Posts tagged wlam2016


This is Iceland at 768 mph – the speed of sound – a time-lapse circumnavigation via the (Ring Road) that circles the island.

As a landscape architect and experimental filmmaker, I am always looking for new ways to communicate the profession. A few summers ago, I strapped an iPhone to my dashboard and compressed the four-hour drive from Malibu for Las Vegas into a twelve-minute time-lapse video in order to capture the shifting landscape ecologies along the route: the ocean coast, the urban megalopolis, the high desert.

The result – Twelve Minutes To Vegas – surprised me. Not only was the landscape continually shifting and mesmerizing, but I felt drawn in, as if by watching the video I was reliving the drive and I was in the landscape.

I have dubbed this genre of experimental film the land-lapse, a technique using video to immerse the viewer into a landscape to achieve an experiential quality. The use of time-lapse video compresses the journey into both a manageable length and allows the viewer to observe the dynamics of shifting landscapes. Finally an audio collage (wild sound, music, interviews, commentary) is added to provide a layer of cultural landscape interpretation.

Additional land-lapse films I have created include Westbank To Westbank (Baton Rouge to New Orleans) and S,M,L,XLA – a circumnavigation of Los Angeles created for a group installation at the Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles.

I culminated this series of films with From Sea To Shining Sea. This is a contemporary portrait of the United States of America experienced via a cross-county land-lapse and audio collage. This incredible landscape diversity – through twenty-two eco-regions from the Atlantic, over the Rockies, and to the Pacific – is united by a common visual element: the Interstate Highway System. By watching the film, one essentially takes the journey itself, and gains a greater appreciation for the sheer beauty of the American landscape.

In my latest film, Hringvegur, my goal was to capture the incredible diversity of the Icelandic landscape.

Iceland – the Nordic island country in the North Atlantic – is one of the most volcanically and geologically active places on Earth. This small European country has been described as if “someone put the American West in a blender: California’s poetic central coast, the Nevada desert’s barren expanses, Alaska’s glaciers and Yellowstone’s geysers”. The 828 mile (1,333 kilometer) long Ring Road (Route 1) that encircles the island and traverses these dynamic landscapes, has been characterized as “the ultimate road trip”.

Starting in Reykjavík, we travelled east across the lava fields along the North Atlantic and views of Vatnajökull glacier to Höfn; then heading north by northwest in a foggy darkness along fjords and blind curves. Twisting over the mountains (where a flat tire did not stop us), we crossed the inland gravel fields of Iceland’s desert interior to Akureyri; then west through alpine mountains, lava fields and fjords along the Norwegian Sea, and then through Hvalfjörður Tunnel back to Reykjavík.

Hringvegur was funded via a Kickstarter campaign during World Landscape Architecture Month 2015, and runs 70 minutes in length. Enjoy this 15 minute highlight reel – 3/14ths of Hringvegur.

Back Bay Fens. Creative Commons photo by Andrea Monari

Back Bay Fens. Creative Commons photo by Andrea Monari

In the spirit of World Landscape Architecture Month it seems only appropriate I share a post about Frederick Law Olmstead, a towering figure in our field. To expand a bit upon Dima’s post referencing Frederick Law Olmstead’s visionary foresight, I believe he was definitely a visionary designer for his work on Boston’s Back Bay Fens. Known most famously as one of the designers of Central Park, Olmstead was also the landscape architect behind America’s first wetland restoration.

Once a tidal marsh fed by the Charles River, this Boston’s Back Bay Fens was polluted by the locals who dumped waste directly into the fragile ecosystem. At high tide, the wetland would overflow. However, at low tide “offensive exudations arose from the mud”, as Olmstead noted himself.

In the Back Bay Fens, Boston, Mass. Via Boston Public Library

In the Back Bay Fens, Boston, Mass. Via Boston Public Library

Understanding the harsh, yet ecologically sensitive and complex environment of this wetland, Olmstead knew that he had to maintain a steady water level, while also prevent refuse from entering the waterway with advanced sewer systems, and carefully selected plant material that could take the bay’s salty conditions.

Olmsted's 1887 plan for the Fens.

Olmsted’s 1887 plan for the Fens.

The first step for this wetland restoration was to dredge and reshape the wetland area so that the water traveled in a more sinuous line. Olmstead also worked with the city engineer to manage and maintain the flow from the Charles River, ensuring that the water level variation did not exceed one foot. In addition, he also coordinated a state-of-the-art sewer system to catch refuse before it entered the waterway.

