Friday, June 1, 2018

Landscape Without Design

 

This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in his Northern California studio.
 
 

 
I.        On my way in this morning I noticed these large white flowers on large stalks along the freeway – do you know that those are?
 
A.        Matilija Poppies aka Fried Egg Plant.  Do they make you hungry?
 
I.         I don’t think about plants all that much but I notice that many of our studio’s project photos seem to have plants all over the place. I mean more than just fitting carefully into the landscape. It’s too frequent to be mere coincidence – Is this coming from you or the owners, or what?
 
A.        It staggers the imagination that so many architects envision their buildings as stand-alone objects rather than part of a larger context of flora and fauna.  You know, I think it was Sullivan who said that a building could only truly be evaluated after 50 years and I like to think that in large part that was to see how it accommodated itself to the natural forces acting upon it, including the landscape.  Plants are life and as such actively enliven the buildings with or without us.  Buildings that don’t engage the landscape are prone to losing their relevance as the trends of the day pass them by.  Once you’ve seen your umpteenth Frank Gehry knock-off you may start yearning for a nice orthogonal box with a gable roof…and some Matilija poppies partially encroaching on the entry.
 
           Speaking of Frank Gehry, when he was first practicing he did buildings with the intent that couldn’t immediately be perceived to be “highly designed” and that’s the way I would like to see landscape architects think and work.  Unfortunately they seem to think there is something valuable or meaningful in arranging exotic plants in geometric patterns around the perimeter of buildings.  High fashion foundation planting to me is offensive and, I think, puts the profession to shame.
 
I.         You sound a little bristly there, boss. 
 
A.        Kind of preachy, huh?
 
I.         Are there any landscape architects you like? 
 
A.       Within the excessive amount of humanity surrounding us there are many.  Steve Martino comes to mind right off.
 
I.         But, don’t you think some of the contemporary landscape design looks pretty cool… and even sets the building off for positive effect?
 
A.       Momentarily perhaps.  It’s usually more like affect – as in affected.  My friend Kreg Brawley says “looks only matter in one thing in life and even then only in the preliminaries.”  What matters most is what something does  – its look is just the resulting expression of its function.  And if the landscape is not interacting with and providing habitat for animals then in my book it’s not real landscape.  It’s more like stage set.
 
I.         OK, let me get on track… what about the landscapes around so many of our houses.  Weber, Howguinnland, Brunsell, Sonoma Coast House, Gualala House, our studio, and others…they look like they are being engulfed by plants.  Is this designed?
 
A.       Mostly you are seeing an evolving scenario, the result of a loose discussion between the owners and myself and landscape architects or other consultants. They are not instant, complete designs, but rather general concepts that continue to evolve over time. There is no right or wrong and no adherence to a particular school of thought, ist, ism, or ion.  I do have an affinity for native species, but continuity is the key word in all my thinking, including design.  I don’t want the landscape repairs around out buildings to now be out of bounds to the plants and animals that were there before us.
 
I.         I just don’t seem to have the same feel for plants the way you do.  Is it something I’ll acquire over time?
 
A.       Malcolm Wells said he thought architecture students should take classes in biology but I don’t see it as something you learn to care about academically.  I think it’s more heartfelt and comes from sensing one’s place in a world larger than television, fashion, and economics.  One way or another it comes from seeing beyond the surveyed lot lines and making a stand for or against old Mother Nature.