Canadian Architect


Gaining Ground (July 01, 2005)

A review of a recent exhibit at New York's MoMA documents landscape design's increasingly dominant role in our natural and constructed environment.

July 1, 2005
by Melana Janzen

At the Landscape Regionalism symposium held at the University of Toronto earlier this year, architecture critic Kenneth Frampton asserted that while architecture in many ways has “lost its true objective” or its raison d’tre, landscape design has become increasingly relevant, seeking to explore the relation between objects rather than fetishizing the importance of the object in and of itself. For both Frampton and landscape architect James Corner, the marking of the ground has become architecture’s new primitive hut. Certainly, to mark the ground is still an originating architectural act, but its origin is not so much an essentialized moment as it is a dynamic activity of tracking “traceable provenances” in a way that is sympathetic to the myriad of natural and cultural processes that occur in time.

A recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (February 25-May 16, 2005), attests to these ideas. Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape displayed a collection of recent landscape design projects, many of which reinforce and expand claims of a paradigm of emergence within the built environment. In his curation of the exhibit, Peter Reed represented a movement that is no longer simply a reflection of culture, but an active agent of culture; a contribution to architecture that has garnered enough attention to suggest the reconsideration of the primitive hut as object, in favour of the marked ground as connective trace.

The paradigm seems to be growing (literally and metaphorically) out of the post-industrial advanced capitalist environment. It is occurring within the landscape of the once prosperous industrial cities and landscapes–and at its most extreme, within wastelands rendered impotent by industrial processes: abandoned mines, landfills, former gas works and old shipping ports. Beyond the physical challenge of recovering a damaged environment lies the cultural task of recovering the distance between nature and city, as well as recovering the local specificity and collective life within a new economy which–while remaining resource-dependent–is shaped by a global service and entertainment industry. Resulting from the above mentioned phenomenon are a surge of design explorations which Reed categorized under the themes “Designing the Urban Stage,” “Simulations of Nature and New Topographies,” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.” These categories deal respectively with issues of biological succession, the melding of synthetic and natural constructs, and the social formation of public space.

Under the theme “Designing the Urban Stage,” the Schouwburgplein (Theatre Square) in Rotterdam by Adriaan Geuze and West 8 is an urban plaza providing space for “unprogrammed use.” Sited in front of a theatre, multiplex cinema and concert hall, a place which urges appropriation and performance is sought–a public space derived from the action of the user on the open plaza over any program-specific amenity. Given this social agenda, there is an ironic character to the gigantic coin-activated mechanical arms which are “planted” in the middle of the square. Although they provide the square with a sense of monumentality, they are singular in the action available to the participant. They seem more a part of the world of one-liner commercial spectatorship than the self-created world of the space-defining performer.

The Schouwburgplein also falls under the category of “Simulations of Nature and New Topographies.” A surface palette of metal grating (which allows light from below), rubber (which absorbs solar heat for comfort in the shoulder seasons), and an epoxy slab embedded with silver leaves, challenges traditional categories of landscape and urban square. Geuze’s project forms a synthetic “ground” in a manner similar to Shanghai Carpet by Tom Leader Studio and Michael Duncan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Both projects cap parking below and use materials that speak to the history of the place. While the industrial materials of Schouwburgplein reference Rotterdam’s shipping history, the recycled stone, brick, and timber of Shanghai Carpet, supplemented by plantings of fern, moss, bamboo and vines, evoke the history of old Shanghai and China’s Yellow River Gorge.

These projects are part of a trend to submerge the ills of the city (automobile emissions, parking fields, commercial excess, waste treatment) below a constructed surface. It raises important questions about whether we truly are moving toward a notion of the synthesis between nature and city, or whether we are just creating spaces that wear the mask of the “natural.” For example, the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle (Weiss/Manfredi) zigzags over four lanes of traffic, traverses a railway, and uses synthetic nature to merge with the city 40 feet down to the water, and Keyaki Plaza in Saitama City, Japan (Peter Walker) forms the fifth faade of the commercial centre below. In an effort to resolve the divergence between the massive infrastructures that underpin our urban centres and the “natural” settings that offer a palliative respite from urbanism, the Northeast Coastal Park by Abalos & Herreros integrates a Barcelona waste treatment facility with a new waterfront park. While shielded below grassy berms, palm trees, and a mosaic-covered esplanade, the urban by-product is now present within the social space of the city, contributing to the multifunctionality of its citizens’ property. All of these projects are valuable on a pragmatic level, combatting the urban heat sink and reducing surface runoff; at the same time, they struggle with the notion that we and the environments we construct are separate from nature.

