Thursday, November 20, 2008

Urban Farming

Just reflecting/thinking publicly after today's charette for the Grant Houses Community Gardens at Columbia.. Hopefully I will find more time to develop this a bit further..

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Queens West - Dense Suburbanism

As I begin orchestrating a move after two years of living in Long Island City, I want to dedicate a bit of blog time to the ever-changing neighborhood which more and more residents are attempting to make a home of. I have long held mixed feelings about the developments going on along the river, but the focus today is on a recent one, nearly complete in construction which has broken any sense of order in the urban fabric that the previous towers have attempted to abide by. My street now ends in a 10' tall metal fence.

Ironically, the name of the offending development is The View (, and it first caught my attention in early stages of construction when it's massing slowly grew to block a formerly direct and framed view of the United Nations building across the East river from my street (46th Road). It was these lines of sight directly back to Manhattan which had originally attracted me to the still fairly industrial community.

Other towers growing along the coast in the past 15 or so years all managed to abide by some sense of urbanism. The other buildings are oriented so their wide facades face the North and the South, intelligent for maximizing daylight and minimizing heat gain in this climate. Urbanistically, this creates less major shadows on the existing neighborhood, view corridors are preserved, sidewalks at street level remain defined with commercial use where feasible, and open space is left along the water, where it enhances the Gantry Park and will someday be connected north and south to a system of East River coast park spaces from Brooklyn up to the Queensboro Bridge and beyond.

Some shots of maintained view corridors to Manhattan with the previous developments:

"The View", however demonstrates a departure from all of these basic principles. The building is massive, with the bulk of exposure being East and West to maximize views with no obvious concern for shadowing excessive parts of the neighborhood, or internally saving energy which will be required to maintain comfortable temperatures in the predominantly glass housing units. The site planning around the building is even more unfortunate, as a baseball field has been built directly east of the building, where it extends beyond the street grid, forcing 46th Road to end premature of the water and abruptly with a tall fence.

Living in an urban area, and having programmed baseball fields into dense residential greenways, I understand the both the need for such sport facilities and the challenge of finding the space for such, but the siting here is preposterous for several reasons. First, the field will be completely in the shadow of the adjacent buildings for most of the day (particularly after the construction site across the street is also developed). The siting and size destroys the urban fabric by not conforming to the established street grid, leaving the future development of 46th Road to loading and manufacturing rather than encouraging further small scale residential and commercial when the current industrial uses run their course. The fence along the field makes an unwelcoming edge which breaks down the continuation of 5th Street which will be an important corridor when the coast continues development north towards the Silver Cup site at the 59th Street Bridge. The lack of windowed facades facing this portion of the street cause it to feel unsafe in the evenings for pedestrians despite it's proximity (1 block north) to the newly opened residential amenities of a grocery store and pharmacy.

I find it entirely unfortunate that the siting for this development was not better though through. The land was clearly already owned, and a simple siting switch of building and field space could have allowed the community east of this building to continue to grow productively, and given the field to the coastal park, where it could be more of an open and public amenity, rather than a gated intrusion destroying public access to the river and blocking the view which reminds residents of Long Island City's best feature - its proximity to Manhattan.

This development re-emphasizes 46th Road as an edge, the end of residential Long Island City. North of 46th Road, even Vernon Boulevard becomes sparse and inconsistent. A great opportunity to reconnect the old neighborhood with the new has been missed, and with such planning practices as employed at "The View", it seems that the outlying areas will remain neglected - the backs of new development turned upon them and the broad sides of new massing blocking visual connections to Manhattan.

The last new commercial effort on Vernon Blvd. before 46th Road, beyond which taxi repair facilities and industrial warehouses take over amongst scattered residential.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Restoring Habitats

On Friday, I spent a day of work at Co-op City, assisting in the direction of planting 201 trees. It was a great experience to work with the grounds crew and see the planting. Also impressive was spending some time on this greenway, which was a parking lot only 1.5 years ago. The progress of the space's transformation and growth of the plants we had specified was impressive and brought a much greater respect for the work I have been doing in landscape architecture. For once I could see that the things that I have been familiar with staring at on paper and computer screens have taken shape forming and beautifying a space.

