Strategies Against Sameness #1

The production of landscape architecture projects has been in recent years outstanding, and our entire professional community has much to be proud of. But as always, there is a flip side; like in architecture or any design discipline of the globalised and speeding-up world, we are faced with a sea of sameness. Too many buildings and landscapes seem too quickly designed, plain and dry from the perspective of syntax, atmosphere, social significance or meaning.

This has been an issue for over a century. German sociologist Max Weber in 1918, used the term disenchantment and emphasised that the rationalization and bureaucratization of society resulted in a loss of meaning and value. Instrumental, goal-oriented endeavours replaced beliefs and practices rooted in culture and religion. This led to disenchantment, where the world became more rational but less spiritually or emotionally fulfilling.

As if with the routinisation of the design process and its almost mechanical reproduction due to various reasons concerning economy, the sense of playfulness got lost. Similarly, Walter Benjamin discussed in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” how mass production had diminished the “aura” of original artworks. He suggested that, in this context, creativity could be a way to reclaim the lost sense of playfulness and uniqueness associated with art.

We will, of course, not try to seek the means of reconnection to religion, as Weber suggested, but instead to a much broader scope of spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of space. I argue it would be rewarding to play not only with materials, shapes, patterns and plantings but also with the narrative itself in the stage of conceptualisation.

Nowadays, we are still bound by economic growth, but also the growth of the globally unfolding environmental catastrophe. We are, hopefully, all eager to participate in solutions to the problem, but nevertheless, the ecological issues push our design process yet deeper into the sphere of the technical, into the engineering part of it all. The popularisation of terms like ‘green infrastructure’ didn’t contribute to the development of the profession beyond the technical aspect. This is problematic and hints at the erosion of the design process. No wonder that the results, in general, may have lost some of their creative depth and playfulness and that the presence of the spirit, the design temperature, may be lacking. This suggests we should spend more effort in the conceptual stage to disrupt the linearity of the design process, embrace dissonance and playfully challenge what attempts to please.

Below are some concepts, ideas and tools that can help you better understand landscapes and the principles of their conceptualisation and participation in building identities of spaces and forming stronger narratives. They concern our interpretation of spaces and their inherent problems and can be used as strategies against sameness and disenchantment. There are many concepts, so this will become a series of articles.

To disturb sameness and embrace the unfamiliar and the strange, one needs to abandon or challenge the mindset of dogmas and certainties. Discarding the familiar and the routine from the design process is essential. We can do this by utilising an old concept of Negative Capability – a term coined by the English Romantic poet John Keats in 1817. This term refers to a particular state of mind or better attitude that Keats believed was essential for creative and artistic endeavours, particularly in poetry, but it could also be applied to spatial design. According to Keats, poets with negative capability can tolerate doubt and uncertainty, allowing them to explore complex experiences and themes without trying to simplify or explain them away. In essence, Keats believed that the most outstanding poets possessed the ability to embrace the unknown, even when the unknown is characterised by ambiguity and paradox. Such thinking may open our minds towards the new, the awkward, and the unique. From this position, we can draw an attitude of disruption that will challenge the business as usual.

We should dramatically expand the part of the design process between analysis and generating images. We should focus more on conceptualizing space as a multiverse of coexisting processes rather than a frozen image. Drawing too early in the process can mean an obstacle. The solutions to the landscape issues of our time are not based on images and visual harmony but instead on narrative. In the book The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, Juhanni Pallasmaa writes about how the movement of the hand over the paper gives you a sense of motion one will experience in space. That is very useful later in the design process when we deal with the actual shaping of space, when the narrative is formed and is being ’emplaced’. Investing more effort in setting project goals, attitudes, and guidelines is crucial for the conceptual wholeness of the project.

Many of the projects on Landezine and past LILA winners embody that special outstanding conceptual particularity that separates them from the crowd. These particularities are difficult to emerge through sketching as they concern action or process instead of image, they seem to be formed before the drawing part of the design process. Such an example could perhaps be Bridgefoot Street Park where the conceptual decision was to build on the notion of recycling, displacement and transformation. The Atelier House C21 project, which is based on the juxtaposition of the garden and the rail tracks, emphasises the ‘new nature’ of the Anthropocene and embraces everything that comes into the picture. The concept for the Renaturalisation of River Aire is based on the process of disintegration. The strength of these projects lies in their narrative, the processes that shaped them and the processes they induce in the landscape. They are all results of very particular and creative conceptual synthesis.

Many philosophers associated creative synthesis and play. Friedrich Schiller emphasised the idea of the ‘play drive’, stating that it is a fundamental human impulse that drives creativity. Also, in the 19th century, philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart stressed the importance of ‘free play of the mind’. Søren Kierkegaard associated play with irony and the need to escape the orderly world. Johan Huizinga stated that conditions for play are purposelessness and freedom. Sigmund Freud said that creativity is essentially a continuation of a child’s play at a later age. They all hint that play is on the other side from the methodological, the rational.

In their project Crack, Taktyk disturbs the order, the utilitarian landscape that is a tennis field, attacking it with a garden-like structure.

