Genius Loci

The most frequently quoted reference on locality is probably Christian Norberg-Schulz’s  book ‘Genius Loci’. He stresses the importance of place for our existence—whatever happens, happens somewhere i.e. in a place. Place is not an abstract or quantifiable but a qualitative phenomenon. He criticises the way that modern architecture deals more with abstract functionality that can be applied in a generic way than with tangible meaning that is specific to a place. For Norberg-Schulz, “the existential purpose of building (architecture) is therefore to make a site become a place, that is, to uncover the meanings potentially present in the given environment.”. In other words, the specific character of a site needs to be understood and developed. If this is achieved, people are able to really dwell there—a highly desirable goal for Norberg-Schulz, because it indicates a“total man-place relationship”. Two psychological needs are fulfilled in this ideal situation: orientation and identification. Following Kevin Lynch, he explains the importance of orientation for human dwelling: without orientation,“man feels lost’”. But identification with the environment is even more important. Identification means becoming friends with a particular environment and its properties.

Norberg-Schulz’s phenomenological call for real things and the importance of character and orientation are useful advice for designers of urbanisation projects—but the issue of identification is more difficult if you have a site that offers little with which people can identify. How can you design for identification then? This issue exposes a problem with Norberg-Schulz’s theory, which relies heavily on existing layers of history to which new construction has to relate. Although he stresses the importance of time and change in realising the genius loci by mentioning: “To respect the ‘Genius loci’ does not mean to copy old models. It means to determine the identity of the place and to interpret it in ever new ways.”, most of his arguments have a preservationist perspective, which isn’t much help in the face of rapid urbanisation. Another problem of his theory is the use of dualisms, like settlement versus landscape or natural spaces versus man-made spaces. Almost forty years after he wrote Genius Loci, these oppositions have become questionable in the light of contemporary debates on planetary urbanisation or the Anthropocene.

To summarise: Norberg-Schulz offers a deep analysis from a Western point of view and raises awareness of the topic. However, he gives scant advice on designing for locality in contemporary and future urbanisation projects on previously unsettled territory.

Paolo Bürgi, Cardada Geological Observatory (2000)

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‘Capability’

More abstractly, the rise of informality in garden design coincides with a growing interest in empiricism. A devotion to rational geometry gave way to careful observation of the apparent irregularities of the natural world. The serpentine ‘line of beauty’ identified in William Hogarth’s “The Analysis of Beauty” much resembles the serpentine curves of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown lake. In the middle of the century, Brown (1716-83) was ascendant and he remains the best-remembered of his peers, in part because he was so prolific, but also because of his memorable moniker which derives from his habit of telling his patrons, having toured their estates, that he thought he saw ‘capabilities’ in them, his own word for ‘possibilities’ or ‘potential’. Brown’s design formula included the elimination of terraces, balustrades, and all traces of formality; a belt of trees thrown around the park; a river dammed to create a winding lake; and handsome trees dotted through the parkland, either individually or in clumps. Interestingly, Brown did not call himself a landscape gardener. He preferred the terms ‘placemaker’ and ‘improver’, which in many ways are conceptually closer to the role of the modern-day landscape architect than ‘landscape gardener’. (…)

Criticism of Brown began in his own day and intensified after his death. He was criticized in his own time, not for destroying many formal gardens (which he certainly did), but for not going far enough towards nature. Among his detractors were two Hereford squires’ Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, both advocates of the new picturesque style. To count as Picturesque, a view or a design had to be a suitable subject for a painting, but enthusiasts for the new fashion were of the opinion that Brown’s landscapes were too boring to qualify. Knigts’s didactic poem “The Landscape” was directed against Brown, whose interventions, he said, could only create a ‘dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene’. What was required was some roughness, shagginess, and variety. This is an argument mirrored in today’s opposition between manicured lawns and wildflower meadows. In the United States, where smooth trimmed lawns have been the orthodox treatment for the front yard, often regulated by city ordinances, growing anything other than a well-tended monoculture of grass in front of the house can be controversial.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)

  

Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Blenheim Estate (1764)

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Cognitive Approach

My teacher, Kevin Lynch (1918-1984), had a very important idea. He said that planners should understand and consider the way ordinary people perceive their environment before proposing changes. Lynch wrote many books on many topics, but his first and most important work is The Image of the City. For the first time, interviews were conducted to learn how ordinary people perceive and understand the city. Lynch believed that design could make the city clearer and stronger and more understandable. He assumed that a good city form should have an understandable structure and image which is not imposed by designers and planners but derived from the perceptions of the people who use the place.

