A Week with Adriaan Geuze Learning the Poetry of “Unreasonability”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “vortex” as a swirling mass of cosmic matter around a center. For a week in January at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Architecture, that center was guest lecturer and landscape architect, Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, founding principal, West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture.

For the second year in a row, over 400 UVA students and faculty members participated in an all-school design competition called the vortex. Orchestrated by intrepid architecture chair Iñaki Alday, the aptly named vortex invites the Jaquelin T. Robertson Visiting Professor to Charlottesville to oversee this maelstrom of disorder, creativity, and unorthodox scheduling. The vortex mixes graduate and undergraduate students from landscape architecture, architecture, urban planning and architectural history to intentionally provoke the buzz, stress, and excitement similar to a professional design competition.

This year, 30 teams were given one reasonable prompt and shared one self-proclaimed “unreasonable” guest lecturer and critic: Geuze. Rooted in the extraordinary Dutch heritage of land-making, West 8 has been recognized for its pragmatic and playful landscapes that respond to urban identity and ecology. West 8’s unique approach to public design has won it recent competitions for Governors Island in New York, Playa de Palma in Mallorca, and Toronto’s Central Waterfront.

The vortex prompted teams to re-imagine a three-mile urban river corridor in Charlottesville. Geuze directed teams to focus, form an opinion, take a position. From the beginning, he challenged students to fight reasonability. “Don’t be too reasonable,” was one of the first statements he made, which was met with a mix of head-nodding, smiles, and questioning looks.

Later that night, Geuze began his keynote lecture with a poem. Via Skype, he called upon Irish poet Michael O’Loughlin to read an ode to Dublin’s Tolka River, recalling its position as a “strangely untouched” playground in childhood memories, its transformation into a concrete channel, open sewer, and now its “return to life,” with reports of salmon spawning.

Geuze was appealing to the power of place within the stories of our own childhoods. The project site, the Rivanna River, was in need of such a story. In Mr. O’Louglin’s poem, “the river was not part of topography or a concept,” the landscape architect said. “The river was a narrative. It became a character.” This emphasis on narrative would be the “inevitable” approach for the week. He asked us to consider how designers could “perform by first introducing a narrative, or relating our own intuition, with all the sources of our childhood, our traumas, nightmares, and euphoria, to a project.” And indeed, these same feelings followed during the vortex competition.

He shared another story, that of his encounter with Shigeyoshi Koyama, a Japanese painter living in a Spanish coastal town where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean. Koyama’s rich paintings portray a vision of an amplified landscape. The Blue Ridge Mountains are our Pyrenees, he said. He encouraged students to approach the Rivanna River with this heightened sense of awareness. “If we are able to see a landscape or urban site or the planet like Michael O’Loughlin or Koyama, then we are really somewhere,” Geuze said.

During the week, each of the 30 teams received two desk critiques (“crits”) with Geuze, where many students reported his style as being tough and often beguiling. While many teams struggled with their own group dynamics or even the scale of the site, many others struggled during the often-brutal desk crits. In many cases, Geuze would prompt teams for a series of new ideas on the spot, or lambast the students for “wanting to marry the first idea that came along.”

His style was fast paced, witty, and often sarcastic, full of curious comments that had some puzzled, some delighted, and some slighted. But Geuze’s main point was not to encourage a well-developed, synthetic proposal, rather he pushed the students to focus on one central research concept. He argued that with the big idea, all the other elements would fall into place.

In the case of Team 26, who had just 24 hours before their deadline, Geuze encouraged the team to take their narrative of industrial history to the next level. Working through the night, the team then cut and sanded over 800 feet of lumber to produce nearly 10,000 pieces of stackable 1”x 3” “brick” blocks. The project, “Holy Smokes[tacks]” and its two towering 10-foot-tall models were recognized with an Honorable Mention Award.

The week culminated in a day of public presentations and awards. UVA’s guest professor opened ceremonies with another poetry reading and a final lesson on how design can take on new life after our jobs as designers are complete. Proposals included models with lights and working fountains; one fountain, in dramatic fashion, began pouring out the rear during the team’s presentation. Other groups like Team 17, titled “Iñaki’s Greatest Show on Earth” and Team 1, “A Flood Stage: A Drama in 4 Acts,” gave rousing theatrical performances, clearly inspired by Geuze’s lectures.

Within all the projects, though, one could glean a compelling narrative and feel the poetry of unreasonability that Geuze had imparted to his new students.

This guest post is by Katherine Cannella, Student ASLA, and Asa Eslocker, Student ASLA, both Master of Landscape Architecture candidates, University of Virginia.

Image credits: (1) Team 30: “Urban Rivanna” Presentation by Sarah Schramm, Student ASLA / Asa Eslocker, (2) Painting by Shigeyoshi Koyama / Vinyaivo, (3) Team 11 desk crit with Adriaan Geuze / Marcus Brooks, (4) Team 26: “Holy Smokestacks” Model / Asa Eslocker

One thought on “A Week with Adriaan Geuze Learning the Poetry of “Unreasonability”

  1. Richard Zita 02/07/2013 / 6:28 pm

    What a character (Geuze) and what a great idea. The students were fortunate to have a close encounter with such a brilliantly unconventional thinker. I met him at Harvard many years ago, and was impressed with his sense of humor and playful approach to design. Great article. Would love to see what all the students came up with…

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