Less conceptually questionable are the ecologically innovative works by Michel Desvigne of Desvigne & Dalnoky (Gavonne Riverfront Master Plan and Greenwich Peninsula), Peter Latz of Latz and Partner (Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park), George Hargreaves of Hargreaves Associates (Crissy Field), and James Corner of Field Operations (Fresh Kills Lifescape). All of these projects aim to remediate obsolete or degraded sites through biological succession, and fall under the final theme “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Of all the projects in Groundswell, they are perhaps most in tune with the post-industrial/emergent paradigm suggested earlier. Beyond the rich experiential landscapes that will eventually develop from these proposals is an interest in process–as both a design methodology and a living ecological and social landscape evolving in time.

Central to Desvigne’s design for Greenwich Peninsula in London’s East End is the natural process of species maturation and succession. The site was once home to a large gas works company, and with much of the polluted soil having been removed, the site could not be more vacant. With virtually no indication of a past story to derive inspiration, Desvigne sets up the conditions which will allow nature to colonize the area. The scheme is simple but effective: rather than loading the site with programmed activity, he proposes a grid of trees which will grow, be thinned out and, in a mature stage, colonize the site, thus forming its character through a natural response.

The work of Field Operations utilizes this idea of process in terms of their design methodology. Mapping and diagramming various layers of program in time (from vegetation and circulation, to drainage and recreation areas) they work to create the conditions for happenstance, diminishing traditional divisions between program and contributing to a more open-ended and inclusive strategy of interaction. In his essay “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” (part of the larger seminal collection of essays he edited entitled Recovering Landscape), Corner describes this process of composite montage as being “liberated from representation,” “affiliative and productive” and “aimed not toward limitation and control but toward emancipation [and] heterogeneity.” Fresh Kills Lifescape, the winning proposal for the former landfill on Staten Island, NY, explores the evolution of a site from the dumping of
garbage (the cause of the site’s degradation), to strip-farming which begins to restore the nutrients and build up the soil conditions, to a progressively more diverse ecosystem–a “mature biomatrix.” Within the 2,200-acre site, recreational circuits, wildlife corridors, marshlands, and forests intermingle to form a synthesis of “natural” and social production as 53 years of waste continues to decompose.

So is there anything useful in Groundswell for the Canadian context? Of the 23 projects highlighted, five were American, and there was one each from Lebanon, China and Japan, while the remainder were European. The fact that there was not a single project or landscape architect from Canada represented in the exhibit gives cause for reflection. With our resource-rich, culturally formative landscape, where is our voice in the discourse of landscape design? Was the omission of Canadian work an oversight? Certainly Parc Downsview Park (by Bruce Mau Design in collaboration with PMA Landscape Architects, Oleson Worland Architects and SNC Lavalin Engineers), the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Site in Toronto by architectsAlliance, or the Angus rail yards in Montreal’s east end by difica would have fit well within the exhibition’s mandate. Does the exhibition’s neglect of Canadian design then suggest that our landscape architecture lacks internationally innovative and critical thought? The rich complexity of Brown and Storey’s Garrison Creek proposal in Toronto suggests otherwise. We might fault a lack of public interest or insufficient government support, but a survey of the harbour and riverfront developments across the country (The Halifax Waterfront Restoration Development, Le Vieux Port de Montral, Toronto’s Harbourfront, The Forks in Winnipeg, False Creek/Granville Island in Vancouver, Selkirk Waterfront Development in Victoria, to name a few) exhibit moments of success, yet reveal sites littered with sentimental historicism and commercially driven program. The still dominant scenographic approach to landscape tends to objectify the landscape rather than facilitate an open-ended and emergent landscape that works to couple the division between the cultural and “natural” aspects of site. One could argue that these developments are more eager to reflect on the picture than to imagine an open-ended future.

With the announcement of another urban landscape competition in Toronto (Nathan Phillips Square), not to mention the continued development of a variety of landscapes across Canada (Saskatoon’s current River Landing initiative, Calgary’s former General Hospital site, Quebec City’s riverfront development, among others), it is a critical time to continue to push up against social, political and cultural limitations, to learn from successful projects abroad, and to create new urban stages, new synaesthetic topographies, and new natures.

For more information on Groundswell, please visit 2005/groundswell/gs.html

Melana Janzen lives, works and researches in Toronto.

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