(Nothing But) Flowers

written for Third Year History and Theories at the Architectural Association, 2013

“There were many individuals of dashing appearance, whom I easily understood as belonging to the race of swell pickpockets, with which all great cities are infested. I watched these gentry with much inquisitiveness, and found it difficult to imagine how they should ever be mistaken for gentlemen by gentlemen themselves”

excerpt from “The Man of the Crowd” by Edgar Allen Poe

A textual meandering between city and landscape

A textual meandering between city and landscape

In 2002 the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, took part in the publication of a statutory biodiversity strategy for London in accordance with an international discussion during the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Rio de Janeiro ten years earlier. This document set out the ambitious task of defining the importance of natural conservation to the future of the city’s population and economic growth, while setting out to define a strata of wildlife habitats – from prized Royal parks to industrial wasteland – and the incorporation of protected natural sites, such as Rainham Marshes, to the development of a sustainable urban initiative.

In London it is not uncommon to hear frequent statements that express an intimate relation of the city and its people to the local scenes of nature, typified by its renowned network of parks and gardens. This idea of an interconnected network of natural elements has been explored with regard to its urban significance since the establishment of the Green Belt in 1938, and continues to be incarnated in recent initiatives such as the East London Green Grid. The emphasis given to this process of evaluating the importance of a system of natural sites to counter the ills of metropolitan life is indicative not only of that most identifiable quality of London as a “green city”, but also a syntactical misreading which assumes a distinction between nature, landscape, and the city. Such a misreading may be articulated in considering James Corner’s reference to the complexity of the term “landscape” through citation of studies on the Old German landschaft as “referring not only to scenery but to the environment of a working community, a setting comprising dwellings, pastures, meadows, and fields…[a] relationship not only among buildings and fields but also among patterns of occupation, activity, and space…”[1]

In the case of London this interpretation of the landscape suggests an approximated mutuality between the built-up areas and natural areas which may help to clarify a relationship between the human and non-human inhabitants, but does not necessarily distinguish a contextual boundary between the space of the city and the space of landscape. Addressing the conception of space in this distinction first confronts the inseparability of landscape from the image, derived from the 17th century genre of Dutch landschap paintings in which “the scenic concept was applied to the land itself in the form of large-scale rural vistas, designed estates, and ornamental garden art.”[2] From this, the argument, according to Corner, depends on the isolation of the landscape image relationship to then allow more possibility in determining a site for the project of landscape, such as the city itself. Given this spatial vagueness, there is the capacity to explore the syntactical contention of landscape and city within this network of open spaces, and one such space offering adequate area and a varying history of usage is Rainham Marshes.

Rainham Marshes encompass an area 4km in length and 2.5km at its widest point, more than twice the size of Hampstead Heath. Its history of use includes a 17th century land reclamation for sheep grazing and river access to London markets, railways for spreading river industry during the 19th century, and a rifle range in the early 20th century. Over the course of this time the physical form of the land changed radically, rising 5 meters above the high water mark after being filled with dredged soil from the Thames. “As the last remaining wetland in the upper Thames, Rainham Marshes was designated a Site of Specific Scientific Interest in the 1980’s and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for nature conservation in 2000”[3] before being acquired by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 2002. This variation of uses over time embeds an ordinary culture within the land that exceeds the specialization of meaning normally associated with the network of open spaces throughout the city, implying a coplanar relation to the kind of historic transformations carried out in the city. A divergence in this idea of ordinary culture can be found in the article Flatscape with Containers by Reyner Banham, and the recently completed buildings by the office Landroom at Rainham Marshes.