Carl Steinitz, Landscape planning: A brief history of influential ideas (2008)

In the psychophysical approach, the perceived qualities of a landscape are derived from perceptual responses of different groups of respondents. Considered from the perspective of the cognitive approach, landscape perception becomes a process of interpretation, mediated by emotional responses to sites, perceived meanings, and physiological reactions (e.g. stress reduction). Design is thus a cognitive activity made up of thought processes, such as the search for ideas, the generation of solutions, the evaluation of information, the consideration and production of visual representations, and the development of strategies, while learning and experiencing.

A clear image of the environment will contribute to wayfinding performance in the future. Thus, to learn the large-scale structure of space, the traveler must necessarily build a cognitive map of the legible environment by integrating observations over extended periods of time, inferring spatial structure from perceptions and effects of actions.

Based on the above discussion, it is evident that the configurational properties of the environment are important variables in acquiring environmental knowledge. Cognitive representations and legibility comprise an subjective evaluations of the urban environment. It seems impossible to understand human-landscape interactions and specifically the experience of landscape without knowledge of their psychological foundations. Experience is first and foremost a psychological phenomenon.

Kevin Lynch, Boston image scheme from The Image of the City (1969)

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Plastic, Cosmological and Spatial

Does the landscape need to be linked to be present as a form of awareness? Does the body cooperate with the exterior in constructing liveable spatial and temporal coherence? It is the very possibility of our own body which makes interaction possible. Hence the question as to how my body can dispose of the landscape. The methodological elements in the present landscape didactic are: commitment, personal recognition of perception, announcement and production. The journey and experience of contours make it possible to unravel the concrete constitution of a space. Its edges will contribute as fully to its exploration as will its practices and uses. When the landscape and urban zones are conjectured as material and immaterial interrelationships of things and beings, students do not speak of objects but rather of relationships experienced within the mobility of time and the continuity of space. A means of conceiving the landscape is thus established.

The landscape is conceived of here as being a plastic, cosmological and spatial expression of the milieu affected by the bodily reality of living beings.

Françoise Crémel, A Plane of Consistency for the Landscape: the Body as a Documentary Tool (2013)

B.A.S. + Planergruppe Oberhausen, Therapeutic Park in Brilon (2015)

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Amorphous

Landscape has -we saw many images- a bit of an amorphous image. When people think about landscape they don’t think of rigor, of order, of a formal element but rather of something very free, wild and uncontrollable. (…) We never want to reproduce nature or a landscape but we always want to make clear what is tamed, that we use an aesthetic that always works with elements of the landscape -the reason for an “architectural landscape”. That’s why we also create spaces – elements of architecture, for example, spaces, axes, points of high elevation, we create these elements in the landscape as architectural elements, but we always try to work with the contrast between plants and architecture.

Stephan Lenzen, Interview (2012) 7.04.01_Dyck_7 schloss-dyck-10049p44_grande_proyecto_04057Dyck-Castle-by-Stephan-Lenzen-01

p44_grande_proyecto_11 p44_grande_proyecto_10Stephan Lenzen + RMP Landschaftsarchitecten, New Gardens in the Dyck Field (2002)

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Relationship

sea_of_fog

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog (1818)

The problem of landscape arises precisely because landscape, whether it appears in literary or painterly form, whether thought of in terms of the presented or that which presents, is indeed a function, and a representing, of our relationship with place. Is the term “landscape” inadequate to describe the complexity of that relationship? If we treat landscape purely in terms of the narrowly spectatorial and the detached (or as associated with a single historical formation or artistic genre), then perhaps it is. Yet the argument I have advanced here is that this conception of landscape is itself inadequate to describe the complexity of landscape as such. The problem of landscape is thus that landscape represents to us, not only our relationship with place, but also the problematic nature of that relationship—a relationship that contains within it involvement and separation, agency and spectacle, self and other. It is in and through landscape, in its many forms, that our relationship with place is articulated and represented, and the problematic character of that relationship made evident.

Edward S. Casey, The Edge(s) of Landscape: A Study in Liminology (2011)

 

Edge

Where does a landscape begin —and where does it end? Which is to say: Where is its edge? We are tempted to think that landscapes just go on and on indefinitely—one vista giving way to another, one stretch of land blending into the next. And if this is the case, is not any attempt to deter-mine, even to imagine, an edge, an act of human hubris?

More pointedly: Does a landscape have any edge other than an arbitrary one?

