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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.


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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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