Absent Architecture

On Thursday evening the Berlage Institute organised a discussion in conjunction with the Alliance Fran├žaise and Archilab on the theme of hybrid landscapes. A new generation of French architects uses nature in a playful way to create artificial landscapes, thereby breaking open the traditional relationship between city and countryside. The evening opened with a short presentation the work of Dominique Lyon, Jakob + MacFarlane, and Francois Roche. In attendance were Winy Maas Adriaan Geuze and Aaron Betsky.

Dominique Lyon’s work includes projects in La Ville Neuve in Paris. He responds to the bizarre convergence of the most disparate buildings in suburbs and establishes connections between them. Many of his libraries do not read as buildings but as an extension of the emptiness characteristic of the periphery.

In their work Brendan MacFarlane and Dominique Jakob deploy nature to conceal architecture. Their suburban patio house disappears behind a composition of glass surfaces. A new public space, an artificial landscape, is created above ground. In his design for a house beside a castle, Francois Roche explores the same theme by concealing the house behind a sculpture of green wire-netting. The sculpture merges with the surroundings and also creates an emptiness in which the house is assimilated. Another project by him is the ‘House in the Trees’, from 1994.

What the group has in common is their small-scale interventions that deploy nature as reference, material or means of concealment. But how does this strategy relate to practice in France, and to practice in the Netherlands? The latter question was raised in the discussion in which Winy Maas, Adriaan Geuze and Aaron Betsky also took part. There was a good deal of misunderstanding between both camps, a fact attributable to the French architects’ refusal to present their work as strategy, and to difficulty in comparing their work to the large-scale projects in the Netherlands. It ended in tit-for-tat accusations back and forth, with the French accusing the Dutch of abstract schematic architecture that has no connection to reality, and with the Dutch accusing the French of being imitated by the surroundings and producing an absent architecture.

According to MacFarlane, it is precisely that absence that gives greater presence to their architecture and creates a new architectural freedom. The landscape becomes a body-transformer that facilitates new experience and provides access to a different world. And that is exactly nature’s defining characteristic. The transformation of architecture is an attempt to facilitate this experience: architecture as a new nature, an artificial landscape, but above all, a place to which one can retreat. As such, it offers a new take on the age-old question: How to retain nature in the context of increasing urbanisation. Not literally as greenery but as experience, aided by an architecture that gradually dissolves in the landscape: the dismantling of the city.