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Two of them tell what happened

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Common ground on campus Landscape and architecture students at Sheffield University have just shared a lecture series.

In the studio-based education of an architectural school, students have little chance to engage in theoretical or philosophical discourse with anyone other than their peers and design tutors. But exposure to alternative theories and ideas from practice and academia, and from other disciplines, can bring a deeper understanding of architecture and its relationship with society. For the last four years the school of architecture at the University of Sheffield has tried to encourage just such a dialogue through a weekly afternoon 'open forum' lecture, accessible to undergraduates, diploma students, researchers, staff and the general public.

Co-ordinated jointly by Peter Blundell Jones, professor of architecture, and Jan Woudstra, lecturer in the department of landscape, the most recent lecture series crossed disciplinary boundaries. Entitled 'Architecture, Landscape and Society', it aimed to define the relationship between landscapes and the buildings found in them, and to question the preconceived stereotypes of perceived professional roles.

The issue of what constitutes 'landscape' was a recurrent theme, and visiting speakers each placed their own meaning on the series' title. While landscape was discussed predominantly as a synthesis of society, history and geography, more abstracted viewpoints generated 'landscapes' of contemporary business practice, design philosophy and musical expression: for instance, Richard Frewer, head of the school of architecture at Bath, explored 'Music and the Historic Garden'. Juxtaposing the architecture of Schinkel and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, even giving his own live performance of some Schubert lieder, he traced the Romantic appropriation of landscape as a metaphor for the emotions.

Nature and artifice

In a discussion of Dutch landscape, Ger Parlevliet, reader at the University of Wageningen, exposed a fundamental misconception of many debates on the nature of landscape - the idea of a dichotomy between nature and artifice, reflected respectively in rural and urban settings. As a man-made environment supporting a complex agrarian and drainage network, the Netherlands landscape is complete artifice composed with natural elements.

Comparing this with Britain, the question arises: what is a natural landscape? The media-perpetuated myth that the English landscape, and more specifically the countryside, is a product of nature alone, was exploded by the landscape historian Christopher Taylor, who charted the physical residues of historic settlements barely discernible on the ground, yet visible from the air and recognisable once the forms are understood. In designing or even in judging interventions within the landscape, it is first necessary to understand the development of a site over time. This requires a level of observation that goes beyond the immediately visual and doesn't just rely upon historical stereotypes.

As University of Sheffield archaeologist Mark Edmonds demonstrated, the landscape is a record of all human activity. Specific ancient locations were subject to a continual cycle of use and re-use by successive generations, charting the ritualised development of their societies. Even in the case of Stonehenge, the site can be shown to have been altered over time, and Edmonds points out that there is no reason to assume that its meaning or significance remained constant during its 1500 years of use. Such sites typify a mode of growth based on social consensus, in which function and meaning become consolidated over long periods.

The archaeological process, through which stratified evidence is uncovered and analysed, provides a model equally applicable to the more recent past. The contemporary landscape is invariably an accretion of centuries of use and abuse, and must be treated accordingly. Only by comprehending the typologies of the past can the significance of a particular site be determined, and an appropriate design response found. This has implications for our approach to conservation. One must question the appropriateness of conferring historical privilege on one period over any other if identity and character are then compromised. When 'image' supplants identity, we make a commodity of the past.

Questions of context

John Sewell, architect with the Peak District National Park, illustrated the problems associated with nurturing new developments in sensitive landscapes. In a situation where little over 20 per cent of proposals involved an architect, ensuring quality has become an uphill struggle. Within the constraints of present planning legislation, the difficulty of maintaining a balance between atrophy and overdevelopment is compounded by a populist desire to retain a 'vision of Britain', stylistically 'in keeping' yet devoid of the original content.

Although instigated with the best intentions to preserve our historical environment, such regulation of 'taste' may have precisely the opposite effect. By falsely repeating the trappings of 'period' styling, the historically authentic is devalued. Indeed, such cosmetic unification may actually break with tradition by severing a time-honoured cycle of continuity, assimilation and change.

