April 2010

Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot are making a name for themselves for their rather contemporary take on sculpture, art installation, and landscape design. Big on craftsmanship and everyday materials, they are able to transform the seemingly mundane into the sublime. In this video, we observe the installation of their temporary landscape for the Jardin Laurent-Perrier, located in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. The visuals should tell the story well enough, so no need to fret over not speaking French. If you do wish to see an explanation of the project in English, click here, and navigate to projects -> exhibitions and events -> Jardin Laurent-Perrier.

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A Wallace Neff home in Pasadena within its thirsty landscape

Los Angeles has long been touted as a place you come to plant the garden of your dreams, a garden that is green year-round and fed by an endless supply of cheap water. Arid Mediterranean climate no matter, you dig verdant English Garden complete with topiary? No problem. Lush tropical, sure. You’d like to bring all of the plants you used to plant in New England over hither, and maybe mix them in with a Moroccan theme? Feel free. And feel free we have; the average SoCal landscape uses 80 inches of water annually. Average annual rainfall in SoCal is 13 inches.

Despite the copious amounts of water we have lavished our fantasy landscapes with, they still never achieve the electric verdance of early summer in the Midwest or New England. The tropical-themed landscapes never achieve the eye-swooning green of a Hawaiian rainforest. The English ones, well, never look English. We have created a region of landscapes whose evolution across the seasons is virtually nonexistent, and whose color palatte consists of various shades of dull greens desperately trying to emulate the fresh greens of the landscapes they are borrowed from. It all amounts to an impression that we have a landscape inferiority complex and are unwilling to celebrate the mild Mediterranean climate we live in.

Truth be told, many a gardener in the world would kill to be able to plant the range of Lavenders we can, the Echeverias we can, the Aloes, Fountain Grasses, Cistuses, and Euphorbias. They would kill to have the option of planting this huge diversity of plants that only exists in a few regions of the world. Meanwhile we are content to just plant some more Azaleas and try to emulate the look and feel of a landscape we can never call our own. It is high time that we gloated a bit, dove head-long into the wide, wide world of Mediterranean, desert, and prairie plants, whose water needs, colors, and textures will firmly ground the landscape in its place, in Southern California. These would be landscapes to show off.

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Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote blue’

PRAIRIEFORM is always on the lookout for drought-tolerant plants that can survive equally well in a mild climate such as that of Los Angeles, or in a bitter cold one, such as that of Minneapolis. This particular variety of Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote blue’, is one such plant. Its marvelous grey-green foliage blends in well with the blue-green hues of a swath of Little Bluestem, or the earthy greens of Prairie Dropseed. And its flowers, which bloom for a good chunk of summer, are the brightest of electric purple and are bonafide honeybee magnets. As with most Lavenders, it likes a good dose of sun, very little water once established (so, after the first growing season), and crummy, rocky, sandy soil (so, hands off the compost with these guys). During the first growing season, water your Lavender deeply but infrequently, so that the plants develop a deep vertical root system. After they are done flowering in fall, be sure to cut the plants back by about a third (in Minnesota, this can be done in early spring), otherwise they will get leggy.

For more information on the wide, wide world of Lavenders, see The Dry Gardening Handbook.

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Meadow by default, on the commercial strip

Prior to the economic downturn, it looked as if every underutilized space along every commerical strip in Los Angeles was slated to be purchased and redeveloped into mixed-use housing and retail. Post-boom, full-on bust, the commercial boulevards look as unproductive and tired as ever, riddled with vacant lots and storefronts, half-parked parking lots, and empty auto dealerships. It was a nice idea to imagine them as mixed-use corridors of housing and retail, pedestrian activity, and transit-o-plenty; however, the vision fell and still falls short. Other uses need to be imagined and allowed on the strip, including – dare we say it – the seemingly “unproductive” fallow meadows, and other iterations of open space.

Typically abrupt transition between commercial and residential

Adjacent to the vast majority of LA’s commerical boulevards lie low-density residential neighborhoods. The simple fact that so few people – and thus so little spending power – live adjacent to the boulevards translates into a virtual economic impossibility that the boulevards can be commerically viable from end to end. Enter then the proposal for higher-density housing along the strip, which could add much-needed, and geographically concentrated, dollars and feet (aka pedestrians) to the commerical boulevard. This is a necessary planning and design endeavor and should continue to be pursued; however, it needs to be seen as one prong of a much larger effort. In part the fickleness of the real estate market makes focusing solely on mixed-use and residential less-than viable. Other, less apparent barriers include the perennial problem of commercial boulevards by and large abutting single-family-home neighborhoods. Not even the most elegant of designs can do much to ease the abrupt spatial transition between these two zones.

Housing on Sunset Boulevard, where now sits a McDonald’s

To be sure, this condundrum of transitions wouldn’t exist were it not for modern-day planning and its penchant for efficiency and bottom-line thinking. Many of Los Angeles’s now all-commercial boulevards once contained a mix of housing types, commercial uses, and open land; it is only in the later half of the 20th Century that the boulevards were reduced down to one zone, the C (for Commercial), and the adjacent streets the R (for Residential). It is high time we considered moving beyond the oversimplified C and R and envisioned new spatial possibilities for the boulevards, one of which being open space. The introduction of open space along boulevards could aid in concentrating commerical and residential in more targeted areas – namely near transit and within planned districts. It would help move us away from the excessively oversimplified but conflict-ridden dichotomy of commerical abutting residential. And finally, it would help to strategically unpave what has to be one of the largest swaths of paved land on the planet.

Happy Earth Day.


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