Friday, January 29, 2010

Thuja, Thuja, Thuja

Remember back in May when I posted those photos of Liriodendron tulipifera? At that time, the landscape installation had not been complete at the Cooper Square Hotel. Now all the paving, furnishings and additional plants have been installed, too.

I had been so tickled to see the tuliptree (an urban rarity) planted at this site and had high hopes that other off-the-beaten-path plant species would be included in the palette. Alas, I was underwhelmed when I saw that everything else is Thuja (arborvitae). Don't get me wrong -- arborvitaes are handy plants and can be used in a seamless green screen to powerful effect. For a modernish building like this hotel, I appreciate the intent.

...But this landscape just reminds me of what a friend once said at a diner over breakfast, "The thing about pancakes is that you're halfway through eating them and it's just more pancakes." Indeed. The landscape above is a bit monotonous. Also puzzling is the use of a bluestone random rectangular paving pattern. It's lovely, but it is so residential; it seems like a missed opportunity to do something contemporary and to keep in step with the building.

Now, then a bit about Thuja itself. I haven't named a species because frankly there are several of them and I have a hard time telling them apart. There's Thuja occidentalis (which is often cultivated for a darker, more vibrant wintertime green - the straight species gets yellowed in the winter), Thuja orientalis (which is cultivated to be more winter-hardy, as this species is tender in cold climates) and Thuja plicata (which has great foliage). T. orientalis, I should add, has actually been reclassified as either Biota orientalis or Platycladus orientalis but people in the landscape trade still consider it a Thuja. If you aren't confused enough by now, let's add that the common name for T. occidentalis is also white cedar, even though the plant isn't related to Cedrus but is instead in the cypress (Cupressaceae) family.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thom Mayne's Cooper Union Building

I have (very reasonably, I think) veered from too much architecture on this site. There's no dearth of architectural criticism (snarchitecture?) on the web and I don't feel like there's much I can add to those dialogues. Though really, check out From Our House to Bauhaus - it's a fun read.

All of that said, I cannot resist posting two photos of Thom Mayne's Cooper Union Building. If my many posts about Liz Christy Gardens haven't indicated it clearly enough, for the past few years I have been living in the East Village and the Lower East Side. Longtime readers will remember I had to leave my LES apartment in December '08 due to a fire. Since then I've been in the East Village, just a few blocks away from this building.

The fact that I walk by this building on a regular basis probably accounts for why I love it so much. Perhaps if I had only seen it once or twice, I'd feel differently. But the thing I have discovered about this building in the course of my quitodian walks by it, is how much the building responds to the light. On sunny days it sparkles, on cloudy days it almost blends into the atmosphere. It's remarkable, and if you live in the city I encourage you to walk by it in all kinds of weather -- it's like an architectural mood ring. (Yes, somewhere Herbert Muschamp is rolling over in his grave.)

Since I've already invoked tacky 70's fashion fads, I suppose I should just go all-out and say that I also like this building because I can practically see the hovercars whiz by it, fifty years from now. I'm not much for sci-fi movies, but I was arrested by the tableaus in Minority Report, since the mix of old and new architecture seemed to realistically capture what may lie ahead. Seeing this building, just across the street from its 1858 predecessor, gives one a great view of our possible future as well as our past.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hedera helix

Well, it's been cold lately in New York. The past few days we finally broke into weather above 35° and it felt downright tropical (if only). Add this to the fact that I'm planning a big move and packing and well, at least for the time being, I have a full time job, so it's safe to say I've been awfully busy.

But that doesn't mean I can't post something up here. Even if it's as plebeian as English ivy (Hedera helix), seen here growing up Platanus x. acerifolia at the Marble Cemetery.

Everyone knows this plant. Over the past five years of teaching, very few students are unable to identify this plant as ivy when encountered with it. It's a very handy, practically-bulletproof plant that can be used as a climbing vine (as above) or as a groundcover (as below).

But there are probably things about Hedera helix that the average person doesn't know.

The name itself comes to mind. Hedera is simply the Latin name for ivy, but helix tells one more about the plant. Specifically that the leaves emerge from the stem in a helical pattern (much like the way DNA molecules are arranged in a strand).

Above you see the more recognizable form of ivy climbing the wall, then it balloons out into a shrub-like mass and starts to fall back down the wall. That's the adult phase of the plant. The form we see most often is the juvenile stage.

Here's ivy, in adult form, climbing a tree at Liz Christy Garden. The overall form of the plant isn't the only thing that changes. If you look more closely, you see the leaf changes from a three-lobed shape into a more ovate-shaped leaf - the lobes disappear.

