Monday, October 14, 2013

Design in the flow

I know few who live outside the tyranny of speed.  I lament that despite my efforts, I am continually holding myself back from what I would rather do, because I am compelled to drudge through what I "should" do.  Speed in all its forms: efficiency, responsibility, performance, financial stability all scream their threats should I consider interrupting work for lunch with a friend, talking too long with a client on personal terms, or going for a mid-day hike.  Occasionally I rebel and I am richly rewarded with increased inspiration.  As a struggling student myself, I offer these thoughts.
It is not natural to think in terms of speed.  This way of thinking disconnects us from nature and hinders us from connecting with one-another.  Nature, including humans, is inclined to move in terms of rhythm as opposed to measured beats (I think this is why the ticking clock drives me crazy, and music and dance energize me).  When we move rhythmically, when we think rhythmically, when we breathe rhythmically, indeed, when we live rhythmically, we flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, coined the term "flow."  He describes this state of being as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.  Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."  

When in "the flow" we feel truly alive.  In contrast, Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich laments, "speed is in conflict with aliveness.  It is a crude example of historical congeries gratuitously attributed to nature. It comes out of a bodiless lust that lies deeper than the major assumptions on which the modern world is built."

I relate this very natural need to remove oneself from the observance of the ticking of the clock to connecting deeply to a place.  We feel "at home," and somehow, we know it despite the fact that it surprises us that we know it.  We happen upon "home."  But how many of us truly become the creators of home?  How many of us utilize our sort of sixth sense to feel that we have, if for just moments, found ourselves in harmony?  How many of us understand how important it is, and I would argue even essential to create a place that enables a life of harmony where we can rhythmically experience our world?

As a designer, I am compelled to join my clients with a place of harmony, where they feel at home, where the clock ceases to click away.  I feel I have achieved success when I can help my client through place tune into rhythm which leads them to "the flow" which in turn leads to connecting with, indeed sensing, primal energies with a sort of sixth sense which leads one to a feeling of true aliveness.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Energy of a Space

Everything is energy, therefore "energetic."  Imagine the world and everything in it composed of vital energy or a life force which vibrates at different frequencies.  This energy moves through space and around every living being, having originated from the sun, the earth and the air.  When the energy is dense, we can see it.  More fluid, less dense, ephemeral energy, often touches us without conscious awareness of how we have been touched by it.  Some of us are more inclined to sensing this more ephemeral energy, while others can learn to tune in to this energy.

I sometimes enter a garden, or a home, or an urban space, or a forest, or a cathedral and I can strongly feel the energy of the space.  Look at these images for example:

Looking through this obscured doorway invokes my curiosity.  My energy level rises as I wonder what is on the other side, and I am drawn through the portal.

This natural scene is peaceful, serene and contemplative.  My energy level relaxes and I feel soothed.

This lively city space is high energy; I feel activity in every corner of the space.
 It is important to take this energy into consideration when getting to know a space and planning for its transformation.  The space will have an existing energy inherited from the existing plants, wildlife, furnishings and surfaces.  It will also bear the energy of former residents, and past events that took place in the space.  This energy may be beneficial and should be retained to add to the garden transformation.  Other energy, such as neglect or harshness should be transformed.  

It is also important to consider the future intended energy to occupy the space.  Is the space intended for entertainment and activity?  Or is it instead intended for finding peace after a busy day of life.  The elements that we bring into the future garden should reflect the intended future energy.  Although we do not naturally understand a space in such terms, we are affected by it whether we recognize the effect or not.  Each garden that I get to know and create anew receives such consideration during my design process.  It is equally important as the aesthetics and the functionality as it is essential to the excellence of both of these realms.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Jewel Garden

I'm currently installing a small, enclosed garden for a friend.  I've called it the "Jewel Garden" because small spaces allow a bit of luxury for details, and details are intended for this little space.  This garden has been envisioned and re-envisioned multiple times, and I think that the final revision suits the space quite well!  

Somehow as I design and get to know as space, it speaks to me of it's possibilities  and of what might suit it authentically.  I've never situated faux doors before, but this garden told me that they would make all the difference.  The fencelines in this space bothered me so much.  The back fence changes levels, you can see neighboring fences, and the material is uninteresting.  So I made the suggestion to add "doors" to the back fenceline to my friend, and he accepted the suggestion.  Now that the doors have been placed, I'm so happy to have them; they add so much to the design.  

