ORONGO STATION NEW ZEALAND

“The motorcycle was my drawing tool”.   – Thomas Woltz

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How often does a single design firm get the opportunity to turn a 3,000-acre property into a sprawling work of integrated art, architecture, agriculture, ecological and cultural reclamation, wildlife preservation and landscape design? That’s what Thomas L. Woltz and his design team at Nelson Byrd Woltz has accomplished at Orongo Station in Poverty Bay, New Zealand. The project includes the restoration of an old homestead that was already on the site, new out buildings and utility buildings, domestic gardens, re-configured wetlands, sheep paddocks, a reforested coastline, a ceremonial bridge and citrus groves, as well as the expansion of a Maori burial ground. It’s almost too much for the imagination to take in. Rather, it grows on you slowly, as does the level of care and integration that went into the property’s evolution.

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The decade-long  project grew in incremental stages, as the client’s program expanded from a relatively small house-and-garden restoration and remodeling to a vast and self-sustaining kingdom by the sea. “The vision grew after a great deal of research we did on the ecology and historic cultures of New Zealand,” said Woltz who is handsomely dressed in vest and tie and speaks with a passion and intensity that seem uncharacteristic for his profession. He makes the work sound more like a mission than another design commission. “‘What is this place?’ we asked. There is no such thing as a blank slate.” Indeed, Orongo was conceived at such a vast scale–it is six times larger than the city-state of Monaco–and with such complexity and natural diversity that it verges on spawning its own Creation mythology.

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Environmental conservation and sustainability often remain abstract concepts in the human imagination and it becomes the job of a holistic thinker like Woltz to bring all of the parts together into a readable narrative. While his team’s research includes everything from water tables, flood cycles, native plants, wildlife habitat and migratory bird flight to cultural history–and more besides–he still sees himself as a “designer” who takes all the complexities of a site and works them together into a highly integrated expression. “We want to encourage a responsiveness to the environment through artful designs and ecological narratives that connect people to place,” says Woltz. In other words, design with a capital “D” can play an immensely important role in bringing ecological awareness to everyday life, and Woltz emphasizes that his firm’s landscapes are meant to be “composed”, not simply intended to look like natural extensions of the existing topography. Indeed, his comprehensive maps and site plans resemble abstract paintings with swirling forms and colors, and in this project he cites the lyrical work of Ricardo Burle Marx, the great Brazilian landscape designer who was also an accomplished painter. “Modernist design sensibilities and rigorous geometry form a frame for place-making and restoration ecology at small and large landscape scales,” says Woltz.
Invasive animals such as rats, stotes, weasels, and Australian possum, had gotten out of control and were eating the eggs of the migratory birds, and driving them away from the property. An 87-acre tract on the northern peninsula, called the Tuatara Preserve, was re-forested with 45,000 trees and turned into a predator-proof enclosure, protected with high fencing from cliff-face to cliff-face, stretching across the entire peninsula.

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Steve Sawyer, a locally-based conservation biologist, made recordings of the endangered birds and created a solar-powered CD player and speaker system that plays their songs twice a day and lures the birds onto the preserve. “The birds circle around, attracted by the familiar calls,” explained Woltz. “Now there’s a massive population of sooty petrels, fluttering shearwaters and gannets who fly in to lay their eggs without fear of being attacked.” Existing wetlands ran through a valley near the head of the Tuatara Peninsula. They had been drained by a previous owner and during the wet season, the property turned into a muddy mire that made it an unhealthy place for grazing. “Why not dam it up and excavate a complex wetlands composition,” suggested Woltz who consulted with local conservation biologist Sandy Bull and created a weaving pattern of pathways, polders, islands, ponds and waterways to control the problem of seasonal flooding. S-curving earthen dams separate fresh-water treatment ponds from salt-water inlets to create greater diversity of habitats for both plant and animal species, as well as creating a bucolic landscape for animal grazing and human pleasure.

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The shape and size of the islands and waterways, the slope of the banks, the width of the channels, were all determined by wildlife needs and other considerations. “One bird species, for instance, needed a minimum of 1.6 hectares, so we made one of the islands exactly that size,” said Woltz. In other cases, a shallow slope was needed for foraging, while a steeper slope provided a certain species with a lookout for predators. “These are all measurable factors,” explained Woltz. “Then we could start composing a 75-acre painting.”

