On the frontier
As a student at the Saint-Luc Institute of Architecture in Brussels, the School of Landscape at Versailles, and a resident at the Villa Medici in Rome, Nicolas Gilsoul has received what one could call a classical, European education. It is no surprise, then, to know that his talents have been quickly assimilated into a well-respected European practice - Wilmotte and Associates.
But this article is about the ideas and projects Gilsoul occupies himself with outside of office hours: regular moonlighting that just happens to involve collaborations with the landscaper and botanist Gilles Clement - including designs for the garden of Jean Nouvel's Museum of Primal Arts - and a competition win for a school and parkland in Canada, which comprehensively reinterprets some of the key devices of European landscaping.
Gilsoul's residency at the Villa Medici was under the category of draughtsman and researcher, and the strength of his project art work is intrinsic to his early successes as a landscape designer. He makes elegant use of photo-based computer simulation and montage imagery, but the truly generative relationship is with traditional media, in the form of densely worked pencil-andacrylic drawings and ink sketches.
It is these which are central to Gilsoul's competition entries and project planning, with photomontage in a supplementary role. This is not a case of a reactionary refusal of technology, but points to an unusually intense link between the act of drawing and the process of design.
'The drawings need to reflect the dream-like world I find myself in when conceiving of a project, ' says Gilsoul. 'Simple marks of Chinese ink can allow me to suggest an envisaged environment that is still quite intangible.'
The manual effort involved in the drawings clearly paid off in the case of the Canadian school competition for East Clayton in British Columbia. The second and third place designs - by Claudia Illanes Barrera from Barcelona and Kamni Gill from Massachusetts - were both supported by more lavish computer simulations, complete with model children, montaged against the backdrop of simulated, vegetal utopias.
Gilsoul's main drawing for the proposed school represents, in his own words, 'a system submitted to randomness', invoking the ephemeral influences of the prevailing winds that will affect and shape the scheme.
The mosaic-like upper section depicts the grid-structure integration of modular school buildings, water basins, 'green' roofs and slices of meadow, planted with the likes of Canadian goldenrod, bachelor's button, a Canadian fleabane, and dandelion.
The lower portion, of woods, open meadow and sports ground, can be seen as a receptacle for the contents of the grid in both formal and informal patterns of 'colonisation': the movement of children between classroom and parkland for organised or spontaneous play is echoed by the movement of the seeds of the anemophilous (wind-pollinated) plants.
The form of the classroom buildings is partly in adherence to a clause in the competition rules that they be based on Erno Goldfinger's modular designs from the 1930s. Instinctively, Gilsoul is opposed to the notion of an autonomously developed 'model' architecture and saw the need to adapt the modules extensively. 'It seemed evident to me that a school in proximity to a place with the potentials of the East Clayton garden couldn't be limited to Goldfinger's closed modules, ' he says. 'In 70 years, our ways of teaching have evolved, and our ways of living and learning have changed.'
Essentially, Gilsoul proposes to make the interiors of the standard units contiguous with the surrounding environment wherever possible, both in a visual and physical sense.
The majority of the facades will be glazed; the roofs will either serve as rain catchments for the water gardens or will themselves be planted as elevated extensions of the surrounding meadow gardens.A cross-section drawing of the site also shows a raised meadow penetrating into a building, the planted platform rising to slide beneath the building's pitched roof.
The East Clayton plan is also poetically labelled: the meadow of metamorphosis, the woods of discoveries and of murmurings, etc.
These names establish thematic zones with more-or-less fluid boundaries, and are also intended as a pedagogic device: a sequence of linguistically-primed places in the immediate landscape beyond the school, which provide a series of 'scenes' for the relocation of classroom activities.
The names also contain remembrances of the Roman topographies which Gilsoul studied in great depth while at the Villa Medici. The margins of the Classical city and its representation in Italian cinema - such as in Fellini's Cinecitta - provided Gilsoul with model environments in which to observe the constant interweaving of the space of myth with the space of the everyday, and the coexistence of theatricality with the mundane.
The concept behind the wooded areas at East Clayton encompasses Gilsoul's understanding of the Roman bosco (Rome's semi-wild urban copses) as a numinous realm; knots of exotically surviving, primitive mystery. It is, in fact, in the bosco of the Villa Medici that he has made his only actual gardening intervention in the Roman environment, collaborating with Gilles Clement on a plantation scheme for the exhibition 'Le Jardin 2000' (AJ 27.7.00).
