Landscape Is Our Sex

In an ongoing series, David Heymann explores the charged relationship between buildings and sites.

Tough love in a gray suit. Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (Paramount Pictures, 1955).

It is not uncommon today for an architect to give a public lecture about a building and gloss over the parameters of its program or the specific needs of its users, speaking instead mostly about the building’s site — its measure, tendencies, desires, structure, mythologies, meaning — as if the problem of architectural design was primarily one of site response. Easily two-thirds of the many talks I’ve heard architects give over the past 20 years have operated from this basic presumption. While some of these presentations have trafficked in various sorts of disingenuousness, others have been transcendent. Glenn Murcutt gave a lecture at my university some years ago in the latter category. He spoke in front of a large blank chalkboard, and, as he began talking about the site for a construction, he drew out in chalk the various facts (like the hillside slope in section) or the consequence of facts (the arc of a tree that might fall) that were inarguably true. 1

Murcutt didn’t really refer to anything but the site, and even then primarily as a set of physical parameters — the angle and arc of the summer and winter sun, the direction and speed of cool and warm and strong and weak and moist and dry winds, the height of grasses and brush over the course of the year, the location and shape of outcroppings of rock, the paths that animals took through the site (and the heights of those animals), the probable limit of a fire line, and so on — each and all of which he sketched or diagrammed. He never actually spoke about or drew the construction directly. Instead, the building’s plan and section gradually became apparent on the chalkboard. After about 40 minutes, these were clear and complete. Murcutt then turned off the lights, and, without saying another word, showed twenty slides of the finished construction — the Simpson-Lee house. The audience rose in a spontaneous standing ovation. It had been an utterly convincing display of site as source.

But not long afterwards I was reminded of the downside of thinking this way — or at least publicly professing to — while visiting the Audrey Jones Beck Building, an extension to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, designed by Rafael Moneo, and completed in 2000. The site for this freestanding construction, which fills a modest city block, is Houston perverse. At the time of design, its four facing neighbors were a Gothic revival church, a decaying 1970s Yamasaki-wannabe office building, the unclassifiable Warwick (from 1926, once Houston’s premier hotel), and the extraordinary museum itself, one half black-steel High Modern (Mies), one half carved limestone Neoclassical (William Ward Watkin). I asked one of the curators about the choice of Moneo, who was awarded the commission over Tadao Ando, Richard Meier, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. I presumed the decision hinged on Moneo’s skill with difficult contextual parameters. Her answer: “Not really. They all spent a lot of time at the site. Moneo was the only one who actually asked to see the collection.” 2 Let that serve as a sobering professional reminder.

Still, I wouldn’t recommend relying on Moneo’s strategy exclusively. A lot of architects make a living talking — in the messy ways described in a sequence of earlier essays published in this journal — about site, landscape, the environment. Architects know this is a shorthand method of tapping into a primary vein of cultural meaningfulness; they rely on this blood link to get ambitious buildings built, to convince. Among the better convincers is Antoine Predock. In 1999 Predock was hired by the City of Austin to design a new City Hall. The site is unusually prominent: an entire block along the hard south edge of the city’s downtown grid, fronting the empty bluff over the river, bracketed east and west by buildings already symmetrically construed to frame a future City Hall. A major bridge springs southward over the river from the center of the block itself, so the focus of northbound pedestrian and vehicular traffic entering downtown is squarely on the building.

To be sure, the design is only slightly coy about being the center of attention. Though set back from the south edge of the lot to form an open public plaza, the construction is a staggered asymmetrical mass composed of stacked and stepping horizontal concrete and limestone bands that form planted terraces and diverse public spaces. The upper layers, clad in copper, cantilever out variously to provide shaded overhangs. The entire mass is deeply cleft by a wandering central valley that organizes public circulation and provides natural light. Water (it’s air conditioning condensate) drips from a wall along the edge of this deep cut into the dark recesses of the parking garage below. From the central rift a strange copper spike — nicknamed the Armadillo’s Tail — cantilevers off the north side, pointing directly at the State Capitol (though you cannot perceive this relationship).

Antoine Predock, Austin City Hall
Austin City Hall, Austin Texas, by Antoine Predock, 2004. [Photos, clockwise from top, by Rafael Marquez, Aaron Plewke and Gary J. Wood]

If the form seems willful and gestural, Predock set about proving, when he first presented the design in public, that it was not. He claimed the form was borrowed directly from the faulted Balcones uplift — the local and deeply revered configuration of fractured limestone layers cut by clear spring-fed streams — as he experienced it along Austin’s Bull Creek. Predock showed his own sketches of this landform, and he described the building’s condition as if someone (i.e., he himself) had merely (i.e., heroically) lifted out a block of this typological central Texas landform — think of it as an immense stratified wedge of geological lasagna — and placed it neatly on the site. The planted high terraces and the jagged profiles of the upper layers, clad in brown copper, add to the conceit: they (in Predock’s words) “… spill out of the building into the plaza in a way that is analogous to geologic forces in the Hill Country that surround Austin and produce limestone overhangs known as ‘balcones.'” 3

The City Council, as you can well imagine, swallowed this line whole. Who wouldn’t? Landscape is good; building is landscape; therefore building is good. One hears this three-car train of logic constantly in architectural discourse today. It’s an enduring staple of public design presentations, magazine articles, student reviews, architects’ written descriptions of their own work, and — as noted — public lectures. Nothing sells like landscape. It’s our sex. But is sellability a sound measure of an idea’s value? There’s that conundrum of a marketplace society! Regardless, for me, at least as an academic, a basic question about perception screams out from this curious form of convincing, like a desperate cry for help. If a building is a landscape, how does that landscape make landscape once returned to its landscape? Since — conceptually — the construction rhetorically purports to be the landscape from which it’s drawn, shouldn’t such an object be invisible, or at least, hardly visible? After all, the same means — scale and direction of mark, material and color palette, etc. — are used to make a camouflage like MARPAT. This is a useful analogy, since the same over-arching after-Modern cultural ends — to not disrupt a primary reading of an existing and valued landscape with the radical presence of otherness — would seem to be desired in architectural design. Isn’t that protection somehow implied in these oft-repeated justifications?

