Eschatological Design

As my capstone and personal interests continue to evolve, there is an equal draw upon my past for information, clarity, and inspiration.  As someone interested in the conservation of cultural landscapes, I am intrigued by the notion of designing with consideration of the ‘spectral traces’- the emotive unseen.  To better understand the opportunities and challenges of such a view and in addition to my required landscape architecture courses, I am also taking an anthropology class.  Making the Dead Matter, taught by Stuart McLean, seeks to elucidate the relationship between those of us who are alive and those who are, well, not so much.  As so elegantly put by Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is only a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.’

Having graduated in 2003 with a degree in anthropology from the University of New Mexico, I thought that though I might be a little rusty on anthropological theory, I could probably stay on top of things in this class.  Thus far, I’m not so certain of that assumption.

Still, I think that the challenges of this class will make me better suited to the task of considering both nature and culture as I become more fluent in design.  On a site such as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio where I am considering fixating my capstone, spectral traces are all around.  Not only did these very landscapes develop as designed and constructed by a people now long gone from the physical place, but for many modern visitors there remains a spiritual palpability of their presence.  As I think of ways to interpret some of what has been done here, understanding cultural connections between place and the living and the dead will be very useful.  And if perhaps I thought it was my capstone that was going to kill me, maybe it will be Making the Dead Matter instead.

Posted in Capstone, Learning to Learn, Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Area of Knowledge- Capstone Project Programming

Articulate the primary ‘area of knowledge’ within the discipline of landscape architecture to be investigated in the Capstone and express why it is of personal interest. The development of an area of knowledge is more useful to the progress of a Capstone project than fixating on a particular site.

As notions of historic preservation move from synchronic models based on static presentations of segmented linear time to those referencing conservation in diachronic representations of dynamic, cyclical time, the onus is upon designers to make spaces that contribute to this dialogue.  Some of the most challenging places to represent are the ceremonial civic spaces of cultures no longer present, no longer capable of voicing their own stories.  Given that many of these significant sites are protected as National Park Service properties, it is appropriate to begin to think about ways that designers can work with NPS as they move forward into their 2nd century.

In 2009, the NPS outlined their goals for the next century of stewardship and citizen service.  Included in that listing are the ideas of establishing ‘collaborative models’ to ‘foster ecosystem and cultural connectivity’ and of ‘enhancing community conservation’ in order to ‘preserve distinctive heritage resources’.[i]  As a means to that end, agencies such as—but not limited to—the NPS are obligated to modernize their approaches of interpreting and preserving cultural landscapes.

Some of these cultural landscapes were considerably significant spaces to cultures no longer represented in modern space-time.  The inhabitants of these places were true architects of the landscape, affecting the ecosystem, the topography, and the legibility of those spaces.  As we endeavor to understand the connections to, modifications upon, and interpretations of the landscape, we are creating a dialogue with the past.  Participants in that conversation include the disparate voices of associated descendants (Native American tribes who’ve been relocated), anthropologists and archaeologists involved in research and interpretation, the current managing agencies of said landscapes, and the public-at-large.  The landscape architect can serve as a moderator and interpreter of that conversation.

The strategies of historic preservation upon buildings generally offer opportunities to research and deploy management strategies fairly without controversy.  Historic cultural landscapes however offer challenges relating to legibility, connectivity, and change.  Over time, as use patterns shift, as invasive species take hold, and as culturally derived semiotic readings of ‘place’ transition to new understandings and biases, the landscape itself too changes.  When presenting cultural landscapes to the visitor, the managing agency is responsible for providing a clear picture of the former embodiment of the place while at the same time allowing the current character to flourish.  This task is all the more difficult where extreme modifications have occurred such as the transition from wilderness to industrial agricultural zone or, more broadly, from natural to urban.  While landscape has never been static, the use patterns and extreme changes that some places experience make the presentation of the historic meanings imbued in the place difficult or impossible.

While it is unreasonable to think that we might be able to turn-back the clock when studying and managing cultural landscapes, the designer has the opportunity to assimilate the former character of the landscape into the present.  To do this successfully, one must use historic surveys, precedent studies, and collaborative processes to create contextual designs sensitive to the landscape of the past as well as the present.

I find this area of study particularly fascinating for a number of reasons.  For more than a decade, I have been involved in cross-cultural interactions regarding social connection to place.  My training as an anthropologist provided me opportunities to work in Native American communities in a traditional participant-observation mode of research.  This enabled me to open my understanding of place and history to concepts that might differ from my own.  As an archaeologist, I spent three years investigating the in situ traces of culture where the former landscape character and use has been drastically interrupted, obscured, or erased.   This helped me develop my perception of abstract and disconnected modifications across space and time.  My goal is to continue to be involved in cross-cultural exchange as expressed in landscape design.

My intention with this capstone is to use the practices of evidence-based design and site-specific research to create landscape designs that are meaningful as well as functional.  Given that many significant cultural landscapes have been altered by new uses and spatial relationships, I think a capstone revolving around the re-presentation of ceremonial space can be especially informative.

Upon articulating the area of knowledge I wish to pursue, continued research is the next step in the process.  By analyzing theory regarding placemaking, cultural landscapes, and historic preservation, I hope to become better acquainted with the subject.  I also need to investigate the existing literature about those people who created these spaces but now are no longer present.  It will be important, once the site is chosen, to assemble detailed information about native ecologies, current use patterns, and future development strategies.  Precedent studies relative to ceremonial space and representation will also be informative.  Another goal of the research will involve making contacts with interested parties to achieve a sensitive, multi-vocal interpretation of the landscape at hand.  This collective body will include scholars of Native American studies as well as anthropologists and individuals interested in ‘spectral traces’ of human geography.  If possible, representatives from the concerned tribes will also be consulted.  Faculty in the Department of Landscape Architecture will also be invaluable.

Posted in Capstone, Learning to Learn, Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Map Is Not the Journey: Beginning the Capstone Process

Our first requirement for Project Programming involved mapping out the design process. Thinking about the next nine months, what are some of the considerations I’ll need to remember while making a successful capstone project?  Beyond that, how can I represent those concepts to myself or the viewer in a compelling design?  I’ve never planned and managed a project that is as comprehensive as a master’s of landscape architecture two-semester long capstone.

Thinking about the wandering, meandering journey that this will be– the treacherous terrain, the uphill nature of designing a site, the pitfalls and dead ends– I think a detailed contour map will be useful.  It reflects my past as one who has mapped archaeological sites, who has surveyed public lands for congressional wilderness designation, and who has navigated slot canyons, mountain peaks, and wide open spaces in the desert southwest.  It also acknowledges that my capstone will organize itself around representing landform and making abstract, real-world situations understandable to a wider public through design.

