Posts by erikschmahl

Photo: Gregory Han

Photo: Gregory Han

In these politically turbulent times an interest in the role of public spaces playing an important part in civic engagement within a city has been rekindled. The Women’s March in Los Angeles on January 21st was a powerful expression of political dissent, one representing overwhelming concern for the future of human rights in this country. It was grand, but I don’t have to tell you that because you were there – everyone was there (at least it seemed like it, with participation estimates in Los Angeles alone ranging from 100,000 – 750,000).

During the day of the march Metro ridership was up by 360,000 riders compared to an average Saturday. Some might complain about the stresses on transit and the resulting inconvenience it posed to non-march oriented riders, but it was only a single day on inconvenience. The benefit is now countless members of the local population have become somewhat familiar with the public transit system. Metro reports that 40,000 TAP cards were sold that day. Civic engagement and public transit go hand in hand.

Cities are weird. People are weird. And how does one expect to bask in this weirdness without exposing yourself to it. This is where the magic of cities is generated. It’s not all good nor all bad – it’s everything in between. You might catch a cold from a stranger on the bus, but you might also fall in love with the person sitting next to you after seeing the look in their eyes while they’re reading your favorite book. (more…)

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All photos by Erik Schmahl

At the end of the year there is a tendency to wrap up the last three-hundred and sixty-five days into a packaged time thing. Once packaged, these collected memories can be put in a box, labeled, and stacked neatly on the shelf atop the previous year. For me this practice usually means emptying the refrigerator door of all out of code condiments, pruning the struggling branches on the philodendron, and clearing up space on my phone by archiving and deleting the thousands of photos I have taken since the last big purge. This practice of reflective cleansing typically coalesces with resolutions for the new year.

My original intent was to write a pedantic expose of animal agriculture’s effects on water usage in the context of California’s drought – but at the risk of a self-righteous diatribe, I decided to take a different approach to bringing in the new year.

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The following images were taken during the summer of 2016 in Japan, curated to help me express personal moments of  ‘ah-ha’ inspiration through cellular candid captures. Our phones are the ultimate documentarians – we take them everywhere and snap digital shutters vigorously, often furiously out of simple wonder for the world around us, a ritual that is easily wasted if we don’t take the opportunity to go back through and see what all the fuss was about.

Ever look back and wonder “why did I take seven photos of this curb?” These are those photos. My personal data base of design inspiration, shared.

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I was organizing some old photo archives on my computer the other day and came across a screenshot I must have taken while editing some film scans over five years ago. The photographs in question where taken in 2010 while I was working on a roaming backcountry trail crew throughout BLM designated wilderness areas throughout California. These photos were taken while off-hitch in the Inyo Mountains at a rock outcropping on the eastern flanks of the Sierras outside the town of Lone Pine – the Alabama Hills.

The Alabama Hills are a significant landscape feature for various reasons. For one, they are an iconic geologic feature boasting dozen of natural arches and large rounded biotite monzogranitic boulders, whose soft edges dramatically contrast the rigid peaks of the high Sierras in the background. These hills also helped shape the scenic high desert of California in the minds of many Americans through early television programs and Western movies, such as The Lone Ranger and Bonanza (note: one of my childhood favorites, Tremors, was also shot in these parts and you can touch a Graboid at film history museum in Lone Pine).

I am deeply interested in the impressions landscapes make on our perceptions and lives. These rocks taught me through misleading media about the nature of California in my youth rather unknowingly, and again helped codify some sort of understanding about this bioregion which I have grown to love after spending time working in its stark and enchanting wilderness.

Mobius Arch, Alabama Hills, California. Photo: © Brian W. Schaller / License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Mobius Arch, Alabama Hills, California. Photo: © Brian W. Schaller / License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Many years later I would end up moving to the desert south west for graduate school, study landscape architecture, make the move to California, and begin exploring a career in the profession. While walking to work last week I came upon a pleasant discovery. I have been taking advantage of the early rising sun by using my morning commute as a bit of a drifting exercise. It’s hard for me to fully understand even simple directions and streets without spending some time in these locations so the walk really helps build an experiential understanding of the distance between where I live and were I work. The route is somewhat standard, but there are a handful of variant detours I can attempt to explore if I get out the door with enough time to get a little lost. Last week I had managed to shave a couple minutes off the morning routine and had some time to kill. I decided to check out the water feature at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Building, which I had been made aware of from (I think) from the film Los Angeles Plays Itself (which I am due to re-watch, and cannot recommend enough). The film, more of a documentary, or glorified lecture, examines the public conceptions of Los Angeles that have been forged by its presence in film since the early days of Hollywood. Anyways, I knew the DWP building had a massive water feature, which seems ironic and oxymoronic and I wanted to see it first hand. I knew the building well but had always been on parallel streets and couldn’t get a good look at its grounds.

