Comment: Bad role models for landscape architecture Part V

Comment: Bad role models for landscape architecture Part V

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. 5 – The Gimmick

Our consumer culture continually reinforces obsessive neophilia. The next novelty, gadget, or technology is always enticingly within reach and there are whole realms of design in which obsolescence is a goal. There is a particularly loathsome breed of industrial designers, for example, who boast about the speed with which a product becomes obsolete and while still maintaining consumer confidence. Landscape architects are not immune to these forces, and often can design spaces that quickly become obsolete because they are dependent upon gimmickry and lack the ‘good bones’ necessary to endure beyond the life of the product. Failed lighting never fails to serve as a beacon of crapness, for example, particularly when the space is nothing but a vehicle for a spectacular lighting scheme. 

Everyone likes a little flash and dazzle, though, and one designer who has cashed in on a gimmick is Patrick Blanc. With his green-dyed locks, leaf-print shirts, and long fingernails giving him a faintly reptilian air, he has stepped into the time-honoured role of ‘designer as exotic creature’. He clearly understands the theatre that is required for the job. 

Blanc’s vertical gardens are the perfect combination of corporate bling and greenwash for clients who wish to project a literally and figuratively green image at the same time that they conspicuously display the ability to spend lavishly. No corporate campus food court is thus now complete without its own lush and dripping green wall.

There’s no doubt that people find these walls attractive. Last summer, Shelley Mosco designed a  delightful Van Gogh styled vertical garden at the National Gallery that was nearly petted to death by adoring tourists and may have been the most photographed London attraction of the season. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the craze is over. Once the irrigation systems stop working those green façades will disappear, or, perhaps more appropriately they’ll just be planted up with ivy. Maybe, though, we will finally have accomplished the feat of convincing architects that vine-clad buildings can be lovely.

It isn’t that the gimmick isn’t important – it is – just as important as those Le Corbusier specs for giving the client the full experience of hiring a designer. These things, though, are just the trappings, which are prone to obsolescence. The underlying design must always be robust enough to remain beautiful and functional when the gimmick is gone.

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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