Our era is decidedly the one for the landscape, at least in the sense of verbal reproduction and being iconic. The word and the image are everywhere, in the daily newspaper and in the specialized publications, on the screens, and on the walls, in the leaflets and in the spirits. Today the landscape is labeled and revealed, it is explained and adulated, conserved and protected, and it is equally sold and re-sold. Popularised and democratized, it belongs to everyone, as it functioned in the past as a social code and distinctive sign of a certain elite who willingly recognized themselves in the common sharing of emblematic places or topical representations.
Bernard Lassus’ approach to landscape design confronts issues of cultural diversity and institutional domination in a public space. It stems from an awareness of cultural differences that are brought into play by the creation of a motorway in contemporary France. Its presentation calls upon a few preliminary remarks about cultural differences and about public space. We need not map cultural differences onto demographic descriptions of a society: one person may belong to several cultures, and may shuttle between them, renegotiating self-identity within each. Thus cultural differences need not necessarily pit one group of people against another. Moreover, we can see that some places imply a culture of their own: institutional settings such as schools, churches and hospitals are well known in this respect. They foster the acquisition of a special culture among their members; and, very often a significantly different one for people who occupy different positions in the institutional setting: teachers and pupils, priests and parishioners, doctors and nurses, for instance. So we can see places as much as social groups as the breeding grounds of cultural differences. (…)
In short, there are at least two very different cultures fostered by the motorway. First, there is a culture of time efficiency, with the corollary danger of car accidents, shared by all motorway users. Second, there is a culture of place, of nostalgia for lost identities and of alienation from the world that the motorway symbolises. They merge to produce a sense of economic globalisation on the move with its corollaries of mutual ignorance between motorway users and motorway neighbours, and of growing opposition by rural landowners and political representatives to the construction of motorways. Thus motorways come to be seen as sources of growing conflicts and soaring construction costs that negatively affect the allocation of resources for the general welfare.
Bernard Lassus, the landscape architect advising the motorway company, had already proposed a response to these problems. First, he wanted to create rest areas that would encourage drivers to stop and relax – that is, to forget about the Ideology of time efficiency fostered by the use of the motorway itself. In other words, he wanted to create rest areas that would ignore and spurn the motorway culture, and yet would appear attractive to people trapped within this cultural view of travel. Second, he wanted these rest areas to be a tribute to the local environment, a place of symbolic value for people having and working in the vicinity, and an intriguing invitation to motorway users to go and visit the rural world, and a place local people could acknowledge and be proud of.
The Third Landscape – an undetermined fragment of the Planetary Garden -designates the sum of the space left over by man to landscape evolution – to nature alone. Included in this category are left behind urban or rural sites, transitional spaces, neglected land, swamps, moors, peat bogs, but also roadsides, shores, railroad embankments, etc. To these unattended areas can be added space set aside, reserves in themselves: inaccessible places, mountain summits, non-cultivatable areas, deserts; institutional reserves: national parks, regional parks, nature reserves.
Compared to the territories submitted to the control and exploitation by man, the Third Landscape forms a privileged area of receptivity to biological diversity. Cities, farms and forestry holdings, sites devoted to industry, tourism, human activity, areas of control and decision permit diversity and, at times, totally exclude it. The variety of species in a field, cultivated land, or managed forest is low in comparison to that of a neighboring «unattended» space.
From this point of view, the Third Landscape can be considered as the genetic reservoir of the planet, the space of the future…
A sobering thought for all designers: in fact whatever designers dream up and realize affects the formal perception of landscape architecture objects only to a limited extent: (a number of other parameters, situative variables that the designer can scarcely influence, have their own very definite parts to play. These include the weather (rain, sun, dark clouds, broken cloud, heat, cold, storm, light breezes etc.), the seasons, the time of day (the incredible interplay of colours at sunrise, hard shadows at midday, the softness of twilight etc.), the number of other users (the happy school class on the main pathway, the couple on the edge of the wood etc.) but also the robin singing in the bushes or the rumbustious drunk on the adjacent bench. This list could be continued ad infinitum. All these parameters are “simply there”, are permanent and more or less simultaneously effective, but just in different forms, relating to each other at different force levels. Objects in landscape architecture simply have to let these parameters “go over their heads”, “put up with them”, sometimes “suffer them”. But often it is precisely these unpredictable elements that can create moments of intense harmony in their interplay with a designed landscape.
Perceiving form (in landscape architecture) – a right-hemisphere experience – is thus always more, and always more complex, than the things the designer really can affect. So what does the landscape architect actually do as a designer? The –admittedly materialistic– answer has to be: landscape architects distribute solid items within an area that is being worked on topographically and structurally; they design starting-points, signs, with the aim of (gently) leading and accompanying users to create form (or space).
Given the complex way in which form is perceived, we have restricted ourselves in this book to the “feasible”, to what the left hemisphere can manage to say. Above all, we have reduced the phenomenon of “landscape architecture” to make it “tangible”, “comprehensible”, in other words morphological.