Architecture in an Age of Uncertainty

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Ye mighty look upon them and despair. John Ruskin - busy in Sheffield creating a museum of geology for the education and enjoyment of working men - saw the viaducts of Derbyshire and despaired because he believed that nature had been disturbed and the countryside defiled. Until the railways came "it was divine as the Vale of Tempe. You might have seen the gods there morning and evening.

I travel along that valley every week. It always seems to me that the viaduct, built where the rocks once were, adds to its enchantment. In nearby Monsal Dale the viaduct has become a thing of beauty in its own right - the subject of picture postcards and innumerable amateur watercolours. It has been sanctified by history as its stones mellowed by time.

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Whenever I see it, I am not quite sure if it leaves me breathless because of its intrinsic elegance, because of the ingenuity of its construction or because of what it says about the spirit of the age in which it was built. Men who were not sure of themselves and confident about the values and virtues of their society would never have embarked on such a massive enterprise. The viaducts were built at a time when England was certain that everything it stood for would last through eternity.

Ruskin, in his didactic rather than destructive mood, illustrated that devout belief. The Dome - beautiful beyond doubt and, I am told, a miracle of engineering - is a temporary construction, scheduled for early demolition at the time when it was built. All over our great cities, monumental piles of Portland stone - designed in the 19th century to house banks, shipping company offices and lawyers' chambers - are ripped down and replaced by office blocks that the architects assume will be replaced before the end of the century.

Engineers will argue that not building to last is as much a sign of certainty as the Victorian belief that their values were eternal. If the engineers are right, the confidence they claim is in different things - the discovery and development of building materials not yet invented, great leaps of imagination made by architects of a new age, and improved levels of education and prosperity that make society demand a different and better urban environment.

George Johnston

The 19th century can claim that it had one or two inventions to its credit and that it certainly believed in what it called "limitless improvability". But it also had faith in the permanence of its solid values. There must have been immense comfort in seeing that certainty reflected in brick and stone.

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The "system-built", semi-prefabricated, part-plastic, easily demolished building is as much a reflection of our time as the great railway viaducts of the north were a mirror image of the society in which they were built. We live in a world in which we expect everything to change so fast that it can be properly described as temporary. During that time landscape models about nature shifted from an idealized form of urban nature toward a stronger emphasis on ecology and natural conservation. Ironically, the shift of the natural ideal away from urban space further contributed to the segregation between nature and city.

Ecology was never intended to deliver any solutions about societal models, let alone entire cities. But the fact is, that scientific ecology rapidly progressed in decision-making circles and came to weigh-down on the emphasis given to landscape aesthetics in general. It led to a separation of the natural and urban into two distinct orders. As a consequence, since the formal presence of nature in the city was no longer a requirement in the age of ecology, the modern city developed independently from any obligation to landscape.

Landscape architecture fell into the noose set between two irreconcilable ideas of city and nature. The elevated Cheonggyecheon motorway in Seoul is a perfect emblem of such profound functionalist disorders. Landscape architecture will only reverse this separatist trend if it brings with immanence a strong and meaningful ideal of nature back to the heart of the city. The surgical re-introduction of landscape structures in the existing city fabric will now cost one hundred times more than if they had been planned from the onset.

The Cheonggyecheon river project cost Seoul almost one billion dollars. It may not be clear whether such landscape surgery will ever bring a return on investment, but there is no shadow of a doubt that it brings lasting value to a neighborhood. Look at the effects of the Highline on real estate values in lower Manhattan. People are more than ready to support such landscape architectural endeavours with great expectations, in full knowledge of their collateral benefits for amenities, comfort, ecology, culture, and local real estate markets.

Call this a kind of branding by landscape. In order for cities to remain competitive, natural reinsertion through major landscape architectural projects will become a generalized trend around the world. Not only would such projects improve the quality and value of a city, but they would offer a lasting landscape framework for generations to come.

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Landscape architecture will become the ultimate urban luxury of the 21st century. This is an undeniable fact. The profession will need to prepare for this endeavour with the proper approaches, methods, and tools. Immanent landscape will become part of our daily life, adding strong sentiment and spirit to each and every place. When Alphand proposed his idyllic park at the Parc Des Buttes-Chaumont in 19th-century Paris, it was planned on a disused gypsum quarry stigmatized by gallows, surrounded by smoke belching factories and squalid working class tenements.

To realize this proposal, he transferred a picturesque vision of landscape with well-established aesthetic conventions to a rather dismal stretch of land at the periphery of Paris. The same can be said of Olmsted who cleared some dreary shantytowns in midtown Manhattan to make way for Central Park.

The question is whether the well-established landscape models of our forefathers can be replicated today or if we need to define different ones? It is precisely the absence of effective models in landscape architecture capable of operating at the contemporary urban scale of complexity that may explain why so little work of comparable scope and value has been achieved in recent years. The task ahead is immense. It calls for a differentiated understanding of what is actually meaningful and culturally appropriate in each case.

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Floodplan for the Biesboch in Dordrecht. The Sigirino project by the Alptransit tunnel company in Switzerland is an interesting case in point. My office was challenged with the question of defining a massive artificial landscape on a very sensitive site. Work on the mound representing almost four million cubic meters of excavation material, revealed the inherent complexity of the process, where all parties involved, whether engineers, environmentalist, architects or landscape architects, had to agree about a definite artificiality of nature.

The mound, designed as human artifact peaking at meters above the valley floor, could not be ignored in the Veddegio valley of Ticino, and it is precisely the question of the meaning of such a piece of landscape artifice in this urbanized valley that was at the heart of decisive discussions. The result was the integration of various ecological requirements within the broader landscape context of this unprecedented piece of natural artifice engaging entirely new aesthetic considerations.

The task for landscape architects is immense, but not implausible.

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With the exponential population growth we are witnessing, societal ideals about nature need necessarily to adapt and change. Each green patch, each stream, each tree in this urban conglomeration will become increasingly valuable.

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We need to reach another level of invention, one that is to convey more meaning to the city dweller. Immanent landscape will be understood as the embodiment of varied cultural aspects and relationships that a city can yield in this new age of nature. This requires creative design methods capable of combining contemporary resources in physical modelling and data technologies accurately, with a culturally engaged design approach capable of distinction and differentiation. At the ETH, we prepare architecture students to tackle the complex relationships between landscape, landscape architecture, and architecture and urban design in several steps.

First, we bring a cultural and theoretical dimension of knowledge-based design to students so that they gain an understanding of landscape as a physical and cultural body in dialogue with architecture and cities throughout history. Second, our studio courses train the students in a palette of advanced tools of topology that challenge established design skills with projects at various combinations of scales and complexity. The present economic crisis has put dramatic societal issues in the limelight, and significantly marginalized the climate conscious faith in ecology that flourished over the last decade under the banner of sustainability.

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  • The outcome of the recent Climate Conferences in Rio de Janeiro and Durban only confirm this pitiful demise. Can landscape architecture not make a difference by reconciling ecology with more significant cultural and societal concerns? China has chosen to promote large-scale landscape architecture both academically and professionally. Landscape architects in China earn 1. This includes site planning, building, and infrastructure as well as the design of natural environments.

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