Posts by Cristhian Barajas

A traditional two-step altar with a modern touch.Creative Commons Photo:Luis Rojas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tomorrow, November 2nd, marks Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – a long observed Mesoamerican tradition born from a marriage of indigenous folklore and the pre-existing All Soul’s Day Catholic festivities. The holiday began as syncretic practice, later evolving into a clear example of enculturation. Its celebration has long been a recognizable part of the Mexican-American experience and woven into the Los Angeles cultural landscape.

Traditional altars are set up during Dia de los Muertos to honor and prayer for the souls of the dead, each equipped with an arrangement of necessary spiritual and physical accessories to aid the deads’ transition to the afterlife. Below is a list of the most common components of a Dia de los Muertos altar.

Photo by Lemad.resaeva (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fragrances, plants and flowers

The infusion of some flowers and herbs like bay leaf, thymus vulgaris, rosemary, and chamomile in a pot covered by a prickly-pear cactus leaf is said to produce a pleasing fragrance that helps guide souls back to Earth. Other aromas like copal resin and incense are also used.

The key component of a Day of the Dead altar is the floristic color, prominently characterized by the Mexican/Aztec Marigold (Targetes erecta). Their colors may vary, ranging from white, pink, yellow, or orange. Its flowers are used to form shapes and platters to make the altar more attractive; the flowers are often combined with other plants like the Chenille Plant (Acalypha hispida) and Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata). Other flowers not native to Mexico, like birds of paradise and tulips are also used to add to the color themes of the altar arrangements.

Another element is the inclusion of an ‘arched portal’ at the top level made out of vegetation using reeds, ferns or ferns. The portal symbolizes the entrance or gateway to the netherworld.

Here is the Targes erecta, the characteristic flower that surrounds all ‘Dia de Muertos’ representations of altars. Creative Commons photo: Ana Rodriguez Carrington (CC BY 2.0)

Sugar skulls
With the importation of sugar into the New World, the indigenous people of Mexico began sculpting sugar in the shape of skulls to portray their beloved departed.

Steps or Levels
Steps are used to represent the dualist perspective of the physical world, both sky and ground. When three levels are used, each level represents a plane of the spiritual world: Heaven, Earth & Purgatory (or the netherworld = Hades or Sheol in Hebrew [שְׁאוֹל]). Seven levels references the Seven Deadly Sins faced and overcome during a lifetime.

Papel Picado
The Aztecs used amate bark paper for carving or painting figures, deities, and sceneries as a codex. With the introduction of other paper types by the Spaniards, the indigenous population began using other colors and patterns. Yellow and purple symbolize purity and grief respectively, but other colors are used commonly as well.

The element of fire is represented using candles, their flame believed to be essential to guide the souls toward their afterlife journey. Some people arrange candles in the shape of the cross or to point out the four cardinal directions.

A glass of water is meant to satiate the thirst of the souls. Mayans believed cenotes (sinkholes) were sacred entries to the netherworld, therefore some altars include a larger receptacle of water symbolizing cenotes.

The earthly plane is represened with fruits, seeds, spices, and other objects extracted from nature. Usually, corn kernel and cocoa beans are used to form artistic patterns at the foot of the altar. The arrangement also connotates a connection with the Book of Genesis/Bereshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית) and its devotion, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

Since the journey of the dead is deemed long and difficult, the family of the deceased usually cooks his/her favorite meal, offering it as pleasing sustenance for their journey. Traditional food like mole, pozole, tacos, and tamales are often depicted, representative of Mexican cuisine. Pan de muertos (“bread of the dead”) is another important and characteristic component on its own, representing the bones and the tears of those souls seeking rest.

Some candles, sugar skulls, pottery and food are placed surrounded by flowers. Creative Commons photo: Angelica Portales (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other elements
Families may also place personal items of the deceased like clothing, favorite objects, etc. at the altar. Some even quietly play the deceased’s favorite music while the altar is up.

Religious items may include imagery, rosaries, crucifixes, etc. while others add sculptures like the traditional black Itzcuintli Dog believed to guide souls across the Itzcuintlan River in the netherworld. For the same reason, coins supposedly made out of gold are placed at the altar – the fee to pay the boatman Caronte to sail his/her soul to the other side of the river.

Want to know more? The Chicago Tribune just shared a great post about the Anatomy of a Day of the Dead altar we highly recommend checking out.


Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Looking back at my favorite memories during landscape architecture studies at Cal Poly Pomona, I realize they all happened outdoors – field trips that help further reinforce my understanding of design through context, content, and intent. During this period I found an opportunity to take part in a few courses that at their very core encouraged students to really understand the site, its surroundings, and the regional ecosystem that provide us with landscape resources.

