In the first of a six part series on how bad design concepts can get projects off to a false start, Tim Waterman explores ‘Inflexible Abstraction’

Curvaceous but inflexible. Charles Jencks’s stiffly representational landforms at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack House, near Dumfries
Curvaceous but inflexible. Charles Jencks’s stiffly representational landforms at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack House, near Dumfries

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.1: The Inflexible Abstraction

Gazing into the stars or pondering the philosophical ineffable can inspire us to try to express universal truths or fascinating theories about the nature of life or the stuff of the cosmos. This is a deeply human goal, but one that can go badly awry when applied literally to site design. Forms derived from speculations unrelated to site can die on the drafting table and then be delivered stiff and stillborn onto a site.

Charles Jencks is the current master of the inflexible abstraction and thus serves as our first bad role model for landscape architecture. Much work has been inspired by his curvaceous forms, which can be photogenic, but when students try to recreate his methods they find their designs are little more than cake-decorating across the surface of the site.

Indeed, this is usually what Jencks’s works do. His landforms strive towards a ‘universal iconography’ while expressing ‘local, national, and cosmic history’. This is accomplished by, for example, creating a pond in the shape of Scotland. The world is shrunk into a grain of sand as black holes commingle with quarks and Higgs bashful boson. Pages 20 and 21 of Jencks’ new book The Universe in the Landscape illustrate just how stiffly representational his work can be. A swirl of warped-grid paving curves into a massive concrete vortex. Visitors have been provided with a handrail so that they can resist the supergravity at the event horizon. Hang on tight!

Readers of Jencks’s new doorstop, should they be able to persevere beyond these initial pages, will be treated to a carnival of horrors, the most striking of which is an enormous landform in the shape of an earth goddess to be known as ‘Northumberlandia’, who, while not an actual local, national, or cosmic deity, is representative of one. She looks uncomfortable in her role. Northumberlandia’s hypertrophied breasts thrust into the sky while she lies in a twisted contraposto and raises a cold, dead hand in benediction. The icing on this particular piece of cake-decoration is that the artist saw fit to fashion an enormous mythic female form out of slag. Some day tourists will wave smugly from her hoar-frosted nipples.

A concept should give us a way of working with the landscape, not on the landscape. The projects illustrated in The Universe in the Landscape are models for concept-enslaved art imposed on the landscape, thus they are destructive models for landscape design.

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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