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Plant hybrid

With projects in France and Norway, Duncan Lewis is exploring new relationships between the man-made and the natural, morphing the physical elements of the sites into his designs

Recent success for British design and construction in France has tended to come in the form of engineering projects, notably RFR's bridge building. Projects of a purely architectural nature are less common, while landscape design is the rarest of British exports.

France's own domestic scene in landscape architecture is competitive and progressive, now seeing the benefits of an expansion of the education base in the subject, including the opening of a doctoral course at the School of Architecture of ParisLa Villette. Indeed, the French have been exporting their visions for structured landscapes to the UK. Groupe Signes collaborated with Patel Taylor and Arup on the new Thames Barrier Park, while longterm plantation strategies for the Greenwich Peninsula have been conceived by Desvigne and Dalnoky.

It would be false to suggest that the work of Duncan Lewis represents a shift in the direction of flow. Based now in the Loire Valley at Angers with his associate Herve Potin, he is more part of the French scene than the British. The rapid development of his career, though, represents something much more interesting than the issue of French or British ascendancy: the emergence of subtle cross-cultural dialogues that have the capacity to expand globally.

Lewis comes from Wallsend and studied design at the Royal College of Art. That thorough initiation in systems design is pivotal, one senses, to the way in which he combines architecture and landscape. But what has undoubtedly pushed Lewis and Potin to the forefront of the debate on landscape architecture in France is a highly seductive visual language, that has taken the capacities of computer-generated art work into new realms. The practice's current project list is cosmopolitan and constantly growing, with schemes in Norway, Korea and Spain, as well as major commissions in the local regions of the Loire.

Lewis' practice has little in the way of precedents in recent British landscape architecture. One would have to return to the eighteenth century and such eccentric schemes as Thomas Sandby's 'Hermitage House made of Roots' to find a comparable vision of vegetal structures. However, similar concerns to Lewis' analogous play between the man-made and the natural can be found in the use of landscape by twentieth century British artists. The work of Andy Goldsworthy is an obvious point of reference, but also relevant is the earlier movement of landscape painters, such as Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and, later, Keith Vaughan. They have in common the wish for a more fundamental relation to nature, the desire to recompense for the psychic deficit caused by man's constant removal from the environment.

Paul Nash wrote in 1935: 'The hard cold stone, the rasping grass, the intricate architecture of trees and waves, or the brittle sculpture of a dead leaf - I cannot translate altogether beyond their own image, without suffering in spirit.' Likewise, Lewis generally opposes abstract relations. He talks of a fundamental 'human factor' at the basis of his work and the value of a naive or primitive response to the natural site - 'one must find an initial posture in the manner of an animal'.

The early phases of his relationship with a site involves a process of collecting - gathering evidence as to the fundamental nature of that site from mineral and foliage samples. Photography is also an important means of lifting and ordering information, and feeds directly into the cut, paste and, increasingly, the 'morphing' process of the computer-generated imagery. His collaboration with Potin initially formed around a common interest in the use of aerial photography.As Lewis explains, the aerial view not only reveals forms within the site that would be invisible to the eye at ground level, it also explodes conventional relationships of scale.

An analogous play is created between the totality and the fragment.

For a village of rural gites at Jupilles, in the oak forests of the Sarthe region, Lewis effectively carried out a cut-and-paste manoeuvre on an architectural scale. Rudimentary concrete and wood-batten shells have been enveloped in transplanted sections of woodland. The leafy screens provide a degree of thermal inertia and heat emanating from the buildings has created something of a void into which foliage is reluctant to grow.

These copses are comprised primarily of deciduous trees, such as cherries, maples and acacias. Among the more elegant woodland species are also evergreen forms with more banal connotations, such as white cedar (thuja). These are often associated with 'pavilion' developments - off-the-peg suburban and rural detached villa residences, which the site might well have been subjected to. They help retain density for the screen during winter, but they could also be seen as a rhetorical, aesthetic ploy, an element of irony amid the seemingly effortless assemblage of high design.

The concept for the arbour-gites is both a fusion of the functional and the decorative, and a cultural synthesis of Eastern and Western landscaping practices. Lewis has referenced both traditional hedge-lined farm buildings that he saw in Pacific-coast Japan and a vegetal tunnel in the grounds of a castle in Perigueux. The gold-coloured metal fencing, used to demarcate the limits of each plot, seems surplus to requirements, given the precedents cited. The effect is reminiscent of cheap perimeter fencing for a garden tennis court. But that too could be explained in terms of irony; an ambivalent gesture - 'camp', even.

For the interiors, Lewis revived and evolved the photo mural by covering sections in a wallpaper of negative images of tree trunks and branches taken in the nearby forest. It would be going too far to suggest that this collapses the distinction between interior and exterior, but it does provoke an active engagement with that limit, encouraging the user to jettison the more defined demarcations of public and private space encountered in the urban environment.