MARPAT digital camouflage pattern, United States Marine Corps.

Yet many — most — of the buildings conceived by these means over the past two decades are stridently volatile forms, and their landscapes are dramatically altered by their arrival. Consider an early progenitor of the type: Zaha Hadid’s fire station for the Vitra complex in Weil am Rhein, Germany, completed in 1993. The design drawings for this project notoriously (and, in architectural design, familiarly) extended the geometric patterns of the adjacent surroundings — farm boundaries, crop plantings, rail lines, road angles, and so forth — back over the constructible area to provide a matrix of controlling lines in what would seem to be — to the parent landscape — a sympathetic first step. In architectural design this particular act is often (somewhat sloppily) called mapping; now it is also sloppily referred to as (one type of) parametric design. Here the tracings and projections of various existing though often hidden site orders are utilized to define or limit formal possibilities. The architectural door prize to this method — abstraction, our Modern birthright — is protected, problematic historical figuration is avoided (whew!), and program is rewritten by the found form in a manner theoretically sympathetic to the existing landscape.

What’s then initially surprising about the actual Fire Station — so sympathetically conceived — is how aggressive it seems to its parent landscape. Ungrateful child! But it makes sense that the constructed object is neither conventionally sympathetic, nor camouflaged. There’s nothing about using mapping in design that guarantees conventional sympathy to landscape. The building may arise from existing lines — as buildings also do for Murcutt and Predock — but the crucial design tasks are the identification and evaluation of these lines on the one hand, and the association of their geometries with building program and form on the other, which are judicious acts associated with intent and desire. This judiciousness is of course entirely the domain of the architect, as the interpretation of confused entrails is the domain of the tribal doctor.

Zaha Hadid, Fire Station
Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany, by Zaha Hadid, 1993. [Top photo by Hélène Binet; aerial photo from Bing Maps; painting by Zaha Hadid Architects]

It’s a stunningly subjective domain to be sure, as is evident in the dramatic difference between buildings by Murcutt and Hadid, which all begin with mappings, but differ in the identification of meaningful lines, and the ascription of form and program thereunto. Regarding mappings of the type that Hadid pursues, the mapped lines may be “true” (a tough word, but most designers sense what it means) of a site, but this “truth” is not necessarily made either evident or stronger when transformed into some aspect of a building. A train track’s trajectory might, for example, set the angle of a bathroom urinal wall; but — regardless if the original alignment is visible or not — that wall experienced in place won’t necessarily bring a Johnny Cash rail song to mind while one is taking a leak. And that’s aside from the whole question of whether it’s possible to ignore the finger doing the pointing. In any event, the Fire Station returned to its landscape is startling precisely in its difference, rather than its similarity. In the confusion between ends and means, that odd hangover of the Modern, something is clearly and cleverly lost, though the fog into which it vanishes may be the point of the rhetoric, like using nature to advertise SUVs.

In all fairness, the Vitra Fire Station was designed for an evolving landscape: it’s difficult to approximate the difference between the source and its resultant. Perhaps a better and equally well-known prototypical example from roughly this same time is the Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind claimed the complex plan geometry of this construction arose by projecting lines from the building’s location to sites of Nazi atrocities or institutions elsewhere in the city. This fact is interestingly irrelevant to your unmediated experience of the building as a physical fact, since, like that spike on Austin’s City Hall, you cannot reconstruct these linkages directly (by observation, for example). That is, you cannot understand what generates the order by simple inhabitation. You have to be told. The geometry is not therefore perceived as inherent to its landscape, except as a pure conceit. It’s an addition, not a clarification — more information, not clearer information — and confounding at that. It certainly doesn’t settle the landscape, even though it theoretically points out a true order, much as crime scene markings trace the true lines of bullet paths.

Note, however, the desire at work. It is precisely your inability to experience the mapped world — here aided by entry via underground tunnel — that adds to the disorienting strength of this exceptional building. That is why this construction so powerfully embodies its program in its location. The Jewish Museum is not about protecting an existing landscape, so much as upsetting it. And upset it does. Interestingly, at the time of its design you either understood — thinking about the consequence of such a building while examining the drawings — that the building would be dissonant with its landscape; or you understood — listening to the architect’s rhetoric — that it would not be dissonant with its landscape. Either way the building appeared responsible. It certainly swayed the competition jury. Given this sort of dramatic success, I certainly don’t object to this type of mapping. It has advantages and disadvantages despite the devaluation that the use of the particular and extremely simplified version of mapping in these examples implies intellectually. Here a landscape is construed primarily as a field of consumable vectors, and a building primarily as the bastard child of those vectors.

