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All the Green Things 

Gareth Doherty Presents an Ethnographic Account of Landscape in Bahrain 

All the Green Things 

Not every green is equally green. Case in point: While Bahraini date palms and golf courses are both green, the former have a grayish tint, the latter a verdant sheen. In our own ecologically sensitive time, we also frequently speak of the color in a different way—what’s good for the environment is “green.” In that sense of “greenness,” what the date palms lack in luminosity, they make up for in sustainability (as measured in water consumption). 

In his recent Mellon Midday Dialogue, Gareth Doherty, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, examined precisely these ambiguities within the spectrum of green. In content and style, the talk drew from his recent publication, “Paradoxes of Green: Landscape of a City-State.” 

Doherty, who trained as a landscape architect before completing his doctoral studies, had initially set out to study the landscape of Bahrain. But after arriving, he discovered that the concept of “landscape,” a word that entered English through the Middle Dutch landskip, has no strict equivalent in Arabic. Instead of “landscape,” the locals spoke of “greenery.” 

Thus, Doherty dropped the lens of landscape theory, and instead began to scrutinize the material stuff that made up the “greenery,” a readjustment that produced a new perspicuity in Doherty’s looking. For example, the lush lawns featured in advertisements for villa estates began to jar with the arid sand dunes that spread out across the island. This contrast, in Doherty’s eyes, underscores the mismatch between “greening” (essentially, planting greenery) in the name of ecological sustainability, and the unsustainable practice of watering lawns with energy-intensive, desalinated water.  

Expanding on the misplaced connection between greenery and sustainability, Doherty compared a set of satellite images from recent decades. Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the population of Bahrain has grown more than fifteenfold, resulting in the loss of more than 350,000 date palms, a native species that has symbolized Bahraini heritage for centuries. Lands that once stood in the cool shade of swaying palm leaves are now buried beneath roof tiles coated in bright green paint. 

Doherty supplemented these macroscopic views with minute, pedestrian-level observations drawn from a year of walking through the community he studied and talking to its residents. To better capture the views from the ground, Doherty even expanded his skill set to include sketching, photographing, and watercolor painting. What resulted was a reservoir of everyday vignettes that no satellite camera could capture.  

In one instance, Doherty poignantly recounted the gathering of a family of farmers whose house was slated for demolition. Though the house was more economically valuable, they didn’t gather to mourn its loss, but rather the loss of the date palm that had withstood the sandstorms of the previous two hundred years. In Bahrain, as Doherty pointed out, trees are such an intimate part of agrarian life that farmers often name them.   

Maybe it’s because green is such an elementary color that most people rarely think about all its manifestations. In a way, Doherty’s talk was aimed chiefly at counteracting this common view, arguing that, for all its ecological associations, “green” is not without its contradictions and connotations—that, depending on how you look at it, a lawn is both green and not green. 

 

Find out about other Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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Announcing the 2017–2018 Fellows and Project Grants

Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the 2017–2018 fellows and project grants.

Fellows

Paolo Angelini, KU Leuven (Fall)
Byzantine Studies
Introduction to the Medieval Legal History of the Southern Slavs

Gideon Avni, Israel Antiquities Authority and Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Byzantine Studies
Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Fourth to Eleventh Century: Archaeological Research and Urban Context

Stephanos Efthymiadis, Open University of Cyprus
Byzantine Studies
Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, 537–1204: Political, Social, and Urban History

Romy Hecht, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Garden and Landscape Studies
Botanical Practices and Urban Reform in Postcolonial Santiago, Chile

Steve Kosiba, University of Minnesota
Pre-Columbian Studies
Becoming Inca: Landscape Construction and Subject Creation in Ancient Cuzco

Michael Lee, University of Virginia (Spring)
Garden and Landscape Studies
German Landscape and the Aesthetics of Administration: Peter Joseph Lenné and His Circle, 1815–1848

Jerry Moore, California State University, Dominguez Hills (Fall)
Pre-Columbian Studies
Ancient Andean Houses: Dynamics of Domestic Space in South America

Denis Ribouillault, Université de Montréal (Fall)
Garden and Landscape Studies
Gardens of the Heavens: Astronomy and the Science of Time in the Gardens of Papal Rome

Alexis Torrance, University of Notre Dame
Byzantine Studies
The Human Ideal in Byzantine Theology

Bernd Andreas Vest
Byzantine Studies
The Urban Space of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, 638–1268

