A collaboration with Cristina Morbi, Creative Director at Dethun & Eike Selby, Head of Design at CGLA
Landscape architecture between Assemblage and Morphosis
Nature abhors a vacuum
Design gestures in landscape architecture are a series of complex processes aiming to determine the relationship between matter and time, between aesthetics and environmental principles. Landscapes evolve, fracture, and grow on a different time-scale to architecture. An architectural structure can last hundreds of years avoiding fatal ruin. In landscape architecture, however, nature continuously reclaims urban space, morphing and absorbing it into poetic ruin. For example, we witnessed in lock-down animals reclaiming cities, invading plants fill the human void as nature abhors a vacuum.
Hard-nature and soft-artificiality
The continuous dialogue between the mineral landscape “hardscape” and the more biological matter “softscape” still fuels discourse on what we consider natural: what is natural nowadays anyway? When the softscape is carefully designed, planted, manicured, can we still call it natural? Or would it be better to define nature as the process and not the matter itself?
Landscapes are, as suggested by Gunter Vogt in Mutation and Morphosis, “an aggregate of different parts, a growing assembly of components and processes”. The misleading artificiality of the Earth Pyramids of Euseigne exemplifies this. A geological natural hardscape, they are a stark contrast to the artificial softscapes of Piet Oudolph, where biodiversity is the result of control and careful design, using a mix of essences and textures. Not unlike a scientific laboratory, he operates with the precision of a surgeon.
While the first example is a hard-matter, geologically created through millions of years of erosion, rain and melt-water, the second is the soft-matter and anthropocentric result of the human hands on nature. Both contrasting gestures have something in common; the scale of time and the relationships with land (geo), form (morph) and matter (hyle).
While we live in the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, and we are facing the evidence of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology, Landscape Architecture has become an “expanding field”.
As a discipline, it bridges science and art, mediating between nature and culture. The emptiness left in the Marble Quarries of Carrara, exemplifies human process shaping natural geology, not through millions of years of erosion, but through a few decades of extraction, becoming part of the many headed hydra of ethical design issues. And again we ask, is this stone considered natural, even though the anthropocentric extraction process wounds the geology of our land?
Design as Assembly, Design as Morphosis: Frankenstein`s monster vs. the Animorph
When we design, our creative mind wrangles between two hemispheres of our brain, two poles of comprehension of the world around us. One analytical, and one descriptive. One made of gradient while the other made of contrast. As Neri Oxman underlines, “design is the intersection of technology and biology” , negotiating between the assemblies of discrete parts with distinct functions and a system that gradually varies its functionality; between machine and organism, between assembly and growth, between Henry Ford and Charles Darwin.
On the one hand, we can see the landscape in the same way we see architecture, objects, and artefacts. It is a collage of disjointed parts, like the assembly line of an anatomical experiment that gave life to Mary Shelly’s creature, Frankenstein’s monster.
Landscape architecture can be viewed and perceived almost in the same way as this assembled creature. A kit of parts stitched together, giving rise to a simulacrum, a representation of the best features and functions that exist in the natural and artificial world. A new conglomerate of archetypes of space and forms.
On the other hand, there is no homogeneous material assemblage in nature. In a single rock, we can read the traces of thousands of years of geological evolution, natural forces that continue to morph and shape the world around us, leading us to consider the opposite side of the spectrum: landscape as an Animorph, or manimal, the monster with mythological ability to metamorphose from human into other animals. The metamorphosis, or shape-shifting focuses on the process of seamlessly transforming shapes following forces, whether they are aesthetic or functional.
In the current context of climate change, we look at new design methods and approaches, learning from nature’s way of creating, where a project is living and evolving through time and space. Through growing organisms such as algae, mycelium and microbes, trees and roots, designers are studying innovative ways to shape and form our material world in ways that challenge the planetary boundaries. From the ancient living root bridges of the Khasis culture and new interspecies urbanism, to the german baubotanik, where projects are not just built, but are living.
Geometry of elements vs. Geometry of nature
As with landscape architecture, Frankenstein’s monster emphasizes the hierarchy and sum between elements, the Animorph highlights the process.
Let’s consider closely the type of design language and geometry of both. Frankenstein is Euclidean, the Animorph is Fractal. While Euclidean geometry uses formulas to define shapes and elements, fractal geometry uses iteration. Following Mandelbrot’s hypothesis 1975, Fractal geometry is the geometry of natural objects, the Morphosis of the Animorph, however, introduces time and movement to geometry where shapes are ‘warped’ and non-Euclidean.
As an example, to illustrate these two opposite approaches, a comparison can be drawn from the works of Martha Schwartz, Peter Walker, Rem Kolas, Eisenman. Their Frankenstein works consist of sculptural structures, tectonics movement and repetition of distinct parts. In their design each element is a sculptural aggregate, a series of hierarchical, interconnecting parts that overlap, stratify, and juxtapose to form the whole. This assemblage of parts is held together by the connective tissue of a conceptual narrative and unifying design language. In order to give rise to this Frankenstein, the connective tissue needs to be strong so as not to rupture, and bold so as to be visible when one component starts, and a new one is connected.
The contrasting Animorph can be seen in the work of Un Studio, Zaha Hadid, Michel Desvigne. The approach applied involves every relevant datum and design gesture to achieve hybrid fusion between the parts. It is an intensive structural coherence, hierarchy-free blending of all parts. The distinct individual parts are missing, there is a comprehensive and large gesture connecting the landscape, merging the softscape and the hardscape seamlessly. The use of gradients and morphing allow the process of transformation from one component into another, from the paver to the bench, from the building to the city, parameters and rules for a computational system that grows.
Morphing Frankenstein’s monster
In our complex reality, the challenge is not seeing the landscape just as a continuous series of shapes, patterns and purely formal concepts. It is a series of ever-changing and evolving processes and iterations. As the boundaries between nature and artificiality are progressively blurred, we need to challenge how we create. Design will become the assemblage of biological and mineral features, morphed into a living and time-based new stratification of design gestures: a future archaeology evolving with time and space.
As we are facing new environmental challenges and as the profession of Landscape Architecture becomes an ever more interdisciplinary field, we are finding more and more that our landscapes are becoming a Morphing Frankenstein’s Monster. With landscape architecture as the modern Prometheus.
1]. Günther Vogt, Thomas Kissling (eds.) Mutation and Morphosis Landscape as Aggregate Edited by Günther Vogt, Thomas Kissling, in collaboration with VOGT Landscape Architects, Case Studio VOGT, and the Chair for Landscape Architecture, ETH Zurich
2] Neri Oxman Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology_TEDTalk