Photos by Gary Lai

To many in the public and the A/E industry, the aesthetics of our infrastructure is considered an extraneous consideration. According to this pragmatic point-of-view, a bridge’s purpose is solely to move people from one side to the other, with innovation being defined by improvements in the speed and/or cost in which it’s built. A “beautiful” bridge is too subjective and not quantifiable, making the measure of success too tricky to gauge, and therefore too risky of a decision to make.

In the mid-2000’s, officials and engineers tried to use this argument for the replacement of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, proposing a simple freeway-type overpass replacement. The ensuing firestorm from the public caused an almost decade-long delay costing millions of dollars for studies.

The eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, May 29, 2008. Photo by Brewdog (CC BY-SA 3.0)

People do value aesthetics, so much they are willing to spend money and consume products in pursuit of achieving some semblance of what they consider beautiful. Billions of dollars are spent on paint, paneling, and plants. Aesthetics are important because people think it’s important, and every project we do is for the betterment of people. It is really that simple.

From a landscape perspective, turf is the number one irrigated crop in the United States, even though it has no intrinsic practical value other than sports. I remember overhearing two engineers lamenting how they could never give up their lawns, even though they knew they were wasting water, while waiting for a conference call to start. Even though they intellectually knew the Northern European pastoral landscape imported into the US in the late 19th century is not sustainable here in California, they still could not bring themselves to deviate from the cultural and aesthetic norm. The English pastoral landscape motif is a deeply ingrained cultural and mental construct representing the wealth and success of the English ruling class that we’ve long admired. But, taking a step back, one must recognize it is a ridiculous idea: Californians wrapping Downton Abbey-ish landscapes around our high-tech, energy efficient, 21st century buildings and homes. Why don’t we create our own Californian 21st century aesthetic?

According to the National Resource Defense Council and the Pacific Institute,  commercial, municipal, and residential landscapes combined represent 41% of all urban water use in California. That amounts to roughly 4 million acre feet a year, or 1,303,405,708,000 gallons total. The EPA estimates 50% of all water wasted in the US is due to poorly managed and maintained irrigation systems. My back-of-the-napkin math calculates the wasted amount could service as many as 10 million more people in California, meeting the projected population growth of the next 15 years. In other words, simple adjustments to our irrigation controllers by knowledgeable professionals could save enough water to serve our growing population for the next 15 years without any improvements to our storage or infrastructure. Talk about low-hanging fruit.

What can each of us do?
1. Communicate to your design professionals the importance of the landscape as an integral aspect of your house or project.
2. Reconsider the turf aesthetic and replace it with California-friendly plants.
3. Value the expertise of a knowledgeable landscape maintenance professional, or become self-sufficiently knowledgeable with irrigation controllers and put improvements into practice.

Our population is expected to grow somewhere between 50 to 60 million people by 2050. Current climate models show a 10-15% decrease in the amount of rain California will receive. Now is the time for us to pick the low-hanging fruit.

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Photo by Jessica Roberts

Step in through AHBE’s office front door and visitors are greeted with an ever-changing makeshift gallery space. Currently on display is a photo series dedicated to the Los Angeles River, inviting all to leave the office for the experience of our city’s river. After looking through previous photos of the river I had taken, I selected an image for the exhibition that wasn’t chosen for its dynamic composition, but for the way it helped me understand what it is about the river I find so unique.

My entry, entitled “Emergence”, is a meditation on experiencing landscape in relationship to the horizon, highlighting the moment when the plane and the horizon interact. The horizon line is a visual component that gives perspective to a landscape, and its quality is arguably the most defining element of a place.

In landscape painting the position of the horizon is critical. If depicted too high or too low, the horizon can draw the viewer’s attention too soon before establishing its relation with the rest of the image. By dividing the picture plane evenly in two, rather than using the rule of thirds for example, the viewer is invited to spend time to interpret and question the intention of the perspective, giving meaning to the horizon line and its relationship to everything else. Similarly, the L.A. River is a horizon-spanning mega-infrastructure that has a sense of place that is all-consuming.

Walking around the channelized landscape of the river, with its concrete underfoot and the harsh sun beating down, one feels a strong sense of self in relation to its expanse. A strong sense of the relationship to others is also felt as people pass by on foot or by bike. Conversely, the river can evoke feelings of isolation unlike anywhere else I’ve ever experienced. Gazing ever further out, the canopy of trees establish everything in relationship to the river, and as part of something bigger. The solid concrete below the horizon defines, positions, and intensifies everything, from what grows above to what travels through.

