Comment: Bad role models for landscape architecture Part IV

Comment: Bad role models for landscape architecture Part IV

Many a landscape student’s bête noire is the concept – the ‘big idea’ that drives the design. Ultimately, any site’s big idea is its context and how that fits with its possible programme. Many design concepts actually prevent landscapes from functioning, and this series of short articles looks at a few of the ways projects can get off to false starts or come to bad ends.

Bad Concept No. 4 – The Thing

A variety of factors, including the rampant economic growth around the turn of the millennium and the relentless drive towards branding that accompanied it, has led artists and designers of all stripes to seek continually to create the ‘iconic’ object. This is to some extent a noble ambition. It is possible to cast an eye back to globally significant examples such as the Wassily Chair, Tower Bridge, the Jaguar E-Type, Duchamp’s Fountain or Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier, to name a few, and to harbour some small ambition to duplicate that success. Naturally, many things will fall short of this significance, and that is a necessary evil. Many things become, in time, worthy of study as curiosities, aberrations, or bellwethers rather than icons. Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God or the revised Fiat Cinquecento might fit this category.

Icons, though, are rarely found in the work of landscape design. Landscape designers must beware of ‘the thing’: that object that appears fully formed on the drafting table and is then airlifted onto an unsuspecting site, where it becomes ‘plopitecture’. Worse yet, sometimes plopitecture necessitates a contortion of the site that appears posed and unnatural.

Thomas Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge is one such egregious example. It is, in itself, a delightful thing. It is what all of our inner children want most: a clever and expensive toy. It sits across a small canal inlet that is grudgingly straddled by the hulk of Marks and Spencer’s HQ. Though Heatherwick Studio’s website is at pains to explain that the bridge lifts to allow access for a boat, a submerged concrete bulwark effectively obviates any such practice. And while one might imagine that such a clever and expensive portal might open to reveal a luxury stealth craft worthy of James Bond, the inlet is barely large enough to house a rubber dinghy. The awkward pose of it all renders the whole ensemble paltry, petty. One doesn’t want to play with either the toy or the box.

Roland Barthes, writing of photography in Camera Lucida, advances the theory that a photograph becomes effective through two means, the studium and the punctum. The studium might be seen as a sort of ground or setting, while the punctum (“that accident which pricks me …”) surprises and completes the image. The relation between sculptural objects or design elements and site might be thought of thus.

We should seek not to create icons, but rather, to use a good old-fashioned word, to create landmarks. A landmark is a punctum that is situated and that situates; it can make a place but it must necessarily be of that place and for that place as well.

NB: This week saw the introduction of another clever and expensive Heatherwick toy that is altogether of and for its place: the new Roadmaster double-decker bus for London. Whatever its detractors might say, its chic, off-the-shoulder panache does more than a bit to elevate the humdrum of daily transport.

Tim Waterman is honorary editor of Landscape and is a lecturer in landscape architecture and urban design at Writtle School of Design

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the Landscape Institute.

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