Tim Waterman

Landscape Studies, Food Studies, Utopian Studies

A Word … “Seedling”

by Tim-Waterman on December 7, 2015, no comments

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Winter 2015 issue I talk about how nurturing plants and creative and community interests are essential for both children and for the future of our landscapes. 

Seedlings growing in my North Sheen allotment greenhouse - sadly I had to give up the allotment when I moved some years ago.

Seedlings growing in my North Sheen allotment greenhouse – sadly I had to give up the allotment when I moved some years ago.

When I was eleven years old, I can recall standing before the bench in the small greenhouse at the Chartridge School in Chesham, Buckinghamshire and being struck by a bolt of green lightning. At that age and height I was not far from eye level with new seedlings pushing their way up through the compost. The wonder of that moment when seed becomes plant became suddenly clear to me, and filled me with a sort of electricity that has always since arced and sparked whenever I’m presented with another opportunity to nurture a plant.

I filled my bedroom windowsill with pelargoniums of the most mundane green-leaves-with-red-blossom kind. They filled my room with their odd, pungent scent mixed with the smell of moist soil and terra cotta. My parents entrusted a small corner of the garden to me where I could inflict the least damage on the grounds of our rented house, and I’m quite certain that, though I didn’t discover landscape architecture as a profession until I was in my 30s, that it was then that my journey into the profession began. Over the years, though, I’ve moved around too much ever to properly have a garden of my own, so I suppose it is fitting that I should be occupied with making landscapes for others.

As a child in an American military family I was moved from place to place roughly every two years, and I continued that restless movement, perhaps out of habit, for much of my early adulthood. Thus it has taken me a long time to come to the understanding just how privileged my upbringing was. Far from an experience of rootlessness, I’ve learned to put down roots quickly. When I think of ‘home’ I think of London–but then I also think of a handful of other places where I’ve made myself at home. I’m one of the lucky immigrants–a garden-worthy species that thrives in a variety of soils. I’m also terribly lucky to have attended a primary school with a greenhouse, to have had a small patch of soil to tend, to have had friends and clients with gardens that needed my attention over the years.

Currying an interest in landscape amongst the young begins at the crucial early stages; through a dalliance with plants leading to passion, civic involvement, and/or immersion in the arts. When we wonder why it is hard to bring young people into landscape architecture, it is that so few of them have access to or involvement with these things any more. I have spoken about my experience as one of privilege, and indeed it was, but it shouldn’t be. A simple combination of access to a small patch of earth to sow in, to play a musical instrument or to draw pictures, and the duty and pleasure of involvement in community, society, and culture–these should be cheaply or freely accessible to all–and they’re not privilege, they’re necessities.

This said, I’m not pessimistic about the future of landscape architecture (or the arts, or civics). I think we’re just at a cultural and political low point of obsession with objects over contexts, personal gain over public wellbeing, ‘growth’ over nurturing, cold hard cash over art. And we’re already climbing out of that pit of despair. Landscape architecture and the landscape professions, however they are named or constituted in the future, will remain essential to civic life, the arts, and, of course, the environment. In our short history as a profession, we’re just a seedling, filling out our foliage, preparing to bloom.

A Word … “Decant”

by Tim-Waterman on September 20, 2015, no comments

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Autumn 2015 issue I warn against the use of the word ‘decant’ to describe the forcible ejection of people from their homes

DecanterWine is symbolic in a host of ways. A silver chalice of it can represent the blood of a historic martyr. A cellar full of aged vintages represents private family wealth and educated taste. A table with wine at the centre at any income level represents conviviality, togetherness, sharing, family and community. In France and Spain, for example, where wine is central to culture, it represents a wealth of heritage that is shared across all classes and which undergirds a whole national identity.

Such strong symbolism of the beverage itself naturally spills over into the associations we have with the actions and paraphernalia that are part of the rituals associated with wine. From wine-making to storing, to presenting, serving, and drinking, every layer of dust, every glistening glint of crystal, every red drop soaking gently into a crisp white napkin has great significance.

The great comfort such symbols and rituals afford us (not to mention the tipsiness following what Auden called ‘the cloop of corks’) points to the incredible importance of establishing place, whether around the table or in the spaces of communities, and of human association in rooms and landscapes that accrue significance when they are filled with love and laughter.

Thus it is with sinister irony that some bright spark thought it fit to use the term ‘decant’ to describe the process whereby, in one council’s ‘Decant Policy’, ‘residents are compelled to move from their homes because either their landlord or an authority with compulsory purchase powers has redevelopment plans for their home.’ Oh yes, let’s examine this irony.

What happens when a wine is decanted? Usually a wine to be decanted is a vintage one. It is gently aerated by the process, and most importantly the good, clear wine is separated from the bitter dregs at the bottom of the bottle. It is an easy step from here to determine just what the dregs represent. These are the urban poor to be discarded and rinsed away. Who knows where the drain leads. Who cares?

Here, however, is where the symbolism of ‘decanting’ people ends in its similarity to that of wine. Wine gains from a long association with place, whether this is where the vines are rooted, a cellar rested in, or a culinary culture that has developed over time. The French call this terroir: deep place, deep time, deep satisfaction. Decanting people treats a building as a simple vessel, empty of association built up over time, and of context.

Finally, we have come to glorify the winemaker. Face wrinkled and baked like the stony soil. Dirt under the fingernails. Not so the urban poor. They have no right to the fruits of their labour or to a deep connection with place and community. What trump their rights are the processes in which developers, aided by a weakened planning system and the exodus of capable designers and planners from the public sector, present ‘viability assessments’ which protect their profits while pruning away any planning gain that might provide homes for low-income people. Those low-income people have a right to landscape and a right to the city, but these rights are bulldozed by a de facto ‘right to profit’ of the developers. It’s not just the urban poor, but us – landscape professionals who have struggled through the recent recession – who know one thing for certain: there is no ‘right to profit’.

So let’s not ‘decant’ people. Let’s be honest about the fact that they are being forced from their homes rather than dressing the process up in pseudo-gracious language. Then both we and they will be more clear-sighted about the whole debacle. And then in the good times we can decant a little bit of clear, vintage wine together with clear consciences.

The Global Cucumber: On the Milan Expo 2015

by Tim-Waterman on July 28, 2015, no comments

This article appeared in the July 2015 edition of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), with the subheading “The Milan Expo raises unsought emotions about food, cities, the world.” The text and photos are both mine. 

The 'Tree of Life' is a sound and light spectacle every evening that includes dancing waters and a techno soundtrack.

The ‘Tree of Life’ is a sound and light spectacle every evening that includes dancing waters and a techno soundtrack.

A city like Milan reflects the strivings of generations. It has a rich quality of everyday life that includes a sophisticated food culture, which, as in so many Italian cities, is both distinctly local and, because of its history of trade, cosmopolitan. The evolution of the city’s form has intertwined with the tastes and appetites of the Milanese. The convivial quality of many of its spaces comes from enclosures such as its ubiquitous courtyard gardens, its cool semiprivate zones where neighbors come into contact, or its sidewalk cafés. Milan was once Mediolanum (meaning “in the midst of the plain”), the capital of the Western Roman Empire. It was enclosed by walls, but open to its countryside in the Po River Valley, where alluvial soils raised abundant grain and grapes, and roads brought influence from all over Europe.