Posted in Capstone, Learning to Draw, Learning to Learn, Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How true was the voice of the Void.

I stand on the sandy shore of Tarawa, a narrow strip of coral in the Pacific Ocean, the most populated of the 33 atolls that comprise the equatorial island nation of Kiribati.  As you might expect, picturesque palm trees sway above me, perfect shells lie at my feet, and the bluest of blues stretches out forever.  Near me, a pig is tied by its hind leg to the trunk of a coconut tree as it ruts in its own filth and picks through tangles of garbage. Just beyond the scrawny hog, a brown-skinned man in bermuda shorts faces the distant aquatic horizon.  He is pissing into the sea.  Further out, the head of a woman is all that is visible as she drags her net through the receding tide to collect another day’s catch.  She sings.  But I only hear her when the noise from passing automobiles banging along the rough road behind me ceases momentarily.

The story goes something like this:  There was Nareau and there was nothing else.  Awakened from his eternal sleep by a voice calling to him as a breeze against the warm night, Nareau. Nareau. Nareau arise.  There is much work to be done.  As he awoke from his sleep, he realized that the voice was his own and that the visions he had experienced were not his dreams but some sort of self-determined design for the world he would create.  Brightness from the dark emanated out from him and he saw that there was a great ball like a coconut or a turtle shell that enclosed him and all of infinity.  As he surveyed this place, he saw creatures resembling eels, sharks, and octopi (albeit, the octopus then had ten arms).  Scattered about were the flattened bodies of humans.  Into these, he breathed life and shone light until they became Kain te Bomatemaki, the People of Creation.  He enlisted these to help him lift open the shell.  He instructed the octopus to donate two arms as sustenance for the eel ‘Ten Riki’ who was to hoist the canopy to his furthest reaches.  As the eel lifted, ‘Ngkoangkoa’ stepped upon his tail causing ‘Ten Riki’ to leap into the heavens.  (He can now be seen in the night sky as the Milky Way, impactful and sublime high overhead.)  Nareau surveyed the limitless waters as they merged with the infinite sky and was disturbed by the loneliness.  He gathered his people beneath the mwaneaba structure and told them “This land and the vast expanse will become a world of fellowship amongst men.”  He plucked from where they stood a piece of land and hurled it afar.  He did so again.  And again.  These became the islands of the Pacific and the Kain te Bomatemaki became the people of Kiribati.  The sky is known as Karawa, the sea as Marawa.  The land would be called Tarawa.

My transit time to Kiribati was like this eternity in a way.  From Minneapolis I flew to Los Angeles with Kelsey and Dr. Chen of the University of Minnesota’s Center for World Heritage Studies.  We waited in LAX for ten hours as the rest of the team flew via other routes to meet us.  The next leg of travel was the overnight flight to Nadi, Fiji where we would have twenty-three and a half hours to wait for the Air Pacific flight (twice per week) that would take us several hours further northwest to the airstrip at Bonriki on South Tarawa Island. I had boarded the plane in Minnesota on Monday morning and by the time I would land in Kiribati, it would be Thursday afternoon.  Somewhere along the way, the International Dateline propelled us into the future.

The American Navy constructed the airstrip in 1943 and external donors improved Bonriki International Airport and its single paved tarmac twenty years ago.  It is no small feat to build such a stretch on an island so narrow that one can stand in the sea on the western edge and see the sea on the eastern.   To do so, the engineers bifurcated a small village and separated the residents from their livelihood of taro crops and lagoon fish traps.  It didn’t take long for the residents to retaliate.  They confiscated the runway lights that disturbed their night and removed the fences that lined the tarmac.  Now, flights only land in the daylight.  As Air Pacific flight 231 taxis to a halt, I witness from my window seat the I-Kiribati as they stream from their palm frond-roofed houses and wave to the plane that just landed in their backyard.

The airport is a single dark room where a hoard of sweating travelers rub against one another as they queue to have their passports stamped.  The luggage is hand-carried from the plane to a window in the airport where it is unceremoniously tossed to the floor.  We sort through the suitcases, backpacks, and cardboard boxes until we find our gear then line up in the quarantine area.  Customs officials usher the travelers to benches where we are required to state the intention of our visit, to declare any fruits or seeds we might be transporting, and to witness our bags as they are unpacked in front of everyone in search of an undeclared item.

Eventually, we are freed of the humid heat of Bonriki International and are greeted in the hot sun by the man who invited us here.  Natan Itonga was born on Tarawa Island in a small village that we are to visit in two days.  He is an agent of the Ministry of Internal and Social Affairs (MISA) where he has been conducting field surveys for his cultural mapping project begun in 2005.  Though he had lived abroad for several years, he is now committed to recording the significant sites and stories of his native land.  He has visited every one of the inhabited atolls in Kiribati and has written detailed accounts of the myths, spiritual stories, and construction methods of his people.  He greets each of us by name, having studied copies of our passport pictures before our arrival.  With a big grin, we are welcomed to Kiribati.  Dressed from head to ankle in black to raise awareness about violence against women, Natan prefers to walk barefoot even on the hot, buckled pavement.

The first few days are spent recovering from travel and learning about the cultural landscape of Kiribati.  We stay in the Ottentai Hotel because it is only fifteen sweaty minutes walking distance from the MISA Culture Center where we have a small air-conditioned office with internet that operates at a snail’s pace.  There is no vehicle at our disposal.  The Ottentai is a sprawling complex of rooms, a conference center, and a restaurant.  Thirty or more tall flagpoles stand sentry yet not a single flag would be lofted through our entire stay.  The water only works in a few of the rooms and we would spend our entire trip sleeping in one room while showering in another.  We shared beds with one another on a predetermined rotation.

South Tarawa is the official capital of Kiribati and the most populated of all the atolls.  There are sixteen villages and more than 40,000 residents.  Several years ago South Tarawa faced overcrowding issues as the population density increased more than 5% in as many years as people moved from outlying islands in search of work and government services.  In addition to the airport and a large seaport, South Tarawa is the home of the government offices, banking facilities, retail establishments, coconut oil (copra) factories and several churches.   Given the high population density and narrow landmass, the island appears very urban.  The main road—a treacherous stretch of broken and upheaved asphalt—is flanked almost continuously with houses, restaurants, hotels, and shops.

Before this trip, I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean.  Now, it is everywhere.  I’m fascinated with the tidal changes here.  The water ebbs to the shore and with it comes food in the form of fish, crabs, and shrimp.  The water flows out and carries waste, revealing the patterns of white coral and tidal pools.  I look out and see people taking baths in the water.  Women and men are fishing while children are playing.  On more than one occasion, I hear the songs of Kiribati drifting across the waves.  Once it was a single woman far into the sea— almost a whisper as she passed the time.  Another time, a chorus of men and women boisterously singing at the tops of their voices obviously enjoying their communal vocation.

