Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Velib Velos

I recently was talking to someone who was en route for Paris. It made me recall my trip there this time last year and I had told him about the public bicycle system. I posted the following description on my mac pages last year. I decided to post it here now.

This public transit system is amazing! I paid five euros for unlimited bike access. That buys you unlimited use of a bicycle, in thirty minute increments. If you are late returning it to a station (any one in the city), you are charged an additional euro per half hour. The bikes are hefty - like beach cruisers - but have three gears. They aren’t set up to go too fast - my Schwinn’s much faster - but that may be a good safety feature for the system. Finding the kiosks when you need to return a bike can be tricky - I’m sure you develop a mental inventory fairly quickly. While I am sure that France has the same issues as New York, regarding the threat of vandalism and theft, Americans are probably more litigious and the city is reluctant to take any risk of liability. Anyway, just some thoughts I’m sharing, as I have been thinking about this all week.

Now, let’s get a bike...Sebastian, a friend of mine in Paris, is going to help us.

A typical bike stand and kiosk (kiosk is in the midground):

Sign for an ID & PIN number.

It may be frustrating at times, figuring out how to set up an account,

It's more fun if you smile.

After you get an ID & PIN number, you can select your bike by entering its number in the kiosk. But before you make your selection, check the tires, and see if the chain is loose.

For the most part, the bikes were very well-maintained.

Once you find a good bike, enter the bike's number, and the electronic lock will release so you can retrieve the bike.

Voila! You’re ready to go...

Monday, September 29, 2008


Beautyberry, or Callicarpa, is a favorite plant of mine. It's a medium-sized shrub and while it may be a little too loose or sprawling to work as a specimen plant, or to play any structural role in a design, it is gorgeous en masse.

In the spring the leaves emerge with a perfect chartreuse green hue. It is particularly noticeable when it brightens up a shady spot. In mid-summer, small pink flowers bloom along the stem.

The summer flowers are nice enough, but the real show is in the fall, when a magenta-colored fruit forms where the flowers once were.

The stems of new growth also turn magenta as the days become shorter.

Personally, I think this is underused, though you can find it in spots of City Hall Park and Battery Park. There are two species: C. dichotoma (a native) and C. japonica. These photos are most likely of the non-native species, which has smaller leaves.

Callicarpa is easy to break down in Latin. Calli- means beautiful and -carpa is derivative of fruit or body. A direct translation will more or less give you the common name, beautyberry.

Friday, September 26, 2008

California Plants & Donuts

A few ubiquitous California plants:

Platanus racemosa, or California sycamore

I think the bark on this sycamore beats our London plane, hands down. And the fall color is certainly better.

Pinus pinea, or Italian Stone Pine

Callistemon citrinus, or Bottlebrush

Clivia grew all over southern California,

...as did the ubiquitous and lovely Bird-of-paradise, or Strelitzia reginae.

This was my first trip to LA. I'd been to San Diego & San Francisco before, but never Los Angeles. The massive area that the city takes up is startling. Rationally, I knew it was big (500 square miles, as opposed to New York City's 300), but I still couldn't understand the scale of the place too easily.

I was really surprised, too, to never lay eyes on the Hollywood sign. When I got there, I thought it would be omnipresent -- like the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, or Big Ben, even. But no. Granted, though I was only in LA proper for about 12 hours, I never encountered it.

I did, however, get to see Randy's Donuts, which was actually pretty exciting.

I wrote my thesis for grad school on roadside vernacular architecture, and even mentioned Randy's Donuts, in addition to Lucy the Elephant and the Long Island Duck. It's the whole building-as-sign thing that grew in popularity in tandem with the automobile industry. I didn't plan on making it a destination during my short trip (and didn't even sample the donuts), but I think I was more excited to see this than had I seen the Hollywood sign...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More of the Getty Center

Here are a few additional shots from the Getty -- primarily of design details that I liked, or at least thought were worth noting.

The entry fountain:

A water feature running along the steps that led to the main entrance:

One of the things I love to do speculate about what design revisions have taken place after a site has been occupied for a while. I would bet you that the potted flowers at the landing was an add-on. Without it there, you could step over the fountain and into a small landscaped area. I am sure this was unintended and the pot was placed there to make access prohibitive.

The lawn areas were in great shape -- they must have a terrific grounds supervisor and irrigation system. You can also see more corten steel retaining walls. It makes a nice edge for the lawn.

Of course, we have those...things...in the background...

Ugh. These bougainvillea planters were, to me at least, just awful. They remind me the parachute drop in Coney Island, but not at all in a good way. They're so clunky and heavy. And then the edging around the teardrop shaped planter looks like it came from Home Depot.

On the bright side, you have the soaring cafe space.

Another view from a courtyard.

There seemed to be a fair amount of James Turrell-like moments of framed sky.

Along these steps you have a clean-looking sandwich-style detail for the rail posts.

Though I still don't know why, when dealing with a contemporary vocabulary, you need to powder-coat steel. It always ends up rusting and becoming a maintenance problem. Especially when the galvanized steel on the top rail looks so good.

And here, we have my absolute favorite part:

How absolutely luscious is that floating walkway? Great big slabs of stone that are seemingly floating, with no visible construction detail holding them together, let alone aloft. Gorgeous!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Getty Center

Last Sunday, I was able to visit the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Robert Irwin, an artist, was responsible for the landscape design and I'm always curious to see how someone who is not an landscape architect approaches a design.

Below is a google earth image of the garden -- for orientation.

The Getty sits on a hilltop in the northeast end of Los Angeles. The Irwin garden focuses primarily on a walk downhill, along the south slope. Water leads you from the museum's main plaza to a lower shade garden with criss-crossing paths, ultimately reaching a circular parterre garden at the southernmost point.