Milan’s economy has suffered, as has all of Italy’s, from the crash in 2008, and recession and unemployment are tenaciously rooted. While its economy continues to be underpinned by industry and agriculture, notably by small, family-owned farms, government policy has looked to urban and infrastructural development for solutions to the crisis. Italy’s new, post-Berlusconi government is trying to show evidence of its ability to deliver, and Milan, the financial center of Italy, has become a showcase of contemporary neoliberal development. In particular, two developments have shown great international visibility: the Milan Expo 2015 and the business district at Porta Nuova, best known for the Bosco Verticale (vertical forest), the heavily vegetated and much-published twin luxury apartment towers by the architect Stefano Boeri.

Boeri has courted controversy at both sites, attracting antigentrification protests both from the working-class neighborhood the towers protrude from, as well as accusations of deploying expensive greenwash that would never be possible in a lower-cost development. Much the same objections have been raised against the plans for this year’s expo in Milan, which he master planned with Jacques Herzog, William McDonough, and Ricky Burdett. “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is the expo’s motto, meant, as it was, to embody a sustainable ethic, but it clashed with the presence of food giants such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola among the nations represented. Lavish spending on the project further excited anger, as many people questioned the concentration of municipal spending on one site instead of many, and the inevitable siphoning away of funds that such concentration engenders. On May Day in Milan, cars blazed in the streets, windows were smashed, and ‘No Expo’ graffiti proliferated.

A vandalized shopfront in central Milan.

A vandalized shopfront in central Milan.

Vo Trong Nghia Architects’ Vietnam Pavilion.

Vo Trong Nghia Architects’ Vietnam Pavilion.

The Nepal Pavilion by the Implementing Expert Group was unfinished on the day of the second big earthquake in Nepal.

The Nepal Pavilion by the Implementing Expert Group was unfinished on the day of the second big earthquake in Nepal.

In this case, radical protesters have shown a conservative attitude toward public spending. Such stubbornness can also be found in Italy’s culinary and agricultural traditions. Like Milan’s urban fabric, these traditions reflect the strivings of generations: make-do-and-mend and waste-not-want-not methods ensure the sustainability of these traditional practices. Frugality is a fruitful practice, and thus the delights of the Italian table are legendary. Italy’s food culture provides the perfect platform to present good food practice to the world. This was the starting point for the master planning team, who wished to create a very different type of expo, mixing a necessary message in with all the usual flash of a multimedia, multination consumerist extravaganza.

I spoke in London with Burdett, who told me the original intention was that 50 percent of each expo plot should be given over to green open space, which meant that the whole would have been landscape-driven rather than focused on pavilions. Drawings from the 2009 proposal show delicate fabric awnings, fields of sunflowers, and canals. This much calm sincerity was, perhaps, doomed from the beginning, and all the partners on the master planning team except Boeri disowned the process and left the team when the requirement for green space was abandoned by the organizers.

The parts of the master plan that have survived are based in classical Roman city plans or plans of military camps. The site is bounded, in military or urban style, by fences, guards, gates, and canals, and it is organized on a grid with two primary axes: the cardo, or north–south axis, and the decumano, the east– west axis. Tentlike canopies, other survivors from the original master plan, float above.

The expo involved spending on major new highway, rail, and subway infrastructure and interchanges, enough for a permanent new city quarter, which now seems unlikely to be built in the near future. No developer has yet been found for the site, which is located on Milan’s western edge immediately adjacent to one of Europe’s largest convention centers, Fiera Milano. The area is typical urban fringe, a loose agglomeration of industrial uses, working-class neighborhoods, and strip development, all studded with islands of remnant agricultural land. Reports of scandals and boondoggles were rife, as all the usual problems with corruption, profiteering, and inflated land prices, along with a now-familiar story of worker exploitation and poor working conditions, unfolded. The growing cost of the event forced the organizers to search for more corporate sponsors, which included McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, as well as the confectioners Lindt and Ferrero Rocher. Their presence is “perverse and bizarre,” Burdett says.

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The Coca-Cola Pavilion

Sited between national pavilions, food giants, perhaps appropriately, take on the status of nation-states.

Sited between national pavilions, food giants, perhaps appropriately, take on the status of nation-states.

This familiar mix of corporate influence and official and private corruption angered not just those who demanded satisfaction in Milan’s streets, but also workers at the expo who have a keen sense of the politics (“In Italy, politics is everything,” says Burdett.). I toured the children’s area, which was filled with installations for interactive play designed to teach children about plants, food, and environmental responsibility. It was the end of the day, and there was a handful of children left. Many of the workers were gathered together and winding down. Among them was Stefano Bisi, who is scandalized by the presence of the food giants and convinced that “the only people who will gain are the big firms and those who poured the concrete.” Against a backdrop of giant multicolored fruit and vegetables, he warns me that we must “beware of the global cucumber.” Naturally, I’m mystified by this, and he explains by acting it out—he presses his back flush to a wall—“we have to guard our behinds from the global cucumber.”

There are some moments of real beauty, and pavilions that have kept to the original idea of 50 percent green space. These pavilions are without a doubt the most successful. Austria and the United Kingdom are the big showstoppers. Austria provides a steadily misted and cool, wooded undercroft. As the path climbs into the pavilion through trees, a neon sign which reads “breathe” comes to read “eat.” The UK Pavilion by the evocatively named Wolfgang Buttress and BDP is hardly a building at all, but rather a swarm of steel members hovering over a wildflower meadow humming with bees. Everywhere else, plants are growing on green walls at wild angles, as at Israel’s pavilion, or even upside down in a number of pavilions where any number of technocontraptions are employed in horticulture. It’s a relief to see plants growing happily, right-side up, in soil.

Wolfgang Buttress and BDP’s UK Pavilion works with the trendy metaphor of “the hive.”

Wolfgang Buttress and BDP’s UK Pavilion works with the trendy metaphor of “the hive.”

A path leads to the Austria Pavilion, which was designed by a team led by Klaus K. Loenhart, who is both an architect and a landscape architect.

A path leads to the Austria Pavilion, which was designed by a team led by Klaus K. Loenhart, who is both an architect and a landscape architect.

The USA Pavilion is presented with our usual national swagger, second only in height to the Italian pavilion, and with great technopomp, a massive lighted sign at its entrance announces the dawning of the new age of “American Food 2.0.” This means that plants are grown both sideways and upside down, and that an enormous living wall encrusted with lettuces undulates rhythmically from stem to stern, apparently (avowedly) to evoke the vaunted national image of “amber waves of grain.” Not even your patriotism can overcome such leaden high concept and overzealous technophilia, though they’re certainly appropriate to the expo format. The Belgians, punching above their weight, also bring high-tech farming that looks like the inside of a laboratory, and the Ikea-like, serpentine circulation system through it spits us out into a wonderland of costly chocolates, beer, and pommes frites.

Biber Architects’ USA Pavilion has green walls by dlandstudio that undulate mechanically.

Biber Architects’ USA Pavilion has green walls by dlandstudio that undulate mechanically.

American Food 2.0— the sequel.

American Food 2.0— the sequel.