At the Culture Center, we were shown a modest collection of artifacts relating to the spiritual and secular Kiribati world.  Nets with shell weights, coconuts for menstruation rituals, rusted World War II relics, bottles of palm wine, portraits of kings, models of the traditional mwaneaba community house, and carved shells made into hooks, scrapers, and knives had all been collected since the 1930s and housed in this New Zealand-funded building.  Natan’s research is also curated there.  Oral histories, genealogies, and songs are collected on reel-to-reel tapes, VHS, Beta, audiocassette, mini-DV, DVD, and mp3 formats.

We were granted a visit with the Secretary of the Ministry of Internal and Social Affairs, Wiiriki Tooma.  She expresses her gratitude for our visit and states that more needs to be done in recording the cultural history of the I-Kiribati.  She speaks about creating a database, increasing MISA’s documentation, and developing a national policy to conserve and protect cultural resources.  We ask her questions about climate change, the saltwater intrusion upon their shallow freshwater aquifer, and the mwaneaba structures we have come here to study.  “We believe in the mwaneaba system. It brings peace and order. We need to maintain and promote it to the whole nation.”

The following day, we depart for North Tarawa where we will be shown traditional mwaneabas and significant spiritual sites.  To get from South to North Tarawa, we are freighted in an outrigger-style boat for the two-hour trip across the lagoon.  We wade through knee-deep filthy water—our backpacks and bottles of drinking water held above our heads—to the overloaded boat.  Professor Chen is worried for our safety but Natan assures him that everything will be all right.  “Let us just go with the tides.”

As we make our slow journey, I begin to reflect on the I-Kiribati experience.  There is nothing as far as the eye can see.  Nothing but the sea.  With ragged pieces of cloth held as protection from the sun, the passengers stare silently at the curve of the earth, discernable on the horizon of the ocean.  A plastic bottle slides from the boat into the water, a sandal is lost, and someone tosses a greasy food bag overboard.  The sea is vast.  It swallows everything.  It provides sustenance, transport, and disposal.  Visitors come from the sea.  The land here is so small, almost small enough to be completely ignored.  What is the identity—what is the belief system, what are the values, and what is the life and death—of a people who know that the ocean is everywhere and that they are nowhere but somewhere starkly in the middle of it?

The I-Kiribati are at risk.  They are losing their traditional culture as folk-stories and building methods are forgotten.  Their drinking water is almost gone; used up by coconut plantations but not replenished as once-dependable rains fail to come.  Trash accumulates on their islands as imported products become increasingly available.  Their territorial waters are dumping grounds for the floods of industrial waste that drifts on the tides or is poured from illegal freighters.  Sea resources such as schools of tuna are over-fished by large-scale operations from Asia and the British have already robbed them of the only terrestrial resource they ever had; guano was extensively mined for twenty years to the point that Banaba Island is now uninhabitable.

As I look around at my fellow passengers, something on the water comes into view.  A beige dot in the middle distance on the cerulean horizon becomes more pronounced as we slowly inch towards the North Tarawa hinterland.  The dot enlarges and people point.  The boat changes course slightly as we near the object.  As we pass, it becomes the bloated carcass of a dead dog.

Our arrival on North Tarawa is refreshing.  There is an appreciable increase in canopy vegetation compared to South Tarawa and a breeze blows through the trees into the small villages.  There are 11 villages spread across North Tarawa with nearly 5000 people—one-eighth the population of South Tarawa.  Our boat lands on a picturesque beach of clean sand and we wade through nearly-pristine water into a small community on the shore.  Natan tells us that the hotel is just ahead.  I notice as he stops and looks around.  “Where is the hotel?” he asks beneath his breath.  We walk further, sunburns setting in, three days supply of water making our packs heavy.  There are houses scattered about, people are rushing from our boat to somewhere else.  Natan stops in front of the wall-stubs of an abandoned building and I hear him again “Where is the hotel?”  He asks something of one of the residents of this small town who replies with an extended finger.  Natan smiles and we walk a few hundred meters to our hotel in Abaokoro.

We each have our own beds and mosquito nets at this hotel.  There is one working shower for us all to share and the water is harvested from the roof.  Solar power provides enough electricity to operate lights but not fans.  Our home-cooked meal is incredible: conch snail, lobster, shrimp, raw tuna, rice, pandanus fruit, baby coconut, fried fish, green coconut, and taro.  Everything but the rice is locally produced.  Though we had been eating at Chinese restaurants in South Tarawa (almost every restaurant serves Chinese food and nothing else), this meal demonstrates how dependent on the local environment the I-Kiribati are.  But for coconuts, taro, and pandanus, everything comes from the sea.  We are informed that the locals have noticed a drop in the production of all of their terrestrial foodstuffs.  Salt intrusion into the aquifer is the primary reason they give though they are also concerned with warmer temperatures and changing precipitation cycles.

The next morning, we begin our documentation project by visiting two mwaneabas and four cultural sites.  The first mwaneaba is in the small village (200 residents) of Nuatabu and visitors to North Tarawa are required to stop there and be given blessings by the local elders.  We offer small gifts of cash and tobacco, as is the local custom.  We are given a drink of rainwater as a ritualized event and then Natan explains to the elders the purpose of our visit.  Though English is the official language of Kiribati, our exchanges with village elders occur in Gilbertese with Natan acting as our translator.

This mwaneaba is a fairly large community house built in 1979.  The construction is entirely of pandanus: The beams, joists, and roof lath are from long, straight trunks while the roof is constructed from woven leaves.  We sit on woven mats of pandanus. The columns used to support the roof are made from chiseled coral quarried from another part of the island and brought here via large canoes.  Smaller rocks and coral are placed in rows along the perimeter of the building and serve as some sort of curb.  The floor, beneath the mats, is composed of small shells and coral.  The site itself has historical significance: It was chosen by the ancestors when Nuatabu was originally settled and therefore should remain the site for all subsequent mwaneaba constructions.

Entrance into the mwaneaba is a ritualized experience.  Before we are permitted, the elders seat themselves on the mats in the north part facing south, towards the lagoon.  Though we arrived in the back of a pick up after a bumpy ride on a dirt road, visitors to Kiribati villages historically arrived via the sea or the lagoon.  Mwaneabas are always constructed with the length running parallel to the long side of the island and the people sit so that they can see the visitors as they approach.  Each member of the village has his or her own designated place within the community house.  We are instructed to approach the structure from the north but to enter at the southwestern corner.  We remove our shoes and crouch to enter because the roof terminates only one meter above the ground: A subtle instruction to bow in respect to those we are about to meet.  We learn later that the entire construction process is similarly ritualized.  When the last of the roof panels are fastened—beginning on the northwest and wrapping around to finish at the southwest—the builders climb from the roof and enter the completed structure for the first time much as we do now.