Alexandra Vukovich, University of Cambridge (Spring)
Byzantine Studies
Byzantine Imitative and Appropriative Coins, Fifth to Thirteenth Century

Alan Walmsley
Byzantine Studies
Syria-Palestine in the Seventh Century: Aspects of Byzantine Continuity

Junior Fellows

Thalia Allington-Wood, University College London (Spring)
Garden and Landscape Studies
Garden Politics: Italian Renaissance Gardens in Postwar Italy

Christopher Bonura, University of California, Berkeley
Byzantine Studies
The Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara: History and Prophecy in the Christian Encounter with Islam

Gabriela Cervantes, University of Pittsburgh
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Sican Capital: Urban Organization in Pre-Columbian Peru

Mary Kelly, Tulane University
Pre-Columbian Studies
Speech Carved in Stone: Language Variation among the Ancient Lowland Maya

Scott Kennedy, Ohio State University
Byzantine Studies
Thucydides and Herodotus in the Late Antique and Byzantine Rhetorical Tradition

Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, Tulane University
Pre-Columbian Studies
Palatial Politics: The Classic Maya Royal Court at La Corona, Guatemala

Ivan Marić, University of Edinburgh
Byzantine Studies
Imperial Ideology after Iconoclasm: Negotiating the Limits of Imperial Power in Byzantium, 843–913 

Luis Muro, Stanford University
Pre-Columbian Studies
Moche Spectacles of Death: Performance, Corporality, and Political Power in the Jequetepeque Valley, Peru

Kelly Presutti, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Garden and Landscape Studies
Terroir after the Terror: Landscape and Representation in Nineteenth-Century France

Nicholas Serrano, North Carolina State University
Garden and Landscape Studies
Ideologies of Nature in the Landscape Architecture and Urban Development of the Postwar American South, 1955–1975

Shannon Steiner, Bryn Mawr College
Byzantine Studies
Byzantine Enamel and the Aesthetics of Technological Power, Ninth to Fifteenth Century

Kaja Tally-Schumacher, Cornell University (Fall)
Garden and Landscape Studies
Cultivating Empire: Transplanting and Translating Rome

William R. Tyler Fellows

Ari Caramanica
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Forgotten Landscapes of the Peruvian North Coast: Cupisnique, Moche, and Chimu Peripheral Occupation

Philip Gant
Garden and Landscape Studies
Temple Litigation and Korea’s Long Nineteenth Century

Polina Ivanova
Byzantine Studies
From Byzantium’s East to Iran’s West: Economic Change and the Rise of Cities in Medieval Asia Minor, 1000–1400

Jake Ransohoff
Byzantine Studies
Vision and Punishment: Blinding in the Byzantine World

Abbey Stockstill
Garden and Landscape Studies
Crafting an Identity: Landscape and Urbanism in Almohad Marrakech

John Zaleski
Byzantine Studies
Asceticism in the Eastern Mediterranean, Seventh through Ninth Century

Mellon Fellows in Urban Landscape Studies

Basak Durgun, George Mason University
Cultural Politics of Urban Green Spaces: The Production and Reorganization of Istanbul’s Parks and Gardens

Jacob Boswell, The Ohio State University
Changing Climates: Social Imaginaries of Climate Modification in the United States

John King, San Francisco Chronicle
New Forms of Urban Public Space and the Publics That They Serve

Maria Taylor, University of Michigan
Between Town and Country: The Soviet City-Landscape Nexus in Global Perspective

Summer Fellows

Agnieszka Brylak, University of Warsaw
Pre-Columbian Studies
Buffoons and Sorcerers: The Merging of Witchcraft and Entertainment in Colonial Sources on Prehispanic Nahuas

Beatrice Caseau, Université Paris-Sorbonne and Labex RESMED
Byzantine Studies
Kissing in Byzantium

Jean-Claude Cheynet, Université Paris-Sorbonne
Byzantine Studies
The Byzantine Family of the Chrysobergai

Rebecca Falcasantos, Providence College
Byzantine Studies
Constantinople: Ritual, Violence, and Memory in the Making of a Christian Imperial Capital

Erlend Johnson, Tulane University
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Integrative Strategies of the Classic Maya Copan Polity on Its Southeastern Frontier

Dimitri Korobeinikov, University at Albany
Byzantine Studies
Unpublished Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic Seals from the Zacos Collection: A Case Study of the Border Zone

Maria Parani, University of Cyprus
Byzantine Studies
The Date and Context of Vat. gr. 1851: The Evidence of Its Miniatures Reconsidered

