Breaking New Ground


Diana Balmori and Joel Sanders’ new book, Groundwork, is “an appeal to designers to overcome the false dichotomy between architecture and landscape.” Balmori, FASLA, and Sanders are both founding principles of New York-based design studios: Balmori Associates, a landscape and urban design studio, and Joel Sanders Architects, an architecture firm. They have collaborated on several projects that seek to establish a meaningful integration between what are commonly considered two separate disciplines with two separate agendas. They argue that transcending this distinction and allowing the two professions to join forces could provide a “catalyst for creativity” that in turn could have a substantial impact on the environment. Rather than perceiving buildings as isolated objects floating in a natural landscape, designers might instead begin to understand buildings and landscapes as “linked interactive systems that heal the environment.”

Forging these hybrid systems requires designers to consider the “interface” between landscape and architecture, or “the space where indoors and outdoors meet and where there is a fluid connection between natural and synthetic and exterior and interior space.” Balmori and Sanders argue that imagining a more robust integration within this overlapping space between buildings and landscapes would allow for new possibilities appropriate to contemporary notions of what it means to live with nature. One major impediment to this is the persistent idea that humans are separate from nature, a separation mirrored in the distinction of buildings from the landscape. It has bred a nostalgic idealism for unspoiled nature free from human intervention, which has in turn resulted in “a deep and persistent suspicion of designed nature that still endures.” Consequently, designers are faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile the idea of unspoiled nature with the need for human design, often resorting to a natural, “invisible” aesthetic that tries to mask the highly constructed and technological qualities of the built environment.

In supporting their argument, Balmori and Sanders presents 25 different projects that challenge the separation between landscape and architecture as well as such distinctions as “artificial” and “natural” or “virtual” and “real.” The projects are divided among three categories of contemporary design directions: topography, ecology, and bio-computation. Balmori and Sanders acknowledge that several of the projects overlap categories or fall somewhere between them but they indicate that the categories are only one way of distinguishing the projects. Furthermore, certain projects’ ability to defy these distinctions are part of their significance. Fundamentally, they represent a broad range of explorations into new ways of engaging the built environment that challenge shifting perceptions of human interaction with the natural world.

The topographic projects manipulate the ground in an attempt to merge the elements of building and landscape by treating built form as inhabitable landform. Unlike invisible natural designs, these projects represent “unapologetic human interventions” that boldly accept the fact that human design must alter the landscape. They are driven by concerns that nevertheless strive to respect a site’s context. Of the nine projects presented, some attempt to build within their site’s existing hillsides. The renovation and addition for the campus of the Lycée Jean Moulin in Revin, France, is one such example. Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture with OFF Architecture designed a series of stepped ribbon-like structures with green roofs set into sloping hillsides to house the facilities. From a distance, these structures camouflage the complex, while up close they form a spectacularly constructed series of green canopies that offer extensive vistas from within the structures.

Other projects attempt to transform flat, marginalized areas on the outskirts of cities with uniquely constructed landforms that confound distinctions between ideas of nature and artifice while providing spaces for public amenities. Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park by Weiss/Manfredi (see earlier post) transformed an industrial brownfield along the waterfront in Seattle, Washington, into a sculpture park and satellite exhibition space for the city’s art museum. The site was capped with two hundred thousand cubic yards of clean soil and sculpted with a continuous Z-shaped pedestrian ramp to account for a 40 foot grade change in order to connect the city to the waterfront. The landscape channels and cleanses stormwater and features a progression of plantings from temperate evergreen to deciduous forest as well as tidal areas for salmon and saltwater vegetation.

The ecological projects address a range of scales from the surfaces of buildings to plans for parks and cities. They attempt to develop environments that both provide public space and address issues of natural resource management such as water retention, terrain remediation, and energy efficiency. In doing so, they surpass the typical agenda of sustainability by creatively considering issues of form and program in addition to performance and efficiency. Some of the projects also focus on revitalizing marginal sites and often work with found or recycled materials that evoke a site’s history. For example, Batlle i Roig transformed a long, narrow tract of land located between two highways on the outskirts of Santander, Catabria, Spain, into the Parque Atlántico. The park’s composition is derived from an abstracted representation of the Atlantic Ocean translated into a series of planted terraces that accommodate a wide range of public uses. The site also includes an existing waterway featuring a large native colony of reeds, the unique landscape of which was preserved in the park.

Several of the projects also challenge the idea of invisible green design. A residence by R & Sie(n) in a shared courtyard of Paris, France features a 130-square-meter cabana wrapped with wide-gauge steel netting to support a vertical garden of 1,200 hydroponic ferns. Misting nozzles sustain the ferns with collected rainwater, while a constellation of three hundred suspended blown-glass vases interwoven throughout the garden cultivate rhizobia, a bacterial soup that serves to nitrogenize the ferns without the assistance of soil (see earlier post).

The bio-computation projects feature structures modeled on systems derived from biology, which emulate the performance of living organisms. They employ computer-aided design to script digital codes to generate forms and patterns that capture the adaptive and self-organizing properties of living systems. They operate at different scales and disrupt the established notions of an orderly nature while blurring the boundaries between what is natural and artificial. On the smaller scale is the Northside Copse House located in West Sussex, England. Ecologic Studio designed the residence to be site-specific and respond to the surrounding environment, accounting for forest density and solar access and orientation. The house features irregularly-spaced frames that provide structural stability and channel collected rainwater. These members also allow for intervals of apertures that correspond to environmental stimuli, providing for natural ventilation and daylighting.

On the larger scale is Magnus Larsson’s project, DUNE: Arenaceous Anti-Desertification Architecture. It proposes to reverse desertification in the spreading Sahara Desert with a six-thousand-kilometer beltway of crystalized sand dunes forming an instant oases stretching from Mauritania to Djibouti. These dunes are created from a nonpathogenic microorganism (Bacillus pasteurii) that turns sand into sandstone and, when deployed across balloon molds, creates a network of hardened, inhabitable interiors suitable for water harvesting and plantings. The project is particularly compelling for its self-generative logic: the same winds that cause desertification propel the microbes.

These projects are just a sampling of the 25 presented in the book, which represent a wide range of cutting-edge experiments for merging landscape and architecture and addressing pressing environmental issues in the process. Balmori and Sanders present compelling arguments for increasing collaboration between the two disciplines, a process that can help deal with the growing complexities in the built environment. They examine both the outdated notions of nature and design that support the existing gap between the two professions along with the growing understanding of ecology that argues the gap needs to be closed. As the book demonstrates, “designers need to see [projects] as an accumulation of independent processes.” When integrated, these projects can then be “as complex as any machine or, indeed, any creature.”

Read the book.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Masters of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Image credit: Monacelli Press

One thought on “Breaking New Ground

  1. Joel Sanders 01/14/2012 / 9:40 am

    Many thanks to Shannon Leahy for writing a sympathetic piece about “Groundwork:Between Landscape and Architecture.” Her article concisely addresses the underlying themes and objectives of the book: an appeal for progressive interdisciplinary practice that transcends the landscape/architecture divide.

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