In his observations of the docks at Tilbury, just east of Rainham Marshes, Banham describes an iconographic expanse of tarmac and containers in a reverie of its transformation from the “tall craggy warehouses, masts, cranes and funnels silhouetted against the sky”[4] to the horizontal domination of the “flatscape”. The “flatscape” is the product of, what he terms, an “inexorable law of design for transport” and whose scale and flat form are dictated by the rubber-tired vehicle.[5] The scene is expressive of more than just the shifting economic relevance of the docklands during that time in the late 1960’s, but also a changing view of the city that is more akin to a landscape. The logic that emerges in his account of the scene at Tilbury suggests that, concurrent to the flux of supply and demand, the forms of architecture are beginning to reflect a need for more responsive environments. He goes on, stating that “this logic is already beginning to make a transitional kind of sense, visually; where buildings – roofed volumes with side enclosures – persist, they seems to grow naturally as lightweight shells unencumbered by massive masonry or cultural pretensions.”[6]

Photo from 'London's Natural History'

Photo from ‘London’s Natural History’

Elizabeth Port Authority Terminal in New York as featured in 'Flatscape with Containers'

Elizabeth Port Authority Terminal in New York as featured in ‘Flatscape with Containers’

Far from being a lament on the state of the English shipping industry, Banham is pointing to the way in which the responsiveness of buildings along the docklands have adapted their operations from dense urban nodes to landscapes, while the city, as the purveyor of these collective dockscapes, remains in a state of architectural stagnation. He opens up a critique of the architectural profession for being ignorant to such phases taking place at these industrial sites, practically scoffing as he says, “as a profession they claim the right and duty to design ‘the complete human environment’…[but they] probably don’t mind too much because it doesn’t impinge on their chosen site, the city.”[7] But it is not simply that the architects have chosen only to focus on the city because the site that Banham describes embodies the very characteristics of the city that he finds relevant, such as a consistently changing form of buildings, the incorporation of infrastructural technologies, and the fundamental fact that it is the site where the products of a consumerist urban society originate.

In defining a rift in the focal limitations of architects to consider the city in this sense, Banham’s article returns to notion of an ordinary culture, which refers to the idea put forward by Raymond Williams that “the making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land.”[8] This idea removes any specialization of language between the city and natural areas so that, in the case of the dockland, there is an adaptational dialogue between buildings and the environment, whether natural or economic, espousing an urban character. Conversely, the city itself, having vested interests in the control of – rather than adaptation to – nature, remains in the realm of the image and, therefore, the landscape.

A thorough documentation of the adaptation of nature is presented in the context of human history by RSR Fitter in his Natural History of London, describing how “animals and plants were displaced, changed, moved and removed, introduced, dispersed, conserved, lost or forgotten by humans.”[9] Reading his descriptions of the land from Roman times to contemporary London, it is clear how nature has molded itself to human creation. Within this creation, certain allowances have been made to accommodate spaces that take the form of landscapes to appease the need for an image, but the adaptable plants and animal have always found more varied and interesting ways to infiltrate the human domain.

At Rainham Marshes traces of human occupation and partly artificial terrain have set optimal conditions for use by migrating birds. Since the land’s acquisition by the RSPB in 2002, concurrent to the publication of the Mayor’s Biodiversity Strategy, new legislative boundaries have altered the context of this naturally dynamic site. This is, of course, a catch twenty-two since the significance of the RSPB’s proprietorship of the marshes, on the one hand, helps to ward off profit-seeking building developers, but on the other, it applies a landscape perception to a rich and diverse urban space.

Operating within this boundary, the work of Landroom to develop a vernacular form of architecture at Rainham since 2003 stirs a mixed response in regard to their material use of containers and semantic ordering, the most prominent of which is between Reyner Banham and George Baird, stemming from around the time when “Flatscape” was published in 1968. Though this conceptual divide may be a bit dated in relation to the construction of this particular project, it resurfaces in an article published by Building Design in 2009, in which the author claims “the rich perversity of Landroom’s scheme is that while it draws on the iconography of Banham’s future, it invests it with the formal and semantic specificity for which Baird was arguing.”[10]

the river wall at the confluence of the Ingrebourne with the Thames at Rainham, photo by Eric Hosking

The river wall at the confluence of the Ingrebourne with the Thames at Rainham, photo by Eric Hosking

