According to Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the question of whether to pursue a more regimented, process-based approach or use a more open-ended design model has occupied the field of landscape architecture for the past three decades. In a lecture at GSD, Berrizbeitia said landscape architects must contend with a range of dynamic forces in every landscape — from changing seasons, hydrologic cycles, and plant life-cycles, to more anthropogenic processes, such as climate change, economic volatility, and rapid urbanization. “One of the challenges with process is it’s difficult to calibrate. But with the fully open, come both good and bad. How do we design with a more precise notion of openness?”
In the face of destructive processes, such as rising sea levels or increasing socio-economic inequality, Berrizbeitia sees a problem with completely open-ended design interventions that indiscriminately let processes unfold, unobstructed and uncontested. She proposed precision as the primary approach that will enable designers to better contend with existing processes and create a better future.
Berrizbeitia noted that the word precision is most commonly associated with computation, architecture, and certain art forms, but rarely landscape architecture. She gave examples of a number of projects that use precision in an exemplary way.
One example is a competition proposal by Berrizbeitia and colleagues for a park: Concurso La Carlota in Caracas, Venezuela (see image above). The park was to be located in a former air force base, which had for years acted like a void in the city, prohibiting access to the everyday citizens of Caracas. Thus, the design became all about access, literally, by bringing people to an area that was once inaccessible, and, metaphorically, by providing “access to the political processes of a decaying democracy.”
A single, precise topographical gesture in the form of a massive earthwork was designed to serve various purposes. First, it would help reverse the hydrological processes that cause flooding in the area. Next, the earthwork would selectively keep an 8-lane highway out of view while also bringing in pedestrians from all the surrounding communities. The monumental earthwork would also create an elevated promenade with views of surrounding valley, creating a new view that would have been impossible before.
Another model of precision is a park in Santiago Chile called Quinta Normal, designed by Teodoro Fernandez and Danilo Martic, a renovation of a garden originally used for acclimatization of European plant species to Chile. The designers were tasked with creating public space for a densely-populated and impoverished neighborhood while preserving the beautiful old trees. The landscape architects resolved this by laminating the ground with a series of wood and stone surfaces, none exceeding one foot in height. These precisely-designed surfaces create space for new and unprecedented forms of public interactions in this under-served neighborhood. They allow public access to an important historical and cultural resource — the existing trees — while simultaneously protecting them from harm.
The lecture ended with a response by Michel Desvigne, a French landscape architect, who, through his three-decade-long career, exemplifies for Berrizbeitia a practitioner able to achieve a coherent ecological, social, and aesthetic vision through the implementation of precise interventions. Desvigne called Berrizbeitia’s lecture “a key moment” for landscape architecture. The scale of Devigne’s projects are so grand that they require new institutional frameworks between clients and designers. For example, one of Desvigne’s current projects, a master plan of Bordeaux, has a projected completion date of 2034. Desvigne emphasized that without precision, projects of this scale wouldn’t be possible.
“The precisely-designed landscape negotiates. Its forms reveal rather than obscure; its high-definition communicates, draws in, describes, and enables.” Berrizbeitia’s lecture was a heartening reminder that landscape architects have the power to give form to processes in the face of constantly-shifting conditions. With precision, designers can create landscapes that result in positive and lasting social and environmental change.
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.