Plants and Stone for California Gardens


Archive for May, 2014

Jessie Square Watercolors

I recently made a series of postcard-sized watercolors of Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Jewish Museum in Jessie Square. It’s an exciting bit of architecture but my feelings about it are somewhat unresolved even after doing five watercolors of it. Essentially, it’s an extreme and beautifully-executed example of a design consensus I don’t entirely accept, that when you add onto a historic structure you must use materials and building techniques that will clearly contrast with the existing structure.

There are three basic reasons for this consensus: the first is that there have been too many failed attempts at matching old construction, so there is a reluctance to try anymore, the second is that modern concerns such as earthquake and fire safety often require new building techniques that will create an underlying mismatch even if the look of the old structure is maintained, and the third is that by contrasting with the existing structure, visitors will be able to see which are the historic parts and perhaps get an appreciation or understanding of that time period. Those are valid concerns, but they are also a little short-sighted. These additions often break with the past rather than respect it, jarring people out of their experience rather than helping them to interpret it. Many of the historic buildings that we now revere have already been added onto in the past; some of the great European cathedrals were built over hundreds of years, so we shouldn’t be afraid to add onto a one hundred year old building. Many people see these futuristic additions as celebrations of our modern ability to work with steel and glass; I often see our lost ability to work with brick and stone. Contrast is a great design element, but harmony can be even greater.

In any case, I’m probably worrying too much about a single building. This won’t be the last building to be treated this way and in my opinion it’s one of the best. The design is wonderfully executed, and though a part of me hates to see a skewed metal borg cube perched upon a beautiful historic building, a larger part loves the way this particular borg cube perches on this particular historic building.

The Oldest Living Things

A few years back, after a visit to the Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains, I included a link to a collection of photos by Rachel Sussman, a photographer whose project is photographing living things more than 2,000 years old. She has a book out now, The Oldest Living Things on Earth. Some amazing plants. I like to think that stonework should be designed to last 100 years, but 2,000 year old plants make that seem like short-term thinking. There’s a TEDTalk on her website, also worth watching.

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