We enjoy the hospitality of the elders of Nuatabu and they answer our questions.  We make a few sketches and take a couple of photographs before moving on to Bauriki, a few miles down the road.  Again, the respected members of the community greet us.  Again, we give them gifts to express our gratitude and Natan translates our mission to them.  They approve and invite us to explore their village.  We are given a guided tour of various residences and we ask questions about the property rights of people, about their gardens and wells, and about the history of settlement there.  Children surround us as we walk and tell us stories about their homes.

On the beach we encounter a man digging a hole as the tide recedes.  Nearby, we see a pile of opened coconut shells.  We are told that this is the traditional process of making coconut-fiber rope.  The shells are buried so they are constantly soaked with salt water for a month.  Then they are extracted from the sand, left to dry, and then the strands are removed from the husks and twisted into a strong twine.  This twine has many purposes in Kiribati, including the mwaneaba construction.


We return to the mwaneaba and begin our documentation.  We measure every piece of the construction as the elders sit and watch.  They have idle conversations as we sketch, photograph, pace, measure, scribble notes.  We use long tapes as we measure the distance between supports and laser measuring devices to understand the height of the various wooden beams.


As I diagram the context of vegetation surrounding the structure and the sightlines to the lagoon, I puff on a locally made cigar of imported tobacco wrapped in a pandanus leaf.  I ask Natan about the pandanus tree nearby: Is it significant to the spiritual life of the mwaneaba?  He tells me that the pandanus tree is one of the most useful plants in the Kiribati world but that no, none of the plants I see around the mwaneaba are planted for any spiritual purpose.  Not only is the pandanus the primary building material of the structure itself, it plays a vital role in the lives of people throughout Oceania.  The fruit is nutritious and used in many forms of cooking; its stringy texture makes it a useful dental floss.  The plant also has been used for centuries for textiles, handicrafts, and fish-traps.

As we work, members of the community arrive with containers of food and green coconuts that they set on tables.  Finally, once the measurements are taken and every aspect is fully photographed, we sit on the pandanus mats and the elders return their attention to us.  We are invited to eat the food that the community has provided.  Lobster, fish, taro cakes, and boiled squash are presented to us and we heartily enjoy our lunch that is completed with sweet drinks of green coconut juice.

When we are finished with lunch, we ask about the construction of this structure and are given a thorough accounting of the process.  We are told the story about Nareau and the first mwaneabas in Kiribati.  They tell us about the methods and rituals that are employed in the construction of this community house and lament that people are losing some of the traditional knowledge.  The mwaneaba is not just a structure; it is also the embodiment of the community, a physical manifestation of the importance of village cohesiveness and cooperation.

A small opening in one side at the apex of the roof is left open to indicate that this is the feminine side of the structure, the side that welcomes positivity.  The opposite side is the masculine, the strength of the community.  Small dolls are placed there as well.  Males are customarily the laborers when the mwaneaba is constructed while women weave the mats and roofing panels.  They explain that if a structure goes out of use or needs to be replaced only the coral pillars might be reused in mwaneaba construction while the rest of the material will be ceremonially burned.  The structure we sit in was built in 2004.

The elders of Bauriki assigned an individual to be our guide as we visit some of the area shrines and significant sites.  Itimatang’s mother is an important member of the spiritual community in Bauriki and he himself is quite knowledgeable.  We travel a short distance to a small clearing in the jungle a few kilometers from Bauriki.  Natan translates Itimatang’s telling of the site’s history:  This site has been a shrine for more years than he can say but three generations of his ancestors are buried here.  It is called Te Kamaraia, which translates to “curse” and the site has strong powers for Itimatang.  He tells us not to step inside the shrine which is bordered by rocks and coral.  He approaches the shrine respectfully and places our offering of tobacco inside a large shell, then lights a cigar and blows smoke around the shrine.

Itimatang tells us that the last time he brought foreigners here, they went inside the shrine and that he was later visited by spirits who threatened to kill him.  (We promised not to enter.)  He also told us that coconuts will not grow here and that birds drop from the sky when they fly over the shrine.  We see several burial plots nearby and a large piece of coral that resembles the head and shoulders of a person.  Someone has placed a vegetated crown upon its head.  We make measurements and photographs of the shrine and record its location using our GPS unit.


The next shrine is called Nei Temakua and is a benevolent place to leave offerings for bountiful fish harvests.  The shrine itself is a small enclosure of shells where fishermen offer an incantation and request before taking fish from a nearby fish trap.  Before going to Kiribati, I was studying the coastline of one of the islands on Google Earth and began to notice a number of heart-shaped features with long, straight lines connecting them to shore.

Upon arrival at Nei Temakua, I understood what these features were.  Large enclosures of rocks are constructed at areas of tidal fluctuation so that fish will enter during high tide but be unable to escape as the water recedes.  Itimatang was not certain how long the shrine has been actively used but said that at least three generations of people have used it.  Because it is so near the shore, it is threatened by rising tides and coastal erosion.



The next two shrines were nearer Bauriki.  One, the Atinimaebo Rock is a shrine constructed in deference to a giant warrior king named Beiatematekeai.  As we surveyed the site, we found a number of disarticulated boulders arranged in linear alignments.  The site appeared to have no current function but is significant as an historical site where fish were cooked as an offering to the king.  Sadly, the site is barely recognizable due to the overgrowth of vegetation and the absence of several of the rocks.  Even the elder who talked to us about the site couldn’t be sure of its extent and said that the community does not use it anymore.  The same might be said of the last site we visited which was an alignment of rocks known locally as Baon King Kewe.  The alignment demarcates the place where another giant king was said to have slept.  An elaborate story was told culminating in the fact that if one were to dig into the beach here, the water would turn red.  Unfortunately, due to coastal erosion, the blood-red beach can no longer be seen and the rocks are slumping into the sea.




The next day we returned via the same outrigger to South Tarawa and began to organize our findings.  We visited a third mwaneaba, this time in Eita, a short distance from the MISA Culture Center.  Again, we took measurements and made sketches.  While we have found that there are many similarities to traditional community houses, variations should be expected.  The one at Eita does not have the opening on the feminine side and the support beams are connected using a slip joint rather than the staggered joinery we had observed in Bauriki.


