Posts from the Expressions Category

Downtown Savannah. All photos by Clarence Lacy

I’ve been feeling a tinge of excitement building thinking about my impending return home to the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia will always have a special place in my heart, specifically Hampton and its location on the Peninsula. The Bay is home to some of the richest ecologies, including my favorite, the estuarine/salt marsh.

During a trip to Savannah and Tybee Island, I observed this ecosystem up close in a different context. While attending Landscape Architecture School I began to understand the importance of this ecosystem and the role it plays in our lives as coastal residents. Armed with my hipster camera and some old found film, I was ready to explore a new territory.

Panorama of Tybee Island.

My adventure begins amongst the enchanting oak woodlands. These woods feel and smell like something straight out of the pages of a fairy tale. Spanish moss covered live oaks shade a flood of palmettos, creating a varied texture unique to southern live oak forests. Wandering through these woodlands, each tree feels like an ancient spiritual guardian welcoming you into the equally divine salt marsh.

Skidaway Island State Park.

Leaving the woodland, solid ground gives way to a reedy edge. The oak woodland smell is quickly exchanged for an overwhelmingly familiar smell reminiscent of my childhood on the Chesapeake Bay. Those early days were spent visiting the wharf to buy a bushel of crab, where I would also stop to watch swarms of gulls perched or gliding mid-flight overhead over the piers. Many boats are docked here – a true show of Savannah’s boat culture. From this edge, my journey begins upon the water.


Our boat weave in and out of small tributaries that wind around the subtle topography of soft ground. A new understanding of the eco-diversity and local nuance of this landscape revealed itself through its broad visual monotony. A vigorous smell of salt water intermingles with a subtle, yet captivating smell of decomposition, accompanied by the surround sound symphony of life teeming within this ecosystem.


A combination of childhood nostalgia, love of seafood, and my education brought me to a truly spiritual nexus – a discovery of something unfamiliar, yet familiar. This moment solidifies my love for this ecosystem.


Looking back at my photos, the place feels ghostly and magnificent, yet also tinged with a spirit of the sentimental past. To this day, this trip holds great importance to me. The visit taught me that a true understanding and appreciation of an ecology requires more than academic research, but also a firsthand experience within it.

This month, AHBE Landscape Architects celebrates 30 years of transforming the landscapes of Southern California (and beyond). Created on the occasion of his elevation to the ASLA Council of Fellows in 2004, Expressions is a biographical portrait of Calvin Abe, FASLA, our founding Partner and President of AHBE.

The video above traces the design and development of three formative projects from our practice: the No Name Garden (1999) at the Japanese-American Community Cultural Center in Little Tokyo, the Infonet Corporate Campus in El Segundo (1999), and the Los Angeles River Center Garden Park (2000) in Los Angeles.

Happy birthday, Calvin!

Santa Monica – All photos by Clarence Lacy, except where noted.

The warm weather lately may say otherwise, but summer is over and it’s officially autumn here in Los Angeles.

I knew the day would eventually arrive, but I kept convincing myself, “just one more day”. Thankfully, California is blessed with a climate that allows us to enjoy its coast almost any time of the year. The coastline of California offers varied and diverse experiences, climate, water temperatures, alongside terrestrial and aquatic life to explore. Over the three years I’ve lived in the Golden State (I can’t believe I’ve already been here this long!), I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many sections along the coast, exploring all that California has to offer.

Sea Ranch – Photos by Gregory Han

My coastal journal begins with one of my favourite places along the coast: Sea Ranch. Located just over 100 miles north of San Francisco, right off the Pacific Coast Highway, Sea Ranch is a small community of full-time and part-time residents located in a carefully planned and protected development. The coastline here is a mixture of cliffs and sandy beaches, where the frigid waters are still wild, offering a poetic and inspiring place for writers, artists, and anyone drawn to the ocean. The cliffs are covered in ice plants and dwarf small sandy coves, with numerous tide pools teeming with life to explore.

Closer to San Francisco in Marin County, Muir Beach hosts a small protected beach nestled in a valley that ends at the Pacific Ocean. Muir Beach, a cove, is protected from the turbulent Pacific Ocean, an unusually calm region of Northern California coastline. The wild, cold waters of the Pacific can be seen crashing on rock formations just offshore, an especially golden hued view just as the sun begins its descent.

Continuing down the coast further south of San Francisco, the shores continue to display similar terrain with more small coves. But the shape of the coastline begins to envelope outward, with bays of tamer and warmer water. While visiting Pigeon Point I spied various Dudleya, grasses, and native shrubs dotting the green hills – a scenic backdrop of both native and invasive plants that make up the California coast ecology.

Dudlyea

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Green Hills at Pigeon Point Bluffs

As I ventured further down to the reaches of Southern California, I noticed the beaches becoming larger. Santa Monica, Hermosa and Laguna Beach are some of my favorites.

Santa Monica

Each of these stretches of shoreline offer a slightly different feel, but nonetheless, beach goers, surfers, and visiting landscape architects alike can appreciate their distinct and unique beauty.

