Every so often, a project is realised that grabs the attention of landscape architects – students and professionals alike. Increasingly, this is contingent on a project’s capacity to reach an ever more diverse and geographically divergent audience, aided by the rise of digital platforms like Landezine. This said time spent online today isn’t entirely dissimilar from that time once spent with the latest issue of Topos to hand. Both vicarious experiences have and continue to underpin our individual connection to a built project. And whether mediated by print or screen, “connecting with a project” often rests on striking a connection with the potential imbued in a published photograph.
With my own experiences in mind, visiting a project in person, further to a vicarious encounter online, is likely to result in two probable outcomes: the potential associated with a particular photograph is either confirmed or contradicted. As a consequence, I am either surprised or frustrated at the realised or unrealised potential of both photography and/or landscape architecture. However, there are times when confirmation and contradiction are present in equal measure and in ways that speak affirmatively of the generative potential posed by the medium of landscape and practices of landscape architecture. The Renaturation of the River Aire, west of Geneva, is a case in point.
Concomitant with a series of accolades, including a LILA Award for public projects in 2018, and the Public Award at the 2016 Barcelona Biennial, a global audience has been captivated by a project conceived and delivered by Group Superpositions, a consortium including Atelier Descombe Rampini. To the degree that critical praise is aligned with the scheme’s partial completion, one would hope that its accolades are recognition of latent potential and, with it, a call to return.
Phase Three (2012 – 2015), photographed: PM, September 4, 2022
Phase Four (2021 – 2022), photographed: AM, September 5, 2022
During my third visit to the project in 2022, as summer gave way to autumn, I observed the completion of phase four. In common with phase three, the river’s latest remodelling finds the project’s emblematic catalytic lozenge morphology deployed again. However, rather than occupying a new secondary riverbed adjacent to the river’s historic channelised vector, the existing channel is devolved, both materially and spatially. The result is a far wider river section that is intermittently occupied by remnants of the previous year’s re-grading efforts in varying states of dissolution. Elsewhere, established trees that were once located along the river’s northern bank are marooned on islands at the centre of the river’s new and emerging profile.
In the process of addressing the project’s continued gestation, my photographs aim to re-orientate our attention and, with it, our understanding of the project’s previous phases through a contemporaneous comparative account. To achieve this, I’ve chosen to predominantly engage with the transversal character of the project’s riverine corridor from the perspective of its southern edge, its interior, and at levels below the current position of its banks or peak flows. In doing so, my intention is to argue that between confirmation and contradiction is a project in-process: continually growing in complexity and diversity. At the same time, my approach to photography is intended to question the increasing import applied to oblique aerial views created with the aid of a drone-mounted lens.
Moreover, the photographs shared here imagine the river as a series of interiors – constituted spatially and socially – as rooms to move across, rub against, fall on, and tarry in – whether human, non-human, or hydrological in kind.
In the affirmative, oblique aerial views patently contrast the river’s newfound freedoms with the strictures imposed by its former channelised course. However, with their emphasis on a distant vanishing point from which waters flow from or to, oblique aerials are more closely aligned to the logic of a channelised past than an indeterminate future. Moreover, by virtue of their elevation, oblique aerials make legible and, in turn, simplify an experience that is far more involving and illegible at grade. To stand on the river’s bank, or within its braided course, among the remnants of the project’s emblematic lozenge extrusions is a decidedly introspective and, at times, wholly disorientating experience.
In the process of diverting our attention, quite literally, from the project envisaged as a synoptic experience, views across the river and beyond intend to re-contextualise a version of the project, known to many of us, with its adjacencies: the catchment and constituencies it directly serves and from which it is inseparably tied. Moreover, my photographs imagine the river as a series of interiors – constituted spatially and socially – as rooms to move across, rub against, fall on, and tarry within – whether human, non-human, or hydrological in kind. An understanding of the river as a series of rooms is the basis for recognising the project’s inherent diversity and complexity, expressed here through the comparative arrangement of two sets of contemporaneous images produced during a visit made in September 2022.
Rhys Williams is a lecturer at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, The University of Edinburgh, UK
Rhys Williams is a lecturer at Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, The University of Edinburgh, UK