XXL: the Tipping Point of Architecture’s Megastructures + Landforms

Image from here.

Architects, landscape architects, engineers, and planners each have distinct working methodologies and priorities when approaching a design problem. Generally, architecture concerns itself with buildings; therefore, architectural approaches utilize object-based methods and operate in abstract terms of figure and ground, positive versus negative space. Looking at a project as a singular object, considerations for the larger urban or ecological context are limited by site boundaries. However, Landform Building, edited by Stan Allen and Marc McQuade, seeks to demonstrate that the reach of architecture now explicitly extends to and claims the realm of landscape. Currently, some remarkable architectural projects are planned at gargantuan scale, and these XXL projects are built at scopes once reserved for metropolitan parks or regional development.

“[The book] is a sustained look at ‘the evolving relationship between architecture and landscape,’ with a specific focus on geomorphic megastructures—that is, buildings that look like mountains and other earth forms—vegetative ornament, including green roofs, and complex interpenetrations between architecture and the surface of the earth.” 

The Tower of Babel tried for heaven and Frank Lloyd Wright’s MileHigh Tower remained on paper, yet these days extraordinary skyscrapers chase one another for the titles of tallest and biggest in ways ancient Babylonians and Wright could only dream. The Eden Project in Cornwall is currently the largest greenhouse on earth, but will be eclipsed soon by the King Abdullah International Gardens in Saudi Arabia which will feature two crescent-shaped enclosures projected to be five times larger than Eden’s Rainforest Biome.


This is architecture, from here.

But how sophisticated or responsible or even compelling are these projects? The World in development off the coast of Dubai is series of constructed islands. The design consists of a world map; each of the multi-million dollar parcels is shaped as a country, city, or region that together depict the world (Israel and Palestine are omitted due to the ideological differences of the financial backers). Providing new and lucrative beachfront properties off the city’s coastline, this design is less imaginative than the earlier and cartoonish Palm Islands project trilogy. During the Palm’s construction, beach engineering detailed and fine-tuned models of the Persian Gulf’s tidal forces and sand erosion patterns. Using this research, The World is even more ambitious with 300 individual islands. By NYC real estate tycoon or sheik standards, these projects may be even accessible with islands selling between fifteen and 225 million dollars. With proven engineering capabilities and evident financial rewards, builders can push XXL sized projects into reality.

With the discipline of architecture taking on this extraordinary scale, the disparities between the working processes of architects and landscape architects are far more pronounced in XXL projects. The work is ripe with potential—for failure or phenomenal success—with unknown impacts on surrounding environments. As objects of spectacle, these island projects are the ultimate architectural endeavor, retreats independent of any context.

From the point view of a professional in landscape, the effectiveness and success of XXL projects might be measured in broader terms: long-term usage and evolution of the built structure and urban environment, urban flows evaluations, social networks, and ecological integration.

“Using the analogy of…figure and ground, the term ‘negative’ can be used to describe the urban development model being negatively enframed by ecological infrastructure, not the other way around…Conventionally, landscape and green elements are negatively defined by architectural and built infrastructure…It is important to recognize that the conventional approach to urban development planning, which is based on population projection, built infrastructure, and architectural objects, is unable to meet the challenges and needs of the ecological and sustainable urban form and development. It is in this situation that landscape urbanism thinking is valuable.”

Kongjian Yu in Five Traditions for Landscape Urbanism Thinking

Landscape architectural scale and timeline are exemplified in James Corner Field Operation’s Fresh Kills Project on Staten Island, New York. This gigantic project is shaped by systems thinking rather than an object-based approach. On 22,000 acres, its implementation is structured for thirty years. The project includes extensive recreation opportunities and programming, numerous structures, and both accommodates and implements complex hydrological and ecological systems. All of these considerations are integrated into the design on top of the additional challenge making a sealed landfill accessible and useful for New Yorkers.

Landscape projects have always been extra large by architectural standards. In applying field and systems design to areas of high population density and existing metropolitan centers, landscape urbanism’s thinking provides what is missing from the insulated and exclusive XXL architectural work.



About Melinda McMillan

Working in both her fields since graduating with two master degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, Melinda also writes about design and social justice, and consults for a non-profit. She has received awards for both her design work and writing. Recent architectural work include a healing garden at a cancer center and a masterplan for a school and orphanage in Haiti. Other projects are in the high-tech, religious, and medical arenas.

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