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Constructing nature

Gillian Darley dissects the semantic confusion of a new book on Landform Building and finds the lines between topography and structure increasingly blurred

This book, built upon the proceedings of a conference held at Princeton University School of Architecture in 2009, is yet another attempt to place the architectural imperative and the landscape interest alongside one another, or at least to engage in an exchange of views between the two.

The paradox at the heart of the enterprise emerges when Stan Allen, dean of Princeton’s school of architecture, points to the genesis of Landscape Urbanism more than a decade ago, as ‘a reaction to the marginalisation of landscape practice’, which came into being at the same time as Kenneth Frampton published his 1999 Megaform as Urban Landscape (his revised essay is included in the book).

By the time of the Princeton event, the landscape element seemed to have been entirely subsumed. As one participant pointed out, not a single landscape architect was present on the platform and only one speaker, Nanako Umemoto, straddled both professions. So as Allen puts it, this is ‘an alternative history of architecture understood as artificial landscape.’

For Stan Allen ‘the current appeal to nature is something hard and durable [providing no] comforting relief from urban congestion.’ The terminology in this debate can be shuffled around endlessly: Landscape Urbanism becomes Landform Urbanism becomes Landform Building. But it’s just semantics.Landform offers a lens through which buildings as diverse as 1930s terraces, 1960s mega-structures, airports of the early 2000s, and the latest crop of high-rise offices or slab-block educational institutions are viewed as part of a continuum.

David Gissen points out that the discussion has entirely hinged on ‘the architectural reconstruction of nature’. Certainly real topography and genuine ecology are outsiders, their noses pressed to the glass of an immense, enclosed room in which ‘mimetic natural form’ is represented as an intriguing, if chilling, virtual reality.

Landform Building explores the topic well beyond the confines of the original conference. It includes Tacita Dean’s Found Ice: Berlin, August 2000, in which she superimposed images of frozen, often semi-architectural, formations onto the ghostly outlines of buildings and landscape, as well as Michael Jakob’s stimulating essay on artificial mountains. He proves them to be a rich seam of phenomena, whose creation often involved a kind of cire perdueprocess, so that you can imagine the extraordinary peaks of the 19th century Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris as if emerging from an imaginary pit.

But once the theme has been established, the discussion surrounding structures concentrates on ‘density, accumulation, verticality’; semi-formal analyses taken up with silhouettes and diagonals, layering and texturing. The book has been organised to interpose discussions which, printed verbatim, do not always read smoothly or sequentially.

Blocks of themed images and case studies of buildings or urban tracts seem to paraphrase geological form, such as the massed monoliths of Giancarlo Mazzanti’s Biblioteca Espana in Medellín, Colombia, or the infinitely replicated strata of BIG’s Ørestad City housing scheme near Copenhagen. Alternatively, colonising urban wasteground or unused buildings offers opportunities that are successfully exploited in Weiss/Manfredi’s Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle and Manhattan’s High Line by James Corner Field Operations, the transatlantic child of a Parisian parent, the much earlier – here uncited – Promenade Plantée.

The most revisionist schemes on these pages are in Southeast Asia. Assuming the limitless scale of the very landscape, or ‘territory’, Dominique Perrault’s glacial gulch for the EWHA Seoul Women’s University eschews any notion of locale whatsoever. Stan Allen’s own firm, SAA, won a competition in 2008 to design the Gwanggyo Pier Lakeside park at Suwon, also in South Korea, a gargantuan project that ‘synthesises landscape, infrastructure and architecture’.

There is little time or place for the subtle or the incremental in Landform Building, with two notable >> exceptions. One is the seductive Teshima Art Museum, a curling, open-centred, concrete leaf that appears to have fallen on to a gently sloping Japanese hillside, a project from the Office of Ryue Nishizawa.

The second is the immense and complex Rolex Learning Centre institute of technology at Lausanne by SANAA and Bollinger + Grohman where, led by Fabian Scheurer of designtoproduction, a properly collaborative process has resulted in a building whose scale and form suggest movement, interior and exterior, a kind of simulacrum of contoured parkland. In this case, an artificial landscape shades convincingly into architectural form and embodies 21st century design ambitions, rather than a jaded version of ideas long-since devalued.

Gillian Darley is the author of Vesuvius, Profile, May 2011, £16

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