May 16, 2011

Go native

The dramatic shift toward native and sustainable gardening in the last decade is remarkable.  As images of giant plumes of oil spilling into the Gulf gave us all reason to despair, I drew deep comfort from seeing so many neighborhood gardeners join the green revolution by converting their plots into islands of biodiversity, or by plowing up their lawns and planting vegetable and drought tolerant gardens.  These small acts of resistance are reasons to hope.

Provenance matters. Right now the native plant movement still relies on horticultural approach to plants—one that focuses on ornamental characteristics of plants without concern for the plant’s provenance or community. By doing this, we lose not only the allelic diversity of local plants, but also the aesthetic appeal of plants that have been perfectly evolved to a specific region.

How can you truly plant locally?  Support nurseries that propagate natives from local populations.  If you’re not sure, ask your local nursery owner where he or she gets her plants. This strategy has been remarkably successful in supermarkets; it can work for the nursery trade as well.  Choose seed sources that you know are harvested from local populations.  Or even better, learn how to sustainably collect seed from wild populations. There’s nothing quite as grounding or satisfying as going into a wild landscape, gathering seed, and then raising that plant in your garden.  Go local with your garden.  You will love it.

Following are local resources for information and supplies:

May 15, 2011

Very discreet, please.

For some, paradise is a villa on the northern Italian lakes.  They were a favorite haunt of European royalty in the nineteenth century.  Today, connoisseurs still luxuriate along these shores.  Set in a landscape that is part Alpine and part Mediterranean, the Lombardy lakes mix what is best of the two worlds.

Snowcapped mountains rise in the distance and palm trees line the shore; pine forests scent the air and gardens are filled with jasmine, camellias, and oleander.  In the mornings, brisk mountain air currents cool the lakes.  Balmy tropical breezes relieve the heat of late afternoon.  Some of the lakeside towns have a pristine Swiss appearance; others hint of the dolce vita of the Riviera.  There’s even a touch of Venice here.  One travels by water to the great villas, whose entrances, like those of the palazzi along the Grand Canal, are marked by Baroque wrought-iron gates, lichen-covered docks, and barbershop-striped mooring poles.  Hoop-framed and canvas-covered boats are as familiar a sight on the lakes as gondolas are in Venetian waterways.

Living in the lake district is the elegant old-world kind.  Over the past few centuries, lakeside villas were built for the sole purpose of lavish, unending holiday enjoyment. Built for people with big city houses who did not want to experience the shock of reentry when they went to the country. 

The large lakeside villas are palatially Baroque, and the smaller ones resemble the classic Renaissance-style villas of the hills around Florence.  Many of the large lake houses had frescoed exteriors, but now the preference seems to be monochromatic ivory, ocher, or rosa mattone, a deep salmon-colored brick that contrasts nicely with the blue-green water and lakeside gardens.

The clients rambling house was re-imagined. A new color palette. A mixture of classic modern furniture, some family anitiques, and objects brought back from trips around the world, will serve as counterpoint to the pared-down interior design. When I ask the client how he invisioned his space, he answered “very discreet, please”.

Rocher, merci pour 'pensant la conception de DvH design'.

May 2, 2011

Mews Houses

In the Middle Ages the cage where a hawk might be put in during its moulting season was sometimes called a ‘mew’. Henry VIII kept his hawks in Charing Cross, roughly where the National Portrait Gallery stands today, and although he replaced the mews with stables for his horses, it kept its name of ‘The Mews’. From that time on ‘mews’ a plural word mostly used in the singular, became the name for any small street or yard in Georgian or Victorian London designed for stabling horses and carriages. Mews is sometimes applied to rows or groups of garages or, more broadly, to a narrow passage or confined place. Tucked away behind grand squares and elegant terraces, they evoke a bygone era of horse-drawn carriages trundling across cobbled streets.