Top: Jewish Museum, Berlin, by Daniel Libeskind, 2001. [Photo by Bitter Bredt]. Middle: Star Plan for the Jewish Museum. [Plan by Studio Daniel Libeskind] Bottom left: Aerial photo of the Jewish Museum. [Photo by Guenter Schneider]. Bottom right: Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, Washington, by Weiss/Manfredi, 2011. [Photo by Benjamin Benschneider]

While that reduction bothers me, what I primarily object to (since all design involves reduction) is the unexamined assumption underlying the intellectual stance — if you can call it that — in current architectural discourse: that operating in this manner is a form of site sensitivity or landscape empathy, a means of weaving a building into a landscape and so protecting that landscape’s essential identity. That does happen some times — the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, by Weiss/Manfredi, uses similar techniques to equalize presence in landscape — but not often. Like a scribing tool, which can be used to precisely fit one complex surface to another, but also to quite efficiently and irrevocably scratch the hell out of that same surface, mapping has uses of varying consequence in the design of buildings in landscape. But easy acceptance of the new construction by the existing landscape is not a guaranteed consequence of its usage. Photographs of these powerful buildings make this abundantly clear. Strange rude entities, demanding attention, the Vitra Fire Station and Jewish Museum steadfastly refuse to connect to anything. Like Austin City Hall, they radically alter their landscapes by their construction.

Hadid and Libeskind are smart; I doubt they actually believe that site mappings of this type result in site sensitive buildings, in the conventional sense of sensitive: having a sensibility that is supportive without being disruptive, like the sympathetic attending a funeral. But, if conventional sensitivity isn’t what Hadid and Libeskind are after, the implication is still somehow in the air. Worse still is the suggestion that so operating is somehow related to sustainability. A good current example of this particular perversion — aside from the geological landscape formation formal design tactic Index of Stan Allen and Marc McQuade’s Landform Building — is the script of the Audio Guide that accompanies the traveling exhibit of Hadid’s recent work (itself in a Hadid-designed portable gallery). 4 The relationship of Hadid’s parametrics to natural systems is a constant sub-text in the project descriptions, complete with the regular and insistent implication that the buildings must therefore be doing the right thing environmentally. The high point of this rhetorical absurdity comes in exonerating the cladding of Hadid’s (interesting) design for the new Opera Hall in Abu Dhabi. The system’s geometry, we are told in reverent voice over, derives from the limbs, branches and leaves of deciduous trees. What could possibly be wrong with deciduous trees? The building may be sited in the goddamn desert, but, I mean, aside from that?

Zaha Hadid, Opera Hall, Abu Dhabi
Top: Performing Arts Center, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, by Zaha Hadid, 2007. [Rendering by Zaha Hadid Architects] Bottom: Detail of “Index,” from Landform Building, edited by Stan Allen and Marc McQuade (Lars Müller, 2011). Click image to enlarge.

No, let’s please ignore the whole ridiculous sustainability tie-in of this sort of mapping and just focus on the formal construction of consistent landscape. Returning to that funeral mourner analogy for a moment, what many mapped designs propose, while rhetorically claiming to be conventionally sympathetic, is formally closer to that truly shocking scene in Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, in which Cary Grant’s character, among the supportive in grief, slaps, brutally, the face of the distraught daughter of the deceased, who has just accused (duplicitously, we later learn) Grant’s character of complicity in the death. Yeah, that sort of sympathy — tough love in a gray suit — is hard to sell these days as an architect, even if principled. Better to stick with pretending the slap is a gesture insisted upon by the site, rather than a conscious act on your part.

Clearly what it means for a building to be “sensitive” to its site is more complicated than I have initially set out here; I merely want to note the essential arbitrariness of the definition of site that is at work in these projects, and, by extension, in the work of the many architects (and landscape architects) who, to varying degrees, use the same means. Here site is only that limited field of physical facts or factors, no matter how far flung, and at the expense of all others, that the designer needs to justify the form of composition that he or she wants to make, regardless of the landscape. This is of course Rem Koolhaas’s notorious Paranoid-Critical Method at work, the gist of which, as defined in Koolhaas’s great Delirious New York, being that the willfully predetermined design solution — or at least the willful predetermination of what will be formally acceptable in a design solution — is masked in innocence by seemingly neutral methods of production relying on apparently external parameters. 5 We know why all buildings by Hadid or Libeskind — actually of many architects — end up looking more or less the same, regardless of their sites. Though the exact form may not be known in advance, the formal characteristics are. That is why the orders mapped sometimes turn out to be hidden, discovered, conveniently, by the architect.

Many good architects — I think, to varying degrees, very many (but not all) — operate this way today. 6 Consider, by way of example, the (beautiful) Diamond Ranch High School by Morphosis. Its form of mapping is less obvious or extreme than that used by Hadid and Libeskind, but it is therefore perhaps more representative of how this way of working has infiltrated design thinking. Here the design (in theory) arises as a series of overlapping diagrams that relate aspects of the underlying site conditions (topography, geology, etc.) to things like mass, circulation, materiality. In each instance, it is possible for the architect to point away from personal desire and register a decision in relation to a tangible aspect of the site. The net consequence is to diffuse apparent willfulness, even though this design is as willful as any other.

