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June 20, 2018   
A Slope as the Perfect Canvas  November 28, 2006

Imagine Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night”, but, instead of canvas painted in a swirl and swarm of those original colors, make it a slope “painted” in a subtle array of intertwining greens—gray green, brown greens, olive greens, blue greens with sparkling yellow green dots.

A slope is the perfect canvas. Landscaping flat ground is exquisite, but it may be that the design is best seen from above—which might be difficult at best.

A slope however can be viewed from anywhere. How about landscaping a slope as an Ellsworth Kelly with bands of green—each a different color, a collection of minimalist strips of paving, water features and plantings—or a Josef Albers with three concentric squares laid on top of one another—all green, and each with a slightly different height of plant? Envision a Louise Nevelson bas relief, except instead of being made of wooden spools, knobs, handles and blocks, it is a slope covered with native shrubs of varying heights in a cascade of different shapes.

Light and Shadow

One could also think primarily in terms of light and shadow. If you have a slope, the slope itself could be a canvas for the shadows of trees planted at the base, or cast from buildings and trees across the road. As the sun moves and lowers toward the horizon, the shadows get longer and the painting changes slowly every minute, creating a plane for contemplation and meditation.

Form and Function

Landscapes and seasonal color changes have been a favorite form for thousands of years. The ancient Romans painted landscapes framed in views (also painted) on the walls of their houses to form the illusion of windows onto a perfect outdoors. Now, people buy paintings of trees and streams and meadows, when they could look out their own windows instead. But they’ll only do that if what they’re gazing at has the energy and power of a painting. Grass is nice, but with help, it could become the most powerful imagery. Why not, as the landscape architect, create a piece of art at the same time as you are stabilizing the hill.

Native Plant Communities

A mature tree captures at least 80 percent of all the precipitation that falls on it. What trickles through is captured by understory plantings and ground cover. This combination minimizes the flow of stormwater, and what happens to fall to the ground is slowed to a trickle, percolating into the earth over a period of days and then seeping into wetlands and streams. A holistic watershed policy is greatly needed, but at the same time, the landscape architect can use this forward thinking policy to make yet another leap—into pure art.

Planting grass on a slope does not stop erosion. Erosion studies have consistently shown that slopes that were seeded with grass erode more quickly than anything else other than bare ground. Seeding slopes after a fire or grading does nothing but destroy the ecosystem. Bare, grass-covered soil or ice plant-covered slopes commonly load up to field capacity while slopes covered with a mix of native shrubs, trees and perennials rarely do that. In residential landscaping, seeding with grass makes a weedy slope that is very hard to stabilize and reestablish plants on. That creates a different plant community, i.e., weeds, which are a sign of the slope trying to heal and protect itself.

When planning the design, take into consideration the emergence of seasonal blossoms. When they appear, this will again change the nature of the “painting”. What started out as a combination of pale gray green, blue green and yellow green, can suddenly, when in blossom, become gray green, blue green and hot pink—or brilliant crimson and deep lavender.

Bare soil or grass-covered slopes experience enormous erosion through mudslides and surface gullies when compared to the minor erosion of slopes planted with a community of native plants. Some places use concrete as erosion control even though on the West Coast, sage scrub is beautiful and stable. But often the brush is cleared and grass is planted. After heavy rains, the grass can’t hold the soil. Its roots are too shallow, and the hillside slides.
They cover it with cement, which costs a fortune, looks horrible and eventually cracks. After twenty years, the concrete falls off of the slope. When comparing the performance of the two, a trace of runoff is seen in native plant covered slopes, yet 30-75 percent of all rainfall in grass-covered slopes runs off.

So bare soil or grass-covered slopes experience extensive erosion through mudslides and surface gullies when compared to the minimal erosion of slopes planted in a community of native plants. A mixture of deep-rooted native shrubs, and trees mixed with shallow-rooted shrubs, and perennials, mulched (and consequently with no weeds) will control erosion on the slope.

A Conversation Between Soil and Roots

Native plants connect with each other underground, and the microorganisms that live in association with them produce tiny threads that broadcast through the soil, coiling around particles of sand and clay and holding them while also producing glue-like compounds to hold the soil particles. This interconnection is a natural microorganism community underground, living in cooperation with the plant community aboveground. Grass and other non native plants do not have the natural enzymes and structures to bond with the soil, so it is critical to plant native plants in a spaced plant community to control erosion on a slope.

A mixture of deep-rooted native shrubs, and trees mixed with shallow-rooted shrubs, and perennials, mulched (and consequently with no weeds) will control erosion on the slope.

