Urban Design Competitions Are Opportunities to Assert the Value of Landscape Architecture

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Teresa Galí-Izard / Leena Cho

Urban design competitions are opportunities to assert the value of landscape architecture while still creating a dialogue with other design professions. At a recent review of Barcelona’s Placa des les Glories Catalanes design competition, Teresa Galí-Izard, International ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia (UVA) and partner at Arquitectura Agronomia, explained why it’s important for landscape architects to take advantage of these competitions.

Galí-Izard believes landscape architects have an identity “crisis” and an urgent need to distinguish themselves from architects and planners. To make this point, she discussed the issue of landscape representation in photo-renderings and other promotional images in competition proposals. Too often, she noted, trees appear simply tacked onto sites, with no consideration for the conditions needed for them to fulfill their potential. This is a sign of a lack of involvement by landscape architects.

Landscape architects have a nuanced understanding of plants’ needs, as well as a deep awareness of the ground as a dynamic system. The profession has a unique ability to incorporate ecological and hydrological systems as major design elements. This knowledge is essential to the sustainability of a designed landscape. In urban design competitions, landscape architects then need to get involved and shape how a proposal is presented to clients and the public.

She also emphasized the need for landscape architects to be involved in designing briefs—that is, framing the problems—for the competitions in which they participate. Engagement at this early stage gives landscape architects greater influence in guiding the scope of large-scale urban projects.

The competition she reviewed is an effort by the Barcelona city government to revitalize a central plaza—the junction of three main avenues—and enhance its role as a ecological and cultural hub in the city. While she did submit a competition entry (“Tres Cartes”), Galí-Izard focused less on her particular proposal and more about the educational aspects of all the proposals.

The exhibit itself was provocatively presented: 10 design proposals were arranged around the gallery without attribution and visitors were asked to assess the work based on visual representation. After attendees had critiqued the proposals, Galí-Izard revealed the names of designers and background information on the entries.

Galí-Izard was frankly critical of her own proposal, explaining ways to improve and enliven the design and expressing regret for not having challenged the brief more extensively: “I feel so bad for not breaking the rules!”

Thinking through drawing, she quickly sketched revisions onto the presentation board, inserting buildings around the perimeter of the park, and proposed a mix of architecture and landscape for this central plaza.

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She showed a profound interest in her competitors’ proposals and their ideas and values. Her critical engagement with the other entries revealed an exemplary attitude toward the competition process: She understands the benefit of learning from peers and pushing her own practice and didn’t measure the merit of the experience solely in terms of winning.

For Galí-Izard, a good competition—like the Placa de les Glories Catalanes—should be grounded in real site constraints but still open to experimentation and creativity, a venue for extending the rigor and imagination of the university studio into the “real world” of contemporary practice.

This guest post by Julie Shapiro, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Virginia

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