Posts by Wendy Chan

Phacelia cicutaria (aka Catepillar Phacelia). All photos: Wendy Chan

As someone born and raised in Southern California, I’m always curious about the perceptions of other Angelenos who didn’t grow up here. I always wonder, “How is Los Angeles different from their own hometowns?”, and “What is their perception of the Southern California landscape and nature here compared to where they’re originally from?”

Transplants often mention the lush green manicured garden landscapes and and the amazing urban tree canopies of Los Angeles, but also complain about the lack of discernible seasons compared to other parts of the nation. The seasons in Southern California are admittedly subtle. The change in seasons here tend to creep up on you. I notice the change in sunlight – both the duration of the sun and warmth – alongside the arrival of warm Santa Ana winds as signs of a new season.

Venegasia carpesioides (Canyon Sunflower)

Ceanothus spp._California Lilac

But what are some botanical indicators of seasons in Southern California? It’s often non-native trees that bloom across Los Angeles that offer observable visual indicators of the changing of seasons. For example, the beautiful purple blooms of the Jacaranda trees and white blooms of the Southern Magnolia tree bloom in spring, while the red leaves of the Sweet Gum trees reveal themselves in fall. These trees offer a more obvious change seasons in the city. The seasonal cues revealed by our native plants in the mountains require a more careful eye.

Bouteloua gracilis

Lately I’ve set out to document the seasonal indicators revealed in our Santa Monica Mountains. The goal of my project is to understand how our native plants change throughout the seasons – from their beautiful flowers in the springtime, to a period of dormancy through summer, to new life reveled in fall. Photographing California’s native plants reveals seasonal changes, including the striking warm colors of dried flower blooms lining trails and the swaying arid woody stems of our native landscape. The collection of photos here were all taken this spring, each revealing the subtle seasons of Southern California.

Bromus spp. (aka Brome Grass)

Encelia californica (aka Bush Sunflower)

Ceanothus spp._California Lilac

Eriogonum fasciculatum (aka California Buckwheat)

Eriophyllum confertiflorum (Golden Yarrow)

Lotus scoparius (Deer Weed)

Malosma laurina (Laurel Sumac)

Phacelia spp.

Salvia leucophylla (Purple Sage)

Photo: Lincoln Heights Branch Library (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was after reading the recent LA Times piece, A Dream Displaced Part 2 – As Gentrification closes in, immigrants in Lincoln Heights find their American dream slipping away in the Los Angeles, I recognized feeling a profound sense of sorrow for the residents that are being essentially priced out of their homes. It was shocking to learn 73% of residents are renters in Lincoln Heights, partially explaining the sense of powerlessness this population must be experiencing under the tide of socio-economic change gentrification brings with it.

The sorrow I harbor for Lincoln Height residents is rooted in my own family’s history. My immigrant parents first moved into the neighborhood of Lincoln Heights due to its close proximity to the Chinatown community and the affordable rent. They found an upstairs unit in a back house on Workman Street, located right across from the beautifully historic Lincoln Heights Branch Library on one corner and a Thrifty’s drugstore on the other. I also remember there was a video store, Star Video, directly across from Thrifty’s mixed in with a number of small businesses. The neighborhood was a melting pot of cultures, the neighborhood’s diverse population reflected through the various local businesses that lined the main commercial district across Broadway.

Lincoln Heights’ Walk Score still rates extremely high, reported as a “walker’s paradise”. Graphic:

Historically, Lincoln Heights was Los Angeles’s first suburb and  home to a succession of immigrants representing our city’s history of diversity. The English, Irish, French, Chinese, Mexican, and the Italian all claimed Lincoln Heights as their home at one time or another, each successive wave of immigrants leaving their imprint, with many still writing their history.

As I reminisce about my childhood, memories come flooding back about the neighborhood’s past: picking out a movie with my dad at the video store, walking to the baseball card store after school, or even buying pet food on Broadway for my pet turtle. My memories remind me of a very walkable neighborhood with services available for residents all within a few minutes distance. The walkability of Lincoln Heights almost made it feel like I lived within a bubble separate from the rest of car-centric Los Angeles. And even though I belonged to the demographic labeled a minority, it never felt that way in Lincoln Heights…it was just home to me.

Our family was eventually forced out of our apartment by our landlord. We were unable to find affordable rent in the neighborhood, so we ended up moving further east to El Sereno when I was in 8th grade. Now as an adult looking back, I realize there were a lot of up and downs living in Lincoln Heights. It must have been different than what my parents imagined their life would be working towards the American Dream. But back then as a child, Lincoln Heights felt perfect.

I recently watched Columbus, a movie set in the small Indiana town of the same name, a mecca for modernist architecture and public art, and one lauded by architecture and film buffs alike as a “cinematic valentine to great design“.

Directed by Kogonada, the film orbits around the estranged relationship between a Korean-born man named Jin (John Cho) and his ailing father, a renowned architecture academic who has collapsed and fallen into a coma. While waiting for news about his father’s condition, the film intimately explores the emotional distance between the two, one rooted in a complex past: Jin’s decision to leave his family to pursue his own passions years ago, the lingering guilt of abandoning family commitments, the simmering resentments born between a son measuring up to his acclaimed father.

It’s during his stay Jin also crosses paths with Casey, a young woman who has lived in Columbus, Indiana her entire life. She is a self-identifying “architecture nerd”, well-versed in her hometown’s architectural vernacular, mooring similar emotional conflicts between past and present: hindered aspirations related to a recovering addict mother, the personal doubts of someone who stayed after everyone left, and the simmering realization her prospects are evaporating.

Their parallels sow the seeds of an unhurried friendship, one which blooms around their observations about architecture – her’s in appreciation, his in doubt.

“Notice how the cross and the doors and the clock are all off-center. This design, Saarinen’s design is asymmetrical, yet still remains balanced.” Casey makes this observation during a cigarette break in front of Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, our introduction to her character. Then later again – this time with Jin – she repeats the same observation about asymmetry verbatim after bringing him to contemplate its significance. This diametric state of symmetry and asymmetry plays a prevalent theme throughout Columbus – both architecturally and emotionally – as each character seeks to find the same balance reflected through the film’s cinematography.

Though Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho) are excellent, the film’s main stars are its architecture and landscape. The film takes the audience on a narrative journey through the city of Columbus through beautifully composed scenes, each suggesting a story about the human connection with architecture and the emotions exceptional design evokes. It is through the film’s architectural settings Jin and Casey slowly reveal their innermost emotions, sometimes with only a very minimal amount of dialogue – a subtle complement to many of the film’s quietly contemplative surroundings.

In one scene, Casey brings Jin to her favorite building, offering an appreciative, if not impersonal assessment of the building’s significance. In turn, Jin asks why the building moves her. The scene is filmed with Casey answering Jin in the foreground, the two framed by a symmetrical colonnade of trees. The dialogue is muted and replaced by a serene musical score. In this moment the audience can only imagine Casey’s response, but we can all identify her love and passion simply by her expressions, surrounded by the landscape she intimately knows and loves.

Similarly, my admiration for Columbus arrived quietly – in appreciation of its carefully crafted composition and its subdued nature. As a landscape architect I strive to bring memories and feeling of the natural world into built urban environments, and in Columbus I could identify my own hopes to compose experience so skillfully.

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.