PROFILE: Vogt Landscape Architects
Published in Issue 165 of Landscape Architecture Australia, in an article entitled "Models without Numbers: the Landscapes of Günther Vogt" I reflect on the history and work of Vogt Landscape Architects, after an interview with Günther Vogt.
(The following is an uncorrected earlier version of the article)
In the 1990’s, on the cusp of the internet and with few built “design” projects in Australia as exemplars (and all others coming from the USA) being interested in design was a lonely affair. In drawings and physical collages – literally, a virtual reality – one projected qualities of landscapes that required one to imagine what might be from a re-presentation of what was in the real landscape. Books and magazines that made it to Oz – in boutique bookshops, now long gone, like The Art Salon in Melbourne – were voraciously sought and shared (with Europe most sought after), then copy-standed for slides to use in lectures. After the Catalan journal Quaderns and the French journal, Pages Paysages, my most valued book was KIENAST GÄRTEN GARDEN (Bïrkhauser, 1997) about the work of Swiss landscape architect Dieter Kienast. I was fascinated by undefinable qualities that I felt, as much as saw, in the work of Kienast Vogt Partner, produced both by Kienast and Gunther Vogt, who spoke recently at the Park and the Square: 2019 International Festival of Landscape Architecture. Twenty years before Instagram filters could automate the process, in both this book, as well as the work of the 2 subsequent volumes in the series published after Kienast death in 1998 – KIENAST VOGT AUSSENRÄUME OPEN SPACES (Bïrkhauser, 2000), and KIENAST VOGT PARKS UND FRIEDHÖFE PARKS AND CEMETARIES (Bïrkhauser, 2002) – exquisite black and white photographs and beautifully collaged plans and demonstrated a sensitivity to the materiality of landscape that was then mobilized as a sensibility in their design projects.
Although the practices work during Kienast’s time often featured an ‘esoteric’ component (that I rather liked), such as in their garden project “Et in arcadia ego” (I too live in arcadia), Kienast Vogts design language was in stark, indeed austere, contrast to the dominant post-Modern language of landscape architecture that was popular at the time, typified by the work of Martha Schwartz. Working consistently with the top architects of the time, Herzon and de Meuron, using simply grass, concrete, trees and steel edge, Vogt Landscape Architects work (as they became in 2000) demonstrated a deep understanding of landscape, that had the kind of total logic that architects saw in the work of Mies van der Rohe.
While such a sensitivity comprised an aesthetic of landscape that was felt rather than able to be articulated, in two volumes Miniature and Panorama (Lars Müller 2008) and Distance and Engagement (by Alice Foxley, Lars Müller 2010), the design development of selected projects was curated to demonstrate deep research into how qualities emerged from materials, embedded in cultural/aesthetic modes from the 19th century such as geology and miniature landscapes. These books had a definite impact on my own research: although now common, in their work Home of FIFA in Zurich, Vogts reconceptualization of the planting palette in relation to growth and seasonality in the former influenced Overgrown; and for the exploration of geomorphology in making rammed-earth retaining walls at Novartis Campus in Basel was a precedent for my PhD, Novelty in the Entropic Garden. Incidentally, I visited numerous Kienast Vogt projects in Switzerland, but despite being adept at talking my way into closed sites I wanted to visit, I was never able to schmooze my way into Novartis, which is a veritable gallery of outstanding architecture, landscape architecture and art installations.
In the same way that the black and white pictures by photographer Christian Vogt (no relation) did in the previous volumes, representation is the key tool to mobilize the qualities discovered in the research for design, where their shaping becomes an analogy for the way that landscapes are shaped. Made with hands, keyed to minds, these are what Gunther called at the conference “Models without numbers”. At a time when big data and performance metrics are driving much design decision making, particularly on the client side as cases for funding have to be made, this is an important reminder. When a representation is crafted as a model, its “model-ness” is ever present, it cannot be mistaken for the real thing since it is patently not. As digital simulations and universal principles become ubiquitous, the notion of the “model without numbers” reminds us that in a simulation, the “site” is the model itself, not the real landscape.
Despite being known for their design work (featured regularly in Dezeen), I was surprised when Gunther complained: “architects immediately want a design”. While the word design comes from the Italian word disgeno, which is synonymous with drawing, I argued in Overgrown for an understanding of design as a type of judgement with an emphasis on formal/spatial proposition, to detach it from conventions like the plan. Arguing that the “profession is not intellectual enough”, Gunther noted, “Olmsted didn’t draw at all”, instead he talked and did agriculture. As a research practice, much of the time in their work with architects and particularly artists like Olafur Elliasson, Vogt are more like representatives of landscape, acting to explicate and translate nature that features as a part of their collaborators work. Listening to Gunther, this can seem like a mission, a calling, certainly an acuity, rather than the stubborn pursuit of individual vision that is common in the Ayn Rand model of the architect, despite the outcome of research from Vogts work still being a formal proposition rather than disinterested science. Rather than nature as algorithm, it is landscape as felt nature, back to the original definition of the empirical.
At the end of our conversation, both as educators, Gunther and I talked about landscape architecture education. Apart from international students, landscape architecture programs, both in Australia and internationally, are facing a problem with student demand, paradoxical considering that offices are having problems finding graduates, including Vogt who cannot find staff for its London office, albeit complicated by Brexit. Gunther comments, although he is not a drawing nostalgist: “if graduates are just going to be working on the computer, why wouldn’t they do commerce for better money?”.
He described a series of teaching and learning workshops that they had been undertaking at ETH Zurich to renew the Master of Landscape Architecture curriculum, the most interesting of which for him was about the natural sciences. The main outcome from it was that the program plans to spend 80% of its contact time in the field. This reminded me of a field trip I ran at the University of Virginia, where I refused to tell the students where they were going, but to bring field gear, and when we arrived at the street outside the building I said “We are here”. While risk-averse universities make it more and more difficult to go into the field, in fact many of the lessons of landscape architecture that need to be learnt can be done simply by observing the real landscape and then simplifying – rarefying, abstracting – these observations into design, something I learned from my mentor, Peter Connolly. Such an engagement with the real, physical landscape, beyond models, represents a key way that landscape architecture can attract applicants, as a type of design deeply embedded in the world and its systems. “Landscape architecture,” says Gunther, “is applied explanation”.