My answer to a question on Quora:
The nexus between architecture and landscape – the interstitial space – is a fascinating place for a designer. It is the very edges of things; in nature, in objects and in buildings that are always the most interesting places to me. In the natural environment, it is that fuzzy boundary where the ocean meets the sand, the estuaries where freshwater meets saltwater or where the open forest turns to open grassland. In nature, edges are typically the most rich and fertile areas as resources are available from two different environments.
Above: Natural edges are rich with detail and stepping scale; Macro, Meso, Micro.
Similarly, edges in the built environment can offer a richness to the spaces adjacent by shaping the human experience through a variety of design ‘moves’ and/or architectural details such as a feathered edge, protection from the sun or a place to sit.
With this in mind, what I’d like to focus on is the interstitial both at the edges of buildings and site as well as the spaces immediately adjacent.
Typically, if not already briefed, at FJMT we tend to weave public space into our projects where possible to help ‘ground’ them to the site but also to connect them right into the context. I’m not talking in an esoteric way about repaving footpaths here (which we also do) but actually making new public spaces of some measurable benefit to the community or perhaps a campus.
Sometimes there’s a clear visual and physical delineation between the building and the related external space, in other projects they tend to overlap and combine, however most commonly we find they tend to inform each other.
Many years ago in a volume of the magazine Places – by the way, the archive is available to download – there was a great definition of these three approaches, or ‘modes’ as the author (Reuben Rainey) called them, in the relationship of architecture and landscape that captures a way of considering the interstitial space.
These modes are: Contrast, Merger and Reciprocity.
I’ll just briefly explain them and then you may want to consider these modes while viewing the selected buildings below. The first mode, Contrast, is fairly obvious and is considered where architecture is juxtaposed with the natural or cultural landscape. Acting as a counterpoint, the building exerts an visual and physical influence of the immediate context through a combination of scale, profile, colour and finishes. There is no transition into landscape at all so that the intrinsic qualities of each are accentuated via Contrast.
Above: Selected built precedents contrasting with the surrounding context.
The next mode, Merger, is the polar opposite and is where architecture blends or appears integrated with the natural or cultural landscape. Reuben notes that in this mode the building form may reflect the surround topography or even be placed underground to entirely merge with the landscape.
Above: Selected built precedents merging into the landscape.
Reciprocity is the third mode and most commonly found. Architecture influences, modifies and shapes the landscape and landscape influences, modifies and shapes the architecture. Each mutually benefits which tend to lead to richer, more complex buildings and spaces. The Reciprocity strategy may be as direct and formal as an extension of the building grid into the landscape or more subtle where the external space transitions into the building and interlocks the interior and exterior.
Above: Selected built precedents in which the architecture and/or landscape are interdependent.
Of course, in the complexities of design there are contradictions. These three approaches often appear together in one building to accentuate each element in response to formal considerations or perhaps react to functional or climatic conditions. From the examples illustrated above, it could be argued that Fallingwater simultaneously merges and contrasts with the site context. Nevertheless, these modes are readily identifiable if you pause and look closely.
This is a modified excerpt from my presentation at the Australian Institute of Architects Design Now mini-conference held in December 2011. Also, I’m planning a follow-up to this article with a focus on some of the projects I’m involved with at FJMT… ps. Happy New Year!
- For more on macro/meso/micro scale have a look at the classic book Responsive Environments (1985) by Ian Bentley et al. Here’s a recent video of Ian Bentley exploring parts of the Responsive Environments book.
- The macro/meso/micro concept equally applies to structures, chemistry, economics, and sociology (eg. Applying Sociology within Various Society Levels).
- Rainey, Reuben, 1998 Architecture and Landscape: Three Modes of Relationship (PDF), Places Vol. 4, No.4.
With an Expo theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, the Herzog & de Meuron master plan deliberately makes a paradigm shift away from the monumental buildings (eg. Eiffel Tower, 1889) or big pointy towers (eg. Space Needle) that characterise past Expos;
To this end, we want to reverse the notion of a monumentality that is associated with physical impact and instead offer a vision of landscape that is monumental in its fragility and natural beauty. [Herzog & de Meuron, architect’s statement]
Described by the architects as a “reinterpreted urban agricultural landscape” the design reminds me of the classic Italian gardens analysed in the book “Green Architecture & The Agrarian Garden” (Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, 1988) that made such an impact on me when I studied landscape architecture. At first glance, the scheme looks like it could be for an anonymous new city in the Middle East but on closer inspection it reflects some romantic elements of Italian cities – Venetian canals and picturesque agrarian scenes in Tuscany – that sit within a rigourous urban structure.
The design is organised around a 1.4 kilometre long boulevard about the scale of the Ramblas in Barcelona or parts of the Champs Elysées in Paris. In the tradition of Roman cities, this primary axis intersects a secondary boulevard that connects the Expo site to the city fabric. A series of strips (perhaps recalling furrows in a field) covered by shade sails cut across the boulevard axis and define the building sites for all the national pavilions. By arranging these strips perpendicular to the axis, each country has an equal frontage or representation at the Expo – despite the varying lengths and topography. Water frames the site in way that recalls the waterways of Venice (check out the boats!), provides sustainability benefits (in part a constructed wetland) as well as way to move around the Expo by boat.
Given the strong green theme of the Expo, Herzog & de Meuron are working with the world-renowned sustainability leaders William McDonough + Partners to develop a range of environmental processes that are guided by McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach. The diagram below highlights the different parts of the “nutrient system” whereby an appropriate cradle to cradle cycle is assigned to each component; Stuff (1 day to 1 month), Setting (3-30 years), Systems (7-15 years), Skin (20 years), Structure (30-300 years) and Site (eternal).
Interestingly, Herzog & de Meuron’s bold concept for the 2015 Expo is not exactly their first. In fact, the origins of their de Young Museum (2005) in San Francisco stem from the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 as the original building was severely damaged by a 1989 earthquake.
In essence, the design for Expo Milan 2015 by Herzog & de Meuron is an urban landscape design framework that provides a monumental yet sustainable approach for an event such as an Expo. Whether or not it makes a long term environmental contribution to the city of Milan, will be revealed in the fullness time as the concept has lofty aspirations;
Just like nature, the Expo will also change over time… it will have provided a foundation for flexible and sustainable development in the entire region, ultimately redefining our long-term approach to the worldwide production of foodstuffs. [Herzog & de Meuron, architect’s statement]
UPDATE 12 April 2015: As the Milan Expo is now only a few weeks from opening, it seems timely to update this 2009 article. Regrettably the “lofty aspirations” of the design team for Expo Milano 2015 remain that – aspirational. By 2011 the entire master plan team of Herzog & de Meuron, Stefano Boeri, William McDonough and Ricky Burdett left the project. Turns out that the organisers weren’t ready to accept the radical new vision of focussing on the issues and content rather than individual pavilions. Go and read the full interview with Herzog in issue no. 32 of uncube. It’s well worth your time.