In a small apartment, the balcony is always close by. It’s great to open the window, and let the plants visit indoors.
Still more indoor plant portrait photography.
Another plant that usually lives outside in the balcony garden, decorative cabbage is great for winter color. I also like how the purple leaves and mini trunk combine with the flower design of the ceramic. In San Francisco, raccoons ate our decorative cabbage the first night we brought them home. The next day two raccoons knocked on the backdoor with a hungry look on their faces.
Another gerber hybrid. More indoor plant portrait photography.
I’d never before seen a gerber with shredded petals. Another lovely winter flower in Tokyo.
More indoor plant portrait photography.
I love how this short stemmed pink-and-white gerber is so loud. It seems super-charged with fertilizers, which seems likely since I bought it at Shimachu, a “DIY” home center in Nakano. I like the prices and the proximity, although I consider many of their plants more on the human side of the nature continuum.
In winter, it seems like some of the filler and seasonal color I bought there is lasting a long time. And I think there’s a perverse balance in combining factory-produced plants with hand-made ceramic.
More indoor plant portrait photography.
I made this strange bonsai last summer with a small bi-colored grass, tall leafy tree, and gravel. It’s fun to watch the leaves turn deep red and fall. When it’s not inside, this plant is close to the kitchen window.
More indoor plant portrait photography.
I like bromeliads, which brings color indoors easily. This one still looks good after I bought it in November. They are especially lovely in winter. The white ceramic I made at Shiho ceramic studio.
The winter sunlight is particularly good for indoor plant portrait photography.
Bonsais are the ultimate in portable and creating an entire, changing world with few elements. Part of gardening involves the overall effect of dozens or hundreds of plants. But part is also the specific plant and season.
As a balcony gardener using containers, I have many small plants that are especially portable. A single indoor plant can welcome a guest or create a mood.
This is the view from my apartment building lobby on a rainy spring day. Because of energy conservation, many lights are turned off. This increases the contrast between indoors and outdoors.
I walk through this lobby every day, and rarely think about it or consider taking a photo. Recently, I participated in the Xerox and City photo workshop at Vacant, led by Hirano Taro and organzized by Too Much magazine as part of their Romantic Geographies series. We were asked to take photos of our breakfast and then our trip to the workshop in Harajuku. It made me think more about spaces that become automatic or ignored.
Tokyo residents are more aware of energy use and lighting now. Many parts of the city are less brighly lit: from billboards to train stations to residences. By lowering our lighting, we are more attuned to natural cycles, and more sensitive to the boundaries between private and public, indoor and outdoor, personal and shared resources.
UPDATE: I posted a revised article, “Sensing Four Seasons at a Tokyo Office Building,” on Huffington Post on July 30, 2010.
Some friends and I visited Pasona’s new office last week. They are a large Japanese staffing farm that had a highly publicized basement farm in their old Otemachi headquarters. This year they moved nearby to Yaesu in their own newly built, nine story headquarters between Tokyo Station and Nihonbashi. Pasona has unveiled a much more elaborately landscaped interior and exterior.
The image above is my favorite because it highlights the interface between the futuristic farm, dependent on a variety of grow lights including LEDs, and the urban environment outside. I am certain that the indoor vegetables will give them the most attention again, but actually I believe the exterior landscaping is more inspiring and impactful.
Below is a brief tour of interior and exterior. After the photo tour, I will suggest some metrics for judging the success of this very visible corporate monument to urban nature.
Glowing all the way across the wide downtown street even in daylight, a spectacular rice paddy with dozens of strong lights occupies the main lobby entrance of the building. The entrance doors are flanked on the outside by beautiful apple trees in giant rusted steel planters.
Almost the entire first floor of the building is devoted to the spectacle of vegetables planting, growing, and ripening under powerful grow lights: rice, tomatoes, melons, corn, eggplants, herbs, and lettuce. A large cafe features wood posts hung at angles and supporting canvas bags with soil and corn. One wall has a series of metal cases with purple lights and tiny fans that have a very “next century” feel.