Some countries get the point of an expo but not of the foodie theme. Brazil has a bouncy climbing structure, while Russia’s mirrored, cantilevered erection is, says Burdett, “something an oligarch would build.” And, of course, a glib comparison to the global cucumber is apropos. The centerpiece of the whole exhibition, located at the south end of the cardo, next to the vast, white Italian pavilion, is the Tree of Life, designed by the event entrepreneur Marco Balich, and the focus for a fountain and multimedia light show every night of the expo. Like the “supertrees” at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, the form is the shape of a vortex like a tornado or a whirlpool, or perhaps the bell of a horn. (To describe the shape, an old friend suggests it might be called “vuvuzeliform,” in reference to vuvuzela, the stadium horn made famous by the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa.) Since the conflation of tree and vortex in Singapore, it’s become possible to see this “vuvuzeliform” as invoking the symbology of the tree of life, though this is an uncomfortable pairing, given that the tree of life is so often depicted with roots equivalent to its canopy. Rooted in the ground, reaching to the sky, a reflection of the cycle of life. The vortex/tree form appears everywhere at the Milan Expo, but it’s rootless.

Those Evil Doorstep-Sitters

by Tim-Waterman on July 9, 2015, no comments

A strange tug-of-war between a gentrifying private world and the need for a public life and public space are being played out in tiny micro-aggressions on doorsteps in Fitzrovia. At our recent meeting of residents at the late-Victorian mansion block where I live, the other tenants expressed worries about the large numbers of people, especially at lunch time, who perch on the front stairs and smoke or eat lunch. It’s a genuine problem, as tenants must work their way through the throng to enter their flats, rubbish is left behind – empty Pret a Manger bags and Red Bull tins – and cigarette smoke works its way through the gaps in our decaying sash windows to pollute our homes.

Around the corner on tiny Candover street, where arts-and-crafts buildings mount a small and loving charm offensive, a private physical therapy clinic has just sellotaped paper signs to its frosted glass windows to discourage workmen from the nearby (and apocalyptically awful) Fitzroy Place from sitting on the kerbstones during their lunch.

Sure, it's a private clinic, but isn't this public realm?

Sure, it’s a private clinic, but isn’t this public realm?

Look there - in the shade - a tiny, backless bench, an eloquent symbol of public wealth and civic plenty.

Look there – in the shade – a tiny, backless bench, an eloquent symbol of public wealth and civic plenty.

The frustrations are quite understandable in all cases. But perhaps it’s a sign of the times that we’ve forgotten how to think in larger terms about the issue. In the dog-eat-dog world the Tories inhabit, it’s might and money that will win in this situation, as we’re left to fight things out by ourselves. However there’s a friendlier, easier, and less vexing solution. We simply need more benches. Benches everywhere, with deep seats and generous backs, and bins nearby for lunch waste. What a sign of the wealth of our public realm that would be – and we could turn our street corners into pocket parks at the same time. We make London more beautiful and gracious by thinking publicly, not throwing up fortress walls. So I urge the Candover Clinic to take down their signs and call up the Council and ask for more benches everywhere.

A stroll in Vienna's Rathausplatz garden. Designing for this kind of leisure, pleasure, and play is anything but a 'bullshit job.' Photo by author

Here’s how they do it in Vienna!

And here's how we do it in London. Three benches and a fence to keep you out of the green.

And here’s how we do it in London. Three benches and a fence to keep you out of the green. Welcome to London! Now go away.

And here's how to be the most hostile possible. This is Guy Ritchie's house in Fitzroy Square. He's gated off his front stoop, just as a way to say 'fuck you' to his new neighbourhood. Hey, Guy! Fuck you too!

And here’s how to be the most hostile possible. This is Guy Ritchie’s house in Fitzroy Square. He’s gated off his front stoop (in a conservation area violation, I believe), just as a way to say ‘fuck you’ to his new neighbourhood. Hey, Guy! Fuck you too!

So I think it’s time to bring back a little civic-mindedness, because if we don’t we’ll all die of frustration, or we’ll be forced to take out our aggressions in ways that are distinctly uncivilised. Westminster Council – this is a plea for more benches in London! Maybe if you stopped replacing the beautiful, worn old British granite kerbstones with sparkly, brash Chinese granite we could afford a few more of them.

A Word… “Inevitable”

by Tim-Waterman on June 11, 2015, no comments

"The four horsemen of the apocalypse are always saddled up and ready to ride roughshod over population growth" - scene from Mad Max: Fury Road found at http://www.rygestop.co/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Hi-Res-Wallpaper-up8cq-Free.jpeg

“The four horsemen of the apocalypse are always saddled up and ready to ride roughshod over population growth” – scene from Mad Max: Fury Road found at http://www.rygestop.co/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Hi-Res-Wallpaper-up8cq-Free.jpeg

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Summer 2015 issue I call for more hope, idealism, and striving for prosperity to counter those other apocalyptic horsemen, the Thatcherites and the Blairites. 

There are so many things in the world that we have come to believe are inevitable and which, because of their apparent certainty, we can comfortably base our arguments upon them. These inevitabilities can be quasi-mystical, such as the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, homely but ominous aphorisms like the one about ‘death and taxes’, or political expedients with hidden profit motives for the elites, such as the ‘need’ for austerity politics. One of Margaret Thatcher’s slogans that still rules us today was TINA – “There Is No Alternative” – which tried to present the resurgence of cynical winner-takes-all capitalism, championed by her government, as inevitable. Austerity politics is just the most recent incarnation of this particular agenda. This also set up the now-familiar equation of hope and idealism with immaturity.

I have seen countless presentations in recent years that have based their arguments about landscape and urbanism on a couple of assumptions presented as inevitable which are certainly not, and which bear examination. The first is that human population will continue to grow, and the second is that the forces of urbanisation are everywhere relentless. These ‘inevitabilities’ are then presented as the bases for planning and policy from all scales local to global.

The one thing that’s actually certain about both of these factors, though, is their very uncertainty. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are always saddled up and ready to ride roughshod over population growth, and we might witness a ‘re-ruralisation’ of populations for any number of reasons, from high property prices driving people out of world cities like London and New York, for example, or perhaps a scenario in which people have to return to working the land because of a need for more labour-intensive methods resulting from such true inevitabilities as the exhaustion of finite resources in agriculture.

The other thing we forget to bear in mind is that human populations and their geographic distribution are not just the basis for planning and policy, but are rightfully the subject of planning and policy in and of themselves.

I believe now that, in Britain as elsewhere, we need to begin to push back against these ‘inevitabilities’. If urbanisation continues to empty our countryside, decisions there about how land is used will increasingly come to be made by the landed gentry and/or huge agribusiness concerns with no stake in places other than for productivity, efficiency, and as financial instruments (or, in the case of the gentry, as a scenic backdrop for shooting). And rural areas need to be populated by people with a stake in and stewardship of the land so that they are ecologically healthy, fulfilling, convivial, and supportive places to live.

We also need to reverse the process of the North’s emptying out into the Southeast, and that will take prolonged efforts to ensure there are strong local economies, pleasant places, and meaningful work everywhere. This will take local planning, design, and funding everywhere – and small local landscape practices of all sorts from ecological to architectural everywhere too. We must replace the inevitability of austerity politics with the emergence of a hopeful and positive prosperity politics for city and country, north and south. Hope and idealism, far from being immature, are hallmarks of a sane and mature society. What we should make inevitable are prosperity, well-being, and the creation of great places everywhere and for everyone.

A Question of Taste

by Tim-Waterman on April 25, 2015, no comments

This essay appeared in the Autumn 2011 issue of Landscape to accompany my talk at the Garden Museum entitled ‘Food in the Metropolis’. My research continues to explore questions of taste, prosperity, and the good life as key to a sustainable future. 