In this regard it seems ironic that Sewell cited as one of the Peak Park's most successful recent buildings Michael Hopkins and Partners' Roundhouse for David Mellor, whose form is generated by the foundations of an obsolete gasometer, yet whose language reflects the slate and stone vernacular of the larger environment. An alternative contextuality was explored in a joint lecture by Peter Blundell Jones and Jan Woudstra, respectively drawing upon examples of Modernist houses and their settings. Here, the idea was not to fit in materially through reliance on a vernacular palette, but to address the landscape through a more fundamental specificity.

Bruno Taut's house on the periphery of Berlin, with a garden by landscape architect Leberecht Migge, is a product of functionalism within the landscape. The design of house and garden responds to the prerequisites of both site and use, with the explicit intention of breaking down the discrete boundary between inside and outside. Hans Scharoun's house with (and for) Hermann Mattern and Herta Hammerbacher, both leading landscape architects, also reflects a desire to de-objectify the house and embeds domesticity in a naturalised setting. By bringing external materials into the living space, traditional distinctions between house and garden are effectively dissolved.

On a grander scale, Erich Mendelsohn's own house on Lake Havel, with its garden by H F Wiepking-Jurgensmann and Otto Bartning, further exemplifies the Modernist concern with a totally designed and integrated landscape. The house acts as a bridge between artifice and nature through a clever manipulation of the natural gradient of the site. In a similar vein, Russell Light discussed the Villa Malaparte on the island of Capri as a product of its location, built on a cliff-top promontory, engaging with raw nature through the device of the framed view.

Architecture as landscape

On a different tack, John Sergeant, lecturer at the University of Cambridge, challenged accepted definitions of landscape with reference to Frank Lloyd Wright and Jorn Utzon, in whose work built form can be perceived as landscape.

Analogous to Japanese temple complexes, Wright's manipulations of thresholds and strata constitute the placemaking in his architecture, inseparable from the landscape it occupies. In this context, 'landscape' no longer implies a domain extraneous to architecture, a virgin territory into which object-buildings are 'dropped'. Instead, it symbolises a paradigm shift in the understanding of the term, where architecture itself is recognised as landscape. Working within the framework of this new understanding, it is the design of landscape that takes precedence, and the designer's imperative is to establish his or her own definition of 'landscape'. This was evident in the work of three contemporary practitioners, each with their own methodology and each interpreting landscape in their own distinct way.

Commissioned to regenerate the spoil sites left by large-scale open-cast mining, Florian Beigel detailed his response to the new challenges of Germany's post-industrial landscape (aj 18.4.96). With an open-ended brief, the practice has instigated a renewal process through the manipulation of ground plane and surface, working with the site's memory and reiterating the existing language of form and material, while anticipating new and varied uses. Seen from certain vantage-points, the landscape begins to resemble a vast Paul Klee canvas, but it is not intended to become a formal abstraction on the level of land sculpture alone; by embracing continuity and engaging new activities, the site instead embodies meaning for the local population.

Volker Gienke, a leading architect in Graz and professor at Innsbruck, was interested in pursuing 'architectural locations' which he defined as the distinction between outside and inside - and one sees clearly in his work a conceptual preoccupation with perimeter, envelope and skin. As a context-specific designer, Gienke appears not to have succumbed to stylistic determinism, each of his projects evolving from theoretical first principles. Material selection and technological invention stem from the perceived importance of the skin, required to act as mediator between the external environment and the internal landscape. The greenhouses of the botanical gardens of Graz employ a deceptively simple envelope of double-layered acrylic over a parabolic aluminium structure. This skin acts as light filter, spatial container, conduit for heating, facade, and structural hanger for the internal circulation, yet effects a minimal barrier to its surroundings.

Democratic design

Lucien Kroll gave the most charismatic lecture of the series. His emphasis was upon the social or 'inhabited landscape', specifically set within an existing urban environment. Often facing the problems associated with run-down mass-housing districts, Kroll starts from the premise that it is irresponsible simply to demolish and rebuild from scratch, since the role of community is paramount. Consequently, his working methodology respects local sentiment, with a democratic design process that empowers the individual as an arbiter of taste and function.