For native Romans, the bosco can take on an uncanny and sombre aspect - which suggests a certain perpetuation of pagan and ancestral superstition. In Canada, Gilsoul can draw on more of a Romantic tradition of the frontier landscape and the storytelling traditions of the camp fire - in short, the lighter passages of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.
On the point of contact between the northernmost limit of the 'woods of discovery' and the first of the anemophilous meadow plantations, Gilsoul has placed a curiously rhetorical label: 'la lisiere' (the edge). This is a complex word in French and is deeply associated with the perception of property and landscape.
The philosopher Louis Marin says: 'This term no longer signifies a route, but rather a no man's land. The lisiere is the space of a gap, but uncertain of its limits, as when a land, an estate, a forest have simply their own edge, with no other limit in front, just a wild or an undetermined place.'
Gilsoul actually applies this porous edge of the lisiere to all manner of oppositions, from the mental state between sleeping and waking - a state of reverie - to the familiar architectural opposition of interior to exterior. He also links these notions to certain Eastern philosophical systems. For him, the state of reverie is associated with the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism (an intermediate state between death and rebirth), while the paradigm for dissolving the frontiers between interior/exterior and architecture/landscape is found in the famous Zen temple complex and dry landscape gardens of Ryoan-ji, Kyo to.
Gilsoul's uninhibited mixing of cultural references has ensured that he will continue as Gilles Clement's assistant for the gardens of Nouvel's new Museum of Primal Arts, currently in the early stages of site preparation on Quai Branlay in Paris. Gilsoul's scenic gestures of comparative philosophy potentially offer that project the ideal complement to Clement's vision of a global, comparative botany (as seen in the exhibition 'Le Jardin Planetaire', AJ 13.1.00). The designs are being developed around the central theme of the tortoise, an almost universal presence in aboriginal myth, often appearing as an Atlas figure - the bearer of the world.
The central 'jetty' at East Clayton can also be seen as a hybrid concept, which combines European Renaissance and Eastern landscaping spatial orders. It is pivotal to the general strategy of making a transition in scale between the wider geological context and that of the children's environment. It is positioned to form an axial alignment with a reservoir and mountains to the north. This physical axis within the garden is meant to accentuate the visual and symbolic role of external geology, defining a horizontal plane that merges with the 'verticality' of the 'borrowed view' (that visual device of Chinese landscape).
Gilsoul uses the word 'jetty' to invoke a configuration of spatial effects rather than a specific type of structure. Jetties also appear in a number of drawings he produced while in Rome as speculative designs for the archaeological park of the Appia Antica. Some of those were to be elevated above open meadow plantations, whereas at East Clayton it is predominantly an earth-bound pathway or embankment. Gilsoul states that a water feature - the Grand Canal at Versailles - was one of the primary influences behind this concept, describing it as a 'reflective jetty'.
The basins positioned in an east-west axis in front of the modular school blocks, and on either side of the upper reaches of the jetty, clearly show Gilsoul's familiarity with the bodies of water at Versailles. The jetty takes on a more literal aspect at that point, crossing reflective frames of water in its latter stages. This concentration of water at the northern end of the plot also anticipates the reservoir in the landscape beyond, linking the system of basins to the role of water in the wider topography.
Gilsoul is proposing that we dispense with the idea of such features being simply formal objects, ornaments or obstacles, and that we understand them as a kind of interface or frontier. The jetty ultimately engages with the horizon. It is neither exclusively about movement nor vision, but about an unresolved, reciprocal play between the two, paradoxically binding the here and there - a physical trajectory for a mental journey.
Whether or not the East Clayton gardens will become reality is still to be decided.
Nonetheless, the decision of the project's international jury should at least have ramifications for the role and nature of project art work in the development of landscape.
It is not just an unexpected reaffirmation of drawing but, perhaps more importantly, it upholds a proposal which actively works the imagination. Gilsoul's winning scheme is an 'abstract' for a field of possibilities - unlike those entries which sought to bypass mental effort on the jurors' part by simulating views of a concrete future outcome. His garden is, after all, one which deals with the limits of representation: the interaction between the modular repetitions of architecture and the ephemeral events of natural systems, the play between East and West in ways of thinking and seeing.