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Landscapes go back to nature

Thames Barrier Park
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Ian Ritchie, curator of this year’s Architecture Room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, on how its theme, ‘Inventive Landscapes’, is a response to the call of the wild

Landscape is place, context, location and specificity – microscopic and macroscopic. Environment is interaction, implication, ecology, culture and community. Even as we learn about the landscapes surrounding us, by focusing only on the manner in which they can be put to use, we become increasingly disassociated from them, with devastating effects on our environments.

For JMW Turner, ‘The landscape is not seen for itself, but as a commentary upon the human condition, as a speculation upon the tension between order and disorder.’

And Barry Lopez wrote in The American Geographies, ‘The more superficial a society’s knowledge of the real dimensions of the land it occupies becomes, the more vulnerable the land is to exploitation, to manipulation for short-term gain.’

Throughout history humans have created idealised representations of nature – our parks and gardens are ordered spaces in the face of nature’s ‘wildness’. A modern renaissance of designed landscape, with power to inspire, traces its origins to Scottish landscape artist Ian McHarg as well as others such as Geoffrey Jellicoe, and the Land Art movement of the 1960s. Contemporary examples include the Thames Barrier Park in London (right), Parc André Citröen in Paris and Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire at Terrasson La Villedieu in southern France.

Ian McHarg

Ian McHarg

McHarg was particularly influential in the evolution of environmental and urban planning. He developed the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His ‘Man and Environment’ course discussed, among other subjects, ethics, values, plate tectonics and entropy. It resulted in his seminal 1969 book Design with Nature. His approach was one of ecological sensibility, embracing the interconnectedness of the human and the natural to design settlements in the context of locality, climate, geology and environment. To this we should add the memories of the inhabitants, who bring a continuum of culture and identity.

Should not all those involved in (re)creating places listen to those who live there? Designers make spaces. A space, whether in the city, the landscape or in architecture, becomes a place when it is imbued with memory and enhances our intimacy with the environment. Making the invisible visible – geology, history, stories from the community – subtly or overtly, is vital in the making of a place.

Should not all those involved in creating places listen to those who live there?

The landscape designer’s timescale reminds me of the Chinese proverb: ‘If you want to plan a year ahead, sow seed; 10 years ahead, plant a tree; and 100 years ahead, educate the people.’

The architect operates in the timescale between the seed and the tree. This is why landscape is, for the architect, so often a decorative ‘stage’ – it is unlikely to mature or ‘flower’ at the same time as the newly completed building.

The landscape designer needs greater comprehensive environmental and ecological understanding, and should be responsible for bringing this knowledge and its interpretation to the planners concerned with compacting the city, or the architect composing a building.

It has been more than 50 years since the physical environment became part of society’s consciousness, inspiring the first environmental campaigns. The environment is now firmly established on the global political agenda and mankind’s relationship with nature is a recurrent theme of our zeitgeist.

There is a significant shift towards a new ecological ethic encompassing both a moral and visual aesthetic. Providing spatial pleasure – through form revealed by light – lies at the heart of architecture and landscape design, but more contemporary and intelligent design also mirrors our concern for the environment. This demands new thinking from architects, engineers, planners and landscape architects on what we plan, construct and deconstruct.

Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire at Terrasson La Villedieu

Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire at Terrasson La Villedieu was designed in 1992 by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, with architect Ian Ritchie, engineers Groupe Arc Ingénierie and Arup. Fragments of garden stories and design inspired by different cultures are expressed through water, wind movement, plants, perspectives and forms. It opened in 1996.

Modernism and the hubris of ‘star architects’ has not gone away – ‘dominate and destroy’ was McHarg’s term. But most now design with energy awareness and, yes, there is talk of sustainability. The notion of sustainability has been around since the 1970s, but what has been achieved so far is modest, and is more a result of regulations than of designers’ initiatives. Since the early 1990s, my practice has designed buildings that need less maintenance, and not simply less energy. We learn from nature’s unpredictability and attempt to embrace the natural world, rather than resist it.

‘Smart cities’ has been the dominant mantra of the past decade, and many universities throughout the world have established departments of one form or another. Many team up to digitally harvest and analyse vast amounts of data – patterns of movement from money to taxis, water to energy – to provide knowledge and advice to improve the way our cities function. This is the world of the new urban scientists. This is an opportunity for planners, landscape architects and architects to engage positively with them, and to work together to deliver more respectful, ecological and efficiently infrastructured cities.

What I am trying to convey is the need for a fusion of knowledge and design, to make our cities more sustainable and more attractive to live in. Technology, ideology and social organisation are the drivers of progress because they are never quite synchronised. In planning, engineering, architecture and landscape design the same is true – not because of timescale differences but because we do not have a common design language, and have yet to fully recognise the real values in each of these disciplines and how to share them.

In my first book, (Well) Connected Architecture (1994) I wrote: ‘What is required at a strategic level is a Centre of Philosophy for the Environment (COPE!) which draws on the expertise from all areas of knowledge of our built and unbuilt environment. The objectives must be to raise the quality of our understanding and the quality of our environmental fabric. It requires inspiration, ideas and expertise, but this must come not just from the “professions” but also from artists, poets, economists and members of the public.’

The Parc André Citröen in Paris

The Parc André Citröen in Paris was designed in 1986 by landscape architects Gilles Clément and Alain Provost, with architects Patrick Berger, Jean-François Jodry and Jean-Paul Viguier, and engineer RFR, and opened in 1992. Its six serial gardens are each associated with a metal, a planet, a day of the week, a state of the water and a sense.

As we rethink our ideas of what ‘progress’ means, and work towards incorporating new patterns into the cultural flow of our lives – a perception that allows for the innate value of nature and its undeniable presence as a part of our community – we might realise that real progress for mankind, our landscape and environment, and progress in design are essentially the same thing.

Lopez expressed the paradigm clearly in his book, Arctic Dreams: ‘Because mankind can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him, to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive … He must learn restraint … Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that for centuries he has aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about where to defer.’

Charles Darwin is quoted as saying: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.’

How well will man adapt?

Ian Ritchie is the founder of Ian Ritchie Architects

Comment by Rory Olcayto

Peter Barber’s plaster-cast model of housing for Mount Pleasant in central London was this year’s clear winner of the architecture prize, sponsored by Turkishceramics. As well as its heavyweight, handcrafted charms, its direct message struck a chord: on the side of the model, a handwritten note explained it was housing for low-income workers funded by direct taxation.

The model depicts a medina-like neighbourhood of alleyways and squares formed by council houses for 2,000 residents. It also incorporates rental spaces for little factories, shops and other businesses – ‘normal, sensible stuff’, as Barber says, that is sadly still ‘rare in contemporary “land-grab London”.’

Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2015

Barber’s model also works nicely with curator and jury chairman Ian Ritchie’s themes of landscape and architecture. As an object in itself, it not only resembles an actual landscape – it has an almost geological quality – the scheme it presents is a viable townscape alternative to more typical privately funded housing projects that are often badged as solutions to the ongoing housing crisis.

The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2015 continues until 16 August. The Architecture Room is curated by Ian Ritchie. The architecture prize judges were Ian Ritchie, Farshid Moussavi, Bahadir Kayan and Rory Olcayto.




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