Perception & Realisation
Kathryn Gustafson (Gustafson Porter + Bowman)


Morbras, France. Aerial View

©Kathryn Gustafson

I'm Kathryn Gustafson an American-born landscape architect, trained in France. I've been working for the past 18 years, started my own studio in France in 1979. I was trained in Versailles and I work mostly in France and in Europe generally and I am now working in the USA also. What I'm going to talk about mainly is what is contemporary in landscape, and what 'contemporary' means, and the methods that I try to work towards, and what I feel is important to establish contemporary landscape. The problem that I have found in landscape is that it has, historically, since probably the 1940s, been much more an art of fill-in behind architecture. It hasn't been really an art in itself as was defined in Italy or in France or in England with the great landscape tradition. But with the Modern movement there has been very little of landscape as an art form, and only in the past - I would say, this may be wrong -twenty years has a real movement really emerged in it. For me, it has emerged in France, and maybe that's just because that's where I am from. But it is becoming the art form in itself and that has a force and flexibility that architecture doesn't have. It does have public constraints if it's for the public, it has ecological constraints, it has aesthetic constraints, it's a much freer form of expression than architecture, also costs less than architecture, there's not as much pressure on it as you get as far as programs and demands in architecture. The main problem I'm seeing in contemporary landscape today is that it is being perceived more and more as a two-dimensional form. A lot has been lost to the true art of landscape which is a three-dimensional form that the body actually walks through, which is very much like architecture. It is not just a visual art. One thing about landscape is that it's got the earth underneath it, so it has an essence of life, it has, it's got the soil, it's got the soul of the earth, it's got all that mysticism of Mother Nature, it's got all those levels of textures, almost like textures, those are garden textures, they're not just visual textures. And so, trying to get those back into contemporary landscape, including the language - and that language is an aesthetic language - not losing the lessons we had from the past And one of the ways that I work to try to do that is I create layers of working layers in the landscape. So some of them - I think all landscape architects do - they're classic the constraints - you get the layer, your program if you have one, if somebody's smart enough to write a program for landscape which is very rare (we can go back to that later). The other layer is budget, how people move, all those sort of physical constraints. On top of that I put in a layer that I call concept, and then a layer I call idea. A concept is something that I want to understand, I want to deal with, generally it's like a painter or an artist. There may be issues, they may be political, social, they could be personal, these could be emotional, there's something I'm trying to work through or understand, and they're very personal. That gives me a base of meaning. From that base I feel like that you might be pulling up a density of meaning of the earth itself- I'm not that clear - but if you put in that much meaning into something, if people are going to feel something, it's like - for me again - you see a painting. Some of them just don't mean anything to you, but some of them, you walk into a museum and there's this painting grabbing on to you, you're just pulled over to it. And you have, I have sometimes been lucky with this experience where all of a sudden I perceive the meaning the artist was trying to give it, and it's almost an emotional perception, and it's very flighty, it's very ephemeral. But as soon as you see it you almost possess that painting somehow, it becomes part of your emotional property. And I feel that in landscape, if you can get that to happen with people, if they appropriate it, then they're going to take care of it, if it's touched them personally some place, then it will become part of the community and will become part of the society, it will be maintained, it will contribute much more. So that's a layer, indeed the most important layer as far as I'm concerned. But then that layer is translated into ideas, and an idea is, well is it a canal, a rock garden, is it a line of trees? But all those ideas are in servitude to the concept and the constraints. So basically constraints are your base problem. The concept comes in, floats on top. And those two things create the ideas that actually are what you see and which is the physical matter. It's a process that works well for me. I start often with words, lots of words, disconjunctive words. I learnt from the singing of Jacques Bernier, a very famous French singer. He sings ballads. But in some of his work he has these great songs where he just uses words that float in space and where each word takes on multiple meanings. It's like the word 'bread' in English. 'Bread' means 'money', it means 'nutriment', it means 'food', it means a lot of other things. He has songs like that, where there's these multiple words and each word has multiple meanings. And so when I start a project I just write words and those words create an environment, mental environment of what you're trying to create, if you say 'yellow, flower, spring, light, Mozart', if you say 'dark blue, bright light, blue green, Kandinsky, summer'. And so if you start a project by defining what you want to feel, it is a first step. And then, from there, I write words about the issues I want to look at, I want to go into. It could be 'pollution', it could be 'being a woman', it could be 'rupture and rejection' it could be 'death', it could be 'social consciousness' it could be about "how people communicate' - that's one of the things I've worked on a number of times - it could be 'how we perceive what we want to perceive and we never perceive what we really perceive' - I've been working on perception lately a lot, how we perceive and how we destroy what we perceive in our minds. That's the second line of words. And then the third line of words has to be with function: how do people move, what do they want to do, what happens here, its weather, function, climate, environment, it's all the constraints. Those three sets of words start going on walls. And then reference images that abstractly talk about those words. It could be a Rothko painting, it could be Rothko's one of my favourites. He seems to be able to dream into his paintings. The later works of de Kooning is another artist that also gives me a lot of movement in space. So reference images come in. And then I start sketching, very little sketching, I don't draw very much. From there I go to clay and I work in clay a lot because the one thing about working a model form, you can't cheat. I work a lot with the ground plane because it's where the body touches.


Morbras, France. Clay Model

©Kathryn Gustafson

If you can get people in contact with the earth, with what you're trying to do, it sort of sits down a project also. If you can get that ground thing to work completely, everything else is on top of it. You know how, when you first plan a landscape, there's nothing there.

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