The transition from horse and cab to cars and trains made the mews house redundant and so many were converted into garages, studios, and storage areas. The first wave of enthusiasm for them as residences came during the early 1900’s when many of them were turned into cottages, often with a mock Tudor or Arts-and-Crafts style. The first residential conversion is believed to have been in 1908 in Street Mews Mayfair, described in 1915 as 'the best bijou house in London'. Thereafter, a trend was born. Although interest waned after the Second World War, it was in the 1960’s that people again began to see the attraction of the small mews house.

Because their original purpose was to serve as stabling and staff quarters for the grand town houses, mews houses tend to be located in the best parts of London. These properties are mainly concentrated in the areas surrounding Hyde Park, Regents Park and Holland Park, although there are wonderful mews streets to be found all over London. Mainly dating from the mid 19th century, they have, in the past forty years or so, become rather more expensive. One of the attractions of a mews house is that it is likely to have garage space, which, given the difficulties and expense of parking in central London is a major advantage. Security, a strong sense of community and peace and quiet are also major contenders for their popularity.

A typical mews is approximately 1,000-1,500 square feet in size and located mainly in the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea. The majority are in Mayfair, Marylebone, Pimlico, Bayswater, Notting Hill, Holland Park, Knightsbridge, Kensington, Bloomsbury and Belgravia. There are only 62 mews properties that are listed buildings, however, many are in conservation areas or in London's ancient estates such as the Grosvenor Estate in Belgravia.

May 1, 2011

Laowais (= foreigners)

Like most modern cities, Shanghai draws both international visitors and Chinese nationals. In 2007 I had the great good fortune to travel to Shanghai to see the city before it's old town was lost and Shanghai became a modern city of the 21st century. During my visit it quickly became clear that the true heart of the city appeared at night. From the banks of the Huang Pu River in the Bund district, to the back streets of old Shanghai, this is a city that becomes awash with light, color and character as dusk falls.

Shanghai is a city of contrasts, the modern skyscrapers beautifully lit by neon advertising and light displays.  But head only a few blocks away from the core tourist areas and another world is available to view. Communities live out their lives on the streets, eating, reading and generally catching up with each other.
Shop workers team build by singing and dancing on the pavements outside their premises. Street food hawkers prepare chicken, fish and vegetable skewers of food for fast consumption by people on their way home. Look through any shop doorway and there is life being lived out, better than any soap opera on television perhaps.
Shanghai's skyscrapers and modern lifestyle are often seen as representing China's recent economic development. But for now traditional life can still be found away from these developments, but for how long?  Only time will tell how much this city will change as it embraces the consumer led 21st century that China is banking on as it's future.
Laowais (= foreignerers) in Shanghai are both insiders and outsiders. There are 18 million residents in Shanghai and I believe every one has tried to sell me something. Visually, we stick out like a sore thumb…but actually, foreigners make up a huge ex-pat community.
The French arrived in 1846 and leased land just south of the British Concession's holdings. They established a series of fine residential neighborhoods west across today's Luwan District, branching off Huaihai Lu, the main avenue known in colonial times as Avenue Joffre. The streets in the long, sprawling settlement were lined with plane trees; the buildings, with their mansard roofs and shutters, resembled those of French towns of the time; and these neighborhoods, most now dating from the first 3 decades of the 1900s, remain much intact, although the modern construction boom has laid waste to considerable clusters of the French legacy.

In recent years, a concerted effort has been made to preserve and spruce up many charming blocks of the original French residences, open historic houses, and convert some of the surviving mansions and estates to fine restaurants and retail shops -- all making for a delightful, if spread out, stroll through colonial Shanghai. Refusing to join the International Concession formed in 1863 by the British and Americans, the French had their own electric power, bus system, and legal system within their 10-sq.-km (4-sq.-mile) quarter. It was a neighborhood that attracted not only the French, but international adventurers, Chinese gangsters, White Russian refugees, communist revolutionaries, and pimps and prostitutes as well. By the 1930s, the French were vastly outnumbered here, but their sense of style has endured.

Our project, the restoration of a lovely old villa in the French Quarter as a corporate retreat.

Long live chocolate!