Here are a few memories from these field trips that helped me grow as a landscape designer.

This photo was taken at Mt. Baldy’s chaparral and coniferous vegetation for our plant ecology class. During another field trip I also had the opportunity to go to Evey Canyon and compare both ecosystems, admiring how much the landscape can change in such short distance.

A couple of pictures from my visit to the Huntington Library, where I came to learn more about world gardens. I was especially captivated by the Japanese and Chinese gardens because of their beauty.

In another class, alongside learning about landscape design techniques, we were given the opportunity to visit real life examples of successful interventions as reference for future projects like the Audubon Center shown above. The Audubon Center illustrates how to create a wildlife-friendly garden.

A pair of fun photographic memories captured during a trip to the Bay Area as part of an urban residential development. The resulting product happened to be featured in Nadia Amoroso’s recent book “Representing Landscapes: Hybrid” (p. 295) as an example of a large scale illustrative plan.

This final photo was taken during a camping trip to Owens Lake, where we came face to face with a shocking lesson about the real cost of comfort and its consequences upon the landscape. The Los Angeles Aqueduct literally dried this once pristine lake, and now landscape architecture firms like AHBE alongside civil engineering companies are dedicated to dust mitigation tasks through site interventions.



Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

It’s ‘Back to School’ season, an opportune time to upgrade and improve your computer workstation for optimal productivity and highest quality graphics and CAD documents. Which system should you purchase? That all depends upon three major factors: your discipline, your role, and your workflow.

The most important components worth considering:

GPU – Graphics/Video Card
CPU – Processor
RAM – Memory
HD – Hard Drive
Other ports

Storage Capacity: Solid State Disk (SSD) vs. Serial Advance Technology Attachment (SATA)
Let’s begin from the bottom to the top. Nowadays, when it comes to hard drives you can choose from two options: SSDs and SATAs. SSDs are the newer, faster, and better performing option. On the other hand, platter-based SATAs are the standard, cheaper and more commonly available. A 1TB SATA drive costs around $50, while a 1TB SSD may cost around $300. Obviously price is a major drawback with an SSD drive, but they’re also noticeably faster. Please note SSDs are only faster when it comes to reading files from the hard drive; they are not directly responsible in the execution of programs or rendering faster per se (though they will launch faster), since these tasks are handled by the CPU and the GPU. Therefore, the hard drive’s role in executing production tasks is only minor.

Cloud-oriented users (e.g. Google Photos, Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.) may not even need a large capacity hard drive; with constant and reliable connection via wi-fi or Ethernet, the extra local storage space may be actually unnecessary. If your workflow relies upon cloud storage, a moderate capacity SSD somewhere in the range of 256 GB minimum and 500 GB might be more than sufficient. Even if you prefer to carry most of your stuff on a separate portable HD – let’s say a 1 TB USB 3.0 external hard drive – you may want to stick to a moderate capacity SSD.

It’s a different story if you work from a desktop workstation, where files are primarily kept locally, with little or no cloud integration (sometimes necessary for security purposes). In this case I’d recommend at least 1 TB of storage. The choice between a SATA or SSD drive may be determined by your budget, but upgrading capacity on a desktop is much easier than with a laptop. And this doesn’t mean that you have to dispense the use of cloud or external hard drives if the option is open; you can still use these online-accessible services to sync files remotely. It’s the best of both worlds and helps in practicing the recommended habit of backing up files.

Modern desktop machines like the Alienware Area-51 are outfitted with Gigabit Ethernet Ports, USB 3.1, and media card readers.

Other things to consider
Depending upon your workflow and work environment, there’s a multitude of options worth considering when purchasing a computer: a fast network network card, Ethernet port, USB ports (3.0+ preferably), Bluetooth, HDMI port, CD/DVD optical drive, audio/mic jacks, SD card, and a 3½-inch floppy drive (just kidding!).

Apple Mac users might also require a Mini DisplayPort (MiniDP or mDP) and Thunderbolt ports. But if you’re like me – terrible with Apple products – you won’t likely need to worry about either. In my next follow-up I’ll explore further details about Mac-oriented workflows and solutions.

