Posts by Calvin R. Abe, FASLA


It was 1991 when an emerging concept took hold amongst landscape architects and designers – one that began to describe a new landscape typology: Xeriscape. It was an idea discussed amongst the environmental community in the 1980s, a term coined by Nancy Leavitt, a Denver Water Board member in 1981. Leavitt coined the new typology after completing a water conserving demonstration garden, and its use is still prevalent today.

During the 1980s xeriscaping grew in popularity along the West Coast, including Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California, states where drought became an important public concern. Back then, xeriscaping was still a new idea to most Southern Californians, with many people thinking of it as a novel approach, but also a “good idea for someone else’s yard, but not mine”. The public at that time believed this landscape design approach was just another typology, much like an English or Japanese garden…another aesthetic genre designers could draw upon for inspiration.

It was during this period in the 1980s that I began to question this term of xeriscape as a landscape typology. Because I was influence by a few contemporary practitioners and professors, namely Ian McHarg, Carl Steinitz, and our local hero Professor John Lyle, I began to question this limited view of landscape within our profession. I wanted to test the term of xeriscape, not as a typology, but as a contextual way of think about design and planning. I began to ask questions like, “How does the broader designed landscape transform to one where no water is needed?” and, “Is it possible to shift the public’s perception of the traditional green lawn to a dry landscape?”

Exploring these boundaries was a kind of a personal quest. I wanted to understand how this idea could influence the formal aspect of design, the spatial qualities, and the human experience of this type of landscape.

As an exploratory project, we were commissioned to design the landscape for the US Borax Headquarters in Santa Clarita. I recall the questions I posed to the client during an initial kick-off meeting: “What would a landscape be like if we didn’t need potable irrigation water?” “Could this idea of no potable water be expressed in a deliberate and artful way?” And, “Could this idea express the corporate aspirations?” The discussion/responses ranged from, “No way!” to “Why not?”

In the end we were to have a British CEO, one who shared a love of both the garden and landscape. He said, “Why not create a landscape that was appropriate to our regional climate”, at a time before the term “sustainability” was in widely even known amongst the public.

Well, the project was built, and we successfully accomplished most of our objectives. And even though it was 100% irrigation free, we introduced native grasses and drought tolerant shrubs and trees that would thrive with a modest amount of water. We even created a corporate theme garden called “Garden of Twenty” which paid homage to their history of the “20-Mule Team”.

We were all excited about conceptualizing a unique approach and having it built. Praise for the project afterward arrived from the City of Santa Clarita, the nearby Art Institute, and the media. It was happy times for about six months…until I received a personal call from the CEO of US Borax.

Of course, my first instinct was believing we were in trouble and that we had done something wrong. With an apologetic voice, the CEO was actually calling to inform us he had just received a petition signed by nearly 500 employees stating that they did not like the native grass and the dry landscape planted on headquarters ground. They demanded it be changed. I was stunned.

I had just recently visited the site and noted the gardens were beautiful, performing just as designed. He said he was going to remove about 2 acres of native grass and replace it with the ubiquitous status quo: a lawn. He also asked if I could help him with the plans in making the transitions, inviting an awkward moment of silence. I said I would need to think about it. All the while, I was thinking to myself, “How can I do this given the integrity of the idea revolved around eliminating the lawn to conserve water?”

That night I spoke to my wife and shared my experience about the call. Her response was, “He is your client and you have to do what he’s asked”. I called the CEO back the next day and told him we would take care of it. I never went back to the project again.

This experience taught me a great lesson about cultural attitudes, values, and preconceptions about the nature of landscape. It also taught me how ingrained the ubiquitous American lawn is imbedded in our national consciousness of how we define landscape.

Much has changed since 1991. Although I believe the environmental paradigm has changed, there are still more battles to be done in our common consciousness about the future of sustainability.