Plants were planned with a long list of salt-tolerant species such as sedges, salt grass, salt cedar, sea buckhorn, and beach plum to see what would survive. Olmstead knew that the abundant plantings and cleaner water would provide habitat for water birds and aquatic wildlife.

The name Back Bay Fens was named by the landscape architect himself. Although the city commissioners were keen on calling the restored wetland, “Back Bay Park”, Olmstead knew this was no park, and referred to his old dictionary, trying out names such as “Sedgeglade” and “The Sea Glades” before settling on the final name of Back Bay Fens. Back then, the word “fen” meant “marsh” or “boggy piece of land.”

Ironically, with the damming of the Charles River years later, this once restored tidal wetland turned into a freshwater wetland. Or more specifically, a fen that receives storm water from the Charles River basin and is still more or less appropriately named to this day.


At some point in nearly everyone’s career you’ll come to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”. I’ve questioned myself about why I’m a landscape architecture professional, and recognize it’s definitely not for the money nor for instant gratification. It takes years to see the project you worked on materialize into a thriving community space. So why am I passionate about this field? I’ve recently recalled a childhood memory that has lingered for years which helps explain why I’m a landscape architect.

I remember as a young girl eavesdropping on my mother’s conversation with her sister, distinctly recollecting her saying, “Living in America without a car is like being in jail.” My mother grew up in an urban and dense city in Asia where she walked to temples, markets, met for dates at street food vendors, and socialized with her school friends to play along alleyways. Her life unfolded within the context of a walkable community. When she immigrated to the States, the culture and urban density was so different and challenging – especially in Los Angeles –that it was a shock for her. She felt trapped and isolated.

For most of my childhood our family didn’t own a car, so my world was defined by a 30 minute walking radius around my house. During my college years, I busted out of this bubble and went out to seek opportunities and means to travel. I first went camping during college where I experienced nature – not urban nature – but the wild and unplanned ecosystems of plants, animals, and geology which inspire my profession today.

Sidewalk culture of European cities like Berlin invites social interaction and cultural vibrancy. CC photo by La Citta Vita.

Sidewalk culture of European cities like Berlin invites social interaction and cultural vibrancy. CC photo by La Citta Vita.

I also began traveling across Europe and Asia, where I witnessed how different those cities were compared to Los Angeles. They were walkable cities with a sense of place. Neighborhoods with accessible wide open public spaces for assembly, store frontages facing the sidewalk, short blocks with easy access to public transportation – they all added up to cities with unique urban energy. I fell in love with these cities. I wanted to move “there” and leave Los Angeles, the place I called home for all my life.

BP Pedestrian Bridge in Millennium Park, Chicago is an example for Los Angeles to follow, especially as we eye transforming the Los Angeles River. CC photo by: Torsodog.

BP Pedestrian Bridge in Millennium Park, Chicago is an example for Los Angeles to follow, especially as we eye transforming the Los Angeles River into a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly feature of the city. CC photo by: Torsodog.

I no longer wanted to live in a city where not having a car is being in jail, so I began applying for opportunities abroad. What my mother casually said to her sister over the phone always stayed with me. I didn’t realize how important her observation was to me until I was practicing in the profession of landscape architecture. As I started dreaming of living in another city, I came to the eventual realization that Los Angeles is my home. I started looking for a place in the city to live where I could walk to supermarkets, restaurants, coffee shops, and public transportation. A high Walk Score was my first priority when I was looking for a place to live, as I craved a walkable neighborhood.

LA's Walk Score leaves room for improvement and wildly varies from zip code to zip code.

LA’s Walk Score leaves room for improvement across the board, and wildly varies from zip code to zip code.

Luckily I eventually did find a place that meets these requirements, and I couldn’t be happier. But now when I travel to other cities, I’m still noting the features which make these cities more walkable than my own.

“What defines a sense of place?”
“Why are the streets so inviting?”
“How can design change the way our communities are built?”
“How can we make community open space more accessible and useable?”

I see a shift in Los Angeles happening right now, one transitioning us from a city dominated and defined by car-based communities into a more pedestrian-friendly network of neighborhoods. I’m excited and passionate about landscape architecture because I see how our work has a direct effect in creating more walkable neighborhoods and accessibility for all to experience nature, and hopefully free anyone else from ever feeling like they’re trapped and isolated as my mother once felt.

1901 Plan of prospect park

The struggle between landscape architects and the general public’s perception of their profession is global and with plenty of historical precedent. It has long been a question of identity and agency. Therefore, I grab every opportunity possible – whether it be an Uber ride, a casual conversation, or bar talk – to project my understanding of and interest in the field, steering the conversation away from architecture or from gardening and into more amorphous territory. My elevator pitch is as vague and scalable as the field itself. After all, there is not one definition or one interpretation of landscape architecture among practitioners and theorists, even those coming from the same cultural context.

