Here is a lush installation by Tessa at Wild the City. A quick, easy and sensually compelling application of greenery and art to a shopping environment.

and here are some more amazing light sculptures at the Eden Project in the UK.

Dear readers
it’s been a very busy couple of months here, but I am back with several ideas on the go right now. In the mean time here are a few links to two ingenious community art projects from abroad:

Bread Art Collective from the UK have arranged some beautiful, light based works in public spaces. They actively engage the local community in creating the works, allowing them to cover large areas, with tiny points of light.

'community made' lanterns

‘community made’ lanterns

And here is what the creative economy really looks like – entrepreneurs with their totally bike powered coffee cart.

Bike powered and transported coffee cart

Bike powered and transported coffee cart

and one more to make you smile:
This is a simple, yet global, collaboration that is cheap and easy so anyone can get involved, yay!
It’s also the kind of thing you’ll won’t notice unless you are out and about on foot (or very slow cycle). Some of the most delightful sights are for walkers only.

(many thanks to Kelvin for sharing these with me.)

Whaling Wall, Auckland Maritime Museum

Whaling Wall, Auckland Maritime Museum

I do like this photo by Dive NZ magazine:The Whaling Wall mural on the Auckland Maritime Museum was a popular spot for school visits, and judging from this image, an amusing learning experience too: how many kids can you fit inside a whale? (they really are that big)

There has been a scurry in the news recently about the Whaling Wall mural. The mural was painted by artist Robert Wyland with volunteers and endorsed by Sir Peter Blake during the 1999 America’s Cup sailing race. It has been painted over.

The mural is number 84 of 100 large and impressive ‘Whaling Walls’ painted around the world by Wyland. The murals are part of work by the Wyland Foundation which aims to promote, protect, and preserve the world’s oceans, waterways, and marine life, through community education and public art. Some of the murals cover the sides of skyscrapers. The Auckland wall included a life size blue whale swimming with humpback, blue, pilot and killer whales and dolphins.

It would seem the story of whales in New Zealand/Aotearoa, and our role in protecting the marine environment has been deemed less important to Aucklanders than the sports achievements of one (famous but singular) man. The mural was already partly removed to accommodate a new museum exhibition in tribute to Sir Peter. I can’t help but wonder if the original message was lost or not clear enough prior to the murals degradation, and subsequent removal.

When comparing to the other Wyland murals around the world, ours does appear to be less impressive, without the detailed background, and painted on the side of a shed – not a lasting structure. It was painted during ‘The Cup’ race to act as a reminder for the race, not for whales. The museum says the paint used was donated and not up to the corrosive maritime conditions. This mural failed because it was not executed with the sense of care required for it to last. The environmental message, whilst worthy, was conflicted and confused with the messages about our sailing history and the role of the maritime museum.

It is unfortunate that the Auckland mural was not robust enough to last. I would like to see it replaced with something of a similar sentiment, to maintain the story of our connections to marine life, if not the specific image. A strong lasting artwork like the life size bronze coated whale sculpture planned for the Kapiti Coast. New Zealanders and many other peoples have a soft spot for whales. They are part of our Whakapapa, our history, and a delight and privilege to witness in our waters.

The strange part to the story is that the mural was completely painted over except for Sir Peter’s signature in one corner. In effect they have stolen his signature and stuck it on a blank wall (where any odd thing could be associated with it). It seems to be asking for inappropriate tagging responses.

Protest and debate in the media:

on Whale Wall loss vandalism and in The Aucklander Wailing wall

First reported in Dive New Zealand magazine

living balconies in Bilbao, Spain

living balconies in Bilbao, Spain

All of the more stunning cities I have been to have had flowers and vines, and shrubs and trees, growing out of people’s homes, and visible from the street. It is truly amazing how living plants give a sense of comfort and charm to a city. A city that includes plenty of non-human life is curiously more humane, the city feels more like a shared home,
less like an intensive, mono-culture farm of the human species.

