Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas vs. Swissmas?

Basel has been strung up, lit up and decorated to the hilt. But in a good way. In fact, I so like the Swissmas'd appearance the city now has, that I have taken Field Trips with the sole purpose of taking photos of Basel all dressed up in its holiday finest. This is not a typical Field Trip for me. At home, we rarely decorate for lack of time or lack of desire to increase the electric bill for the month of December.

What does this have to do with landscape architecture and what has it done to me, you ask? It is all about being out in the cold, enjoying the outdoors, friends, food and the landscape. The Baslers have Swissmas'd their city and everyone loves it.

Just like any fine example of landscape architecture, one major intent of the design is to make the visitor feel welcome and want to use the space. If the space is well-liked and utilized, that is a good sign that the design was a success. For a landscape architect, this extends beyond the physicality of the space, or at least it should. You need to get into your clients brain a little. You need to listen to them.

What makes people want to use a space? Sights, sounds, smells. And most importantly, comfort. The landscape needs to be suited for its natural domain, not forced. A poolside tropical paradise looks like a misfit in the backyard in upstate New York in the winter. It just isn't natural. But using what you have on site, climatically speaking, is!

So back to Basel and my theory. If you string it, light it and decorate it, they will come, temporarily. And you will behold the marvel of people actually using public space for programmed activities, in the cold, and loving it, temporarily. In the winter. Imagine that. Cities all over the colder parts of Europe are doing just that right now. People travel from all over the world to see the Weihnachtsmarkts, or Christmas markets, all over Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland. And if there is a little snow, well, then it is like icing on the cake.

I am from the snow belt of western New York. Snow is in my blood. If I could have it every day, I would. I love to ski, shovel, play and have great Snow Days. I don't even mind bundling up for the cold. There it is, my theory - bundle up for the cold. After two and a half decades in chilly Ra-cha-cha, I was very tired of people who lived there for ages complaining about the lovely white stuff. I wanted to say, "Hey, you have lived here since dirt was discovered. Yes, it snows EVERY year. This isn't anything new. In fact, global warming is making it snow less. So quit your complaining and zip up that coat after you put another layer on. And how about some boots, gloves and a hat?" I have no sympathy. There is no bad weather, just bad clothing decisions.

What is it about the season that I think the Swiss do better? The Swiss seem to realize that enjoying the season is about spending time with friends and loved ones. Instead of mall shopping, the Baslers make a temporary event of it. They turn their little slice of urban winter into a place that has sights, sounds, smells and tastes that anyone can appreciate, regardless of religion. Then when it is over and the calendar changes to the next year, it all goes away and doesn't come out until next December. No Christmas in July or months of returns and exchanges. You don't even need cash to enjoy a Weihnachtsmarkt. Just a desire to be out in the cold, enjoying the outdoors, friends and the temporarily festive landscape.

This simplicity is refreshing, just like the weather.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey for You and Turkey for Me!

Thanks, Adam Sandler. Spending Thanksgiving abroad was strange. But I did get to eat a traditional dinner, courtesy of the American Women's Club of Basel, which I am a member of. It was held in a little castle and it was great. But just 2 weeks before, I was in Istanbul, Turkey. And that was even better.

I didn't know what to expect from Turkey. To me, it was exotic, but not dangerous. I don't think I actually know anyone who has been there. From a landscape architect's perspective, I knew it had a lot to offer. It was definitely a place where all your senses could be in overload, all at once. So this post is a little sample of all the sensory stimuli that Istanbul has to offer.

The sights of Istanbul are amazing. The colors are amazing, too. On the tram from the airport to the hotel, I saw the Theodosian Walls, built in the early 400's AD. Everything modern just seemed to cut through this ancient place. It was interspersed by large sections of lush green lawn. Closer to the center of the city, mosques became a apparent, their minarets rising far above.

The entire skyline is just dotted with minarets. At night, it was interesting to watch the vast numbers of birds circling around the minarets in the lamplight. Why were they there? Good insect eats? Literal swarms of birds would do this lonely circular dance around the minarets. The Swiss just voted to ban minarets from being built on new mosques, throughout the nation. And as a nation, they are getting a huge amount of criticism from the world.

The light in Istanbul in the evening, at least in November, has a sepia tone. And it always seemed a little hazy at night and in the morning. Maybe it was smog, maybe it was from the position at the edge of the Bosphorus River.

I don't think I ever got used to the sounds of Istanbul. The most disturbing to me was the sound of the Prayer Calls, which happens periodically throughout the day and night. Loudspeakers on all the mosques broadcast chants for a few minutes, very loudly to the population. The chants gave me a sort of feeling in the pit of my stomach that was disturbing. The calls seemed eerie to me, almost haunting to my untrained ear.

Another common sound was the voice of the many men calling upon the passerby to stop and eat at the restaurant he was employed at. They said wonderful things and were pretty persistent that their place was the best. To a Westerner, this became tiresome. But they were pleasant, even if I walked away. And they are just doing their job, trying to earn a living.

