Walker Art Center

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Uncommon Ground

By Shane Coen

In October, Minneapolis will host one of the largest gatherings of landscape architects. The Twin Cities is an appropriate place for such an event—in addition to its renowned parks system, it is also home to two of the nation’s most acclaimed landscape architecture firms, Coen+Partners and oslund.and.assoc. Coen’s environmental design has been central to the creation of two remarkable residential developments, Jackson Village in Marine on St. Croix and Mayo Woodlands in Rochester. Oslund has designed the expanded campus of General Mills and the newly proposed public park along the Mississippi River next to the new Guthrie Theater. Walker design director and curator Andrew Blauvelt talks about the role of landscape architecture with Coen and Oslund, who will be discussing their work at the Walker in September and October.

Andrew Blauvelt:

Have you seen an increased awareness and responsiveness to landscape architecture from the public?

Shane Coen:

The profession is very diverse, and it’s hard for most people to quickly grasp the scope and breadth of what landscape architects do for a living. Unfortunately, the landscape architecture community has been complicit in this confusion and in the perpetuation of the decorator or gardener stereotype. Public awareness regarding what the field offers is certainly on the rise, but we can’t expect people to embrace good design and livability issues until the status quo becomes socially unacceptable. Every citizen is affected by the appearance of new projects; designers, developers, and city staff have a responsibility to build beautiful cities. Currently, far too many mediocre projects are being approved while many great projects continue to be compromised by guidelines irrelevant to the design solution.

Tom Oslund:

This question depends on where you are in the country. The coasts have a longer history with the profession than the Midwest and hence the understanding is greater. But I would say that the general public’s understanding is somewhat limited to what landscape architecture is, which is to say more associated with gardens or planting than the design of environments with complexities. However, the profession is on the rise due to the awareness of sustainability and our growing population and the need for quality exterior environments that add value to the places we live.

AB:

Certainly ecological and environmental concerns are more prominent in today’s culture. I know the concepts and terminology, such as “green” this or that, are especially complicated to define. How do you wrestle with these expectations?

TO:

I approach all projects with an understanding and responsibility of ecological considerations, but it does not drive my solution to a design problem. Currently, the trend in the profession is to hang one’s hat on the rational or scientific principles of ecology, but we must design not allowing rational science alone to dictate the spatial world around us. We must embrace the logic of the sciences as well as the mystery of our collective senses to create provocative and timeless spaces. Only when that occurs can we have meaningful design solutions.

SC:

All design projects should strive to be sustainable, and there are many ways to achieve this even though today the definition of sustainable or green has become so diluted. For us, building with materials and construction methods that actually pass the test of time is at the top of our agenda. A design’s context should also inform a project’s sustainable opportunities. For instance, “rain gardens” in urban plazas have no contextual value, instead we would propose underground infiltration basins that treat the water out of sight in a more structured and layered manner. “Green” should not take precedence over great design, especially during the public selection process. Communities need to select the best designers for public projects, and work to ensure that their projects are sustainable in ways that reflect the context and make sense.

AB:

Your work displays a strong visual design component, although most landscapes are created to function as a background or backdrop, whether for buildings or activities. What influences do you draw upon in your designs?

TO:

Modern art has been a huge influence in my work, particularly sculpture. The works of Isamu Noguchi, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Christo—all artists who make us see things that we take for granted in a new and exciting way—challenge me to pursue similar strategies in a landscape solution. Other designers influence me, architects like Tadao Ando and Alvar Aalto; landscape architects such as Dan Kiley (the reason I chose landscape architecture) and Peter Walker, James Rose, and Andrea Vera; or industrial designers Ray Eames and Raymond Loewy. Their work and intellectual rigor challenge the pursuit of simplicity and timelessness in my own work.

SC:

Our process and influence generally begin with intuitive responses to the piece of land or city, including existing conditions, patterns, cultural and physical contexts, and of course any building program and initial architectural response. After an initial concept, we actually go through a rigorous exercise in subtraction during which we strive to simplify each design decision into a truncated series of quiet, yet powerful gestures that typically radiate out from the architecture and in from the context. Such gestures amplify certain existing site conditions and highlight structures.

AB:

I would say that most people experience the landscape as a “natural” phenomenon, although much of what we encounter is actually highly constructed. Does this tension bother you, or do you prefer to exploit it?

SC:

The tension between the “secretly constructed” and the “boldly constructed” can be invigorating at times, especially when people come to understand that boldly and deliberately constructed landscapes actually highlight the characteristics of land through contrast of line, form, or other basic principles. The most banal approach to landscape architecture in the context of an existing environment is to create something perceived as “natural.” The lack of contrast with these projects lessens the intrinsic value of the existing environment. The correct approach is to contrast the biomorphic and softpatterned forms of the “natural” with a strong geometric order defined by lines, repeating elements, and clarity of intent. This approach engenders a strong appreciation for both the constructed and the existing.

TO:

I believe man is a part of nature, so the manipulation of our environment is part of our evolution. Central Park, the Minneapolis lake system, the Fenway in Boston, all are assumed to be natural environments; they are as manipulated a landscape as Versailles or Villa Lante. One tries to replicate nature, the other abstracts it. I am more interested in the abstraction, so I embrace the tension in my work. Using nature as a “spatial lens,” not trying to re-create it, is more interesting, and hopefully more provocative.

AB:

Most people have an emotional or experiential connection to the landscape. What landscape experience resonates the most for you?

TO:

There are three types of landscape experience that I resonate with: the first is a coniferous forest for the structure of spatial scale; the second is the prairie, because of the vastness and power of the horizontal; and third would be Kyoto’s Zen gardens for understanding the tension between man and nature, the apparent simplicity yet vast complexity of framing space, and the ambiguity between landscape and architecture.

SC:

For me, and most of the designers at my firm, it is past experiential connections to agricultural or sparsely populated lands—places where the beauty of pattern and repetition are easily absorbed. I resonate strongly with geometric patterns of agriculture seen from the sky, fields of wheat, and other large-scale planted monocultures. These constructed scenes include vineyards or the fabricated landscapes of the Netherlands, which are inspirational for both their beauty and human innovation. I also love European cities such as Basel, which allow and promote the most progressive structures to be inserted within their historic districts. There you will also find an extremely modern palette of furnishings contrasting and highlighting the historic cobblestone streets. I long for the day that we will stop installing faux historic lights and furnishings within our American cities.

Jackson Meadow, Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, 1998-present

Shane Coen and Jon Stumpf, landscape architects, David Salmela, architect

Photo: Peter Bastianelli-Kerze