Morphosis, Diamond Ranch High School
Top and middle: Diamond Ranch High School, Pomona, California, by Morphosis, 2000. [Photo by Timothy Hursley] Bottom: Box canyon near Mecca, California. [Photo by Doug Carlson]

Of course, there is the whole question of means and ends. The Diamond Ranch High School is a useful case, as its ends represent a consistent set of desired results present in works of this type. At Diamond Ranch — as with many of these constructions — it is not difficult to associate the constructions with natural landform (in this instance with eroded box canyons of the West). Here, whatever the means used, landform is abstracted to a point where it becomes constructible (or vice versa: various construction techniques are acted upon until they begin to resemble landform). In addition to representing landform abstractly, the forms generated are typically the most powerful in their locations. This surprising dominance — the contentious issue at the heart of this essay — is not obtained by traditional means: oppressive axiality, radical symmetry, heroic scale. On the contrary, the buildings achieve their fore-grounded presence by monumental picturesque-ness. 7 In this regard they are conventionally sculptural: three-dimensionally muscular, tending towards complex superimpositions, and extended, often slightly bent or folded forms that rely heavily on the reading of extended, horizontally emphatic planes. This particular definition of sculptural has little to do with sculpture as an evolving cultural activity, so much as with a sort of frozen idea based on early Modern geometric compositional strategies. Sculpture has long been off doing way more interesting things.

Design justification is a slippery slope. No matter how ardently architects claim a design arises from a landscape, if they weren’t happy with the formal consequences, they wouldn’t make the argument. In my experience with architects and students, justification as often comes after the design as before. This is the heart of the Paranoid-Critical Method. I realize that one hallmark of after-Modern theory is the problem of influence — can one really say what comes first in a creative process? — but there is a logical limit to relativism, and my bullshit meter says that explaining the ends of these designs by the means of their parent landscapes is a bit like a psychopath blaming the mess made on his or her parents: true in part, but not really the important truth, which lies with the victims — direct and collateral — of the action.

Despite the rise over the past two decades of Paranoid Critical site mapping, there is a stunning lack of rigor to its means-justify-ends argument. The range of objects-in-landscape this process currently produces falls between the two poles of Predock, who maps indirectly, by simile if you will, and Hadid, who maps directly, metaphorically (Diamond Ranch High School and its many kin sit nicely between the two). To reiterate: mapping is justified as a form of respect to landscape that is essentially public in spirit. The design seems, after all, a form of diagnosis, and the architect can say: the landscape made this, not me.

But it is clear the form of mapping used in these examples generates constructed experiential landscapes in which it is impossible to perceive any linkage to the original order from which the map arose. These constructions may have begun as diagnosis, but, just as a diagnosis is rarely the cure, so a map itself is not directly the landscape it maps. Landscapes do not make maps, humans do. As human constructs, mappings do not automatically retain the (seeming) innocence of maps. Their presence as constructions — rather than as abstractions — is not necessarily stabilizing. In these powerful examples, as I have suggested, the opposite is often true. The sites, having transferred content to the constructions, are reduced in experience from source to setting in the perception of landscape. It may be possible to map a landscape, but the affect of these constructions is to render the old maps obsolete. You are, no doubt, aware of the irony. Or, maybe — like many of my colleagues — you’re just repressing that awareness!

Architects are not required to be intellectually rigorous. They only have to convincingly sell ideas about how value is embedded in form in order to build. It is precisely this need that makes architectural intellectualism so suspect, and, just to reiterate, nothing sells today like landscape, however shoddily conflated in theory. The conceptual problems I have been describing are thus not a big deal professionally (though they are frankly unforgiveable within academic architectural discourse). Still, given that architects are, in my experience, a fairly conscientious group, it’s interesting to speculate why so many continue to go out on this particularly logic-challenged limb, despite its evident flaws as theory. 8

Enric Miralles, Igualada Cemetery
Igualada Cemetery, Igualada, Spain, by Enric Miralles and Carme Pinos, 1994. [Top image by Marc Teer; two bottom images by Flickr user Velcro]

I can think of three probable causes. Only the first is hopeful. It is possible that a new generation of spatial desire exists, one that seeks to frame public space through the concatenation of the sorts of private experience these formal moves promote (see note 7). This possibility first appears (appropriately) in the uncertain geometry of the Vietnam War Memorial, but it is to date most precisely confirmed by the Igualada Cemetery, the masterpiece of Enric Miralles, which points to this possibility with startling conciseness. Here the form of the new public landscape arises as a concretization of an existing man-made landform — an excavated quarry — the form of which is entirely without precedent in public experience. There is no shared toolkit to decipher this space. Here public-ness cannot be that I trust that you are feeling what I am — as I do when I am with you strolling the axis at Versailles. It can only be that, later, we are surprised to discover that we felt the same.

The impossibility of common interpretation is a hallmark of after-Modern theory. 9 How to convincingly give this idea public form is a pressing impulse that shows up in all sorts of forms of cultural production — multiplicity of interpretation shows up as the blatant subject in, for example, the work of the sculptor Tony Cragg — though perhaps least coherently in architecture. 10. But I doubt this essentially new and urgent desire is driving most of these architects. Here’s why: I’ve heard far too many architects describing their design process as tuned to the particulars of their specific sites — and these sites have been as varied as you can possibly imagine — and yet the many buildings designed for all these crazily varied landscapes fall within an extraordinarily narrow formal range. See if you can differentiate the landscape-mapped designs based on site difference as you work your way through the Phaidon Atlas. These surprisingly similar buildings — from around the globe! — constitute an identifiable oeuvre, the consistency of which only serves to further flatten the distinction of their parent landscapes, exposing the lie beneath the claim.