Edward Casey, The Edge(s) of Landscape: A Study in Liminology (2011)

Snøhetta, Path of Perspectives (2018)

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Meaning Depends

Meaning depends on all the receptors, whether they are users, sponsors, critics or theorists. This angle is not examined very deeply in the literature because investigating the response of all these ‘beings’ is highly complicated. It demands a deep understanding of the development of the socio-economic setting, the identification of all those who give meaning to the place and for whom it has meaning, and the renunciation of beliefs such as the existence of a single truth to be attained and a universal mental structure. It also demands that we question, as Potteiger and Purinton do, the narrative’s capacity to respond to the programming and forces us to believe in the possibility of giving meaning and still giving comfort, as Herrington says. As these authors suggest, using narrative to lend meaning to a garden involves the users and critics as much as it involves the designers.

Meaning as an approach to landscape architecture is criticised and questioned by the very people who expound it. According to Barnett, the search for meaning does not change the reality of the spaces themselves, while Treib asks whether it is possible to discuss meaning without defining it, and whether the reality, after all, is that the designers simply suggest meaning and it is up to the users to find it.

Nicole Valois, Josiane Paradis, Place Émilie-Gamelin in Montréal – landscape narrative, meaning and the uses of public space (2010)

Imma Jansana + Robert de Paauw, Barcelona Turo de la Rovira Belvedere (2011)

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Remarkable

So what do we mean by the art of design? I first saw this remarkable design at an exhibition of landscape drawings from 1600-2000 currently on display at Het Loo in Appledoorn. l remarked to my colleagues that it would be wonderful if a student handed in a drawing like that. Wondering who had designed it we peered at the text and found it was by le Notre; it was his design for the gardens of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, accompanied by eight pages of manuscript connecting image and concept, ideas and form.

It is remarkable for many reasons. It exhibits astonishing skill and confidence in the expression of ideas in form, through technology, with elegance and panache. Far from being a slave to the geometry of the plan, the asymmetrical design is an imaginative manipulation of the spatial structure of the landscape, intensifying perspectives, foreshortening views, skewing natural cross falls and creating vistas, connecting seamlessly with the landscape beyond. It is responsive to the topography and context, culture and time. Extraordinarily knowledgeable, skilfully exploiting the full range of the medium, this design is there to manipulate the emotions, express power, and control movement. This is what the art of design is about. There is no mistaking its brilliance – if you know what to look for.

A powerful cultural force is currently undermining any serious attempt to develop the kind of expertise le Notre exhibits. It is, of course, possible to teach many aspects of design. There are books on design theory, criticism, history, its technology and modes of communication. There are guides on collaboration, team building and how to carry out design reviews. But large chunks of the actual design process, the real nitty-gritty of the discipline, are clouded by subjectivity and therefore thought to be beyond teaching. Design is often characterized as a highly personal, mysterious act, almost like alchemy, adding weight to the dangerous idea that it is possible, even preferable, to hide behind the supposed objective neutrality implied by more ‘scientific’, technology-based, problem-solving approaches. Talking about excellence is actually considered somehow undemocratic and elitist. It is this kind of dogmatism that impacts so negatively on our thinking about design.

Kathrin Moore, Overlooking the Visual. Demystifying the art of Design. (2010)

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André le Notre, Design for the gardens of the Grand Trianon (1694). Stockholm National Museum of Fine Art.

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Site Matters

Three premises inform this book. First, site knowledge, even if unspoken, exerts a powerful force in design that theoretical inquiry should acknowledge and critically assess. Second, historiography has sanctioned particular ways of engaging with site matters, and the dele- terious effects of these sanctions should be recognized and countered. Third, modes of representation construe sites, and their formative role in the production of site knowledge should be revealed and expressed.

Design does not simply impose on a place. Site and designer engage in dialogic interaction. At once extrinsic and intrinsic, a site exists out there in the world but acquires design meaning only through its apprehension, intellectually and experientially. Therefore, we claim the site as a relational construct that acquires meaning and value through situational interaction and exchange. This relational condition of the site derives from uninterrupted exchange between the real and the representational, the extrinsic and the intrinsic, the world and the world- as-known. (…)

Theorizing site thinking involves critically examining ideological, historical, and disciplinary frameworks to discern the sources of unarticulated knowledge and the ends to which it is put. We begin with basic questions. How are sites defined? How is value assigned to a site? How do meanings accumulate around the notion of site? Where do they come from, how are they applied, and how are they derived?

Carol J. Burns, Andrea Kahn, Why Site Matters (2005)

Shuishi, Nanchang Red Earth Park (2018)

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