On the Waterfront

It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape
and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.
” – Thornton Wilder

The Philadelphia waterfront has never been a place I enjoyed visiting.  I remember it as a place we were dragged to on school field trips to the excruciatingly boring waterfront museum, or a vast wasteland with no bathroom when we visited for fireworks one July and left hurriedly when someone in the crowd yelled “he’s got a knife!”, a drab expanse of concrete with a view of an equally drab stretch of water, looking out on Camden, or a place we visited for German festivals and ate bratwurst and sauerkraut, an empty space where culture could be plopped down into it on weekends.

Since I grew up some things have changed about the waterfront, mostly on the other side of the river.  Now boasting Campbell’s baseball field, the Camden Aquarium, the Camden Children’s Garden, Wiggins Park (outdoor concert venue) and Promenade and the Susquehanna Bank Center (indoor concert venue), Camden is suddenly a nice place to visit, spend the day, lay in the grass and enjoy live music, a reason to take the ferry across the river, ride the beautiful tram from downtown Camden (not so beautiful), or walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge to their network of GreenWays, wide paths designed for walking and biking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had little hope for beauty on our side of the waterfront or engaging interest of any kind until a recent trip to a marina on the water.  Some distant relatives from Florida visited the area this summer and rented a houseboat on the water in a closed marina.  While we were there we walked out to the end of the pier to watch the passing boats.  The marina’s small inlet framed the view of the Ben Franklin bridge and Campbell’s Field across the water, the sun was glinting off of the ripples in the water and the pier bobbed up and down with the wake of passing ships.  Suddenly, it seemed like an enjoyable recreation area and a relaxing vista with cool water breezes. What a nice place to visit! We left the marina an walked a few steps to the start of Penns Landing and listened to the salsa music coming from the weekend’s festival and passed the riverboat and I realized how beautiful our riverfront could be…

Photo sources and links to Delaware Waterfront projects and other waterfront development:

The Friends of Penn Treaty Park: http://penntreatypark.org/

Historical Waterfront Images: http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila/exhbts/grubel/BachmanviewWest.html

Haas Landscape Architects: http://haas-la.com/water_owego.php

I 95 Article: http://www.infraculture.org/philly/

WRT Design North Camden: http://www.wrtdesign.com/news/headline/North-Camden-Waterfront-and-Trenton-Capitol-Park-Master-Plans-Receive-NJASLA-Honor-Awards/62

Vision for Philadelphia: http://whyy.org/blogs/itsourcity/2009/06/12/will-sugar-houses-new-look-satisfy-philadelphia-planners/

Louisville Waterfront Park: http://www.louisvillewaterfront.com/park/gallery/

Waterfront Toronto: http://www.waterfrontoronto.ca/

Other images include google searches for New Orleans Woldenberg Park and Savannah Waterfront


Space in the Natural Landscape

Lately in Design Communications class and Native Woody Plants at Temple Ambler we’ve been visiting and reading about landscapes and discussing the space of the place and the relationship between objects to create a feeling for the people in the space, be it open and awe inspiring or close and comfortable.  Reading in Catherine Dee’s book Form and Fabric in Landscape Architecture, about varieties of enclosures, solid or permeable, open on several sides or just one, mounds and hollows, and the placement of objects to connect the human to the larger setting around them, has been very thought provoking in the design process.

Moving from Philadelphia to Utah in 1999, I was struck by the amount of space in the United States once you leave the coast.  Riding the bus across the country I passed huge swaths of corn fields, whole states full of them, flat, flat topography, then small town and some cities, like Chicago, entering along the highway past the miles of high rise low income housing buildings jutting into the sky, then onto smaller towns and new topography, a rocky outcrop here and there, grasslands that began to stretch wider and wider, then mesas, and the occasional trailer parked at the base of a hill, the only sign of life for miles and miles.  Radio stations were scarce and finally finding a station playing Prairie Home Companion to enjoy for a few miles was a joy.  The air got drier and the sky opened up bright blue over the towns we stopped in, like Cheyenne, Wyoming, next to the payphone with the wagon wheel propped next to it in the rocky soil.

