Category Archives: Travel

Has Cuba’s urban organic revolution stalled, and should that be a surprise?

Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.

Trinidad rural organoponico
These sort of out-of-town organic farms were established in Cuba during the special period and are still fairly common
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).

We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.

As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!

So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.

As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.

Urban Havana School garden
Urban Havana School garden
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

Why are the gardens of the Alhambra so important?

IMG_8250In 1989 I was blown away by a visit to the Alhambra. The scale of the vision and achievement, the huge variety of spaces and the subtlety and grandeur of the design was almost overwhelming. For several years it had a pervasive effect on my design thinking, both overtly and in less obvious ways.

After twenty-five years, Vicky and I decided to make a return visit this summer, this time with three (almost) grown-up children in tow. The experience didn’t disappoint.

I am sure many of you have been to The Alhambra/Generalife complex; I also don’t wish to sound like a travelogue. This is a departure for this blogspace, but the gardens are so remarkable, I felt compelled to share at the very least some pictures and (for those who can be bothered to read) a few ramblings. The Alhambra has been a constant influence on garden design and thinking in the last century and a half.

The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens
The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens

Part of this is due to its scale – it is a vast complex of gardens and thus the achievement is that much more impressive. The gardens probably represented the pinnacle of Arabic garden design – they incorporated the earlier influences of Persia and the Mesopotamian gardens, but escaped the overblown grandeur of some of the later gardens. I guess this is partly because they were designed for private rather than public use. However, their pervasive influence is also a matter of historical timing. They were conceived and implemented at the height of Arabic expansion into southern Europe. After the 1500s, the Moors were driven back into north Africa, but much of their thinking and many of their craftsmen remained in Europe. The influence was particularly noticeable in garden design. Whereas renaissance architecture has a clear lineage from the ancient Greeks and Romans, Garden design from the period is more identifiably descended from Arabic and Middle Eastern design. This classical layout of rills, fountains, trees and parterres continued to be the dominant force in European garden design until the mould was broken by the English Landscape movement in the late C18th. The roots were later rediscovered through the writings of travellers through southern Europe, such as Washington Irving and the Spanish-Arabic style became very influential again in the early twentieth century in the UK (through the Edwardian garden designers such as Lutyens/Jekyll) and US (particularly on the newly moneyed West Coast).

The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human
The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human

For me though, they capture something of the essence of what a garden is. Firstly, they are an escape; built in a retreat from the sound and bustle of Granada and the heat of the streets, the complex occupies a strategic hilltop. In virtually all cultures Paradise is a garden, and these get about as close as any I have seen. The sense of escape and retreat from the bustle of life is palpable. Secondly, they maximise the site. They take advantage of the hilltop position, funnelling the cooler air through the gardens.

Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.
Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.

The spectacular views are carefully managed. Glimpses are given here and there, only occasionally opening up into broader panoramas. The designs are artful in how they manage serial spaces. courtyards, terraces and walkways link one to another in a delightful and often surprising way. One is never bored and unlike some of the great French classical gardens, the whole design is rarely revealed. The hilltop location dictates some complex geometry, so axes kink and turn in a way that makes the design less predictable than one expects. Perhaps the most important feature however is the way in which the gardens perfectly weave together the essence of what a garden is.

Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear
Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear

Although these are very sophisticated designs, the origins from kitchen gardens is clear, with fruit trees abounding and the parterres as constant reminders of herb and vegetable beds. All gardens need limits – it is one of the things that defines a garden (see my blog on the subject from a couple of years ago: When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?). Here the walls and boundaries are an integral part of the thinking: the enclosed nature of the spaces is the essence of the design. But the users of the garden are never allowed to forget the surrounding environs: the large trees echo the wooded hills and provide a pleasant balance to the symmetrical formality of the layout; the frequent glimpses of the surrounding hills and valleys means that one is constantly aware of the links with the broader landscape.

So for me, the gardens at the Alhambra capture that elusive idea of nature captured, of the reflections of a broader landscape. Woven into this are complex aesthetic references along with expressions of learning and cultural identity. Most importantly though, they are just a very pleasant and ever changing place to spend time, as all gardens should be.

If you haven’t already been there, make sure it is at the top of your bucket list this year!

