New Design Tools of Reference: Productive Landscapes

New Design Tools of Reference: Productive Landscapes

NOTE: The next text is part of a number of significant posts I published in that blog, that have been recently translated into english.

I would like to thanks to Josephine Watson for the translation of the texts. I guess, in the near future, to translate some others more regularly and start with the english version of axonometrica.

In that case, the text I publish today is, with others, the seed of a research about a contemporary approach to some key points in architecture we are doing in my studio Archikubik with my partners and architects Carmen Santana and Marc Chalamanch, and also at the University, ESARQ from Universitat Internacional de Catalunya at the final degree design unit with Professor Marta García-Orte. The authory of the text is in partnership with her.

Any comment or suggestion will be very well accepted.

Any work of architecture, before it is an object, is a transformation of the landscape.[1]


Productive Landscapes. The idea of landscape has caused a divide in the traditional considerations and principles of the disciplinary body of architecture and town planning. The truth is that the logics of landscape, interpreted openly, explain the relations between environments, i.e., they provide new readings of natural and urban landscapes, on the one hand, and growth processes, on the other. Landscape is increasingly becoming a model for thinking the city.

This connection between environments is in fact a new spatial modality in the form of a meeting point between the three disciplines that modernism had separated— architecture, town planning and landscaping—that shapes a new organisation, an organic synthesis of the verticalised object (architecture), the operationally horizontalised (landscape) and the systemically extensive (town planning). If we accept the idea of landscape as a catalyst of this convergence of disciplines, we must equally accept the need to construct a new vocabulary to avoid the predominance of some of the earlier disciplines. As a result, we are presented with a new field of operations to be explored with new tools and methodologies.

In short, if as Stan Allen has stated, ‘landscaping has been defined as the art of organising horizontal surfaces,'[2] by paying greater attention to the conditions of this horizontality and seeking the convergence of disciplines, not only in terms of configuration but also of materiality and efficiency, architects, town planners and landscapists can energise spaces and produce cities without the burdensome structure of the traditional way of planning and colonising the territory. For us, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to lose.

The idea of landscape thus becomes a new operative tool to define, redefine and even predefine strategic positions in the conception of urban conditions. The theoretical framework of these reflections derives from the idea of landscape urbanism, formulated and articulated in the mid-nineties by James Corner, in association with Stan Allen, in two lectures: Constructing Landscape, delivered at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, and The Recovery of Landscape, delivered at the Architectural Association in 1994.[3]

In the conceptual sphere sketched by Corner and Allen, landscape is the medium capable of adapting to spatial changes through transformations from the inside to the outside, through the order of temporal successions, thereby linking a design tool for architecture to contemporary logics and processes for configuring the urban, based on conditions of indeterminacy, changing demands and open systems.

Landscape and Exchange

Another of the basic considerations entailed by the idea of landscape responds to logics of exchange of matter and energy, to processes of action and reaction, in short, to the idea of interaction. As an aspiration, if we were able to design buildings and cities that behave with the interactive intelligence of a tree, the actual adaptive process provoked by the successive responses of the building/tree, city/tree system would structure a model of self-learning with interesting capacities such as the self-regulation of energy, for instance. In effect, this already occurs in complex systems such as cities, but the problem is the high cost, in time and energy, required for the city to alter in keeping with changes in demands. The vision of interactive buildings and cities corresponds to the idea of thermodynamic exchange in a given ecosystem.

In connection with what we have just said and following Ilya Prigogine on dissipative structures, it has been proven that in an entropic process, or we could also say in a system with a high degree of entropy such as a city, ‘the dissipation of energy and matter, usually associated with the concepts of loss, performance and evolution towards disorder, far from balance, becomes a source of order.'[4] In other words, in an ecosystem—and here we can speak of buildings and cities—the tendency to entropy behaves as a regulator, tending to balance situations that are in principle far from balanced. If this notion, that stems from physics, were applied to urban logics it would take the spotlight off the present over-regulation in town planning and concentrate instead on creating the necessary conditions for the urban fabric to spread according to demands, in order to avoid growth based on the erratic projection of a presumed offer; the necessary conditions for the design units of the urban, i.e., buildings, to play the role of environmental motivators, catalysts of the their own created space and of that surrounding them with which they will interact; necessary conditions, in short, for the city and its buildings to communicate in thermodynamic terms.

