Invasions in the Landscape


The city has dominated almost everything about architectural production in the past 10 years. Although it is unfair to suggest that all the sins of the capitalist world can be spat out in the word “icon”, it is difficult to deny that in the past decade – culturally, politically and economically –, the rural has been relegated as “the other”. In architecture particularly, it has been cast as the twee background noise in the sell-out arena world tour of starchitecture. Now, however, the connotations of audacity, wealth and power associated with iconic buildings sit rather uncomfortably alongside spiralling debts, empty offices and red cardboard “sale” signs in mall windows. If you look closely, it’s possible to see once glistening skyscrapers blushing as they helplessly radiate the overspending, arrogance and over-speculation of their age. And so, in hope of realigning our moral compass, we turn to the rural. On the edges of misty rocky Norwegian fjords, a fragile wooden structure tumbles over streams and careers to a halt on the shore.

In the depths of an English forest, an observatory cuts a peculiarly unscientific shape as camps of amateur astronomers cluster around it adoringly in brightly coloured tents. The striking silhouette of a Corten steel lookout point at the peak of an Austrian mountain or the gentle timber outline guiding tourists through the ruins of an Italian castle confirm that there still exists an architecture that is refined, strategic and beautiful, and that is about site and place and little else. These 21st-century belvederes represent a strand of architecture transfixed with site. Many of them will lay unvisited, empty for most of the year. Others will provide tensions and distractions to those familiar with the areas, but for their isolation and craft they cannot be sculptures or abstractions. They are quite the opposite, commissioned with purpose and function in the public realm and subject to critical constraints far greater than the pressure of a private house. Underneath the darkest night sky in England, the Kielder Observatory provides a place for amateur astrologers to observe the stars away from sulphurous city lights. The delicate pier-like building designed by London’s Charles Barclay Architects is a hugely charming curiosity, commissioned by the Kielder Forest trust after an open competition in 2005. Barclay crafted the design with the aid of local astronomers. Wind turbines and photovoltaic panels perch matter-of-factly on its roof and run the lights, computers and electronic shutters. Its two cubic turrets with the beautifully dove-tailed wooden panelling are rotated by hand.

There is room in the belly of the building for talks and slide shows, and a place for a kettle and thermos of tea. This is a scientific structure, but is somehow completely without pretension or steely precision that would have depicted the observation towers of the past. There’s no great planetarium style domes here, no space-age futuristic efforts to assert itself or compete with its objective. This gentle giant will age gracefully in its surroundings. Barclay used Douglas fir from the forest itself to clad each individual element of the building. There is history there too; this part of the country has a strong industrial heritage which is dotted with disused coal mines. Timber structures were once familiar sights here and were used to support pulleys and trusses. By day it doesn’t serve any particular function. The forest in this remote part of England, a few miles from the Scottish border, is pretty much inaccessible except by car. Like an overgrown child’s toy or inventor’s contraption, it stands offering exceptional views over the forest for anyone who cares to stop by. According to the architect, the occasional groups of bikers or ramblers who approach this confident wooden pier with caution respond warmly to this mark of humanity in the wilderness. There are few socio-political ambitions in this type of landscape architecture, but the need to understand and provide facilities for tourism is one of them. A little less barren, but no less beautiful than Kielder, is the prospect of drawing visitors to a ruined castle in Italy. The project by UNA2 architects aims to conserve and restore the existing tower and reintroduce the castle into the life of the local community. A series of carefully cast walkways and platforms intervene with surgical precision but with such quality to exude only thoughtful and careful curation of elderly tourists and interested families.

The Norwegians turned tourism into what is almost an act of philanthropy. The Norwegian Government paved the way for many others with their hugely ambitious National Tourist Routes project. To complement a huge investment in transport infrastructure through the spectacularly beautiful and varied Norwegian countryside (50% of Norway is mountain), the oil-rich Norwegian Public Road Administration began the task of furnishing these routes with the necessary accoutrements, from look-out points to resting places, benches, bins and cafés. In six years, they have commissioned 140 architects, from start-up practices to the likes of Snøhetta and recently Peter Zumthor. The new structures, whose location and design is heavily screened by a board of architects and planners, provide tourists in wheelchairs, hikers and the ubiquitous German caravanners access to parts of nature where they simply couldn’t be. The difficulty of building in landscape is the tension between the presence of an alien structure and a sublime landscape where humanity is totally absent. The structures need to exude both subtlety and confidence in order to succeed. They have to give without touching. It doesn’t work when concrete benches are offered cold and sterile next to warm smooth rocks worn down by travellers, but it does when one can walk and stand by a shore, or look over a precipice which was previously inaccessible. The experience of nature must be heightened and framed by these new vistas, particularly when one is only surrounded by spectacle, and the viewing platforms give a new opportunity to stop and pause and focus. Code: arkitektur’s contribution is a delicate walkway that runs alongside a large mountain range on the coast of Senja, an island in the far north of Norway.

The project is located at the tip of the island between two fjords, with the North Sea to the west and the Okshornan-peaks to the north. The 80m-long structure begins at a car park and makes its way over mossy rocks and streams to reach a small concrete barbecue area. Made of untreated larch, its meandering, jagged form is a response to the nature of the rocky coastline. The erosion of the coast is one of the most dynamic conditions in the rural. Vicente Guallart has spent a long time researching Vinaròs, a Mediterranean coastal town halfway between Barcelona and Valencia. His creation, “micro coasts”, is a carefully articulated artificial beach based in system of hexagon. His series of wooden platforms creates a site over rocks and coves. He has proposed to include a pedestrian promenade, to improve access to the gravel beaches and the rocky cliffs with timber stairs that can be easily demountable. The platforms are made up of only two different pieces, a flat, and another with a microtopograhy, which will generate completely flat surfaces, half-bent or folded completely. They are striking for their innovation, but also intriguing for their apparent spontaneity, as if they might multiply or disappear at any moment, washed away with the tide or freshly arrived with a new season. In Tirol, a sense of the spectacular was necessary. 19 tonnes of Corten steel went into the creation of an extraordinary observation platform in the this region of the Alps, at 3,200 m above sea level and an hour’s drive from Innsbruck.

As skiers and hikers approach the gridded steel, the sinuous rusty Corten tendrils clamp onto the side of the mountain. The platform, designed by aste architecture, is quite extraordinarily for its courage and its sense of identity within the heady mountain air. The architects have described the design as a solution in space, rather than a building. The outlook projects brave observers nine meters into thin mountain air – literally. The projection is dynamic and static, between deadlock and transformation. It’s not just happening in Europe of course. Architects like the young Japanese vanguard Junya Ishigami and Sou Fujimoto are concentrating on the need to relate buildings to more than themselves, with the aim of imbuing architecture with some integrity other than the narrative of design. Of course, the notion of considering or relating to context is lost when jet-setting architects build in changing complex cities like Dubai, Shanghai and Tokyo, but in the rural it is the only requirement.