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Seville’s big Mushroom.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers for the long break since my last post. After a two week holiday in southern Spain, I contracted Pneumonia and after a brief spell in hospital spent most of the last three weeks in bed.

While in Spain, we spent a few days each in Granada (more of that in a later post), Cordoba and Seville. We were staying in the northern part of Seville, a kilometre or two’s walk from the historic quarter. There was a large square near our apartment call ‘Plaza de la Encarnación’. It is host to an extraordinary structure, known in Seville as ‘Las Setas’ (The Mushrooms). It is difficult to adequately describe this huge edifice. First, a bit of background: for many years Plaza de la Encarnación had been the site of Seville’s main food market, housed in a nondescript industrial building. Half of it was pulled down in 1948 and the remainder in the 1970s, after which the square was mostly used as a car park. There were many schemes to redevelop the space, a situation which was further complicated by the discovery of extensive ancient Andalusian and Roman remains beneath the square. Eventually an international competition was won in 2004 by the German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann. Construction began in 2005 and after many technical and financial problems was completed in 2011. Of course in the intervening years, Spain fell off the edge of a financial cliff. Signature urban statements were out, or as Rowan Moore put it in his review of the building in 2011 ‘Oh my God, it’s an icon. How very last decade. Did the city of Seville not get the memo? Big, flashy buildings are out; hair shirts are in.’ (link to original article here). as Moore points out in his article, the ‘building’ (if one can call it that) has several flaws, although I think these can almost all be attributed to the financial strictures which the project went through as it progressed. Three different architects worked on the scheme: Mayer (with Arup) on the main structure, a second (local architect) worked on the Market space on the ground floor, and the museum housing the ruins in the basement by Felipe Palomino. The three are not ‘in sync’. Although Palomino’s museum is in its own way quiet and subtle, it has little relationship to the organic structure above. The market space is about as uninspiring as it could be. Moore again: ‘It is, seen from some angles, a wonderful thing, daring, inventive, determined and impressively consistent. It is also wonderful in its content, this stacking up of past, present and future, of ruins, market, performance space and sky deck. But it has a problem, which is that these two forms of wonderfulness do not connect, with each other or with their surroundings.’ On his last point, I beg to differ. I think part of the success of the structure is that it deliberately doesn’t connect (architecturally at least) with its surroundings. It does nonetheless have a relationship, but it is one of contrast.

Despite all this, the structure is quite extraordinary. It unifies the two sides of the square, it provides shade, and a public podium (albeit finished to a standard that my father would have described as ‘with every expense spared’). More than all of this of course it is arresting, daring, soaring, exciting – one could go on with these adjectives but you get the idea. It has completely re-invigorated this part of Seville. I particularly like its presence at night – flashy (but effective) lighting emphasises the alien nature of the structure.

It remains open to the public until one in the morning, free to Sevillians and a few euros to others, which includes a free drink in the rooftop restaurant. On the top of the structure is a remarkable undulating walkway through which one can take in the roof tops of the city. A great way to finish an evening out.

To my mind, the structure is a huge success, despite its flaws. It could of course have been much better, but ’twas ever thus with publicly funded projects, especially during a recession. What I find amazing is that is not better known, and barely mentioned in any of the Seville guidebooks. If you are in this part of Spain, it is definitely worth a visit.

Please excuse the slightly dodgy quality of one or two of the night photos!

Northern Exposure*

Five years ago, I received this email from my cousin:

“We are in desperate need of landscaping advice…when can you  “pop over” for a visit??!! How’s things on your end of the globe?  We are loving our life in Spokane, WA…nice to be back in the mountain west.  House is VERY near completion, should be moved in early July, and great guest digs, so come check it out!! Seriously, landscaping is overwhelming blank slate…HELP!!!  Love to all!”

So began a great project.

The site was a garden designers dream – and nightmare. With an inspired and trusting client, a ten acre site in the middle of some fantastic scenery and a great palette of hard materials locally available, this job seemed to have everything. Except that the ten acres was 5000 miles away, nothing much seemed to grow there except ponderosa pine and the climate was pretty harsh – summer highs of 350C and winter lows of around -200C . It was pretty dry too, enjoying a meagre 30cm or so of rain each year, much of it as snow during the winter months.

