Landform Building, Architecture’s New Terrain
Edited by Stan Allen and Marc McQuade
For the last decade, with landscape architecture on the rise and architecture increasingly ceding territory in the urban realm, a new book appears on shelves every few years arguing for the integration of landscape and architecture. Beginning with Aaron Betsky’s Landscrapers of 2002 and Anita Berrizbeitia and Linda Pollak’s Inside Outside of 2003, these books are typically part coffee table tome and part manifesto, filled with images of the latest vegetated surfaces, creeping parasitically over walls and roofs. Embedded within the volumes are calls to arms, arguing that the two disciplines are one, and that the way forward is the breaking down of disciplinary bounds.
This year, almost ten years on from the publication of the aforementioned books (and some fifteen years after Charles Waldheim coined the term “Landscape Urbanism”) marks the publication of two such volumes, Diana Balmori and Joel Sanders’ trim, glossy Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, and Landform Building, a fat block of texts and photographic images born out of Princeton University’s 2009 conference of the same name, edited by Stan Allen and Marc McQuade.
Balmori and Sanders introduce their subject matter through a pair of essays, the first, a well-researched historical framework laid out by Sanders, and the second Balmori’s more manifesto-like argument for an interdisciplinary practice. The pair note in their preface that their interest and approach stem in part from “urgent ecological concerns” that they suggest would be better answered by a more integrated practice model, and in part from the simple creative potential they argue is inherent in the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries—an approach they term “Interface.”
The book divides “Interface” into three interconnected categories, Topography, Ecology, and Biocomputation, each presented via a brief introductory timeline and essay followed by a series of projects. The projects range in scale from small built components—the aggregative blocks of Aranda/Lasch’s Grotto or the floating sensors of Amphibious Architecture, a project by Columbia University’s Living Architecture Lab—to large urban interventions—Weiss/Manfredi’s Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle or the Parque Atlántico by Batlle i Roig Arquitectes in Santander, Spain. In between stretches a broad spectrum of buildings and landscapes. Included in the compilation are a wide variety of unbuilt competition entries, research projects, and built projects, spanning from the relatively unknown to the iconic.
If this appealing volume suffers from one thing, it’s its very inclusiveness. The three categories are so open-ended as to become almost meaningless, particularly in that topography clearly underlies the vast majority of them. The selection of projects is similarly broad and uneven. Some projects, like Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, ongoing since 1999, appear at this point like relics of a pre-Landscape Urbanism era of form-making. Meanwhile, many of the unbuilt projects, such as Höweler + Yoon’s Eco-Pod and Balmori and Sanders’ own NYC 2012 Olympic Equestrian Facility, remain firmly within the realm of the fanciful without approaching the depth and nuance that evolve out of grappling with the realities of constructing such spaces. At the same time, some of the built projects are so conceptually thin that one wonders at their inclusion. Also notable is the omission of certain practitioners and projects: the terraced housing projects of Bjarke Ingels Group, in particular, come to mind. Projects are generally represented by brief—too brief—textual descriptions, photographs or rendered views, and drawings. One longs for a slightly smaller selection of projects, represented in greater depth.
However, the strength of the book—and this is not to be taken lightly—lies in its framing of ecology, and in its strong stance on the potential power of integrating landscape and architecture to address ecological issues through built form. Balmori and Sanders write:
Rather than oppose space and matter, and as a consequence architecture and landscape, designers need to see them as an accumulation of independent processes as complex as any machine or, indeed, any creature. This awareness of the environment as a complex system puts architecture and landscape on equivalent terms and will encourage practitioners to create designs that approach the efficiency and performance standards of a living being.
One might argue that the focus on ecology is part and parcel with the integration of systems—and disciplines—put forward in the book, and in fact should underscore all of the projects within its pages, as opposed to being just one of three categories. The handful that do not fit this description—the vast shadeless surfaces of Eisenman’s City of Culture are, again, a striking example—perhaps do not belong in the book at all.