Ohio Cornfield

Chicago Housing Projects

Cheyenne Wyoming Grassland


[The above pictures are from a Google image search for Ohio Cornfields, Chicago Housing Projects (these are now demolished), Cheyenne, Wyoming and Mesas]

Most of the bus passengers had never seen the interior of the country, never much left the city, and we were in awe of the vastness, the foreign rocks and soil, the record of geology in colored layers, the surface of the earth so visible once the people and buildings are stripped away. There was plenty of time to think, to look upon the land, to marvel at the stars in the sky at night,  to let go of the superfluous junk in our minds.

This week we traveled to a very different landscape, the Pine Barrens, a huge swath of protected forest in central New Jersey, to examine several rare ecosystems, each with it’s own sense of space, and the last ecosystem we visited, demonstrated the magical and wonderful feeling of enclosure in a natural space.

After rounding Pakim Pond in the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, our teacher, John Monroe led us across a small bridge to a spectacular moss covered…fairy land is all I can think of to describe it.  It was like something from the Lord of the Rings or Legend, a medieval forest where tall cedars meet the shallow swamp in round mounds of bright green moss.  John let us loose in the space to explore and consider the space created by the straight trunks of the closely spaced cedars, their lowest branches high in the air, swaying above us.  The ground was squishy, yielding to our feet, but a dense mat of roots beneath the thick moss-like plants covered the ground in mini-islands.  We hopped from one to another, grabbing hold of tree trunks to slip over and around fallen branches, so absorbed in our explorations we forgot each other and where we were, how old we were, and played like children, jumping up and down on the moss islands to see if we could bounce nearby classmates on the inter-connected roots, bringing our faces right down to the moss to look at every detail, testing the depth of the black waters, reveling in the quiet and filtered sunlight and protection from the wind.

Cedar Swamp by Allison Ostertag

[Photo by Allison Ostertag]

Trees and mini-islands that fit only a person or two on or around them lend themselves to that sense of safety and child-like play. You can easily see through the stand of trees, but you could also play hide and seek among the trees, they act as barriers to movement, forcing thoughtfulness about how to travel and creativity and challenge to passage in and around them.

For more on the greyhound experience from another writer check out this great little article I found: http://www.sptimes.com/2005/06/21/Floridian/Dog_gone.shtml

For more on the geological varieties on the journey, check out “Linda’s Blog” for great pictures: http://lindaswindow.blogspot.com/2008/08/few-pictures-from-our-road-trip.html

For more info on the Pine Barrens and the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest check out this website: http://pineypower.com/BTB/byrne.htm

Philadelphia’s Parkway as Culture Central

Landscape shapes culture” -Terry Tempest Williams

Parkway from Above the Art Museum Looking East

Parkway from Above the Art Museum (click on image to go to the source site)

I live in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, which means I frequently walk down to the Art Museum, the Ben Franklin Parkway and the biking and running trails on either side of the Parkway.  On a recent visit I decided to hike up the steps of the Art Museum to check out the parkway’s axis from higher up.  I take for granted having a parkway full of cultural institutions blocks from my house, but when I started researching this blog post, I realized that not only are there museums all along the parkway (The Philadelphia Art Museum, The Rodin Museum, The Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, etc.) but that much of the parkway is in the process of some landscape renovation and redesign.

Anne D'Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden

Anne D'Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden (click on image to go to source site)

The Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden (and parking facility), behind the Art Museum was recently completed and now utilizes the views that being perched high above the surrounding topography allow.

Philadelphia Art Museum Sculpture Garden

Philadelphia Art Museum Sculpture Garden (photo by Allison Ostertag)

I found a mother and daughter playing alongside the giant plug sculpture.  The usual sculpture you might encounter around the museum a few years ago would likely be a guy on a horse, but now, contemporary sculpture dots and blends into the new hills, winding paths and plazas. I wandered over to look beyond the glass wall revealing the lower paths and the river below.

Philadelphia Art Museum Sculpture Garden Plaza

Philadelphia Art Museum Sculpture Garden Plaza (photo by Allison Ostertag)

Rodin Museum Gardens

Rodin Museum Gardens (photo by Allison Ostertag)

The Rodin Museum’s landscape was just completed and opens the central garden to the parkway with expanded landscaping and open gates to allow visitors to flow in and around the building in a more fluid fashion. The Burghers of Calais sculture was liberated from the building and brought outside so that visitors can interact with the life size metaphorical figures anytime.