JacquesTati’s Monsieur Hulot in Mon Oncle comes face to face with sanitised, mechanised modernism in an automated kitchen. In one of the most sophisticated comedies ever made, Hulot moves uneasily through unfamiliar modernism, but crosses back with ease into his preferred milieu of the messy but liveable traditional town. This kitchen scene, where Hulot is thwarted by the ‘machine for living’, highlights the seemingly unbridgeable divide between tradition and modernity

JacquesTati’s Monsieur Hulot in Mon Oncle comes face to face with sanitised, mechanised modernism in an automated kitchen. In one of the most sophisticated comedies ever made, Hulot moves uneasily through unfamiliar modernism, but crosses back with ease into his preferred milieu of the messy but liveable traditional town. This kitchen scene, where Hulot is thwarted by the ‘machine for living’, highlights the seemingly unbridgeable divide between tradition and modernity. Image from Dwell, www.assets.dwell.com

The story of food weaves itself through our idea of human comfort and wellbeing, and is therefore at the heart of how we build and dwell. We want to live zestfully, build tastefully, and dwell sweetly and deliciously. We will know if the green city of the future has succeeded if it supports our very human aspiration to live deliciously forever. After all, sustainability is not just about our survival as a species, but also our ability to provide a good quality of life for our children’s children’s children. Supporting biodiversity, providing ecological services and ensuring a temperate climate are all part of this most savoury aspiration.

The question of taste is one that philosophers throughout history have regarded as too subjective, too shifting, too evanescent to grasp. Yet taste guides where we choose to live and how we choose to build. Ultimately, our tastes will determine whether we can design a sustainable future. The idea of taste in its largest, cultural sense cannot be divorced from our preferences for the flavours of food, and food is even more fundamental than shelter. So understanding taste seems vital if we are to understand how to shape appetites for sustainable places. Taste and place are intertwined, and it is the job of the designer to come to terms and work with all the flavours of a place.

A tasty future has not always been seen as the sustainable option. Modernism was often a love affair with the artificial and a celebration of the technocrat – design was a practical problem and a totalising vision. This became as much an underpinning theory for design as it did a moral position among modernists, which still prevails today.

The dehumanising and alienating tendencies of technocratic design are illustrated with enduring eloquence in films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958). The list goes on with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and is yet to run its course.

Dinner in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, where representations of tastiness must suffice, and where reality is far more bland.

Dinner in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where representations of tastiness must suffice, and where reality is far more bland. Image from www.filmgrab.files.wordpress.com

These tensions are still evident today, and the food and methods of eating portrayed in these films (Chaplin, for example, fed by a malfunctioning ‘efficiency machine’) show that the portrayal of weird, deracinated food is a visceral way of describing a tasteless place and time. It is revealing, too, that dystopian films almost always include bizarre, machinic eating as a way of getting the point across.

Modern architecture was described as “tasteless” by Marco Frascari in his essay “Semiotica Ab Edendo (Taste in Architecture)”, but actually architecture strove to ‘rise above’ taste. However, in rising above taste, it also often rose beyond meaning – and meaning is essential to our lives. By striving for an international style, modernism sought to sidestep the whole issue of taste by replacing it with rationalism. A sustainable future for our cities, though, is one that is not taste-less, but taste-full. The work of designing the green city is not about imposing one single set of educated tastes and appetites upon the world, but rather understanding, honouring, and sometimes managing, a wide range of tastes.

Good design, then, begins with the ability to envision scenarios; to think through patterns of everyday life in space in order to verify whether design solutions will work for people and the environment. Patterns of everyday use based around shopping, dining, growing, trading and sharing are all reflected in our spaces. Much has been written about understanding architecture and urbanism in terms of ‘movement’ or ‘flows’ and of ‘typologies’, but taste complicates this. Human flows and neighbourhood and building typologies are responsive to, and reflective of, human tastes, attitudes and appetites that may vary radically from one area – indeed, even one street – to the next.

My mental map of my neighbourhood, of London at large, and of the rest of the world that I have either visited or wish to visit, is constructed of complex routes between good meals, tasty drinks, and where to find the ingredients for good meals accompanied by tasty drinks. This is further complicated by innumerable calculations of price advantage and value, which can often skew trajectories through the city. Before we moved last year, my partner and I kept an allotment garden, so these navigations and calculations included such things as plants and seeds, soil and compost, and tools and techniques for feeding ourselves with our own care and labour.

The shape of the city often accommodates these movements. Sometimes because commerce answers demand, sometimes because planning and design anticipate them, and usually because urban patterns and associations have matured and developed over time and through culture. Restaurants tend to be grouped together in the city, for example, and they are usually further sorted by type, ethnicity and cost. Even supermarkets, technocratic wonders that they are, are often grouped together now, whether in their satellite sites alongside motorways or in city centres. A good city answers our appetites.

What impels many urban journeys is appetite, and what guides them or limits them is taste. Appetite connotes eagerness more than it does hunger, and the sense of the word also suggests a certain selectivity. But if one is really hungry, one will eat just about anything. If one has an appetite, it is generally an appetite for something in particular and the anticipation is a pleasurable one. To be hungry implies a lack, whereas to have an appetite implies abundance and choice. Design that only answers need and function cannot provide savour or happy expectation, instead it is concerned only with survival. Community by community, appetites differ, as do tastes, and at any economic level sustainable communities have a right to a delicious quality of life.

Because appetite and taste are both descriptors of our relationship with food, and because these terms describe so much of what motivates and guides people through the social and cultural realms of their lives, it stands to reason that understanding our relationship with food is a useful way to understand our relationship with the urban landscape. The construction of acquired taste, for example, is an important component of our social lives. Acquired taste is often part of social mobility or the result of aspirations.

It is the taste equivalent of ‘working out’ or ‘reading up’. Urban spaces are often in themselves aspirational, and many of them are certainly acquired tastes. Though it is beautiful, how many of us would actually relish living in the splendid isolation of London’s Mayfair? Clearly, it’s an acquired taste, and a prestigious one, but it also serves to illustrate that most of us prefer to limit our aspirations within a certain comfort zone.

Designers may wish to refrain from stretching communities beyond their comfort zones; to give them more and better, while understanding that too much would just be ‘putting on airs’. Most people want neighbourhoods that are more like comfort food than haute cuisine.

There are fundamental questions about how we design that revolve around the issue of taste. Why do we like what we like? What do clients or communities want – or, more importantly, what do they expect? Why is it that the general public so often finds what architects design distasteful? How can we design for both comfort and sustainability?

There are huge issues for the future: if our tastes don’t change in many ways, we will not realise sustainable design. Little by little, we will need to change notions of taste, both within design and among the public, if we are to create a future city (and planet) that is both liveable and loveable. Let’s pull our chairs up to the table and get stuck into a delicious conversation about making it happen.

Bad Role Models for Landscape Architecture

by Tim-Waterman on April 20, 2015, no comments

‘Bad Role Models for Landscape Architecture’ is a series of articles I wrote in 2012 for Landscape online and which led to much discussion (some angry) and a short appearance on the BBC where I criticised Charles Jencks’s earthwork Northumberlandia. Jencks believes that in a postmodern age any publicity, even negative, is good publicity. This, however, is only a very temporary fact, and work made for this type of media response will itself be as ephemeral. All six instalments are reproduced unmodified from the original as a single piece. 