The exposed concrete in the interior of the gites also bears the negative impression of the forest through the transferred grain of its wooden mouldings - 'the Savigny forest is petrified in concrete', as Lewis puts it. So, just as we have witnessed deforestation on London's South Bank, with the demolition of the elevated, concrete pedestrian platforms in front of the Royal Festival Hall, pastoral concrete returns, proving itself a hardy strain. But whereas at the South Bank the textured surface of the concrete ultimately presents us with an abstracted relationship between the industrial and the natural, at Jupilles we are given a very literal relationship between the man-made and the natural, based on immediate, site-specific relationships.

For the new district college Kvernhuset Ungdomsskole at Fredrikstad on the southern coast of Norway, which is being executed in association with Pirll Arkitektkontor, the concept of architecture as receptacle - as the negative rather than the positive - has been taken a step further. Oxides of the mineral core of the site are expected to infiltrate and colour parts of the complex, and cavities in the facades will act as 'hosts' for natural debris and colonies of plant life - ferns, mosses and lichen.

One of the key factors in the practice's success in the initial competition for Fredrikstad was the way in which the facade is proposed as a 'work surface', an interface to be used as a diverse teaching aid. This is the kind of sensitisation of architecture that characterises Lewis' general programme, towards converting passive relationships into active ones.

Some of the features of the Jupilles facade will be incorporated at Fredrikstad, such as the rough-cut wood cladding. However, the climatic conditions of the Norwegian coastal fringe have determined that that rustic layer will be reinforced by massive deposits of thermal plastic. In places, the facade will reach thicknesses of 1,200mm.

A Swedish glazing product called isoflex will be used, which includes an Englishmanufactured, semi-transparent film as one of its internal layers. The film can be coloured and will provide the means of colour-coding the different departments of the school. The drawings show luminous bands of amber, blue and green, like veins of trapped mineral essences. Moulded and textured plastic forms, in transparent PVC, will invest sections of the facade with a sense of organic mimicry and the same materials and techniques will also form interior storage pods.

Lewis' active encouragement, control and diversion of the processes by which nature reclaims architecture is leading to the realisation, in built form, of aesthetic equations that were previously confined to the book and to the imagination. The kind of vegetal/architectural synthesis figured in Lewis' drawings for Fredrikstad is nothing short of the utopian visions of the twentieth century's science fiction writers.

Notably, there is a prescient short story by JG Ballard from 1964 entitled The Illuminated Man. It describes the spread of a vegetal disease that converts plant matter to an iridescent crystal substance: 'Everything appeared to have been dipped in a vat of molten glass, which had then set into a skin fractured by slender veins.'

Lewis is adamant that this return to proximity with nature is not a return to the holistic ecological attitudes of the 1960s.

Rather than placing faith in any general doctrine of humanity's role in nature, he is more likely to compare his practice to that of archaeology or geology; that is, with disciplines that deal in the immediate material relations of the specific site.

At Fredrikstad, the project has started with a robust excavation programme that in itself marks a difference with the type of land management usually associated with ecological theory. This consists of a selfcontained, reciprocal quarrying and construction process, whereby large sections of a granite intrusion in the site have been removed to provide both space for the 8,500m 2complex and its building material.

The rock is being fragmented with controlled explosives, using angled blasting techniques that enable the granite to be severed in usable, tectonic slabs. The scheme will then convert the resultant cave spaces to receptacles for part of the complex. The neo-troglodyte has arrived.

The school will be divided into three main articulations, extending out from the granite core. These will be linked by a single circulatory corridor or 'canyon', as Lewis calls it. This man-made matrix for construction he formulates as 'an artificial topography upon a host landscape'. It will follow the natural contours of the site and be pierced with skylights, which will allow light penetrating through the forest canopy on the surface to continue down into the subterranean depths.

Taken at face value, the initial phase of site clearing at Fredrikstad seems to assert the precedence of design over natural order.

However, the process that the quarrying phase initiates is intended to establish a new order of relationship between the built and the natural. The often unacknowledged efforts involved in adjusting a site to the 'ground zero' requirements of construction have become, in Lewis' practice, integral to the concept of the final building.

One could well imagine how the 'artificial topographies' of Lewis and Potin might contain the possibility for a shift in the psychology of the subject - the user - of architecture. By challenging the limits between architecture and nature, the limits between the body and its surroundings are also questioned. In this respect, Lewis goes as far as to say that he is attempting to break the traditional, hierarchical distinctions between the figure and its context, but this seems anchored in concerns of representation rather than addressing implications for everyday life.

As the practice's projects have diversified to include not just zones for temporary exposure to nature (the garden) but permanent-dweller projects, such issues will inevitably arise. The transition from Jupilles to Fredrikstad will be a major test for Lewis' vision, in that the new project will provide the environment for lives in formation - the school - and that the building's assimilation of natural processes, its designed quantity of instability, will take place in the extreme conditions of the Nordic dark season.

Bound up in this transition from holiday village to school are also fundamental questions about the potential for humanity to adapt to new modes of symbolic and physical ties with the natural environment. What is certain is that the students of Fredrikstad will have an entirely privileged perspective on the benefits of learning through interaction.

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