Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Design Trend: Collage


Why Landscape Architects are Getting Beyond the Grid.

A spate of recent landscape architecture projects are loosening up the traditional orthogonal geometry that has dominated both traditional and modern design and instead embracing a more layered, intentionally incongruous approach to space-making.  

These projects use design strategies closely related to collage and montage.  For much of the past century, strength in design was assumed to be a result of closely adhering to a single geometric framework. Classical design relied on axial arrangements; modern design relied on the grid.  The result has been over a century of primarily orthogonal geometries underlying landscape architectural projects.

But a new trend is emerging that breaks the grid and embraces incongruity.



Above: Jacob Javits Plaza in New York City is designed using an incredibly complex pattern of marble and pink granite sets.  Large marble slabs are arrayed at different angles, breaking the grid of the paving. Curvilinear landforms dotted with magnolias create interior rooms within the monumental space. Design by Michael Van Valkenburg & Associates

photo by Lexi Van Valkenburgh


Exquisitely detailed Bailey Plaza, Cornell University. Michael Van Valkenburg & Associates
Another similar technique used by Michael Van Valkenburg juxtaposes two types of bluestone carpets--one smooth and regular, the other textured and rough--in multiple directions that follow the natural desire lines of the walkers.  For centuries, campus design has been a battle of trying to resolve a classical (often symmetrical) quadrangle design with the more random desire lines of people.  This brilliant design resolves the conflict by expressing the desire lines of travel rather than burying them.  


Elizabeth Myers, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, wrote a "Manifesto" in 2008 that summarized the some of these techniques: “Attenuation of forms, densification of elements, juxtaposition of materials, intentional discontinuities, formal incongruities—tactics associated with montage or collage—are deployed for several reasons: to make a courtyard, a park, a campus more capable of appearing, of being noticed, and of performing more robustly, more resiliently.”

Overlapping wood, metal, and plantings in this residential project by Bionic in San Francisco

Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle. Weiss/Manfredi. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider
The design for the Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park literally overlays multiple layers of space, using a Z-shaped hybrid landform to bridge over a highway and railroad track to make the waterfront accessible.  In this project, land itself is built up in strips--collage-like--on top of existing infrastrucure.
Image by Paul Warchol
In early modern art, collage was a way of taking fragments that each had its own external references and colliding them together. This collision of fragments--each with its own meaning--seems especially relevant in terms of urban design trends.  Here the strategy is to moveaway from master planned spaces ("form-based obsession") and toward more of an embrace of spontaneity and randomness.  

photo by Mikyoung Kim.
But this trend seems to even trickle down to residential garden design. This residential project designed by Mikyoung Kim Design in Brookline, Massachusetts features a rich layering of stone, metal, and native plants.


I'm not sure this trend has played itself out yet.  The strategy of layering spaces without reference to an underlying (Euclidean) geometry has many applications and looks and may even be a part of a new aesthetic influenced by ecology and fractal geometry.  

22 comments:

  1. I like the new look of GroundedDeisgn 2.0

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  2. I love this collage thing, especially when it makes sense and has a bigger purpose rather than impress visually. You say this is a new trend, Thomas, but isn't it what JP Ganem, or Roberto Burle Marx, in gardens and public places, or even better - many land artists were doing already for years? Just a musing.

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    1. I actually do think it's a trend in the fact that it is becoming more popular. You're definitely seeing practitioners from across the country (and even internationally) playing with more organic (and often fragmented) geometries.

      But you're absolutely right, this is not the first time this has happened. There are many great examples--as you point out--of landscape architects doing this. My point was that in the past, these projects were outliers. Now it seems to be more mainstream.

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  3. Open your eyes I said to myself. I drive by Jacob Javits Plaza all the time--it's a main route from Manhattan to our house in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I watched the severely deteriorated Martha Schwartz garden demolished, then the Michael Van Valkenburg plaza being constructed. Now that it's finished, I kept asking myself, What's so special about that? Now I see what I was missing. I never got out of the car to see the amazing paving of the plaza or how the bermed landforms work together. Now I'll pay more attention.

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    1. It's interesting, James. I've never seen it in person. I wonder if it is much more flat and unimpressive in person. From the aerial images, the patterning is really beautiful, but that may not always translate "on the ground."

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  4. Good coverage, even if they are big-budget projects beyond most out here. But $ well-spent. The overall look, hardscape and planting of Javits Plaza is so well-done in curved/straight forms, it makes me want to stay working as an LA. And I don't even like serpentine beds! Though the Cornell example is a bit busy in the paving for me (too collagey?), I do like all the spaces it creates at the edge of the huge expanse. Etc.

    I think some of this is a happy return to designing with all the proven principles, over trendy cliches (grids, blocks, odd numbers, etc). Perhaps the LA's still using the above cliches or grids of many non-native grasses and lollipop trees (and a few natives as curiosities) will move past that, as a result of reading up on such stunning designs.

    Your 2.0 blog look is nice, too!

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    1. It's nice to get beyond cliche, right. But I wonder if these fragmented designs will become cliche themselves in a decade. Interesting question. Thanks for the comment!

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  5. I love this. We're trying something along these lines in Arlington, particularly with the new Mosaic Park, in Ballston. I really like the "broken" designs:

    http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/parksrecreation/documents/file88031.pdf

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    1. Nice work, Vincent! "Broken" is a nice way to describe this technique.

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  6. One of the things I love about collage as an art form is that you can give new importance to an image that has become simply background, you raise awareness of an image. I'm thinking Robert Rauschenberg in particular. I think it works the same way in the designs you show. If those amoeba in Javits Plaza were in a struggling lawn area with some strips of paving the plantings would be background. Instead our awareness of them as something other, something beautiful, something that changes with the seasons is heightened. I think it will be valued by the people who interact with it. I think (I hope?)it may be more respected in terms of care and use.

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  7. I don't get it?

    You're saying a few landscape architects are just now using non grid based geometries? Garrett Eckbo? Michael Blier?

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    1. No, I'm not saying that this is the first time landscape architects have used non-grid based geometries. As you point out with your example of Eckbo, there are many precedents for geometrically layered designs throughout the last century.

      What I am saying is that this technique is becoming much more common--a trend--rather than an occasional outlier. Your example of Blier is a great one that reinforces this point. His Boston courtyard is a great example of a "collection of fragmented views"--a very collage-like technique.

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  9. Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us. Your pic is lovely. I like the way you think. You are a beautiful individual.
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  10. I can't help thinking of Gaudi's buildings in Barcelona throwing a break on the whole grid! There is always room for thinking outside the box! Parc Guell is one of my favorite Parks.

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  12. I think it's interesting that this trend is becoming more prominent at the time of the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show that introduced most Americans to "modern" art. Some of your examples remind me of "Nude Descending a Staircase" and Picasso's work.

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  14. You captured some great photographs. I love the unique designs that inspire new ideas!
    Thanks!

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  15. Hi Thomas,
    I work for MVVA and the photo of Javtiz Plaza with the young boy in the foreground is mine. Would you mind putting a photo credit on it? My name is Lexi Van Valkenburgh and I'm a staff photographer at MVVA. Thank you so much :)

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  16. gah, collage is the artform of horribly boring grey haired art school professors.

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