Alan Ross, University of Southampton
Byzantine Studies
In Praise of Constantius: Greek Panegyrical Literature in the Early Byzantine Empire

Claudio Schiano, Università degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro
Byzantine Studies
The Tritheist Controversy on Resurrection: New Evidence on John Philoponus’s Opponents

John Schwaller, University at Albany
Pre-Columbian Studies
The Rituals of the Aztec Month of Panquetzaliztli

Humanities Fellows

Andrés Álvarez Dávila, Dumbarton Oaks/Folger Shakespeare Library

Erica Eisen, Dumbarton Oaks/George Washington Museum and Textile Museum

Michael Kennedy-Yoon, Dumbarton Oaks/National Museum of Natural History

Adela Kim, Dumbarton Oaks/National Gallery of Art

Abby Westover, Dumbarton Oaks/Folger Shakespeare Library

Faye Zhang, Dumbarton Oaks/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Early-Career Musician

Celil Refik Kaya, Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin

Project Grants

Alessandra Ricci, Koç University
Byzantine Studies
Recovering Middle Byzantine Architecture in Istanbul: Excavation of the Church at Küçükyalı

Nikolaos Tsivikis, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz
Byzantine Studies
The Early Christian Domus Ecclesia at Messene, Peloponnese

Felix Arnold, German Archaeological Institute
Garden and Landscape Studies
A Geophysical Survey of the Islamic Gardens of Córdoba

Brian Palmer, Virginia Commonwealth University
Garden and Landscape Studies
Reclaiming an Outdoor Archive

Maureece Levin, Stanford University
Garden and Landscape Studies
An Archaeology of Plant Food Production on Pingelap Atoll

Scott Hutson, University of Kentucky
Pre-Columbian Studies
Salvaging Sources of Power at Uci, Yucatan, Mexico

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Farewell to the Freeways

Margot Lystra Talks Urban Design in 1960s San Francisco

Farewell to the Freeways

Consideration was given, first and foremost, to the trees.

As the fledgling firm of Lawrence Halprin & Associates drafted its designs for the San Francisco Panhandle freeway, a decided bias began to appear. In their renderings, vigorous trees occluded the hypothetical tableaux and the proposed manmade structures that should have been centered. This choice subtly asserted the primacy of the individual’s experience of the space. It was, in a way, a revolt.

As Margot Lystra explained in her recent Mellon Midday Dialogue, the debate surrounding the decision to build a freeway through the Panhandle park in San Francisco managed to anticipate later shifts in the conception of urban space—including turns to environmentalism and a focus on collective experience that have come to be seen as central to urban planning.

Though “freeway” and “cultural catalyst” aren’t typically synonymous, Lystra, a PhD candidate in the History of Architecture and Urban Development at Cornell University and one-month research award recipient in Garden and Landscape Studies, sought to weld the terms together by tracing the hullabaloo around San Francisco’s freeway plans in the early 1960s. Much of her talk followed the efforts of the aforementioned Halprin & Associates, which was founded by Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect whose projects pioneered attention to human scale and social impact. As Lystra described it: “They were trying to develop ways of thinking about the space that were technical and actionable, but that still captured the sensorial, lived experience of being there.”

Under the aegis of Halprin’s firm, the urban fabric of San Francisco was quickly redefined in terms of community. In a report on the aesthetics of urban freeways, Halprin & Associates shifted the project’s focus to the environment around the freeway, rather than the structure itself. Defining the urban texture of the area in broad spatial categories, the firm’s newly developed conception of the environment as “something lived,” rather than a dry spatial descriptor, began to assert more control over their designs.

When state engineers eventually got their hands on the report, Lystra said, they were careful to remove Halprin’s use of the word “environment,” though they weren’t able to elide his views on space and design, which permeated the project. Whenever he had the chance—in meetings, at work—Halprin used and emphasized the word “environment,” reminding those around him of the vetoed lodestar that still guided their work. 

Eventually, as public hearings got under way and the public learned of the proposed plans, a staunch resistance emerged. Editorials in local newspapers bemoaned the loss of trees that would accompany the freeway’s development, wildly estimating the numbers to be chopped down, while “Save the Park” rallies were held, replete with signs, marching, and maudlin folksingers.

At the second public hearing on the issue, community members began to articulate “surprisingly complex functional-spatial connections,” as Lystra put it. Some attendees argued that the park’s racially integrated playground, one of the few in the city, was a powerful source of unity in the community. Others touched on the critical role the park’s trees played in dampening the coastal winds that roared over the city. When the displacement of black families that would occur with the freeway’s construction was broached, it caused one community member to solemnly proclaim: “If you’re gonna plan, plan for all of us.”

