Architecture’s New Terrain

Landform Building: Architecture’s New Terrain documents the influence and manifestations of both landscape and ecology in contemporary architectural practice that is resulting in not simply a “cross-disciplinary phenomenon” but new design techniques and formal strategies. It is edited by Stan Allen, Dean of the Princeton University School of Architecture and practicing architect in New York who is arguably best known for his work ‘Points and Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City’ (1999), and Marc McQuade, a project architect at Adjaye Associates, New York. The book’s themes developed from a working conference at Princeton University’s School of Architecture which took place on the 18th April 2009, but has obvious links with the Landscape Urbanism movement that emerged at the end of the 20th century but has to date be largely confined to a few isolated projects for large urban parks.

Landform Building does not so much propose a radical departure as a new lens through which to view architecture’s role in the shifting ecology of the contemporary city. (Allen & McQuade, 2011: 36-7).

The editors have assembled a range of projects, ranging from architecture to art, that promises to offer a comprehensive overview of the subject, documenting it through a series of essays and discussions—from Stan Allen, Michel Jakob, Kenneth Frampton, Reyner Banham and David Gissen—and projects, both contemporary and historical. Extensively illustrated and with over 480 pages this “catalogue” joins a growing list of recent and weighty volumes that are attempting to find a coherent ordering system within which to frame contemporary architectural practice. In order to examine this new field the work of Iñaki Ábalos, Tacita Dean, Steven Holl Architects, Junya Ishigami, Toyo Ito, Tsunehisa Kimura, Atelier Peter Kis, Mansilla+Tuñón, Michael Maltzan, Adam Maloof+Situ Studio, Giancarlo Mazzanti, Walter Niedermayr, Ryue Nishizawa, Dominique Perrault, Philippe Rahm, Bjarke Ingels and Chris Taylor is featured, although as with any print edition a reader will always find themselves questioning why some projects are omitted. For example numerous other projects by Bjarke Ingels could have found a place in the book but only one—the Mountain—is featured, whilst no built projects from Koolhaas are featured despite his theoretical approaches to programme, ‘bigness’, and indeterminacy lying just below the surface throughout.

In recent years there has been a growing trend for architectural projects to echo the natural, as documented on this site previously, and it is this that provides the starting point for the book.

Green roofs, artificial mountains and geological forms; buildings you can walk on or over; networks of ramps and warped surfaces; buildings that carve into the ground or landscapes lifted high into the air: all these are commonplace in architecture today. New technologies, new design techniques and a demand for enhanced environmental performance have provoked a re-consideration of architecture’s traditional relationship to the ground. Some of today’s most innovative buildings no longer occupy a given site but instead, construct the site itself.

The book though is about more than architecture imitating geology or biology as Allen sets out the opening essay ‘From the Biological to the Geological’ in which he attempts to open up architecture to more than the biological references that have permeated in recent years. Allen looks to provide a new lens through which to understand the relationship between architecture and the contemporary city, increasingly understood as a complex and dynamic ecological urban system, towards something metaphorically closer to geology because buildings, like the ground, remain “hard, stubborn and slow.” (Allen & McQuade, 2011: 20).

Biblioteca Espana, Giancarlo Mazzanti & Architects

Allen introduces seven working concepts to provide a framework to assess projects. Concepts such as favouring programme, processes and time along are obviously references to landscape urbanism that seek to bring the benefits of landscape and ecology design within the scale a single building. However, at times the scale of the projects featured is hard to understand as simply buildings, being instead on the scale of landscapes, the principle of which is the megaform.

Megaform is the title given to one of four sections that the book is divided into—Form-Artificial Mountains, Scale-Megaform, Atmosphere-Vast Interiors, and Process-Fabricating Terrain—with an introductory text from Stan Allen at the start of each section followed by projects and other essays. Kenneth Frampton uses the term “megaform” to “refer to the form-giving potential of certain kinds of horizontal urban fabric capable of effecting some kind of topographic transformation in the megalopolitan landscape.” (Frampton in Allen & McQuade, 197) Form, when operating at large scales, then does have a potential role to play and whilst Allen posits that form can play an active role in issues of sustainability and environmental performance, Michael Jakob argues that:

All of this is run by aesthetics, and so maybe we are in the sort of post-postmodern moment, because postmodernism was naturally pastiche, but it was a pastiche of content. There were ideas. And now we are out of this field, and we’ve entered something formal. (Allen & McQuade, 2011: 47)

The question of form remains largely unanswered though when you consider the importance that is also placed on indeterminacy and leveraging the freedom to define space that is afforded in landscape. In this context architecture, including it’s form and aesthetics, has to provide a level of specificity whilst offering flexibility that is not top-down but bottom-up. Whilst the argument is convincing the success of projects that attempt to do this at the scale of building, rather than the scale of a landscape, is questionable. What is clear though is that:

…we might be pointing to is a new form of legibility, beyond the semiotics of the 1960s and ‘70s, beyond wilful sculptural form, reasserting the value the fundamental architectural operations of marking out territory and raising up a visible silhouette against the sky. (Stan Allen in Allen & McQuade, p. 264)

It is perhaps important to note that the context this work is constantly referred back to, as with Landscape Urbanism, is simultaneously the American city—field-like, open and porous to nature—and the hybrid landscapes of information that characterize the contemporary city globally. The merits of viewing urban form as something geological is less questionable in the stable built environments of the American (and European City) where change is slower. However the rapid growth experienced in countries such as China is not slow, or stubborn but instead is fast and frantic, and as such the level at which these tactics become transferable is open to debate.

Nonetheless, in an age of heightened technological importance new relationships with “nature” are providing a point of reference within architecture, acting as an antithesis to the digital. In the closing essay of the book this new relationship to nature in the city is explained by David Gissen:

But the architectural reconstitution of topography and nature also represents forms of reconstruction and history. Through this lens, we understand “nature” as something that was (past tense) in the city. By bringing it back, we reconstruct the former reality of the city but also acknowledge the end of nature as we understand it. What could be more modern that demonstrating the manipulation of time and nature in one project? (The Architectural Reconstruction of Nature, David Gissen, in Allen & McQuade, p. 463)

In attempting to work with and appropriate tools utilized by both landscape and ecology it is possible that new tensions are exposed between what exactly constitutes the “natural”. But it is also asks the question: “at what point does the work of the architect, landscape architect or urbanist end?” Allen’s seventh concept conceivesLandformBuildingas “a technical problem within architecture” (Allen & McQuade, 2011: 35) but arguably fails to define the boundaries of that architecture. What the book does do though is move the arguments from Landscape Urbanism on considerably, opening up it’s processes to a wider audience and a project spectrum that is not limited to parks but the wider city. Architects today already work as part of interdisciplinary teams; it is understood that any building will have a relationship with it’s context and wider landscape, requiring different tools than those traditionally wielded by an architect. The application of new tools, strategies and frameworks to view and work with architecture—understood as building—has the potential to both further open up architecture to non-architects and reinvigorate architects, opening up new avenues for them.

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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014