Quantock Hills Blog

Imagining a future where buildings are inseparable from landscape

- We walk with Piers Taylor and talk buildings, place and provenance

Katy Coate

Posted by Katy Coate on 22 March 2015

Imagining a future where buildings are inseparable from landscape Recently members from the Quantock Hills AONB team got together with award winning architect and broadcaster Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio to walk in the Quantock Hills AONB and talk about the issues around protecting landscapes and open space, and how that fits with the need for contemporary buildings.

Here are some excerpts from conversations that were had during the walk:

Georgie Grant
It’s interesting to be walking and talking about protecting landscapes with an architect, who I guess most people would associate with built environments and a desire to…build!

Piers Taylor
You say surprising for an architect to understand landscape, but truly, it is my lifeblood.
I’m terrified by the loss of green space, and terrified by how misunderstood it is by most people, most architects who see it as, well, a commodity. I’m terrified by the lack of understanding by how much better new developments would be (and we do need them) if we improved and densified existing settlements rather than lazily gobbled up green space. As I’ve said the green space isn’t a commodity but part of our psyche - part of our make-up, and a little bit of me dies every time I see a bit more if it built on.

Emma-Jane Preece
I’m wondering if you are in actual fact a frustrated landscape architect?

Piers Taylor
Frustrated landscape architect? Ha!  I guess architecture IS landscape and a building is inseparable from landscape… I need to do buildings. I love structures - but context (place, landscape, history, culture) is everything, and I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do a building without context. In the valley where I live, it’s the site I love - I’m not really interested in anything architecturally in our house other than it being a device by which you experience landscape, the passing of time, seasons, light, nature, flora, fauna.

Owen Jones
So how do you think we start to think about the future of buildings and building developments in the Quantocks and other protected landscapes?

Piers Taylor
I was mulling over how in 100 years time this landscape (your landscape) wouldn’t just be ‘like it is now but a bit worse’ which is sad and pessimistic, but instead how it could be ‘like it is now but even better’ - and then what mechanisms need to be put in place to assist this.

Owen Jones
There’s the temptation isn’t there, to want to preserve these landscapes in aspic and to try not to think about new development, or how it might look in the future. How do we try and make it better?

Piers Taylor
I guess we all need to find new ways that buildings can speak of places without always exclusively harking back to vernacular traditions that were typically evident from 1700 - 1900, and instead build on these traditions to allow 21st century building do be part of a narrative about place.  Development isn’t to be feared if it’s the right sort of development. But the right sort of development is the critical thing and of course the past isn’t the future so we need to find ways to develop that doesn’t mimic the past, but instead understands its intelligence.

In countries that don’t have such established vernacular traditions it’s easier - there, buildings often effortlessly are part of a narrative about place that takes in weather, wind, rain, climate, geology, and, of course, material. Planning often thinks that it’s almost exclusively material that binds a building to a place, but I think that you could make a building out of almost anything if its placement, form, areas of transparency etc were generated by a response to place.

Emma-Jane Preece
When it comes to provenance, the importance of being rooted or having a sense of attachment or belonging cannot be underestimated, because of course people used to read the landscape - they had to be able to understand their environment in order to know how to use it to their best advantage.  The character of the place was not just how it looked but how it worked - nuances and subtleties of knowledge about a place that could only be understood by truly ‘living’ in that place.  And, similarly, development within that place was more organic and born ‘out of’ rather than ‘plonked on’ the landscape. These were places made by being constrained by geography, a complete contrast to the time-space liberty we know now. I think it’s important that new buildings today strengthen and re-inforce character, rather than impose or dilute it.

Georgie Grant
There’s a long standing joke that you’re only from round these parts if you’ve got a granny in the graveyard! I’ve only lived here 10 years, but I still feel a strong connection with the Quantocks. To me they are home.  How do we marry our emotional connections to a place with modern architecture?

Piers Taylor
But I think we all have a yearning for real and intelligent connections with places. As architects, with conventional modernist educations, we for some time struggled with notions of locality and feared tradition. That - as you know - was the whole idea of the modern movement and somehow caring about place and tradition made you backward looking and there was only one way to look in architecture and that was forward.
Luckily I studied in Australia where in architectural terms landscape and place were the critical drivers for architecture, but when I came back in ‘96 and went to do my masters and talked of place, people thought I was bonkers. Things have changed and I suspect we are seeing a resurgence in the interest in the particular.

