The Landscape Guide

9.3 Language and Landscape

Contents list

The environment speaks too, in many languages and with many voices. Oliver Rackham compares the countryside to a vast library:

The landscape is like a historic library of 50,000 books. Many were written in remote antiquity... every year 50 volumes are unavoidably eaten by bookworms... a thousand are sold for the value of their parchment. (Rackham, 1990)

Too often, architects have seen the land on which they build as sheets of white parchment on which to write new projects (Figure 9.2). In reality, every work of architecture is a conversion of the existing environment. When writing on the parchments of history, new buildings should converse with the stones, listen to the wind and speak to the flowers. The languages of the post-Postmodern environment are of prime importance. Speaking to one's clients and to fellow architects are lesser arts.

As architecture is public, whatever languages architects use should be translatable into local tongues. It will then be found that buildings have different messages to convey. Moscow's Kremlin (Figure 9.3) seems always to have declared that "Here is the seat of absolute power. Beware.' The designers of book jackets for Kafka's Castle have agreed that it was a high building, raised above the city, without a clear plan and with very confusing elevations. These are grand examples of talking buildings. Jencks has some translations of the messages that buildings speak. My favourite relates to the great bowl on Oscar Neimeyer's parliament building in Brazilia: "This is where the people's representatives help themselves to the people's money' (Figure 9.4).

What might a new house in a terrace (Figure 5) say to its neighbours? An exact copy would declare: "This is a wonderful old terrace. Losing the former building was a tragedy. I am doing my best to be indistinguishable.' A design that uses new features but otherwise fits in will declare: "The scale and proportion of the old terrace was fine. But the old windows and bricks were a nuisance. Sympathetic infill is the best approach to this problem.' A postmodern contrivance, with wholly new shapes and colours, will declare: "The old terrace was suitable for the period in which it was built. The new building should be in the spirit of our own times. A lively contrast is desirable.


Fig 9.2 Typical existing site drawing (July 15th 1972)

Fig 9.3 The Kremlin: "Here is power "

ig 9.4 Brazilia: "The people’s representatives help themselves to the people’s money"

Fig 9.5 Terrace houses – talking about their neighbours (their context)