Being in the L.A. River reminds me of being out in the middle of a desert, except sunken down further into the earth, where any entity interrupting the relentless horizontal stands at once as an individual and in relationship to everything else. It is different than the layered nature of a forest or the density of buildings in a city. The sensation can feel as disorienting and isolating as standing in the middle of a prairie, without even the sway of the grasses to distract attention. It is an uncommon urban experience. The horizon line is commanding and the scale of the built infrastructure makes it seem as though the concrete channel was a natural occurrence, unique to the people who have lived and evolved along side it, unfolding and reordering the human from the natural. The Los Angeles River is a place that cannot be prescribed or repeated again, a feature of the city capable of speaking to the human experience while also testing our capacity to see ourselves in relationship to nature.

Finding the New American Dream in Los Angeles
“The think tank, The New American Dream (NAD), is exploring the ramifications of densification for Los Angeles and the role our new transportation system will play in creating a new and viable model for living in America. Gary Lai of AHBE Landscape Architects, with the Living Building Challenge – Los Angeles Collaborative and a founding member of NAD, will moderate a panel with the NAD think tank members to discuss their current findings and thoughts. The NAD panel will consist of Moshik Mah, Design Principal with HDR, Steve Kats, Associate Vice President for WSP and Javier Hernandez, transportation advocate, analyst, and strategist for board members for Metro, Metrolink, Foothill Transit and many others.”
When: June 27, 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Where: Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Co, 811 Wilshire Boulevard, Floor 15, Los Angeles

99% Preservation and 1% Densification: A Case for Urban Density along the Wilshire Corridor
“Architects Thom Mayne and Eui-Sung Yi of the Now Institute and Morphosis Architecture present a proposal for a high-density, interconnected urban community along L.A.’s iconic Wilshire Corridor. The plan accommodates the city’s anticipated population increase—1.5 million people by 2050—by densifying less than one percent of its land. Comparing Wilshire Boulevard to major streets in other global metropolises, including Barcelona’s Avenida Diagonal and New York’s Broadway, they model real-world responses to growth and transformation that offer more sustainable strategies for Los Angeles. Moderated by Mark Gold, UCLA associate vice chancellor of environment and sustainability.”
When: June 27, 7:30PM
Where: Hammer Museum

Open Silo Happy Hour with LA Compost
This month Open Silo is hosting our Urban Agriculture Happy Hour at The Greyhound Bar & Grill on Thursday, June 28th! We will be co-hosting with L.A. Compost, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to composting hubs and education in Los Angeles.No matter what your field of work, study, or interest, we want to meet you! All who are passionate about urban agriculture or food issues are welcome. Bring a friend or colleague along. Dress is casual. Come anytime after 5 pm!
When: June 28, 5:00PM – 9:00PM
Where: The Greyhound Bar & Grill, 5570 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles 90042

Ready Or Not, Here I Come: A Conversation on Architecture and Hip-Hop
Sekou Cooke, an architectural researcher, practitioner, and Syracuse University professor, has centered his recent work on the emergent field of hip-hop architecture. The genre is a theoretical movement that joins the core tenets of hip-hop culture with the ability to create a meaningful impact on the built environment and within design practice. Cooke will moderate a panel on the subject with artists Lauren Halsey and Amanda Williams, whose practice blurs the distinction between art and architecture by employing color to draw out the political complexities of race, place, and value in our cities. The panelists will be joined by a special guest to be announced.
When: June 28, 7:00PM
Where: MOCA Grand Ave.

Tarzan Returns to the ArboretumCelebrate the rich heritage of Tarzan movie making at the Arboretum. Baldwin Lake and the surrounding landscape served as a stand-in for the African jungle in twelve classic Tarzan films, beginning with Tarzan Escapes starring Johnny Weissmuller in 1936. The movies provide a lens into cultural perspectives of the time. Join a journey to our jungle of a half-century ago as we celebrate Hollywood history! Included in admission; members free
When: June 30 at 10 AM – 3 PM
Where: Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden

A coyote standing on its hind legs, captured by a new wildlife camera installed by the National Park Service near Silver Lake. | National Park Service/Public Domai

New Cameras Offer Peek Into L.A. River’s Role as Wildlife Corridor
“Now researchers with the NPS are installing a series of nearly 40 wildlife cameras across 30 miles of the river’s course to try and get answers on how foxes, bobcats, opossums, coyotes, skunks, raccoons and other mammals are using this area. Already, cameras have captured a coyote rolling on the ground and appearing to dance on its hind legs near Silver Lake and a bobcat walking up a hill near Coldwater Canyon, its spotted tawny fur resplendent in the sun.”