I am helping with the construction, and so far we've proceeded as follows:
  1. demo existing elements that were not to remain
  2. rough grade site
  3. install irrigation, fountain and focal point
  4. build small, undulating, natural stone retaining wall
  5. build small natural stone patio 
  6. install lighting
The next step is the planting, and I'm quite excited.  Planting is my favorite part and always makes everything prettier and somehow come together.  I'll post before and after photos on my website, but for now, here are a couple of glimpses of construction photos.

The loveliest Chondropetalum tectorum that I've ever come across

Chondropetalum tectorum is one of my very favorite plants and, as such, I use it in almost every design I create.  It is a great profile plant, and looks terrific profiled up against a wall.  It is nice in native or Mediterranean gardens, and in my experience, I've seen it do well in either drought-tolerant or regularly watered gardens.  As I get to know the plant better, though, I find that it definitely prefers and looks better in sunnier locations with small amounts of regular water.  In the shade it tends to get a bit droopy.  

A few weeks ago, in the charming small seaside town of Cambria, as I walked with my family along the coast and through the neighborhoods, I came upon the nicest example of a Chondropetalum that I've really ever seen.

It is large, upright, and the brown flower bracts are so beautifully pronounced.  The site, a sunny seaside drought-tolerant garden suited it well.  It is notable that in several adjacent gardens I saw other Chondropetalum's, none of which looked even close to being as nice as this plant.

From San Marcos Growers, one of my favorite online sources for plant info:

"This South African plant forms dense tufted clumps from which arise 2-3 feet tall dark green unbranched stems. The dark brown sheaths at the joints drop off in summer leaving a dark band. Late in the season the stems arch gracefully from the weight of clusters of small brown flowers at the tips. Plant in full to part sun. It is drought tolerant, and appreciates supplemental water in spring. It is hardy to about 20-25 degrees F. It can be successfully planted in seaside gardens, used in relatively dry landscapes or as a plant in the shallows of a water garden. Tolerates a wide soil pH range. The plant widely grown in the US as Chondropetalum tectorum has been reclassified as Chondropetalum elephantinum. This true Chondropetalum tectorum is a smaller plant (about 3 feet tall) from the southern Cape. The larger plant Chondropetalum elephantinum which we still grow as well, is a more robust form up to 6 feet tall from the West Coast. The taxonomic work up on this was done by Dr. Hans Peter Linder who is a professor at the University of Zurich Institute for Systematical Botany and co-author of the "Restios of the Fynbos". Likely, many of the plants in the nursery trade are from seed collected from the larger form. We received this first offering of the "true" Chondropetalum tectorum seed in the spring of 2004. While this new plant should delight gardeners seeking a smaller plant, it will likely confuse many who know the larger plant under this name. In another taxonomic twist Dr. Linder, based on DNA evidence, has most recently included Chondropetalum in the genus Elegia, so this plant would now become Elegia tectorum. We retain the name Chondropetalum tectorum for this plant until such time as this becomes more widely accepted. The name Chondropetalum comes from the Greek words 'chondros' meaning "wheat" or a "big, grain of wheat" and 'petalum' meaning a "flower petal". The origin of the name Elegia is that it is the Latin word ' elegia' which means a "song of lamentation" perhaps in reference to the rustling sound of the culms in the wind. The specific epithet comes from the Latin tectorum meaning 'roofing' in reference to the fact that this species has been used to provide thatching material, though it is likely that the plant most used for thatching was really the larger ones now called Chondropetalum elephantinum [Elegia elephantina]."

A Letter to the Newhall Neighborhood, Looking Back

Several years ago, I authored an architectural design pattern book which was intended to guide new development in my neighborhood, the Newhall Neighborhood in San Jose, CA.  I have since regrettably moved away from my beloved home in this wonderful neighborhood, and I offer this summary as a letter which reveals my fond feelings for this wonderful place.

One’s native ground is the place where, since before you had words for such knowledge, you have known the smells, the seasons, the birds and beasts, the human voices, the houses, the ways of working, the lay of the land, and the quality of light.  It is the landscape you learn before you retreat inside the illusion of your skin.

