Author Archives: Lawrence

Landscape Nicaragua

Nicaraguan Landscapes

Having lived for the past four years in rapidly developing countries, I have become interested in living in a slowly developing country. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, according to the UN 48% of its population live below the poverty line, 80% on less than US$2 per day. Nicaragua has the greatest percentage of its area devoted to National Parks of any of the Central American states. The civil war of the 1980´s and the American government´s subsequent funding of armed groups opposed to the Sandinista faction has resulted today in a war-weary and cynical population (memorials to the asassinated are a commonplace, found even in rural school playgrounds), which with 48% underemployment does not show itself as optimistic with regard to the future, or indeed the present. An ideal place then, to adjust one´s professional and private view away from the serving of Mammon to something, perhaps, more useful.

I have visited two biological stations in the two months I have been here, one based in the National Park of Laguna de Apoyo, the other in the National Park Penas Blancas. The first is part of Nícaragua’s astonishing lowland landscape of extinct and active volcanoes, many of the extinct ones now deep lakes, the second part of the upland landscape of cloud forests. Both are staffed by volunteers, living conditions are very simple, morale is high, the people are mainly young and all enthusiastic. The stations have specialities, at Apoyo it´s the endemic lake fish, at Penas Blancas it´s bees and orchids: both stations though interest themselves additionally with the widest range of the flora and fauna which surrounds them. Both are also primarily involved in simply finding out what is there and how it´s changing, there is little hard information to be had at the most basic level, they are collecting much raw data that no one has taken the time to do before. One meets Dutch and German students, either self-funded, or on government grants, but local people are the backbone of the effort. For young people (and older ones, too) tired of boring jobs, lack of motivation and opportunity and wanting to make a positive contribution to something, somewhere, this would be a place to come. Get dirty, get bitten, work hard, rise early, sleep early, learn Spanish and be part of a collective, forward-looking group of people: where in recession-ridden Europe is all of that on offer?

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.

Retrospective Planning

Gongbei District, Zhuhai City

Master Plan

View to Conference Centre

Extremely rapid development is not generally compatible with far-sighted urban planning, but it does offer surprising advantages when it comes to retro-planning. The city of Zhuhai was one of China’s first Special Economic Zones, called into being by Deng Xiao Ping in the 1980’s. These were areas strategically chosen for accelerated development, Zhuhai because of its proximity to the economic hothouses of Hong Kong and Macau.

The result of these economically wildly successful areas has been an enormous urban mass, devoid of nodes, points of focus and green networks. There are now moves afoot to address these deficiencies by revisiting those areas of light industry, warehousing and mass housing that, instead of being outside of the city centre where they would normally and sensibly be sited, now find themselves disfunctionally marooned in the inner city, which has simply grown around them. A combination of selective demolition, change of function and new construction can create not only the missing urban nodes, but also public parks and the beginnings of green networks. Thus can the seeds of a Chinese urban planning renaissance be sown in the context of the economic renaissance that is required to finance these changes to the urban fabric.

The images show the Gongbei District of Zhuhai, how it looks now and how it might look within the next 10 to 20 years.

Busy in the park

Sunday Afternoon in Fuxing Park

China is a busy country, even when relaxing. Shanghai’s public open spaces are particularly well used in the glorious late summer weather, and the emphasis is on doing something, even if it’s only watching what other people are doing. The only restriction that I have seen is on accepting money for singing or playing an instrument, so people do these things anyway, for free, and often to an extremely high standard. This is Fuxing Park, laid out by the French in 1909, 10 ha big. I particularly like it, because the activities that people choose are so much more charming than the parks at home, where jogging, football and grilling are the diversions of choice.

Two Garden Shows

County Garden Show, Norderstedt

County Garden Show, Norderstedt

County Garden Show, Norderstedt

National Garden Show, Koblenz

National Garden Show, Koblenz

National Garden Show, Koblenz

National Garden Show, Koblenz

This year Germany offers both the County Garden Show in Norderstedt and the National Garden Show in Koblenz. Norderstedt is using the show to unite an old mineral excavation site with an adjacent woodland and grassland to create a new park and Koblenz has renovated an antique military site to parkland and upgraded existing urban open space on three sites on both sides of the Rhine. The competition for the Norderstedt master plan was won by Kiefer Landschaftsarchitekten (Berlin), that for Koblenz by RMP Landschaftsarchitekten (Bonn). Both competitions were run in 2006.

Despite the large difference between the budgets for County and National shows, there is not much to choose between Norderstedt and Koblenz, and I believe that Norderstedt will leave a more substantial legacy behind it after the show. I am told that the renovation of the military site swallowed large amounts of money in Koblenz, and perhaps this is the reason why I judge this National Show to be the dullest I have seen in the 30 years that I have been visiting them. Whereas previous shows offered political comment, experimental design and a cornucopia of exhibits, Koblenz offers as its central attraction a threadbare expanse of grass surrounded by the dullest temporary exhibits, most of a commercial nature. The highlight of the visit is the cable car ride between sites, strung high over the Rhine at the point where the Mosel joins it – but this is also a temporary installation which will be dismantled when the show closes in autumn. Norderstedt leads the way when it comes to the technicalities of ground modelling, offering crisp and sculptural soft detailing and beautiful flowering meadows.