The freeway plans were eventually scrapped. Lystra’s talk, however, was less interested in the mechanics of revolt than the theoretical reverberations that ran through the country in the 1960s and 1970s as more and more cities, inspired by the San Francisco debacle, began to sideline their freeway development plans.

As Lystra described it, communities across the nation, aided by the discourse of the San Francisco debates, began to view the urban milieu as collective and fundamentally shared space. It could no longer be considered a conjunction of discrete structures, but rather became—had to become—“a great functioning whole.”

 

Find out about other Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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Building the Invisible

Mellon Outreach Activates Teens’ Humanistic Imaginations

Building the Invisible

You pass by the same park every day. It seems unmoving, unchanging, as if it has been there forever. How do you learn to see not what it is—what you know it has always been—but what it was in the past and what it might be? How do you teach others to appreciate its history and to imagine it in a more ambitious, innovative, and creative way?

Over the past two years, Jeanne Haffner, Mellon postdoctoral fellow in urban landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, has been building collaborative initiatives that foster humanistically grounded design skills in teenagers from Washington, D.C. Haffner’s programs connect Dumbarton Oaks’ resources in Garden and Landscape Studies (GLS) to two other educational institutions in the District: Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School and the National Building Museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program. Phelps High School is a public magnet school with strengths in math and science education; Dumbarton Oaks works with its architecture and landscape classes on a set of design challenges and field trips over the year. The National Building Museum’s apprentice program teaches thirty teenagers design fundamentals and tool skills while developing real-world projects over the course of nine five-hour Saturday sessions per semester; Haffner participates in select sessions as a teacher, mentor, and design critic.

She explains that the students in both programs often have strong technical abilities and practical intuitions, but thinking about design as a humanistic and artistic activity breaks new ground with them. For example, in late September 2016, Phelps High School students visited Dumbarton Oaks to learn about hydrology in its gardens, culminating with an activity: how would you redesign the irrigation in the Ellipse, with its double-ring of thirsty hornbeam trees? Haffner and the students discussed how climate change has caused problems with the irrigation system: because storms have grown heavier, rains don’t permeate the soil as much as they used to. “They had great questions—very logical questions about the trees, their needs, the pipes,” she recalls. “But they tend to think more like engineers than like landscape designers.” To point out the wide range of ways the space has been imagined over the decades, she showed them Farrand’s very different original design for the Ellipse, which led to a discussion about design history and how the use of different types of trees and other vegetation can give an area a completely different feeling.

Dumbarton Oaks, as a research center in the humanities, has the ability to complement the school’s curriculum by teaching the students how to see beyond the expectations and assumptions that the present time and culture have imparted. Haffner wants to help them see that “landscape design has an aesthetic component and is informed by ideas and techniques that have histories. They obviously have a strong science background. So I try to balance this important perspective with other, more humanistic, concerns. My aim is to make them aware that their own designs, like all designs, are subjective and tied to values. Far from being objective and scientific, their designs reflect cultural expectations about how humans should interact with nature, and these ideas about naturalness are historically rooted.”

In the 2015–16 school year, Haffner launched programming with a number of one-time workshops; in 2016–17, she is steering the initiative toward a more sustained, yearlong curriculum built around multiple workshops and field trips. In addition to Phelps High School’s workshop at Dumbarton Oaks, GLS facilitated a tour of the National Zoo with its landscape architect, Jennifer Daniels, and is working with the students on a monthly basis from February to May to redesign a community garden in northeast D.C.’s Kingman Park. Haffner explains that the project is an ambitious conceptual challenge: “How do you include a toolshed, stormwater management, plantings—on a hillside? The soil at the site is also toxic, meaning you need to use raised plant beds.” Haffner, along with John Beardsley, director of GLS, and Jane Padelford, GLS program coordinator, are participating in midterm and final design reviews with the school, lending professional expertise to the school’s curriculum.

At the National Building Museum, GLS is also helping highlight the historical and cultural facets of landscape design by focusing on the city the students know best—Washington itself—and showing not just what it is, but also what it might have been. As a complement to a current exhibition on the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, Haffner created a tour of the show that highlighted the contrast between Halprin’s unrealized plan for the Anacostia riverfront in the 1960s, the current reality of the riverfront, and plans for how modern architects would like to transform the area in years to come. “The Anacostia riverfront worked well as an example because many of the students reside there. It made Halprin’s work feel closer to home.”  

