There is a growing argument that landscape should drive the layout of the buildings rather than the other way around, says Hattie Hartman
When Daniel Burnham applied Beaux Arts principles to Chicago’s lakefront a century ago, a certain consensus prevailed about what made a good masterplan. Yet too often today, when architects lead on masterplanning, it is just big architecture. Landscape is brought in too late. For Le Corbusier at La Ville Radieuse, for instance, landscape was ‘just a wallpaper that goes underneath and beneath the buildings’ as Luke Engleback of Studio Engleback remarks.
AECOM’s Jonathan Rose, responsible for the North West Cambridge project, observes that the key to a successful masterplan is ‘many people bringing their intelligence and critical views to a process’. Thus interdisciplinary teams often include urban designers, architects, landscape architects, infrastructure engineers and specialists such as traffic engineers and ecologists. The question is: who should lead?
Masterplans on paper are incredibly difficult to assess. ‘It’s very hard to look at a masterplan and say “that’s brilliant”,’ notes Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison. That’s why masterplanners often resort to shape-making and symbols that can be easily grasped in two dimensions.
The focus is shifting away from 3D modelling of buildings into dynamic modelling of environmental systems and how people use space
How buildings frame external spaces is critical. Andrew Taylor of Patel Taylor explains that an understanding of building typologies, a skill that architects bring to the table, is key to developing plot sizes that relate to intended uses.
Yet heightened concern about climate change means that an increased emphasis on green and blue infrastructure has brought landscape and environmental issues to the fore. And the concept of natural capital, as something we must look after and invest in, has replaced the notion of natural resources that are there only to be exploited.
Inherited landscape character, together with a site’s natural systems and how they relate to the larger ecosystem beyond a site’s boundary, are increasingly the starting point for masterplanning. The focus is shifting away from 3D modelling of buildings into dynamic modelling of environmental systems and how people use space, according to Grant Associates’ Andrew Grant.
Landscape can create a shared understanding of a site, which helps build consensus. HAB design director Isabel Allen notes that landscape issues are often ‘the most effective basis for early consultation with statutory authorities and local residents’. Such dialogue can be enormously informative because it taps into local knowledge.
During consultation on HAB’s Stroud housing by DSDHA, a couple of images by Studio Engleback that communicated a sequence of green spaces framed the initial discussions. ‘There was no indication of what the houses looked like and no one asked,’ says Allen.
By exploring and exploiting the potential of both the natural and built heritage of a site, landscape can be used to get it right, divorced from questions of style. Bob Allies describes a recent project in Oman where ‘Kim Wilkie’s understanding of the inherited landscape changed the way we understood the site’s potential, gave us confidence in our approach and gave the plan integrity.’
In an essay prepared for Berkeley Group subsidiary St William, LDA Design goes a step further, advocating landscape-led development. ‘Appoint the landscape architect first. Landscape should drive the layout of the buildings rather than the other way around,’ says Selina Mason of LDA Design.
‘But,’ notes AECOM’s Jonathan Rose, ‘if you have too much landscape, the architects get frustrated that no one is addressing development and architectural character, and if you get the architects dominating, it’s amazing how quickly they forget about nature.’
More fruitful than a tug of war between different skill sets is the need to work collaboratively across professional silos. We must shift the hierarchy of teams and the order of thinking so that landscape is at the table from day one, or earlier, as an equal partner.
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