Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.

Go!

Photo from exhibit on Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum
Photo from exhibit on Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum

If you had written off Eames as a name synonymous with a certain type of look and chair that figures prominently within mags like Dwell and within the walls of austere mid-century modernist homes that have become, shall we say, a wee bit played out, you are probably not alone. Yet a trip to the Oakland Museum to see their temporary exhibit on Eames – that is, Charles and Ray Eames – might make you rethink writing Eames off as just another overpriced and coveted chair. The exhibit takes a compelling and playfully cacophonous look at the breadth of the work of the Eames duo – a body of work that encompassed so much more than chairs and whose mission was, at the end of the day, to make furniture and information and design available to the masses in an age of mass production. Additionally, the exhibit makes it very clear that contrary to what many had thought before, this was not a one-man show. Ray, Charles’s wife, was just as integral to the work as he was, as were their staff who populated their circus-like, delirious studio on Washington Boulevard in Venice, Los Angeles. Long story short: Go!

-John Kamp

On trees and what they say about us

Jared Farmer's book on the history of the trees that now signify "California" in the public imagination
Jared Farmer’s book on the history of the trees that now signify “California” in the public imagination

Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.

There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.

Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.

Where’s the give and take?

Four-foot-wide sidewalk with no trees along 50-foot-wide Claremont Boulevard
Four-foot-wide sidewalk with no trees along 50-foot-wide Claremont Boulevard

In our quest to add more and denser housing along commercial corridors in California’s cities, we are thoroughly short-changing both the residents of these new developments and those who walk down the sidewalks of these evolving commercial corridors. The sidewalks are staying impossibly narrow, while the roadways are staying too wide. In short, we are creating corridors of dense housing along dry creek beds of public space and along rivers of asphalt-lined roadway. Landscape in the broader sense of the term – the spaces in between buildings, the spaces that really make or break urban space – is simply not considered.

We wrote about this situation – the missing role of landscape in the housing discussion – for the Los Angeles Chapter of the APA a few months ago, and you can find that here.

There needs to be some give and take when we are asking people to give up four walls and space and a yard to move into a building of shared walls and no yard. The sidewalk and the spaces in between buildings need to be given just as much thought and care as the buildings and units themselves. But this, alas, we are simply not seeing.

Hummingbirds are architects too

If you’re ever feeling like humans have a leg up on absolutely everything, watch this and you might end up rethinking your worldview. What if we had to build our own homes, all by ourselves? And with objects foraged in the wild? Most of us probably wouldn’t even know where to begin.