Bad Role Models for Landscape Architecture

Many a landscape student’s bête noire is the concept – the ‘big idea’ that drives the design. Ultimately, any site’s big idea is its context and how that fits with its possible programme. Many design concepts actually prevent landscapes from functioning, and this series of short articles looks at a few of the ways projects can get off to false starts or come to bad ends.

Bad Concept Number 1: “The Inflexible Abstraction”

Northumberlandia, aerial view. From Strange History http://www.strangehistory.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/northumberlandia.jpg

Northumberlandia, aerial view. From Strange History http://www.strangehistory.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/northumberlandia.jpg

Gazing into the stars or pondering the philosophical ineffable can inspire us to try to express universal truths or fascinating theories about the nature of life or the stuff of the cosmos. This is a deeply human goal, but one that can go badly awry when applied literally to site design. Forms derived from speculations unrelated to site can die on the drafting table and then be delivered stiff and stillborn onto a site.

Charles Jencks is the current master of the inflexible abstraction and thus serves as our first bad role model for landscape architecture. Much work has been inspired by his curvaceous forms, which can be photogenic, but when students try to recreate his methods they find their designs are little more than cake-decorating across the surface of the site.

Indeed, this is usually what Jencks’s works do. His landforms strive towards a ‘universal iconography’ while expressing ‘local, national, and cosmic history’. This is accomplished by, for example, creating a pond in the shape of Scotland. The world is shrunk into a grain of sand as black holes commingle with quarks and Higgs’s bashful boson. Pages 20 and 21 of Jencks’ new book The Universe in the Landscape illustrate just how stiffly representational his work can be. A swirl of warped-grid paving curves into a massive concrete vortex. Visitors have been provided with a handrail so that they can resist the supergravity at the event horizon. Hang on tight!

Readers of Jencks’s new doorstop, should they be able to persevere beyond these initial pages, will be treated to a carnival of horrors, the most striking of which is an enormous landform in the shape of an earth goddess to be known as ‘Northumberlandia’, who, while not an actual local, national, or cosmic deity, is representative of one. She looks uncomfortable in her role. Northumberlandia’s hypertrophied breasts thrust into the sky while she lies in a twisted contraposto and raises a cold, dead hand in benediction. The icing on this particular piece of cake-decoration is that the artist saw fit to fashion an enormous mythic female form out of slag. Some day tourists will wave smugly from her hoar-frosted nipples.

A concept should give us a way of working with the landscape, not on the landscape. The projects illustrated in The Universe in the Landscape are models for concept-enslaved art imposed on the landscape, thus they are destructive models for landscape design.

Bad Concept Number 2: “All Soaped Up”

One World Trade Center. Image from Redesign Revolution http://www.redesignrevolution.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/One-World-Trade-Center-1.png

One World Trade Center. Image from Redesign Revolution http://www.redesignrevolution.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/One-World-Trade-Center-1.png

Sometimes the conceptual weakness in a design originates in the brief issued by the client, often when the goal is a “Garden of Something-or-other”. This could be ‘fellowship’ perhaps, or ‘remembrance’, or ‘earthly delights’. These are all meaningful appellations. They resonate with the public and the symbolic function of the language is fairly clear. They celebrate human ideals or human existence and they make these ideas tangible in a physical space that people can inhabit. These types of spaces have an important civic and cultural function for identity and belonging.

It can be difficult, though, to take such a far-reaching abstraction and apply it to generate form or to manipulate material on an actual site. These abstractions are as slippery as bars of soap. They just don’t afford any opportunities to get a grip

A spectacular example is Daniel Libeskind’s Ground Zero Master Plan for the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, the language of which is at once a haunted house of the ethereal and sacred, and a roundhouse punch of macho patriotic swagger. There are two key themes: one, ‘Reflecting Absence’, the twin fountains within the twin tower footprints and the ‘Freedom Tower’, the symbolic replacement for Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center towers.

‘Reflecting Absence’, Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s fountains falter because they, in the manner of so many contemporary memorials, are immensely land-hungry. Since Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, every memorial must be narrative and immersive and big. Thus it gobbles up a lot of sacred land that could be used more usefully and very symbolically for the public exercise of democracy. Further, its fountains gobble up fossil fuels by pumping water at the rate of 98,000 litres a minute. This conspicuous waste combined with global tensions over fuel do nothing to improve the image of Americans in the world at large.

The pinnacle of the master plan is the ‘Freedom Tower’ (now the design of David Childs) and ‘freedom’ is used as both the conceptual and symbolic driver for the design. That anyone would want to utter the term ‘freedom’ after it was so wilfully perverted during the Bush years is remarkable, but Libeskind has given that perversion a patriotic erection 1,776 feet high (1776 being the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence). For those many international dead from the twin towers, it is no comfort that this is, in metric, 541.3248 metres. Numerology is just another soapy, slippery notion.

Perhaps the important point for design, though, is that the concept of ‘freedom’ has burdened the world with yet another anodyne, air-conditioned, glassy, soap-slick stack.

Bad Concept Number 3: “The Killer Robot”

'Circles on circles theme' and 2-118 'Circles and radii theme' from Grant Reid's 'From Concept to Form in Landscape Design' (2nd Edition)

‘Circles on circles theme’ and 2-118 ‘Circles and radii theme’ from Grant Reid’s ‘From Concept to Form in Landscape Design’ (2nd Edition)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a simple formula for landscape design? Feed the site in as a variable (x marks the site), solve for x and, lo and behold, beyond the equals sign lurks a finished design. Actually, you’re probably thinking, it wouldn’t be wonderful. Landscape architects and garden designers would simply be out of work. Clients around the world could download the ‘garden design’ or ‘master plan’ app, and that would be that. Run app, print plan, hire contractor, job done.

On the Academy of Urbanism’s Linked In group, there have, at the time of this writing, been 106 earnest responses to the question “I am trying to develop a more systematic approach to assesing [sic] how well a place is doing …”, which shows just how much interest there is in the robotic, systematised approach to landscape. We know a simple formula doesn’t exist, but computerised modelling is still seen as a viable approach to landscape and urban practice, despite the egregious example of traffic planning’s universal failure to make better places anywhere through the use of very sexy and sophisticated models.

Models and formulas also demean our profession. The proliferation of short garden design courses based in a formulaic approach furthers the notion, dangerously amongst the general public, that a bit of careful shading with coloured pencil and the loving application of a bit of Euclidean geometry is all that’s required for place making. Landscape design: it’s just what you like, and just a bit of shrubbing it up. Child’s play. Why on earth would anyone spend eight years of their life working towards chartership just to do that? The prevalence of facile shape-making approaches in garden design has led a couple of generations of landscape architects to seek to distance themselves from gardens – a peculiar act that could be compared to denying the existence of your leg while you’re standing on it.

Not that this distancing has done much good. Formulaic approaches are writ large in a classic of the landscape architecture canon: Grant Reid’s From Concept to Form in Landscape Design.  Reid has now assimilated thousands of landscape designers into a colony of killer robots, manufacturing mindless, soulless geometric designs across the face of the Earth. There’s no denying that it’s easy. Begin with a circle (or a hexagon, or even an irregular polygon), click and place it around in CAD a bit, and presto, a garden design that functions only in plan and which stylistically evokes the golden year of 1985. Landscape design, as good practitioners know, happens in four, and probably more dimensions, and we must engage all of our senses in design that is spatial. The 2D plan drawing is not truly our friend, at least not when used in isolation, and certainly not when geometry alone is the driver for site design.

