Posts by Wendy Chan

Photos by Wendy Chan

It was eight years ago when I was asked me to take photos of Camino Nuevo High School in the Rampart Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, a charter high school project completed by AHBE. I can still remember feeling inspired by the project’s planting design, with its projection of a streetscape experience matched with a color palette of blue and yellow complementing the dynamic graphic of the building facade. The striking contrast between the fine soft texture of Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass) against the thorns and structural foliage of Agave americana (Century Plant) was particularly memorable.

When I took these photos, the project was already a year into its growth after the project’s completion. Just a year later, there were already signs of maintenance issues: invasive weeds, overgrown plants, and volunteer palms emerging uninvited from the parkway.

Recently, I found myself back on the grounds of Camino Nuevo High School. I was driving  to the office from a meeting when I happened to pass by the high school. I decided to stop to inspect how the project’s planting design was holding up eight years later and compare my memories of yesterday with the realities of today. I particularly wanted to investigate which plants proved to be the most resilient eight years later.

Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, the planting areas once so thoughtfully designed and planted revealed to be in a complete state of disarray. The Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass) planted on the parkway are now gone, with weeds and voluntary plants like Cortaderia selloana (Pampas Grass) taken over the planters. On a positive note, the agaves have grown beautifully and considerably, with pups spread throughout. I also noticed the bougainvillea lining the walkways was pruned to control its height. Exposed and damaged drip tubing informed me the irrigation systems was no longer functional.

What began as a cohesive vision is currently a mish-mash of new plants and old plants. Some new plants were obviously added, including a plant pruned into the shape of a globe. Turf lawn was also reintroduced.

I wasn’t completely surprised at the sad state of the planting areas. Los Angeles schools have been struggling for funding, and landscape maintenance costs are secondary to budgetary concerns within the classroom. A lack of maintenance is not entirely to blame.

As landscape architects, we’re constantly charged to find a balance of aesthetics, functionality, and plant resiliency, all within a budget. Even so, we’re cognizant of the challenges and struggles related to maintenance, including the increasing scarcity of water available to keep landscapes healthy. Thus, solutions to provide resilient landscapes requiring as little maintenance as possible is our profession’s ideal.

I believe now is the time to progressively move landscape design forward in promotion of planting designs capable of surviving – or even thriving – with a minimum of maintenance. Our profession should make efforts to choose plants capable of surviving with little or no irrigation, and without the need for constant pruning or supplemental fertilizer. Guided by these goals,  native California plants that once covered our state’s landscape might yet again become a common sight and an example of native resiliency.

Photos by Wendy Chan

After reading my colleague’s thoughts about the plans to revitalize the Los Angeles River, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness of its current state, emotions eventually counterbalanced with hopes of the river’s proposed future.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I regularly witnessed the river’s transformation from a gentle trickle in the summer into a powerful torrent during the fall and winter after a storm – its raw power sometimes barely contained within the concrete channel built to direct the flow safely out to the ocean. I remember  watching on the news swift water rescue teams pulling out people overcome by the river’s strong currents every year, caught by its surprising strength. Occasionally these stories would end tragically.

Memories like these embedded the idea the river was a dangerous place to be avoided – an unpleasant section of Los Angeles where drug deals happened, trash piled up, and graffiti covered its embankments. Why would anyone want to visit such a place?

But as a little kid, I didn’t understand the L.A River’s past before it was channelized, nor pondered the potential of its future. I simply thought of the stretch of concrete as a flood channel, not as a river. I remember when I first experienced a river as an adult; I thought of the flow of water back at home, suddenly realizing and recognizing the potential of the L.A River.

“The L.A. River could represent the identity of Los Angeles!”

The inklings of the river as a connection and artery between humans and local wildlife began to flow, and my thoughts about the river began to change. No longer was it an off-limits and dangerous place, but the opportunity to offer communities accessibility to nature, alongside a feature connecting all of the communities of Los Angeles it flows across.

The Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization plan is truly a community driven vision, one outlining strategies to turn a dream of a better Los Angeles River into becoming a reality. I’m inspired imagining a city of tomorrow not be defined by its freeways, but instead by the tributary whose history spans long before there was even a Los Angeles.

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

Although we were asked to look back at this year’s collection of Lab posts to share, it was a post written a few years ago that still resonates as the most memorable personally.  A Dream Now Off Limits: Angel’s Flight Park – written by Calvin Abe – triggered an emotional response I’ve never forgotten, evoking a lasting sorrow for the loss of a community space with such potential. Alongside this sadness, questions about the value of nature in society are also awakened by Calvin’s words and photos.

Calvin’s post is about a forgotten public park across the street from Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles. Located at the landing of the historic Angels Flight, the park was closed off from the public shortly after its opening due to the lack of funding for maintenance. Although the park did not have active use space such as a play field or play area, it did provide a shady escape from the city. I recognize the park might have been presented a challenge for city agencies; there isn’t always an immediate value recognized for passive recreation. But I strongly believe that publicly accessible open spaces are a valuable commodity in any densely populated neighborhood. Even a place to rest or eat your lunch is an important community resource within an urban environment. Of course, I’m biased…every time I see the fenced off Angels Knoll Park, I can only imagine all of the unrealized memories the park could have played host to, and our city’s failure to protect those hopes and dreams.

The original post here: A Dream Now Off Limits: Angel’s Flight Park

All photos: Wendy Chan

I recently visited the city of Marrakech in Morocco, where I found myself captivated by the city’s various medinas – the maze-like network of narrow streets that weaves to create dense and distinct neighborhoods. A medina is characterized by walled-in narrow streets containing public facilities like souks (traditional markets), fountains, and mosques, and found within North African and Maltese cities.

Some of the walls surrounding the Marrakech medinas date back to the 12th century. Made with locally sourced orange-red clay, it becomes obvious how Marrakech earned its nickname of the “Red City”.

The buildings within a medina are all enclosed with tall walls which adds to a sense of spatial enclosure and the maze-like setting. But just when you think you are completely lost, the narrow streets open up to various public squares and plazas bustling with activities. These open markets and food stalls help re-orient visitors and locals

As I was exploring the medina, I stumbled upon various markets where local residents do their daily shopping. There are open markets dedicated to produce, alongside swap meets for trading and selling of used houseware and clothes.

We visited various medinas within the city of Marrakech, noting each one representing its own character. But they offered easy walkability, a great sense of community, and were all populated with friendly people, their hospitality often accompanied with the offer of delicious mint tea.

All photos by Wendy Chan

Even though I grew up feeling disconnected from nature as a child, as an adult I now find myself seeking the natural world for inspiration. Whether exploring the trails up in our local mountains or in outdoor areas within the city where nature is carefully planned and designed into the landscape, nature offers inspiration for this landscape architect. Every trip into nature permits an opportunity to bring these experiences and moments of serenity found in nature back into the studio to apply into the context of an urban environment project.

Earlier this year, I visited the town of Dazaifu in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan. There, a beautiful dry landscape Japanese garden at the back of the Komyozenji Temple awaits tucked against a hillside named Ittekikaitei, “A Drop of Ocean Garden”. I was immediately taken aback by the serenity of the garden at first sight after walking through the sliding door entry. The garden conveys the movement of water through landscape with a thoughtful arrangement of minimal materials: moss, rocks, gravel, and trees.

As I sat in this harmonious landscape, I could feel the serene tranquility the garden designers and caretakers intended to convey through its every features. I felt I could sit there for hours, feeling the wind, listening to the birds, and watching the soft rustle of leaves against the wind. I almost forgot that the city was just outside the temple’s doorsteps.

Sitting there on the porch overlooking the garden, I felt compelled to remember this feeling and return home to incorporate this sense of serenity into my own landscape architecture projects. Hopefully one day those entering and experiencing a project I design will feel an introspective moment of calm with nature like I did that memorable day inside Komyozenji Temple.