I arrived in late one evening, mid-September 2010 after a long flight. As a result, I woke up at about 5am the next morning, with sunlight streaming in. My hosts were asleep (not unreasonably) so I spent the next two hours until breakfast wandering around the site, drinking in the essence of the place. And this was a truly remarkable place.

Great outcrops of granite pushed obstinately through the landscape everywhere, often amongst precarious but picturesque pines. It was so dry that almost nothing rotted, or not very fast anyway. Timber from clearances (sometimes decades before) lay stacked around, bleached dry.

 

Over the next four days, I cycled, climbed and hiked my way around the local mountains, hills and valleys. I visited gardens, nurseries, stoneyards and parks. By the end of it ideas had begun to gel in my mind.

The house itself was uncompromising, made up of a series of different panel-clad planes running at obtuse angles, with colours inspired by the setting. Ideas began to half form in my head of a design which drew on the asymmetry of the house but also captured the essence of the landscape. I sat my hosts down and sketched a few ideas out on paper, showing banks of gabions – wire baskets filled with stone – running at asymmetric angles and emerging from the ground in a similar way to the granite outcrops. These were punctuated by the aspens that I had seen in the valleys around and anchored by a few large boulders and a sprinkling of dwarf pines. Flowing through the whole were drifts of herbaceous planting and grasses. The route to the front door was to be made up of huge irregular four-sided slabs of concrete, with trickles of thyme running between them. The reaction could perhaps be described as ‘cautious’, or perhaps ‘cautiously enthusiastic’. The planting was an intrinsic part of the design. With what limited water there was coming from a 335m (1100′) deep well, the choice of the plants was critical. The designs were developed on Xeriscape principles, first developed in Colorado USA, which uses plants well adapted to the semi-arid conditions. Grasses, penstemons, and other herbaceous species formed the backbone of the scheme.

Work started almost as soon as I left – or at least as soon as I could get the drawings together! The clients were keen to make a start; much of the donkey work was to be done on a self-build basis and work had to get well underway before the bad weather closed in. Watching the design emerge from 5000 miles away was a tantalising process. I received photo updates on an almost daily basis, and questions almost as frequently!

My ideas for the areas to the rear of the building came together more slowly. Here I envisaged broad sweeps of herbaceous planting which integrated with the naturally occurring spring flowers occurring abundantly on the site. There was to be a focus at a natural clearing and place where two axes met. I had originally envisaged a small building for this spot. However, some other ideas came together fortuitously. I had long been keen to incorporate some sculptural elements into the scheme; indeed I had been trying in vain to get a local fine art course involved. The client needed no more of a prompt – within a few weeks they were coming up with their own ideas for how a sculpture might work and a couple of months later it was finished and installed. Sadly, the ideas for the broader landscape although partly implemented went on hold. The owners had to relocate to Tennessee, so the house was sold much earlier than had originally been expected, although of course the up side of this was the possibility of a new project.

I thought that would be it, but was able to make contact with the new owners and return to the site to photograph it this autumn. Many of the pictures below in this blogpost are from that final trip by Allan Pollok-Morris, and his photos are not only a great record of the work but also a stunning piece of art in their own right.

*thanks to Andrew Wilson and Gardens Illustrated for the title – from a piece in GI written by AW.

Should we give concrete another chance?

In most people’s minds in the UK, concrete is synonymous with the 1960s and 70s. These days, the word is normally used in negative connotations, such as ‘concrete jungle’, ‘concrete monstrosity’ or ‘concrete over [the countryside]’. This despite the fact that concrete not only has a long and noble history in twentieth century design, but also in current work of designers like Calatrava; whose work I have touched on before in this blog (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=666).

Exposed aggregate concrete paving used in Lauzerte, SW France in a historic square.

When I was recently in France, in a small historic town in the south-west of the country, I was taken by the widespread use of exposed aggregate concrete paving; laid in situ in some of the oldest historic parts of the town. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK. Concrete (and particularly in situ concrete) has really fallen out of use. Part of the problem is that because designers have stopped using it, the skill have largely been lost form the workforce. This is not the case in the USA. When I did a garden in the north-western US a couple of years ago – in NE Washington State – I was able to specify an in-situ concrete path with a smooth finish safe in the knowledge that any decent local contractor would have the skills to construct this to a pretty good standard. Can you imagine the same thing applying in a similar location in the UK – say, Central Wales or the Lake District?

