03 February 2009

Form and Settlement

the social construction of landscape

Elizabeth Shotton
North Atlantic Rim (NAR) Research Collaborative: University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. University College in Dublin, Ireland. Academy of the Arts: Architecture and Design in Reykjavik, Iceland.

NAR's series of cross-cultural studies of coastal settlements on the north Atlantic started in 2004 with initial drawing and documentation studies of coastal landscapes and settlements in Norway and Ireland. It continued the following year in Iceland, and concluded the first phase in Nova Scotia in 2006.

The project has examined natural landscapes, altered landscapes, historic and contemporary building responses to these conditions, and the relationship between material resources and building form. North Atlantic coastal landscapes face significant development pressures and environmental threats to their fragile ecosystems, landforms and settlements. Conte drawings from the scale of landscape to building form and detail, scaled aerial drawings of each region and site photography have formed a basis for comparisons, identifying salient issues of culture and settlement patterns, landscape and its relevance to built form.

NAR's project parallels Richard Saul Wurman's work with design student at the University of North Carolina, later made into a small book called Cities: Comparisons of Form & Scale (1963). His representation of city form in sand castings insipred NAR's study of landscape and settlement in drawings. Wurman's thesis was that 'the healthy existence of cities is the degree to which the beginnings of a particular city is apparent'. NAR's focus reaches further back to the primacy of landscape to understand its critical relevance in shaping the form of human culture and settlement. While Wurman's work responded to the underlying pressures on city development during the mid- to late-twentieth century, environment is key to our present and future evolution, allied to current issues of sustainability.

Robert Thayer, in Gray World, Green Heart: Technology, Nature and the Sustainable Landscape, proposes that 'surface versus core' is one of the most fundamental ways to understand landscape. Describing the ever-widening dislocation between these two, he proposes that surface values are based on what is in front of us. As a visually-trained profession we see the surface condition of landscape, and work to reveal its poetic beauty through our remaking of its surface through building. Difficult to achieve and admirable when realised, it is the manner in which young architects are trained and old architects work. However, it does not engage the core.

Core values are those hidden conditions of the land, its ecological and material processes – the operative level of landscape. Re-linking those processes construed as natural and those construed as made, challenges the surface-core dichotomy with a more holistic picture of continuity and interdependence – landscape as the thing that hold us. Sustainability as a reading of core, of processes and interrelationships, was commonplace until technology and industry severed this understanding.

However, recent ecological consequences have reached a crisis, revealing once again our interdependence with the land. This critical immediacy between landscape and building is the subject of NAR's research — to understand how intimately architecture can be informed by its place by comparing four places of similar but unequal landscapes, with four similar but unequal legacies in building.

Ireland, Norway, Iceland and Atlantic Canada share some surprising landscape alliances. Although Norway has steep mountain ranges and deep fjords, its habitable coastal lands strongly resemble the others. Each place is dominated by coastline, Iceland and Ireland as islands and Nova Scotia and Norway as peninsulas. The Atlantic Ocean tempers the environment each, maintaining green landscapes of small valleys and hills interrupted by rock outcroppings and cliffs. It also inform the industry and culture of these regions.

Subtle distinctions in form, built or unbuilt, the relationship to resources, climate and culture become manifest when studied through the discipline of drawing. When various research interests are brought to bear on the drawing project, from the relationship between perception, representation and design, to environmentally-driven foci on material resource management and use in architectural practice, a diversity of cultural, material and formal readings emerge. excerpts from students' notes demonstrate this vividly.

Cultural and personal backgrounds of the participants have enriched these studies. Perceptual biases both influence the reading of the terrain under investigation, and recast one's own culture in comparison. Legacies of physical and cultural alteration to the landscape that come from inhabitation become not only explicit but also often poignant when coupled with the shared experiences of a cross-cultural research team.

If limited only to the yearly exchange of ideas among students and staff, the project has value enough as it gives new insights into architectural form, space making and cultural meanings.

The second phase of the NAR project will revisit the four countries, expanding its base of documentation and including built experiments.

Shotton, Elizabeth. 'Form and Settlement' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Elizabeth Shotton and On Site review

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