The remainder of our time in Kiribati was spent processing our data.  Each member of the team contributed to the process.  We offered advice to Natan on technological improvements that might make his documentation more effective.  We provided MISA a database that they can use to collate their findings and stay organized.  We also made recommendations on ways that they can better conserve their historic and cultural resources based upon those used in the US by the National Park Service:

  • Establish a balance between change and continuity
  • Treat the setting and context around the sites as equally important; heighten awareness to increase appreciation
  • Establish use zones around areas of significance so that modern activities do not disrupt the traditional character of the sites
  • Identify the valuable resources (vegetation, heritage, mythical) around the sites so that they might be protected
  • Provide stewardship for the natural systems linked to cultural landscapes
  • Implement long term management and maintenance strategies that include teaching of traditional techniques
  • Interpretive goals should reflect the landscape’s historic and significant character by articulating the myth or story in understandable ways
  • Continue to refine your inventory of significant properties and buildings
  • Protect existing documentation through data back ups and technological updates
  • With coastal sites, provide engineered erosion prevention measures to protect cultural resources
  • Re-route roads so that that they do not contribute to the disruption of architectural features or cultural activities
  • Rehabilitate cultural features so that they are recognizable on the landscape
  • Remove inappropriate or disruptive vegetation for site clarity and integrity but maintain groundcover to prevent erosion
  • Maintain sites for sanitation
  • Provide multi-lingual interpretive signage for visitors
  • Develop a responsive strategy for maintenance routines
  • Encourage the passing of knowledge and skills within the community

Our findings will be delivered to UNESCO as part of a report on the potential for Inscription to the World Heritage List.  Our short stay here demonstrated to each of us that significant sites of traditional beliefs and techniques are present in Kiribati.  Whether our pilot study will be followed by more extensive research will be decided by UNESCO.



While we spent a number of hours during our final days in Kiribati making graphics and a presentation of our work, we also continued to enjoy the local culture.  We were invited to a youth ceremony where we observed traditional culture including singing and dancing.  The Vice President of the Republic of Kiribati, a Taiwanese diplomat, and the High Chancellor of Australia were also in attendance.  We visited some of the war machines left behind from the major battles fought between the Japanese and the Americans on Tarawa Island in November of 1943, which witnessed the deaths of almost 6000 soldiers.

On one of our last nights in Kiribati, Natan and his wife Autitino invited us to their home to celebrate their daughter’s marriage.  Again, we enjoyed home-cooked food while drinking from green coconuts.  We listened to one of the children play guitar while his sisters sang songs on the beach and Ten Riki spread across the night sky overhead.  I thought of the final part of the creation story as transcribed by George Hard, author of one of the books found in the MISA Culture Center:

In deep and silent meditation Nareau stood a while before the bewildered people, and when at last he spoke, his words conveyed no meaning to them. “How true was the voice of the Void.”

Posted in Learning to Learn, Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Summer Break (Break?)

Staying so busy, but not as busy as I will be once school begins again.  This is my last chance to be “off” before being “on” is important again.  My final year of the three year Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design begins next month and I’m not yet a bit ready.

To prepare, I’ve begun the preliminary research for my capstone.  Or rather, continued the research.  I was fairly inspired by the trip to southern Ohio I took in November last year where I toured the Hopewell Earthworks with the invited committee for UNESCO World Heritage Nomination.  Comprised of expert professionals in preservation, archaeology, architecture, and Native American heritage, the committee offered suggestions to the Ohio Historical Society and the National Park Service regarding the potential inscription of the prehistoric effigy mounds, earthen enclosures, and geometric earthworks constructed from 200BCE to 500CE.

As far as my capstone is concerned, I have a pretty good idea about both the idea and the site.  My background in anthropology and archaeology with its emphasis on Native American communities and cultural resources has prepared me for some of the initial research.  I’ve always been intrigued by ‘contested spaces’ especially where certain modern uses are in direct opposition to historic or prehistoric ones.  I have some experience in situations where people having cultural affiliations with sites they no longer inhabit and I have observed ways that these people manage to maintain some sort of connection to the place in spite of dominant current uses.  For my capstone, I’m interested in researching ways that historic and modern interpretations of a site can function alongside one another.  Public lands that Native Americans consider sacred would be the primary focus of the research.  Precedents include places like Devil’s Tower (Wyoming), Mendota (Minnesota), and Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) as these sites are managed by the US government for public recreation but such uses often conflict with the abilities of Native Americans to conduct certain rituals.

There are many very practical design elements to consider as that process moves forward.  Interpreting the meanings, histories, construction processes, ritual practices, long-distance connections, and continued cultural affiliations are monumental tasks for the NPS and the Ohio Historical Society.  Coping with environmental pressures and increased visitorship will also be important considerations.  The need for parking, hiking trails, and interpretive centers at the sites will create other challenges.  Another major issue for the governing bodies of these sites is the duality of making them available for popular consumption while being sensitive to the Eastern Shawnee (Oklahoma) band of Native Americans who are the most likely descendants of the people who built and maintained the Earthworks.  For them, making these sites available to the public is offensive to their ritual and ancestral connections to the Earthworks.  Finally, these Earthworks are some of the best examples of geometric, effigy, and enclosure structures in the world.  Those who constructed them were some of the first landscape architects/ land artists in North America and functioned on a very large geographic scale requiring the coordination of people over many generations.  Some of the sites are in very urban contexts (the Octagon Mound complex is completely within the Newark City limits and exists alongside retail centers, residential neighborhoods, and a private golf club) while others are in rural locations somewhat off the beaten path making visitation and interpretation a challenge.  They are in various states of condition from fully restored to requiring major restoration work.  Specifically, I might look at three or four of the sites (there are eight being considered for nomination) and try to work out some of the above-mentioned issues.

In preparation, I’ve been studying texts ranging from legal strategies regarding religious freedom to practical manuals of historic restoration and conservation, from theories about cultural conceptions of space and place to precedent studies of contemporary land art installations.  My summer reading list includes:

The Historic Urban Landscape: managing heritage in an urban century. Ron Van Oers

Managing Cultural Landscapes. Ken Taylor

Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice. Richard Longstreth

Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America. Arnold R. Alanen and Robert Z. Melnick

The Necessity for Ruins. J.B. Jackson

Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. J.B. Jackson

Space and Place. Yi-Fu Tuan

The Poetics of Space. Gaston Bachelard

Post-Modern Geographies. Edward W. Soja

In Place/Out of Place. Tim Cresswell

Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. David Harvey

Spaces of Hope (California Studies in Critical Human Geography).  David Harvey

Preserving Western History. Andrew Guilliford

Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. David L. Carmichael

Robert Smithson. Eugenie Tsai and Cornelia Butler (editors)

Preserving Modern Architecture.  Charles Birnbaum (editor)

The Universe in the Landscape. Charles Jenks

In addition to my capstone preparation, I’ve been writing recently for my internship with Global Site Plans environmental design blog The Grid.  Global Site Plans was recently rated the #3 most popular website for architecture, urban planning, environmental design, and landscape architecture. This internship is providing me the opportunity to research certain aspects about the Twin Cities cultural landscape as well as learn more about blogging about the built environment.  The internship lasts for one year and requires me to write two blogs a month.  My first blog for The Grid was published last week.