An in situ concrete path I designed in a garden near Mount Spokane, WA, USA.

Concrete has started to creep back into civil schemes in England. I recently cycled through Blackpool (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=1230) where a new £100m scheme runs for 3.3km along the famous Golden Mile. The design incorporates large areas of banked in-situ concrete in flowing sweeps, as well as precast ‘pebbles’ weighing between 2T and 10T. Cycling through this lot turned me (and fifteen others) back into a fourteen year old boy again, sweeping up and down the ramps.

In-situ and pre-cast concrete used together with great effect at Blackpool's Golden Mile.

In retrospect, concrete seemed like the obvious choice for this scheme (designed largely by engineers rather than landscape architects). However, too many schemes end up being carpeted in the evermore ubiquitous resin-bound gravel. A great material without doubt, but one that I am becoming a teensy bit tired of.

Until we see concrete used more in award-winning schemes and at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (there have been some), it seems unlikely that it will make any sort of resurgence in the UK anytime soon. Although in any case, without the construction skills being widely available, this is likely to be a slow process.

The whole life cost of a Citroën (or why to think twice about water features)

In a recent trip to Paris, I made a point of visiting Parc André Citroën to the western side of the city. Wikipedia describes this succinctly as “… a 14 hectares (35 acres) public park located on the left bank of the river Seine in the XVe arrondissement (district) of Paris.” It was designed and built in the early 1990s by Landscape Architect Giles Clément and Architect Alain Provost on the site of a former Citroën automobile manufacturing plant, and is named after company founder André Citroën.

The design is daring and the scale breath-taking. The central lawn alone is 275m long by 85m wide and refreshingly there are no restrictions on games (unlike most Paris parks). The design is a very strongly structured. Two vast pavilions overlook the park from the south east end. Between these is a paved terrace with a field of water spouts in which children splash around (similar to those at Somerset House and elsewhere). The central lawn is effectively sunk below the surrounding ground.

 

The upper level canal as it was when the park was first opened...

On the south-west side it is flanked at the higher level by a canal, punctuated by at regular intervals by monolithic stone pavilions, alternatively housing staircases and cascades. On the other are colossal blocks of pruned hornbeam backed by a raised walkway. It is cut beneath by routes through to a series of secret gardens and also by enormous water chutes echoing the cascades on the other side of the lawn. Or it would be. Because sadly, most of the water features no longer function. The monumental canal on

…And the canal as it is now.

 the south west side lies forlornly empty, with nothing but a ruckled butyl liner to remind you that it was a water feature, along with a slightly ironic sign in French saying ‘for your safety, please do not enter the basin’ fixed to the concrete upstand in place of a missing coping stone. None of the water chutes on the other side function either, although the field of water jets still delights the children. The basic maintenance – grass cutting, pruning etc. has been carried out carefully. However, there is little evidence of ‘gardening’ in the half dozen or so themed gardens and whenever something breaks or fails, there is either no will or resources to replace it. The net result is a gradual decline in the park.

This is hardly an unfamiliar story to English ears. We have countless public parks and open spaces that have suffered the same fate. What interests me about Parc Citroën though, is how much of a part the original design (and perhaps more interestingly the commissioning process) played in its eventual decline. An article in the Boston Herald had a very good line on this. It said that “Citroën — for better or for worse — represents high-concept triumphant over public participation.” The article postulated that a project such as this could never have happened in Boston (and by extension I would say in the UK). The combination of vision, funding and single-minded project management meant the French Government was able to drive this project through with great speed and force. The piece went on to point out that there were good and bad sides to this. Interestingly, it was written shortly after the park’s opening, but the central point becomes even more strongly reinforced as time passes.

The design relies heavily on vast water features for much of its impact and structure. As landscape professionals, we all know what the implications in maintenance terms are for such features. How could the designers be sure that the funds would always be there to maintain and refurbish these features? The running costs alone are significant, but when the annualised costs of pump replacement, relining, etc. are taken into account, the bill becomes pretty much unsustainable in the longer term. Parc Citroën remains a great achievement and an exciting space. It is a reminder of what can be achieved by single minded vision. But clearly there is another lesson here. Perhaps we should all take more care to consider both the cash and skill resources that are likely to be (realistically) available for the future maintenance and management of a project before we let our imaginations (or should that be our egos) run wild.