Monthly Archives: September 2012

Canon Bernard Iddings Bell and the postmodern landscape architecture of Heatherwick and Jencks

Old Airport Road Park (from Thomas Heatherwick Making, Thames & Hudson, 2012)

I visited the V&A this week, to see the Heatherwick Studio Exhibition, and looked at two books in the V&A Library. Heatherwick’s exhibition and book complement one another. TS Eliot proclaimed Rudyard Kipling a great hymn writer on the basis of a single hymn. Kipling’s Re­cess­ion­al is below. Heatherwick can be recognized as a great landscape archtiect on the basis of as single unbuilt design, above. It is the Old Airport Road Park, commissioned by the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2010. Most of the new landscapes made during the Middle East’s Age of Wealth have been horticulturally, climatically and culturally inept. Heatherwick took a lump of clay, moulded it to the shape of a tortoise shell and let it dry. Cracks appeared. This generated the concept of a canopy through which shafts of light pierce the dark, as in a hamam. It was ‘Conceived as a place for friends and families to gather and picnic… the colonnaded spaces below ground are protected from the harsh sunlight by the fragmented pieces of desert supported overhead on columns. Within this environment are cafes, public baths, pools and streams, as well as community vegetable gardens, market gardens and date palms’.
Heatherwick, like most artists, holds back from classifying the style in which he works. But he has a well-tested design method and explains that ‘If a potential commissioner asks for “just a sketch”, we have to try to explain that this is not the way to work’. This is because ‘The studio’s design process has always depended on its workshop, which allows it to test and realize ideas through the making of experimental pieces, protypes, models and full-size models of buildings’. I commend this method to the landscape profession. Jonathan Ive (of Apple) also goes through a protyping sequence – which results in the classic High Modernism of Apple products. Corbusier would love Apple products. Heatherwick and Ive both trained in the UK, Heatherwick studying 3D design and Ive studying industrial design. Heatherwick then went to the Royal College of Art, which presumably helped him to become as much an artist as a craftsman as a designer. Also, I believe, it led him into postmodernism. Heatherwick accepts the core insights of Modernism but adds ‘something more’. The more is often a fascination with the controlled repitition of shapes and patterns. Sometimes, this reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy’s work.
The word ‘postmodern’ was first used by John Watkins Chapman in the 1870s as a term for what we would classify as post-impressionist art. In 1926 the term received an unrelated but serious treatment in Canon Bernard Iddings Bell’s Postmodernism and Other Essays. Bell’s argument was that religious fundamentalism is unacceptable, because of the advance of science, and that a full Modernism is also unacceptable. Equating Modernism with the Liberal theology of George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisey, Bell put forward a Postmodernism which welcomed the the insights of science but held firm to the core principles of Christianity. Quotations from Bell:
The Bible can no longer be regarded as an inerrant touchstone, the wholly infallible gift of the Eternal to struggling man.(p.4)
Modernism is, properly, a way of looking at religion which originated with Loisey and Tyrrell, two eminent and deposed Roman Catholic priests. (p.7) [Both were excommunicated]
There is no art for art’s sake. All art exists for the sake of Truth. (p.13)
The scientific intelligentsia now realizes, and for the most part freely admits that, merely by scientific methods, nothing of basic importance, of primary importance, of ontological importance, can be discovered. (p.21)
Fundamentalism is hopelessly outdated. Modernism has ceased to be modern. We are ready for some sort of postmodernism. (p.54)
Insofar as he exists at this moment, the Post-modernist is apt to be a man without a Church. Protestantism, Modernism, and Romanticism alike seem to him to miss the point. (p.65)

This takes us to the distinguished theorist and landscape designer who brought the term Postmodernism to the visual arts. Charles Jencks argues that postmodernism is an approach which is ‘one-half modern and one-half something else’. This is not as different from Bell’s view as one might have expected. Bell and Jencks appear to agree that (1) a scientific understanding of nature is essential (2) artists should be concerned with truths about the nature of the world – as the best landscape art always has been.

