Image of landscape made with “point cloud” technology. Courtest: Atelier Girot.
This is the second in a series of response to the Spring 2016 RSA/RDA Lecture Series, Projective Infrastructures. To read Oliver’s and Veras’ response to the first lecture by Chris Reed of Stoss, click here.
How we choose to represent a landscape can reveal as much about us as our representations do about their ostensible subjects. For Christophe Girot, the representational techniques used by contemporary landscape architects both enable, and are symptomatic of, a way of thinking about landscape that suppresses the particularities of place. As he argued in his lecture, the zoning- and map-driven abstraction of contemporary practice, with its conceptualization of landscape as a set of scientifically diagnosable systems or flows, has begotten a set of unspecific design responses, and it has robbed landscape architects of the ability to deal with the fact of our culturally mediated experiences of landscapes.
Girot used the lecture to advocate for a different way of thinking. He described this way of thinking as “topology” and likened its intended use to the way architecture uses the term “tectonics. “Though “tectonics” had once been used only in the geological sciences, it has also come to describe a way of thinking about architecture that emphasizes a coming-together of parts. Similarly, Girot’s invocation of “topology,” which up to now has been a primarily mathematical term, is intended to pave the way for a more comprehensive conception of landscape — one focused on its status as a complete physical body with volumetric, poetic, and temporal dimensions.
This reverence for the specificity of place has led Girot, in conjunction with his colleagues at Atelier Girot and his students at the ETH Zurich, to develop their own system for recording and representing landscape. Through a combination of spatial data obtained via LIDAR, or laser scanning, and drone photography, existing sites are mapped in fine detail into three-dimensional virtual “point clouds.” These models, comprised only of densely grouped points in space, offer Girot and his counterparts a foundation for looking at a site in many ways, from the creation of infinite numbers of thin “salami”-like sections to that of complex four-dimensional models to test the performance of design solutions under flood conditions.
Erie Street Plaza by Stoss Landscape Urbanism. Photo: John December.
Here, Oliver and Veras respond to the first lecture in the Rice School of Architecture/Rice Design Alliance Series, Projective Infrastructures. For more about the series, watch this preview video. The next lecture will be Christophe Girot on Wednesday, February 10. Join the event on Facebook!
At first, the way Stoss founder Chris Reed described the firm’s work was familiar to anyone acquainted with conversations over the past 20 years around landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism. His introductory rhetoric was one of accommodation and flexibility. Rather than seeking to control a landscape that is set in opposition to human settlement, Stoss “start(s) with landscape,” Reed said, seeking to weave inhabitation and ecology into a symbiotic whole, where the capacity to adapt to, and to accommodate, both human use and the inherent instabilities or “dynamic flux” of ecological systems is more highly valued than the establishment of a “stable situation in an unstable environment.”
With their Erie Street Plaza project in Milwaukee, for example, Stoss uses a series of gently sloping planes that both collect storm water for irrigation and restore natural drainage patterns toward the Erie River, where runoff is cleaned by new marshy plantings at the water’s edge. These simple planes composed of pavers and grass, which are explicitly “not programmed,” provide a flexible field that supports many different uses without explicitly prescribing them. It is a hands-off approach to inhabitation that invites the unexpected, where a sense that many things could happen is presumed to ensure that some do. Accommodation begets a sense of freedom and choice, which in turn begets “activation” of public space.