The experience was brought to a deeper level when I returned from my lunch break before the grounds crew had resumed their work and started their machines. I went to sit on a bench in the sun and heard a bird singing loud and happy from the clump of bagged trees dropped off by the truck earlier, waiting to be planted. Walking quietly over to inspect, I found the bird, happily nested among branches of young Hawthorn trees. The day was no longer about counting trees and measuring space, and checking planting specifications at that point, instead it was providing 201 new spots for birds (and insects and hundreds of other species) to call home in the Bronx.

The foliage of the Hornbeams planted a year ago was pretty stunning in the morning light. It will be great to when the trees are a little bigger.

For better or for worse, I kept finding interesting (and often beautiful) small weeds among the newly hydroseeded landscape. Hopefully the grass will eventually establish itself this well.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Delaware Water Gap

Bit of nature taken in over the weekend.. Foliage by the New Jersey - Pennsylvania border.

Sometimes trees outside the city have a tough time too..

Monday, September 8, 2008

Personal Statement

Up for comment/suggestions/criticism -

I am best described as an interdisciplinary architectural designer most interested in the social and ecological implications of urbanism and the built environment. My professional experiences have taught me how the convergence of design with global perspectives and fields such as sociology and ecology can intensify the richness and integrity of a problem solution. It is my professional goal to employ and develop practices of ecological planning to globally better cities through sustainable design.

Where I grew up, neighbors exchanged homegrown harvests of tomatoes, corn, squash, grapes, and various other items. Overgrown roadside ditches held and conveyed excess storm water until it could infiltrate back into the land with time. These minor institutions show a latent sustainability and help to create a societal connection to nature. This human connection to nature is one I took for granted before moving from rural North Carolina to the cities of Boston, MA, and then to New York, NY where I reside today. Working in urban architecture and landscape architecture and being exposed to the municipal agencies who strive to maintain one of the world’s greatest cities, I am reminded each day of the severe disconnect between urban life and the forgotten natural ecologies struggling to persist in cities.

Studying architecture within a program that focused on the recognition and analysis of the urban environment broadened my perspective to seek inspiration in landscape architecture and sociological thought. By the time I entered graduate school, my degree was a Masters of Architecture, but my thesis project began with the social implications of urban park space from historic through contemporary times. In researching my thesis I came across a well-established premise in landscape architecture and urban design derived from Transcendentalism which has continued with me - within a natural setting, people can come together on an equal ground - regardless of race, gender, or other societal constraints. In considering the degradation of nature, the state of the earth’s environment, and questions of human equality in the midst of globalization, I am struck by a necessity as a design professional to look back to nature and extract ecological knowledge capable of informing architecture.

I was the first member of my family to have the opportunity to travel abroad. I have long held a fascination with new cultures and languages, so worked hard through college to save money to fund short trips and eventually to spend a semester abroad. I have studied German among internationals in Dresden and tutored English in New York, learning in both cases to step back from situations and observe without presuppositions to comprehend cultural variations. My interactions across cultural boundaries have taught me the duality of culture - as one learns from others, one also becomes more aware of himself. Further, having found travel to provide a unique understanding of the architecture and urban design field, I consistently strive to experience more of the world’s historic and contemporary built environment, to better inform projects of my own.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Lesson of Peat and Fungal Gnats

In the midst of a small amount of rage, and as a bit of a public service announcement, I just wanted to share my new findings on pests which threaten the indoor urban gardener. Having recently tossed a young basil plant, soon followed by a young rosemary plant which I found withering and swarming with small flying insects, I did some further research. What I found was a too common species known as the Fungal Gnat. They're slightly smaller than your typical fruit fly and particularly enjoy potted plants.

Apparently the adult fungal gnat itself is not particularly harmful to plants, but their larvae are quite destructive. The gnats lay eggs in soil, particularly soil that is moist. They can lay hundreds of eggs which hatch quickly into larvae. The larvae thrive in the moist soil and attack plants at their roots for nutrients. On top of this, fungal gnats are known to spread diseases from other plants.