When we shape the narrative, it is not just the potential of a built project to communicate a story to its audience; it can also be the very approach to the design process. The built work merely reflects it. The narrative approach is an experimental design practice where you research the site by working with language, sentences, nouns, and synonyms … This way, design tools are carved out of the language you use to deal with the site, from analysis to synthesis. A good example would be the above-mentioned LILA 2018 Winner in the Public Landscape, Objets Trouves, designed by Bureau B+B. The problem was how to spatially represent the ‘movement’ of the historic bunkers that had to be displaced from site A to site B. The movement itself was necessary to avoid the falsification of history. Tilting them was chosen as a design tool for emphasising the movement, so it is evident that there was displacement. It is a conceptual solution rather than something you find by sketching on paper. The result is unfamiliar, honest, appropriate, and unique.

At this point, we come to the theory of estrangement, initially founded in literature and then taken to art and architecture. In one of its first definitions by Viktor Shklovsky, estrangement revolves around the deliberate disruption of the familiar. Its core premise is that habitual experiences lead to automatic perception, rendering the world mundane. Estrangement introduces intentional defamiliarization, compelling us to perceive the ordinary as if for the first time, rekindling our sense of wonder. In landscape architecture, worn-out styles and familiar aesthetic norms render a landscape as a category rather than a unique place in itself.

While initially rooted in literature, estrangement transcends its literary origins. It applies to art, theatre, architecture, and more, offering a lens through which artists and creators challenge convention. In literature, it inspires innovative language and narrative techniques. In visual arts, it prompts unconventional perspectives and juxtapositions. In theatre, it encourages engagement and reflection.

Estrangement, in its various forms, deepens our interaction with art and the world, emphasizing the role of creative expression in stimulating critical thought and renewed aesthetic appreciation. Ultimately, it invites us to break free from the monotony of routine perception and explore the world anew.

The principle of the uncanny, as explored in Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” relates to estrangement and the design of spaces in intriguing and thought-provoking ways. The uncanny is a concept that describes a feeling of discomfort or eeriness experienced when something familiar becomes strange.

The Garden of Exile induces a sense of disorientation in visitors, owing to its tilted grounds and concrete slabs and the deliberate inaccessibility of vegetation suspended at a height. Through this spatial encounter, Daniel Libeskind sought to underscore the profound instability experienced by emigrants forcibly expelled from Germany.

The stairs in the Betania Forest Garden designed by Ruderal are definitely much more enjoyable than the Garten des Exils, yet the position and the size of the stairs and their relation to the rest of the garden embody an oddness, an ambiguous dimension. The dynamics between structures in the garden are challenging the usual hierarchy of structuring a garden, and by being so, the garden offers a platform for engagement, namely thinking about how it relates to the forest, to the pastures, the relation between private and public, between an object and its environment.

The GASP! – Glenorchy Art & Sculpture Park, designed by McGregor Coxall and Room 11 Architects, features a panoramic glass wall that is in red colour, which makes it strange.

Usually, this strangeness is easier to achieve in post-industrial projects where an industrial structure already looks strange, a curious object, and it only needs to be exposed, framed and played with. But landscape architects have other tools to play in this direction. Topography itself offers an abundance of possibilities. In the next two projects, the oddity of the technical solution served as key ingredient for the oddity of the experience. H+N+S, practising an experimental approach in the Buitenschot project, found a solution to shield a residential area from the ground noise from the nearby airport. To some extent, it was possible by morphing the topography into a composition of triangular landforms.

Similarly, Snøhetta found a solution to reduce ground vibrations between the road and the synchrotron radiation laboratory MAX IV in Lund, Sweden. It was calculated that the shape of the topography would considerably absorb the vibrations from the traffic on the road, preventing them from significantly disturbing the work in the lab. The result is this peculiar landscape.

Gilles Brusset was playful with patterns he found in the graphics representing the formation of the Jura mountains through the sculptural morphology in L’enfance du pli.

The juxtaposition of historical remnants with contemporary design elements can create a sense of temporal dissonance, making occupants feel like they are in both the past and the present simultaneously. In Park of Encounters, the recent redesign of the Nazi-built army base in Heidelberg, by Robin Winogrond, with Studio Vulkan, juxtaposes the checkpoint with play elements. The element of the unexpected lies in the introduction of a playful, convivial attitude in a history-heavy context.

By embracing the awkwardness and strangeness of places, we can challenge the visitors to confront their own perceptions and preconceptions about space, inviting them to question what is real and what is illusory. By deliberately introducing elements that unsettle and challenge our expectations, landscape architects can offer more provocative statements and more memorable experiences.

In the next articles of the Strategies Against Sameness series, we will look into some of the ideas of philosopher Michel Foucault.

Stay tuned!

written by Zaš Brezar

Published on October 13, 2023

3 thoughts on "Strategies Against Sameness #1"

  1. Mike Barker says:

    Yes! Very well written. This discussion is needed very much

    1. Zas Brezar says:

      Hi Mike,
      thanks for your comment, I appreciate it!
      Best wishes

  2. Elizabeth Fowler says:

    Great thoughts as we head into the quieter winter hours of design, a wonderful challenge to explore narrative.

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