Most of the time the reaction is, “I have never heard someone explain landscape architecture as such”. Truth is, I leave it up to the listener to interpret, question, and formulate their own conclusions and reflections.

I like to think of myself as a generalist. Our field is the only medium in which the science of living systems (botany, horticulture, agriculture, floriculture, ecology, geology, hydrology, and forestry), infrastructure, engineering and construction, art, expression, and experience all overlap with social sciences (social studies, economy, history, culture). Add to that the broader themes of equality, connection, nostalgia, with scales of space and time, perspective open to interpretation and analyzation reduced down to the rhizome level (to show the impact of radishes on soil quality) or up to a city-wide transformational impact of a project like the High Line on the city scale.

The High Line Elevated Park in New York. Photo by StaceyJean

The High Line Elevated Park in New York. Photo by StaceyJean

I like to think of myself as a landscape urbanist, maybe a landscape arch-urbanist. The simple reason behind this is detaching the connotation associated with architecture from landscape, breaking the prejudiced idea of this historically-tense binary relationship. “Urbanist” on the other hand opens up to a spectrum of scales, blurring this tiring perception of landscape as being bound to, or evolving around a piece of architecture. It is true that the profession has learned and borrowed a lot from architecture, especially in the modernist era, forging a new architecture to the landscape. Nevertheless, it is important to note that landscape architecture as a profession traces back to the visionary foresight of Olmsted, who recognized the inevitability of urbanization, and importance of planning resilient grounds for long-term balanced living environments. This agency is crucial, approaching landscape as the ecological framework for the design of the urban, rather than a corrective afterthought.

And so my elevator pitch comes down to: “I design cities to be more resilient”.

Olmsted Historic Map of Boston

What the listener defines as a city – their city – is up for grabs, and always subjective and relevant: a street, a housing compound, a rural site, an oil extraction town, or even a refugee camp. How the listener interprets resilience is also flexible and contextual. In a place like the Middle East, one could think of resilience as political. In Los Angeles resilience can be defined as a fight against drought, while in Mexico City as the risk of land subsidence, or in Shanghai, related to water quality. In any context, a landscape architect is empowered by the tools and means at hand today to understand the complexity of the layers – collecting and connecting, drawing relations, defining problems, then building on the power of science and art to design solutions across timeframes and scales. The eventual result are landscapes with performative systems – socially inclusive, environmentally responsive, cultivated, projected, and capable of being made, and then remade when required.

Creative Commons photo by ericnvntr

Olympic Sculpture Park has influenced the way I perceive the possibilities and the extent in which landscape architecture can be experienced by the public, from its dynamic collection of sculptures, to the seasonal change of the landscaping, it is a public park filled with transitional experiences. CC photo by ericnvntr

Photo: Heejae Lee

Photo: Heejae Lee

I consider World Landscape Architecture Month as an opportunity to celebrate our profession’s storied past and promising future – a time to recognize where we began and the journey each of us will travel as we all venture onto a path leading us to continual uncharted territories of design. Within my professional career, and even academic life, I have experienced a noticeable change within landscape architecture from a social, economic, and even political perspective.

Looking forward, the future of landscape architecture looks promising, practicing during a generation when new technologies and new approaches to design offer unprecedented options and tools to ply our trade. There also seems to be a shift in both the framework as well as the fundamental theories that fuel the profession.

This brings me to an interesting collection of essays I remember reading while still in school, all written from various views and perceptions of the design fields. One essay written by Chris Reed – a Principal at Stoss – titled, “Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies” describes the profession of landscape architecture from previous eras, a time when the field could be categorized as either a decorative or scientific practice of planning and design. Today, landscape architecture is more than ever dependent upon dynamic and multidisciplinary frameworks geared towards a new landscape urbanism.


Photo: Heejae Lee

Photo: Heejae Lee

I believe the profession of landscape architecture is progressing well beyond decorative solutions or solely working from ecological studies. Instead the field is shaping research, social change, ecological solutions, and aiding in establishing urban networks from all angles. These new frameworks enable landscape architecture to be a catalyst for complex systems, serving a greater purpose to citizens than ever before, both shaping the environment and working to shelter various networks and ecosystems around the planet. As another Landscape Architecture Month passes, I am already looking forward to next year’s celebration to witness – and be part of – the inevitable changes to come.