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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of my plantings has a Lobelia flowering in the center of one of the Lomandras. It happened by chance; it must have seeded in the middle of the grass back when it was at the nursery. I didn’t notice it when we planted, but out of the dozen or so Lomandras, it ended up in the most prominently located one in the planting. It doesn’t really go with the red flowers around it, but that’s okay. Two different people have asked me what it is and where they could buy one.
After checking out the Drew School green wall, I went by Strybing to hang out in the native meadow. It’s one of my favorite spots in the city, and this is pretty much its best time of year. It was designed in 1988 by Ron Lutsko, who recently designed the new planting around the Julia Morgan building at the UC Botanical Garden. It’s one of the nicest meadow plantings I know; you hear a little bit of traffic but you can’t see any sign of the city that’s just beyond the trees.
Give me some bunch grasses, some rocks, and a manzanita and I’ve got pretty much all I need to be happy.
But what puts the meadow over the top is the stone council ring made with some of William Randolph Hearst’s peripatetic monastery stones. I love the simplicity of the circle. The stone ring is for the most part only a single course high, but with enough double-stacked stone to qualify as a wall. The garden has other, more elaborate walls built with these monastery stones, but this is the one I head to on a sunny spring morning.
It’s four years since Patrick Blanc installed the vertical garden at the Drew School. I’ve been curious how it was doing. I was hugely impressed when I saw it, even though it was late fall and the plants were getting cut back for the winter. I always intended to check back on it, see how it would endure over time. As you can see, it’s doing great. It’s lush and green; it’s not organized into as much of a tapestry as some of his other walls and it’s not particularly full of springtime flowers, but it’s still a dramatic, exuberant, awesome thing to see on the side of a building.
The planting has simplified over time, with fewer species. Lower sections are mostly covered by ferns, with patches of oxalis and heuchera. I couldn’t tell exactly what’s growing up top, except for an Island Bush Poppy in bloom, but some of the shrubs have grown quite large.
A couple of sections are patchy, with felt showing, but it doesn’t ruin the overall effect.
And so much of it is exuberantly lush and green. It’s great to see natives filling the side of a building.
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.
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.
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.
I edged the path fines with scrap pieces of basalt leftover from the stoneyard’s fabrication projects. It’s inexpensive and easy to install; the hardest part is sorting through the scrap pile figuring out which pieces to use.
The garden has some other interesting elements, including a variety of mosaics made by the client. The wall piece is quite nice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.