Through a series of consultation workshops, local residents are invited freely and physically to rework the architect's model better to suit their requirements. From the issues and ideas identified, Kroll's task as architect is then to sift and assimilate these expressions of individualism into a versatile architectural system, providing options to be selected by residents for the specific settings of their own dwellings. In this sense, the final form of the building is unpredictable, generated as it is by the freedom of individual choice. The rational uniformity of 'social housing' is subjected to anarchic self-determinism, the embodiment of a true populism.

In dealing with the 'social landscape', the practice has developed an awareness that stretches beyond a closed, finite building process, an example being the development of a technical college in Belfort, eastern France. Conceived as a social hub, there are no fences delineating the site. In its layout it resembles a microcosm of 'the city' and, as such, it is accessible to the community. Constructionally, it is non-deterministic. Individual builders were engaged to construct each part of the school, contributing technically and aesthetically. The process was conceived as the antithesis to total design, again to reflect architectural fragmentation in the wider context.

Politicised landscape

On a similarly polemic note, the politicisation of the landscape was addressed in divergent ways by John Worthington (partner in degw and visiting professor at Sheffield), Brian Richardson (one of the instigators of the Walter Segal projects at Lewisham), and the sculptor and land artist Charles Quick. Worthington dealt with the abstracted 'landscape' of changing business practice and its effect on the workplace. He saw an urban landscape increasingly dominated by the semi-private spaces of corporate structures - plazas, atria and arcades benevolently accessible to, and adopted by, an idealised general public.

Anarchist Brian Richardson's rejection of urban life is exemplified through his own self-built house. Believing that the modern housing crisis arose from a combination of industrialisation and state control, he reacted with a commitment to self-sufficiency, sustainability and personal freedom liberated from social responsibilities. He claimed that, since the housing industry and the government have conspired to disenfranchise the individual from building, the personally cultivated garden remains the only practicable outlet for personal expression.

Charles Quick questioned the extent to which the individual can meaningfully participate in a politicised environment. An advocate of 'land art', he explored art's potential to reveal the nature of the landscape in which it is set. As a political tool, the creation of a work such as Christo's Running Fence, a fabric barrier traversing miles of countryside, makes visible the territorial partitioning of a seemingly boundless landscape; issues of ownership even arose where the fence ran into the ocean. Similarly, in another confrontational work, the nature of public urban space is questioned. Christo, without permission, temporarily barricaded with oil drums a narrow but busy Parisian street. This restriction to freedom of movement brings into focus the issues of ownership and rights of accessibility, and raises the question: who controls the spaces of our everyday lives?

Communication and collaboration

Confronting the question of landscape through the series, a schism became evident in the two professions' perception of their respective roles. In general, the exponents of landscape architecture conveyed a more pragmatic approach to their design objectives and concentrated upon responses to a specific brief. In this sense, perhaps unfairly, they represented themselves as being less concerned with theory, less concerned with defining what their ideal role within the design profession might be.

Certainly, at the beginning of the series, we sensed an undercurrent of antagonism towards 'the architect' as impediment, stultifying the scope of the landscape project - almost that 'the building' got in the way of the landscape. Conversely, the architectural representatives shared a more holistic view of a peopled landscape, though significantly this reflected their design calibre and international standing. For them the built form was not necessarily confined by its outline in plan, but was designed to engage contextually with the location as an integral process.

In identifying and confronting stereotypes, the series underscored the need for communication between the professions. We became aware that, from one lecture to the next, interdisciplinary attendance was erratic - often dependent on the assumed relevance of the particular subject area addressed. In an educational system which tends increasingly towards specialisation, a lack of recognition of commonality is disturbing. Projected into the professional world, it spells disaster. To encourage a well-designed environment, whether urban or rural, the two professions must appreciate the overlap in design territories, and collaborate in their methodology and practice. Otherwise, the fragmented professions will continue to contribute to the mediocre mismanagement of our landscape.

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