Both shows continue the trend of an emphasis on horticultural excellence. German plant designers are at the top of the range when it comes to herbaceous perennials, carpet bedding and the contemporary combinations of the two and they are certainly putting the Garden back into Garden Shows. Unfortunately, this does seem to be happening at the expense of the inspirational designs that were such a characteristic of past shows, particularly those that took place in the 1980s, the golden financial years before reunification.

Theme Parks

A design without a concept is usually not worth much. Where is the boundary where a concept becomes a theme? Where is the boundary where a theme becomes kitsch? And where is the boundary where a concept becomes art? Is there a context in which we can compare Disneyland with the Garden of Cosmic Speculation? Or with Little Sparta? Is Rousham merely an Augustan Theme Park? And where does Portmeirion fit in? Many clients – particularly in young, brash economies – confuse themes and concepts, how can we advise them? Does the West still have noble, Augustan-type concepts to offer the world, or do we only do cartoons these days?

The images show the Qasr Al Sarab Hotel on the fringe of Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert, based on an image engineer’s imagination of Arabia and very Disneyesque in its dreamweaving – but ultimately inauthentic – attention to detail.

See the entire world as a blazing inferno. Then, when all has turned to ashes, enter bliss.

I often light candles for people I know in European churches and cathedrals. I don’t really know why I do this because I am not a Believer. I am also fascinated by the use of incense in Asia. I like the habit even more now that I have just read this:

The practice of offering incense, with a bow, to the Taoist altar is called Baibai. As the incense burns, smoke rises, and ashes fall. The ashes represent impure air that sinks; the smoke, pure air that rises. So the offering represents the separation of pure from impure – the refinement and purification of internal energies. It also symbolizes the human body as being the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth: as the smoke rises, and the ashes fall, we make a connection with both earth and sky.

This temple is in the countryside around Chongqing and houses a rock Buddha some 9 meters tall, the building makes its own connection between the earth and the sky. The title quote is from the Vijnanabhairava Tantra.

Social and Sustainable Streets

Model Streetscape

Perhaps the designers of this streetscape had already absorbed Robert’s message. Not only the shade trees (Cinnamomum camphora), but lots of heat-island reducing planters too. Not so many parked cars as in Bermondsey, but of course loads of bicycles and mopeds. The great majority of the mopeds in the picture are electric. So far, so sustainable. But, this is also a social streetscape. Behind the arcade on the left are the lunchtime restaurants, the vegetables are prepared on the pavement under the arcade and the customers enjoy a cigarette after their meal on the benches and raised walls in the balmy, late autumn sun. The large, evergreen shrubs – Osmanthus fragrens – fill the air with their light scent. Residents dry their washing on the clothes racks outside their apartment windows without the use of machines. One of many such streets in the Pudong New District of Shanghai, all not much older than 15-20 years.

Will China become a Nation of Gardeners?

One thing that strikes visitors to China immediately is the love of the population for flowers. Large, colourful blooms are the most popular and plantations are often visibly stressed by the masses of photographers that swarm over them. The best displays attract large crowds throughout the day and into the evening. Even on the rooftops – where they are accessible – burgeoning green is to be seen everywhere and salesmen on tricycles with impossible quantities of potted plants tour the urban streets where I live. If eating well is said to be one of China’s foremost hobbies, then gardening, or the appreciation of gardens, must also be high up the scale. Who knows what might happen when this emotional bond makes the leap to landscape architecture on the larger scale? And when might this take place? Perhaps, as in Seoul, a process of review will take place on the newly built environment in the not too far distant future and then the Chinese people will surprise us all – as they already have in so many other areas of life – with cityscapes that will be the envy of the western world.

On Top of the World

Vita Sackville-West was depressed by Hillary and Norgay’s ascent to the peak of Everest, believing that there should be places on earth untrod by human feet. How would she have liked the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai? I am afraid that she would be horrified, although this Burj is by far Dubai’s most beautiful building, hopefully now distracting attention from the horrible Burj Arab Hotel. Many people would like to ask God if he regrets Dubai, but now that we can ride the 800 metres plus to the top of Burj Khalifa and look at it from His vantage point perhaps we can see that he might like it the way it is, by night at least.

Economic Downturns and Romantic Landscapes

Economic downturns are the coitus interruptus of major landscape and urban planning projects, but they bring unexpected benefits. In the 1970’s many of us lived rent free throughout central London in the empty properties the local authorities had bought up and then not had the money to redevelop.  During the 1980’s we gambolled through the derelict wastelands of a half-completed Isle of Dogs in landscapes stuck in a charming time warp between the abandoned Port of London and Canary Wharf. We took our girlfriends up to the forgotten terraces of the old Crystal Palace, where sphinxes emerged from clouds of flowering willowherb. All gone, these buildings and places, they are all designed spaces now, some of them very good indeed, all of them contributing once more to the wealth of the nation. But, what is it about abandoned or fallow projects, half completed places? Where does the romance go when we architects, engineers and landscape architects finally get the go ahead from our clients to finish them off? Perhaps it is just me, but these are the places that I remember the best and miss the most. The images show Lulu Island, created at enormous expense off the coast of Abu Dhabi. One day it will be bristling with residential tower blocks and all manner of designed parkland. For now it’s on hold. On the eastern side, the best views of Abu Dhabi City, on the western side a 5 km beach whose shade structures are one by one collapsing into the sand. Why do we have to wreck these places with finished projects?