Real estate ads offer houses for sale, not homes.  A house is a garment, easily put off or on, casually bought and sold; a home is skin.  Merely change houses and you will be disoriented; change homes and you bleed.  When the shell you live in has taken on the savor of your love, when your dwelling has become a taproot, then your house is a home.
 - Scott Russell Sanders

Our neighborhood is not only comprised of its buildings as objects, but it is, moreover, the sum of the uses of the buildings, porches, sidewalks, streets, and neighborhood amenities.  The language of any neighborhood is both collective memory and collective aspiration.  While history concerns the past, tradition concerns the thresholds from heritage into the future.  This notion of tradition, of urban evolution, and of creating and recreating wholeness should be our primary focus while adding to this neighborhood.  We thus offer this pattern book as a way of revealing both our collective memory and our collective aspiration to help designers, developers and the City to create beautiful homes and public urban space which complement the existing surrounding neighborhood.   

Pattern books were commonly used at the time of our neighborhood’s first construction, and throughout history.  They offered local builders and craftsmen essential details to construct an architecturally correct house.  Pattern books were offered in several forms: classical treatises or manuals, plan books that could be replicated, catalogs for building products, or plans for pre-manufactured houses.

Our pattern book serves more as a data and idea file.  We give the user a glimpse of the project sites from those who have a history and direct connection with them, and who have a direct stake in the projects’ success.  Consequently, we urge users to plan for this particular urban space by paying special attention to the surrounding details at three scales: (1) the overall plan for the development suiting the layout of the existing land; (2) the image of typical urban spaces within the plan complementing the existing urban spaces within the neighborhood; and (3) the individual buildings with their architectural details echoing the architectural styles of the surrounding homes.  The pattern book has three essential sections: Project Overview and Neighbor Concerns, which explains our understanding of the proposed development projects and our reaction to the proposals; Our Collective Memory, which reveals the existing neighborhood character, including the most prevalent architectural styles; and Our Collective Aspirations, which illustrates our hopes for the additions to our neighborhood, citing examples of recent developments of similar scale.

Our neighborhood derives much of its character from its diversity of architectural styles and textures.  We, therefore, encourage any development which pursues a similar mixture of styles and textures at a modern density which blends well with our existing density. In the final product, we would like to achieve a balance between the  individual expression of each building and a unity of all of the architectural styles.  Color should also be used to enliven the development and to harken to the surrounding neighborhood.  As in any composition, a symphony is created from notes which harmonize, take one on a journey, and tell a story.  Repetitions and patterns are present, but are accented and blended into the composition whole.

Finally, we urge all who use this book to study our concerns, familiarize themselves with our history and architecture, and understand and implement our prescriptions for quality developments to enhance our existing neighborhood.  Examine each section as a whole, and go back and come to know the details.  The overall layout of the neighborhood is important, the size of our streets, the positioning of our homes on their lots, our street amenities, street trees, and landscaping.  The massing of our buildings is integral to determining and recreating the proper architectural styles.  Door and window placement and dimensions are important, as is exterior detailing.  All of these elements combine together to develop the special place that our neighborhood has evolved into. 

Our residences within the Newhall Neighborhood are truly homes, and our neighborhood, consequently, offers us all a place of comfort and belonging, a place away from harm.  We stroll along our sidewalks beside tree-lined streets in couples holding hands, with our children, walking our dogs, or solo commuting to work.  Our streets are pedestrian friendly, and we feel safe. 

The Newhall Neighborhood has seen many new residents, but others have lived here for many years, and raised families within our grounds.  After so many years of intimacy, the neighborhood dwells in us as surely as we dwell in the neighborhood.  Those of us who have made a connection with this place continue to work to improve upon it.  Our efforts have accomplished the construction of new sidewalks, the planting of new trees, a traffic calming street closure, a park, and a prospering neighborhood organization which continues to address issues important to our residents. 

We dwell in a neighborhood of diversity, and this is exemplified by the variety of our homes’architectural styles. We draw the reader’s attention to five particular architectural styles which are prevalent within our neighborhood, and we discuss them in alphabetical order: (1) European Romantic, (2) Minimal Traditional, (3) Spanish Revival, (4) Vernacular, and (5) Victorian Farmhouse and Cottage.  We highlight exemplars from primarily a one mile radius of the project sites, and have secondarily looked to examples within a three mile radius.  After citing the characteristics which distinguish each architectural style, we then point to special features such as doors, windows, rooflines, chimneys, materials, details, and landscaping.  It is important to see these elements dimensioned individually as well as placed within the whole composition of the house to achieve scale.

