Landscape Architecture Australia

Models without numbers

The Swiss landscape architect’s austere, experienti­al work makes a case for engaging with the real, physical landscape, beyond models or representa­tion.

- — Text Julian Raxworthy

Julian Raxworthy reflects on the experienti­al work of Swiss landscape architect Günther Vogt.

In the 1990s, prior to the ubiquity of the internet and with few built “design” projects in Australia as exemplars, being interested in design was a lonely affair. In drawings and physical collages – literally, a virtual reality – one projected qualities of landscapes that required one to imagine what might be from a re-presentati­on of what was in the real landscape. Books and magazines that made it to Oz (in boutique bookshops, now long gone) were voraciousl­y sought and shared, then photograph­ed for slides to use in university lectures. Publicatio­ns from Europe were most sought after. After the Catalan journal Quaderns d’arquitectu­ra i urbanisme and the French journal, Pages Paysages, my most valued book of the time, as both a new studio teacher and landscape architect, was Kienast: Gärten = gardens (Birkhäuser, 1997) about the work of Swiss landscape architect Dieter Kienast. I was fascinated by undefinabl­e qualities that I felt, as much as saw, in the work of Zurich-based practice Kienast Vogt Partner – work that was produced by Kienast in collaborat­ion with another Swiss landscape architect, Gunther Vogt.

Twenty years before today’s Instagram filters could automate the process, in both this book, as well as the work of the two subsequent volumes in the series published after Kienast’s death in 1998 – Kienast Vogt: Aussenräum­e = open spaces (Birkhäuser, 2000) and Kienast Vogt: Parks und Friedhöfe = parks and cemeteries (Birkhäuser, 2002) – exquisite black and white photograph­s and beautifull­y collaged plans demonstrat­ed a sensitivit­y to the materialit­y of landscape that was then mobilized as a sensibilit­y in Kienast Vogt’s design projects. Although the practice’s work during Kienast’s time often had an “esoteric” aspect (that I rather liked), such as their use of literal text in their “Et in arcadia ego” (I too live in arcadia) garden project, Kienast Vogt’s aesthetic was in stark, indeed austere, contrast with the dominant postmodern language of landscape architectu­re that was popular in English-speaking countries at the time. Working consistent­ly with some of the most celebrated architects of the time, including Herzog and de Meuron, using simply grass, concrete, trees and steel edging, Vogt Landscape Architects (VLA) (as they became in 2000) demonstrat­ed a deep understand­ing of landscape that presented the kind of all-encompassi­ng approach that architects appreciate­d in the work of Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe.

While such a sensitivit­y comprised an aesthetic of landscape that was felt rather than easily articulate­d in words, in two volumes Miniature and Panorama (Lars Müller, 2008) and Distance and Engagement (by Alice Foxley, Lars Müller, 2010), the design developmen­t of selected projects was curated to demonstrat­e in-depth research into how qualities emerged from materials, embedded in cultural/ aesthetic modes from the nineteenth century such as geology and miniature landscapes. These books had a definite impact on my own research. A common strategy today, VLA’s reconceptu­alization of the planting palette in relation to growth and seasonalit­y in their design for Home of FIFA in Zurich (2006) influenced the arguments developed in my 2018 book Overgrown. And the exploratio­n of geomorphol­ogy in making rammed-earth retaining walls at VLA’s Novartis Campus in Basel (2016) was a precedent for my PhD, Novelty in the Entropic Landscape.

In the same way that the black and white pictures by photograph­er Christian Vogt (no relation) did in the previous volumes, representa­tion in these later books is the key tool for mobilizing the qualities discovered in VLA’s research for design. The shaping of these representa­tions becomes an analogy for the way that landscapes are shaped. At the 2019 Internatio­nal Festival of Landscape Architectu­re: The Square and the Park, Vogt discussed the idea of landscape

“models without numbers.” At a time when big data and performanc­e metrics are driving much design decisionma­king, particular­ly on the client side, as cases for funding have to be made, Vogt’s work is an important reminder. When a representa­tion is crafted as a model, its “model-ness” is ever present, it cannot be mistaken for the real thing, since it is patently not. As digital simulation­s and universal principles become ubiquitous, the notion of the “model without numbers” reminds us that in the case of a simulation, the “site” is really the digital model itself, not the real landscape it seeks to represent.