Bad Concept Number 4: “The Thing”

Heatherwick's Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin. Photo by Author.

Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin. Photo by Author.

A variety of factors, including the rampant economic growth around the turn of the millennium and the relentless drive towards branding that accompanied it, has led artists and designers of all stripes to seek continually to create the ‘iconic’ object. This is to some extent a noble ambition. It is possible to cast an eye back to globally significant examples such as the Wassily Chair, Tower Bridge, the Jaguar E-Type, Duchamp’s Fountain or Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier, to name a few, and to harbour some small ambition to duplicate that success. Naturally, many things will fall short of this significance, and that is a necessary evil. Many things become, in time, worthy of study as curiosities, aberrations, or bellwethers rather than icons. Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God or the revised Fiat Cinquecento might fit this category.

Icons, though, are rarely found in the work of landscape design. Landscape designers must beware of ‘the thing’: that object that appears fully formed on the drafting table and is then airlifted onto an unsuspecting site, where it becomes ‘plopitecture’. Worse yet, sometimes plopitecture necessitates a contortion of the site that appears posed and unnatural.

Thomas Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge is one such egregious example. It is, in itself, a delightful thing. It is what all of our inner children want most: a clever and expensive toy. It sits across a small canal inlet that is grudgingly straddled by the hulk of Marks and Spencer’s HQ. Though Heatherwick Studio’s website is at pains to explain that the bridge lifts to allow access for a boat, a submerged concrete bulwark effectively obviates any such practice. And while one might imagine that such a clever and expensive portal might open to reveal a luxury stealth craft worthy of James Bond, the inlet is barely large enough to house a rubber dinghy. The awkward pose of it all renders the whole ensemble paltry, petty. One doesn’t want to play with either the toy or the box.

Roland Barthes, writing of photography in Camera Lucida, advances the theory that a photograph becomes effective through two means, the studium and the punctum. The studium might be seen as a sort of ground or setting, while the punctum (“that accident which pricks me …”) surprises and completes the image. The relation between sculptural objects or design elements and site might be thought of thus.

We should seek not to create icons, but rather, to use a good old-fashioned word, to create landmarks. A landmark is a punctum that is situated and that situates; it can make a place but it must necessarily be of that place and for that place as well.

Bad Concept Number 5: “The Gimmick”

Musee du Quai Branly. Murky, unflattering photo supplied by author.

Musee du Quai Branly. Murky, unflattering photo supplied by author.

Our consumer culture continually reinforces obsessive neophilia. The next novelty, gadget, or technology is always enticingly within reach and there are whole realms of design in which obsolescence is a goal. There is a particularly loathsome breed of industrial designers, for example, who boast about the speed with which a product becomes obsolete and while still maintaining consumer confidence. Landscape architects are not immune to these forces, and often can design spaces that quickly become obsolete because they are dependent upon gimmickry and lack the ‘good bones’ necessary to endure beyond the life of the product. Failed lighting never fails to serve as a beacon of crapness, for example, particularly when the space is nothing but a vehicle for a spectacular lighting scheme.

Everyone likes a little flash and dazzle, though, and one designer who has cashed in on a gimmick is Patrick Blanc. With his green-dyed locks, leaf-print shirts, and long fingernails giving him a faintly reptilian air, he has stepped into the time-honoured role of ‘designer as exotic creature’. He clearly understands the theatre that is required for the job.

Blanc’s vertical gardens are the perfect combination of corporate bling and greenwash for clients who wish to project a literally and figuratively green image at the same time that they conspicuously display the ability to spend lavishly. No corporate campus food court is thus now complete without its own lush and dripping green wall.

There’s no doubt that people find these walls attractive. Last summer, Shelley Mosco designed a delightful Van Gogh styled vertical garden at the National Gallery that was nearly petted to death by adoring tourists and may have been the most photographed London attraction of the season. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the craze is over. Once the irrigation systems stop working those green façades will disappear, or, perhaps more appropriately they’ll just be planted up with ivy. Maybe, though, we will finally have accomplished the feat of convincing architects that vine-clad buildings can be lovely.

It isn’t that the gimmick isn’t important – it is – just as important as those Le Corbusier specs for giving the client the full experience of hiring a designer. These things, though, are just the trappings, which are prone to obsolescence. The underlying design must always be robust enough to remain beautiful and functional when the gimmick is gone.

Part 6: “Is There a Good Concept?”

Design studio desk, early 21st Century, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by author.

Design studio desk, early 21st Century, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by author.

A large part of imagination is simulation. The design process can be thought of as a sophisticated ‘flight simulator’ that allows the testing of a design in motion before it takes form on site. A flight simulator saves lives, money, and materials by allowing novice pilots to err virtually – and this is precisely also true of design process. What of the art in design, though? A pilot learns skills that are analytical, instrumental, mechanical, whereas design must also be emotive, sensual, perhaps even mythic (and one wouldn’t want to be on a flight with those qualities). Is the concept the art component of design? Is design like a simulator run on the electricity of the idea? In a word, no. We need to reframe our idea of the idea in landscape design.

What is your concept?

This is the question that is asked in critiques, the question students and professionals ask each other, and it’s even the question clients have been trained to ask. The concept, though, as it is commonly wielded, possesses a monolithic singularity. Once formed, the concept can be unassailable. Mitigating factors and contingencies must be cast off or repelled. The concept becomes so abstracted from the site that communication between genius loci and concept is simply lost. The virtual aeroplane keeps landing on the same runway, same time, same crosswind, same stale coffee.

Where is the rupture? Why do concept-based approaches for design genesis fail? First, because they tend to be uncritical. Concept may follow analysis, but the crucial work of interpretation is missing. Second, because it is a human trait to seek abstractions that transcend the physical – often as pure, universal ‘truths’ – fixed and timeless, axiomatic. Concepts thus formed become so literal that they bear no relation to place. These two related tendencies result in art that more resembles taxidermy than living, breathing nature.

If not concept, then what?

We might begin to found a new idea of landscape design process by first examining the medium. It’s a truism, for example, to say that a potter thinks differently from a carpenter, that the medium of clay creates a particularly plastic mode of understanding, whereas wood has pliancy but requires precision, as does the woodworker. One might even, as an extreme example, examine Zen philosophy through the lens of the art of motorcycle maintenance. Our bodily experience of the world and our interaction with its materials shapes our life views and our modes of knowledge.

To examine medium in landscape design is particularly complex. First, there are the various media employed in drawing and modelling during the creative simulation phase of design that occurs in primarily in the studio. This plurality of materials marks a particular landscape architectural way of knowing that is distinct from the work of the specialist craftsman. Second, there is landscape itself, which really can’t be considered a singular medium at all, but rather must be viewed as a set of processes and forces – ecological, geological, political, social, cultural – that are constantly dynamic and interpenetrating.

The answer is, again, in our idea of the ‘big idea’ of design. If we conceive of both site and of design processes as fluid and relational, then we must begin to work and act in more fluid and relational ways. It is not a question of eliminating concept in favour of context. Context must be engaged through inaugurating a process of active, open-ended conceptualising in design as opposed to a fixed concept. This may seem like a subtle shift, but it is one that could not only utterly redefine our work with landscape, but redefine design processes across the architectures, arts and manufactures. As we seek more sustainable and resilient modes of thinking and practice, the scope of contemporary landscape architecture demands that we lead the way.

