The newly built Museum of Natural History forms a triage of public uses at the city’s edge together with the Botanical Garden and St. Maria Neudorf church. The site of the museum’s park is exemplary of the Swiss landscape paradox. The heterogeneous urban periphery, large infrastructure, and fragments of bucolic landscapes are tightly interwoven leaving an ambiguous experience of place.
And so the challenge: How to design a park in which visitors can immerse themselves in the wonders of natural history on the site of a former cow pasture, ironically located atop a highway tunnel surrounded by loud, heterogeneous structures of the periphery – traffic arteries, parking lots, sports fields, and multifamily housing.
Conceptually, at a time when notions of Nature or Landscape no longer possess clear meaning the park explores the contemporary, fuzzy duality of artificial nature and natural artificiality, addressing contradictions and frictions of the site and our contemporary relationship to the Natural. Riddles of nature are woven into the park in stone, concrete, and vegetation, challenging our common understandings.
Pedagogically, in contrast to the linear, explanatory learning within the museum, clues about nature are strewn like fragments of history throughout the park, becoming catalysts of our imagination. In the sense of French philosopher Merleau-Ponty‘s “participatory perception”, learning in the park is intentionally left to personal, intuitive, and sensory experience without the use of rational, fact-based learning via signage.
Three central themes are exhibited: the relation between nature and culture, the three significant geological eras of eastern Switzerland, and a dialogue between Science and Faith.
A newly planted, lush forest grove creates the setting for scenographic interventions. It filters out the heterogeneous surroundings and frames the visual dialogue between the new museum and prominent historical church. But most importantly the grove allows visitors to immerse themselves atmospherically, spatially and mentally into the park’s play on themes of nature.
Within this setting enormous concrete “stepping stones” up to 7m long, become both path and exhibition. They are carriers, at once, of poetic, philosophical, scientific, and historic information about natural history, imprinted with fossils, quotes, and geological terms offering clues to the relationship between the inseparable worlds of the natural and the artificial. Stepping stones, traditionally small in size, are an historic landscape tool which animate us to tread lightly, surrendering to nature and creating a sense of personal adventure and discovery, rather than moving efficiently from A to B.
In the park, the stepping stones offer the visitor to trip across dinosaur legs and eyes, quotes from Darwin or the Bible, and local geological terms. Collaboration with the museum’s specialists allowed for an in-depth study and choice of narratives, fossils and terminology.
“Nagelfluh” is a conglomerate rock and predominant natural stone of the region. It is, in fact, natural concrete. Vice-versa, when our man-made concrete is hammered it appears identical to Nagelfluh. But only man-made concrete can be molded and imprinted by us as we wish. This odd relationship between the natural and artificial is expressed in the concrete stepping stones. Hammered in various ways it takes on the imagery of Nagelfluh. The naturalistic imagery is contrastsed against the formable, man-made concrete through casting and imprinting. Wood slat siding, drain mats and jute fabric are imprinted into the concrete and texts, chiseled in 30cm high letters, contrast to the rawness of the Nagelfluh texture with their precise forms and scientific meanings.
A beautiful green sandstone is another significant local natural stone seen in most important historic buildings. In the park, natural and cultural forms of it are again juxtaposed. Sandstone rubble from the local quarry could be bought very cheaply. In a win-win situation, the cheap rubble was used to cover the entire park’s surface. This turned into an important design principle because the 10-15cm crushed stone allows visitors to walk over the entire park. Lollygagging through the space with no predetermined sequence of views or goals allows one to drift, actively discover and lose oneself mentally within the park, in the embodied experience of Merleau-Ponty’s participative perception. The course gravel demands that humans walk humbly and tentatively over nature, not goal-oriented as in our everyday urban spaces.
By contrast, architectural artifacts of the same sandstone lie throughout the park, visually next to their raw, natural gravel form, creating a dialogue between cultural creation and natural resource.
Despite all we learned in school few of us are able to distinguish geological eras. 3 billion, 300 million or 300,000 years ago great events happened, the dates tending to swim in a vague sense of “wow, that was a long time ago!”. Therefore the park reduces the immense geological timeline of northern Switzerland into a simple storytelling able to be fathomed by everyone from school children to their grandparents. Three main epochs are implied in the park: the Cretaceous (100 million years ago), the Molasse, or formation of the Alps (20-60 million years ago) and the glacial melt (20 million years ago).
St. Gallen was once a tropical ocean. This period, Cretaceous, is shown in texts taken from the museum’s literature reading “Bahamas” or “tropical ocean” and fossils of dinosaurs, sharks, palm leaves or the animal “Sea Lilly”. The glacial melt carried foreign stone into the region. In the design phase the desire was to use the colorful stones seen in local riverbeds. The museum’s geologist however, told that local stones are only beige and gray. The colorful stones are “erratics” that rolled down with the glacier from the neighboring cantons. Huge colorful erratics from this period of geology roll into the park across the field.
Vegetation is equally a carrier of natural as well as cultural stories.
The main species of the forest grove is the Hornbeam, originally chosen as one of several species. But just before the project went into construction drawings the federal highway authorities took borings for the tunnel under the park and decided the park could not be built due to its weight. After 2 years of negotiations it was agreed that flat rooted trees could be planted with a larger distance between them. The flat rooted Hornbeam, with its dense branches and organic form became the lead species, offering the needed visual filter and wildness to create the park’s atmospheric, mysterious density despite a reduced number of trees. A lush planting of ferns, ground covers and perennials is just beginning to fill in the forest floor.
Hydrangea, one of the few non-native plants used, took a similar turn in logic. For fear of roots piercing the tunnel roof no woody vegetation was allowed on the tunnel arches, which would have spatially left plantless strips in the park. Hydrangea’s roots can be disputed as fleshy or woody. Declaring them fleshy, they were used to fill the strips where no trees were allowed and unite the entire park into a coherent spatial whole. Hydrangeas were attacked as non-native by ecologists, insisting the park must be “all natural”. Considering the highly artificial nature of the site, we found it imperative to express, not ignore, the contradictions of contemporary nature in this peri-urban site.
Some tree species were chosen to support a park narrative, such as the Metasequoia, planted where they once grew in the era of the tropical ocean. Other species display riddles of nature. Ginkgos and larch trees surround the entrance of the museum. Whereas the Ginkgo is officially an evergreen species it has leaves, not needles, while the Larch is officially an evergreen loosing its needles in winter. Both turn neon green in spring, green in summer and yellow in autumn.
Despite the intense reflections underlying the park’s design it is considered a laboratory for the museum. Hence the planting scheme includes new aspects such as the neophyte Stinging Nettle, valuable for many species of butterflies.
A myriad of terms and concepts taken from museum literature are spread throughout the park, giving clues to information in the museum exhibitions: metamorphosis, holocene, super continent…for school classes a learning method for inspiring exchange and discussion.
The church asked that the park incorporate a dialogue between the two theories of the world’s creation: scientific and creationism. Three quotes bridge this dialogue.
Alongside the church, from the Bible “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Close to the museum from Charles Darwin “Nothing in life is more constant than change”, and bridging the two, a quote from Max Planck, “Mankind needs science to discern, and faith to act.”
Landscape Architecture: Robin Winogrond Landscape Architecture. Urban Design., realisation with Studio Vulkan
Location: Sankt Gallen, Schweiz
Client: Hochbauamt St. Gallen
Competition: 1st Prize 2009 with Armon Semadeni Architects and Meier Hug Architects
Area: 5000 m²
Photography: Das Bild, J.C. Jossen, Robin Winogrond
Text: Robin Winogrond