 It is our belief that the special quality achieved by this architectural multiplicity draws a particular type of resident who will laude our diversity.  This is an important characteristic of our neighborhood, and although we are open to change, we support change which will respect this special distinction, and draw future neighbors who will contribute to our special place.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My New Worx Intellicut...

has arrived.  And I am soooo excited!  For I mow lawns for a living.  Among many other things, certainly.  I consider myself a bit of a renaissance woman.  As a landscape designer, life circumstances highly encouraged me to consider my clients' urgings to offer a maintenance service to accompany my installed landscape designs.  And when I found that it is oh so difficult to hire a prince gardener on a budget, I was thrown into the additional professional role as Botany of Design's head gardener.

Whew!  For years as I studied and worked in Landscape Architecture, I urged my friends and family who had no idea of what a Landscape Architect is that, "I (emphatically) am not a gardener."  And now, well, I suppose I am a gardener (she says as she shrugs her very petite shoulders).

Ok, I can do this.  I've a big white American truck at my disposal.  Check!  I've gone out and purchased all the tools, a small investment since I already had the bohemoth lawn mower (which I was already used to pushing around), and the only other power tool I included in my entourage was a backpack blower (which I love, by the way).  Check!  Gas and oil mixtures.  Check!  Clients.  Check!  Service lists, routes, notes and camera.  Check!

Ok, I'm ready to go!  Hmmm, how do I get this lawnmower in to the truck?  Well, after spending days watching actual gardeners' techniques and trying many of my own, I finally settled into hoisting the 70 pound monster onto its rear wheels and rolling its front wheels from the tip of the bed on back.  Sounds easy enough... but it wasn't.  Not to mention getting the mower back out again.

A few years later, I've settled into my gardening chores with a mix of dread, but true love.  It gives me so much time to think, I get to touch the dirt (which I love), I see the stages beyond planting and the evolution of my gardens, I learn so much more about my plants and my little created ecosystems, and it gets me out of my office.  One day, I'm in my dress and heels and the next I'm tired and dirty, hoisting around lawnmowers.  I've found my equilibrium and for now settled in with my gardener(ish) fate.

But my dreams of a lawnmower that I can actually pick up and (perhaps) fit in the back of my Volvo Cross Country abided.  Until now, for I think I may have found my ideal mower!  I never could have found such a silly little machine in a big muscular warehouse store, so, alas, I was obliged to take a chance on site unseen through the web.  The reviews were mixed, but mostly good.  And when  I kept seeing the words "small" and "toy" pop up, I thought, "this is the mower for me!"  So I snapped it up; and indeed, it is small and my 4 year old son could push it as a toy.  It has earned some points.  But the true test will come on the (battle) fields as I push it across the green locks of my gardens.  Will it cut?  The jury, of course, is still out.  But, indeed, I shall update...

Awww, isn't she cute?  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Death begets life

December’s descent into darkness has begun.  The chaos of wind and chill and rain bring disorder and death in the garden. And of death, while we await, begets rebirth.  Surely the gardening life places us privy to the many secrets of the cycles of endings begetting beginnings and our existence in between.  These cycles play themselves out many times in the garden, and as we gardeners partake in these cycles each season, we observe and participate in the unification of being and not being, infinite and finite.  It is a participation in the “holy,” this dance we follow.

January particularly triggers recognition of this unity dance of juxtaposition, as we remain still in darkness, yet yearn for new beginnings.  It is the topic of ancient myths, death begetting birth, and indeed, death sustaining life.  And as one considers deeply, we begin to see that these ancient myths silently guide our modern lives.  Lately it has frequently filled my mind, this deep connection of garden and myth.  Myths, rituals, and archetypes are quietly yet poignantly present in each design I create.  As I delve into the understanding of this deep connection between the garden and myth, it is my intention to invite the further participation of my friends and clients.  The garden is so much more than a pretty place to plant flowers, grow a lawn, and invite friends for lunch.  I’ve observed this over and over as I watch my clients’ interactions with their new gardens, and as I have experienced with the creation of (and loss of) my own garden.  Connections grow deep…

Jennifer Heath, in her book “The Echoing Green,” understands this connection.  She proclaims, “Gardens and myths are companions, twin visions that touch the same desire for transcendence.  Gardening and storytelling are both acts of love, veneration, and imagination.”

And so, too, a little death has taken place for me; I observe as I look back on the turbulence of the recently passing years.  As I find rebirth, it is this companionship of the garden and myth which allows us a homecoming and a striving for transcendence, to which I turn and to which I offer my clients.  I wish to you all a rebirth in this new year.