A Word… “Blang”

by Tim-Waterman on April 18, 2015, no comments


Burberry check: the ur-blang, the ultimate in non-taste

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Spring 2015 issue I introduce the damning term ‘blang’ – where bland meets bling.

A pewter-grey luxury sedan is parked on a pea gravel drive edged with tightly-clipped shin-high boxwood hedges. A pedimented entryway, door gloss black and studded with plain but highly polished stainless knobs and furniture, is flanked by two Laurus nobilis lollipop standards in square galvanized containers top-dressed with slate chips. Here we see the full suburban expression of the phenomenon known as ‘blang’– bland meets bling – and we could be anywhere in the world, but the combination, neatly sidestepping any expression of taste either bad or good, is the clearest possible visual code for a particular type of wealth. This is the wealth that dares not speak its name, except in the most minutely read details –hand-burnished cordovan loafers, creamy tailored beige raincoats, polished granite, an indeterminate abstract canvas in earth tones and mauve, a spray of lilies.

It’s a form peculiar to a western middle-class and upper middle-class aversion to conspicuous display. Rarely are its symbols, which mumble instead of shouting about wealth, ironically appropriated by the subaltern classes as the trappings of wealth so often are, with the notable exception of the Burberry check (this is perhaps the ur-blang) and the Mercedes grille ornament as worn by rap artists in the 80’s and 90’s. The totems of luxury have always been subverted and parodied by those with the least disposable income, particularly the flashiest trappings that only the most spangled celebrities would dare to sport. Wear leopard and you’re either Paris Hilton, a punk, or a prostitute, though Paris is probably wearing a real skin rather than printed velour. Blang flies under the radar, avoiding any message at all except the hushed but urgent hint of money.

Our urban buildings and landscapes often used to unabashedly flaunt the wealth of our culture. Gaudy, yes, but the etymology of the word gaudy comes from an old English root meaning ‘joke’ or ‘plaything’, and our landscapes, city or country, were festooned with ornamental swags and statuesque symbolisms of all stripes. Our landscapes were playthings, fantasies, and they expressed good taste, bad taste, and wild, unprecedented taste. Just as often they expressed sensibilities that were decidedly local as well, as did buildings, such as those of Czech Cubism or Belgian Art Nouveau. With the exception of a few token eruptions of starchitecture, though, our cities are now becoming wastelands of tepid blang as the non-tastes of bankers and developers are expressed with international money by international practices on ever-larger sites.

The architectural critic Owen Hatherley, in his A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, calls the prevailing style in architecture ‘pseudomodernism.’ Pseudomodernism, he says, is ‘Postmodernism’s incorporation of a Modernist formal language.’ It includes the usual headline grabbing one-off architectural spectacles, but also the anodyne faceted glass towers whose sole characteristic is bulk (Shard, World Trade Center One), a whole slew of anonymous buildings with barcode façades, and sleek, vaguely Scandi condominium and ‘luxury flat’ developments. It’s these last few categories that I would identify as blang, and landscape architecture in many places is doing its best to keep up with this vapid, meaningless style. The City of London’s landscaping, which years ago Pevsner (I think) described as ‘suburban,’ continues to live up to this accusation to this day, and all our other great cities are being shrubbed up to look like corporate campuses. We’re making places with all the charm and distinction of a business hotel near the airport. So the next time you’re worried that your design might be seen as bad taste, well, you could just be on to something. Don’t let that idea go! Wear a little leopard! Don’t give in to the blang! 

We Need Places Shaped by Local Interests to End the Housing Crisis

by Tim-Waterman on March 31, 2015, no comments

This post first appeared on Homes For Britain’s ‘Fifty Blogs in Fifty Days’ here

Peter Paul Rubens, Abundantia, c. 1630 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Paul Rubens, Abundantia, c. 1630 – She holds a cornucopia signifying prosperity, abundance, and the good life – all very different from the idea of austerity. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Our housing crisis stems from a larger crisis in how we conceive of place and of landscape. Landscapes are the environments we shape and which, in turn, shape us. However, the control of our everyday landscapes – our cities and our countryside – have been turned over to be designed by placeless multinationals, giant developers, and (occasionally) architectural superstars whose work is global and could be anywhere. Then those horsemen of the apocalypse the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) treat land and housing as financial instruments for speculation rather than as places that provide for human flourishing.

We need places, and thus housing, that are on the whole designed, funded, and developed locally so that cities are made in their own idiom and at a scale that suits them. The same is true of the countryside, where people need permanent housing – rather than weekend cottages – and good work so that they can live well and serve as stewards of the land.

The general panic resulting from austerity politics has fuelled a smug, elite project of asset-stripping the public good and the common wealth, including neighbourhoods and housing. We need its alternative: a prosperity politics that focuses on the best things possible for all people and the places in which they live. Quality housing, quality places, and meaningful work that provides demonstrably good things are essential to good quality of life and well-being. Indeed, they are essential to our planetary future.

At Liberty: Place de la République, Paris

by Tim-Waterman on January 22, 2015, no comments

This article is from the April 2014 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) and I have re-blogged it from The Dirt.

Place de la République before aerial view / © Air-Images.net

Place de la République before aerial view / © Air-Images.net

Place de la République after aerial view / © TVK

Place de la République after aerial view / © TVK

A piece of Paris has been recivilized for walking (or skating, or scootering, or protesting). Taxi Drivers aren’t happy, but they’ll get over it.

Over lunch at the cheap and cheerful Gai Moulin restaurant near the Pompidou in Paris, I spoke with the man at the next table about his experience of the Place de la République. He replied that it was outside his usual haunts, but that he had always seen the space as “a sort of absence.” This is precisely how I remembered the Place from previous trips to Paris. It was somehow dark, cold, and wet in every season; a vortex of angry traffic that made fugitives of pedestrians, a margin, a nonplace. What a pleasure, then, to return to find a space filled with warmth and activity even on a damp winter day.

The design, by the French architecture and urbanism practice Trévelo and Viger-Kohler (TVK) with Martha Schwartz Partners and the landscape architects AREAL, has brought the city back together where it had been fractured by traffic planners and years of small streetscape adjustments unaided by strategy. TVK was responsible for much of the design, the meetings, the consultations. One of the great successes of the space is owing to creative input from Martha Schwartz Partners: the partial pedestrianization of one side of the square. The other is owing to a very sophisticated grading strategy.

The Place de la République sits at the corner of the 3rd, 10th, and 11th arrondissements and at the center of a spiderweb of streets with no fewer than seven roads connecting (and more diving into forks just before). There are also five Métro lines that converge underground and eject people at five points around and within it. The square’s current shape is the result of the talented megalomaniac Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s interventions in the Second Empire. The construction of the square and the adjoining boulevards involved the destruction of a row of theaters on the Boulevard du Temple. One of the earliest known photographic images, a daguerreotype of the Boulevard du Temple, shows the area before Haussmann’s picks began to swing.