You also see that, like people, this plant is able to reproduce once it is in the adult stage. Bluish berries fruit a year after minute flowers are pollinated. These fruits are mildly toxic.

The next obvious question is, why can some ivy plants remain at the juvenile stage for decades, while others enter the adult phase? The key is height. Generally, when the plant is more than 20 feet above-ground, and it is not being pruned or clipped, it enters the adult phase.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Straddling Seasons

Yes, I know it's barely one month into winter, but it's time to start thinking about spring, no?

I mentioned once before how, in New York, when all else fails, we can gauge the change in seasons by what's on display at the bodegas. Well, this picture seems to perfectly illustrate where we are in the year.

We still have the leftover mini Christmas trees and the Amaryllis bulbs (typical for holiday flora), but they are slowly being edged out by jonquils and Iris reticulata. Soon we'll see forced hyacinths in the delis and after that, cut daffodils and finally lilacs!

Though it's hardly a natural setting, this little arrangement in the East Village is a nice indication that warmer weather is ahead.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

From Our House to Bauhaus

Frankly, I think Tom Wolfe could write about factories that produce brown paper bags and he’d spin a good yarn out of it (except maybe, for A Man in Full). The Bonfire of the Vanities is a must-read for anyone, but especially for those of us who have lived in New York and have been witness to more than one local political scandal.

Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building

But despite this and despite the fact that I work in the field of design, I had never read From Bauhaus to Our Houseuntil recently. And that’s a shame, because it’s a great read.

Wolfe chronicles the advent of modernism, starting with Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus School for architects. From there he illustrates the fevered admiration of the rest of the world’s architectural community, until the point that defining yourself as an architect is barely less specific than labeling yourself a modernist. He touches on the absurdity that some of the most renowned modern architects are the ones that build the least. Finally, he observes the backlash towards this style - starting with Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas.

Gordon Bunshaft+SOM's Lever House

If you are even tangentially connected to architecture or design, I’d recommend this -- it’s a light, fast, breezy book that somehow still manages to provide academic information and discuss seemingly lofty concepts.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Glossy Abelia

I'll be honest, I haven't taken these photos with my new camera; it's just too miserable outside. Hopefully I will get new shots soon (i.e., the weather will warm up), but in the meantime, some photos of Glossy Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora), still blooming at the NYBG back in December.

I'd never classify this plant as a specimen - it's loose sprawling habit requires too much maintenance to shape into anything sculptural - but it's a terrific massing plant for public or institutional landscapes.

And obviously, it blooms well into the winter. I'd be curious how it has handled these 20 degree days.

Abelia x grandiflora is a hybrid of Abelia chinensis and uniflora.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Moving Sale

A total "Other Stuff" item. So "Other Stuff" that I'm post-dating it, so regular readers won't be too bothered.

I need to sell the following items. Contact me at if you are interested.

Oak dresser, 45"Wx18.5"Dx24"H. $75. Low height is perfect for TV's.

1950's era standing ashtray. Very 'madmen.' 10"x10"x20". Since it's vintage I'm asking $50.

Antique (1940s) dresser with armoire doors. Walnut veneer. It needs some TLC but with the right person this can restored beautifully. The armoire doors would make this a great bar closet.
35"Wx47.5"Hx20"D. Asking $125.

Bed Bath & Beyond over-the-toilet storage shelf. $15.

This IKEA dresser needs some help - I've drilled the pieces back together once before, it definitely needs it again. That's why I'm selling it for so cheap: $15. 32"Wx33"Hx16"D.

Pop art plastic chair. 18"x18"x32". $25.

Wooden saddle stool. 24" high. $30.

Kate's Paperie: Home Leather Chair, 21"x21"x35". Great condition. $75.

This Crate & Barrel storage cube/coffee table has suffered serious cat damage (see scratches). But fabric can be stapled over this and it can still be quite useful. 18"x18"x20" CHEAP: $10.

Dirt Devil mini-vac. $10.

Simple human mini dish rack. 12.9"D x 14.5"W x 7.1"H. Only 1 year old. Retails for $40, this one is $15.

...In the words of Kramer, "Interesting trades considered."

