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Basalt at the Noguchi Museum

The highlight of my trip to New York was a visit to the Isamu Noguchi museum. I’m a big fan of Noguchi. I don’t love every single thing he made, but all of it is interesting and some of it is awesome. And I loved the museum. As they say in the video, it’s quite unique, a museum founded, designed, and curated by the artist.

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I was there at the perfect time to see the cherry tree in the museum’s garden, but unfortunately workers were renovating the perimeter wall around the garden, and the sculptures were hidden under plywood boxes, my one regret about the visit. Two of the works I most wanted to see, The Well (Variation on a Tsukubai) and Core (Cored Sculpture), were under the plywood. Photographer Tibo has beautiful photos of the garden as well as wide-angled shots inside the museum, worth checking out, they’re much better than my efforts with my phone. I’ll have to go back some day when the trees are in leaf and with a proper camera. It looks like a great garden space.

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Most of these photos are from the first main room of the museum. The room is somewhat open to the elements, with an open light well in one corner and openings along the top of the walls like unfinished clerestory windows. These sculptures are from later in Noguchi’s career when we was working with monoliths of Japanese basalt. The natural patina of the stone is an important element of all of these works, so it’s a nice touch letting the weather into the room so the stone can continue to age.

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The world’s largest pestle, titled The Stone Within. Such a beautiful contrast between the patina’d surface, the worked surface, and the polished surface.

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There are several in which he more or less drew on the surface with his chisel.

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A few of the stones were claimed from Japanese masons who were splitting them with plug and feathers. I loved how he turned this one into something like a moai.

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In this one, from the same time period but set in one of the rooms with more varied work, he carved and polished around the plug-and-feather holes to emphasize them. He titled it To Bring to Life, which is possibly a little grandiose but also shows the value he saw in the efforts of masons and sculptors.

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A white marble titled The Roar from 1966, maybe shows how he got interested in working with basalt. I see a neck and a head tilted back, shouting to the sky, and the drill marks might be hair or action lines, though I could be reading it wrong. In any case, it has a range of finish textures — rough, chiseled, drill-scarred, polished — but they don’t have the same impact as they would in a more interesting stone.

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Next to it is an obsidian piece, Heart of Darkness from 1974, that adapts the same form to a stone with real character. It’s smaller than the marble, but probably the biggest piece of obsidian I’ve ever seen. The pale skin is the natural patina, the dark edges show the color of the breaks, and then the polished surface is a beautiful shiny black. One of my favorites in the museum.

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Give and Take from 1984, has a similar form again and the same range of finishes, but in basalt. To me it looks unfinished, but I can also guess how beautiful he found the natural surface.

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I took other photos which I’ll post fairly soon, but this seems enough for now. The basalts and the obsidian are some of my favorites, though I also like his floor pieces in granite and marble, his upright slate assemblages, his water table and various other things he made. Like I said, I’m a fan.

Teardrop Park

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The day after seeing Four Freedoms Park, I walked along the Hudson River from Battery Park up to the High Line. There are a number of interesting bits of stonework along that stretch of Manhattan including the fort walls at Castle Clinton, the anachronistic Irish Hunger Memorial, and the carefully detailed 911 memorial. I also walked the High Line but its famous plantings were cut back and leafless. It’s a nice site, though, and I enjoyed it even if there was nothing of horticultural interest to see. But my favorite spot along the river front was Teardrop Park, a small park with a stone wall about eighteen feet high. Technically the wall is veneer, but it’s built with oversized blocks that make it much cooler than any typical veneer.

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To my surprise, the posted park rules didn’t say anything about prohibiting climbing, so I went up it a few times. It would be too easy with climbing shoes, but in street shoes it was pretty fun.

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The park won an ASLA award a few years ago. The project description called the stone Alcove blue stone; in the Bay Area, the stone’s trade name is Cabernet.

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The diagonal courses of stone are meant to recall geological striations.

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Other areas of the park use the striated stone as well.

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I would have loved this park as a kid, and I heard several different kids cry when they were told it was time to leave. A big slide with rocks to climb to reach the top, can’t get much better than that. A great little park.

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Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park

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In April we went to New York for a few days. While we were there I checked out Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, architect Louis Kahn’s final project. It was shelved after his death forty years ago and then recently brought to completion. Basically it’s a 3-walled room made of giant granite blocks at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River. There’s also a giant staircase that goes up to a lawn that then slopes back down to the 3-walled room. Some of it feels a little silly, but the site has a good view of Manhattan and a nice position at the tip of the island, and the detailing is very perfect and precise.

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Kahn referred to the allees of trees and the raised central lawn as a garden. Not really my idea of a garden, but the goosefoot layout of the paths is borrowed from Versailles, so I guess he’s got a different thing in mind when he says garden.