Haffner hopes that the Dumbarton Oaks and Mellon Foundation initiatives will help change students’ sense of what architecture and design aim to do as disciplines, and broaden their conceptions of what they’re doing from the very beginning. “It’s difficult to teach both the technical and social aspects of design simultaneously. They’re beginners. So they need a simple model,” she acknowledges. “But I think the social, cultural, and historical aspects of landscape can and should be integrated into design pedagogy from the start, right up front—not added in at the end.”

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Udo Weilacher Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as the 2017 Mellon Practitioner Resident

We are pleased to welcome Udo Weilacher who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as the 2017 Mellon Practitioner Resident. He will be in residence from March 19 to April 16.

Weilacher is professor of Landscape Architecture at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). He was professionally trained as a gardener and studied landscape architecture in Munich and at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. He graduated from TUM and holds a PhD from the ETH Zurich. He is the author of numerous books on contemporary art and design, including Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art (second edition, 1999), Visionary Gardens: The Modern Landscapes of Ernst Cramer (2001), In Gardens: Profiles of Contemporary European Landscape Architecture (2005), and Syntax of Landscape: The Landscape Architecture of Peter Latz and Partners (2008), which was awarded the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize 2011 by the Foundation of Landscape Studies.

Weilacher has taught at universities in Karlsruhe, Hannover, Munich, and Zurich, and has lectured worldwide and organized international symposia and exhibitions on environmental art and landscape architecture. Since 2007, he has been a member of the International Doctoral College “Spatial Research Lab,” an interdisciplinary initiative involving five European universities, and, since 2009, has been a member of the advisory board of the Centre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture (CGL) at Leibniz University in Hannover. In 2013, he joined the advisory board of the European Land and Art Network (ELAN), an initiative that brings together organizations, artists, academics, experts, and students from several European countries.

Weilacher served as the dean of the Department of Architecture and Landscape Sciences at Leibniz University in Hannover from 2006 to 2008 before joining TUM in 2009. At TUM, he coorganized exhibitions on "Self-Construction" (2013), which examined the development of sustainable design strategies in the 1980s, and “60 Years of Landscape Architecture at TU Munich” (2016), celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Planning.

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A City Like a Body

Sara Carr Discusses the Topography of Wellness in American Urban Landscapes

A City Like a Body

Ten thousand is the number of steps we’re told to walk each day if we want to stay active and healthy. For many, this means wearing a Fitbit and checking it regularly. But for city planners attempting to design a healthier city, the implication is far more than personal: it means finding ways to make walkability an essential feature of our cities.

Yet, according to Sara Carr, a recent Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies, who delivered the second Mellon Midday Dialogue of the semester, this trend toward walkability is only the most recent episode in a much longer (and occasionally fraught) relationship between public health and urban landscape.

Despite public health researchers’ nascent interest in studying wellness in relation to the built environment—between 2003 and 2013, more than six hundred related articles have been published, compared to fewer than forty in the preceding decade—city planners have been borrowing insights from physicians for a much longer period of time.

Carr explained that planners have often imagined cities in anthropomorphic terms. Just as physicians diagnose, and surgeons operate on, the human body, so too have planners prescribed different fixes for the world of brick and mortar.

In a way, Carr is uniquely positioned to tell this history. She currently holds a one-of-a-kind joint appointment between the school of architecture and the office of public health studies at the University of Hawaii. This position has allowed Carr to bring together students from both schools who, despite the intertwined history of their disciplines, are rarely encouraged to interact in the classroom.

Carr began her presentation with a discussion of the nineteenth century, when physicians still thought of miasma—literally, “bad air”—as the cause of diseases ranging from cholera to obesity. To contain this ethereal threat, planners paved over exposed bodies of waters and moved sewage systems underground. (Both were believed to emanate miasma.)

The eventual replacement of miasma theory with germ theory did not prevent planners from identifying new ills within the design of the city. This time around, however, it was the urban density associated with tenement buildings and slums that they took issue with. As an antidote, they prescribed large, open spaces, giving rise to landmarks of urban design like Central Park, whose chief architect, Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., had also served on the Sanitary Commission.

In recent decades, as the focus of public health debates has shifted from infectious to chronic diseases, planners have reversed many of these earlier views. Urban waters that were previously paved over have been reexposed to inject a dose of nature into the concrete jungle. Instead of decrying density, planners now herald close-knit urban centers as a requisite for walkability, which helps to counter ailments, like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, that are often associated with America’s overreliance on cars.

