Design Thinking for a Post-industrial Century

beauty
Beauty Redeemed / Birkhauser

Gas Works Park in Seattle. Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord in Germany. Ariel Sharon (Mount Hariya) Park in Tel Aviv. Freshkills Park in Staten Island, NY. And The High Line, in Manhattan. These landmark places transform the remnants of industrial landscapes into new parks.

Is this “transformation of formerly industrial areas for new purposes, a widespread phenomenon happening before our eyes,” simply a trend? Or are these transformations, which address our post-industrial needs, here to stay? In Beauty Redeemed: Recycling Post-Industrial Landscapes, Ellen Braae, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Copenhagen, argues the latter, writing that the emergence of post-industrial landscapes is a new kind of design that is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the landscapes of past, present, and future.

There have been plenty of books, articles, and blog posts written on post-industrial landscapes, including quite a few on The Dirt. So why write another? Braae answers this question herself, breaking her argument into three pieces:

First, the re-use of “ruinous” post-industrial areas contributes to the practice of sustainability; this approach encourages us to reinterpret existing resources.

When most of the design proposals for Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord, which was built on a former industrial site in Germany, were presented in the early 1990s, most firms opened their project by clearing away all the old infrastructure and starting anew. Landscape architect Peter Latz, Latz + Partner, went a different route, choosing “to accept the area with all its traces and structures.” As Braae explains, “the innovation in Latz’s proposal lay in the decoding of features and qualities and the way they were highlighted and reworked.” The theme of the park became the interplay between the relics of industrialism and the processes of nature already underway in the years since the area’s industrial use.

Pedestrian bridge across old ore bunkers at Landscape Park Duisberg-Nord / Latz + Partner
Pedestrian bridge across old ore bunkers at Landscape Park Duisberg-Nord / Latz + Partner

 

Aesthetics combined with remediation for contaminated soils at Duisburg-Nord / Latz + Partner
Aesthetics combined with remediation for contaminated soils at Duisburg-Nord / Latz + Partner

Second, industrial landscapes can become new cultural heritage, as they can represent the convergence of preservation, re-use, and transformation.

The 19th and 20th century landscape has been shaped by industry — both the processes and infrastructure of industry itself, and the impact of the industrial products on urban planning and design. For example, the industrial-scale production of automobiles shaped Detroit, which Braae refers to as “a monument to the principles of Fordism, transcending our physical-spatial structures as the capital of the 20th century.”

Former Packard plant, Detroit, 2006 / Camilo Jose Vergara

As we move further into the 21st century, Braae asks what the “physical expression of the capital city of the 21st century” will be. Looking to Paris, France, and Ruhr, Germany, the emphasis on building upon “the ruins of industrialism” suggests a shift towards a relationship with history and cultural heritage that is generally reflected by post-Modernism.

Rather than History with a capital H, history and cultural heritage today are “embedded in our everyday culture and thus in our culture of remembrance. They are associated with the working lives of a large proportion of the population of the Western world. Seen in that light, the originally worthless relics of a vanished production process become suitable objects of study for a new form of cultural heritage. Preservation, re-use and transformation of what is in principle worthless become linked. These are the new interpretations of cultural heritage.”

Lastly, transforming industrial landscapes is not only an interesting creative exercise, but has created an “epistemological breakthrough in design” that emphasizes the temporary nature of things and the process of constant change.

According to Braae, we are undergoing a radical transformation in the practice of design. Whereas much of design in the 20th century may have been modeled on novelty, with its main focus on space, structure, and expression, design in the 21st century is focused on change. In doing so, the focus becomes less entirely on form and more on process.

Braae says this new thinking will fundamentally shape the way we build and create in the 21st century:”What does it imply when we no longer invent things from the beginning but create them through interaction with what already exists? It is a central question: In what ways can we decode the materials available to us?”

Sculptural reuse of demolition material at Terra Nova, Germany / Herman Prigann, Courtesy of Herman Prigann Estate
Sculptural reuse of demolition material at Terra Nova, Germany / Herman Prigann, Courtesy of Herman Prigann Estate

Beauty Redeemed is dense, with Braae’s arguments thoroughly detailed. Academics and landscape architects are the ones who will spend any significant time with the book. But the public will be also affected by the ideas found here.

Urban landscapes, which more and more people rely on for recreation and escape, tend to be “a cacophany of different forms of use, appearances, and topography, often without any mutual connection or visual significance.” The disordered nature of these urban landscapes can result in a lack of identity and aesthetic quality. But Braae’s hope is that the shift in design thinking, as demonstrated by these landmark post-industrial landscapes, will help move us towards a new 21st century post-industrial model. In this sense, Beauty Redeemed is a worthwhile read for, as Braae says, “everyone interested in visual and spatial culture, with a liking for ruinous industrial areas.”

Yoshi Silverstein is founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental (JOFEE) fellowship at Hazon, the country’s largest Jewish environmental organization.

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