Below is the source for the water.

The fact that this urn below is comprised of one massive, beautifully polished piece of stone is pretty impressive.

On the lower lever, the water falls into a pool:

From there, water passes beneath the sidewalk, and reappears a few feet further south, where it begins to trickle further down the hill, as paths traverse it.

The water then reaches a large pool, some thirty or forty feet below the lower terrace.

Hedges create a parterre garden that seems to 'float' on this water.

Corten steel retains raised planting beds, which echo the circular shape of the parterre.

At this point, I have been following the water with a horizon line of Los Angeles ahead of me for a good ten or fifteen minutes. Though I have been descending in grade, I can make out most of the city on my way downhill. But upon reaching the parterre, at the garden's culmination point, I am prohibited from an expansive view of the city further south.

Furthermore, at the path's conclusion, I am faced with a "No Visitors" sign and forced to turn around and retrace my steps (or continue in a circle, which provides essentially the same experience). To make absolutely certain that no one can see beyond the parterre area, the path is sunken so much that you absolutely cannot see anything beyond the corten wall and the gravel that sits on grade.

Obviously, this was intentional, but I don't understand why. I mean, I can imagine all the theoretical hornswaggle designers spout when they defend a scheme, but knowing that I was being led to this point, only to feel frustrated that I could not progress further, nor could I see the beautiful view... Well, it really annoyed me. Also, on a gorgeous day, when the museum was teeming with people, very few people lingered here. Upper grassed areas were sites for picnics and the outdoor cafe was packed, but the area around the parterre was not used for rest, nor reflection, nor conversation. I can't blame the visitors, really -- the space felt aggressive. As if the parterre (and by extension, the designer) was saying, 'No. Look here.'

Generally, I try to avoid criticism; other people, more qualified than I, can argue a design's success or failure. But this was surprisingly disappointing, and I felt compelled to post about it.

There were some other stellar design details and lovely plants on the site, so I will post some more about that in the next day or two.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Peruvian peppertree

Here's a few shots of Peruvian peppertree, or Schinus molle, at LA's Getty Center.

I saw this tree all over southern California and loved its graceful, fine texture. The tiniest breeze seemed to make the entire tree sway. I was lucky to catch this tree as its highly ornamental fruit were starting to turn, too.

... since the specimens in the next photo are fruitless, it's evident that Schinus is a dioecious plant.

Dioecious is Greek for "two households" and refers to the fact that individual plants of this species are either female or male. Either the male or female tree will flower, but the productive parts of the flowers themselves are unisexual. Pollen from a male tree needs to migrate (typically by wind) to a tree with female flowers. Here on the east coast, perhaps the most well-known dioecious plants are some species of Ilex (holly) and, of course, Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo).

Schinus is indigenous to the Peruvian Andes, and though the fruit do not produce actual pepper, they red berries are often dried and added to pepper mixes for purely aesthetic purposes.

The bark -- exfoliating in thick, stony-and-beige-colored chunks -- added an additional dynamic to the tree; when a wind would push the leaves aside, you would see a flash of brightness reflect off the trunk.

(I will do a post one day this week about the overall garden & landscape design of the Getty, but wanted to dive back into the week with a tree.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Autumnal Equinox

I was, temporarily, borrowing someone else's camera last week (heh, heh, you know who you are!) and never quite got the hang of the settings. So these are a bit out of focus, but I am posting anyway -- this shot, to me, is one of those autumn-in-New-York scenes.

I always get a bit bummed when I see all the mums for sale. It means summer is really, truly, actually ending and socks will become a daily part of my apparel. The little girl in her school uniform really hits this point home.

Mums are, of course, short for Chrysanthemum. The original species, Chrysanthemum indicum, was yellow and Linnaeus himself gave the plant its genus name due to this hue (chrys- means yellow).

Again, forgive my apparent inability to focus!

Of course mums come in endless varieties these days. They are as necessary to a florist as leatherleaf fern and are sold at nurseries (and delis) each autumn.

Another interesting tidbit about this genus is that it is rich with pyrethrum - a natural insecticide. The plants are crushed and processed into many herbal repellents.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Swamp Rose

Swamp Rose, or Rose Mallow, or Hibiscus moscheutos, is one of those plants you would instantly assume to be an exotic species. It's too bold, too colorful, to be a politically-correct native.

But it is -- this plant grows in swampland as far south as Texas and as far north as Ontario. And it comes in terrific, bold shades of pink.

Perhaps the instinct that makes me think this is an exotic plant is because it is related to that iconographic tropical plant, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, or the tropical hibiscus. Another exotic relative, Hibiscus syriacus, or the rose-of-sharon, is native to -- you guessed it -- Syria, China and Asia in-between.

Any of the plants in the Hibiscus genus are easy to recognize by virtue of their flower structure. The long tube in the center of the blossom is called a staminal column -- filaments along the sides hold the anther or pollen. If you bisect the staminal column, you will find in the middle a style that, when intact, protrudes from the top of the staminal column and essentially has small stigmas hanging from it. It's a very compact way to package all the sexual parts of the flower and makes Hibiscus unique from other flowers.

Rose mallow grows very well in wet conditions, but is also pretty tough when its feet are dry. Perhaps it doesn't look like much when it isn't in bloom, but rose mallow creates such a big impact when it does bloom, it would be a shame not to use it. These shots were taken in Battery Park. I really liked the idea of these en masse beneath the littleleaf lindens.

' is simply derivative of an ancient Greek name for a mallow-like plant. Moscheutos indicates that some part of the plant has a musky scent.

...I'm going to LA this weekend -- I'll try to post some fun west coast plants next week!