Static and Dynamic

Raxworthy, J (2006) “Static and Dynamic” AR Australia 95, pp.102-107.

Static and Dynamic:
Change in architecture and landscape architecture
by Julian Raxworthy

Contemporary architectural discourse seems dominated by largely unbuilt projects said to be concerned with process, dynamism, periodicity, un-predictability, self-organisation, flexibility – “change” generally. This is not specific to architecture, however: the general media is dominated by the notion of , on the one hand, changing onself (through diet, or lotteries, or education or personal development), and on the other, securing ourselves against change (the greenhouse effect, insurance, superannuation). James Gleick in Faster suggests a technology driven acceleration of “stuff” in our lives, and, as a fair contr-indicator, a “slow” movenemnt has also developed to combat this intensity, most notably in slow food, but also now in architecture, in the reactionary return to the drawing, as a legacy technology, after the computer takeover. Thinking about the last 300 years, or even history generally, time has always been the continuum in which people have lived their lives and change is the most obvious manifestation of time. Because our lives are so “now”, it must be part of the human condition to become increasingly preoccupied with change, as we age. Thinking about this preoccupation with change in architecture, perhaps it is less to do with any real acceleration of change (whatever that is), than the access that computers have given us to represent change in different media, presumably allowing us better agency in seemingly “engaging it”.

For landscape architecture, the notion and term, “change” is fundamental to the definition of the discipline, and is, often cited as its raison d’etre. In the post-war period in English speaking landscape architecture texts, there are three main contexts in which this pivotal role of change to landscape architecture is discussed: its design pallette of change-able things; its connection to a changing landscape and; its apparent dynamism in contrast to a static architectecture. The pallette argument goes that, because landscape architecture has grown out of gardening (via a circuitous route), its basic materiality is comprised of things that change, most obviously plant material. This argument is fundamentally materialistic, and after noting this changibility of material, in terms of both qualities and form, the use of that material tends to be substituted into a fundamentally architectural design methodology, where material is applied to an architectonic formal surface. This view was most articulated with sophistication by Modernist American landscape architect James Rose. In terms of a rhetoric of change for landscape architecture, the work of Ian McHarg, in his Design with Nature established an analogous model for landscape architecture, that could be simplified to be, because landscape architecture is named after the landscape, its agency stems form the characteristics of the landscape. In other words, its scope is whatever the landscape is. In this view, it is because the landscape changes over time that landscape architects are involved with change. McHarg’s methods of overlay mapping were basically centred around the organising system of ctachment and geomorphology, which, in terms of change, represent intervals that tend toward increments of 10,000 years (excluding catastrophies). While this view lends LA a grey haired wisdom, it also enforces a humbleness, a sense that nothing a designer does will be truly seen both in the scale of the geomorphological enviornment, nor its time: it is therefore investing in the future, accepting an immediate future of near invisibility. Perhaps most usefully, this view created a literacy and sensitivity to the nature and productiveness of natural processes, which is vital to any real engagement with change through design. The final argument, discussed by Michael Laurie, does not so much define landscape architecture directly in terms of change, but rather defines architecture as unchangeable. In a reductive manner of binary opposition, architecture is defined as solid, unmoving, static – bricks and mortar. Its basic condition is seen one of control and minimisation of change, in the face of inevitable degredation. Time negates the architecture. On the other hand, landscape architecture is defined as flexible, dynamic, comprised of processes and an inherent fluidity. The pallette argument, above, is used to support this argument. However, critically for this essay, it is after these arguments have been used to define LA’s changeability that the “use” of change practically stops. Almost all the techniques of working with change are dealt with in the practice methodologies of architecture, and thus, even by LA’s own argumenta about the staticness of architecture, this idea of change and landscape architecture remains simply rhetorical.

Despite this rhetoric, landscape architectuer is still being led by architecture in its own discussion of how to involve change in design. The work of James Corner and his protege’s, and the “emergent” landscape urbanism school of thought and projects, arises from a reenvigoration of McHargian mapping, with slightly different factors and processing methods. In terms of the relationship between this discousre and that of contemporary architecture, it is largelly through the use of various models of process (from more and more divergent sources, from landscape processes to models from complexity and game theory. While computer technology has given these process systems a different aesthetic, these are more empirical and less self-conscious and creative than the processes followed in the 1980′s early 1990′s utilised by architects such as Eisenman, Liebeskind and Koollhaas. Of these, it is perhaps one moment in OMA’s unbuilt la Villette scheme (his use of mathematical rules to distribute the programmatic component across the site) that has been most critical. This automaton-like design method has been developed and fine-tuned, and turbo charged with better hardware and software (and perhaps, more uncritical wet-ware) to create an outcome that is more a result than an actual design proposition. Changes in geometrical description systems have allowed Rem’s simple rule premise to develop forms with greater and greater complexity and lesser and lesser formal comprehension. All design teachers will know what is being discussed here. All these methods use an analogy no more critical that that used when LA draws the characteristics of its namesake to itself: a design generation process that utilises change in it will produce an outcome that is, somehow, more about change. However, what is produced is simply a frozen moment of change, that, even if it “displays unseen forces”, or is generated from “the hidden processes at play in sites” is no more actually changebale than the drawings and sculptures of the Futurists, and that was thought of as simply a kind of expressionism for a long time, finally grudgingly being accepted as generically “dynamic”. It is this quality of dynamism that is resulting in the built work from these generative processes rather than any sense of actual change.