According to Bernard Schuppener in his article, “The Design of a Slope Stabilization Using Plants,” another method of stabilizing slopes is by means of hardwood cuttings or hardwood whips that create a retaining structure by using plant material to reinforce soil.

“Such retaining structures ensure that steep slopes remain stable. The twigs and branches that act as reinforcement are taken from plants capable of growing adventive roots – usually willows; they do not rot but remain alive due to root development, thus ensuring the durability of the structure. In spring, the parts of the plants growing above ground produce new foliage that not only protects the slope against erosion due to wind and precipitation, but also prevent desiccation of the soil.

“This method of stabilization was used successfully in the construction of fortifications as long ago as the 17th century and is now used primarily to stabilize slopes in mountainous areas. By comparison, this is a very economical and environmentally friendly method of construction, which is rarely used in lowland areas even though it is an ideal way of stabilizing slopes beside canals and rivers. In many cases, a slope stabilized by plants is an effective alternative to sheet pile walls or concrete retaining walls, which often are not acceptable to the public.

“Investigations have demonstrated that it is the pull-out resistance of the plants and the strength of the bond between the plants and the soil that govern slope design, not the strength of the plant material. The bond strength between plants and soil prior to root development is determined first and foremost by the soil density. It varies quite considerably owing to the irregular geometry of the plants, thus masking the influence of the normal stress on it.”

The slope itself could be a canvas for the shadows of trees planted at the base, or cast from buildings and trees across the road. As the sun moves and lowers toward the horizon, the shadows get longer and the painting changes slowly every minute. That creates a plane for contemplation and meditation.

A Symphony of Color and Form

If the goal is to control runoff and slow down the corrosive effects of water, then native plants are best suited to the job, obviously. But what about color? What about form? What about the natural interaction and interplay of different textures—all the things that a painter brings to the canvas? When planning the design, take into consideration the emergence of seasonal blossoms. When they appear, this will again change the nature of the “painting.” What started out as a combination of pale gray green, blue green and yellow green, can suddenly, when in blossom, become gray green, blue green and hot pink—or brilliant crimson and deep lavender.

The calculation model for installing plantings such as Junipers, Dwarf coyote bush, and acacias that reinforce the soil assumes a constant bond strength in root development. This results in a four-to five-fold increase in the bond strength over several years. This increase in the resistance is a useful reserve in case some of the installed plants die in the course of time.

Landscaping Joins Artistic Expression in the Age of Anxiety

Isamu Noguchi used a mixture of the organic and the geometric as he combined western modernist forms with traditional Japanese beliefs. His work fuses east and west with the influences of Brancusi, Zen, surrealist sculpture and Japanese calligraphy. He said, “Sculpture is the perception of space, the continuum of our existence.” His gardens evoke the duality of his thought process.

Josef Albers’ painting “Homage to the Square” is part of an enormous series that was more concerned with the meditative potential offered by the interplay of the colors than with color theory alone. He used blues on greens, blues on reds, reds on oranges, whites on white. It is the interaction of the colors that is disorienting. After a long viewing one has the illusion that the squares are moving in and out of the picture plane. It is an experiment with perception, which can also be carried out using shrubs and flowering groundcover that will change with the seasons—in other words one slope, over the course of a year, can be the equal of three or four canvases.

Native plants connect with each other underground, and the microorganisms that live in association with them produce tiny threads that broadcast through the soil, coiling around particles of sand and clay and holding them while also producing glue-like compounds to hold the soil particles.

Ellsworth Kelly’s work enters the realm of wall based sculpture, unconstrained by the rectangular frame of traditional paintings. By using more than one canvas linked and mounted together, his use of color and his suggestion of depth creates an intense optical experience without expression or symbolism.
As the bridge between Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns used imagery from everyday life and popular culture as the basis of his art. With his choice of mundane and straight forward subject matter, Johns expanded the boundaries of painting by combining collage and sculpture on the painted surface.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy explores space, light and movement in a highly experimental way. Using a Constructivist methodology, he worked with both primary colors and subtler combinations along with geometric shapes to experiment with two and three dimensions appearing on the same flat surface at the same time.

Frank Stella is able to transform smoke into phantasmagoric images and forms. These virtual and schematic elements he pictorially combines into intense optical fields ordered by their materiality and their sensuousness, or he makes them into 3-D elements for his wall reliefs and sculptures.

Transformation Becomes Healing

Stella’s work is just that, the real work of the artist who uses whatever is at hand to create art. Just as Stella and many of the artists discussed here transform perception, so does the landscape architect. Their vision can also engulf the viewer with a sense of passion, or tragedy or the sublime. The landscape architect has the same power and that is combined with a much broader brush. Not only can one transform the viewer, one can also transform and heal the planet at the same time.

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