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

Ultra-safe policing in London public parks

Britain’s police forces have been criticised for heavy-handed policing. From time to time, policing shows every sign of being based on prejudice and self interest tempered with sloth and incompetence. We have had the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, Jean de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson, Bloody Sunday and this week’s Hillsborough Report. They are deeply troubling and when the ‘Independent’ Police Complaints Commission investigates it is like the KGB investigating the Stasi. But NO ONE can accuse the police of neglecting the excruciatingly arduous task of policing the Royal Parks, THANK GOD.

Political Landscapes

Soviet Memorial, Treptower Park

Located in East Berlin, the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is the last resting place for 7,000 Russian soldiers. Planned in 1945, finished in 1949, the design was chosen in a competition to which 33 submissions were recorded. The winning design came from an artist’s collective that included the architect Yakov Belopolski, the sculpter Yevgeni Vuchetic, the painter Alexander Gorpenko and the engineer Sarra Valerius.The memorial was completely restored between 2003 and 2009, including the shipping of the 70 ton, 12 metre tall main statue – a Red Army soldier holding a child and standing over a shattered swastika – to the island of Rügen and back for repair. The memorial is ca. 570 metres long, 150 metres wide, and the main statue with its base mound stands 30 metres tall.

I am always very impressed with designs that rest heavily on trees for their main spatial definition. The Soviet Memorial relies on plane trees – now around 30 metres high – to define its outer boundary, with pleached limes – now around 15 metres high – used to step this scale down as an internal edge. There is an amazing avenue of weeping birches, now with crown diameters of up to 15 metres, planted at 25 metre centres. The western end of the axis is closed with lombardy poplars. One would look far today for a client that would be prepared to countenance a design that would first be ‘realised’ 40 years and more after its actual completion. As the point of the memorial is to convey everlasting glory upon the fallen soldiers, this aspect of the design makes it for me particularly moving.

The detailing of the memorial is superb. Students of landscape design should be encouraged to visit it to learn the importance of step, edge and paving details, and the enormous power of simplicity when ‘writ large’. It is a living memorial, fresh red carnations are strewn throughout on the statuary, and the room below the main statue is filled with flowers and garlands. There is a complete absence of religious symbolism.

Many people will not like this memorial, or this kind of political landscape. I was surprised myself that I found it very moving. Though most visitors were simply out enjoying the sun, one overheard many conversations on political themes, so it does seem that this piece of landscape design is still engendering debate.

The final image, included for contrast and to encourage comment, is taken in Budapest’s Memento Park, a collection of statuary from the Russian occupation of Hungary. The statue is of Stalin’s boots, all that remains of a massive sculpture of him that once stood in the centre of the city, after the population sawed off the rest of it and pulled it down.

Should urban design start with architecture, landscape, infrastructure – or music?

The highwaymen seem to have won so that modern (or should it be Modernist?) urban design begins with the layout of roads. The gaps are then filled with blocks and the SLOAP is slurped with slabs and shrubs (SLOAP = Space Left Over After Planning). This is how Concrete Jungles are made. ‘Ugh’. So let’s demote the highwaymen and then think about how to design cities which will be more than assembles of Big Boxes and Little Boxes beside roads (see video below).
Should we launch our urban designs with music, architecture, landscape, planning or infrastructure? Music can set the mood for a design. We can remember the example of the Greenwich landscape architecture urban design project 2011. And we can  look back to the example of St Clement Danes (see video above). The original church, built by Danish imigrants, stood between the cities of London and Westminster – possibly near trees, as today. James Gibbs designed the tower – and the music it was to produce was surely the starting point for his design, reminding us that form can follow function without being its slave.
Yet what is the function of a city? Is it to help its citizens lead good lives: healthy, comfortable, safe, sustainable and beautifully inspiring. If so, we cannot expect good cities to result from starting with the design of roads. But where should the urban design process begin: planning, architecture, landscape architecture, green infrastructure, grey infrastructure? You might say ‘start with urban design’ but it has proved too broad a discipline for the training of professionals at first degree level – and also problematic at masters level.