It is important to clarify what this “actual change” is, and why it is important. The OED refers to change as “to render different, alter, transmute”. In this context, change is physical transformation, in time. It is literally one thing changing into another thing. Critical to this definition is the perceptibility of change, in increments that are perceivable by people. This does not nescessarily mean that something changes as we watch it (although it can be this too) but rather that in increments we can notice, perhas weeks, or months or even a few years, the deisgn object transforms, largely through its own changing nature. It is here that landscape architecture is definitely more able to work with change than archtecture, because, notwithstanding the critique above, plants do grow, and in growing change form, material quality and effect. This definition is very narrow and closed, and very literal, however it is exactly that literality that is needed in this largely hypothetical debate. To its credit, the nescessity for this directness is recognised by players in the “dynamism debate”, and work is being put in, both in architecture, and landscape architecture to work with this. Work is being put in by the AA’s Design Laboratory(?) in compressing the translation process in process driven schemes, to allow more direct output processes, based largely round rapid proto-typing with new technology, however this is still presenting a fixed moment of processes not their actual change, despite the compressing of stages in that generative process. There is also work being done, in a manner reminiscent of Nouvel’s Arab Institute, in looking at mechanisms to create an actual change in form of qualities of architecture: the building moves or “morphs” in response to environmental or behavioural, or even simply abstract processes. This seems a frustration at the real staticness of the architectural object, when in fact it may be its very staticness and objectness that makes it architecture itself, and that the real way that architecture engages change is in its established and powerful role as a catylist in the speculative devlopment cycle. Ironically, Aldo Rossi may still be the most important theorist of architecture and change, and it is telling that Koolhaas has left behind these machinic approaches and is attempting to engage the forces of econmoics and development more directly, with architecture being more complicit.

In terms of the “direct” mode however, in the much-lauded Downsview Park competition, most of the main competitors (notably in Corner and Allen and the winning Mau-Koolhaas-Blaise entry) utilised the idea of self-organising landscapes that effectively built themselves through engaging the existing productivity of certain landscape processes, as well as activating the productive potentials of site users, whether human, through circulation, or fauna, as part of the landscape process. This is probably what McHarg had in mind when he stated that “Ecology is not just an explanation, but a command”. These projects however, perhaps not Koolhaas’ so much, still draw upon a now familiar map based representational process to engage this change in design. This is more direct, but still not at the coalface of the small process interactions, that occur at a detail design scale, that will ultimately begin the turnover of the behemoth of the larger process. While much talk concerns the “emergent” properties of complex systems, it is worth remembering that the scientific theorists of that school use small scale interactions to deduce the larger properties that will emerge. While landscape architecture looks to the design generation processes of architecture, ironically, gardening, its embarassing cousin, probably offers the most immediate way of directly engaing the substance of change: the creation of conditions for plant regeneration and time based use of maintenance to influence the progress of that change over time.

To reductively characterise the type of productive system or process that is being discussed here, the best definition would be a wilderness or a wasteland, where things grow of their own volition, or rather where they do-what-they-do, in relation to both their own growth requirements, characteristics and qualities, as well as their interactions with the interdependant characteristics of their specific sites. In such a systems, plant material and fauna, in turn, also condition the sites characteristics. As much as they can be considered abstractly, this ecological system will only work on the basis of the “accuracy” of those very localised characteristics, regardless of what form geenration process is used, its is the interelationship of In terms of techniques for actually doing this, the best research is coming out of the Netherlands, where the use of ecological systems like this has been the foundation for “building” the whole landscape of the Dutch, and the UK, where gardeners and horticulturalists, such as James Hitchmough, are looking at the “wild garden”, a contemporary version of an older fascination with wild-flower gardens. That most exemplars of this type of approach arise from Europe is not surprising considering that the aesthetic of landscapes is accepted to be practically a synthesis of culture and nature, and is thus comprised of a cosmopolitan flora – cultural specificity is more important that evolutionary indigenous specificty. In contrast, in the post-colonial condition of Australia and like countries, it is our liberated anxiety about losing the qualities of the pre-White Settlement environment that makes this approach difficult, that is, our notion of “the weed”: the thing that does not belong. The types of self-organising approach discussed above all regenerate “naturally”, on the basis of the propensities and opportunism of plants, and the qualities of all their ecological interactions. For this system, determination of indigenous and non-indigenous is an irrelevant cultural overlay: the plants that succeed may be because of characteristics of their “original” places of origin, however it is sesitivites in the plants evolution in those environments that make they do well in another. And the resultant regenerative success of a plant in an ecology will be because of its competative success (that is, how it overcomes other plants, or works symbiotically with them) and its very weedness, even in idigneous species. Our ethic and aesthetic judgement about the incorrect “look” of a non-indigenous regenrative ecosystems will forever affect our abaility to have un-aided ecocsystems in our landscape spaces, whether in the city or the country. Its important to recognisde here that this is a problem for professionals or amateur naturalists rather than for the general public, for whom “green-ness” is the aim in itself, regardless of its floristic constitution.

