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In the latest LAM Lecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture professor Gareth Doherty examines the use of color in design through two climatic and ecological opposites: the landscapes of Bahrain and Brazil. The lecture, titled “Landscapes as Chromatic Relationships,” recounts Doherty’s travels through and fascination with the small desert island nation off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and Roberto Burle Marx’s observations of the riotous shades of flora in his native Brazil, both the focus of recent books Doherty has penned.

In Bahrain, as explained in his book Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State (University of California Press, 2017), the color green, especially when it’s observed as flora, is a prized jewel in the beige desert. Its cannibalization at the hands of encroaching development prompts ever-greater displays of resource-intensive landscaping, which leads to an uncomfortable paradox: The presence of green is often not so “green.” It requires tremendous amounts of energy and irrigation to make the desert bloom. For his book, Doherty took an ethnographic approach, exploring Bahrain’s cities and countryside on foot, all the better to look around and chat with natives. In his lecture he recounts melancholy strolls through neglected date palm fields, and farewell ceremonies for beloved courtyard trees about to be torn from the earth at the behest of residential development.

For Brazil, Doherty recounts Marx’s forays into the Brazilian countryside to collect new horticultural specimens, and his newest book (available this spring), Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism (Lars Müller Publishers), collects the South American designer’s assorted lectures. It includes this sensual appreciation from Marx for nature’s ad hoc genius for composing in color: “All of this polychrome is seated on a backdrop where form, rhythm, and color are in harmony. Nothing was isolated. It was an orchestra of color. The yellows linked to the blues, the blues to the violets, the violets to the pinks. One could speak, even, of a battle of color in which one color would dominate at a particular season, supported by a background whose forms, rhythms, and colors enhanced those of the plants in a very particular way. This instability is precisely one of the great secrets of nature, which never tires us, and is constantly renewed by the effect of light, wind, rain, and shadows, which shape new forms.”

Outside of graphic design and fashion, color is generally stigmatized as a field of inquiry across most design fields. But as Doherty’s lecture and books argue, its mutability of meaning across various cultural contexts makes color a vital artifact in unlocking what a society or community values.

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