No, the reason is probably shallower. I think many architects today use landscape in the way I have been describing to mask their desire to work by the means and in the generous and luxurious and deeply desirable language of abstraction, that (by the public largely underappreciated but within architecture still correctly heroic) birthright of the Modern, rather than with the thin forms of representation of the Post-Modern, brought to you by the short-sighted idiots who sold out our birthright for magical sheetrock details. By equating abstraction with landform (as with the Austin City Hall), or with the processes that generate landform (as with the Diamond Valley High School), or with the palimpsestic layers of information built up in the human formation of landscape (as with the Vitra Fire Station), or with hidden landscape orders that must be brought to light (as with the Jewish Museum), these architects are cloaking the abstract with a mantle of landscape valor, while sidestepping the more contentious issue of language. Inadvertently or intentionally — it doesn’t matter — many architects today equate landscape and architectural form to keep alive the tradition of a building’s right to abstract sculptural presence.

Landscape is valued, while architecture is not. The rhetorical use of landscape in these instances is a form of deceit, a means-versus-ends intellectual slight of hand. These are timid times culturally. So maybe the gap between the pitch and the product is OK. Or not. Increasingly my experience is that maybe the gap doesn’t exist in architects’ minds, and we’ve actually come to convince ourselves of — to believe — the strange twisted content of our own misleading sales pitch. It happens; it’s happened before. One thing though. The sculptural dynamics of all of these buildings, their startling hallmark, actually point darkly towards a third probable cause. Why does the architect trot out this specious logic? Because “the architect…” — these now the words of Adolf Loos, writing on precisely this same subject 11 just over a hundred years ago — “…has no culture.”

About the Series

“Landscape Is Our Sex” is part of a series of articles drawn from Landscape with Buildings: Essays on Site Design, a work in progress by David Heymann.

  1. The tree in question was a dying but still monumental Eucalyptus that loomed over the best location for the new house. Murcutt calculated the tree in falling would swivel from the base of its trunk, and so he set the house just further from the tree than the tree was tall. The fulcrum was, however, the edge of the root mass, and the tree, which proceeded to fall the week the clients moved in, came crashing down on the roof. The clients, in the spirit of the errors and omissions clause, were understanding.
  2. From an undated conversation with Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
  3. From the Austin City Hall Grand Opening Celebration, an authorless commemorative booklet locally published for the opening of the building, page 3, in the description of “Architectural Vision”: “[t]he rugged beauty of Bull Creek, which winds along the western edge of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, inspired the design for Austin City Hall. Terraces spill out of the building into the plaza in a way that is analogous to geologic forces in the Hill Country that surround Austin and produce limestone overhangs known as ‘balcones.'”
  4. The landscape processes are set out as juicy design verbs in an index, through which you can trace their more or less indiscriminate application to landform and building alike throughout the text, which is Landform Building, edited by Stan Allen and Marc McQuade (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2011), 469-471. The Zaha Hadid audio guide comes with the exhibit “Une Architecture,” housed in the temporary pavilion which, after stops in New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, has found a permanent home outside the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris, where I saw it in the summer of 2011.
  5. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (New York, Monacelli Press, 1994), 234-236.
  6. Of the prominent architects working today, the stand-out exceptions to mapping are Alvaro Siza, Peter Zumthor, Toyo Ito and his followers (including SANAA and Junya Ishigami), and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. These architects are after something else in landscape, which informs their buildings in quite startling ways, having to do with the use of certain landscape principles in interior spatial orders to upset a sense of institutional monumentality that they also seek (the re-monumentalization of cultural institutions is my bet for the next wave of architectural desire). Beautiful examples of this at work are Ito’s serene and confounding Tama University Art Library, and Ishigami’s stupendous building for the Kanagawa Institute of Technology.
  7. Diamond Ranch High School is experienced via a structure of asymmetrical and unpredictable paths. The design offers its inhabitants an ever changing set of framed views, often presenting alternative goals, or hinting at new discoveries near and far. It is, as I mentioned earlier, akin to walking through an eroded box canyon. The specific landform referenced notwithstanding, the design strategy is related to English landscape garden design, in which — and here I apologize for radical over-simplification — the experience of a landscape arises from a series of striking views, each asymmetrically composed, carefully strung together (like tracings in a particle chamber) in a matrix of possible paths of desire. These multiple individual paths (each often carefully themed, so that the whole of the composition reads as a great novel) in turn seem to be the byproduct of an underlying natural order — moving along a widening valley, around a bending lake, toward a brightening glade, through a dark forest, to an opening framed by great trees beyond. Seeming naturalness is key. Though often these landscapes are entirely new constructions (think Central Park), the appearance of an uninsistent natural order — as opposed to, say, the insistent man-made order of the Nazi stadium in Nuremburg — presupposes private discovery in the mind of the observer; and for this and other reasons, picturesque landscapes are traditionally associated with the experience of precise and personal pleasure, and with the somewhat guilty knowledge that this pleasure, because it seems reserved for the individual, is somehow frivolous. Actually, it is this memory of frivolousness that makes the picturesque aspect of many recent buildings considered at the forefront of critical architecture so startling. There arguably isn’t a term in the discourse within architecture more witheringly dismissive than picturesque, as any architecture student who has had the unique misfortune of having their design work publicly branded as such well knows. Distrust of the picturesque goes back to an old feud. In the early 20th-century development of Modern art and architecture, the picturesque (or the pictorial in photography) — a hallmark of much 19th-century art and design (and the picturesque was itself a reaction to neoclassicism) — came to be associated with unnecessary upper-class pleasure at a moment when radical explorations into the directness of perception with regard to production and function came to be understood as urgent purposes for cultural activity at a time of broad class restructuring. You can sense that distrust in the essential Modern trope: form follows function. Why can’t the function of something be to provide trivial personal pleasure? But we understand that isn’t what “function” means in this case, which is something urgent (though this is not exactly what Sullivan had in mind when he coined the phrase). Set against the incisive agenda of early Modern explorations, the central goal of the picturesque (and the byproduct of picturesque-ness in general) — defining the gap between the beautiful and the sublime — came to be seen by many as not merely trivial, but — given the general political polarization of every activity at that time — actually immoral. Still, as perverse as it may seem, were one without prejudice to today isolate the best design tool for achieving picturesque ends, it would have to be Paranoid Critical mapping; and it would have to be called mapping — or some other misleading title, like parametric modeling — so as to mask its stained and troubled heritage. That is not to say all forms of mapping and parametric modeling are used this way. But the tools do not guarantee the results promised.
  8. Rafael Moneo makes this point cogently in the second paragraph of the Preface to Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Works of Eight Contemporary Architects (Cambridge: MIT Press; Barcelona, ACTAR, 2004), 3. Surveying the work of arguably the most prominent architects of the past 20 years he points out that, after Venturi, no architectural work is driven by anything that can actually be called a theory — with the possible exception of Koolhaas. Instead, Moneo (I think correctly) argues that most architects today have developed strategies for attaining form, and they mistake such strategies for theory. That is more or less what I am arguing here as well.
  9. See Susan Sontag’s seminal Against Interpretation and Other Essays in 1966.
  10. Actually, the improbability of interpretation does play a central role in some current architectural design: the impossible-to-precisely-fix in your mind form of Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada Aoyama is an emblematic example (and this sought after quality is well described in the book they published on the design), as is the improbable plan of the exterior of the Brüder Klaus chapel by Zumthor (you suspect on approach that it is a simple rectangular box). But we rarely speak of the public intention of this formal desire, unlike the Modern era, in which there were, at least, clearly justifiable (if problematic) public agendas to the formal languages.
  11. Adolf Loos, Architektur, first published in Der Sturm, 1910. The translation quoted here is from The Architecture of Adolf Loos, An Arts Council Exhibition (London, The Arts Council, 1985).
David Heymann, “Landscape Is Our Sex,” Places Journal, November 2011. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 12.03.2011 at 00:19