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He began to compose this 75-acre “painting” by riding a motorcycle through the tall grasses, making long and winding curvatures, and leaving the desired track in the grass. “The motorcycle was my drawing tool”. An excavator followed behind and started to shape the paths, dams and islands that took more than a year to build up into their final forms. A system of weirs can be lowered or raised to control the level of water. Narrow polders create separation of salt from fresh water while providing pathways and places for bird watching and the launching of kayaks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 11.00.46 AM“We were intentionally not designing a natural wetlands,” said Woltz who sees the intervention as a work of art in the service of wildlife, a way to expand the range and diversity of wildlife habitat. The wetlands area is now brimming with oyster catchers, piping plovers, blue penguins, and the nectar-eating Tui, a bird that is native to New Zealand.

As one moves south on the property from the outer point and wetlands area through grasslands and rolling hills, one becomes aware of an open but willful organizing principle: a sweeping, spiral-curve geometry has been applied throughout the 3,000-acre property, from the road that runs from the beach to the domestic gardens and the layout of citrus groves. Some of the depleted, overgrazed land has been retired and stabilized with native shrubs and trees such as Ngaio, Taupata, Karo while the working sheep station is efficiently divided into paddocks. The wilder, less-defined expanses of land appear in the periphery of the property, while the landscape becomes more structured and consciously “designed” as one nears the central area where the historic homestead stands.

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A sequence of different gardens encircle the 19th-century private homestead and are, according to Woltz, a “portrait of the entire property, a microcosm of the greater landscape.” The “Earthworks Garden” has a spiraling bed of low, rounded Hebe, a native New Zealand shrub, and gently sloping mounds that pay homage to the ceremonial earthworks of the Maori people. “We had contact with Maori elders about the layout of this garden,” said Woltz. For the “Endeavour Garden”, Breck Gastinger, a Woltz associate, visited the Royal Horticultural Society in London to learn what kinds of plants English botanist Joseph Banks sent back from New Zealand aboard Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769. “We got that plant list and made a perennial garden from it,” said Woltz.

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The “Timber Garden” is planted with key species from the New Zealand lumber industry including Rimu, Totara, Kahiicatia and Sequoia that settlers first brought from North America, and the “Homestead Garden” is made up of both native and English plants that early settlers wrote about in their letters back to Great Britain. Right next to the house itself, Woltz added a 100-foot-long pool surrounded by native New Zealand tree ferns that droop down over the water and provide shade.

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The 183-foot-long Maraetaha Bridge was designed by NBW and built to connect the original Orongo Station property to a neighboring farm that was subsequently purchased by the client. The free-span, steel-truss bridge crosses the curving Maraetaha River and creates a kind of ceremonial entry to the heart of a highly composed landscape of citrus groves that have been laid out in a series of geometric configurations. “We listened to the needs of the citrus farmers–the turning radius of their trucks, for instance–and gave the grove an artful form,” says Woltz.

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cemeteryaxon_master_med The citrus trees themselves are protected from ocean winds and salt spray by a “shelter belt” of sheared alder trees that have been clipped into 34-foot-high hedges. A long, central allée is lined with native Kowhai trees that bloom with bright yellow flowers in Spring.  As if that weren’t enough, Woltz also collaborated with Maori elders on an expansion of the 300-year-old Ngai Tamanuhiri (a Maori people) burial ground that lies to the south of the grove. “It was a tremendous honor for our design team to help shape their most hallowed ground,” says Woltz. The bridge, roadway and allée are all oriented in alignment with the burial mound.

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Woltz expresses humility and hesitates to claim full authorship of such an all-encompassing enterprise that includes formal gardens, wetland reclamation, ecological and cultural reclamation programs, as well as an integrated farming system that has become a model for sustainable land management in this part of New Zealand. NBW, led by Woltz, has recently been hired to design a 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park in Auckland. The park includes a large working sheep and cattle farm and stands adjacent to the sacred Maori site One Tree Hill, the largest of Aukland’s nine volcanic cones. “This has all been a colossal collaboration with so many different people–biologists, horticulturists, historians, farmers, wildlife experts, and indigenous peoples,” says Woltz. But he also acknowledges that it takes a single person’s eye, a single overarching vision, to pull all of the disparate parts together and turn them into such a seamless work of environmental art. “The designed landscape can become a powerful tool for telling stories of the land as it helps to promote stewardship long into the future,” he says.