Artist Rendering of the New Barnes Museum

Artist Rendering of the New Barnes Museum (click on image to go to source)

The Barnes Museum building is under construction (which I have been riding by on the bus every day for what seems like years now) and this rendering gives us some idea of what the landscape will look like.  This is a project I have watched closely.  After visiting the Barnes Museum in leafy Merion (it’s original location) and seeing the connection between the arboretum grounds and the museum, I wondered how it could possibly retain that connection on the parkway in a void where the youth detention center used to stand. I was not happy to see mature trees along the parkway being cut down and giant construction vehicles driving over the entire area, demolishing any vestiges of landscaping.  Looking at this rendering, it makes me think of the plaza of the Comcast building, lots of hardscaping with a axial water sculpture.  It will be a very different experience.

When I started to do some research, I learned that OLIN is the firm behind all of the above projects.  This article details the projects on the parkway and at the PAFA http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/mason/olin-in-philadelphia-7-21-11.asp

Sister Cities Plaza Rendering Discovery Garden

Sister Cities Plaza Rendering (click on image to go to source site)

Further down the parkway, behind Logan Circle, in a dark triangle of the parkway where the Vine Street expressway, the Family Court building and the Cathederal of St. Peter and Paul come together, the Sister Cities Plaza is now under construction.  This area is one I walk past quickly when walking from City Hall or Love Park to the Library because it’s populated by homeless people most every day.  A feeding program takes place here nightly and homeless people camp out along the wall of the expressway and along the benches and grass areas of the park.  I didn’t know what was planned for it until now, but the above rendering shows the Children’s Discovery Garden, and the space will include a cafe and fountain among other features.

Sister Cities Plan View

Sister Cities Plan View (click on image to go to source site)

It’s interesting imagining this space transformed, especially considering the current use.  The prospect of a cafe is very exciting and the children’s discovery garden would be very exciting to see in use.  Logan Fountain attracts many families, tourists, art students from the nearby Moore College of Art and homeless people and accomodates them all comfortably in the open, central space.  It would be nice to see that mood translate to the new landscape. The renderings on Bryan Hanes’ site seem to reference the diversity of the users envisioned for the space, using collaged images of people as diverse as Philadelphia’s residents.

Historic Parkway Photograph

Historic Photograph of the Parkway

From the parkway’s beginnings, carving a path through a more industrial world of factories and train tracks…

Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway with Sunset

*click on image to go to source

…the Philadelphia Parkway’s landscapes have played a part in connecting or repelling residents and visitors to the cultural gems along its length.

For more on the parkway, the museums, the history of the parkway and its ties to Paris, check out the links below:







Design in Nature


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Nature: The Source of All Design. – Dan Kiley

These are some photographs I took in the Wissahickon Valley Park in Philadelphia when the leaves were turning a few years ago.  The shapes of the leaves set against the clear sky, the patterns of arrangement along the thin black branches, the smooth or toothed edges of the leaves and the translucence as light streams through, seem to illustrate the quote above.

Below are examples of people inspired by leaf shape who created small to monumental representations using the basic design.

Leaf Design inspiring land design and sculpture (click on any of the images to go to the original source post):

Leaf Shaped Home

Leaf Stepping Stone

Leaf Shaped Bird Bath

Leaf Shaped Chair

Leaf Earth Shapes

Leaf Window

Leaf Shaped Stone for WallI recently purchased W. Gary Smith’s Book “From Art to Landscape” where Smith beautifully details designs found in nature, the ways they are repeated in the landscape and how creatively they can be used in the landscape.  He sorts natural patterns into spirals, mosaic, scattered, serpentine, radial, circle, dendritic and fractured designs he photographs, draws or paints and recreates them in his landscape designs with flowers, trees, rocks and built structures.

From Art to Landscape Book Cover

In April he came to Philadelphia to speak at the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, sharing photographs of his beautiful artworks and built environments for places like Winterthur and Longwood Gardens.   The connection between patterns, photography, natural design, art and landscape creation really resonated with me, my art and my interests and I decided I was going to grad school, and here I am, 5 months later!

When this book arrived I pulled down my copy of Forms and Patterns in Nature by Wolf Strache, a book I found in college at my school’s library and refound at a used book store a few years ago.