In addition to the expected not so pleasant urban smells one encounters, Istanbul also smelled very distinctly of food. Grilled food in particular. And in the area surrounding the Egyptian Bazaar, spices took over the air as well. This was pretty nice, not overpowering but enough to let you know you were somewhere special.

The taste of Turkey for me is a bit biased, limited to what we chose to eat. And it is linked to the scents of Turkey also. We ate lots of fresh veg, olives, grilled fish and breads. Of course, with the spices mentioned above mixed in, too. And we drank some interesting apple tea, Turkish coffee and local red wines. Some of the wine was good, some not so much. The pastries were the best. My favorite was something made of shredded wheat, fried and doused with honey. Mental note: try to recreate that one at home....

Istanbul felt hard and uneven to me. No matter where you are, pavement abounds. And it is broken down and uneven. One minute you are stepping over ancient stone, the next over asphalt that is patching the ancient stone. Quite a mix of materials. At the palaces, colorful tiles and marble cover everything. Grassy areas exist at Topkapi Palace, but they were not inviting green spaces, by any means.

Another thing that I 'felt' while in Istanbul, was the crowds. So many people, all seeming to be in a huge rush. It was common to get nudged or bumped on the sidewalks. And I felt as though walking there was sort of like an obstacle course through a big mass of people in a rush, around tree pits in sidewalks, always with one eye to the ground to avoid those tripping hazards. I walk fast. Really fast, in fact. But the people of Turkey could put me to shame. I wondered why the rush? I guess I will never know.

Exit List

Time is flying and I am a little Type A. But I recognize that, and despite my Type A-ness, I realize that it is not the end of the world if I do not post my Seeings in chronological order. That was the original attempt, but I decided it was more beneficial to just go with the flow, because time is flying.

We are entering the third trimester of expat life. Only about 3 months left here in the Land of Milk and Money. I love lists, see I told you I was Type A. Anyway, I have started an Exit List. Kind of like a Bucket List, but that is another list altogether. My Exit List includes things and places yet to See and anything else I wish to accomplish before going back home to Real Life.

Luckily, my crazy busy husband is really understanding. He is happy to accompany me on my Field Trips. Now I am in full speed ahead Field Trip planning mode. No more relaxing weekends. Time to get out Seeing, Field Tripping and crossing stuff of that Exit List.

Back to the chronological order thing. If I had started this earlier and had more time, I would have done all my posts according to the chronological order of the Field Trips. But, alas, I was having too much fun Seeing to get this snowball rolling. You can't fault me for trying to live life to the fullest. So, we will have some summer scenes interspersed with some holiday scenes over the next few weeks. Trust me, it will be alright. If we're lucky, there might even be some snow scenes. Because it is all about the snow.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tripping my way through Europe, one scuffed shoe at a time

I am inherently clumsy. Don't know why, but I always have been. It is really an amazing thing that I can ski, given how clumsy I am (without 2 sticks attached to me by means of some serious engineering and a whole lot of cold, slippery stuff under foot). In an earlier post, I mentioned something about the Americans with Disabilities Act Guidelines and how there doesn't seem to be any semblance of that here, and that I could write an entire post about that . Well, here it is. Landscape architects will appreciate this. Others, stay tuned for another post that may better suit your taste.

The ADA is a rulebook for design. It is much easier to design ADA-style in the first place than have to redesign. Lets face it, it isn't cool to exclude someone from a space because they have issues navigating the terrain. This makes sense. But apparently, years ago, when these ancient cities were built, this didn't make sense. Because most of the 'Old City' sections of all the European cities I have been to make it really difficult to navigate.

What are the culprits? Steep slopes, narrow passages and the biggest villain, the cobblestone. Yes, they look great and were probably locally sourced and are easy to repair. But they are easily tripped over, as has become apparent by looking at the toes of my shoes. All scuffed up and dinged. And the heels don't fare any better. I am able-bodied, despite the clumsiness. How does someone who is not feel? Shopping becomes limited to accessible areas, sightseeing becomes a chore and a danger, if it can be managed at all.

We were in Zurich on a Field Trip a few weekends ago. In the Old City, or Aldstadt as it is called here, some masons were doing repair work on the cobblestones. My husband and I were trying to figure out exactly what they were doing and how to get around it. There were wet patches of mortar that weren't barricaded and dry areas that were. Strange. And it was steep and narrow.

I looked up an alley in another direction and it looked like they were installing low granite steps that were spaced obnoxiously far apart. I can only assume it was an attempt to break up the grade, but the rise and tread were only a few inches and the spacing was so far. And they only did it on half the walkway, so bikes and wheelchairs could get through on the other side. But the wheelchairs would have had a tough, bumpy go of it, if they could manage at all, without being pushed.

So he said to me, "What are they doing?" I said, "Installing tripping hazards." So, I am going to refer to this issue in general, as tripping hazards, from here on out. I know it encompasses much more than this, but this is a blog not a professional journal.

