Miller Studio Landscape Architecture

  Miller Studio Blog

An occasionally updated series of postings by JC Miller

[updated 2/2011]

Permanent Is Not What It Used To Be

A 94 year old acquaintance of mine, a fellow lap swimmer at the local pool, sports a pair of swallow tailed bird tattoos on his chest. One day he explained that the swallow is a symbol of safe return for sailors and that for those "in the know" the pair of birds positioned as they were indicated that he had been at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1942.

Tattooed Sailor

Quick mental arithmetic led me to understand that the man's tattoos had remained legible and meaningful for over sixty years. As a designer who is involved in the shaping of the built environment I was taken back, few examples of the landscape architect's art are legible after such a period and only a handful of those still express any original intent. Is it possible that the average sailor tattoo lasts longer than the average garden, campus, or civic plaza? If so, what does that mean for landscape architects?

Visits to tattoo shops have given me the opportunity to delve a little into these questions - and explore the nature of permanence. It was surprising to find that trace paper, a mainstay of the landscape architect's tool kit, plays a prominent role in the application of tattoo. At first glance it seems incongruous that a material so short lived would be integral to the creation of something generally regarded as rather permanent.

Talking over the buzzing needle and concurrent conversations that characterize an afternoon at Oakland's Temple Tattoo, Jason McAfee explained that some the trace paper sketches made by tattoo artists - called "flash" - are highly sought after by collectors. Ephemeral no more, it is now treasured as art and published in glossy books for the coffee table.

McAfee Flash

Tattoo flash becomes enduring - or permanent - when it is transubstantiated into art. The same seems to be true of some works of landscape architecture - those known primarily from published photos. Thinking along these lines revealed to me that some of my ideas about permanence were really a confusion of several concepts including durability, security, temporality, nostalgia, and loss.

Sorting these out it now seems to me that there are two distinct forms of permanence. The first of these is the long term endurance of handiwork. The second is the less appealing idea of unrecoverable loss.

In the first category it seems that the tattoo artist has the landscape architect beat. San Francisco's Union Square is not unusual in that it has been remade twice since World War II. The City's civic center plaza and the entry to its airport have been reworked more often than that. While these major civic spaces have morphed and shifted over time, my friend's twin swallows persisted, frozen in mid flight, their meaning undiminished to their owner or the cognoscenti. In comparison, our impositions on the land seem reversible, somehow less permanent than ink on skin.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess warned humankind that once you change a place it is altered irrevocably and forever. Careful consideration should be given to any change. The stakes are after all very high. Obviously this is also true with tattoo, but in this sense it is the landscape architect with the greater responsibility. The difference of course between tattoo and environmental change is degree and scale. Youthful misjudgment or a later in life change of taste (or sweetheart) can be remedied - perhaps by the simple choice of long sleeves. Unfortunately, alterations to our world are not so easily mitigated. While the "flash" of landscape architects may never be elevated to the high status of art, it does represent an action far more permanent than it might appear.

--JC Miller, February 2011

  Butterfly Chair Manifesto

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - it is not always clear whether this is an instruction or a command, but regardless, it has become the mantra of our day and age. An elegant expression of the "Triple R" directive can be found in an iconic piece of patio furniture from the last century - the Butterfly Chair.

Butterfly Chair

Reduce: The chair is a masterpiece of reduction. Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, who is generally credited with the design, apprenticed under Le Corbusier in the 1930's and Corbusian restraint, economy, and efficiency are clearly visible in the continuous steel frame and canvas sling seat. The seat connection is achieved through gravity and tension - no fasteners. This chair is at its best when occupied.

Reuse: As our era searches for an identity and eventually character, it makes sense to revisit the formative past. It is nearly impossible to pick up a design magazine from the mid twentieth century and not see one of these chairs. This simple design has been reissued and knocked off with reckless abandon since it was introduced by Hans Knoll in 1947, so reuse is a fundamental part of it.

Recycle: You can buy new versions of the chair but why? There are millions of butterfly chair frames around. Search them out, add new covers, and give them a reincarnation on the deck or in the den. Some manufacturers advertise the recycled content of their new offerings, but for true recycling nothing beats taking something that already exists and giving it new purpose.

So there you have it - the Butterfly Chair Manifesto. A recycled icon for a new age, because after all, where you stand often depends on where you sit.

--JC Miller, August 2010

  Looking at Life through
   Green Colored Glasses

"Green" is the word of the moment. This small bit of language, which has been kicking around in English for something like nine hundred years, is enjoying unprecedented popularity in the early twenty-first century.

Green Glasses

Advertising copy writers seem to be especially fond of "Green".

The title of this meandering - and occasionally updated - posting implies a "green" that is somewhat different from: the appropriate application of environmentally responsible practices - one of the ten current definitions for the word that can be found in Webster's dictionary.

This effort will attempt a focus on concepts such as nature, wilderness, and the garden (slippery terms one and all) and explore how they are blended with human need, emotions, and history through the practice of landscape architecture. Aesthetics and utility will probably have to be worked in somewhere as well.

Is this ambitious stuff? Perhaps, but it is really nothing new. In the first century BC, the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero observed that "We sow corn, we plant trees, we fertilize the soil by irrigation, and we dam the rivers and direct them where we want. In short, by means of our hands we try to create as it were a second nature within the natural world." So, tune in from time to time and feel free to drop us a note and let us know your thoughts.

--JC Miller, June 2008