How much RAM do I need?
As a rule of thumb, your system should have at least 8 GB. Minimum. Adobe Photoshop and Sketchup recommend 8 GB, but in reality I’d recommend 12 GB as a starting off point for serious work. If your work revolves around graphic production tasks, bump up to 16 GB of system memory. Computers use RAM to buffer files into the software, so it plays a central part in handling large files, whether they’re 2D or 3D. However, the role of RAM memory in conventional projects is relatively less important than the CPU and the GPU. Nonetheless, let’s not underestimate RAM’s role. Because you can have the best CPU available and the most killer graphic card in the entire world, but if you are trying to open a 300MB, high-poly 3D model of Downtown Manhattan with only 1 GB of RAM, your system will crash before even opening the file.

Which processor should I get?
This is where things start to get tricky. Some programs operate noticeably better with specific CPUs, while other programs simply aren’t as affected. That said, if graphic design is a large component of the workflow, the Intel Core i7 processor is highly recommended. But recommending the Intel Core i7 processor isn’t really specific enough, as there are numerous iterations of this CPU with the “i7” moniker available today. That said, I’d recommend an Intel i7 processor at 3.0 GHz+ or the AMD equivalent; go Xeon if your workflow requires it (a topic we’ll go into detail in a future follow-up).

The ASUS ROG Rampage IV Black Edition X79 Motherboard

A note about upgrading: it’s worth spending the time to research about hardware compatibility. I’ll share a little story illustrating this point. I recently upgraded my Alienware Area-51’s motherboard to an Asus Rampage IV Black Edition. The system was originally powered by a factory-installed Intel Core 980x processor (pretty decent at the time when I purchased the machine). Only while attempting to install the new CPU onto the new motherboard did I realize they weren’t compatible! I had to buy a newer CPU (an Intel i7-3960x) to fit onto the new X79 motherboard’s socket (LGA Intel 2011). The moral of this story is parts evolve and change. The killer CPU of today may be an incompatible part for the computer of tomorrow. So be sure to invest in relatively recent components that can be easily replaced and repaired, if necessary.

In next month’s follow-up, I’ll investigate the topic of choosing the right processor and video card, and answer questions like, “When to choose a Xeon CPU over i7?”, “What’s multi-core and hyper-threading?”, “NVIDIA or ATI?”, “Quadro or GeForce?”, “What about Mac workflows?”, and the best workstations optimized for specific software. Stay tuned!

It’s amazing how much you can learn from mapping an area – even more so after mapping an entire state. The concept of a dry lake was a previously foreign concept before my mapping project began, so I set out to investigate this type of landscape common to the Southwest, where climate, weather, and development can reshape when and where bodies of water appear/disappear. Considering the framework of drought and global warming today, perhaps we should start considering the following dry bodies of water as proto-touristic locations that in time may become famous:

Bristol Lake

Image: Google Earth; Chuck Coker

The Mojave Desert and San Bernardino County host one of the most interesting dry water bodies in California. With a shore length of 43 miles, Bristol Lake has unique salt and mineral formations that give the impression there was a layer of snow in some parts of the lakebed. The formations were possibly formed out of magma chambers below the crust. The dry lake bed is best known for its salt-edged, crystal clear bright light blue water ponds and channels (present in the Salt Evaporation Plan).

Location: The site can be accessed through the National Trails Highway from Amboy Road. A trip out there from Los Angeles can take up to 4 hours (200 miles).

“National Chloride produces 20,000 tons of calcium chloride each year. They sell it to Hill Brothers Chemical Company which processes it into the finished product. It sells for about $270/ton. The Bristol Lake chloride works is one of the largest in the world.”Image by Chuck Coker; (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Soda Lake

Image: Google Earth & Wikimedia Commons

Located north, in San Luis Obispo County, this bright white micro-desert is actually an alkali lake formed from the remnants of a prehistoric sea. With its ephemeral condition Soda Lake supports a habitat for migratory birds, some shrimp species, and the saltbush. In order to protect this ecosystem, a boardwalk with an overlook has been built along the shore, providing raised panoramic views of the entire lake for visitors.

Location: The lake covers an area of 4.6 sq. miles and can be accessed via State Route 58 and Soda Lake Rd, about a 165 miles/3 hour drive from Los Angeles.

Searles Lake

Image: Google Earth & Wikimedia Commons

Famous for the Trona Pinnacles, the massive dry lake known as Searles Lake is located out in the Mojave Desert, with a shore length of 31 miles. Due its sediments, it has become a vital resource of regional industry, containing almost 30 different types of minerals. The site can be accessed via Trona Rd (State Route 178) and Pinnacle Rd.

San Bernardino County’s Trona Pinnacles, some as tall as 140 ft., are rocky spires that resemble sci-fi scenery from another planet. The Pinnacles belong to the California Desert National Conservation Area and are in an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). In the past, the site was known as Cathedral City, which is not to be confused with the actual city in Riverside County.

