Celebrating its tenth edition in 2018, the International Biennial of Landscape Architecture held in Barcelona has, over the years, become a global point of reference for the landscape architectural profession. With the aim of investigating the discipline from within, as well as nurturing outside perspectives related to the research and construction of landscapes, this year’s program coalesced around the theme of “Performative Nature.” The organizers wanted to explore how we, as designers, might redefine conceptions of beauty in the construction of emotionally performative landscapes that respond with imagination to climate change, the retreat of democracy and growing social injustice.
Various speakers stressed the importance of the social performance of landscapes, coinciding in their plea for design to focus on the place and people rather than the design object. Among these were Danish architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl, who advocated a humanistic approach to city planning; American landscape architect and academic Walter Hood, who spoke of the healing powers of landscapes and the memories they hold; and Swiss academic Michael Jakob, whose talk addressed the negative effects of uniformity, standardization and digitalization. His warning of the potential risk of losing the genius loci was taken up by Chilean landscape architect Teresa Moller, who called for a commitment to nurturing the essence of place, to design thinking beyond mere aesthetics and to a minimalist, “only when necessary” approach to intervention. These social and healing aspects of “performative nature” lie at the heart of the Linear Park Cuernavaca Railroad project in Mexico City by Gaeta Springall Arquitectos, the winner of both the Public Opinion Prize and the Rosa Barba Prize Special Mention. The 4.5-kilometre linear park and urban forest along a railroad links twenty-two previously segregated neighbourhoods. The project was implemented using an open process with extensive community involvement, as the local residents were initially resistant due to concerns over gentrification. The landscape created is one with the capacity to heal and transform communities, a place that defies common conceptions of beauty as residents have begun to appropriate its various spaces.
Canadian ecologist Nina-Marie Lister addressed the topic of performative design and resilient landscapes. In the context of learning how to plan for the unpredictable, what do we mean by resilience? The term implies the capacity not only to recover, but also to adapt, transform and shift. While new spectrums of norms and benchmarks are created, design can act as an agent to render these changes legible and to form a relationship between people and nature. This is crucial because, as Lister pointed out, we rarely care for what we cannot understand. The phenomenon of not being able to frame or make sense of the world – a “crisis of frames” – was further explained by Nicolas Bourriaud, an art and aesthetics theoretician from Montpellier, France, who spoke about the dissolving of the boundaries between nature and culture in the Anthropocene.
The various perspectives and elements of “performative nature” outlined by the speakers were showcased in all finalist projects listed in the heart of the program – the Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize. But none did so with more elegance, simplicity and rigour than the 2018 winner, Saxhóll Crater Stairway in Iceland by Icelandic studio Landslag ehf.
Saxhóll, a forty-five-metre-high volcanic oval-shaped crater, rises up from the moss-covered lava fields in Snæfellsjökull National Park. It is a popular tourist destination, with spectacular views over the picturesque Snæfellsjökull glacier and to the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
The award-winning project creates a staircase over a beaten walking track, a single ramp-like route to the top, which had been carved out by a growing number of hikers and had become unsafe due to heavy foot traffic.
Constructed from rusted gunmetal, the new stairway structure blends into the hues of the surrounding lava rock and alpine vegetation. It is entirely removeable – in place of more traditional concrete footings, it has been installed directly into the hillside.
Landslag ehf’s design intent was to invite travellers to spend time at the destination, to nurture a reverence for nature through the respectful observation of Iceland’s natural wonders. At the same time, the project aims to prevent further ecological damage to the site without diminishing its potential as a tourism destination by helping to build a less invasive tourism culture that recognizes the vulnerability of the landscape. The view from the top of the hill includes the vanishing icecaps of the nearby glacier, raising awareness of the threat of climate change.
Saxhóll Crater Stairway not only addresses the ecological and political aspects of a changing environment, but also constructs a poetic landscape that performs in the face of climate change. An economical, minimally invasive and reversible design, it presents an example of how performative design can create resilient landscapes with the ability to evolve. More poetically, it is also a carefully choreographed journey that allows visitors to read and comprehend the multiple layers of the landscape, to build a relationship with it and, ultimately, to care.
The 10th International Biennial of Landscape Architecture of Barcelona: Performative Nature took place 26 – 29 September 2018.