But despite the evident benefits of walkable cities, Carr is weary of making sweeping claims about their superiority. As the principal investigator of a walkability study group in Hawaii, she sees much of the current rhetoric surrounding walkability as built upon a monolithic model that overlooks the preferences of diverse local demographics, for whom walking can sometimes be either unfeasible or outright dangerous. Context, for Carr—as it is for walking—remains paramount.


Find out more about Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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The Sense of Place

Saskia de Wit Contextualizes the Metropolitan Garden in Landscape Studies

The Sense of Place

Consider the following six gardens: Tofuku-ji Hoto in Kyoto, St. Catherine’s College Quadrangle at Oxford University, the pocket-sized Paley Park in New York, a reflection pool on Bainbridge Island just outside Seattle, the Garden of Birds on the A837 motorway in southwestern France, and a man-made geyser in a suburb of Germany.

To most people, this is just an eclectic list of destinations. But to Saskia de Wit, who is an assistant professor at the University of Technology in Delft in the Netherlands, as well as a recent one-month research awardee at Dumbarton Oaks, these gardens are the “smallest reflections of landscapes” and as such afford insights into the significance of place in design.

In a swift yet incisive presentation that launched this semester’s Mellon Midday Dialogues, de Wit examined how these six gardens represent not only the many different ways in which humans have transformed the physical world, but also their designers’ sensitivity to their particular contexts.

Landscape scholars incessantly debate the concept of “place.” To some, it is inseparable from what is known as genius loci, a term taken from Roman religion that connotes a site-specific atmosphere. To others, it is about creating new possibilities and new ways of experiencing space. For de Wit, though, place always starts with what is already there, and reveals something about the site that we do not already know or see.

If de Wit is particular about her definition of place, it’s because, to her, even the word “particular” is important. “Every one of these places is unique,” de Wit remarked. “I can analyze ten more, and they’ll all be different.”

Indeed, seen through her perceptive eyes, each of the six projects revealed itself to be uniquely adapted to its urban setting. Paley Park, for example, has been shaped as much by active landscape design as by the aftereffects of New York’s fervent development—squeezed into an undeveloped plot, the park feels like an oasis in the surrounding urban space.

But de Wit isn’t just interested in theory. In addition to her role as an educator and scholar, de Wit also boasts a portfolio of realized garden designs located throughout the Netherlands. It’s no surprise, then, that she’s attuned to the sensory experience of walking through places—an aspect that is not always emphasized in previous scholarship.

To make her points clearer, de Wit focused on the geyser park in Germany, properly known as the Wasserkrater. The park, which sits between existing suburban houses, belongs to what de Wit calls a “suburban field,” or a large area of generic and scattered urbanization.

Instead of superimposing a design onto the landscape, the designers, working with natural fault lines beneath the site, created a geyser that draws attention to the geological properties of the location. As a result, a visit to the Wasserkrater involves more than just the sense of sight (the tall column of water erupting into the air). The smell of spring water, the moisture condensing on one’s skin, and the boom of the artificially induced eruptions become inextricably twined.

Ultimately, de Wit’s goals are as multifaceted as the subjects of her investigation. “I think of my work as serving two purposes,” she concluded. “On one hand, it provides a set of tools—or rather, ideas—for practicing landscape architects. On the other, it is a reflection on the metropolitan landscape.”

 

Find out more about Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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A Tree (Re)Grows in Brooklyn

Sonja Dümpelmann on the History of Street Trees

A Tree (Re)Grows in Brooklyn

Walking along a residential street in the middle of a city, you might briefly consider the shade-casting branches of overhanging trees, or the sough of leaves mingling with the whir of distant traffic. You probably wouldn’t reflect, however, on the embattled histories of individual trees, the aesthetic theories that (often literally) helped to shape them, or the intricacies of city-planning that either frustrated or ensured their existences.

Sonja Dümpelmann thinks about just these things.

On October 19, Dümpelmann, a landscape historian and associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, as well as a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, delivered a lecture as part of the Mellon Midday Dialogue series which outlined her recent research into the history of street tree planting and its relation to urban development.

Though the book Dümpelmann hopes to write on the subject will focus on twentieth-century Berlin and New York, her talk, “Street Tree Stories: On the Politics of Nature in the City,” stepped further into the past in order to examine the curious and oftentimes dramatic stories that have sprung up around urban trees.  