The presence of green living things can be cheering on deep psychological levels as well as cleansing on a biological-chemical levels. To back up the long standing idea that plants inspire calm researchers have recently begun looking at how plants affect wellbeing. Many articles I have found tend to cover studies on pot plants in indoor spaces. [ref 1] Interiors are easy to control in experiments – they either have plants or they don’t. But I do like the ‘take home message’ from Jonathan Kaplan’s urban mindfulness blog:

“Relative to a barren environment, the research suggests that having plants around you is a good thing for your health and productivity.” [ref 2]

…which seems perfectly transferable to the larger urban environment which is even less likely to contain fluffy mascots and family photos. The urban environment can seem full of hard, rough, bland, dusty, dead and empty surfaces when one spends a bit of time out walking.

There are some very interesting but harder to find studies on green exercise – or the effect of exercise outside in ‘green’ spaces. Jules Pretty of Essex University is particularly interested in this topic and has an excellent write up his studies here [ref 3]. He is interested in the emotional benefits of the natural environment. He says as there is less ‘green nature’ in cities, urban dwellers are less able to de-stress by connecting with that green-ness. As cities get larger and more people live in urban areas, the less access the population has to the health benefits of living breathing plants.

To encourage a greener, less stressful and more humane city life, I’d like to show some wonderfully creative and urban examples of humans and plants spending their days together:

Hundertwasser museum - with many green tenants.

Hundertwasser museum – with many green tenants.

One of my favourite examples of green growing city space is the courtyard café at the Hundertwasser museum in Vienna (unfortunately no photos allowed inside – see the video link below) This open interior space had many fine creepers tumbling down from the upper levels like leafy waterfalls, landing amongst a mish-mash of round boulder like tables and proud potted trees reaching up. The museum also includes an example of one of his ‘tree tenants’: Hundertwasser designed a method of growing trees inside, independently in their own space, trained to grow out their own window, from their own little dirt filled room of about 1m2. The combination of a first floor landing filled with weird and wonderful tall pot plants adjacent to a fully grown tree tenant made me want to smile and smile. It was reminiscent of the forest in the bedroom of Max, king of the wild things.

tree tenant at the Hundertwasser museum

tree tenant at the Hundertwasser museum

Hallstatt, Austria

flower boxes in Hallstatt, Austria

In Hallstatt, in the Austrian Alps, houses looked incomplete with out the splash of life of the window boxes. It is here that I came across my first house trained or ‘espalier’ tree. This is a fruit tree trained to grow flat against a wall [ref 5]. A great idea for getting that leafy forest feel with only a small outdoor space. Imagine how pampered you would feel with lush ripe fruit dangling just outside your bedroom window in the morning.

espalier fruit tree

espalier fruit tree

More familiar to us in New Zealand is the humble flower basket– old England still manages to dot its city with hanging flowers on their street poles. Some smaller New Zealand cities and towns have kept this tradition of living colour on the streets; Nelson City is a lovely example.

Nelson, New Zealand

hanging flowers, Nelson, New Zealand

Our larger cities tend to be mildly amused by these as quaint and colonial displays, we show our superiority by professing a love of native flora. We then proceed to rip out existing established colonial planting to replace it with sparse new native planting – designed more for graphic impact than emotional or biological support. I prefer the idea of just continually adding more plants, that may, or may not, look wild and chaotic.

I suspect older cultures are more advanced in their understanding of the emotional necessity of living with plants; here our cities are young enough to remember they were once wild places. New enough to still hold onto the fear of things growing wild and taking over. Our civilisation in NZ cities is somewhat adolescent in it’s insistence on independence from other species. As we mature I hope we will find our family of native plants and birds can offer a stable and meaningful relationship that is not at odds with our modern lifestyle.

And besides, quite aside from the health benefits, urban mini-forests can be deeply, sensually seductive.

Vienna apartment block, July, 2009.

Vienna apartment block with built in planter boxes, July, 2009.

1. article University of Technology Sydney, Professor Margaret Burchett:
“We found that plants had a very strong wellbeing effect. It was a reduction of a whole lot of negative feelings: anxiety, anger, depression, confusion, fatigue and stress.”
‘The results are clear, but the reason plants make us feel better are not, although Professor Burchett and other researchers have some theories: “It relieves what they call ‘concentration fatigue’. Unconscious appreciation of live greenery gives you a feeling of calm, a slight ‘awayness’ and being part of a bigger whole.”

2 – urban-mindfulness blog Jonathan Kaplan’s take home message – plants make you feel better.

3 – studies by Professor Jules Pretty green exercise

“It is increasingly well established that the natural and built features of the environment affect behaviour, interpersonal relationships and actual mental states. The environment can, therefore, be therapeutic or have its `dark side’. Why, then, does nature still seem to have a positive effect on people, despite the increasing urbanization of modern societies?”

4 – youtube video of Hundertwasser architecture showing some of his planting details (more towards the 2nd half).

5 – wikipedia on espalier

Today I started a new course at the Victoria University architecture school, a paper on the Theory and History of Urban Design. Architecture school is the only place I can learn about urban design at undergrad level in NZ. I am picking up a strange slant, not too surprisingly, towards, or rather, away from, architecture.

A lot of the talk today was about how Urban Design is *not* like Big Architecture. This emphasis seems strange to me because I am not an architecture student. I have little knowledge about how architecture works as a discipline, but judging from their description of urban design, it seems quite focused on aesthetics and special and grand buildings. Urban design seems to cover everything else as well. The city is apparently made up of the worthy monumental and the lip curling vernacular.
In this lecture I felt like my interests are the opposite to that of architects. I am fascinated by the every day, sometimes purely functional, sometimes purely delightful, not-architecture. It is this that I want to influence.

Despite my interest my professional background is not architecture but civil engineering. My short experience with engineering has forever coloured my view of other professions. I am curious about the apparent tendency for the architecture school to favour big ego projects. It seems exactly the opposite of engineering culture:

• Big engineering projects are the sum of work by many skilled participants. There is no one mastermind, but levels of skill and expertise interacting to create something that is known to work. Function of course being the highest goal.

• The mantra we where given at engineering school was “Health, Wealth and Safety” for the whole of society. Fame never really came up. Excellence meant ever more efficient processes and resource use, or, maximum return for humanity, with minimum waste, creating prosperity for all now and into the future.

• Assumptions are always stated and the future always considered. Not like news reports in the daily papers.

• When engineers are in charge large projects take on the cloak of the sublime rather than the grand. Like urban design projects which are larger than any one person can fathom.

Interestingly engineers and architects are legally equivalent in large or medium building projects; an Engineer or Architect is required as a project manager, to act as a technical design professional and an intermediary for clients and contractors involved in projects from start to finish. This person is expected to have the best interest of all parties at heart, including future users and the general public. At least that is what I learnt as an engineer. Function, design and ethics are intertwined.

I have sat through a good number of the Urban Design lectures at the architecture school, before enrolling, and the topic of professional design ethics did not come up. Today’s experience reminded me of this apparent gap. I shall ask more about this in case I’ve missed something as an outsider.


Urban design also requires many skilled participants. No one person, and no one discipline can understand something as complex as a city. The lecturer today said it was a shame they didn’t have sociology students taking part. The cross-discipline that we have in lectures is architecture students combined with landscape architecture students. That still leaves out the population health experts, environment and transport engineers and town planners. So why aren’t they here?

Me: cross-discipline student extraordinaire! Engineer, artist, designer, pedestrian advocate, urban explorer and philosopher.


I romanticise a bit. To acknowledge this, I quote from an ode to engineering:

“Ridges and valleys and underground streams,
You have to know what’s under your feet,
So you can make things strong enough,
To take the weight,
The weight of all the people,
Who haven’t been born.
That’s what you said to me,
and it’s the envy of angels”

the Mutton Birds, ‘Envy of Angels’.