Container classrooms at Rainham Marshes, photo by Sue Barr, 2008

Container classrooms at Rainham Marshes, photo by Sue Barr, 2008

The article acknowledges Banham’s insight, as far as the material economy of containerization goes, but is dismissive in stating that his “radical libertarianism” was still a vision far ahead of its time. This statement precludes any possibility of an actual dialogue of adaptability in the architecture, instead leaving it to the iconography of containers – perhaps less of the future than of about five minutes prior. With the only building in the complex with the possibility of moving being the composting toilet, since it is designed within the standard dimensions of the container, the project is not so much about a mechanically dynamic landscape as it is about dissolving the harsh visual edges of man-made objects into the scenic vista. In doing so, the buildings come to blend very well with the now fully post-industrial landscape, “all adding to an exhilarating experience of vacancy.”[11]

The idea of movement alone, though, is not definitive in suggesting a dialogue of adaptability; it is also the responsiveness of the architecture to the needs of the environment and its users which, in the case of the docks was about a reduction of over encumbered facilities, while at Rainham Marshes it is more about the subtlety of the ground condition. The container buildings of Landroom have minimal impact on the ground, with “clusters of four piles positioned at the corners of each, propped so the building stands half a meter above the water.”[12] As a design decision, it is simple and straight forward, but it could be read as a recoiling from the integration of responsive elements just as much as it could be a flattening of the forms. For the former reading it should be restated that “responsiveness” is not necessarily indicating a mobile system of mechanical parts, but the capacity to allow certain variations in the architecture to be dictated by the natural inhabitants, like designing with the intention for the gaps to be exploited. In this way it would not only be a loose play on the semantics of repurposing the economic irrelevance of shipping containers, but an intrinsic tie to the reality of a shared space for human and non-human co-habitation.

Commenting in his recent article for AA Files, Irénée Scalbert considers the distant view beyond the marshes of the passing train, the pylons, the A13 and the breakers yards as a confirmation that one is still surrounded by the city.[13] This remark recalls Banham’s characterization of the nearby docks as victims in decline due to an inexorable law of design for transport; but where Banham’s docks moved to fold the new horizontal emphasis into their urban operations, in Scalbert’s words it appears that this same law of transport becomes the last remaining sign of the city in a seamless landscape composition. This woeful blend of infrastructure with the blunt texture of un-manicured land has a kind of poetry in its vacant interiority, but its contextual boundary still imbues a specialized culture distinguished from that of the city, and vice versa. This is not to say that the existence of a large open space such as Rainham does not serve a significant purpose to the inhabitants of densely built-up areas, but there is a critical value in questioning its boundary within a city whose boundaries are already questionable.

The idea of an artificial boundary here goes beyond a critique of administrative jurisdiction or a division in the territorial language of built forms. It is very much about the subjective experience as an insider rather than an outsider in relation to the landscape. While the container buildings at Rainham Marshes assume a picturesque intervention through the cinematic framing of the land around it, the boundary moves from a material containment to the act of vision itself. It removes the subject from a context that includes the biologically diverse life forms of the marshes in a time and place that is a part of our own history. As if responding to George Baird’s critical question of “just how it is that architecture occupies its place in human experience”[14], Landroom’s project is successful as far as it is oriented solely at the visual experience of landscape. But the limitations of this critical question can be related to an excerpt from James Corner’s essay on the eidetic operations of landscape as he writes,

To the degree that everyday inhabitants experience landscape, they do so in a general state of distraction, and more through habit and use than through vision alone…Enterprises such as tourism, planning, and resource management are predication precisely on such a synoptic manage of land. Total vision affords a powerful set of instruments to not only describe the world but also to condition and control it.[15]