Hermosa Beach (top), Manhattan Beach (bottom); Photos by Matthew Taylor

As I made my way down to the most southern end of the state to San Diego, a a mix of expansive beaches and cliffs welcomed  the end of my journey down the California coastline. La Jolla Cove is a perfect spot to catch a napping sea lion or a group of noisy cormorants. These cliffs seem to fold right into the sea, creating scenic beaches and bays.

La Jolla sea lion, cormorant, and seagull

Mission Beach

I love exploring the coast. Throughout my journey I recognized the California coastline presents a great opportunity to enjoy the change of the seasons, while also offering an opportunity to reap some of the awesome health benefits related to spending time outdoors and along ocean waters. Summer may have officially be over, but I wholly recommend spending this weekend or the next exploring a new beach. There’s always something surprising to discover that makes our part of the coast uniquely Californian.

SaveSave

Photos by Katherine Montgomery

A few weeks ago, I pulled off the 210 freeway onto La Tuna Canyon Road to take in the devastation of the recent fire that engulfed and scorched more than 7,000 acres. Having been extinguished only a couple weeks before, the land was still raw with soot and ash. I parked at a trailhead, ignored the “Closed” signs, and wandered into an otherworldly canyon landscape.

When fires strike California it can feel apocalyptic. The contaminated sky changes to an eerie orange glow along the mountains. I could see the La Tuna Canyon Fire from my front porch for the first few nights, looming like Mordor in the distance. I woke up several times to check on it in the night, thinking about the fatigued firefighters, and the tragic loss of ecosystem. I tried to reason through my emotional response, telling myself that every region has its natural disasters, rationalizing wildfires as part of California’s natural systems. But is that still true?

The ground was black, except in areas where ash had swirled and gathered at the base of the canyon, mimicking snow. There were still oaks standing, with burnt brown leaves, and sycamores with white trunks and charred limbs. With the brush burned away, litter, old bottles, and pull-tab beer cans were exposed on the ground. The landscape was eerily silent except for the occasional scrub jay, and the twinkling of pebbles tumbling down the barren hillsides. How and when does life return to this landscape?

Understanding the natural history of wildfires in comparison to modern day occurrences, there arises a concern that the increased frequency is preventing native ecosystems from rebounding, inviting invasive plants to take over. I am curious to know more about how the land regenerates: which plants sprout first, which trees can survive being charred, and when do the critters return? La Tuna Canyon last burned in 1955. Will it be another 60 years until the tree canopy is as dense as it was a few months ago before the fire?

I hope to return to this site and repeatedly photograph it to document the changes. Also, the Theodore Payne Foundation is hosting a series of talks geared towards landscapes after the fire. I am especially interested in hearing insights from the perspective of the California Chaparral Institute, to better understand how we as stewards of the land can support the natural ecosystems that make California so beautiful.

Our back-to-school theme inspired me to revisit my graduate thesis, a document I haven’t looked at in quite awhile, but that I believe still influences my design thinking today. I started by skimming my references and remembering all of the essays that had inspired me while pulling together ideas.

I was taking an art theory class at the time entitled Art and Ecology, and some of the discussions we had really helped me articulate what I thought and felt about being an ecological designer. I remember re-reading one quote in particular, from Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought, which is both simple and overwhelming.

“…ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with delight, beauty, ugliness, disgust, irony, and pain. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with ideas of self and the weird paradoxes of subjectivity. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence.”

This quote and the discussion that followed inspired me to think more critically about empathy and affect in ecological thinking. It seemed to me that metrics and data often dominate ecological talk; I was curious about how I could begin to think about ecological design in a different way. My thesis title turned out to be Transparent Animism: A Framework for Participating in Ecological Design as Agonism. Animism became a way for me to talk about humans and nonhumans as subjects, and the political theory of agonism – a political theory that emphasizes the possibly positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict.

As I dug around and tried to better understand the political theories of agonism, a quote by Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe entirely changed the way I thought about ecology. Mouffe stated that, “the fetishization of consensus is an act of silencing”. I suddenly understood that a human idea of a harmonious nature was a fantasy. Rather than emphasizing consensus between humans and nonhumans as a goal, what was required was a platform for ecological design that allows for productive disagreement to take place.

I came up with four design criterias that I believed would help me work towards a more empathetic ecological design process, and I attempted to employ those criteria to four speculative projects. I’ll plug a link to my thesis here, because this ontological brainstorm took me close to a year to complete.

One of the projects, the video shown below, is something I recognize as a relational diagram. It was all about the challenge of exchanging perspectives. The construct is made of layered clear acrylic planes with laser cut holes that I then painted pink and blue. When staked the layers of colors create a visual field with a shifting organization of figure-ground. An understanding of existence as relational proposes that humans and nonhumans are in a continuous process of negotiation with one another.

As a landscape designer today I still feel it is necessary to be critical of and empathetic towards representations of nature and the ongoing discussion of what makes ecological design ecological.