I made my way in its direction and finally found the beginning of the property when a small corner desert garden caught my eye. Vegetation I knew well from my time in Arizona and some large granitic boulders brought back a flood of memories and feelings I am not use to conjuring in the throngs of downtown Los Angeles. Upon further investigation I saw a plaque, unreadable from the sidewalk, so I stepped over the edging and approached the rock.

“THESE ANCIENT GRANIT BOULDERS WERE BROUGHT FROM PICTURESQUE ALABAMA HILLS IN OWENS VALLEY.

THE ROCKS ARE ESTIMATED TO BE 200 MILLION YEARS OLD. OWENS VALLEY IS THE SOURCE OF A LARGE PORTION OF THE WATER SERVICE FOR THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES.”

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Huh. I knew these old things looked familiar. It is funny to think how we bring landscapes around with us everywhere we go, drawing upon past experience to help make sense of the new – learning along the way. We have ideas about places we have never been, postcards in our minds, made up, making up our minds. From old Lone Ranger re-runs on VHS at my grandparents’ house, to decompacting un-sanctioned off-road trails in the Inyos with pick mattocks and dusty boots, to the sleepy eyed morning commute to work at a landscape architecture firm in the Financial District. A true psychogeography, if not some sort of psychogeobiography. It all comes and goes, and will do and has done for the last 200 million years making endless impressions on who knows what.

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In an attempt to maintain some semblance of a psychogeographic tradition, ritual, or mechanism for postponing overwhelming urban banality that develops when I become complacent and comfortable, I decided to go for a bit of a stroll. The original intention was to find a soft patch of Elysian grass and settle into a new book, but the short trek from home to ridge got enough blood moving to motivate a full on exploration.

I have always been keen on a line of Washingtonia robusta that punctuate the eastern ridge of Elysian Park. I had been admiring them from afar for far too long, and before I knew it a mission had been set*. I had been deployed and the derive was underway.

*Note: This is an activity I like to call, “find the tallest thing you can see and then get to know it well”. During the activity I seek to answer: Is it as far as it looks? How far is far? Is the space between interesting? Does the space between become part of the object? How does your perspective change from point A to point B?

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I started to walk along the fire road trail that I walk regularly – at least on the western side of the park. In an attempt to honor the meandering nature of the derive I tried to keep to the roads less traveled, attempting to go against my guttural inclinations and follow the paths that were new, foreign, and unpredictable. I didn’t know where I was going so it didn’t really matter either way. I had all day to get there, and in the worst case scenario I still had my book and could easily justify calling off the mission to pretend to read for a bit.

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Elysian Park’s trail system is interesting, a network of mostly dirt fire roads (I’d assume) in varying states of use and decay. I quickly became intrigued by the rock outcroppings flanking the trail, especially after crossing Stadium Way and into uncharted terrain. Most, if not every rock, had some strange geologic striations, anthropocentric tellings of the culture clash between unmonitored urban surfaces, Krylon, and quartzite. A psychogeology of sorts. I pondered this observation as I continued my walk, photographing these features like a rather pathetic Ansel Adams, with dusty boots and shattered iPhone.

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An arboreal destination in the distance.

Halfway through the trip I discovered a new tree perched on an even farther ridge. I knew I had to change trajectory. What good is a mission if you are aren’t afraid to break off in favor of a new one?

The beauty of personal ritual is you can do whatever you please – a healthy practice of the wanderer. I passed many more graffiti-covered outcroppings and countless vistas, looking out over the Los Angeles River, the interstates, and across to the mountains. I finally came upon a paved road, its sighting soon accompanied with people, sports fields, litter, and laughing. I hopped onto the road for a bit, walking its hardened path until I saw my destination. I skirted off the road, back into the dusty dirt, and scrambled up a small footpath.

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Upon seeing the tree I was surprised and shocked that it actually had surpassed my expectations. A lone giant perched on a hill. Covered from roots to canopy in spray paint scribble and adorned with a tattered rope swing. I was obviously not the first person to play this game. This was a destination for many. But there was not a soul in sight as I climbed the trunk to take in the view.

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I found a praying mantis making her way up the trunk as well. Universal appeal. I hung around a bit, took some photographs, and then made my way to the next ridgeline to find those Mexican Fan Palms, so that I could finally make my way home satisfied.

