Chemetoff: Sites Are a Source of Imagination and Knowledge

This year’s Dan Kiley lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) was given by Alexandre Chemetoff, a French landscape architect and urban designer, who is probably most known for his Bamboo Garden in Parc de la Villette. Chemetoff began his lecture by talking about the passage of time, which is a primary focus of his work. He was last heard speaking at Harvard in 1982 — when his current audience had not even been born yet. But some things were still the same, including the volume of the auditorium and the feeling of standing at the podium overshadowed by the stepping audience. As this was the Dan Kiley lecture, Chemetoff recounted a story of Kiley and himself driving through Germany, looking at great works of architecture and landscape and discussing the history of design. He mentioned visiting the Nuremberg Court at the Palace of Justice, which Kiley was in charge of renovating for the trials. This experience was one of the things that led Chemetoff to mix landscape architecture, urban design, and architecture – he wanted to practice in a free way, across boundaries. He wanted to face things that he was not familiar with, new challenges. 

As is common among young practitioners, Chemetoff’s first project was his own home and office, which is in the suburbs of Paris. The aim was to assemble some piece of architecture in the landscape. The project soon become a sort of “construction game,” ending in a series of structures very much like green houses opening back on to the rest of the landscape. “Time passing by becomes the material of the project.” The vegetation, “invaders of greenery” he called them, changes over the years.  

Chemetoff spends a considerable amount of time on the Ile de Nantes transformation project which was started in 2001 and continues today. One of his first moves was to “open up urban design” to more possibilities and encourage a wider variety of construction. Here he showed a map or design drawing and said this is not a master plan, but rather a document exploring the relationship between the existing place and the plan. It’s another way to imagine the possibilities of a place. Corbusier once said that the view from the airplane was not just a view of the urban plan but rather a view of the living site in totality. Much of the work here is in old industrial sites and it often looks like nothing is left. But if you look closely, Chemetoff urges, you may realize that there are still traces and many things are still there. The project enables the visitor to imagine the beauty that is already there but hidden. The viewer’s role is to reveal the quality that is hidden. 

Over the course of the project, an old warehouse-type building, which was slated for demolition, is also revealed, along with its history. However, now it’s stripped back to its structure and built upon. Chemetoff calls it “the metamorphosis of the building and the site without a program.” The program will come later. Visitors will then be able to imagine new programs based on what the building becomes. “It’s like archaeology, you start work on the site, and then you discover, and then you change and adapt your design. You redesign according to the knowledge you get from working on the site.”

Many of his projects are very limited in budget so the site becomes a resource for the project and everything is reused. “This reuse is a matter of design and a matter of money.” He shows a project transforming a parking lot into a park using a budget of only $10 per square meter. Early on, the team decided that that the money would become the program. The before and after photos are drastically different, but Chemetoff goes back through them again and points out that all the trees, light-posts, and other amenities weren’t touched, they just dug up the asphalt and used limited plantings. Economy means using the existing character of the site. 

Speaking of community engagement and process, he says that “you have to accept the project will be an open process and work with samples, because no one will believe in a drawing. But if you make a sample project, people will engage and discuss with you. People don’t discuss drawings.”  He discussed a housing flat renovation project where they renovated one flat as a sample and people told him “we can’t accept visible electricity (wire conduits on the ceiling). You’ll have to hide it. We want an apartment not a loft.” 

Also, he tells his audience of designers to work on laptops at the site, rather than in the office. He tells us to go to the factory where the material we are specifying are made. Finally, he tells us that the site is a “source of imagination and knowledge.”

Check out Chemetoff’s latest book, which includes his own “tours” of five of his works.

This is the second in a series of posts covering lectures at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD. See the previous post in this series, Vito Acconci’s Provocative Spaces.

One thought on “Chemetoff: Sites Are a Source of Imagination and Knowledge

  1. bethmeyer 03/16/2011 / 11:05 am

    I believe Chematoff’s last lecture at the GSD was in 1992 not 1982. I was there!

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