproduced here shows, Richard Webel worked up plans for a traditional park with a lawn and some trees. But Center President John D. Rockefeller and his team of architects were so enthusiastic about Kiley’s design for the North Court that, as Kiley later explained, Webel “was directed to incorporate precepts of my plan to assure site continuity.” The final design for Damrosch Park bears Kiley’s unique imprint. The resulting relationship between the two plazas brought a sense of spatial continuity and cohesion to the whole site. Damrosch Park had the same distinctive quartets of plane trees, set in planters with an understorey of azaleas. They enclosed a seating area that was surrounded by a bosque of forty or so purple-leafed maple trees. The bandshell at the far end of the Park was also framed by plane trees, with a perimeter planting of Sargent crab apples.

As built model of Lincoln Center

A model of Lincoln Center, with Damrosch Park to the left. Image from http://www.rowan.edu

In 1990, the Center infamously ripped out all the plane trees in the North Court and replaced them with forlorn little ornamental pears. Soon the Center started to remove trees from Damrosch Park as well. One complete row of plane trees was taken out, apparently because the shade they cast was causing moss to grow on the side of the Metropolitan Opera House. All the crab apples disappeared too, possibly because they were obstructing the guy wires for the Big Apple Circus that pitches its tent in the Park for several months each winter. The crab apples were replaced with small ornamental plantings of geraniums and dwarf conifers, as well as what one observer called “inexcusable installations of amateurish lava rock landscaping.” Eight or so of the purple leafed maples also disappeared, at least one having been damaged by circus vehicles. Other plane trees were removed when they became infected with cankerstain. Staff at the Center, unaware of who had designed both plazas, argued that the plane trees had been “bunched too closely together” and might all need to be replaced with single specimens of zelkova or sophora trees.

Lincoln Center 1It looked as if none of the original plantings in Damrosch Park would be left. But interventions by landscape architects Robert Stern and Ken Smith saved at least some of Kiley’s design. In 1996 the Center replaced all the purple leafed maples that had been removed (although ironically, Kiley noted in his project files: “If I had known, I would have suggested the Schwedler maple – the purple leaf ‘bugs’ me.”). Kiley was invited to advise Lincoln Center staff on how to maintain and restore the remaining plane trees, which were apparently also showing signs of disease. He told me he was dismayed at the suggestion that the problems arose because the trees were placed too closely together, arguing that trees will thrive in denser plantings and with less soil in the wild. He also expressed surprise that no-one at the Center had previously contacted him for advice when the trees began to struggle, when he was as expert as anyone in the country on urban tree planting. The Center subsequently restored all the missing plane trees, retaining the tight spacing of four in each planting box. For many years, ironically, they provided the best illustration on the site of Kiley’s original plans for the landscape, even though he had not originally been commissioned to design Damrosch Park at all.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The plans to rework Kiley’s North Court (now largely implemented). Image from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

The North Court has sadly now been dismantled as part of the massive, one billion dollar redevelopment of the Lincoln Center led by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Lead architect Liz Diller told me recently that she has tried to retain something of the “spirit” of Kiley’s design, with a geometric planting of plane trees, but to me the plaza now feels more like a corridor than a gathering space, and is overwhelmed by a new fancy-dancy sloping roofed restaurant.

Plans for Damrosch Park under the redevelopment are not yet clear, but many of the plane trees have recently been cut down, and the arrival of Fashion Week suggests that the Center management is more interested in holding high-profile outdoor events at the Park than in conserving what remains of Kiley’s work.

Fashion Week

The park last month, the plane tree planters now empty. Image from ny.racked.com

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