The Landscape Guide

5.3 The death of the planner

Contents list

Consider an office park, photographed for a professional brochure (Figure 5.5). The implied offer is "Employ John Swish and Company; we make this kind of place'. Other photos might show a lake, sunlight sparkling on the water, a generous path winding along the shore and a bird poised on a sculpture. Beyond this path is a clump of Rosa rugosa "Frau Dagmar Hastrup' with soft pink flowers, offset by the dark green leaves of Prunus laurocerasus "Otto Luyken'. A gleaming high-tech building clad in bluish glass forms the backdrop. Who "designed' this pleasant scene?

Certainly not John Swish. He retired many years ago, though his firm did some paving work. The new boss is an efficient manager with little zest for design and no time for drawings. He won the commission by promising his client "a high-quality landscape'. Then he passed the job to a junior partner, who employed a succession of design assistants to do the work. Neither did Frau Hastrup or Herr Luyken make a direct contribution to the project.

The local planning committee was opposed to office development on this site but felt that "a well-landscaped park' would be an acceptable compromise between conservation and the urgent local need for jobs. The project was initiated by Robert J. Hurst II, an American whose father had started a real estate development company. He knew Silicon Valley and was able to raise finance by drawing attention to the superior financial returns on prestige developments with blue chip occupiers. The Hurst Corporation's brochure contained photographs of high-tech buildings in parkland settings. The long-term costs of managing the landscape were of some concern to tenants but it was explained that no grass area would be too steep for gang-mowing and that the landscapers would be supplied with a list of low-maintenance shrubs from which to choose.

And so it goes on. Local highway engineers stipulated design criteria for road curves and visibility splays. The drainage authority required construction of a storm detention pond, so that the rate of surface water run-off would not be increased. The local fire department insisted on a wide path between the lake and the building. The architect was given the dimensions of a building and shown a photograph of a glass-clad building that the client firm's managing director liked. The artist was commissioned to produce "a representational sculpture of a girl'. The materials were either manufactured, as paving bricks and glass cladding, or, like the grass and plant varieties, bred for a special purpose. Although the landscape architect prepared drawings and specifications for the earthmoving, pavements, seeding, planting, and lake edge details, which occupy over 50% of the photograph, she can hardly be said to have "designed' or "master planned' the scene. Nor can any individual or profession take credit or blame for the overall conception. The further one's investigations are carried, the less independence any of the actors appears to have had. The government set the legislative framework. The staff in the planning authority and various consultant firms were guided by their employers and their professional institutions. There were numerous standards and codes of practice to be followed. The "design concept' came from another country.

Not only is it impossible to name the planner or the designer, there are many different ways of seeing the plan and the design, as indicated by photographs, published with different captions in different magazines. In the Environmental Journal, it was a wanton act of "habitat destruction'. In the Property Journal, it was "a profitable investment'. The Architecture Journal saw it as an example of the "new modern style'. The Art Journal saw the sculpture as "New Realism'. The lake design was analysed in the Engineers Journal to illustrate a new technique of water retention. An amateur photographer noticed the irony of a bird perching on the girl's chest and received a prize from an amateur photographic magazine, which used the caption "Tit on tit'.

5.5 Office Park