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The Roosevelt aspect of the space is a quote carved on one of the blocks of granite and a large floating head that reminded me of Oz the great and powerful.

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The detailing inside the 3-sided room is very tight and the joints in the paving match perfectly with the giant blocks of granite. I’m guessing the buildings wouldn’t have been visible above the granite at the time Kahn was working on the design.

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For some reason the joints are ungrouted. Up close you could see through the open joint between the wall blocks, an interesting detail that probably has some significance that I’m missing.

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In a lot of ways it feels like a memorial to Louis Kahn as much as FDR, and I think it helps if you go into the space already revering Kahn. The New York Times loved it, calling it a ‘monumental triumph for New York and for everyone who cares about architecture and public space.’ (Over to you, Skywalker.) Personally, I’m more impressed with the execution of the design, rather than the design itself, but it’s a nice enough place to go for a view of Manhattan. There’s a video of the park at The Dirt.

Lawn to Veggies, Flagstone, and Path Fines

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Unsurprisingly, we’re doing a lot of lawn-to-garden projects this year. We usually do a couple per year, but we’ve already done two so far, with several others scheduled. Most of them are primarily plant focused, but this one was more hardscape oriented. The clients actively used their lawn, unlike so many people who only walk on their lawn to mow it, so we had to replace it with something the kids could walk and play on.

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It was a little strange how the grass made a lip over the edge of the front walk. Alameda’s soil is basically beach sand, so I have a feeling that the soil had drifted onto the walkway like a sand dune and then the crabgrass crept out to stabilize it. It was pretty tired-looking by the time we took it out.

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The grass on this side of the entry was more of a path than a lawn, so we could use more plants. The wooden edging is unfortunately necessary to keep the dogs from kicking the mulch onto the pathway, but we should be able to take it out after the grass has been suppressed and the plants grow in. I like doing veggie beds; I leave behind an empty new bed and then come back later to find it filled with edibles and flowers.

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Natives, Mosaics, and a New Sitting Area

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I recently did a couple of small projects in an established native garden, a pleasant space with a laid-back, informal feel. Oaks, Bay Laurels, and annual grasses are visible outside the deer fencing. Gravel paths weave around berms overflowing with natives, some of the usual plants like Manzanita, Iris, and Buckwheat, but also some of the less common plants you only see at plant sales.

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My primary project was to create a little sitting area with blue path fines. We also cleaned the existing concrete patio next to the new sitting area and we redid the joints with blue path fines. I’ve done that a few times for this kind of old patio; a few bags of path fines and some scrubbing and the concrete looks pretty much as good as new.

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When I finished, I was thinking that with some furniture, a little mulch, and maybe some Snowberry in the narrow space against the fence, this would be a nice little sitting area. This past week I saw the finished result, cheerful and inviting.

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I edged the path fines with scrap pieces of basalt from the fabrication projects at the stoneyard. It’s inexpensive and easy to install; the hardest part is sorting through the scrap pile figuring out which pieces to use.

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The garden has some other interesting elements, including a variety of mosaics made by the client. The wall piece is quite nice.

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My mom recently made one of these mosaic balls, so it was interesting to see that someone else had made one too. I guess I’ve seen them before, but I didn’t realize they were an established thing.

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There’s a cone shaped one at the base of this dogwood. I like the look of the limbed-up dogwood; the trunk is almost like a manzanita.

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The client’s father had been a stone lithographer. The press is now an element in the garden along with several of the old stones.

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I was glad I got to see the garden this week, because a number of plants were in bloom, including Neviusia cliftonii, Shasta Snow Wreath, a rare deciduous shrub that was only discovered in the 90’s. I’d seen it at plant sales, but never established in a garden. It’s not the showiest plant I’ve ever seen — it’s easy to understand how it went unnoticed for such a long time, especially if it tends to grow intermixed with poison oak — but fun to see in a garden.

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I was also glad to see the California Snowdrop, Syrax oficinalis, in full bloom. These take patience to establish, but have such an elegant flower and fragrance.

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Buckwheats, Foothills Penstemon, and California Poppies were also blooming, with other plants like Coyote Mint getting ready to follow. And photographs of course don’t show the bird calls and all of the bird activity around the natives. A lovely little garden.

Marble Quarrying

Beautiful footage of marble quarrying in Italy, a trailer for the film, Il Capo, by Yuri Ancarani. The filmaker spent a year visiting the quarries of Carrara Italy and decided to focus on the delicate choreography between the foreman, the machinery, and the monolithic blocks of stone. I would love to see the full length movie in person on a big screen.

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