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A version of this story appeared in Design Anthology (Hong Kong) , May 2014

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MIDNIGHT EXPRESS: Istanbul Biennial

Overnight to Istanbul.

Leave Miami in morning, transfer through JFK to this sprawling city’s 12th Biennial, a glass bubble floating in a taffy blob.

Annoyed taxi driver leaves me off in empty lot where phalanx of police stand around concrete blockhouse. Paranoia Alert #1: no one in “real” Istanbul seems to know where this event is being held, much less cares about another gathering of global art junkies. An attendant with black boots tells me to go 500 meters back so I walk a narrow, ominous alleyway that feels like prison gauntlet in Midnight Express, then through maze of chain-link fencing to incongruous sight of a red carpet leading through metal detectors to a plaza and two orange warehouses on water’s edge–Antrepo 3 and Antrepo 5–site of this year’s Biennial. To shrink scale in such a metaphysical landscape, a giant white cruise ship looms up from its berth and blocks view of Bosphorus.

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The title of the exposition understates it all. “Untitled, 2011.” That’s it. The five-part organization is based self-consciously on the work of Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. 1:“Untitled” (Abstraction,) 2: “Untitled” (Ross,) 3: “Untitled” (Passport,) 4:  “Untitled” (History,) 5: “Untitled” (Death by Gun.) All share the same zero-sum title with bare parenthetical addenda that suggest a kind of Facebook vagueness without being fully committed to a single overarching idea. (I guess you can go blame Gonzalez-Torres if you don’t like the results.) The curators explain that the exhibition is untitled because “‘meaning’ is always shifting in time and space,” which seems dangerously naïve–really?–and as with all contemporary art fairs, there’s a premium on overstating the obvious. But there are also many beautiful works.

A grandmother’s shredded fabrics are repurposed by Romanian artist Geta Bratescu; 35mm slides of unknown families are displayed as artifacts by Vesna Pavlovic; there’s a kind of crude needlepoint by mono-named Leonilson and highly neurotic internal mappings by Simon Evans. Marwa Arsanios is obsessed with a 60s modernist beach pavilion in Beirut shaped like a flying saucer. Carlos Herrera makes vulva shaped self-portraits of his own death from sneakers, baseballs, deflated footballs strapped together with fruit-packing tape, while Bisan Abu-Eisheh gathers detritus from demolished houses in Jerusalem–stained documents, old shoes, shards of masonry, toys, clothing, etc.–and displays them in glass cases, tragically, as if luxury goods.

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“We’re not interested at all in the spectacular,” says Adriano Pedrosa, co-curator while sitting, chatting with me in a back corner of Antrepo 5, a place that has all the ambience of an interrogation cell–“antrepo” simply means warehouse in Turkish–but it’s in keeping with general mood. There are no celebrity moments, no Koons or Wei Wei ego ejaculations. Subtle, almost too restrained, many of the 500-plus works seem fractured and displaced, appropriated or recycled artifacts, “archive art,” multi-cultural mementos, ephemera, pre-digital printed matter displayed as fetishistic tableau, letters, magazines, old vinyl recordings of political figures, cuttings, clippings, tiny pencil and watercolor renderings on pulpy faded paper, as if the 20th century and it’s printed matter were already a lost civilization.

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Words have been stripped of meaning, isolated from the text or narrative stream, words as ethereal flecks and pricks, word-encrusted objects imbuing themselves with extraneous meaning, worry beads wrapped with words (Smryn Gill,) words on crossed-out, censored documents (Glenn Ligon,) cancelled passports, title pages of antique books altered with lyrical imagery (Adrian Villar Rojas,) identity papers of sadly forgotten souls (Baha Boukari.) Larger-scale billboards by Mark Bradford have shredded, layered lettering that refer to a serial killer in South Central L.A.  Partially erased texts by Søren Thilo Funder have selected words–gun, shotgun, pistol–drifting across the page like orphaned nouns and seem particularly poignant considering the censorship of the current regime. While this Biennial sets out to explore the “rich relationship between art and politics,” the unmentioned elephant in the room is the fact that Turkey has more journalists and writers in prison than any other country in the world–twice the number being held in China or Iran. (Both Bayram Namaz and Ibrahim Çiçek of the Atilim newspaper, for instance, face up to 3,000 years in prison.)  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to look at any more art after hearing this statistic.