Historically, trees have been prone to personification. In ancient times dryads roamed the earth in the guise of beautiful women; when spotted, they swiftly transformed themselves into oaks. Even today, as Dümpelmann explained, a bit of paganism resurfaces in the wintertime as children pack snowballs onto trees, forming eyes, a nose, a winning grin.

In simple terms, this mythological baggage means that, in more recent times, trees have often functioned as epicenters of emotion. Place a tree in the middle of the city, as Dümpelmann illustrated with a series of anecdotes, and the emotions tend to run even higher.

Dümpelmann recounted the story, preserved in a newspaper snippet from 1897, of the Matthews family, who woke one morning to find that a telephone company had dug three postholes in the front yard of their home in Brooklyn. When the family members learned that the company planned to topple their large shade tree to make room for a skein of telephone wires, they promptly leapt into the postholes and refused to budge.

As cities continued to grow in complexity in the early twentieth century, conflicts concerning their trees turned theoretical and oftentimes scientific. The science of arboriculture spread, and the position of city forester became professionalized.

What is the ideal tree, its type, its shape? While cottonwoods, as some argued, were initially appealing, their cloudy seedpods had a tendency to stick to the clothing of those passing under them. At the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, the newly invented dendroscope—basically a large wire cookie cutter for trees—promised uniformity in the pruning of trees, and came in a variety of ovoid iterations. 

Displaying images from pruning manuals and handbooks, Dümpelmann explained that the process of standardization, made manifest in the Victorian-era innovation of the dendroscope, presaged the widespread practice of arboriculture. With time, aesthetic concerns gave way to concerns over the interactions of architecture and verdure, and even to questions of public health.

In the early years of the twentieth century, street trees had become such a prominent concern that rampant debate about their pros and cons could materialize even in the literary realm. To close her presentation, Dümpelmann read an exchange of poems between a leading arboriculturist and a writer for The New Yorker. Pithy, humorous, and mutually dismissive, like parodies of pastoral verse, the poems nevertheless encapsulated the fervent hopes and beliefs sprouting from the contentious trunks of the city’s trees.

 

Find out more about Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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Building after Stone

Meredith Miller on Confronting Climate Change through Design

Building after Stone

On Wednesday, October 5, Meredith Miller, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, delivered the first of the year’s Mellon Midday Dialogues. The series, which serves to highlight urban aspects of landscape studies, will continue throughout the academic year.

Miller’s talk, “Making Post Rock: Material Research through Design,” reflected her longstanding interest in the intersections of architecture and ecology. Recently, Miller has undertaken a series of projects aimed at confronting global climate change through the lens of its representation.

How can one effectively represent such a largescale phenomenon? Is it possible to make the crisis, which can seem both temporally and spatially abstract, more concrete, more urgent, and thereby more tractable? In attempting to answer these questions, Miller has focused her research and design efforts on a modern oddity: plastiglomerates.

The crude, amorphous lumps—“perhaps the first material of the Anthropocene age,” as Miller puts it—most often form when natural materials (sand, stone, wood) and bits of man-made waste accrete around a base of molten plastic. Constituting an entirely new class of material, plastiglomerates are highly variable in structure: some are formed by beach campfires, while others are produced in the middle of the ocean in large floating landfills, where the crushing pressure of tidal currents combines with UV radiation to slowly glue together detritus.

As a result, a plastiglomerate may simply consist of three detergent bottles warped together, though the masses can also appear subtler and eerily natural, like a dirtied clump of pumice or a volcanic stone. Because plastiglomerates have such a curious provenance and appearance, they offer unique design opportunities. 

As Miller asserted in her talk, plastiglomerates have the potential, when used in construction, to tether the idea of climate change more solidly to the resulting structure. Because plastiglomerates are neither wholly man-made nor entirely natural—because they embody, in a strictly physical way, the often nebulous interactions between humans and the environment—Miller believes they are a promising starting point for representing climate change through architecture.

Working with a team of designers, Miller has experimented with creating her own plastiglomerates, which, by and large, are more photogenic than the “naturally” occurring specimens. Miller’s creations, which she calls “post rock,” are typically of a uniform color, their surfaces smooth and often gleaming, though familiar shapes (bottles, cups, furniture) are still discernible beneath the gloss.

In closing her presentation, Miller dwelt on the models that she and her teammates recently designed for a proposed installation at the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Not quite sculptures and not quite buildings, the models strike a middling note: like the material out of which they are made, they are at once attractive and unsettling. Some—earth-toned, pitted and rough, with geometric portals and windows—seem to suggest caves, and the distant origins of the human race. And yet others—white, cloudlike, almost lunar—gesture forward, into the perilous future and outside the world that made them.

