Show Your Work, Expand Your Sphere

Günther Vogt on the limits of design, and the boundless reach of landscape architecture.

By Zach Mortice

A mirrored hut, in the shape of Thoreau’s New England cabin, reminds us to slow down our metabolism for appraising and interpreting landscapes. Photo by Justin Knight.

Ask Günther Vogt what the problems facing landscape architecture are, and he’ll tell you that there’s a bit too much design happening today.

This provocation suggests that it’s time for landscape designers to spend less time fussing with the proportions of a public square and more time working through urban and region-scaled problems. That was the thrust of Vogt’s Frederick Law Olmsted Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design earlier this month, which accompanied an exhibition of his work on display now at the GSD’s Druker Design Gallery at Gund Hall. First the Forests exhibits six of Vogt’s projects and is filled with artifacts, models, specimens, and dioramas presented in tactile wood boxes—references to the European tradition of the “Wunderkammer” or “cabinet of curiosities,” eclectic containers filled with wonder and mystery.

There are cylindrical core samples of Boston’s mineral geology, impossibly delicate 19th century Italian gypsum models of mushrooms, excerpts from German plant morphology diagrams, and deconstructed and collaged 19th century landscape paintings, with foreground and background elements cut out and separated between panes of glass, giving the painting a semblance of texture and depth. LAM spoke to Vogt before the lecture about the exhibition.

Cylindrical core samples from Boston’s geology are mounted in Wunderkammer vitrines. Photo by Justin Knight.

LAM: Why frame your work with the “Wunderkammer” concept?

GÜNTHER VOGT: All landscape architects are constantly asked to talk about vegetation, plants, and nature. The exhibition is about what is behind our projects. It’s not a white cube exhibition. It’s really transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. There is always a bit of Wunderkammer in our projects.

From the beginning, we build physical models. It’s a kind of cartography. Our theory is that design [should be] invisible. You shouldn’t see all the ecological aspects, design aspects, in the foreground. It’s just behind our projects. To work today in metropolitan contexts is quite complex. It’s natural sciences, social sciences, design; to bring it all together is not easy. It’s [best] to talk as a group together and to [use] a cartographic protocol and build physical models.

Günther Vogt. Photo by Giuseppe Micciché.

LAM: You’ve said that you began your career as a “garden architect.” What should landscape architects draw from gardening traditions today?

VOGT: “Garden architect” is a very European tradition; I would say it’s a bit old-fashioned. It relates to scale, and it’s related to the client—private, rich clients. The problem in landscape architecture is: What is the right scale?

Everybody is talking about the Anthropocene, and I think our understanding of it begins with the Caribbean hut exhibited at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Gottfried Semper described it as representing the four elements of architecture, where you have the walls, the roof, the terrace, and the hearth, and this is, for me, the beginning of the Anthropocene.

There’s a bit too much design in landscape architecture. It’s coming from the garden tradition, but it’s not really the question we have to deal with. We are creating a new master in landscape [degree] at ETH, and it’s really a breakthrough. Our president demanded of us, “I want to hear less about design and more about biology.”

In Europe, the scale is growing more and more. For instance, there is a Swiss initiative that proposes to create new glaciers. And [we’re conserving] drinking water for cities from agriculture. And these should become our interests in landscape design, instead of traditional designs like parks and plazas.

Abandoned landscapes in Europe are really a growing question. Fifty percent of the population will live in cities in the future, but what happens to the landscape? The discipline of landscape architecture is responsible for this question. There’s immigration from northern Africa because of conflict, and at the same time we have abandoned landscapes, and we don’t bring those two questions together. Landscape architects could really help to deal with this problem.

First the Forests contains German plant morphology diagrams, and deconstructed and collaged 19th century landscape paintings. Photo by Justin Knight.

LAM: How do you get landscape designers to work at the radically larger scale, and envision their sense of agency so differently?

VOGT: Perhaps like Archigram or Superstudio in the 1960s, as [they] proposed utopian or visionary architecture, we should talk about what we’re doing in the future. Compared to Archigram or Superstudio, what we would propose today isn’t actually utopian or implausible. For example, in Paris there’s the medieval city, the labyrinth, and then Haussmann built huge promenades for a military reason: to control civic society. In 2019 in France, it was such a hot summer that many people died. To live in Paris in the summertime, we have to build green channels into the city, bringing fresh air from the landscape in. And everybody tells me, “It’s so utopian! It’s not related to our times!” And I say, “Hausmann destroyed more than 20,000 buildings!” That’s the scale [at which] we have to intervene.

More than 100 years ago, Olmsted protected sequoia trees in what became Yosemite National Park. Everybody in the United States knows about how important Central Park is as a commons. It became a stage for a new civil society. Olmsted was extremely visionary. Why do we not look back at the scales [at which] he worked?

Photo by Justin Knight.

First the Forests is on view through March 15 at the Druker Design Gallery in Harvard’s Gund Hall.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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