...That's not really true, I just want the cash, but I'll consider reasonable offers and I'll definitely give you a discount if you buy multiple items. First person to pay for an item gets it. You can schedule pick up after payment - but must do so by the 23rd.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Camera! & Links

So yesterday I finally got a new camera, which is very exciting since I feel like I'm traveling without a passport when I don't have a camera with me. It's a Canon PowerShot SX120IS - so far I like it -- my previous camera was a Canon and I am, evidently, in a family of Canon owners so there's a convenience to sharing the same memory cards and cables. That said, if you have this camera and hate it, please let me know. I have 13 days to return it.

Hopefully this means I will have some more material next week, but in the meantime, some links:

You may have heard that David Murbach passed away this week. Murbach was the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree hunter. He would scour landscapes near and far for the perfect Christmas tree, which we already know is almost always a Picea abies. He also founded a local horticulture group here in New York called MetroHort. I saw him speak there once - he shared slides with us of various seasonal landscape schemes for Rockefeller Plaza and elaborated on how they were designed and how plants were sourced. The New York Times has an obituary of him here.


US News and World Report published an article called, Top 50 Careers for 2010. Landscape architecture is listed in the category "Creative and Service" - this group seems like a bit of a catchall, since plumbers, funeral directors and security system installers are also included.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Perhaps my camera should break every January. I mean, really: who wants to look at dreary photos of plants in a bleak, wintry landscape when we can reminisce about warmer days?

Like the day in May that I took this photo of Sambucus nigra, or elder, or elderberry, growing in the Liz Christy Garden:

The flowers are beautiful, creamy white corymbs. Corymbs are flat-topped flower structures. The most popular flower structure of course (after the simple flower), is the panicle, which is a cone-shaped flower. Paniculata is a popular species name as it refers to this flower shape. Other flower structures include racemes, spikes, catkins, spadices, and umbels.

The flowers and the black-colored (thus, S. "nigra") elderberries that follow are non-toxic, however the rest of the plant is poisonous if ingested raw in high quantities. When processed into a syrup, the plant has been proven to reduce some cold and flu symptoms. But, don't try that at home, kids.

The flowers are used in drinks such as an elderflower cordial and the equally-obviously named Sambuca. The berries, like many others, are used in jams and jellies.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge

First off, apologies for taking some time off from this blog. Second, a warning that my camera lens is jammed and is under repair. So the next few posts will be anachronistic photos from the archives.

And now for a "New York" and "Other Stuff" item, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club.

Ever since I moved to New York in 1999, I have idly threatened to participate in the New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge. The irrational exuberance of jumping into the ocean on January 1st appeals to me on a, well, primitive level. I had never done it before but, buoyed my friend Dave, who responded to my pleas for conspirators via facebook status updates, I did it this year.

It was definitely a great New York activity. Dave and I, and his friend Brian, met on the Q train platform on Friday morning. We allowed ourselves every opportunity to chicken out at the last instant. But when we got to Coney Island and saw the crowds of people, our doubts began to ease.

I mean, if these perfectly sane people can do it, why can't we?

That's Brian and me, below. We're heading up to the boardwalk, where you can see there are throngs of people. A PA system blasted songs intended to pump up our resolve.

Some needed that musical inspiration more than others. Veterans to the plunge were all around, quickly sizing up us newbies, telling us that we're lucky this year, after all it's around 40°, and there's no wind. This plunge, they said, will be easy.

The Polar Bear Club estimates that 800-1000 people participate each year.

The funny thing about an event like this, is that I was running into people left and right. In a crowd that big, I saw a former colleague from the zoo and another colleague with whom I worked at City Planning.

Dave himself was a friend from the zoo and he connected with the aquarium folks who co-sponsor the event. We ran into them moments before the plunge began. We were ushered past the VIP ropes you see below and invited to join them in leading the charge. As soon as we passed those ropes, getting wet was a fait accompli.

At 1pm, we made our way down the aisle, passing dozens of photographers from local new joints. Personally, being photographed running in a bathing suit, after a month of holiday parties, may have been worse than getting in 40° water! ...But that kind of vanity is inconsequential when one has a chance to do something as irrational and exhilarating as the polar bear plunge. It felt amazing. We were in the water for about a minute (ask me five years from now and I'll tell you five minutes). It was bracingly cold, but the icy water seemed to release all kinds of endorphins - a natural high, no doubt. After we got out of the water, the air temp seemed downright balmy. I anticipated that getting dressed would be a painful and rushed activity, but we practically ambled back to the changing rooms on the boardwalk. I've had site visits in snowy weather that were far more unpleasant than this quick dip.

Of course, best of all, there were tee shirts. 'Cause if you don't have a tee shirt documenting it, it practically didn't happen! ;)