The landscape

When designing in urban settings, we are often concerned with how new buildings will shape their surroundings, whether they can facilitate circulation, improve access, how they will impact the neighbours or how facades will contribute to the rhythm of the streetscape. In doing this, we look at the heritage of a place, the materiality, character, scale of the surroundings to help shape our response. Yet what are we to do when there is no urbanity to respond to? We look to the landscape.

When building in an open setting, the landscape is a powerful condition. It can change quite substantially with no human intervention – even if it is manmade, naturalistic rather than natural – because the seasonality of climate does this all on its own. The cycles and rhythms of the natural world can shape the land in profound ways that make our human footprint on it diminutive. In this sense, landscape is the ultimate context. It is worth surrendering to this.

When we read landscape in this way, the proposition of a new intervention must be a balancing act, mostly through adaptation, to respond to ecological systems from topography and local planting to the historic and future climate. There is the notion of a cultural landscape to consider as well. Even, and especially, in more rural settings, we should not forget there is likely to have been an existing design language – one intimately shaped by nature, the need to accommodate a particular climate or the historical availability of natural materials. A well-designed building that sits out in a rural or semi-rural setting should negotiate with these surroundings just as it would in the middle of a busy city, responding to what is around it, and where possible, sitting lightly on the land.

Where shall we build?

© Tate. John Constable (1776-1837). Flatford Mill, 1810.

Clandon Park set in a historic Capability Brown landscape

Building in the rural

Situated on the Fens, this visitors’ centre for Welney Wetland is visible from miles away, much like an old Norfolk barn. Here, a pitched timber linear building is simply placed into a field. Rather than tuck this new intervention into the landscape, to make it go away, making it more obvious helps it to appear more native, clearly legible on the flat horizon like just another timber barn. Barely anything has been done to the landscape, but the building is intensely shaped by its rural vernacular.

Modernising a historic landscape

Our first ever project was a landscape proposal. It aimed to gently nudge an open hilltop between the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy into a more public role. The winning proposal made more evident the inherent characteristics of the landscape – its hilly topography – and then placed and orientated new pavilions and routes to draw people into and across it. Little or nothing was done to its natural features, but the area has been recalibrated, gently bringing closer together the two buildings framing it. It becomes a civic space yet one which retains the naturalistic character as it was found.

The Mound, Edinburgh

The landscape-led city

Beyond the scale of the individual building, cities themselves are placed into a wider landscape system, and urban expansion today is putting pressure on these systems. Areas such as London’s Green Belt are fitting examples of this. Masterplans for urban extensions, necessarily placed into these settings, should thus be highly attuned to the land they touch. Like the bedrock island cities of Hong Kong and Manhattan – environmentally efficient and also profoundly memorable – the location and character of cities should acknowledge geology and water and adapt to the restrictions that nature puts on them.

For Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the largest new park to be built in London in 150 years, the temptation would have been to impose something new. What was a somewhat forgotten river runs down the middle of the site, and this River, the Lea, defines a wider north-south valley watershed. This masterplan rediscovers the intrinsic identity of this landscape. Two centuries worth of back-of-house use, from sewage works and gasworks, power generation, warehousing and goods distribution were situated here, crowding out the Lea’s natural character. The masterplan declutters much of this, bringing out the traces of a meandering valley and its riverbanks. A future landscape has been created that is more like what it was before human industry ever touched it.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Whether a megacity or a single pavilion, the space underneath and around matters. The placement and orientation of new objects on the landscape should never be arbitrary.

A vast 620-hectare open site between Muscat and its airport has been earmarked to accommodate Oman’s future urban growth and contribute to the diversification of its economy. The point of departure for designing this, the country’s largest ever single urban expansion, was the site’s as found wadi landscape. Wadis, riverine canyons, are a unique geological feature of the Arabian Peninsula, shaped by seasonal waterflows. The new settlements of Irfan are structured around the wadi, which itself becomes a natural parkland guiding where different settlements are placed, from urban centres in plateau-like areas to smaller village-like areas accommodated where there is more variable topography. Falaj, an aquaculture typology native to the region, will be introduced into the park to nourish urban agriculture - as it has for centuries.

Balad Sayt Village, Oman: traditional agricultural terraces

Wadi Park, key spaces and buildings: Madinat al Irfan, Muscat