In contrast, Landform Building puts forth a far more singular and strongly grounded premise. In many ways, the book follows conventions first introduced by S, M, L, XL back in 1995: low-res, full-bleed photographic images interspersed throughout the volume pack a punch, providing a sort of unifying ground within which essays, projects, and discussions are differentiated by strong graphic and typographic identities. The hypothesis of the conference and this ensuing volume is outlined in a series of compelling essays written by Stan Allen, and supported by projects, texts, and debates culled from both architectural history (essays by Kenneth Frampton and Reyner Banham) and the conference itself.
The book includes a wide selection of projects, broken into chapters on Form, Scale, Atmosphere, and Process, and often accompanied by text or conversations with the designers. In the Form chapter, at last, we find BIG, represented by their housing project “The Mountain”: a heap of parking in a developing area of Copenhagen, with terraced housing piled on top. Also included are several crystalline projects by Mansilla+Tuñón. Within the Scale category, we find the even more overtly crystalline Spina Tower by Ábalos and Sentkiewicz, as well as buildings by Steven Holl and a seemingly out of place park by Stan Allen himself. The Atmosphere section brings us, among others, the incomparable Kanagawa Institute of Technology by Junya Ishigami. Finally, Process focuses on innovation in fabrication and structural solutions, depicted through projects by Office dA, Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Michael Maltzan.
Building from the theoretical underpinnings of Kenneth Frampton’s essay, “Megaform as Urban Landscape,” which was first presented at the University of Michigan in 1999 and was reformulated for this publication, Allen makes an impassioned argument not for the disciplinary integration of architecture and landscape, but rather for the reintegration of large-scale “landform building” techniques into architectural practice. The book puts forward a sort of alternative architectural history, unearthing a trajectory of design strategies, from terraced housing to mat buildings to megastructures, in which built form rises from the land as a recognizable and formally organized surface, making its iconic mark upon an otherwise undifferentiated ground or urban fabric.
Indeed, as the title suggests, Landform Building focuses heavily and unabashedly on form. Nowhere is this more evident than in the images selected for the publication—spread after spread of photographs and renderings of mountain-like objects. Despite a riot of images, we do not encounter a sectional drawing until page 119; throughout the book, sections appear only a handful of times. The exploded axonometric, the preferred visual trope of Landscape Urbanists everywhere, is equally scarce.
Representational choices are telling. While the section and the exploded axonometric have the capacity to express layers of information, systems, elements in relation to one another, the photographic image and the rendering—particularly as used in this book—only depict the surface and its overall formal expression. The emphasis on the singular, outer shell of the building as object—unusual or landscape-like form not withstanding—betrays a dismissal of the very advances made possible by the contemporary landscape techniques that Allen calls out in his introductory essay. The surface of a building, however intricate, bears no capacity on its own to perform as contemporary landscapes do—to organize systems from ecological, hydrological, infrastructural, and climatic to programmatic. Indeed, although many of the buildings contained within the pages of Landform Building engage programmatic and formal complexities, most seem to stop short of addressing these other layers of information and potential influence. As for landscape itself, it generally fails to appear in anything more than its nineteenth-century incarnations: a framed view; an outdoor room; a lung for the city.
Ultimately, Landform Building presents a strong, coherent treatise on one potential direction for architecture, illustrating its points through a broad array of well-selected projects within a consistent and compelling graphic framework. But the book fails precisely in the area in which Balmori and Sanders’ Groundwork prevails. Allen and his compatriots at the Landform Building conference appear locked in the same fight for disciplinary autonomy that has pushed architecture into its current corner. Still regarding the urban realm as a disjointed jumble that can only be made intelligible by oversized architectural iconography, the proposition forgoes the possibilities inherent in a cross-disciplinary, performative, systems-based approach.
Figuring prominently in both text and images in not only Groundwork, but also Landform Building, the Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park, that poster child for Landscape Urbanism, remains perhaps the most concrete example of this approach thus far. The project successfully integrates landscape, architecture, infrastructure, program, and ecology on a formerly derelict site. And, yes, it also operates as a formally compelling icon within the city.