Saturday, October 25, 2008

Genius loci in urban environments

Yesterday evening, Landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson delivered a very interesting and inspirational lecture at the University of Washington. She called her lecture "Landscape in the Changing Environment" and discussed the different elements involved in creating the renowned designs her two landscape practices (in London and Seattle) are famous for.

During her lecture, Ms. Gustafson showed a large number of pictures of her completed and current projects around the world. "Landscape is always bigger than architecture" and "The core essence of the site" were two expressions used by Ms. Gustafson concerning the importance of understanding the site thoroughly before working with the actual design. Together with her companions, she goes through layers and layers of information concerning the site - historical, sociological, geological and horticultural, all of which provide a framework from which to distill the actual concept for the site. This concept evolves then though different planning stages - sketches, models and plans - to the final result. I couldn't help thinking of Ms. Gustafson as a modern equivalent to Alexander Pope, who wrote his famous words "In laying out a garden, the first and chief thing to be considered is the genius of place" already in 1728.

I was very impressed by the extreme complexity of the projects, both technical and aesthetic. Ms. Gustafson's pictures about the 3-D models (or "prefigurations" as she called them, after Le Nôtre's similar models when planning the Versailles gardens, quite a modest comparison...) they build for each project were intriguing. One of these models, for the Princess Diana memorial in Hyde Park, London, was developed at a car manufacturers premises to design and test the flowing patterns of the water. At a large project in the Netherlands, the site had to be decontaminated for several years before the project could be built. And in the huge project of landscaping a waterfront and a water reservoir in Singapore, the level of technical detail must have been enormous. Of course, the budget of these projects must also be impressive, considering the scale, work and knowledge that goes into them.

Interest for this lecture was amazing. Just sitting in the dark theater together with 1200 other garden professionals and amateurs, I just thought what a good example it was of the star status landscape architects can reach in today's world. In the view of this, I loved the way Ms. Gustafson delivered her lecture; clear thoughts delivered with understated humor and with a good distance to the fame that she has acquired.

For exciting pictures and more about Kathryn Gustafson and her practices in Seattle and London, check out


Anonymous said...

I wish I'd known about this lecture! Sounds really fascinating. Good that you are inspired by this and not daunted! As you say, large budgets and massive amounts of time and thought go into these vastly scaled works.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Karen, It really was fascinating. I really liked the seriousness of her and her partners' work, looking into the site and it's history so deeply. Of course, often these references might not even be understood by the onlooker, but they are still there, creating a connection from the past to the present. The Northwest Horticultural Society has more interesting lectures coming, check up their website!