All photos by Calvin Abe

I had the opportunity to visit Biei, the northern most Japanese island of Hokkaido, for the third year in a row this past winter. Although I have never traveled to the island’s quiet and beautiful landscape in the spring or fall, photographs online tell me that the location is equally beautiful during those seasons.

As I reflect upon my last visit – already almost three months ago – I wonder what is it about this place that piques my interest and ignites a strong desire to return. Biei is a place where I return to experience silence, beauty, and the sacred. The simplicity and the quiet is surreal, unworldly and restorative. And besides, there is nothing like sitting outside in zero degree temperature in an “onsen” (hot bath) naturally sourced from a hot spring, with long distant views of nothing but rolling snow covered landscape.

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All photos by Calvin Abe

Over the holidays I went up to Sacramento to visit my family. While there I decided to visit the Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant in nearby Herald, California, about 12 miles from my where I grew up. Although the plant was decommissioned back in 1989, it was built in the early 1970’s when I was in high school, and was operational for nearly two decades. The plant was eventually decommissioned due to operational problems.

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This post and accompanying photos are not presented to argue the merits or criticism of nuclear power, but simply to share a dualistic thought that popped into my head as I drove around the facility: the admiration for the bucolic beauty and sculptural qualities of the reactor towers as structures – each sitting atop the landscape – while at the same time recognizing their potential to alter the face of the landscape for thousands of years in an instant. Chernobyl in 1986, Three Mile Island in 1979, and the recent Fukushima incident still remain vivid memories of this dualism between potential and pitfalls.

Is the future of nuclear power a sustainable or resilient approach? I’ll let you decide. But here are a few of my photographs from the two days I was there to view and witness their history firsthand.

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All photos: Calvin Abe

All photos: Calvin Abe

Growing up in a small farming community east of Sacramento, my father use to take my brothers and me to a small river inlet which we called the “Sloughhouse”. What I remember most wasn’t the muddy river that we played in, but the surrounding fields of hop vines (Google “hop field” and you will see an amazing structured network of vertical vines). Apparently, beer hops were once the largest agricultural crops in Northern California before Prohibition all through the 1950’s.

Recently, I had the opportunity to redesign the gardens for an old vineyard in Sonoma County near the Russian River that was once a premiere hop farm called Walter Ranch Hop Kiln. I spent two days wandering the site to take in the history and natural ecology of the region. Being at the site from sunrise through sunset reminded me of those childhood days at the slough. Here are a few photographs of the main focal point of the vineyard, the Hop Kiln.

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All photos by Calvin Abe

I recently joined AHBE Landscape Architecture photographer, Sibylle Allgaier, during a Robinson R44 helicopter ride. She was on our firm’s assignment to capture aerial photos of the Johnny Carson Park in Burbank reopened back in July this year.

Seeing Southern California from the air is an extraordinary experience, especially when we have some control over where we fly. Taking off from Van Nuys Airport, we decided since we had the helicopter for a couple of hours, we’d head down to the Port of Los Angeles over the LA River and return along the coastline above the South Bay and Santa Monica. There is nothing like being above it all, especially since I spend many hours – along with my fellow Angelenos – dealing with some form of traffic congestion.

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Experiencing LA from above gave me a clear sense of why this city is both so functional and dysfunctional. First, one can see the economic functionality through the city’s diverse and interdependent land uses – from housing, commerce, manufacturing, and the vast networks of infrastructure that support it. This complex and diverse economy leads this region’s economic resiliency. You can actually see all this from the air.

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However, this same functional landscape also forms the city’s dysfunctional barriers, impeding the quality of life we all seek. This vast network of infrastructure and endless grid of parcelization directly affects our city’s livability, social mobility, and the construction of friendly communities.

So, one can ask: given these dualities, how do we find a balanced world? I think the answer has to do with nature: our re-creation and re-insertion of nature into our urban landscape (a quote I’ve imagined from a favorite book from the year 2020, “Natural Systems for Dummies”).

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