The psychic landscape

"...[H]umans are in a fundamental way place-making animals, revealing in this act their individual and collective dreams. The landscapes that we create are combinations of artifice and nature, and in designing them people of every period have revealed a great deal about their cultural values while demonstrating the perennial exigencies of life and our universal need for water, food, and shelter....As the 20th-century French philosopher Gaston Bachelard posited, when examine space in terms of psychology and phenomenology we find that we are still place-bound creatures, carrying in the recesses of our memories personal histories of spaces we have inhabited and imagined. Further, we carry "placeness" in our genes and in our sensory apparatus as human animals, and because biological nature is till the matrix of our existence we long to feel at one with the natural world."

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History

"The landscape is alive, it is a text in itself, it is a living text... There is a dialogue between one's internal being, one's psyche, and the nature of place, the landscape. There has to be some connection, some sort of bridge, which allows one to sense all sorts of relationships which one tends to eclipse, which one tends not to see at all."

Wilson Harris, quoted by Michael Gilkes, "The Landscape of Dreams"

I have always been one of those place-bound creatures described by Bachelard, carrying within me all past and present landscapes, real and imagined. I think that I might be a different person if I were to live in a different landscape. Recently, I was introduced to a beautiful corner of Connecticut that is only 2 hours away from New York City, where one's view is of infinite hills and trees under an immense sky. I can imagine myself living here, being in this landscape, happy to watch the fog roll over the hills in the morning. There is silence, open space, and solitude, all of which I often crave.

Kent, Connecticut, November 16, 2010

But in reality, this is where I live. The landscape I know is ultra urban, with its own brand of beauty that never ceases to amaze me. I love the mix of natural wildness and urban architecture jostling for space on the High Line. On a sunny autumn morning like today, there are few better places to be in the city.

The High Line, November 24, 2010


The last of Autumn

The days are getting shorter and colder. This weekend we had what might well be the last warm weather for months to come. It seemed that everyone in the whole city was outside enjoying the sunshine. We had a lovely stroll through Central Park after lunch on the Upper East Side. Andrew Jackson Downing, considered by many to be the father of American Landscape Architecture, had been the first to argue for a large park in New York, a space in the middle of the city with "a real feeling of the breadth and beauty of the green fields, the perfume and freshness of nature... lovely lakes of limpid water, covering many acres, and heightening the charm of the sylvan accessories by the finest natural contrast." In such a park, "pedestrians would find quiet and secluded walks when they wished to be solitary and broad alleys filled with thousands of happy faces when they would be gay." Thanks to Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux's brilliant design, Central Park remains faithful to Downing's vision of sylvan pleasures in our city. But most of all, it was Olmstead's foresight that made Central Park such a welcome reprieve to the city's relentless grid. As he wrote in one of his reports:

"The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will done, and when the picturesquely-varied, rocky formations of the Island, will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the Park. The priceless value of the present picturesque outlines of the round will be more distinctly perceived, and its adaptability for its purpose more fully recognized. It therefore seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky scenery as little as possible, and on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects."

Nearly a century and a half later, I encountered many solitary pedestrians enjoying moments of quiet and "thousands of happy faces" in the broad alleys of the park, all relishing the last of autumn in anticipation of the sterner season ahead.


Aung San Suu Kyi is free

After having spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest, where she was not even allowed to go out into her garden, Aung San Suu Kyi has finally been released. It's the best news I've read in months, although she can just be re-arrested again, as happened in the past. But for the moment, many people around the world are jubilant. Former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk, a Peace Nobel Prize Laureate, and Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba gave a joint toast in her honor at a meeting to campaign against nuclear weapons. Archbishop Desmond Tutu lauded her as "a global symbol of moral courage."

The personal cost of her moral courage is unfathomable. She was not allowed to see her husband before he died of cancer in 1999, and she has not seen her children in 10 years. Today, she finally spoke on the phone to her younger son, who is in Thailand trying to get a visa to Burma.

President Obama claims her as a hero of his. She is certainly my hero.



Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1510
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
Manet, Olympia, 1863

Bryan Ferry titled his latest album Olympia, after Edouard Manet's infamous painting. "Olympia was a kind of early pin-up picture and in a sense a forerunner of some 20th century pop art, which I feel strongly connected to," he explains, choosing the model Kate Moss to convey the "glamorous notoriety" of the original Olympia nude.

I find Ferry's art-school reference a poor excuse for a rather boring photograph of a glammed up Kate Moss lying in bed with the "finest linen." There is nothing here that we have not seen before. Manet's Olympia, when it was first exhibited in 1863, was something not ever seen before in the history of painting. Manet's composition referred back to Renaissance paintings of Venuses, notably Titian's Venus of Urbino, which in turn refers back to Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (Titian was Giorgione's student and most likely finished Sleeping Venus when the latter died of the plague in 1510). Unlike the Renaissance Venuses, Manet's nude is not an idealized and mythic goddess, but a flesh and blood courtesan, attended by a maid holding a large bouquet of flowers. Manet painted his courtesan wearing nothing but a pair of mules and jewels, just as Manet's friend Beaudelaire described his lover in these lines:

La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n'avait gardé que ses bijoux sonore,
Dont le riche attirait lui donnait l'air vainqueur
Qu'ont dans leurs jours heureux les esclaves des Mores.

With her frank expression of sexuality staring back at the viewer, Manet's Olympia was shocking. The painting caused an uproar when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865. After Manet's death in 1883, Claude Monet organized a public subscription to purchase the painting for the nation of France.

Olympia has had a lasting influence on modern art. Jean-Michel Basquiat referenced it in his 1982 work Detail of maid from "Olympia".

The fashion house Yves Saint Laurent reinterpreted it for their advertising campaign in 1998, replacing the nude figure of Olympia with a fully dressed male model attended by a scantily clad female figure holding a bouquet.

Photograph by Mario Sorrenti, Yves Saint Laurent ad, 1998

Unlike both of these instances, Bryan Ferry's interpretation of Olympia offers nothing new on the original, to which it pales by comparison. Incidentally, in the album, Ferry does a cover version of Tim Buckley's beautiful Song to the Siren. Again, Ferry's interpretation is a slick production, but it misses the point of Buckley's haunting lyrics. I much prefer the version by Mortal Coil, with the lyrics rendered so unforgettable by Liz Fraser's ethereal voice.


Halloween in Carroll Gardens

Lily trick or treating with the big kids
Pumpkins decoration
Severed head on a plate of hors d'oeuvres
Ann made this Don Quixote-like skeleton for Flavio
Ann, Sophie and Nick made this lovely horse out of cardboard boxes
Emilio as Michael Jackson
Edward as a matador
Lily as a hippie

I never liked Halloween until I moved to Carroll Gardens. The neighborhood really knows how to put on a great Halloween. The costumes are highly inventive and the community just comes together to put on the most festive party. Just another reason I heart Brooklyn.