    David Heymann has intelligently and convincingly shown that the emperor has few if any clothes on. The conceit and deceit of convoluted rationales and theories used to promote and defend an architect's design with clients and the public - something all of us designers have engaged in to greater and lesser degrees of transparency - range from the unctuous and saccharine to the cunning and unscrupulous.

    In many cases it HAS facilitated good, even great, buildings. But the naked use and abuse of allusions to "nature" and natural landscape in the design "mapping" of Hadid, Libeskind and others is too slippery and disingenuous by half. It's still a post-structuralist hall of mirrors and subjective narratives, despite its claimed or, more insidiously, imputed rootedness in unique landscape place and ecology. It is a patronizing purity and untrustworthy goodness.

    And the Landscape Urbanists aren't far behind when they sell their tilted planes, sinuous stream forms and abstracted landscapes as ecologically derived. They ARE right to assert that earlier conceptions of "nature" that divide and contrast the "man-made" and "natural" are romantic and outdated, but the post-structuralist form-making persists in spite of the rhetoric to the contrary.

    David is right that abstraction and abstract form-making often IS alluring, empowering and intoxicating, but the planet and its ecological cycles, loops and chains could not care less about the theoretical architectural games and diversions, which have become more strategic than sincere. We humans need to get serious about quickly and sensitively understanding, restoring and congenially co-existing with the other natural life, resources and climate on which we have depended and will depend if we want to remain the planet's most dominant and successful species. We can learn a great deal from the ecological web (even more than from the electronic web, despite its growing richness).

    And one of the most paradoxical of these lessons is that compact, walkable, transit-friendly urbanism is ironically more environmentally benign than spreading humanity across the countryside in low density if leafy settlements, which are too often agonizing compromises between city and country. And dense cities without diverse land uses and demographics, as well as traditional streets that form a connective network, are the worst of both worlds - neither green and private or urbane and convenient. Sprawl "in seductive green drag" - no matter how sophisticated the design or tall the buildings, still has an unsustainable if grassy footprint. One has to ask "where is the urbanism in Landscape Urbanism?" Highrises in the park do not a city make.

    It's past midnight and my ramblin' rant needs to end.
    Thank you, Professor Heymann,

    Doug Kelbaugh FAIA, Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning
    Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
    U of Michigan

  • 12.03.2011 at 11:39

    Thank you! What an on-point and wildly overdue essay. I agree with Mr. Kelbaugh, that we have to get away from lines and arcs and into the loops and cycles of the natural world, though I think these too are abstract-able.

    To me, the key is not just that they are abstract-able but that they are _participate-able_. It's not enough to look like the balcones: why is that water dripping into the parking garage? Where does it even go from there? Really, the footnote to the dead tree falling says it all: trees most often fall as a complete entity, meaning yes, the bit underground too, thus the edge of the root ball will be the fulcrum most of the time.

    Until architects (landscape and otherwise) spend enough time observing how nature works, all the diagrammatic analysis of this that and the other will miss. Maybe that'll be Richard Louv's next book: the last designer in the woods...

    Molly Phemister
    MLA, UVA 2007

  • 12.04.2011 at 11:59

    What of the issue of instrumentality? You write
    "That is, you cannot understand what generates the order by simple inhabitation. You have to be told. "

    Does inhabitation suggest instrument/usage?