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“We wanted to slow the pace of the visit because people are used to rushing through,” says curator Pedrosa who explains that this is the first Biennale to be held in a single location and not scattered throughout the traffic-strangled city of 14 million. Installation design is by über-minimalist Ryue Nishizawa (architect of New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York) and plays a similarly parenthetical role by being there but not really there. Corrugated metal decking  creates a maze of scaled-down galleries in the same industrial feeling as the warehouses themselves. The corrugated sheds amplify tones of lost identity, missed connections, isolation and deportation that are woven throughout the exhibition. Walls appear to be self-supporting but are penetrated here and there by small entry points with ragged, unfinished edges. (At 6-foot-4, I barely fit through without scraping the top of my skull.) Nishizawa left interstitial voids between galleries as if wanting to deny or extract narrative from the convention of contiguous architectural volumes. The warren of passageways–shadowy, narrow and slightly intimidating–is more telling than the primary exhibition spaces. It’s what usually gets left out or forgotten within the memory of a place. It’s also what stays with you when you’re back on the polluted streets of the Karaköy district.

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Weary of contemporary, I cross Bosphorus to Hagia Sofia and to stare at the great dome and imagine purely Byzantium space before Muslim hybridization.

Great Dome, Hagia Sophia

Looking up, straining neck to make out 6th-century mosaics of Christ and Mary, only produces a kind of reverse vertigo. There’s no foreground reference to provide scale so perception swims in retinal flecks and dust particles. I feel flattened and pressed and have to gaze at cracked tiled floor to recalibrate optic nerves.

Yerebatan Sarayi: Basilica Cistern

Discover a different form of spatial flux, subterranean, in nearby Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern or Sunken Palace”) where slippery marble steps lead down to forest of columns and elevated walkways that cross vast but shallow waters–about two or three feet deep–built in 6th century during reign of Emperor Justinian. Reflections of columns in water reinforce illusion of infinite repetition in spectral orange glow while some hybridized genus of albino carp swim in confused circles and never see sunlight.

Back to my room for shower on top floor of hotel built for Orient Express passengers in 1889, final stop on direct line between Paris and Constantinople, by Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers and his Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. (The trip took 67 hours from Paris.) Hemingway stayed here, so did Pierre Lotte, Greta Garbo, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, who took corner room on second floor whenever he was in town. The hotel was a wreck for years but they finished restoration two years ago, including a ceiling with tulip-shaped skylights that bathe the big tea room with subaqueous glow.

 Kubbeli ceiling restored, Pera Palace

Ataturk room is now locked as a kind of museum but they let me in to see his toothbrush with blackened bristles, driving goggles, black shoes for his surprisingly tiny feet and rumpled linen suit in a vitrine, just like one of the ephemera cases at the Biennial.

Paranoia Alert #2: Istanbul is a modern city, but it’s also an ancient place of a million contradictions and a mob of young riot police–oddly attractive as if models for some J. Crew catalogue called “Rendition Fashion”–pour out of armored vans on Istiklal Street, near the foreign embassies, brandishing machine guns.  I take photo with my Blackberry and go to ask them questions but hesitate, remembering prison scene in Midnight Express, just as ocean swimming is forever ruined by Jaws. Later I learn that the police came to quell demonstrations against the visiting Israeli soccer team.

Kept awake till 3 AM by 1980s disco beat from across street then woken by 5AM call to prayers through crackling minaret loudspeakers.

Next morning at breakfast, a Turkish poet describes irony of Victoria’s Secret opening its first store in Istanbul while sixty-eight journalists sit in prison under bogus anti-terror laws. (Thirty-six more are being prosecuted.) You can now buy a “Sexy Things”® burka but you can’t criticize the government for fear of                                                      detention.

I dedicate this, my own  Biennial installation, to Turkish colleagues in prison:

