Landscape Observatory: The Work of Terence Harkness

Landscape Observatory: The Work of Terry Harkness / Applied Research & Design

Landscape Observatory: The Work of Terence Harkness deftly presents the work, and, perhaps more interestingly, the design process of renowned landscape architect Terence Harkness, FASLA. The book, edited by Elen Deming, FASLA, director for the new doctor of design program at the College of Design at North Carolina State, unfolds in a nonlinear but cohesive way to tell the story of Harkness, the inveterate observer, teacher, and practitioner whose designs are truly of their place.

With Harkness, observing, teaching, and practicing are linked, according to Deming. Harkness has a “penchant for design as a form of teaching—to compel us to really see the landscape we inhabit.” Harkness’ body of work forms an observatory from which we might gaze out at the landscape.

Regionalism is distinctive in Harkness’ work. The region Harkness’ work most commonly addresses is the Midwest. The editors describe him as a “prairie savant,” and this expertise surfaces in “An East Central Illinois Garden.” Harkness drew his inspiration for this conceptual project from the Illinois landscape.

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Plan for a Suburban Garden, which draws on themes developed in “An East Central Illinois Garden” / landscapeandurbanism.com

Seemingly-ordinary qualities of the Illinois landscape—the ground fog of late fall, the strong silhouette of winter trees against the sky, the changing patterns of the agricultural fields—are visualized and dignified.

He also constantly reconfigured the elements of this design. While it remained conceptual, aspects of it — and lessons it taught — surfaced in built projects such as the Gelvin Garden at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Gelvin Garden at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign / Krannert Art Musem

Harkness’ critical regionalism has never been restricted to one region. In 2000, Harkness worked with a team of faculty and students at the University of Illinois to develop a master plan for the Taj Mahal Cultural Heritage District. In interview excerpts, Harkness describes how he and his team were determined to walk every bit of the site to better understand it. “A large part of it was open latrine fields. We insisted on seeing every part of it,” Harkness recalls.

This deference to the site provided Harkness and the team the ability to fine tune their design. The book speaks of Harkness’ process as one of constant iteration. Designs are to be drawn, tested, redrawn, and retested. And so a coherent landscape emerged from what had been unfamiliar and chaotic.

The book is filled with Harkness’ drawings, hand-drawn perspectives that privilege the ground-level view of the landscape over the plan view. In a portion of the book devoted to his teaching career, Harkness describes practices he employed to instill this preference for the experience over the optics of the plan in his students.

One such practice was to have students begin the design process by writing out what experiences they wanted visitors to the site to have. Another was to draw vignettes of different landscapes and order and re-order them to tell a different story.

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Harkness’ distinctive sketches / landscapeandurbanism.com

Landscape Observatory benefits from several vignettes, as well. A different contributor writes each of the book’s chapters, giving different perspectives on Harkness’ work. Douglas Johnston, professor and chair of landscape architecture at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, contributes a chapter on the Emiquon Preserve in Illinois, a project on which he worked on with Harkness.

Emiquon Preserve / Experience Emiquon

The final design proposal occupied less than three percent of the preserve. What the project impressed upon Johnston was Harkness’ ability to see the landscape without preconceptions or judgement. “Harkness derives design forms directly from the existing landscape. The design is deeply, inseparably grounded to its context. The result is a familiar yet novel place.”

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