Lastly, I’ve been preparing for my trip to the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati.  I leave tomorrow for two weeks with the University of Minnesota’s Center for World Heritage Studies, a joint program between UNESCO and the College of Design.  I’m one of two research assistants there; we will be taking five students with us and are ably led by Arthur Chen of the School of Architecture and head of the Center.

The Republic of Kiribati is an island nation of 33 atolls in the Pacific Ocean located on the equator halfway between Hawaii and Australia.  Settled by Micronesian people 1000 years ago and having a current population of 103, 000 people, this nation is among the first to be at major risk due to climate change.  The atolls are part of the largest coral reef system in the world (and already part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List) but provide a rather resource-poor environment for the I-Kiribati people.  Many of the atolls are less than four meters above sea level meaning that as the ocean level rises, land mass disappears.  Our primary goal there during this pilot project is to help the Kiribati government identify sites that might be considered significant to the understanding of the global cultural landscape.  Specifically, they’ve asked us to work with them as they identify abandoned cultural sites significant to their intangible heritage, to investigate their baurua sailing vessels, and to study their mwaneaba structures which are local meeting houses.  We will be conducting architectural surveys, mapping, photographing, drawing, and recording oral histories about the cultural landscape.

I’ll do my best to post photos and stories as they evolve.  The members of our research trip will posting to our tumblr account.  Check out what we are doing by clicking here.

Posted in Learning to Learn, Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

(Norwegian) Cities on Water

Though not a part of the University of Minnesota’s Cites on Water study-abroad program, my sojourn– accompanied by fellow landscape architecture student Brendan– to Norway was very informative and inspiring as I continue on my path as a student of cultural landscapes.  Following nine weeks of programmed touring in the urban fabric of the Netherlands and Italy, the chance to get lost in one of the largest wildernesses in the world was one that I was glad to take.  Still, this trip bore a number of similarities to the previous two months.  World Heritage sites, cultural connections to water, and ecological design were predominant themes as we lighted out for the territories.

It is no wonder that the Norwegian settlers in America chose Minnesota as their home given the similarities in the landscape.  While the upper midwest has neither mountains or fjords, the pitched-roof houses positioned in the vortices of pines, lakes, and fields could be here or there.  More than half of the Norwegian immigrant population in the USA now resides in Minnesota with Minneapolis serving as a sort of cultural capital. Svein Nilsson, a Norwegian-American journalist wrote in Billed-Magazin in 1870,  “A newcomer from Norway who arrives here will be surprised indeed to find in the heart of the country, more than a thousand miles from his landing place, a town where language and way of life so unmistakably remind him of his native land.”

After a day exploring Oslo, we took the NSB Bergen Railway which passes through amazing scenery on its seven hour journey through some of the highest points in Europe. Passing through 113 tunnels, the Bergen Railway has been a marvel of engineering since it first opened in 1883.  A popular trek, visitors to Norway are exposed to a variety of landscapes on this 231 mile long trip.  This journey took us from the early spring of Oslo to the late winter high in the mountains surrounding Voss and eventually back into spring in Bergen.

The end of the line, Jens Zetlitz Monrad Kielland’s Bergen Station is exactly the sort of terminus such a trip deserves.  Arriving in Bergen, I was amazed at the nature all around. Surrounded by the Seven Mountains chain, and situated around the Byfjorden, Bergen has been continually occupied for almost one thousand years.  Now, with the most active port in Norway– though slightly less robust than the one I visited a few weeks ago in Rotterdam– Bergen is the second largest city in the country.  Despite the fires that destroyed most of Bergen in 1702, this remains the most wooden city in the world reflecting the wealth of timber resources and the continued cultural connection to traditional building techniques.

Located along the wharf, the Hanseatic buildings of Bryggen constitute the oldest part of the city and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.  Used by merchants for the storage and sales of sea products and cereals, Bergen uniquely demonstrates “the traces of social organization of space going back to the 14th century” according to UNESCO.

The real joy of the Bergen area though was, for me, the mountains that surround the city. It has been much too long since I’ve trekked across alpine crests and followed rock cairns to some incredible distant viewshed.   In Venice, I got lost in labyrinthine streets while in Norway I wandered aimlessly through massive expanses. Given that the sun in Bergen sets (at least while I was there) at 10:30pm and rises at 4am, there are ample opportunities to follow one’s feet off and on the beaten path.

In spite of the long days, the light in Norway has a unique, sort of ethereal quality that is subdued.  Though I studied the Venetian light for over a month without really understanding it, my exposure to Norway’s moods was instantly enlightening.

After a few days in Bergen, we rented a car to travel south to Rogaland where we could study the fjords, mountains, and beaches of the region.  Multiple ferry crossings and tunnels lie between Bergen and Sandnes.  The infrastructural investments in Norway to manage the copious amounts of water are spectacular.

I was amazed at the Norwegians’ investment in their transportation infrastructure. Tunnels punch through mountains like they are nothing.  The Bømlafjord Undersea Tunnel, at almost 1000 feet below sea level and nearly five miles long, has seen 4000 vehicles a day since it opened in 2001.  Many of these tunnels were constructed to connect tiny, remote villages to the larger cities of Sandnes and Stavanger.  It is fascinating that these dark tubes into the earth have become as much of an instrumental part of the Norwegian cultural landscape as the cliffs and mountains in the fjords.

My last day in Norway was spent in the Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park in Oslo. Covering eighty acres and displaying more than 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, this park is a frequently visited attraction.  Open since 1940, Vigelandsparken is part of the larger 32 hectare Frogner Park, the largest green space in Oslo.

I was overwhelmed by this park.  The geometries of the larger flower gardens and greens were effective on their own with long sightlines framed by diverse trees and bordered on all sides by hundreds of thousands of roses.  Beyond the romantic/naturalistic park, Vigeland’s 212 granite and bronze sculptures establish an impactful space. Depicting the journey of man from birth through death and the range of human emotions from love and devotion to hate and violence, these entities are at once reassuring and unnerving.

I was fortunate enough to have arrived at the Vigeland Sculpture Park before the crowds appeared.  It gave me an opportunity to study the space without interruption.  The stoic statues, frozen in moments of great sadness or apprehension or anger or elation surrounded me.  Alone, I felt some of these same emotions.  The most difficult thing for me there was realizing that every single one of these individuals was not alone.  They were a collective, a family.  Whether frowning or smiling, each sculpture was depicted as being with someone as they progressed through their lives.  Each was embracing another in eternal hugs.  As never before, I felt very alone.

After a little while, I was happy when some people started to show up.  As with many places, the living inhabitants of landscape insert life and energy into places and transform them into memorable and amazing spaces.

