Your internationally renowned landscaping firm uses an approach that is analytical and methodological. You do much more than just plant flowers in a border or draw sculptural hedges. What distinguishes your landscape architecture from architecture?
More than a ‘style’, our firm has a very recognisable method and logic. Research is everything. We often start from an aerial picture. Aerial views are the best way to observe the landscape evolution. We do a thorough study of every project. Why does a landscape look the way it does? How was it created, how was it once, and how could it be? What best possible landscape is hiding underneath the current one? Before we intervene in a landscape, we always want to first understand why it has mountains, rivers, or trees. This also makes our approach different from that of most architects.
Is it also because landscapes are more evolutionary than architecture?
Architects often draw objects within a context and, in so doing, leave their mark on their surroundings. Also, you can’t change anything on their design as it would no longer be perfect. But with landscapes it’s totally different. Landscapes need time to develop. Nobody knows when a tree was planted. Does anybody know the designers of New York’s Central Park? Most people don’t know that most landscapes have been ‘drawn’. We don’t design objects as such but try to change landscapes in a more fundamental way. For this reason, I advocate disconnecting landscaping from architecture.
You curated the recent Agora architecture, urbanism, and design biennial in Bordeaux. One of your central themes was ‘the performant landscape’. What exactly do you mean by that?
Landscapes are never simply beautiful and that’s that. They are not created just for aesthetical reasons: they are always functional and, therefore, performant. In 18th-century Flemish landscaping, for example, farmlands were bordered by hedges. Very beautiful, yes, but that’s not why they were there. The hedges kept animals out, they stopped the wind, and they provided firewood. To make a landscaping project sustainable through time, we have to find that landscape’s ecological role. There will soon be eight billion of us on earth, and the number keeps rising. This means there will be urban expansions and we, as landscape architects, have an important role to play in it designing living environments and landscapes.
In your landscape designs you always start with a geological and topographical study of the terrain. How did you apply this way of working on your first piece of furniture, designed in collaboration with Van Den Weghe?
Our seating design combines the different types of rock that form the basis of the earth: igneous rock, sedimentary rock, and metamorphic rock. This also turns our seat into a physical condensation of our planet’s geology. So in this design, as in all our firm's projects, I uncover a previously invisible landscape. This is a joint project with Eliane Le Roux, a Parisian set designer with whom I often collaborate. We wanted to explore a way of conceiving a bench not so much as an object, but as a landscape. How can you turn a seating into a form of topography? Our research, which is always the core of my landscaping projects, started with the material for such a piece of furniture. So we looked for a combination of natural stones that, when you bring them together, would look like the topography of a mountain chain. This compresses the idea of a landscape into an element that you can sit on.
How do you scale a landscape down to a performative piece of furniture?
An important source of inspiration is The Power of Ten, by Charles and Ray Eames. In their movie, they show that you can reduce the entire microcosm and macrocosm to a number of physical laws. They apply this principle to projects on very diverse scales: homes, furniture, graphic design, even scenographies. Another concrete source of inspiration for this piece of furniture are the ancient mosaics in the churches of Venice, where you find floors that are representations of the cosmos. What we have done is extrude the combinations of colours and materials in those mosaics into a number of triangular modules in massive natural stone. Together they form a micro landscape, a scaled-down macrocosm, as it were.