 

Find out more about Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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From Garden to City

Urban Landscape Outreach Launch

From Garden to City

By Jeanne Haffner, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies

The Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies is located on the tree-filled grounds of the historic gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. But its mission, as its name suggests, is to extend landscape studies into the city. In April and May, the program did this literally, launching its outreach program for students from underserved schools in Washington, D.C. Over a hundred students were given tours of the new LEED-certified Fellowship House, the recently designed pollinator garden by the Garden Court, and the historic gardens themselves.

The first of these workshops, titled “Biodiversity from Garden to City,” built upon the landscape and architecture curriculum at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, located in northeast Washington, D.C. Students toured the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, paying particular attention to landscape design, topography, and water management, and met with Luís Mármol, gardener and horticulturalist. They were shown different types of plant beds—from the highly aesthetic Rose Garden to the more functional Kitchen Garden—and the Wilderness, an area located in the South Lawn, just before R Street, that serves to absorb water as well as to provide a contrast with more formal areas. Tyler fellow Deirdre Moore, who designed the new pollinator garden, discussed issues of water management as well as the connection between certain plants and the insects they attract. The field trip ended with a pop-up exhibit of Moore’s drawings and maps of the pollinator garden in the Lower Refectory, where students were given the opportunity to ask questions about the design process.

From Garden to City 1 Fourth graders from Achievement Prep learn about the role of trees in urban ecology.

In May, we expanded outreach initiatives to include elementary school students through the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, a group that organizes field trips for public and public charter schools across the District. The “Tree Notebooks” workshop, given to fourth, seventh, and eighth graders from Achievement Prep in southeast Washington, D.C., introduced the basics of tree identification and emphasized the importance of trees in urban sustainability and well-being. Students were first asked to identify the uses of trees, ranging from wood and food to spiritual renewal in some cultures. Then they sketched particular trees in the garden—an exercise aimed at reinforcing some of the elements of tree identification as well as landscape design. Another workshop, “City of Trees,” was given to sixth graders from McKinley Middle School. Using the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks, students were shown various ways in which ecological issues enter the city, from gardens like the ones at Dumbarton Oaks to water management and biodiversity at the pollinator garden and LEED certification at the Fellowship House. Throughout the tour, students also paid particular attention the gardens’ topography and various strategies for controlling the flow of water from garden to park.

From Garden to City 2 The National Building Museum’s Teen Council visited the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens on May 14 to examine differences in landscape design between the historic gardens and neighboring park.

The National Building Museum’s Teen Council, a part of the museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program, came to Dumbarton Oaks in mid-May to explore design features, hydrology, and historical topography in the gardens and Dumbarton Oaks Park in a workshop called “Private Garden, Public Park.” As those familiar with Beatrix Farrand’s work know, the gardens and Dumbarton Oaks Park used to be connected, giving the visitor the experience of going from a manicured garden to a more “wild”—but just as designed—space. The more feral parts, which lay at the bottom of the hill by the creek, were given to the National Park Service in 1940, the same year that the gardens and museum collections were transferred to Harvard University. After an extensive tour of the gardens, students walked through the gate at the base of the Forsythia Dell to Dumbarton Oaks Park. They saw remnants from the pre-1940 era, including the stone bridge, dams along the creek, and stone benches along the path, and then imagined new transitions from garden to park.

Outreach is just one aspect of the Mellon grant, which was awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's “Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities” initiative and runs through 2018. The program also provides fellowships for scholars working on urban landscape issues all over the world and organizes a variety of events aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue. The outreach component of the grant, however, is unique. It provides an opportunity to foster new collaborations between Dumbarton Oaks and outside organizations, such as the National Building Museum, and to rethink the gardens as the basis for a series of workshops on landscape and planting design, urban sustainability, and biodiversity in cities. In addition, preparing for these events drew together people inside Dumbarton Oaks, from the gardens staff and Garden and Landscape Studies program to the Director’s Office.

The Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies is excited to build on these workshops with more events next year with these and additional institutions. Extending scholarly research in urban landscape studies to students in secondary education occupies an important position in Dumbarton Oaks’ overall mission to support the humanities and serve the wider public and to find ways for local schools to use the gardens and museum as an educational resource. Dumbarton Oaks might have some very old relics in its possession but they are being looked at through younger and younger eyes.

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