    A certain type of instrumentalism would rely on or create knowledge on the instrumentor, whereas here it is external... You must be told and here is a difference at the personal scale in knowing.

    The idea of sculptural landform as building though, as equating landscape seems also to ignore the real possibilities of landscape. Instead of landscape as constructed view, Landscape as use-scape, which relies on a bi-directional relationship of making/mapping. It also suggest landscape not just as picturesque and recreational but factory or at least ecological machine.

  • 12.05.2011 at 16:44

    I find this article compelling, certainly, but I think there is a fallacious implication here that 'landscape' and 'context' are equivalent. This is perhaps part of the same argument that the author himself makes regarding the over-zealous use by the discipline of the term landscape, but distinguishing between the two would allow a more rigorous discussion on the range of forces that impact the design process.

  • 12.07.2011 at 15:07

    Thanks, David, for a really compelling article, and to all for the prior comments. Although these have focused mainly on questions of nature, I have some questions about what your article says about place, context and culture... especially in light of the final Loos quote. (I wrote this just before I saw your subsequent article, so apologies if the questions overlap with it... I think they might.)

    I certainly buy that "mapping" -- or otherwise directly incorporating abstract, visual/aesthetic lines and forms of a given landscape into the abstract, visual/aesthetic lines and forms of a building's design -- has become a common technique for claiming site-sensitivity. But there are also many other ways to actually *be* sensitive to site, some buried in the past and some (hopefully) buried in the future... most of which, in my mind, begin with deep understanding of place, participation in community, and involvement of actual people, all as part of a process that can eventually, carefully, inform aesthetic and formal decisions, mapped or otherwise... and I worry that you throw this contentful baby out with the formally misleading bathwater, by alternately addressing the ideas of "mapping", "site", "context" and "landscape" without clearly keeping the concepts distinct (as the previous commenter alluded to).

    The examples you actually like within the "mappings" strike me as projects that used that formal technique, but also may have been sensitive to place in more substantial ways, whether by accident or on purpose. Other projects, like Louis Kahn's Salk Institute (interesting to compare to the Morphosis high school, I think) in La Jolla or Carlo Scarpa's Brion cemetery, deeply honor their places without having to borrow literal lines. If that's the case, it's not really the technique of "mapping" you're taking issue with, but rather its power in unfairly pretending to be something more than what it is, which is just a single, sometimes useful sometimes pointless, formal strategy. Do you agree with me that there really is a baby behind all this, and if so, can you clarify what you think it is, maybe with some examples?

    I think perhaps the problem here is that architects -- who you very usefully point out are rarely intellectually or morally responsible at all, and certainly not in any rigorous way -- see very little difference between an actual, contentful understanding of people, place, community and history as a driver for an understanding of site, and an arbitrary, purely aesthetic understanding of site. In some architecture schools, for example -- I noticed this often as a grad student at Michigan, despite the sensitive and comforting points of Professor Kelbaugh above -- efforts to actually visit a place, talk to people, and attempt to build an understanding of what matters for citizens are met with a kind of "you *could* do that if it floats your boat, but if it means leaving your studio desk and foam models for long, beware my wrath" from professors, while others who look at a map of a place, take all its lines like sticks, and arbitrarily rearrange them into the form of a building are met with abject glee, or at least no less enthusiasm. If schools run their studios this way, only students who happen to care more deeply about people and places from the outset will emerge with the kind of honesty to cut through the bullshit. It's on the architects and educators, I think, to recognize the power they have to mislead real people in real places, but choose instead to build real values slowly and together, from the ground up. Do you agree? If not, where does change come from here?

    Thank you.

    Luke Joyner
    BA, Mathematics / BA, Urban Geography / University of Chicago
    M. Arch. / University of Michigan (in process, on leave)
    Chicago, IL

  • 12.08.2011 at 21:47

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is easy to read a variety of agendas into this essay, in part because, as has been noted, certain terms are used - landscape, context - without hard definition. Much ink has been spilt on that very task, without useful resolution.

    I would caution the reader to please not assume their agenda is mine because they sense a resonance with one or the other side of an argument; for example, that between New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism.

    There are only two points this essay makes absolutely. Mapping does not guarantee site sensitivity (though it can be used to that end; see: Michelangelo, Campidoglio). The mapping of natural systems does not in and of itself promote sustainability (though is can be used to that end; see: Murcutt).

    The essay points out the troubling rhetoric associated with mapping, which assumes both of the above, and the use thereof. It does so primarily because I would like architectural discourse to move beyond that rhetoric. But that does not mean I do or do not admire the buildings.

    Almost every agenda comes with a troubling rhetoric. Place making rhetoric, for example, invariably seems to come with the assumption that we will all be able to agree if we just use common sense. But your professors have their deep reasons too, even if they are not able to articulate these clearly.

    I am interested in how buildings serve in making landscape, and am trying to take apart that complicated topic in these essays, which are a small part of a larger manuscript. I am grateful for the opportunity to share this ongoing writing, and for your response, and those of other readers.


  • 12.12.2011 at 18:59

    Hi David,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I take all your points.

    Just to clarify, I was trying with my comment to do two things as well. First, I wanted you to clarify the difference between your criticism of the rhetoric of mapping and the question of when mapping does or doesn't contribute to more substantial site-sensitivity -- this question of babies and bathwater, with your reply and subsequent essays, has been more than cleared up, for me at least. Thanks for that.

