Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Architects discover Public Realm

The news that Architects Stanton Williams have won the competition to design the new King's Cross Square, was met with a resounding, "Meh!", at my house.

While I'm generally pleased to see public realm projects enjoying a higher public profile, I'm less impressed that so many of them are going to architectural practices. Just off the top of my head, some other notable examples of this would be the Dover seafront which went to Tonkin Liu, and the Maidstone Public Realm that went to Letts Wheeler - both Architects and both pretty high profile competitions.

While I'm not necessarily suggesting that Architects are incapable of designing public realm (I think most good designers can probably turn their hand to anything). It does beg the question that if Architects are designing our public spaces, then what do Landscape Architects do? Having spent 5 years at University, followed by another 2 years studying in practice how to design external spaces, I'm a little concerned by this development. I guess that if this were to become the norm, then that's the point when I pack up my clicky pencils and do something else. Masterchef perhaps?!?

A big part of my dislike of the term 'landscaping', derives from the perception that Landscape Architects are only there to specify areas of grass and shrubs. I'm still haunted by the experienced developer who told me that he didn't need a Landscape Architect, as he had some guys who could put down grass and plant hedges. Weirdly this perception seems to be on the increase, perhaps due to the spread of the term 'urban design'. Until fairly recently urban design was generally agreed to be part of the Landscape Architect's remit (the pedant in me wants to say that urban design is a process, but I think that this particular battle has been lost), but with the rise of professionals who call themselves "urban designers", urban and hard landscape work seems to be be moving away from landscape architects.

In my experience, most Architects like to have a bit of a crack at designing the externals, but very rarely do they seem to understand either the fundamentals or the technicalities of designing landscape. The typical approach is to draw up the bits of the site they want for the important stuff like buildings and roads first, before filling the remaining landscape with some fancy shapes and squiggles. After which they'll usually try and post-rationalise what the landscape will be used for. If you're really unlucky, they may just want you to detail and specify their designs...

I guess you have to look at what the Architects that are getting this work are doing, that Landscape Architects aren't. Looking at the websites of the ones I've just mentioned, what struck me (other than how few public realm projects they've actually put on the ground) was the quality of the cgi's and renders they've used to illustrate the projects. To be honest, I've not seen many Landscape Architects, producing images of this quality. I think that Architects also have a little more cache with clients, and suspect that the higher turnovers of buildings also gives them a bit of an advantage on PQQ's.

It's another example of why Landscape Architects need to work harder at marketing themselves, and illustrating what they can do.



  1. Julian Lewis. East architects

  2. Thanks... I am going back to architecture now; after picking landscape architects' and urban designers' brains.