As my journey to Norway and Europe comes to a close, I am hopeful that somehow I will learn to design such as I’ve observed for people.  It would be a truly remarkable thing to be able to make spaces where people are inspired, where we can love one another, and where we can find ourselves.

Posted in Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cities on Water 2012 Murano Project

Beyond simply absorbing the culture and scenic beauty of Venice and discovering the nuances of this city within the sea, my class was involved in a design project that attempted to rejuvenate part of this historic place.  A short distance from the city of Venice, the industrial suburb of Murano has been the heart of artful glassmaking since 1292.   Before this time, glass was an important component of Venetian industry but due to the dangers of fire, the doge ordered all kilns moved away from the city.  Now, like the rest of Venice, Murano is in a state of transition and in need of a rekindling of its unique identity.  Unlike Venice, Murano’s industrial identity is tied to glass factories, boat-works, and other large-scale constructions.  Because there are now so few glass artisans still working and as cheap glass from elsewhere continues to flood the market, Murano is seeing fewer and fewer opportunities for the maintenance of its heritage.  As a part of Venice, Murano has witnessed a slow exodus of residents and the services that once supported them.  Produce markets have given way to tourist shops and most of the people who work here cannot afford to live here.

Addressing these issues, the Vetro Artistico Murano has proposed a biennale festival of glass that would return the world’s attention to the city.  As landscape architects, we were given the opportunity to participate in the process by offering design solutions to a number of the existing problems.  Primarily we would articulate a route to circulate visitors throughout the archipelago (seven separate islands) that would allow them to sample the various incarnations of the industry.  This route should bring people in contact with factories and artisan studios, retail shops, and museums.  As all of Venice is a World Heritage site, protecting existing patterns of the built environment is required.  The chaos typical of the Venetian streets is somewhat lessened in Murano because of the large scale development there but the urban fabric is still somewhat confusing to the average visitor. Calli meander through neighborhoods, connect at strange places, and often dead end at factory loading docks or canals.  Making the biennale route legible is a difficult task and necessitates the implementation of some sort of way-finding device like cairns in the wilderness.

To accomplish this, our class studied maps and wandered the streets of Murano to find the best spaces to exhibit glass sculpture for the biennale.  I made this map to demonstrate viewsheds, masses of buildings, existing glass studios, and vaporetto routes. Using existing campi and proposing new public spaces, we would attempt to designate a network that would connect the various neighborhoods of Murano.  The plan should be staged in phases of development so that a loop was created to allow visitors to explore the islands at their own pace.  Perhaps new bridges would be constructed to make the route more navigable.

 Another of our tasks was to consider relocating the glass factories from their antiquated facilities scattered throughout Murano into modern ones to be built on the western most island called Sacca Sarenella.  The present factories could be transformed into hotels, shops, and housing while the modernized factories would be more efficient.  ‘Artist incubators’ and studios to attract young people to the glass industry might accompany these factories.

Lastly, the northernmost island known as Sacca San Mattia should be developed and programmed.  Venetian islands have always been constructed as cultural landscapes of interaction between humankind and nature.  Each of the islands in Venice began as salt marshes or berena which are deposits of soil held in place by root masses in the lagoon.  The Venetians stabilize these islands with long poles driven into the marsh substrate and then construct fondamente around the naturally occurring soils and fill the sacca (litteraly “sack”) with construction debris, dredge soils, and other materials until the islands are firm enough to build upon.  In the case of Sacca San Mattia, industrial waste from the glass factories has been piled up since the 1950s resulting in the present configuration.  While the island supports a small population of social housing and a recreational area of soccer fields and other play equipment, most of Sacca San Mattia is a mix of natural salt marsh vegetation and exposed soils.  It is the largest open space in all of Venice but is currently underutilized.  It was suggested that we design a part of the island as a museum complex to inform people about the lagoon and develop a large park on the rest of the space.

My plan for Sacca San Mattia creates a connection between existing residential boroughs by establishing a social housing community along the southern edge of the island complete with services such as community gardens, market, and a laundromat.  I also proposed a church because churches have historically been the organizing center of island communities in Venice.  A parterre garden adjacent to the church could provide an interesting venue for the exhibition of glass sculpture.

This community would tie to the recreational facility that could be advanced as the population increases.  My proposal for the Museum of the Sea would bridge two islands and be housed in an existing significant scuola that has fallen into disuse.  The museum would have a wing that was underground that would eventually continue into the lagoon allowing visitors to experience the waters of Venice from within.  This wing would emerge from the water to bring people to a high point with 365 degree views of the lagoon environment and then carry them across via a new bridge to Sacca San Mattia where a botanical garden could expose visitors to the various plants of the Mediterranean.  From that point, a walking trail would allow people to visit the chaparral vegetation of the island’s hinterland.


This project was different than the design charettes we participated in while staying in the Netherlands.  Those projects were quick sketches of the first order and intentionally unrefined to simply scratch at the surface of a landscape design.  In comparison, the Murano project passed through several iterations and benefitted from the opportunity to revisit the site and conduct in-depth research as our plans evolved.

The Murano project concludes the University of Minnesota’s 2012 Cities on Water study abroad project.  This is only the third year that the program has visited the Netherlands while Venice has been the major component of the trip for fifteen years.  The level of learning intensity in both countries was incredibly high and my peers and I all agree that this has been a transformative experience.  The opportunities that we have enjoyed are incredible examples of the breadth of landscape architecture.  This program has allowed us to observe a wide range of cultural landscapes in both urban and rural settings and of both natural and constructed environments.  The organizers of the Cities on Water program have done an exceptional job of providing the students with well-rounded educational opportunities and have introduced us to people who will influence us for the rest of our lives as designers.

My fourth semester as a graduate student has come to a close.  As I write this, I am on a train passing through vineyards and olive groves heading north to Milan where I will fly to Norway for a week of self-guided exploration.  The notions and implementations of change are more poignant to me now than they have ever been.  As an undergraduate studying anthropology, I learned about the adaptations to our environment that have impacted the physical and cultural identities of humankind.  As a student of landscape, I am learning how to design and guide these mutations to benefit people and places in both marginal and terrific spaces.  This summer I will begin researching my final capstone project, which will encapsulate all I have learned to this point and will occupy most of my life for my third year at the College of Design.  As I depart from where I’ve been I am comforted by an Italian phrase I learned while living in Venice: Per realizzare un bel sogno bisogna essere suegli.  Less poetically, “In order to make your dreams a reality, you must be awake.”

Posted in Learning to Draw, Learning to Learn, Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Into Venice Up To My Knees

A few nights ago I bathed with hundreds of strangers in the therapeutic waters of San Marco.  Acqua alta, or high water, is the phenomenon of flooding much of the city of Venice.  Waters from the Adriatic—affected by tidal action, barometric pressure, and the Bora winds of winter and spring—ebb through the storm drains and flood the canals, slowly returning Venice to the sea.  While there have been a few extreme occasions in the past 1000 years where the acqua alta has had disastrous results, generally it is treated as just another of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of this city.