1. Abdulcabbar Karadağ, Azadiya Welat Newspaper’s representative in Mers

2. Ahmet Akyol, DİHA, Reporter in Adana

3. Ahmet Birsin, Diyarbakır Gün TV, Chief Broadcast Coordinator

4. Ahmet Şık, freelance Journalist
5. Ali Buluş, DİHA, Reporter for Mersin
6. Ali Çat, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker in Mersin
7. Ali Konar, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Elazığ Representative
8. Baha Okar, Bilim ve Gelecek Magazine, Editor
9. Barış Açıkel, İşçi-Köylü Newspaper, Owner and Editor in Chief
10. Barış Pehlivan, Odatv, Execytive Editor
11. Barış Terkoğlu, Odatv, News Desk Manager
12. Bayram Namaz , Columnist of Atılım Newspaper
13. Bayram Parlak, Mersin representative of Gündem Newspaper
14. Bedri Adanır, Owner of Aram Print house and Chief Editor of Hawar Newspaper published in Kurdish
15. Behdin Tunç, DİHA, Şırnak Reporter
16. Berna Yılmaz, Yürüyüş Magazine, Dealer
17. Cihan Gün, Yürüyüş Magazine, Worker
18. Coşkun Musluk, Author
19. Deniz Yıldırım, Executive Editor of Aydınlık
20. Dılşa Ercan, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker
21. Dilek Keskin, Atılım Newspaper Istanbul Reporter
22. Doğan Yurdakul, Odatv,
23. Emine Altınkaya, DİHA, Ankara Reporter
24. Ensar Tunca, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Iğdır Reporter
25. Erdal Süsem, Eylül Hapishane Kültür Sanat Magazine, Editor
26. Erdoğan Altan, DİHA, Reporter (Batman)
27. Erol Zavar, Owner and Chief Editor of Odak Magazine
28. Faysal Tunç, DİHA, Şırnak Reporter
29. Fazıl Duygun, Yeni Nizam and Baran Magazines, Author/Columnist
30. Füsun Erdoğan, Özgür Radio Executive Editor of broadcast
31. Hakan Soytemiz, RED Magazine, Columnist
32. Halit Güdenoğlu, Owner and Chief editor of Yürüyüş Magazine
33. Hamdiye Çiftçi, DİHA, Hakkâri Reporter
34. Hasan Aksoy, Yürüyüş Magazine, Dealer
35. Hasan Coşar, Atılım Newspaper, Columnist
36. Hatice Duman, Owner and chief Editor of Atılım Newspaper
37. Hayri Bal, Özgür Halk Magazine, Worker
38. Hıdır Gürz, Halkın Günlüğü Newspaper, Editor in Chief
39. Hikmet Çiçek, Aydınlık Magazine, Ankara Representative
40. İbrahim Çiçek, Executive editor of Atılım Newspaper
41. İhsan Silmiş, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker
42. Kaan Ünsal, Yürüyüş Magazine, Worker
43. Kadri Kaya, DİHA, Diyarbakır region Office representative
44. Kenan Karavil, Radio Dünya (Adana) Chief Broadcast Editor
45. Mahmut Güleycan, Özgür Halk Magazine Worker
46. Mehmet Karaaslan, Dicle News Agency (DİHA), Mersin Reporter
47. Mehmet Yeşiltepe, Devrimci Hareket Magazine, Worker
48. Musa Kurt, Kamu Emekçileri Cephesi Magazine, Executive Editor
49. Mustafa Balbay, Cumhuriyet Newspaper, Ankara Representative, Author/Columnist
50. Mustafa Gök, Ekmek ve Adalet Magazine, Ankara Representative
51. Müyesser Yıldız, Odatv,
52. Nedim Şener, Millet Newspaper, Reporter
53. Nuri Yeşil, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker (Tunceli)
54. Ozan Kılınç, former Chief editor of Azadiya Welat Newspaper
55. Prof. Dr. Mehmet Haberal, Kanal B Television,Chairperson of Board of Directors/ Rector of Başkent University
56. Sait Çakır, Odatv, Columnist
57. Sedat Şenoğlu, Atılım Newspaper, Publication Coordinator
58. Seyithan Akyüz, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Adana Representative
59. Sinan Aygül, DİHA, Bitlis Reporter
60. Soner Yalçın, Odatv, Owner /Journalist
61. Suzan Zengin, İşçi-Köylü Newspaper, Worker (Kartal Office)
62. Şafak Gümüşsoy, former Editor in Chief of Mücadele Birliği Magazine
63. Şahin Baydağı, Azadiya Welat, Dealer
64. Şeyhmus Bilgin, Günlük ve Azadiya Welat, Worker
65. Tuncay Özkan, OPwner of Kanal Biz Television, Journalist
66. Vedat Kurşun, former Editor in chief of Azadiya Welat Newspaper
67. Yalçın Küçük, Author/Journaslit
68. Ziya Ulusoy, Atılım Newspaper, columnist