I've been annoyed by the flying insects because they were sticking around even after I had tossed all of the potted plants in my apartment, and throughly washed everything down. Granted there were only a couple here or there, but realizing they were not going away I started wondering both what they are and where they might be still living. Upon reading about the larvae in moist soils, I remembered that the large bag of potting soil I had bought (which I used when I repotted both the basil and the rosemary shortly before their downfall) was still loosely sealed under my kitchen sink. In my internet research readings I had seen warnings against using topsoil containing peat, which apparently these (and other pests) are particularly fond of.

Upon inspection, the bag of soil under my sink was teeming with several of the gnats around the opening. I picked the bag up, and quickly saw that the soil mix was one of peat moss with added nutrients for plants. I ended up tossing the entire bag of soil, and vowing never to return to the tiny hardware store up the street who had convinced me to buy the mixture..

So, that is my warning for anyone attempting to grow young plants - beware of soil mixtures containing peat, don't overwater, and act quickly if you ever see gnat like insects around your plants!

I'm starting out some cilantro from seeds in a different soil mixture this week, will see if the results prove better than the first try with herbs!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Chinatown Park - Boston

This labor day, I stumbled around a very deserted financial district of Boston during a layover between modes of transportation heading back to NY. During the hour I was struck by the complete quiet and lack of pedestrians in the area around South Station even though it was a national holiday. Heading towards the gate to Chinatown, I was pleasantly surprised to find life just at the border of one of widest expanses of asphalt still remaining since the big dig. This little park is the Chinatown park by Carol R. Johnson Associates (more here ).

I realized a fundamental difference between photographing architecture and landscape architecture in this - with landscape, you actually want to show people using the space. It was great to see that groups of people dotted the green spot despite the rest of the downtown being empty.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The tiniest ecology..

I was in the midst of a small cleaning tirade after my latest disaster attempting to be an urban gardener. I had given up on the basil plant on my kitchen window sill (which I had assumed I had overwatered), and began to notice several tiny black flying insects, smaller than fruit flies beginning to dominate the kitchen. I started to panic a few days when the number of insects did not decrease and the adjacent rosemary plant started to brown and wither. I'm still not sure if the insects were a type of aphid, or some other plant eating pest, but for once I'm fairly certain it's not entirely my fault that the two plants are refusing to thrive.

Anyways this evening I moved the rosemary from the sill and gave the plant a gentle washing (since I'm not yet convinced that this one is gone for good). I returned to the sill to clean up the accumulated spilled dirt and mercifully put to rest the brown crunchy leaves that used to be basil. As I was sponging down the sill, I saw one very small spider scurry to a corner and there discovered the tiniest spider web in the corner by the window frame. The web was maybe an inch and a half at its longest dimension, but held trapped a few of my unidentified pests, along with another insect probably 10 times the size of the spider. Despite not typically being a fan of spiders, it was a welcome sight to see that I wasn't entirely alone in trying to rid the sill of pests, so I took great care not to disturb him or his tiny web. I hope the one or two remaining flying pests in the kitchen will now find their way into the web rather than back to the newly located, ailing rosemary!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ecological and Social Infrastructures...

A first pass at a first paragraph for the first research proposal I'm working on..

There is an inherent challenge in reconciling global environmental goals with the design and social function of urban environments. Cities rely on the natural setting of urban parks to bring their residents together on an equal grounding. However, since before the industrial revolution, cities have been developing in opposition to the natural ecology surrounding them. Architecture and communal man-developed infrastructures allow society to survive amidst harsh natural elements. Vast areas of pavement and a reliance on technology have allowed humans to control the natural processes of land occupied by cities to the detriment and obsolescence of local ecologies. In the worldwide concerns of global warming, the policies and habits of urban design now must be rethought. Reintroducing ecological elements to urban areas can redeem natural processing of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. With the return of natural systems, less strain will felt by human constructs which are subject to (and commonly suffering from) deterioration and use beyond original design. Further, this line of practice can serve in creating positive models for future planning of developing urban areas throughout the world. A cross cultural study of ecological urban planning brings together environmental concerns and sustainable solutions which can be employed in the world’s urban areas. It is to this end that I, as an environmentally concerned architecture and landscape professional, propose to enroll in the international Masters of Ecological Urban Planning program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Biking Manhattan

New York has finally taken initiative this summer to give some of the streets back to non-auto traffic. Granted the event is limited to periods of 5-6 hours on 3 Saturdays, but it provides an entirely new way for the pedestrian/biker/skater to experience the city.