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Photo: Materials & Applications

Photo by Materials & Applications

I first came across photos of the construction of ‘The Kid Gets Out of the Picture’ on display at Materials & Applications – a “non-profit organization dedicated to building a public culture of experimental architecture in Los Angeles” – on social media and was instantly intrigued.

The undulating forms of unidentifiable draped textiles, minimal stacks of CMUs, and corrugated tubing scaled up to dwarf a passing human caught my attention. If it were a physical model on the desk of an architecture student’s work station, I would have stopped and inquired. If it was a 3D model on a computer screen, I would have reached for the mouse and panned around in wonder. But alas, this thing was real! Big and wild, simple and complex, and covered in people. It also just happened to be in my neighborhood.

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Photos by Erik Schmahl

Photos by Erik Schmahl

The static image in an infinite scroll of static images got me excited about architecture again. The installation itself is compelling, but I was initially even more intrigued by the context and culture that brought this exhibition into existence.

M&A describes their project as such:

“A contemporary update on the aesthetic principles of early 19th century English landscape architecture. By the early-nineteenth century, practitioners of the English picturesque had invented a catalog of objects (follys, ha-has, viewpoints) that worked to produce the pictorial effects of landscape painting within real space. Lumps, clumps, and masses made it possible, in a sense, to occupy the picture. 

‘The Kid Gets Out of the Picture’ is a three-month long exhibition that returns to the catalog of nouns developed by the picturesque to ask how these tactics can be deployed in reverse, extracting the qualities of images and literalizing them in the real world.” 

Photo by Erik Schmahl

Photo by Erik Schmahl

I finally visited M&A last weekend and was pleasantly surprised to be as excited by the physical space as I was by its virtual representations. The forms are incredibly common, especially to those of us who spend any amount of time around landscape architectural modeling, but the presentation is completely fresh.

The pink draping clumps are reminiscent of insulation foam, but the structure is grounded by its physical weight. It looks soft, but upon closer inspection it is very much rigid. The materials express themselves explicitly, but allude to the visual library of landscape: mounding, sloping, draping. Almost every element is a surprise, but the beauty of the piece is that it invites visitors in to explore its underbelly where you can get up close to its innards. You can see the router bit marks on plywood alluding to CNC machines and parametric modeling. The cinder blocks are bare and repeating, accentuating the beauty in their conventional design. Site furnishings are playfully bizarre and functional, situated in places that encourage you to climb on top of the structure.

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Photos by Erik Schmahl

The entire piece is a giant folly, but once you’ve become comfortable within its weirdness a new meta-folly appears on top of the roof: a glossy obsidian-looking boulder, perched out of reach, undescribed and smooth and alien in its materiality. I don’t know what is going on exactly, but whatever it is, I’m into it. I would encourage everyone to take some time with this space and see what happens. Here are a few of my little mediations/thoughts inspired by my visit:

  1. Techniques and technology exist to allow for the design and construction of complex forms and if these design exercises are followed through to construction the result can powerfully ratify the process. Making it real, not only makes the object real (which is cool in itself), but it also realizes the process validating the exercise as something real.
  2. The visual impact of bewilderment is powerful and stimulating. Not knowing what something is, why it is, and how it is demands inquiry and inquiry results in an active experience of exploration. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But if the water is the color of Pepto-Bismol, the reflection of a raised equine brow in the purple puddle is worth the price of admission.
  3. Designers design for the public, but exhibitions offer an opportunity for designers to design for other designers, as well as the public. This piece makes me uncomfortable because I can’t instantly understand it, but that too challenges me as a designer to try to figure it out – to spend time in critical confusion, resulting a quite pleasurable experience of growth. Stretching my mind a bit. We need more room to play, and it is exciting to see time, energy, and resources put into alternative spaces.
  4. Finally, the participatory nature of the exhibit is on point. It is a private space, made public. There seems to be little to no surveillance. The sign reads,  “Enter at your own risk”. The exhibition could be easily compromised by long list of “DON’TS” directed at unruly users, but instead it is blank. The site respects the user, and in return, this seems to lead to user respecting the site. It is shockingly idealistic and inspiring to me as a designer interested in space. It doesn’t make sense in our landscape, but it exists, which is optimistic and hopeful.
Photo by Erik Schmahl

Photo by Erik Schmahl

‘The Kid Gets Out of the Picture’ – Up until January 8th, 2017; open for public viewing from 10am – 10pm at the Materials & Applications courtyard in Silver Lake (1619 Silver Lake Blvd. LA CA 90026). The collaborative installation is the work of M&A, LADG, First Office, Laurel Broughton / Andrew Kovacs, and Hirsuta partially funded by the Graham Foundation.