Emma-Jane Preece
Interestingly the Quantock Hills has such an overt, marked heritage that (I think) really speaks to you. As a human geographer and landscape architect it is difficult to get the balance right when thinking about conserving and enhancing the landscape (our primary purpose here at the AONB Service) and how that sits with new development.  People think that local provenance is just the use of a local building stone and this is a very important issue here where red sandstone is so consistent and reflects the underlying physical geography. But, when it has been brought in from a quarry far away and is being used to face block pillars to hold security gates with intercoms on a wide splayed driveway with concrete kerbstones, has the message of respecting local character been lost?

Piers Taylor
Absolutely! Much of the work I did with the New Zealand government last year on the blueprint for the redesign of Christchurch was about asking what (regulation, guidance, policy) do we put in place to allow development that has low ambition to take place. Am sure you have asked the same question with the Quantocks.  Anyway - I came to the conclusion that the important aspects to control were not really the buildings (which usually planning officers usually focus on) but all the other stuff that allows a cohesion - set backs, boundaries, heights, roads, scale of open space etc etc - and of course you know this as a landscape architect, but it was great for me to be able to step back and see the big picture of how to control what was important.

Emma-Jane Preece
Yes!  We often find that the buildings themselves don’t necessarily threaten this protected landscape but the domestication of the landscape around the building that can be jarring - the brick drive, the services, the close-board fencing, the hard standing, the security lighting. But, we recognise that the landscape must continue to change and conserving and enhancing does not mean ‘no development here’, just how we intelligently look at that development to ensure it is not contrary to the purpose of keeping this special place special. We talk a lot here of small incremental changes, that cumulatively start to gnaw away at the essence of the place - this is a generic issue I know but one that we are aware of more and more here on The Quantocks.  These are the little things (that often sit outside of the planning system or are hard to condition within the planning system) that all of a sudden become the big thing that is seemingly impossible to reverse.

Piers Taylor
I agree wholeheartedly about the clutter of exurbia which is the real killer. To a certain extent the buildings are easy - dealing with the paraphernalia of domestication, as you say is the problem and a kind of obsession with me.  It is the grouping of buildings within existing settlements that matters a great deal.  The problem (for me) of all rural development (mainly housing) is not really the buildings, but the spaces they make between them, the way they relate to one another, the finer grain of landscape occupation etc.  And within reason the individual buildings could and should be freer from control and the big picture stuff much more tightly controlled…

Georgie Grant
But, in terms of actual architecture, how can we use it to enhance the Quantocks?

Piers Taylor
Someone recently (Adrian Forty I think) described architecture as ‘buildings with words’ (in response to the question of what architecture is when compared to buildings). Of course we didn’t need architects in rural context pre 1900. But now more than ever, I think we do - and this is where the ‘words’ come in.

I guess I think all buildings need a narrative and a story that speaks credibly and intelligently and interestingly about place - and this is this what architects and landscape architects need to do - construct this story and give us these convincing stories about place (realised in physical stuff of course) that allow us to make sense of what we see and make and retain amazing landscapes made up of buildings and, well, landscape. I think we’re all finding our feet on this stuff - only one generation ago it was meaningless (in theoretical architectural terms)

And I’m feeling a combination of optimism and pessimism about landscape generally - optimistic in that many people are able to articulate their concerns like never before (certainly rural dwellers would have been pretty disempowered in the face of ‘progress’) but pessimistic as mistakes on huge scales are so easy to make - and generally last for ever. I guess destruction of landscape comes into this category - once it’s gone or destroyed, it’s gone. And as we know, the significance and cultural value on every level is immeasurable…


Piers Taylor is an award winning architect, and founder of Invisible Studio. He is a Chartered Architect, a former Studio Master at the Architectural Association, Design Fellow at the University of Cambridge, a founding director at Mitchell Taylor Workshop and also presents BBC2’s The £100k House. Find out more at http://www.invisiblestudio.org/

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