Landscape as Protagonist: New Perspectives on Cities and Nature

Architecture, by its very nature, destroys before it creates. The idea of creating a building in harmony with its natural surroundings is not a new one. To borrow a quote from North American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other”. Yet even in Wright’s most elegant execution of this idea, his iconic house Fallingwater, trees and plants were cleared, hill was levelled, and soil was excavated to make way for the building. Before house and hill could live happily ever after, house disrupted ecosystems and displaced rocks, soil, plants and animals. Wright’s quote is poetic, but priority is given to house, not hill. Wright assumes house’s inherent right to exist and, in doing so, neglects hill’s rights. 

Creating a building in the city is ethically simpler, right? Nature is ‘out there’ beyond the city’s boundaries. The nature here has already been destroyed, so no (further) harm, no (further) foul. But, in this age of the Anthropocene there are few places untouched by humans: at least 95% of the world’s land, excluding Antarctica, has been modified by our species. And so, when it comes to conserving the ‘natural world’, to relegate our efforts to (now-imaginary) ‘pristine’ places by protecting distinct parcels of land such as national parks, is no longer the whole solution. Although it remains vital, it’s a deferral of responsibility. 

Let’s first agree on an assumption: a city is a landscape shaped and maintained by humans. 

Well, humans have always shaped landscapes. Indigenous land management has taken place in Australia for 65,000 years, at the very least. Indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest have shaped that land for 13,000 years and domesticated plants for at least 8,000 years. In more recent history, colonisers have cited these places as ‘pristine’ – but in fact, these landscapes were humanised many thousands of years before the colonial arrival. So what has changed? Why have ‘our’ landscapes become so out of balance? Why the need for a symposium that investigates the idea of including natural landscapes in our cities? In his essay Why Look at Animals?, John Berger (1980) proposed that the rift between man and nature began in the Western world in the 19th century: a rift that was compounded by corporate capitalism in the 20th century. With it, long-established rituals that connected us to nature, and compelled us to revere and respect it, have died.

2019 Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molongolo.

The system does not value nature correctly. 

This was the conclusion we came to collectively at the ‘Landscape as Protagonist’ symposium in relation to the problems that we face when it comes to realising meaningful natural landscapes in cities. The system instead values efficiency, productivity, human comfort and profit. 

When I began to write this, the Australian fires of 2019 and early 2020 were still burning in Victoria and New South Wales. It’s hard to see anything without this lens of chaos and destruction. 1.25 billion native Australian animals have died so far. When we include invertebrates in that count, the number comes to 240 billion animal deaths. Thousands of homes have burned to the ground. 12.6 million hectares of land have been scorched. 431 million tonnes of carbon dioxide have been emitted. Our cities are choking. Many of us have watched, frustrated by our leaders’ apparent lack of action, hoping that we might salvage some semblance of a silver lining by way of quick and effective climate-change policy. 

The system does not value nature correctly. 

It’s a bit too easy to just blame the ‘system’. It’s the same as understanding nature as being ‘out there’. It lets us, as individuals, off the hook and allows us to shake our fists from the sidelines, enraged at the state of things. Understanding ourselves as being separate from the system – just as understanding ourselves as being separate from nature – ignores the interconnectedness of things. 

We are the system. We are nature. 

The backdrop of a country that is literally ablaze reminds me of a story I read a long time ago: Voltaire’s (1759) story of Candide. It’s about a young man who lived a safe and sheltered life, indoctrinated by his mentor Professor Panglos with Leibnizian optimism summarised by the mantra: “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. By the end of the story, after going out into the world and experiencing his own series of disasters, Candide comes to the conclusion that actually everything is not for the best and that this is not the best of all possible worlds. He decides that instead of accepting the status quo, “we must cultivate our garden”. 

When we asked symposium participants what nature should do in a city, we didn’t receive an answer so much as a directive. 

Thomas Doxiades at the 2019 Landscape as Protagonist Symposium. Image supplied by Molongolo.

We must cede space to nature.

We are the system, the parts of the sum, and therefore we have the power to change this system. This isn’t just about the right plants in pots, or green walls that provide thermal-massing to humans and habitat for insects, or even a ravine cut into a building that gives priority to plants over commercial, lettable spaces. Well, it is about that, but it’s also about much more. To begin, this is about our agency as individuals. And as professionals and consumers. About our power to change the ideals and the mechanics of how things get done. 

We have to start at an individual level: with our own connection to and love for nature. It’s telling that writing about the need for a spiritual connection with nature is uncomfortable when that writing is published by a developer. But this is the disconnect that Berger is talking about. It starts with a surrender, like being caught in a barrel wave in the sea: you have to let go and let the wave pull you under and toss you around before you can come up to the surface for air. Solidify this love and conviction and the rest will become apparent as you go along.

If you understand yourself as a custodian, as a carer, then half the work is done. The short-term sacrifices (to profit, to productivity, to comfort) that need to be made will be obvious. Stories of our reverence for nature will be told through the inclusion of meaningful green spaces in our landscapes, but also in the materials used to make a building; the building’s waste disposal system; in the way we make our cities… These stories will replace the outdated stories about the need for human progress at all costs, the need for consumption regardless of consequence… These new stories will both signify and reinforce our commitment to nature and change the status quo. 

The Landscape as Protagonist publication asks us to change our perspective on cities: to think of them as part of nature and of the buildings within them as instruments that defend nature. To think of house as hill.

This foreword was originally published in Landscape as Protagonist, a book of discussions and findings from the symposium of the same name, held as part of Melbourn Design Week, 2019. It features interviews with Thomas Doxiadis, Marjetica Potrč and Dan Pearson and essays by Bruce Pascoe, Tanya Patrick, Katherine Sundermann, Andrew Reynolds and Cameron Allan McKean. Illustrations by Al Stark.

Available to purchase here.