The big obvious reason why tripping hazards are so much more common in Europe than the US is because Europe is old. That makes sense. And no none is or should be in a rush to tear out all the urban tripping hazards and install prefab, production line pavers that are easier to navigate. That would be a disaster for many reasons including preservation, cost, infrastructure and runoff.

Thankfully, the world continues to improve through design. There must be something the design world, myself included, can do to remedy these problems, by integrating the old world charm with modern ease and comfort. How to retrofit the old stuff to make it safe and easy to walk or roll on top of? Until I figure out how, I will just keep tripping my way through Europe and occasionally twisting my ankle. When I go home, I will look at ADA design and really appreciate all the work that went into creating those Guidelines. And perhaps, walk a lot easier.

And after my German gets better, I want to read more about what design parameters are used here, for new construction and restoration. There must be something similar to our ADA Guidelines. The newer areas are pretty reasonable to pass across, without breaking shoes or heels. And many of the modern pavers are sustainable and really creative.

On another note, a nod to the Swiss and their mountains. Huge, long tunnels get you through mountains, instead of having to go around. Cog railways, gondolas and cable cars can get you up the mountains, to where the really good Field Trips are. It seems as though anyone, young or old can get up there, to take in a vista or a long ski run. I haven't done a formal survey, again, this is a blog, but it seems as though many are accessible by wheelchair. That is an accomplishment that Swiss engineers should be acknowledged for.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Park im Gruenen and Brueglingen

Today, at least so far, is a particularly beautiful, windy, stormy autumn day in Basel. I really like the fall. And I really don't like the heat of summer. So, being that today is such a wonderful day and that I am grateful for the weather, I was thinking back on where to start my Field Trip exploration. I will start way back when it was miserably hot, just after arriving here in Basel in May.

I like to scope out the botanical gardens when I travel. So we headed to Brueglingen, one of 2 botanical gardens in Basel. This place was great. Lots to see, sprawling spaces and plenty of good horticultural eye candy. But it was so hot that day...

The architecture of this place was very new to me. This was the first time that I really got to see the traditional buildings of a Swiss farm, at least for this Canton of Switzerland. Much different than what I am used to at home. I was and continue to be fascinated by the enormous overhanging eaves of barns. I have always had a secret desire to be a veggie farmer, and this makes the thought even more appealing to me. Ahh, to be able to call such a cool building my office, or at least my potting shed.

Brueglingen had all the usual assortment of botanical garden necessities, such as regional biotope areas, ponds, roses and rhodos, rock gardens, etc. But what I liked best about the place was the combination of modern sculpture and traditional grounds and architecture. It was done very well, in a way that honored each different entity, but made it seem as though it had always existed that way.

Then onto the adjacent area, called Park im Gruenen. This park was created in 1980 as part of the horticultural exhibition Gruen 80. It is obvious that landscape architects had been here! Lots of funky earthwork, individual areas with different themes, sculptures, great rockscaping and waterscaping.

How would you like to play on this! This is a play piece designed by Jean Tinguely. Sort of looks like an elephant to me. I am sure it is not ADA compliant, though. This is another thing I continue to marvel at, while in Europe. How difficult they make it for any differently-abled person to get around here. But that is a whole post of its own. Tinguely's work is great, sort of like real, live Dr. Seussian machines. There is a great museum devoted to him and his work in Basel. The building was designed by Mario Botta, but I digress. Anyway, this gets my vote as the best place to play in Basel, for both kids and adults.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Seeing is believing

So, here we are, for 9 months. Temporarily living in Basel. That length of time usually coincides with baby-making, but not for this girl. Instead, I am using my nine months to See as much as I can. By See, I mean take it all in. Small details in the pavement along the Rhine, the highest mountains, strange rocks, black cats on trellises high above markets in Paris, colors that illustrate the personality of a place, architecture, and of course, green space.

Just like the fact that anything can happen on a Snow Day, anything goes on my field trips. There is no yelling if the permission slip didn't get signed and turned in. In fact, most of my favorite field trips happened somewhat serendipitously. I may have a skeleton of what I intended to See. But it is usually that wrong turn, down a side street to something else that makes for the best fun. That is what adds the flesh and blood to the skeleton.

The act of Seeing will also cover my musings. I am very curious, sometimes, too much so. As a result, I like to See things for myself. I like to know how places, people and things work. I took case studies very seriously when I was in school becoming a landscape architect. In a way, I am treating this 9 months of Seeing as my big attempt to case study the world. The evidence will be evident in this blog. I look forward to chronicling my Field Trips to places landscape architects should See.

Right now, I am nearing completion of the first 2 trimesters of Seeing. Field Trips will help me organize, focus and share what I have Seen. Lets face it, no one wants to sit through a slide show of my 57,000 photos when I get back to Real Life! So Field Trips will offer you my favorites, the quirkiest and sometimes the best of what Seeing has offered me.

Wilkommen and I hope you enjoy!