Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Piet Oudolf on TV

Piet Oudolf on the PBS Newshour and then a longer documentary from Holland (turn on the Closed Captioning if, like me, you don’t speak Dutch). The Newshour has some nice looks at his drawings. The Dutch documentary has a fun scene of him squabbling with contractors at a jobsite. My favorite quote: ‘I always enter like a kind of evil spirit at the last moment.’

Nubuo Sekine

Nobuo Sekine Interview: Sensibility of a Rock from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

‘One day, as one large rock that was on the ground was being lifted into the air — at that exact moment — I had an epiphany that this action had changed the meaning of its existence’ Nabuo Sekine

Japanese Sculptor Nobuo Sekine passed away a few days ago. He was one of the originators of Mono-Ha, a conceptual art movement from the late sixties that I find interesting but elusive. I’m hesitant to even try to describe it, I feel too distant from the time period and the culture, other than to say that a lot of it has roots in the Japanese rock garden tradition. There are other influences at play as well, but I see elements of both the rock garden philosophy and craft, and kindred ideas about materials, context, and spatial relationships. A lot of Sekine’s works use found objects, frequently those found objects are stones, and, as can be seen in this video, a lot of his work seem to have its origin in the artist standing and staring at a stone and meditating on how to transform it into a work of art.

Staddle Stones

In Switzerland I saw my first staddle stones, one of the more charming dry stone elements that humans have devised. Staddle stones are the round caps on each of the stubby posts that raise the barns off the ground, acting like a collar to keep rodents from climbing up into the barns.

In Switzerland I think they are most common in the side valleys of the Valais. These photos are from Saas Fee and Randa, near Zermatt. Read the rest of this entry »

The Messner Mountain Museum at Firmian

Along with Castelvecchio, my other favorite castle/museum in Italy is the Messner Mountain Museum at Firmian near Bolzano. I was restrained about taking photos at most of the castles and museums I visited, but I indulged myself at this one. Everything about it — the site, the historic stone architecture, the modern intervention, and the art collection within it — is top class.

The castle sits on a wonderful hill with formations of columnar porphyritic rock; it commands a great view over the countryside and would be a ‘power spot’ in most cultures. The castle itself dates back to 945 AD, with a rich history thru the intervening years. The restoration and adaptation is wonderfully done, most of the additions created with beautiful reddish steel; a tunnel was cut through the rock in one place and an amphitheater carved into the hillside in another. And Messner’s collection of art, statuary, and alpine memorabilia is interesting, varied but linked by the themes of mountains and mountain mythology.

The whole ensemble is a pastiche — Tibetan prayer flags on an Italian castle, Indian deities on midieval defensive walls, Buddha’s disciples in a defensive tower — but a fascinating pastiche, and one that Messner earned the right to create it as arguably the greatest mountaineer in history, a Tyrolean who climbed in Nepal. It’s not for purists, and I’m not going to argue with anyone who calls it a rich guy’s vanity project, but I loved it. Beautiful hill, beautiful castle, beautiful restoration, beautiful collection. An excess of photos are below. Read the rest of this entry »

Castelvecchio Stone

After Brion I visited Castelvecchio Museum, one of Carlo Scarpa’s other masterpieces, a beautiful restoration of a 14th century castle. Scarpa did a masterful job of revealing the historic architecture while adapting it to its new use as a museum. Like Brion, it’s been written about a great deal; Carlo Scarpa/Museum of Castelvecchio is one example that can be read online. I loved the building, but I was also fascinated by how he displayed the stone sculptures in the museum. I don’t usually pay a great deal of attention to this kind of figurative and religious statuary, but some of the ones at Castelvecchio are particularly expressive and Scarpa did a terrific job of displaying them. Almost every one has some touch from Scarpa to make the piece better. This statue of Jesus is a brilliant composition, immeasurably better because of the window. It’s lit like a Vermeer.

It might be the most anguished single stone I’ve ever seen. Apparently it was originally placed at the entrance to a leprosy hospital, the idea being to remind everyone that no matter how much the people with leprosy might suffer, Jesus suffered more.

Displayed across from the Jesus statue, Scarpa placed a statue of Mary collapsing as she witnesses her son’s suffering. The chiaroscuro lighting, emphasizing her face dropping into shadow and the crumpling S curve of her body, is straight from a Renaissance painting. Read the rest of this entry »


On my Italy trip I went to Brion Cemetery, the chapel and memorial garden Carlo Scarpa designed for the Brion family on a parcel of land adjoining a smalltown cemetery. It’s a family memorial, but it’s also a de facto Carlo Scarpa memorial, a destination for the legions of Scarpa fans, which now absolutely includes me. I knew of Brion, but didn’t know where it was, just that it was in an obscure town in the Venezia, and it didn’t seem like somewhere I could easily visit on the bicycle. But then as I was riding along, I randomly saw a sign for it and immediately detoured. Pure happenstance.

It’s hard to overstate how glad I am. I’d seen photos, but it’s fantastic in person, a tour de force of concrete detailing. There’s symbolism and a narrative to the garden, but what fascinates me is Scarpa’s ability to execute variations on a theme and to incorporate eccentric design moves into a cohesive design. It’s all very quirky, but it all works.

It also struck me that the concrete feels like it is built out of discrete units, there’s a respect for each element of concrete and the joints that bring everything together. You get a sense of the construction of the place and the hand of the designer and workers that created it; it’s as if the wood used to form all of the board-formed concrete still has a presence in the garden. I studied the joints to try and figure out the process, and I’ve seen some of the construction drawings, but I would love to have seen the forms. ‘Damn, he had a good concrete person,’ was one of the first things I said as I walked around.

Brion has been photographed a great deal, but never by me, so I’m indulging myself. An excess of photos are below. Read the rest of this entry »