Location: About a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles (177 miles)

Rogers Dry Lake

Image: Google Earth & Wikimedia Commons

With a shore length of 38 miles and an area of 43 sq. miles, this dry lake was formerly known as the Muroc Dry Lake. Rogers Lake now houses the Edwards Air Force Base. The United States Airforce and the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center use both the Rogers and Rosamond lake beds as landing pads and runways for aircraft operations.

The Rogers Lake in Kern County also houses the world’s largest compass rose, is painted onto the lakebed. This iconic place became a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

Location: About 2.5 hour drive from Los Angeles (109 miles)

El Mirage Lake

Images: Google Earth and CleftClips

If you own a gyrocopter, light aircraft, cool car, quad, or just something you want to photograph, then you might find El Mirage an attractive destination. With a minimum entry fee, the Off-Highway Recreation Area offers OHV trails for visitors who are looking for a place to enjoy some off-roading. People who are into ultralight aircraft piloting are even permitted to land on the lakebed. This space is also a favorite location for photo shoots for cars, models, and even furniture due the artistic desert setting.

Location: Access to the place can be found through Palmdale’s Pearblossom Hwy (State Route 14 & 138) and Old El Mirage Rd, about a 2 hour drive from Los Angeles (85-95 miles). The shore length is about 16 miles long; it’s important to note the temperatures can increase drastically during summer.

Images: Google Earth and Cristhian Barajas

Owens Lake
Drained alive by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Owens Lake is located in the Inyo County, to the east of Sierra Nevada. This once pristine land with an approximate area of 108 sq. miles began its decay in 1913, when the uncontainable urban sprawl of Los Angeles began channelized the lake’s water, pumping the lake’s content all the way across the Southern California landscape. By 1926 Owens Lake was no more.

Some of the flow has been restore. However, there are serious concerns regarding air pollution originated from the dry portions of the basin known as alkali dust. AHBE Landscape Architects and other landscape architecture firms had the opportunity to intervene at the site through poetic sculptural elements, interpretive educational trails to raise environmental awareness and to mitigate, and control the noxious alkali dust.

The Lake has been featured in many documentaries and short films rooted in water, drought, urbanization and global warming. Out of these efforts, Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark documentary provides a unique look of the situation from the environmental photography point of view. Many institutions and professionals, including myself, have been involved in envisioning plan work at the site.

Location: Access to the Owens Lake can be found via the 395 N Highway, about 200 miles or 3.5 hours from Los Angeles.

Landscape architects are often challenged to add “context” to our design projects, to show the existing road network and buildings surrounding the site. And in 3D. Yet often we lack the time, budget, or knowledge to integrate the modeling process as an efficient and accurate task. In this post we will discuss three different tools that can help professionals achieve quality results with nominal investment and effort.

Urban planning and major landscape architecture projects often include the necessity to show realistic scenarios, creating a context for the proposed solution within an existing environment. Thus, depending upon the project, variations will occur from time to time in terms of scale and level of detail. The following workflows have the ability to cover massive schematic-looking surroundings, from 2-3 blocks, to an entire district or town.

The first tool is ESRI City Engine, a program that allows users to generate or download entire 3D cities out of 2D GIS datasets. Depending on the level of detail and flexibility desired, CityEngine ranges from $500 (Basic) to $4,000 (Advanced), and the export formats range widely (not to mention that it is also compatible with Lumion).

However, if quick and simple solutions are desired, then Lumion’s newest version is recommended. Using data from OpenStreetMaps, Lumion offers an option that allows users to place a model into any context. This operation is practically the inverse of Google Earth’s KMZ exports, where models are loaded into Google Earth. Here the context comes to the user, plus it can be rendered. Since this is only a beta version, there are currently some limitations regarding the site’s footprint and its appearance in relation to the context. Nonetheless, we can be sure that this tool carries promise, and it will continue evolving into the near future. Lumion Pro costs about $3,400, and only the Pro version offers the features noted above.

A good balance between the last two options with an economic price tag is the Sketchup plug-in, SU Placemaker. Sketchup’s user-friendly interface, alongside this plug-in can facilitate the integration of 3D environments into the site without requiring a lot of file formatting conversions. Without the need for extra software, SU Placemaker can be acquired for the affordable price of $200, and the software developers recommend users to try before they buy!.

All of the above-mentioned options can be combined with other technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D printing, helping harken in a new era where architectural projects can be transformed into different and innovative experiences for both designer and clients.