The center of the Place de la République is the top of a gentle hill on which sits a gaudy statue of Marianne, France’s national emblem, brandishing an olive branch with bombast. Before the renovations of the square she sat marooned on a traffic island, her pedestal covered with graffiti deposited during demonstrations. Now she floats over the dome of space, and the topography bends away from her and down the many radiating streets. The hilltop has been gently smoothed in every direction, which gives it a decisive tautness. It doesn’t have “hospital corners,” tucked into itself nicely as so many squares do; rather the tautness extends beyond the square and down each connecting street. As Schwartz says, “The project’s big win was to attach the square to the rest of the city.” The decisive, perhaps brutal, confidence of Haussmann’s avenues has met its complement. The square and the surrounding streets have all been joined in grand unity.

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

The redirection of the traffic, which partially pedestrianizes the northeastern side of the square, is almost a photocopy of London’s Trafalgar Square, which was also a choked gyre of traffic until Peter Heath, at Atkins, and Norman Foster, at Foster + Partners, corrected it in 2003. Whereas Trafalgar Square is completely pedestrianized along one side, its Parisian counterpart allows bus and taxi traffic along its quiet side. It’s hated by taxi drivers, who claim that there is now a permanent bottleneck at the Place de la République. The London version is not loved by taxi drivers either, nor by the National Gallery, which, with characteristic English reserve, claims the space is now so overrun with tourists that it has turned into an undignified carnival. In 2009 the gallery actually tried to have the traffic returned to the square.

The city of Paris is willing to wait out the taxi drivers, though. The intentions are overall to make Paris a place much friendlier to alternative transportation modes, and the hope is that congestion will ease as car usage declines. Paris also gives over automotive spaces to the pedestrians, bikes, and other wheels along the Seine during the summer when a beach appears on the road, and on Sundays all year.

On my midwinter visit the tourist throngs that plague Trafalgar Square weren’t in evidence at République, but the square was certainly thronged on my arrival. Thousands of Kurds and their supporters had turned out to protest the murder of three Kurdish activists in Paris the previous year. Flags of a variety of countries waved from the hands of young protesters who were climbing Marianne’s pedestal. Food vendors set up at the edges of the crowd, and then, lining every street in incredible numbers, there were armored gendarmes with their vehicles, drinking coffee and waiting for trouble (which never came). From my hotel room just next door we could hear the indignation of the crowds and the speakers coming in waves.

At midnight the square was full of piles of refuse being gathered together and trucks with pressure washers. A couple of flags still fluttered around the statue. The next morning, a Sunday, was clear and bright, and early on in the day the traffic around the square was light. With a cup of coffee and a croissant I watched the Place de la République awaken. First there were just a few of us—a couple of homeless people on a bench, the other coffee drinkers, a few people whizzing by on bicycles. Gradually, though, a wide variety of other types of wheeled vehicles began to appear, attracted by the large, clear, smooth space. First a father teaching his tiny son to ride his bike, then a mother and a young girl both with pink Rollerblades, and a toddler on a scooter who let it fall to the ground in order to have a good full-throated cry. Later, two girls with unicycles carefully threaded their way through a group having a kickabout with a soccer ball.

While I watched all the activity dependent upon a clear, level space, a delightful paradox became evident. The space does, as I’ve mentioned, slope off into streetscapes in every direction. It’s far from level. However, along the pedestrianized edge of the square, a series of four flights of stairs provides balconies over the space below and helps to give the illusion of levelness. Thus it is possible to stand in the square and simultaneously comprehend it as both meticulously level and pronouncedly domed. What’s even better is that this isn’t an accident. It required some very canny and careful grading. Not one of the flights of stairs meets the slope in the same way, and there are cross slopes to the cross slopes.

There’s a particular irony that Martha Schwartz Partners should have helped to design a space where the design work flies so low under the radar. Her practice is founded on her flair as a provocateur. She has always wished to move the landscape profession by exciting comment and provoking debate, and always with highly visible design overtures. “I am the army ant that sacrifices its body to build a bridge,” she says. She utterly rejects the old dogma within landscape architecture that it is at its best when it is invisible. I couldn’t help asking whether such a minimalist space was enough for her. No, of course not. If she had her way she would have swept the old plane trees away that guard one side of the space, replacing them with a series of big fountains. But it was not to be.

She explains the Place de la République’s subtlety in terms of the fabric of Paris itself. Paris doesn’t need landscape spaces that shock it back into functionality. It’s already working in so many ways, and so sure of itself. Paris, she says, “doesn’t need a defibrillator.” Still, one gets the sense she would have used one anyway if she could have. Maybe it doesn’t need it, but it can certainly take it.

There are also difficulties trying to make a design splash in a public space where so many people have ownership. “The public landscape is the most contested of all spaces,” Schwartz says. “It is where everything overlaps. It’s more political territory than it is environmental or social, for example.” In addition to the many stakeholders, how much can happen in a project depends upon the political will of the powers that be—whether they will take on risks, which may depend upon where they are in the electoral cycle. “TVK took the largest part of the project—they were sitting there with the politicians.”

It is the big moves that work here, and perhaps also all that work with the politicians. Other gestures are much less assured. The square’s simple austerity allows the warmth of human activity to fill the space. TVK seems to have become frightened of such minimalism and added to the square a small wooden stage at the southeast corner, but it looks paltry and tentative. Worse, the square is dotted with wooden benches, the outsized timbers of which seek to reference overstuffed sofas. These appear jokey and compensatory. Finally, the northwestern end of the square is held in place with a small rectangular café, grandly named the Monde and Médias Pavilion. Its glazed walls allow a seamless interaction with the surrounding space, and a roof cantilevers out over seating next to a water feature—perfect for parents wishing to watch their children. There is gently glowing lighting that adds a delicate ambience. From the water side, this is a successful ensemble, but viewed from the street side the café’s lines are far less confident. The floating effect of the cantilever doesn’t elevate the building here—it is decidedly grounded. The heavy beam that forms the cornice and counterbalances the cantilever overpowers the building with top-heaviness, and as an otherwise unadorned box the architecture offers no other tactic with which to counteract this effect. Viewed from the major approach down the Boulevard Saint-Martin across the busy street, it is a graceless and unwelcoming presence.

I leave Paris in the midafternoon and walk to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. The southern expanse of the Place de la République is now filled with youths skateboarding, and the clatter of boards is so constant it sounds like the pop and crackle of a poorly tuned radio. To all the other wheels in the square I add the two of my suitcase. TVK created a beautiful bande dessinée graphic to convey the various programs and activities that were to be contained within the new Place de la République, and they’re all in there—the kids, the Kurds, the skateboards. Even the sullen taxi drivers might reluctantly find themselves in the mix.

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

Place de la République / © Pierre-Yves Brunaud. Picturetank

So many of the groups that have ownership of the square have been there through the weekend. The grout is already coming away between the stones from all the pressure washing at night—a direct result of so much activity. It’s gone from being an urban margin to something that integrates the city around it, making it legible. The charming little cafés near the Square du Temple are now part of the same city that contains the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin, which, just on the other side of the Place de la République, dives into a tunnel through the same hill that is crowned by Marianne. What the graphic fails to show is that the site’s narratives aren’t contained here. They are now part of all of Paris’s trajectories again—they stretch outside, they connect, and they bring the whole place into focus again.

NB – I just visited Paris again recently with my partner in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The Place de la République was clearly a focal point for public sentiment. 

Place de la République, 15 January 2015

Place de la République, 15 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo memorial and Marianne statue, Place de la République, 15 January 2015.

Charlie Hebdo memorial and Marianne statue, Place de la République, 15 January 2015.