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Spreading the net

By Ruth Slavid

Photo © Agnese Sanvito

How much impact do buildings have on their users? There is an increasing feeling that buildings should be designed so that they can accommodate almost any use, so that they will not become redundant. So, for example, an educational institution, while the mix of studies may change, can reasonably be expected to continue to serve its main purpose for decades.

What does this have to do with landscape architecture? In the case of the new building for Greenwich University, a great deal.

Landscape students have the pleasure of being in a marvellously designed building in the heart of a historic town, with ready access to a wide range of interesting landscapes. On 3 February, the building won the prize for best town-centre project at the London Planning Awards. But for landscape students there is an additional benefit in terms of the building’s green roofs, which offer opportunities for horticultural teaching and research.

One can imagine the students who emerge from this institution distinguishing themselves in the design of parks and urban landscape, grappling successfully with a wide range of urban conditions. But what of the professionals who want to deal with the rural environment? Where should they study and live? On page 9 Merrick Denton-Thompson talks about the challenges facing the countryside, and the role that landscape professionals can play in addressing them. Some of this work can of course be done by large practices based in cities. And one kind of work does not preclude another. Robert Townshend, for example, principal at Townshend Landscape Architects, one of the most urban of practices, helps run a family farm in his spare time. The LI’s president Noel Farrer spends half his time in London and the other half in the Lake District, however one would imagine that some of the best work would be done by practitioners rooted in or near the areas that they are addressing.

The problem then is how those people, dealing with vast and changing subjects, stay up to date and find inspiration. Of course there is CPD and anybody diligent will ensure that they keep up to speed with legislative changes. But what cities give us so wonderfully is the chance for cross-fertilisation, for intellectual stimulation, for exposure to new ideas and different disciplines. Twenty years ago, the only option for the rural practitioner would have been to meet with a few local colleagues and to make the occasional excursion to a big city. But that would probably have been for specific training rather than for casual but fruitful encounters.

It’s not true that nothing happens in the physical sense in smaller places. The LI’s Landscape Futures debates, for instance, toured England and there have been subsequent events in the devolved nations.

But the great change comes with the internet and with the growth in virtual communities. The ability of people to work anywhere is probably one of the changes that is putting pressure on the countryside – but it also allows those who want to influence what is happening in their local areas to be certain that, however tranquil their environment, they are not in a backwater. If knowledge is power, that power is spreading itself across larger areas. Given the magnitude of the issues that face the rural landscape it is comforting to know that practitioners who base themselves in it have the access to a wide and up-to-date range of thinking. 

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