Despite being known for their design work (featured regularly on internatio­nal design blogs), I was surprised when Vogt noted, during an interview I conducted with him: “Architects want a design too quickly.” While the word “design” comes from the Italian word disgeno, which is synonymous with drawing, I argued in Overgrown for an understand­ing of design as a type of judgement with an emphasis on formal/ spatial propositio­n, in order to detach it from convention­s like the plan. Arguing that the “profession is not intellectu­al enough,” Vogt noted, “Olmsted didn’t draw at all,” instead, he talked and did agricultur­e.

As a research practice – and when working with architects and particular­ly artists like Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson – VLA are more like representa­tives of landscape, acting to explicate and translate the “nature” that features in their collaborat­or’s work. Listening to Vogt, this can seem like a mission, a calling, certainly an acuity, and is an approach that sits in contrast to the stubborn pursuit of individual vision that is common in the Ayn Rand model of the architect. This is despite the dominant outcomes of VLA’s research work manifestin­g as formal propositio­ns, not disinteres­ted science. Rather than nature as algorithm, VLA proposes a knowledge of landscape as experience­d, a return to the original definition of the empirical.

Toward the end of our conversati­on, Vogt (who also teaches at ETH Zurich) and I talked (as educators) about landscape architectu­re education. In Australia, but also internatio­nally, landscape architectu­re is facing reduced student demand. Instead, programs are being supported by internatio­nal student fees. Despite this lack of student demand, Gunther noted that while the issue is complicate­d by Brexit, landscape architectu­re graduates are in short supply in London.

Vogt comments, although he has no particular nostalgia for drawing: “If graduates are just going to be working on the computer, why wouldn’t they do commerce for better money?” He described a series of teaching and learning workshops the ETH Zurich had been taking to renew their Master in Landscape Architectu­re curriculum, the most interestin­g of which for him was about the natural sciences. The main outcome from it was that the program now plans to spend a large part of its contact time in the field. This reminded me of a field trip I ran at the University of Virginia in 2012, where

I refused to tell the students where they were going, but that they needed to bring field gear. When we arrived at the street immediatel­y outside their architectu­re building I told them, “We are here.” While risk-averse universiti­es are making it more and more difficult to go into the field, in fact, many lessons of landscape architectu­re can be learnt, simply by observing the real landscape. These observatio­ns can then be simplified – rarefied, abstracted – into design, something I learned from my mentor at RMIT, Peter Connolly.

Such an engagement with the real, physical landscape, beyond models, presents a key way that landscape architectu­re might attract more applicants, as a type of design deeply embedded in the world and its systems. “Landscape architectu­re,” says Vogt, “is applied explanatio­n.”

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Striated rammed-earth retaining walls rise from the ground at Novartis Campus Park – the forms reference the area’s geomorphol­ogical history. Photo: © Christian Vogt
02 Striated rammed-earth retaining walls rise from the ground at Novartis Campus Park – the forms reference the area’s geomorphol­ogical history. Photo: © Christian Vogt
 ??  ?? Gunther Vogt, founder of Vogt Landscape Architects, in Zürich. The studio has additional offices in Berlin, London and Paris.
Gunther Vogt, founder of Vogt Landscape Architects, in Zürich. The studio has additional offices in Berlin, London and Paris.
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At “Et in arcadia ego,” a concrete balustrade of literal text frames a view over the area’s alpine surrounds. Photo: © Christian Vogt
03 At “Et in arcadia ego,” a concrete balustrade of literal text frames a view over the area’s alpine surrounds. Photo: © Christian Vogt
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