There is also a room with racks and racks of lettuce, and a field of giant sunflowers. And everywhere vegetables and seedlings are arranged in attractive vignettes. Elsewhere, tomatos hang from the cut-outs in the ceiling. (Click to enlarge the photos below).
What I think works are the following:
- Pasona demonstrates its commitment to bringing nature into the city by devoting so much valuable space and employing great landscapers and designers.
- Pasona packages its vision in a combination of high design and new technology that is visually stunning, unique and in many ways hopeful.
- It is interesting how the cafe and second story meeting spaces are divided and enhanced by greenery. The constant changing as plants plants grow and get replaced, and juxtaposing informal meeting spaces with living plants is a welcome change from most office interiors.
But I also have to point out where the vision falls short.
- It largely fails as a public gathering place. The giant lobby rice paddy is at once open free to the public and oddly devoid of people, except for a few curious first time visitors. The strange color, strong heat, and loud sound of the lights seems to repel people. In fact, the employees use a side entrance, and bypass the lobby. There is no sense that employees or neighbors will use most of this space, except for suited young people using the cafe and second floor meeting rooms.
- The intensity of the lighting and sheer quantity beg the question of energy expenditure. Pasona must address how sustainable this idea of indoor agriculture is, and whether they see energy production or usage changing in the future of urban farming.
- There is no sense of season or natural habitat. It is understandable that birds and wildlife are not permitted inside, but their absence makes the interior seem sterile. Why is the corn ripening in May?
While the indoor farm will generate the most attention for Pasona, I think that the exterior landscaping is more impressive and ultimately more interesting for urban habitat creation and the integration of nature with work space. Two thirds of the building front and at least one side have been carefully planted on handsome screened balconies to produce four seasons of color. Included are citrus trees, wisteria vines, Japanese maple, blueberries, and flowering vines like clematis. Although the plants are small now, it is easy to imagine the exterior becoming a unique vertical forest and colorful garden over the next years.
The exterior vertical landscaping has 200 species of plants, and many trees that lose their leaves in the winter. The idea is that the plant mass will reduce carbon emissions, summer shade will keep the building cooler, and winter bare branches will allow more direct light during the cold season. While the public is not invited to the upper floors, it appears that the exterior plants are all on balconies that are either accessible or viewable from inside the offices. Click below to see posters that explain the exterior landscape and the designers who worked on this project, and how the exterior garden appears from the sidewalk below.
I am looking forward to watching the exterior of the building grow into its potential. And I am eager to hear how the office workers feel about the outdoor plants that are so close to their interior work spaces.
I’ll end this post with a dandelion weed I spotted on the edge of the rice field. It is this type of unplanned feature that makes natural landscapes so enchanting.
Tokyo’s mild winter is amazing. All these photos of winter flowers are from yesterday, January 20, 2010. Ranging from natural to forced, outdoors to indoors, the flowers include early plum blossom along an urban path to a red tulip in a sidewalk garden, to a mini daffodil at home.
Starting a week ago, this plum tree along a walking path to Nakano JR station began opening its petals. The tree extends from a private garden into a public path. After November and December’s camellias (and my balcony pink camellia is still blooming), the winter plums suggest that there is no month in Tokyo without flowers blooming naturally. My husband saw bright green mejiro birds in the tree later that day.
I also noticed these bright red tulips in a Nakano sidewalk garden that I often pass. It’s the garden that was growing rice in styrofoam containers last year. The gardener has planted some bulbs, but she’s also added some hothouse-forced bulbs to her charming public garden. Because frost is so rare, the tulips can thrive even in mid-winter.
I also saw another neighbor cutting roses from her sidewalk garden. Pansies are also common in winter.
Lastly, inspired by all this winter color, I bought some mini-daffodils for my home. Indoors, they go from bud to bloom incredibly fast. The bright yellow cheers up the apartment and fools me into thinking that spring is not so far away.