    Second, though, I was trying to push a little at the question of responsibility, amongst architects and educators, to be more sensitive and honest -- in the exact ways you so admirably are, within these essays -- in their building, in their thinking, and especially in their teaching. I acknowledge this agenda, a broad one, may not be exactly yours, but it seems pretty related. Either way, I'm really interested in your opinions on it, and think many other readers (especially young readers, students, who care deeply about this set of issues but struggle to find them front and center in architecture programs and related professional tracks) would be too.

    I'm quite sure all human beings -- architects, professors, whoever -- have their reasons, but some of those reasons are more honest and well-thought-out than others. Whether or not a world with more honesty in opinion and conversation and work, around the exact issues you're raising in these essays, would result in everyone agreeing -- and lord I hope not, what fun would that be!? -- such a world still strikes me as a worthwhile goal. And in a very pointed way, I think architecture educators are failing every minute they continue to run their schools without being conscious of your line of thinking here, or of much of the work of geographers and historians, or of what art really is, or of how people in different neighborhoods and communities live their lives, or of any number of other well-considered agendas more rooted in people and place than starchitect-diagram-foam-foam-wow-zone. If that's already the case, I'd be thrilled to hear any of them craft a thoughtful reply to your essays that defends their pedagogical approach -- but til then, I call shenanigans, and so do a lot of other young people I know.

    In the mean time, thank you again so very much for these... can't wait to think more about them.


  • 12.14.2011 at 16:57

    Luke –

    It’s hard to be against honesty. I think what you are concerned about is the difference between teaching architecture as an isolated technique of obtaining (usually sophisticated) form, or as a landed theory of how construction carries meaning as a fact in place. Both have advantages (and both encourage longing in students for the alternative), and there are many alternatives in between. I think you are criticizing the teaching of technique per se, without your professors providing an explanation of why the form derived has meaningfulness beyond being a proof of its own assumptions, its own oeuvre. You should certainly be able to ask your professors for a fuller accounting, otherwise you are merely in finishing school.

    But then there is a dilemma. Your professors might not have a good answer because they don't have one. In that case, run. But they might not have one because they are groping towards something new, and therefore have a reason not to know. Alternatively, they may not wish to share their answer, which is a pedagogic method used to incite ambition in an era when the (as yet unproven) presumption is that design by agreement is invariably better than design by fiat.

    I don’t mean to just pick at what you are saying, but it isn’t clear if the teaching of architecture should directly seek to mirror how a building might carry meaning in place. Here, you have to be your own guide, and you should use your disagreement to clarify your own thoughts (as it seems you are doing). But be careful. It is a useful exercise to give yourself, to justify why a thing you hate but others admire is good, even if it is NOT for the reasons they give. I have tried to suggest that may be true of many of the buildings I am using as examples.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.


  • 12.14.2011 at 20:00

    Hi David,

    Thank you so, so much for this.

    I have a reply, which I'm sending by email: the conversation is drifting further from the article itself, and I'd rather not bother the world with it.

    Thanks again,

  • 12.30.2011 at 14:29

    What bugs me most about Predock's Austin City Hall (although I'm a fan of his earlier buildings) is how insensitive it is to its immediate context. The hill country, after all, is several miles west. Yet - no obvious relationship to 1) The Colorado River directly in front of it, 2) the sun directly above it (that exposed plaza on the south side is uncomfortably exposed - they have to bring in portable tents for noontime concerts that you can barely hear over the traffic anyway), and 3) the two corporate offices to either side, built just prior. The city hall looks short and overwrought by comparison.

    Overall it seems to relate more to Predock's stark home landscape of Phoenix (the best refuge is a nice cool cave) than Austin's more forgiving climate, enjoyed year-round on porches and patios.

    Perhaps relating design to the abstract aspects of its context results from importing starchitects. From a distance the most readily available site information is that obtained from Google Earth and the county land office, whereas a local practicioner has firsthand knowledge of the site, the climate, and the culture.

  • 01.14.2012 at 17:29

    Prof., I want to appreciate the depth of intectualism exhibited in your essay while I refuse to agree with the use of such words as
    "idiots" against the founders of the undesirable modersim and its afttermath post-modernism.

    I thick, we all as architects should learn our lessons. One would have expected that Architectural Thoughts should be wholistic to avoid the errors we are criticising. Architecture should be a PRODUCT of users' requirements, site and neighbourhood characteristics, climate, form, economy, materials, technology, and lots more, ALL blended together in the PROCESSING VESSEL termed CULTURE which is pre-eminent, pivotal, primary and predominant, as we argued in the review of Amos Rapoport's House Form and Culture published in Space and Culture blog. Such an approch will move us away from intellectual labour of locating intelligent architecture.

    I agree with your academic wisdom on the position of landscape in the whole continuum. But, Prof., I know that you also believe that landscape itself is a product of culture and the historical document of human existence. If that is true, as it were, will it not be a good denominator for all architectural products since every cultural peculiarity, despite dynamism and metamorphosis, can be encoded in architectural languages. By this I mean that all architectural parameters should be considered in architectural production processes in the light of "sustainable" cultural values.

    It has also been discovered through a research endeavour ( which we are about publishing as Cultural Biologism, Symbolism and Morphology of Cities) in a semiotic approch, that culture is, and should be, even the determinant of all built forms, either cities as big buildings, or buildings as small cities.

    On the whole, if our focus on the complete Architectural Procces as architects is sharpened and guided by these principles we are not likely to be missing the right targets often, as we are now.

    Thank you Prof.

    Adedeji, J. A.
    Lecturer I, Architecture Dept.,
    The Federal University of Technology,
    Akure, Nigeria.