Viewpoint (March 01, 2010)

In mid-February, I had the honour of serving as one of the jury members for the 2010 Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) Awards of Excellence. Entries addressed a wide variety of issues such as the preservation of cultural landscapes, procedures designed to improve the vitality of community gardens, and large-scale waterfront interventions. The judging criteria for this awards program involve a broad system of categories including leadership, breadth of work, innovation in design and implementation, client involvement, social awareness and relevancy within the public realm. These criteria are often marginalized in more traditional architectural awards programs that tend to favour formal design above all else. I was particularly inspired by the impressively diverse skill set of the landscape architect, evidenced by the amount of substantive research, documentation, and the complex collaborations with a diverse range of consultants and specialists. The comparative competitive strengths and weaknesses of both landscape architects and architects also became apparent.

While landscape architects are resolutely focused on thoughtful collaboration and research, architects are generally more adept at promoting the “big idea” or vision behind their work. At their best, architects deliver projects that synthesize an eclectic range of investigations encompassing technical, social, economic and aesthetic considerations. At their worst, they promote shameless rhetoric with aggressive marketing tactics.

Many of the projects reviewed contained details not immediately discernible upon first impression. Because the methodology behind a landscape architecture project is typically systems- and broad-based with respect to its impact on the built environment, the “one-line” design solution is relatively rare as compared to the design approach of some architects. Since it is a difficult challenge to make storm-water management look sexy, it is only through the careful study of sophisticated solutions like the implementation of underground cisterns, the replacement of invasive plant species, and the reconstruction of riverbeds that one can fully appreciate the merits of award-winning landscape architecture.

The contrasting design methodologies of architects and landscape architects can be seen in Vancouver, a city that carefully respects its waterfront and views of the mountains beyond. While local (and vocal) architecture pundits speak of Vancouver’s identity in terms of point towers and podiums, it is difficult to reduce the city to a handful of icons and building types. Here, as elsewhere, a landscape architect typically reads the city in a completely different way than most architects. Despite the abundant self-congratulatory discussions pertaining to the evolution of Vancouver over the past 20-plus years, more attention needs to be paid to the recent achievements of the landscape architects’ role in improving the ecological systems that contribute to the definition of Vancouver’s character: the reforestation of Stanley Park, the remediation of Coal Harbour, the management of the False Creek basin, and even efforts to bring salmon and herring back to the waters encircling the city. Two award-winning projects–the Southeast False Creek Olympic Plaza and the green roof on top of the Vancouver Convention Centre West–are prime examples of landscape architects strengthening Vancouver’s urban ecology through water-resource management, technical innovation, and even the integration of public art.

The architectural community owes much to the discourse and profession of landscape architecture in Canada. We should work to help support their visions as they continue to improve the effectiveness of our own.

Ian Chodikoff