My friend Endo Masahiro’s Sodateck has developed a combination LED and fluorescent grow light system for Japan. By combining the two light sources, Sodateck offers an optimal spectrum for plants. I like how his product catalog, in print and web, shows indoor gardening in a very contemporary setting: edibles and decorative plants in a chic wood and stone house with bicycles and other signifiers of modern style and living.
Based in Tokushima, Shikoku, he recently exhibited his indoor gardening system at the Gardex (International Garden Expo Tokyo). It was great to see the full range of what he is creating.
The systems are very elegant: brushed steel with two buttons, one for each light source type. Endo-san also brought some of his indoor plant creations, including modern bonsais like this moss on black stone tray. It seems clear that Endo-san is influenced by his friendship with modern bonsai master Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) of Sinajina (品品).
Click the link below to see some more photos of his products, including hydroponic systems with his business partner Yakumo Trading.
Several months ago Marui opened up another department store in Shinjuku san chome, along with at least three other existing ones and retail competition that includes Isetan’s flagship across the street. It is interesting that one of its defining design themes is green space. If you arrive by Tokyo Metro, you can see strips of living plant walls in the underground passageway.
At the street level, Marui created large gardens more than a meter wide along the sidewalk with trees, bushes and grasses. This provides an unexpected burst of plant life in an area otherwise paved and overflowing with signage and people.
Marui even uses low light plants in indoor merchandising. It feels like a coherent and unique brand identity extending from outside to inside the retail space. Unfortunately some of the indoor “plants” are plastic, including faux vines above the first floor selling area, but not everyone notices.
In the photo above you can see how the subway level green wall is a modular system, allowing easy replacement of plants. It’s great to see a retail company standing out by providing plants and gardens to passer-bys as well as shoppers.
I recently had the chance to meet Professor Mori Yuichi of Mebiol, an agriculture technology company in Kanagawa. This research professor at Waseda University started Mebiol in 1995 exploring first medical and then agriculture uses for hydrogels. I was intrigued by his Hymec system for indoor farming and Skygel for rooftop gardens.
Hymec looks like a plastic sheet allows for no-soil and low-soil farming, with the water and fertilizer separate from the plants roots. The roots remain dry while drawing water and nutrients from below the membrane, and oxygen from the air. Lettuce and other leaf vegetables can be grown with no soil, tomatoes with a thin layer of soil. Compared to other indoor farming techniques, Hymec uses less water, less fertilizer, less insecticides and less energy because the barrier prevents contamination from bacteria common to traditional hydroponics. Benefits include the ability to plant smaller seedlings (called “plug seedlings”), greater plant density, and more nutritious and sweeter vegetables, with tomatoes producing more Gaba and Lycopene.
I was intrigued by what Professor Mori calls “mobile farming.” In his words, “Hymec releases farming from the earth by a water-proof sheet” and allows farming in cities, factories, deserts, indoors, and even in waste incinerators. Some applications are the Kyoto Brighton Hotel, where tomators are grown on a concrete floor in a bamboo greenhouse, and a test farm in Dubai, where Hymec makes possible low-water farming with reduced air conditioning, and replaces costly and carbon-heavy vegetable imports from Europe.
Another Mebiol product is Skygel, mixed with soil and used for roof and slope planting. In this case, the hydrogel increases water retention, lowers run-off, and decreases the need for irrigation. Mixing Skygel and soil allows for a lighter load, ideal for roof gardens. The roof garden at Mebiol’s office (in top photo, with founder Professor Mori), is only 10 cm thick, and the plants can survive for up to 10 days without water in the Japanese summer heat.
Below is a diagram explaining Hymec.
My friend Bryan Wu sent me this Wired article about Patrick Blanc‘s enormous vertical gardens. The one pictured above is on the exterior of London’s Athenaeum hotel. It is eight stories tall, with 260 plant species and 12,000 plants.
What’s remarkable is that Blanc is a botanist who carefully selects plant species for climate, wind, and sun versus shade. He has worked with Herzog & de Mueron on the CaixaForum in Madrid, and installed a huge indoor wall at the Taipei concert hall. Below is his largest wall, 15,000 square feet, on the Rue d’Alsace in Paris.