Of all the reasons why engaging “change” is important it is probably the environmental that is convincing. Less that 100 years after Eisntein formulated his laws of thermodynamics, the real limitation of energy sources, and an attendant supersensitivity to energy use, probably really lead by economics, make sustainability a real limitation to the development of both the publuc and private spheres. Increasingly, maintenance provision to designed landscapes is both decreasing generaally, because of its inevitable recurrent cost, as well as its custodial and caring nature is dissipating in the face of de-person(plant)alising contractual provision. At the same time, because of the greenhouse effect, the actual requirement to plant-more-plants, and have a larger vegetative component of landscapes is very real.  Ironically, while a consideration of maintenance in design projects leads generally to the use of plant material that does not exhibit much unpredictable change (that is, the tree circle at planting and that at maturity are roughly a uniform cone of extrussion) and is thus “self-controlling”, it is actually the opposite condition that is important, and it is just such a sense of “control” that must be relinquished to meet the requirements of sustainability. The garden must grow itself, and keep growing. To do this, however, a whole new aesethetic must be accepted, not so much by designers (who could easily be entranced by mess), but by the public and the various public insitutions with landscapes in their remit, where the notion of control is fundimental to their demonstrable activity in the landscape. For landscape architecture, this also potentially unseats its ability to think of itself as a design discipline, where design is a visible control of a site and form is the tool to do so. However, rather than returning to a planning based discipline, it must begin to see as it is the nature of its “flexible” material, and see change as a design form itself, within the gammut of existing design languages, which must include gardening, and an acceptance that gardenening and maintanance acts are themselves a kind of form language. Gardening also offers a type of practice with a long terms involvement in sites that landscape architecture should move back towards. Interestingly, while architecture is getting more and more high tech in its striving for solutions to sustainability, it is going to be an opposite strategy that is required to deal with it this issue – a relinquishment of control. In the context of Australia, where the notion of Terra Nullius was fundamental to claiming the territory by England, to accept a landscape as productive at the same time as being visually uncontrolled is tantamount to destabilising the whole rationale of that colonisation.


Nature Plan for Zanderij Craillo, Netherlands (2000 -)
by Vista (Roel van Gerwen)
In the context of the Dutch “building (of) nature”, this project creates a literal matrix on the large scale of the landscape, in which different types of landscape are envisaged, including forests, bogs, and pasture land. The water table is a level against which different areas are given different depths, influencing soil saturation and potential root depth. Certain flora will self-seed and regenerate according to this characteristic, and a form of maintenance is provided by allowing certain land uses on areas. Access becomes the main tool as sheep will graze one area and cattle another, walkers and campers other in turn, all interacting with regenerating flora. Roel uses the anaology of the stick in the sand to describe this approach: “To build a sandcastle we can make on oursleves and have it wash away; or we can put a stick of the right height in the sand and the wind will accumulate sand against the stick and give something of roughly the right form, that has effectively built itself”

The Ecocathedral, Mildam, Netherlands (1982-)
by Louis le Roy
French artist Le Roy began practising in the late sixties context of Situationism and a discourse of “free space”, places where people and nature interact and influence each other fluidly, outside the constraints of pre-existing organisation, and where the form of the landscape results from these interactions. On his own propertt, le Roy has been getting masonry dumped for twenty years, and out of it building fucntionally ambiguous structures, each effectively a folly of microclimate. When he retruns to work on the site again, plants have regenerated in the microclimates created by the structures, and their own influence on the surrounding environment, by trappng water and seed, and in turn, he creates his new structures on the bassi of what has naturally “happened” since last time. People visiting the site must make their own way through the site, negotiating ebtween regenerating forest and the structures themselves, where this access is also considered to be an organising and active force in the regenration cycle. Le Roy constructed three other projects in the 1970′s utilising this approach, all of which were “cleaned up” after less than 10 years, demostrating the inability of municipal authorities to accept the “look” of self-organising landscapes.

Bordeaux Botanic Gardens, France (2000-2006)
by Catherine Mosbach, paysagiste
This botanic garden is designed to represent the natural and cultural forces of the Aquitaine region, and comprises the Envrionment Gallery and the Field of Crops, for this purpose. The environment gallery is a series of elevated mounds that are comprised of local soil profiles, made with the actual soils of the region, where the strata are revealed on the edge. The tops of these mounds are undulating to create niches for water and hybrid ecologies to develop, and the mounds are seeded with indigenous seed from the areas represented. The mounds are designed to fall over and degrade over time as the vegetation grows, creating a formal transformation. The mounds sit on a surface of granitic sand, with paths metres away from the mound. This allows the degredation to occur on a surface where it wont be regsitered as “messy”, because there is not conflicting edge or material to read the deviation against. The paths nonetheless gives some form of precission amongst this deviating condition. The Field of crops recycles water through planters of local crops utilising cultural aggriculture processes, such as flood irrigation. This link between aggricultural practices and natural ones is important, because effectively, they are the same thing.

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