Forms and Patterns in Nature

First published in 1956, the book is a visual collection of natural patterns printed in black and white, from the microscopic tree shapes of ammonia crystals to the mammoth lines of basalt columns at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.  The high school ceramics class I taught used the book as inspiration for organic sculptures for an outdoor courtyard in the school, and the goliath beetle and brazilian peacock butterfly images remind me of the works the students created.

 Hopefully I’ll be following in W. Gary Smith’s footsteps, making my own build environments with nature-inspired designs in the near future.  If you have a collaboration in mind, let me know!

AXIS MUNDI in Greek and Roman Landscapes


, , , , , , , , , , ,

Landscape Traditions Blog 1 Assignment: Is Axis Mundi evident in Greek and Roman landscape traditions?

Axis Mundi is a term used to describe a common belief, found in many early civilizations, in the connection between the earth and the heavens or gods through central locations or vertical vessels. The concept was evident in many early artworks, architecture and land designs. “Axis Mundi” literally translates as “world axis” and includes countless examples throughout society from skyscrapers to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. 

In Greece we see the transition from citizens connecting to the spiritual world through holy sites to a centering on city life and secular pursuits. 

The Greeks demonstrated a belief in Axis Mundi in several sites:

“The ancient Greeks regarded several sites as places of earth’s omphalos (navel) stone, notably the oracle at Delphi, while still maintaining a belief in a cosmic world tree and in Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods.” 

  • Mount Olympus in Greece, court of the gods
  • Delphi home of the Oracle of Delphi
  • Colossus of Rhodes       


Elizabeth Barlow Rogers in her book, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, provides further details of the beliefs of the Greeks:

“People also made pilgrimages to important shrines, particularly the one at Delphi, to find spiritual guidance.” p.61

“They embarked upon the Sacred Way, a swithback path leading to the Temple of Apollo [at Delphi]…Above the temple to the god [Apollo] loom the twin peaks of the Phaedriades, the Brilliant Ones.” p. 64

“Upon the temple terrace…a fourth-century 50-foot tall statue of Apollo gave majestic welcome to the pilgrim….The Temple of Apollo contained an inner chamber, called the adyton…within the adyton was a round stone….This was omphalos, the navel of the world…” p. 65

Ancient Temple at Delphi

Ancient Temple at Delphi

Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, though, marked and end to that culture and those beliefs.  The Roman Empire’s vast reach and affluence allowed for a shift from dependance on nature and the gods for human survival to a reliance on riches and a man-made arenas:

“Worldly power and earthly pleasure–these are the twin messages encoded in Roman town planning and landscape design….the distance is between a view of nature as an epic stage for the drama of gods and humans enacting their mutual fate and a view of nature as the idyllic counterpoint to civilization, the province of pastoral poetry.” –p.60

Eventually, by the Late Roman period, awe of the spiritual power of nature was replaced by a Disney Wold approach to natural elements:

“here nature served as a stage set, a theater for fantasy…a ‘virtual reality’ experience of its day in which emotion was manipulated….Landscape had thus become…space to be assigned programmatic content rather than place pregnant with intrinsic meaning.” p. 95

Both Greek and Roman land designs had a lasting effect on the layouts of land, the design of cities, the aesthetics of architecture and we can look critically at the effects of the Greek vs. Roman attitudes towards the land and how they are manifest in today’s world.  Precious landscapes may or may not be portals to the gods or the underworld, but they do connect humans to a humbler view of themselves in the vast cosmos and remind us what power authentic surroundings still hold.



, , , , , , , , , ,

Garden Path With Arch

Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, PA

Welcome to my Landscape Architecture Blog!  While I study at Temple Ambler’s School of Environmental Design, I’ll be sharing discoveries, thoughts on traditions in the landscape and images from local parks, arboretums, preserves, and more. 

The graduate program of Landscape Architecture at Temple focuses on environmental restoration with a grounding in engineering, design and history. The first year classes include Native Woody Plants where we learn how to identify trees and shrubs native to the area (as well as many non-natives prevalent in the local landscape), Landscape Engineering, Landscape Design (a studio class where we draft solutions to various design problems and build visual skills) and Landscape Traditions, where we examine the philosophical underpinnings of landscape creation over the history of humankind.

Classes are taught in the Ambler Arboretum, where we can see can see the application of storm water management techniques, green roofs, planting design, and a wide variety of native trees and shrubs.