View from the River Lea, 2013

View from the River Lea, 2013

The Pond by LS Lowry, 1950

The Pond by LS Lowry, 1950

Oxford ragwort on a blitzed site near St Paul's, photo by John Markham

Oxford ragwort on a blitzed site near St Paul’s, photo by John Markham

capriccio St Paul's and a Venetian Canal, William Marlow 1795

capriccio St Paul’s and a Venetian Canal, William Marlow 1795

Fitter describes the reciprocal nature of industrial trade sites, such as the docks, as being harbingers for the introduction of certain species into the local habitat, while also creating new threats in their appropriation of natural territories for major roads and railways. The idea that these modern creations pose threats to the local wildlife stretches as far back as Roman Londonium, but it could also be contended that such cultural practices as game hunting has influenced comparable change in the presence of local species. The trade ports present an interesting condition, in that they become like habitats in situ with an urban operation, and their layering of contexts offers an alternative interpretation for the notion of a boundary between the city and landscape, mediated through the diverse and extensive adaptation of nature. Seen less as the abstract line that cuts and separates the land – to which Fitter likens the area of the London County being determined by the Bills of Mortality[16] – and more as a network of focal points, these boundaries behave more like fields conditions, in the sense that Stan Allen describes as “any formal or spatial matrix capable of unifying diverse elements while respecting the identity of each.”[17] In the case of the docks, and at Rainham Marshes, respecting the identity of non-human species has seen an easier path to clarity, but the agency of landscape has disinclined the critical adaptation of humans, consequentially projecting cultural values onto the architecture that reflect the distinction as such.

The Mayor’s Biodiversity Strategy, in effect, describes the role of natural wildlife as existing on a plane that is both autonomous and integral to maintaining a quality of life for people living in the city, complimentary to­­­­ the many infrastructural improvements that usually take center stage. But perhaps it is not simply the Mayor’s interest in seeing London as a biologically diverse city, rather, it is that a subtler force is at play, in which the image of the city is transformed into a kind of landscape, which serves to make up for the diminution of its more eidetic operations, such as inner city trade ports, goods-handling facilities, and local market places. These eidetic operations refer to those that, in addition to a mental conception that may be picturable, “may equally be acoustic, tactile, cognitive, or intuitive.” [18] Corner emphasizes these forms of experience as suggestive of how one might begin to imagine landscape beyond the collective pastoral image, so that the possibility of what could be considered landscape might come closer to “the core of human creativity”, such as the city. Yet, as Livingstone describes “these open spaces [which] offer Londoners places to escape the worst of the noise and pollution associated with London’s size, growing population, and level of economic activity”[19], there seems to be no mistaking the sense of separation of experiences; the perception of a human impediment to natural life that invokes the landscape in an attempt to maintain value over adaptation.

Wheatfield - A Confrontation, Agnes Denes, 1982

Wheatfield – A Confrontation, Agnes Denes, 1982

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni, 1970

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni, 1970

 

[1] James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture p. 154

[2] James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture p. 153

[3] Irénée Scalbert, London After the Green Belt – AA Files 66 p. 10

[4] Reyner Banham, Flatscape with Containers – Architectural Design p. 510

[5] Reyner Banham, Flatscape with Containers – Architectural Design p. 510

[6] Reyner Banham, Flatscape with Containers – Architectural Design p. 511

[7] Reyner Banham, Flatscape with Containers – Architectural Design p. 511

[8] Raymond Williams, Culture is Ordinary

[9] Irénée Scalbert, London After the Green Belt – AA Files 66 p. 4

[10] Ellis Woodman, Flight Club – Building Design, April 2009 p. 13

[11] Irénée Scalbert, London After the Green Belt – AA Files 66 p. 12

[12] Ellis Woodman, Flight Club – Building Design, April 2009 p. 12

[13] Irénée Scalbert, London After the Green Belt – AA Files 66 p. 12

[14] George Baird, Meaning in Architecture p. 79

[15] James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture p. 155

[16] RSR Fitter, London’s Natural History p. 6

[17] Stan Allen, From Object to Field – Architectural Design p. 24

[18] James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture p. 153

[19] Ken Livingstone, The Mayor’s Biodiversity Strategy p. iv

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