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.