A Glossary for Open Space

30 January 2017
first published in Architect Victoria — Summer

Words by Stuart Vokes
Image 01 by Christopher Frederick Jones
Image 02 by Jon Linkins

In early 2009 I came across an article published in Architecture Australia magazine written by Greg Bamford entitled ‘Spooked by Sprawl’. In his essay Bamford presented a radical approach to density that espoused the virtues of open space, an embellishment of his thought experiment which he coined ‘Garden Oriented Development’ (GOD). Bamford’s proposition did not champion suburbia but simply argued for making a proper accounting and re-valuing of open space in cities.

I remember being excited that someone was writing about gardens and the productive potential, public agenda and value of private, domestic open space. At the time the article was published, my practice life was predominantly focussed on residential alts and adds projects in the backyards of Brisbane suburbia. These were projects that many didn’t think were relevant to contemporary architectural discourse about cities and density.

We had come to the realisation that the architectural problem of these backyard projects had less to do with the buildings, and more to do with carefully managing the setting of the projects; a collective open space made up of interconnected backyards and borrowed scenery. We believed that by taking a position on open space, we were in fact, backyard by backyard, actively engaged in critical city making.

The more that we discussed themes of nature, gardens and landscape within our studio, the more apparent it became to us that architects appeared to rely upon a rather loose vocabulary when discussing the character of open space and the settings of buildings. This is evident when contemplating works such as the phenomenal plaza at Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute - neither a tree nor single blade of grass in sight. Without vegetation, is open space a garden? If enclosed by buildings, does open space represent a landscape?

I decided to assemble a personal glossary of terms that might clarify our critical thinking about the suburban setting of our backyard projects. It consists of only three terms; Nature, Gardens and Landscape.

Humans are biologically predisposed to liking natural settings or a proximity to nature. When I speak of Nature, I refer to various things: an uncultivated wilderness, the ground, vegetation, the sky and emptiness. Nature is open space that is free of obvious human intervention, something we seldom find in the increasingly populous suburban settings of our architectural work. In the absence of true Nature, Gardens and Landscapes present opportunities to idealise the presence of nature or abstract representations of these natural settings.

To define the second of these terms, Gardens, I reflected on the origins of the word. Etymologically, a garden is an enclosed space, or enclosed nature. Gardens are cultivated, frequently occupiable, potential places of refuge, evoking mindfulness and anchoring. The enclosure of space in this way has the capacity to connect one through the vertical axis to both the ground and the sky. In this sense, gardens can be strikingly profound. In my private lexicon, the Garden is therefore allied to the architectural element of the wall.

For me, Landscape is an image or composition of nature, involving editing and framing. The Landscape is open space ‘beyond’ the physical limits of a building experienced as a view, a prospect. Landscape is about dreaming and hope, and connects one to the horizon. For this reason, Landscape is allied to the architectural element of the window.

The obvious question that follows my attempts at categorisation is to ask what the utility of this thinking might be for an architect and how this relates to Bamford’s call to re-value open space. Our observation has been that dissecting architectural elements can help to clarify their essential qualities and thereby help us better understand what their potential might be, or how best to deploy them in our work.

As Greg Bamford’s writing on ‘Garden Oriented Development’ reminds us, the value of open space is immense. We can all intuitively understand the attraction of natural settings and many of us have experienced the profundity of great spaces such as Kahn’s plaza at the Salk Institute (it’s a Garden plus Landscape plus Nature trifecta – btw). Open space is a resource to the architect (and the city) and an integral part of an architectural project. To conceive of a building without placing equal emphasis on open space is to fundamentally misunderstand the act of building. It follows that an architect should aim to understand the characteristics of open space with the same exactitude that they would apply to the placement of a brick in one of Kahn’s seminal arches. My advice: ask the open space what it wants to be.