Biking from 53rd Street to the Brooklyn Bridge along Park Ave, I was brought back to my third year in college. Our Urban Design studio took place in Italy, and our professor insisted on drawing street sections. The task seemed a reasonable excuse to walk around European cities and note differences between neighborhoods and urban atmospheres, but I never fully believed in the street section. It seemed to me that the problem with street sections, no matter the accuracy, is that the pedestrian can never perceive this - the proportions are nearly always distorted because a pedestrian typically stands on a sidewalk by a building. Simple perspective makes the foreground, adjacent building seem much taller and the distance across the street wider to the standing viewer. Summer Streets finally changes this relationship - the streets being closed to automobiles allow the pedestrians into the center of the street. From this position, true proportions can be seen, and over the length of the route, the differences are notable.

My favorite part of this short tour was riding over the raised street cutting through Grand Central. The height provides a unique perspective to the area in midtown. Also, there exists an amount of detail at the old guardrail walls and surroundings of the street that I presume go unappreciated by the typical car traffic passing through.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

In The Mission

Several things about San Francisco greatly impress me. The weather and surrounding scenery are beautiful, the city is easy to navigate and clean, and apartments are spacious (compared to New York) and nearly all have a terrace and/or garden space. The flora of California is extraordinary to me, having grown up and lived on the east coast. Walking around in The Mission it was easy to see that many people have a connection to nature and their small scale horticulture. Thriving and well maintained vegetation was placed to occupy yards, building facades, tree pits, and sidewalk planters throughout the neighborhood. The residents seem to visually compete over who can have the most lush and showy displays.

(Oh.. and they recycle and compost too!)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

San Francisco - Xanadu Gallery

So I have plenty more to write about after my long weekend in San Francisco, but before getting into the rest of the city I will start with one tiny piece of architecture - Frank Lloyd Wright's Xanadu Gallery.

I had heard that this gallery was a predecessor of the New York Guggenheim, and his first study of using a ramp as circulation and display. The most interesting aspect to me is that this is a functioning gallery - and was originally a store for V.C. Morris. I was curious about how an architect with the known character of FLW would deal with the design question of display - could he pull off allowing the architecture to come secondary to the merchandise? The Xanadu Gallery deals in precious and historic decorative arts from various parts of the world, predominantly Asia and Africa from what I could see. The pieces are impressive in themselves, though I found that, as suspected, they fall into the background of this piece of architecture. They become decoration to the building in groups rather than singular disconnected elements. The individual display cases which exist (I presume for the most valuable small pieces of the collection) are actually buried within the smooth curving wall and hidden from site until the viewer is directly in front of the glass pane.

Being an architect rather than a collector, I can say that I really enjoyed the space. The architecture was well executed and provides a ton of visual interest and small curiosities for those not browsing the antiques. The interior is far more comfortable and less severe than the stark white modernism of the Guggenheim, perhaps this is the difference for this architect between presenting art to the public in a sterile environment, and encouraging private connoisseurs to bring a piece back into their home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Nature in the Boroughs

Greenery taking over the boundary of sidewalk and street in Brooklyn.

A whole row of street trees have began to swallow the chainlink fence.

Black-eyed Susans growing behind chainlink - the old entrance to McCarren Park Pool has overgrown, adding interest to an otherwise stark building.

Abandoned asphalt paver graveyard.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jellyfish off Manhattan

Who knew? We saw no less than 8 floating (and alive!) near the shore between the Maritime Building and the Staten Island Ferry..

Music from infrastructure

Briefly back to architecture and the infrastructure of a building - David Byrne has taken over part of the Battery Maritime Building, converting a space into a music hall that is an instrument of itself. I was a little underwhelmed with the actual product - after reading reviews about the conversion of the building's existing systems into this 'organ', I would like to have seen less modification to the space, but the building and resulting environment was pretty impressive.