From here to the idea of the aesthetic potential of thermodynamics as the sublimation of the notion of exchange is but a step. In La belleza de lo termodinámico Iñaki Ábalos states that ‘[F]rom the point of view of the contemporary architectural culture in which this text is inserted, in the face of the apparent dispersion of positions, references and practical cases, it seems vital that we should realise that only if there is an aesthetic debate, if there is an idea of beauty behind the idea of sustainability, the latter will be here to stay. It is necessary to cross technical and cultural languages in search of the minimum agreements needed to identify a consensual system of working on the thermodynamic paradigm that will make it profitable on the technical, critical and aesthetic levels.'[5]

Landscape and Energy

The conception of landscape as a system of urban/architectural production gives rise to an operative design mechanism that does not only enable us to combine energy and technology with aesthetics and culture, but to come up with a global and convincing answer to social, political and economic considerations, as well as cultural and technological reflections, from the root of the idea of energy as a design vector. This can be deduced from the same essay, as the author goes on to conclude that ‘[I]n order to further this change of paradigm from the tectonic and mechanic model of modernism to the contemporary thermodynamic model it seems necessary to create a guide to direct us around the new design techniques, the organisation of constructional-typological systems and aesthetic filiations, taking as our initial hypothesis the convention or consensus regarding the need for an integration of architecture, landscape and environmental techniques.’ That’s where we stand at present.

If to the open and extended logics of the notion of landscape we add that of performance understood as a driving force in which each fragment, each atom of a given ecosystem plays an active exchanging role,[6] we shall be fully immersed in the idea of productive landscape. As a result, we entrust the operative principles of landscape with the ability to function both in infrastructural and urban terms, actually even combining both, to further our production of cultural meanings, social cohesion, political horizons, economic logics and technological progress.

As mentioned, the idea is in fact to promote interaction, involvement and interdependence between the infrastructure for energy production and territory, in order to create hybrid energy/urban systems capable of shaping a relationship in which both systems win, provoking multi-scaler synergies. In his book Energy Scapes, Aleksandar Ivancic describes the geography of energy and the effectiveness of energetic artefacts to produce urban logics.[7]

Landscape and City

By adopting once again a critical stance and reconsidering our present situation as professionals in our society, we should create a new meeting point between architecture (accepted at once as a dynamic materialisation and a natural response to the encounter between landscape and city), landscape (considered as a supplier of natural responses to the environment and therefore adaptable to changing conditions such as water, earth, light, etc.) and the city (regarded as the urban environment that provides the nutrients and organisational demands, from where we must try and understand how we can become truly productive).

In short, the idea is to promote the basic logics of the energy landscape in the sphere of the urban landscape, combining the former trichotomy of systems, facilities and roads of traditional town planning in a single conceptualisation; intelligently leaving the rationales of urban programming to the management of a genuine, changing demand open to economic and social flows, against the management of supply fostered more or less well-meaningly, starting from obsolete parameters based on fictitious results, with little political ambition and no critical intelligence, such as the repercussion of estimated data in so many years time, the behaviour of specific social groups or the future prevision of needs, often unreal, foreseeing a perpetually obsolete present on the basis of past logics that have ceased to be standard models.

Full Stop

The idea of productive landscape encompasses both the zero kilometre tendencies, i.e., local production of goods and foodstuffs, the generation of data for managing urban behaviour in real time, win-win urban systems, or the creation of urban and energy ecosystems in which energy surplus programmes are linked to energy shortage programmes, the reassessment of communal space so as to guarantee social and participatory balance and the need to manage micro-economies on an urban scale in multifocal decentralised environments, to take but a few of the rationales connected with contemporary urban design tools as examples.

But this is not all. The idea of productive landscape calls into question the very shape of architecture, the structural rigidity of communal spaces in cities, the eventual materiality of all architectural objects. In short, it seeks new prototypes based on new forms of relationships that adopt new programmatic logics.

The productive landscape could become a meeting point of disciplines, not a chance but a deliberate—indeed a necessary and expected—intersection, in which everything is dynamic and therefore allows for operational design characterised by a great adaptability to changing conditions.

In this sense, and bearing in mind all necessary nuances and intensities, we also consider the productive landscape an essential new design tool of reference.

The image in this post is part of the master plan of Montcada where we have focus the Final Degree Design Studio this year at ESARQ, Universitat Internacional de Catalunya.

[1] Stan Allen and Marc McQuade, Landform Building, Lars Muller (ed.) and Princeton University School of Architecture, New York, 2008.

[2] Charles Waldheim, ‘Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy,’ Praxis Journal of Writing and Building Landscapes, no. 4, Boston, October 2002, pp. 4-17.

[3] James Corner, The Recovery of Landscape, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1999.

[4] Javier García-Germán, De lo mecánico a lo termodinámico, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2010.

[5] Iñaki Ábalos, ‘La belleza de lo termodinámico,’ Revista Circo, 2008.157, Madrid, 2008.

[6] The idea is that the ecosystem is transformed into a productive whole, an interactive machine, which is how nature works in fact.

[7] Aleksandar Ivancic, Energyscapes, Land&Scape Series, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2010.

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