Medium_2009_feb_008 Forestry, not Forest

16 Oct 10:49

Dermot Foley

Urban challenges - new forests or dead wood?

Using forestry techniques for Temporary Urbanism

The purpose of the editorial is to describe the rationale behind this semester’s work in Studio 4A of the University College Dublin (UCD) Landscape Architecture undergraduate programme. The concept has been devised by Dermot Foley of Dermot Foley Landscape Architects, and some of the work featured has been prepared by UCD students. It is the university’s intention to structure Studio 4A, which runs from September to December each year, in order to parallel a variety of possible themes within TURAS, and to enable the students to learn from TURAS and TURAS to benefit from the students’ work.

Permanence and Temporariness – one and the same?

The still image of the bucolic landscape, the photo (Fig. 1) or painting, often imparts a sense of permanence, as if the particular landscape has always been there. This is related to our cultural inheritance. There is, however, a more fragile side to landscapes. To put it another way, we can sense the possibility of change, when we actually move through landscapes, experience them or observe them through video. This is apparent in the work conducted by, among others, Christophe Girot and students at Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) 1.

The intention to be temporary is important

The authors of The Temporary City are quite clear about one thing – they distinguish Temporary Urbanism on the basis of intention – that the project is intended to be temporary 2. Intention is what distinguishes every type of activity. It’s what makes the difference, for example, between a landscape architect who uses a hedge to enclose and an artist who uses a hedge to make us more aware of enclosure.

Some entities or phenomena symbolise permanence

One of the constraints to resilience, which TURAS may help to overcome through Temporary Urbanism, is the way in which our perception of permanence potentially inhibits what could be valuable projects or activities. Typically, a Temporary Urbanism project takes place on land which is handed over by a private sector owner or a local authority, on a short lease, to the third sector who, in turn, organise events and activities for and with citizens. Under the terms of these leases or arrangements, certain activities may be prohibited. Trees, which for many, symbolise permanence, are often planted in removable containers, but not in the ground itself. In order to benefit more from temporary urbanism it could be very useful to alter what we mean when we use the word tree. We can learn from the Belgian painter Rene Magritte (Fig. 2).

We should also consider the connotations of the word forestry versus the connotations of the word forest. This is one way to overcome what many academics and commentators criticise as the process of codification in relation to planning and urban design.

Permanence can take the form of a repeated restarting of a process

In landscape architecture, one way we can overcome this problem of codification is to imagine ourselves active within a landscape, rather than distantly pondering a landscape type, such as forest or woodland. To be doing forestry (Fig. 3) rather than looking at forest. Landscape architecture of this kind exploits the fundamentals of landscape management – that is the repeated restarting of the clock. In this regard, we are interested in the materials of a landscape and the experience of working on those materials. Our primary concern is not the forest as an ideal landscape.

Artists such as the German painter and photographer Gerhard Richter help us to see material, rather than codes (Fig. 4) 3. This repeated restarting of the clock (Fig. 5) is now topical – we live and work in a period which highlights and celebrates process and change, rather than permanence and stability. Today, we get the skip garden, instead of the 200-year old tree. Of course, we know that historic illusions of permanence are just that, illusions. The Baroque landscape, for example, is in a constant state of decay – propped up only by a literal (in the case of Versailles) and metaphorical diversion of precious resources. The ecological aesthetic however, offers a permanent state of temporariness. The way we design it and the way we perceive it does not rely primarily on form, even though form nevertheless emerges. Eco-systems do, actually, settle down to a state of equilibrium – a sort of permanence – until a shock occurs. Form, then can be enabled through the designed shock. For this kind of design to be relevant to Temporary Urbanism, shocks must occur – and these can take the form of land recycling, or design and management interventions – i.e., restarting the clock. And of course, ability to absorb shock relates to the concept of resilience, which is linked to Temporary Urbanism.

Some approaches to Landscape Urbanism could be, essentially, Temporary Urbanism

It seems, however, that cities generally continue to identify with a culture of recognisable and permanent form, geometry, landmark and so on. Guidebooks and brochures still have, as their frontispiece, the principal landmarks of the city – historic to signify stability and pedigree, new to signify ongoing prosperity and cultural vitality, or both. Development plans, and other planning instruments are still dominated by policies, objectives and illustrations that govern or describe form and appearance. Landscape architect Michel Desvigne’s proposal for the Right Bank in Bordeaux (Fig. 6) begins to challenge this 4. The project confronts the issue of permanence and change. Even though it takes a particular form, it questions the conventional approach to form-making in masterplanning, but it is not quite Temporary Urbanism. A further application of forestry technique is required to trigger a constantly changing spatial sequence (Fig. 7,8).

Form emerging through process

Street trees are the trees we associate with the permanent boulevards and avenues of great cities. The average lifespan of a street tree in most cities, however, is between 10 and 20 years. Ironically, though, if you coppice certain species of tree it prolongs their life. In fact, it promotes a perpetual rejuvenation of the plant, made possible by the unique physiology of trees. It also gives rise to a constantly changing spatial scenario. If you combine this with thinning, clearance and controlled re-generation you get a habitat, which is not settling down to a state of equilibrium – it is constantly re-starting. This process of displacement, re-growth, removal etc. is not just a spatial process or an expression of form. It is an activity, which has many positive side effects (Fig. 9).

Teaching, TURAS and Temporary Urbanism

During the last academic year (2011/2012) the students and staff at University College Dublin Landscape Architecture started the first of a series of studios for final year landscape architecture students, which will track, mirror or contribute to the research as it evolves in TURAS. The theme for last year’s students was Dissolving Image Identity in Landscape Architecture. This semester (2012/2013), the theme is Forestry, Not Forest, and the students are tasked with temporary proposals for stalled development land in Pelletstown, north west Dublin. Dublin City Council is currently formulating a Local Area Plan, or LAP, for Pelletstown, to take into account the effects of the dramatic end of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom. The aerial image (Fig. 10), reveals that the masterplan for Pelletstown was only half built. Together with Barking, Trent Riverside and other European sites, Pelletstown has the potential, as part of the TURAS programme, to trial or demonstrate alternative solutions to conventional masterplanning.

Artistic expression as starting point for new urban relationships

This year’s studio work in Studio 4A has started with three-dimensional and two-dimensional artistic expressions of the students’ conceptual themes. The students have been encouraged to contemplate themes such as encroachment, revealing, obscuring, enabling, which emerge from the use of forestry techniques such as thinning, clearing, coppicing, and which could give rise to a new Temporary Urbanism at the site in Pelletstown. Some examples of the students’ initial images (Fig. 12, 13, 14) illustrate, in an abstract fashion, qualities that can be found in nature. The students have started to develop full landscape architecture schemes for the abandoned and vacant lands at Pelletstown. They will explore the possibility of developing forestry for short periods of time on urban ground conditions which are not conventionally suited to forestry and they will work towards the integration of forestry materials with existing and future built development, through micro-climatic change, spatial sequences, connectivity, community action and a possible contribution to changing energy usage patterns.

Staff at the Landscape Architecture Studio 4A

  • Dr. Karen Foley, Head of Subject Landscape Architecture
  • Victoria Kavanagh, Architect and Studio Tutor
  • Dermot Foley, Lecturer Landscape Architecture

References

1. E. Mertens, Visualising Landscape Architecture (Basel, Birkhauser, 2009)
2. P. Bishop, L. Williams, The Temporary City (Abingdon, Routledge, 2012)
3. G. Richter, Wald (Cologne, Walther König, 2009)
4. M. Desvigne, Intermediate Natures (Basel, Birkhauser, 2009)