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Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Moving mountains. The unusual pavilion designed by MVRDV as the Serpentine Gallery's traditional summer exhibition space has been postponed. The Dutch architects proposed encasing the gallery within a giant man-made mountain, transforming the landscape of Hyde Park and providing a new viewpoint. Perhaps next year. MVRDV's best-known 'man-made mountain' was their Netherlands Pavilion at Hanover Expo 2000, a vertical landscape that was an aesthetic response to their national topography - if in doubt, build up. Density has always been at the heart of the practice's work, a statistical weapon that can also be wielded ironically - the Pig City project of 2001 asks us to consider the logical consequences of mass factory farming, as well as the role of the high-rise in (human) society.

So will the Serpentine's 'mound' pass into history as a great unbuilt project, along with all those chin-stroking classics like Zaha Hadid's Cardiff Bay Opera House, forever lamented in architectural circles? Arguably, MVRDV's scheme has other historical precedents, from the prehistoric earthworks at Silbury Hill and Marlborough (see Jonathan Key's Stoned Again?, a review of Julian Cope's The Modern Antiquarian in things 10).

Britain continued this grand tradition of landscaping schemes into the feudal period; the aristocracy were known for their ability to move whole villages so as not to spoil their carefully contrived view. Landscapes were scattered with artificial islands, temples and lakes - such as that devised by Henry Hoare II at Stourhead (more) in Wiltshire - all of which had to be painstakingly gouged, dredged and hauled out of the 'real' earth. The picturesque tradition is ultimately highly inauthentic, a nature enhanced by human labour (although it would be crass to suggest that all human intervention in the landscape produces beauty; observe the post-industrial environments shown in the work of Sebastian Salgado for a start).

But the modern world seems intent on defining all landscape as natural, rather than just another 'thing' that can be sculpted and created. Contemporary landscape design, which arguably has a better understanding of the historical context, frequently takes opposition with the picturesque, re-asserting its artificiality and as a result is not always well-received. Perhaps Kathryn Gustafson's much-publicised travails with the Diana Memorial Fountain are largely to do with our modern misinterpretations of the picturesque, the artificial and the real? Why shouldn't we be able to paddle in a pool? Why should grass not be able to resist thousands of pairs of feet a day? What was it all about?

Admittedly memorialising is a tricky business. The JFK Memorial at Runnymede, standing in its one acre of designated American soil seems dignified and calm, as does Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial. The WTC Memorial is a hugely complex and politicised task, scrutinised right down to the typeface. Most importantly, the Diana Memorial suffers from being apparently out of context, a modern, unyielding 'ring of stone' amongst Hyde Park's picturesque vistas. It is accused of crass simplicity, inappropriateness and, worst of all, a lack of understanding of the demands of landscape.

Our sense of the natural has been shocked into rigid defintions by a surfeit of artificiality. History is something that could be dusted down, shifted about and dropped into the urban context. The latest Twentieth Century Society journal, devoted to The Heroic Period of Conservation, contains fascinating descriptions of the way in which historic buildings were once shuffled around, re-located and re-organised to allow for development elsewhere and to better preserve a sense of what once was. Coventry, for example, was knocked about in this way (see this excellent history of Post-war Coventry, complete with maps, for details).

Admittedly instant streetscapes and arcadian landscapes don't seed at the same pace, yet they are both populist responses to the 'problem' of the built environment's rather tiresome insistence on weathering at a stately pace. Nonetheless, we still try to accelerate this proces - see the story of the 'Temple Bar', the 1672 monument (perhaps the work of Christopher Wren) shunted rudely out of its urban context by the Victorians, who felt it got in the way of their thrusting metropolis. For over a century it acted as the entrance to Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire, looky forlorn and rather spooky. Today, it 'shines whiter-than-white, [and] appears devoid of history', according to Jonathan Glancey's article, the Temple of Doom. You can't please everyone.

If townscape and landscape can be instant, then that places everywhere at risk. The bodies and organisations that are fighting for greater clarifications of the insatiable need for new housing are prepared to fight tooth and claw. But for what? As Wayne Hemingway recently noted ('green belt needs shades of brown'), 'I think we should zone the green belt from one to 10, where 10 is very green and one almost brown'. Yet if anything we have become more rigid in our understanding of once flexibly defined spaces like 'green belt.' If the future really does lie in pickling every old railway embankment and scrappy meadow, while we ramp up the truly artificial and spectacular, will 'authentic' spaces like Hyde Park be left just as they are? Neither fountain nor mountain would be allowed to intrude.

*


Elsewhere. Some on-line publications. The Symptom is the online publication of Lacan.com. It's predictably heavy-going (Homer Simpson, Kant and St Paul, together at last), but those who are still up to their necks in cultural theory should get something out of it. We've been spoiled by nine years out of college, countless pop culture websites and a wandering attention span excerbated by excessive Zen Micro usage / Milk Magazine / Private, an 'international review of photography and writing' / ReVue and Blind Spot, on photography / Stockholm New, the epicentre of Swedish style.

Two nostalgia-filled sites: the Sixties and the Seaside / a huge collection of design links and resources at Webmaster Republic / The Degree Confluence Project continues on its mission to sample the world, one point of confluence (the intersection of latitude and longitude) at a time. Japan is now done, but there are still 12,460 to go elsewhere in the world.

Finally, many thanks to Dan for thoughtfully compiling a 'best of' of our recent posts.