How to Protect Your Local Pollinators in Ten Easy Ways
“It really is neat to see local bees and native bees doing what they do best on the local and native plants,” says Walker—especially since many of the native species out there bear little to no resemblance to the honeybees and bumblebees we picture when someone mentions bees. “A lot of them are very small little guys and they’re very metallic-looking in some cases. Some of them are racecar green.”

Bio-Inspired Design | Neri Oxman
In the first three industrial revolutions, new inventions were assembled from parts – as opposed to grown, like in nature. In the fourth industrial revolution, designers are operating at the intersection of the material, physical, digital and biological. In this presentation for the World Economic Forum, Neri Oxman – Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT Media Laboratory – discusses ideas including additive manufacturing using biopolymers and wearable devices involving microorganisms.

MPR Raccoon: Exploring the Urban Architecture Behind an Antisocial Climber
Aside from the humans for whom cities are designed, few mammals can rival the raccoon when it comes to thriving in urban environments. Earlier this week, one particularly audacious “trash panda” showed off her tenacity on an epic building climb in the heart of St. Paul, Minnesota. This is the tale of that creature, but also of the relatively unassuming architecture that facilitated her breathtaking adventure.

Which Cities Have the Most High-Rises?
“The downtown skyline of a city is perhaps its most symbolic feature. The iconic cityscapes that we know and love are typically formed by skyscrapers, but much of the surrounding context is made up of other high-rise buildings. Yes, there is a difference between a skyscraper and a high-rise. Research company Emporis defines a high-rise as a building at least 35 meters (115 feet) or 12 stories tall. These high-rise buildings play a major role in the more sprawled urban context of larger cities today.”

The Bug_Dome_by_WEAK!_in_Shenzhen. Photo by Movez/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Biophilia, or the “love of life or living systems”, describes the intimate and innate relationship between humans with nature as deeply rooted within our biology. These connections are attributed to earlier evolutionary origins, but continue to manifest in behaviors today: a physical retreat to nature, formal and informal representations of nature, or an organizational replication of natural systems. The affinity for nature is also a valuable and capable source for informing the design of a built environment. Sites with a connection to nature are not a new concept, noting the Garden Cities, Art Nouveau plant forms, and Olmstead as examples of humanity’s desire for the proximity of nature for respite, beauty, and health, but it seems a resurgence of interest has begun to emerge.

Though Erich Fromm is credited for coining the term biolphilia, the Biophilia hypothesis is the term and idea more commonly known today. Developed and introduced in the 1980s by biologist, theorist, and author E.O. Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis expands upon Fromm’s singular definition, outlining the evolutionary connections between our care and concern for animals and the desire for plants in our personal and professional environments in detail.

Furthermore, design built upon the principles of this hypothesis is referred to as “biophilic design“. According to William Browning, Catherine Ryan, and Joseph Clancy of Terrapin Bright Green – an environmental consulting and strategic planning firm – biophilic design integrates the relationship between nature, human biology and design of the built environment for the physical, psychological, and emotional betterment of the human user. Browning et al define 14 patterns of biophilic design, each fitting into three categories: Nature in Space (a direct connection to nature), Natural Analogues (a formal evocation of nature), and Nature of the Space (spatial configurations found in nature).

Amazon unveiled The Spheres, three glass domes located in Downtown Seattle operating as an escape for their tech employees into a biosphere housing 40,000 plants representing 400 species from around the world.

Of these principles, the one of most personal interest is the natural analogues, which Browning et al describe as:

  • Biomorphism – a formal design principal that seeks to replicate natural forms, those found in nature, or in other life forms. These forms can create a harmony evocative of life without directly imitating them in a recognizable way.
  • Natural Material – connecting to a site’s sense of place or to a larger natural environment through the use of minimally processed local.
  • Complexity and Order – replicating spatial and pattern diversity and hierarchy like that found in nature.

‘Artwall’ installation, made from site remnants, replicating natural forms at Tanner Springs Park. Photo by Jenny Cestnik (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Biophilic design and biomorphism play on our innate connection to nature as humans, seeking to satisfy design harmony and beauty through symbolic references in texture, patterns, contours, and arrangements. Nature is inherently rich and complex through its integrated ecological and geological systems. Replicating this diversity and interconnectedness can yield richly built spaces capable of evoking similar conscious and subconscious reactions.

Bug Dome is a bamboo shelter modeled after mounds created by insects. It was created from site materials as to return to the natural environment when it is no longer needed. Public Domain photo: Härmägeddon.

It should be clear the principles are not simply formal as explored here. Each can be applied to functional systems by designers in realizing sustainable solutions. Natural imitation is a valid and effective strategy within green design and green infrastructure. A holistic approach to applying natural forms and systems into/onto our built environment for building sustainability is well worth investigation.