Radio alerts and word of mouth carry the news when tides are predicted to overtake the constructed islands of Venice.  There are maps and occasional plaques in a few key places around Venice that indicate routes that are above the 120cm water line.  In cases such as a few nights ago, alarm sirens blare throughout the city, bouncing off of pavement and rising through the slots between buildings.  Gangways are constructed along the main pedestrian routes to allow people to continue to navigate the city with dry feet.  Hotels give plastic bags to their guests who wrap their shoes while residents tuck their pants into rubber boots.  Visitors to the city make videos as the water begins to bubble through the drains and transform Piazza San Marco and other campi into pools.

As a student of landscape architecture, this situation is fascinating.  We have entire classes devoted to the management of storm water and landform construction that emphasize the art of preventing buildings from standing in pools of water.  While the original architects of Venice did not predict these high waters, they did use materials and techniques that could tolerate being inundated by the brackish lagoon.  Acqua alta has become much more common in the past century.  Nearby industries have drained the aquifer, contributing to the subsidence of the Venetian islands.  The diversion of rivers, the closing of many of the natural lagoon outlets, and the loss of the absorbent salt marshes are also factors in this disturbance.  As a UNESCO World Heritage site, protecting Venice from rising seas as global climate change melts the polar ice reserves is an obvious concern.  What can be gleaned from the culture and ecology of La Serenisma that might be transferred to other coastal cities as the world begins to cope with high water?

For many, acqua alta is not cause for alarm.  The small orchestras that line the piazza continue to perform and people wander around with gelato in one hand and camera in the other.  In fact, a general atmosphere of celebration accompanied my high water experience.  After a long day in studio working through design problems to improve navigability in Murano, my peers and I were looking forward to spending an evening in deep water.  We found galoshes in the closets of our apartments and we met at Piazza San Marco as the tides were beginning to ebb into the city.  Venice, which always smells of the salty lagoon, had taken-on an even more penetrating odor of the sea.  On most evenings, the city is congested with pedestrians and the light drizzle that was falling did nothing to drive people inside.  Like me, the flooding of the city intrigues people visiting Venice.  Is it a fascination with disaster that brings us out into knee-high cold water?  Or is it the opportunity to connect to the surrounding water that is always visible yet never actually experienced as a tactile phenomenon?

Venice, which is always surreal, becomes even more of a dream as the lights are mirrored off of normally dry surfaces and the green water laps at the feet of sculptures.  Hundreds of people splashed through the rising tides and danced a slow waltz through the pools.  Children and adults alike played, splashing one another and running full force through the water.  Wine and grappa flowed between strangers.  People brought out their dogs to exercise them in the flood.  Some tourists chose to stay on the higher ground but many others didn’t care that storm drains were backing up over their shoes.  My friends and I spent hours laughing at—and contributing to—the antics all around.  The separation between the canals and the land disappeared as we waded through the city.  Beautiful girls climbed lamp poles; others turned cartwheels or performed floating tricks.  Strangers became friends and laughter echoed in the wake of wailing sirens.  The urban fabric around Venice, which has become somewhat familiar to me by now, was rendered once again strange, exotic, and unpredictable.

Posted in Learning to Observe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venice Sketchbook Two

Sketching allows the artist to sit still and absorb the surroundings in depth.  As I study a space and interpret it onto the page, life is happening all around.  On a recent rainy Sunday I was whiling away my time in the Museo Correr exploring the massive collection of archaeological artifacts and artworks.  I stumbled into a large room with high ceilings, Istrian stone walls, and marble sculptures overwhelmed by a crowd of people.  Just then, a trio of violin, flute, and contrabassoon began a performance of music by Salvatore Sciarrino, the Italian composer of contemporary classical music.  I was awestruck by the clarity of sound and emotion in the room as the carved faces stared back at me from eternity.  The piece ended and the group moved to another room for another performance, and then another.  As I stood listening, I took advantage of the idle time to sketch a sculpture of Aphrodite as a virtuoso performed Esplorazione del Bianco on cello. The sounds were whispers. I was happier than I’ve been for a very long time.  Life is happening all around.

Posted in Learning to Draw | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venice Sketchbook


Sketching is becoming an increasingly important component of my life as I explore the nuances of the Venetian landscape.  I’ve been taking fewer photographs and instead trying to internalize my surroundings in a way that can only be accomplished by measuring the proportions of spaces, the repetitions of form, and the contrasts between solid and void.  The camera is a tool to remember a place; the sketch process is one that truly helps the landscape designer to know the space.  A photograph is accomplished in an instant while even the quickest drawing requires a mindful pause and an emotional reaction to one’s surroundings.  For that time that the pencil scratches the surface of the page, my mind is focused and completely present.


The book I’ve been drawing in was given to me by my brother.  It is huge and makes my fingers numb as I steady it in the air standing before whatever space I’m sketching.  I cradle it in my left arm and clench it in my hand and fumble it against the wind that whips the pages.  The meandering crowds slam into my book as it projects out from my body almost 20 inches. I use a 4B or a 6B mostly or sometimes a fine tip pen.  I leave pencil shavings like bread crumbs hoping that someday I will find my way back to the campi and bridges that have become such an integral part of my daily habitations.

During my instructor’s recent review of my sketchbook, he observed that I’m becoming fairly well versed in representing the outlines of things.  He encouraged me to try to see the contrasts of light as it strikes the various surfaces in a space, to use the negative space that occurs between objects to make the void, and to capture the relative density of these places I am drawn to.  To do this, I should attempt to fill-in the shapes without outlining them.  The goal would be to see the gradation of shadow and to witness the subtleties of light as it changes moment by moment across a surface or a space.  Thus, the sketch would have increased dynamism and be more realistic as the darkness and lightness work together and exhibit the surroundings.


A day later, I saw hundreds of sketches by the excellent Venetian artist called Canaletto at the Palazzo Grimini.  While he used a sort of camera obscura to make his elaborate and highly rendered masterpieces of Venice’s people and architecture of the 18th century, his field studies of the city were no more than a few lines of lead on yellowed paper tracing the outlines and basic shapes of buildings, canals, and masses of people.  While I do hope to begin to learn how to make spaces on paper without creating their outlines first, there is something so elegant in Canaletto’s sketch work that inspires me to continue to draw that way too.  Like the earliest cave paintings, pictographs, and petroglyphs used around the world to tell a story, quick outlines of the surroundings are illustrative, easily understood, and splendidly spontaneous.

Posted in Learning to Draw | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment