Landscape = Architecture

Blesso Loft

Joel Sanders’ Broadway Penthouse

Five years ago, New York-based architect Joel Sanders was renovating a downtown Manhattan penthouse when he ran into a problem. “There was a rooftop garden, and what we needed to figure out was how to connect it to the loft,” he says. “We decided to reverse Modernist convention. Instead of taking hard materials outside, we brought the outside in.”

Like a waterfall of greenery, the roof garden makes its way into the centre of the apartment through a skylit atrium, through which a runs a minimalist wood-and-metal staircase. The green space serves a dual function as both focal point and barrier, separating the public areas of the apartment—the kitchen and living room—from the bedrooms. Glass walls in the bathroom look out to lush foliage; bathing inside “is like being in a spa,” says Sanders. “We made living with nature part of the lifestyle of the apartment by literally weaving the indoor and outdoor spaces together.”

It’s a concept that scales up. Last year, Sanders and landscape architect Diana Balmori, who both teach at the Yale School of Architecture, published Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, a new book that seeks to eliminate the “false dichotomy between architecture and landscape” – the idea that the built environment is somehow distinct from the natural one.

“What we need to do now, because of the imperative to face environmental issues today, is to see buildings and landscapes as always being interrelated to one another,” says Sanders by phone from Yale. “We need design buildings that are green, sustainable and tied into the environment, but which also spatially integrates the indoors and outdoors.”

Sanders argues the divide between buildings and nature is deeply rooted in Western culture. “As far back as the Bible it was seen as the imperative of men to tame nature, which was usually portrayed as a woman,” he says. Civilisation is orderly and rational; nature is deviant and unruly. In the 19th century, the divide took on another dimension as American conservationists began worrying about the impact of urbanisation and industrialisation on the wilderness.

“Mother Nature became something that had to be protected from the ravages of modern civilisation,” says Sanders. That philosophy informed landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmstead, whose meticulously-designed green spaces—including New York’s Central Park—disguised their traces of human intervention. “There was a kind of guilty conscience that said to design the landscape was to somehow violate it,” says Sanders. “Even today, a green building is still seen as a building that somehow leaves nature untouched.”


Olmstead’s Back Bay Fens under construction in the late 1880s. Like Central Park, the Fens is a designed landscape meant to appear entirely natural

In Groundwork, Sanders and Balmori explore a variety of projects around the world that break down the division between landscape and architecture. They split them into three groups: topographical, which manipulate the ground in order to merge buildings into their surroundings; ecological, which address issues such as climate change; and biocomputational, which take advantage of new technologies to create buildings that are essentially alive and able to adapt to their environmental conditions.

“One of things groundwork is trying to champion is new generation of architects that are considering not only site geography and topography but climate, rain and wind conditions, so they can make houses not only more efficient but more responsive to their environment,” says Sanders.

One example of this is the North Side Copse House, designed by ecoLogicStudio in West Sussex, England. Made of wood from the forested site on which it stands, the house takes on an undulating form that responds to the animal life, light conditions, ventilation and microclimates of its surroundings – not only keeping the house lit, watered, cooled and heated by natural means, but also integrating it into the woods through a green roof.

Similar principles can be applied to a much larger scale. Sanders is currently working on a retirement community for gay and lesbian seniors in Palm Springs, California that includes an assisted living facility and private villas, all of which are focused on a landscaped common area and linked together by a massive lap pool. Residents could, in theory, swim from their living room to the spa and then to a neighbour’s house for drinks.

“Nature is the social glue,” says Sanders. “We’re trying to use landscaping devices to bring people together, but also make natural boundaries that give people privacy without resorting to fences or walls. It’s different from the strong tendency in Western typology to build something as an isolated object that has a kind of envelope around it that makes a sharp differentiation between inside and outside space.”


Rendering of Sanders’ Commons projects

Earlier this month, Sanders came to Hong Kong as part of an academic exchange with Chinese University. His message is particularly relevant here, where the differentiation between nature and city is particularly sharp. Even though the bulk of Hong Kong’s land area consists of lush forests and scrubland, most of its inhabitants live in shoebox apartments with only small windows to connect them to the outdoors.

Historically, though, living spaces in Asia were far more integrated nature, even in densely-populated cities. “Awhile back we took a class of students from Yale and went to Suzhou, which blew our minds,” says Sanders. “I can’t think of any better example of this integration of indoor outdoor space than the courtyard homes there. My sense is that the human-nature dichotomy doesn’t exist to such a great extent in Asia, and some of the greatest paradigms of nature and buildings that work really well together are there, like Chinese and Japanese gardens.”

pure contemplation

IM Pei’s Suzhou Museum. Photo by Manuel Mira Godinho

There’s a big difference between the ostentatiously contrived nature of traditional Chinese gardens and Sanders’ mix of modernist architecture with naturalistic natural elements. What unites them, he says, is “a sensibility,” an attitude that sees landscape and architecture as one. His ultimate goal is not only to incorporate that philosophy in his own practice but to break down the institutionalised barriers between the landscape and architecture professions.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday March 27 2013at 01:03 am , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment, History, Interior Space, Public Space, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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