The Landscape of Tomorrow: When Architects Are No Longer Enough

In a world which is globalized but demanding, lacking in moderation but environmentally-conscious, philosophers and environmentalists are welcome

Claudia Cassatella

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Photo Maurizio Pisani, courtesy of UIA

As things stand nowadays, in order to envisage the ideals which will guide the creation of new landscapes, we need to pose hundreds of questions and listen to all the answers. While on the one hand there are powerful social demands for conservative, “greener” scenarios, on the other the environmental issues themselves appear to call for technological innovations. The clashes of opinion over wind farms are a case in point, and what of installing solar panels in historic conservation areas? These are typical situations which represent possible contradictions between the content and image of environmental policies. At the other extreme we have “greenwashing”, projects with a high environmental impact which involve buildings, industrial areas and shopping centres being covered in greenery. There are entire new complexes being designed in the shape of plants or flowers.

landscapes are a representation of reality which closely reflect the way in which people view their own living environment, and because of this they are a powerful tool for democracy

Architects work right at the epicentre of these contradictions. They have to give shape to the dictates of politics, the economy and society, translating ideals into images. Without counting the fact that now they have considerably more responsibility than in the past: designs are more easily translated into reality nowadays. As geographer Claude Raffestin asserts, the relationship between landscape and local area has been turned on its head: landscape is no longer the cultural product of the process of transforming the area. Now what happens is the opposite: first we produce representations in the form of plans and designs showing the landscape we will see, then we transform reality to bring these images to fruition.

In view of the fact that now almost all anthropocentric areas are planned and designed, and technology enables us to manipulate nature, those who create the images of these transformations have an enormous responsibility. So what form do the images of change put forward by architects take? And do these images reflect the sustainability agenda, or other ideals which are socially shared, or are they just the reveries of a professional elite?

New islands shaped like palm trees or tulips, and tourist resorts which are identical throughout the world, reveal the use of globalized, collective imagery. The new landscapes which come into being from this are not the result of a morphogenetic process, quite the contrary. Often they bear no relationship to the natural scenario, but are merely artificial products, kept alive artificially.
The forceful presence of environmental issues calls for great prudence and points to new contents for urban and territorial projects. Yet there is a distinct lack of images capable of lending substance to the new grail of sustainability, of offering a vision and at the same time alluding to content-based objectives and a new kind of landscape.

Gilles Clément’s Planetary Garden, and the UN-led PAM project Plant a Million trees, and Stefano Boeri’s Metrobosco (Metroforest) and Vertical forest are catchphrases that seem to have caught on from a social point of view. In some cases impactful images seem to have been so convincing that they spark off spontaneous processes, or create a kind of shared ‘mirage’, such as the example of IBA Fürst-Pückler-Land, with vast mining areas being converted into a new tourist district with lakes and leisure facilities.
In this way, creating landscapes today can play a part in implementing both environmental and social policies: coming up with a new destiny for depressed areas, improving the quality of life in urban settings, and increasing, with the creation of new woodlands, the availability of food in subsistence economies, in line with the philosophy of the Green Belt Movement.

Landscapes are a representation of reality which closely reflect the way in which people view their own living environment, and because of this they are a powerful tool for democracy. The creation of alternative landscape scenarios can enable the public at large to comprehend just what is at stake, as well as forging new visions, and guiding collective and individual action.

This is why it is important to involve philosophers, town planners, landscape designers and politicians in “Landscape, Future Tense”, the workshop which aims to explore the concept of creating landscapes in terms which are not purely architectural. The idea is to look for guiding images for the creation of new areas which are sustainable from the social and environmental points of view, illustrating experiences and projects and ascertaining the efficacy of landscape as a medium of communication and social participation in the decisions on our future.