Through her Unit XIV: Topographical Stories brief, Rhian challenged M.Arch students at the Welsh School of Architecture to re-imagine and economically re-purpose the rural farming communities of the Black Mountains and its border country, and to evolve creative architectural propositions to enhance and support the long-term future of these rural communities. Brexit is predicted to cause the biggest shake up in food production and farming in the UK since World War II (1), and this, in addition to climate change and food security, will have a major effect on rural communities and our living landscapes.
Rhian has been systematically ‘deep mapping’ the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons over a number of years, and it seemed appropriate to develop a unit brief which focussed on
the future of rural communities in this context to further explore her particular interest in design in cultural landscapes, and ideas for place-specific approaches to rural settlements.
Topographical Stories: Re-imagining Border Country (2017-2018) is the third in a series of units led by Rhian focussed on design in landscape. It follows ‘Borderlands’ (2010-2011) which raised questions about identity along the Wales/England Border condition as delineated by Offa’s Dyke, and ‘Islands: Insularity and [landscape] Identity (2012-2013), which asked students to explore architectural relationships with landscape and identity within the intensified and enigmatic environmental, social and cultural territories of ‘islands’.
The units are founded on the principle that the disciplines of landscape and architecture should be worked together simultaneously from the earliest stages of a design, but that students must first understand and interpret the contexts and places in which they will be working. This exploration of site, or ‘site analysis’ is often presented as a technical operation. However, students worked with Rhian to develop ‘deep mapping’ practices, to look beyond the technical and physical representation of a place. This integrated and trans-disciplinary practice, placing us ‘in the field’, aims to explore landscapes through experience, craft and culture as well as through more orthodox methods of measuring and recording. The objective is ‘to gain an insider’s knowledge of place and landscape, as opposed to a knowledge acquired by mediated representations which can only provide an outsider’s perspective’. (2)
‘he had felt empty and tired, but the familiar shape of the valley and the mountains held and replaced him. It was one thing to carry its image in his mind, as he did, everywhere, never a day passing, but he closed his eyes and saw it again – his only landscape. But it was different to stand and look at the reality. It was not less beautiful, every detail of the land came up with its old excitement. But it was not still as its image had been. It was no longer a landscape or a view, but a valley that people were using’. (3)
Raymond Williams, Border Country
Border Country, described as ‘a hymn to Welsh landscape’ distinguishes between landscape as a romantic image in memory and the reality of landscape as an ever changing entity influenced by shifting cultural and temporal dimensions. Set within the Welsh border farming region of the Black mountains, where Williams himself was raised, the book is underpinned by Williams’ professed ‘knowledge’ for the area and encompasses his understanding of; ‘the inter-relationships of countries of the mind, of culture as given and community as lived, between generations, across what is settled and what is In flux, in short, the nature of living in a world where time and space have to be re-negotiated generation by generation if they are to function for us rather than to make human beings the ciphers of their functioning.’ (4)
Today, a prevalent romantic attachment to this natural landscape exists, leading to a focus on conservation and preservation, deeming any new intervention as invasive, requiring hiding or mitigation. Change is almost always seen as something that will be detrimental to our landscape. In Wales, designated National Parks cover 20% of the entire area, and if other areas of special designation are added to this, close to 50% of the area of Wales is designated as protected landscape, proving an obstacle for those who want to design in these contexts.
The Topographical Stories brief also challenges Wales’ preservation led approach to conserving cultural landscapes as a ‘static’ moment in time, and takes the stance that landscapes are always in ‘a constant state of flux, expressing the qualities of progress and evolution’(5); they must adapt to change as they have done over generations to survive these new challenges. Humans have always used and adapted their local surroundings out of necessity to provide food, fuel, shelter, and communication. The physical and historical character of the Welsh landscape captures this organic interdependency between humans and the natural world. Nowhere is this relationship between mankind and the land more visually evident in Wales than in the Black Mountains. The deeply layered landscape of marks and incisions makes visual the nature and context of the human impact on the landscape in the Black Mountains; it is an ever changing working landscape, home to rural farming communities for generations.
Key themes emerged from research during the first term, where students worked as a group to understand and interpret at various scales and various levels the context and places which they would be working in; these themes were addressed and unfolded in chapters in the students individual design thesis’.
Hollie Jones’ thesis was entitled Liminal Landscapes. She immersed herself into this vast landscape from the beginning in her dedication to tracing, walking and mapping the tapestry of ancient routes and theory of leylines connecting spiritual and sacred places. She learned skills in perception and intuitive responses to site and sense making, and had the confidence to propose an intervention conceived as a piece of land art rather than a building. She demonstrated sensitive and sophisticated thinking in her ambition to ensure that the powerfulness of this simple line in the landscape, which manifested in a ‘celebration
of forces’ – a building for funerals or celebrations where people can orchestrate their own ceremony, was not lost as the design developed. She was rigorous in the progressive reduction of the scheme into its most basic, defining characteristics in order to clarify the significant. Her strong representational skills convey her cogent thinking and the atmospheric and ethereal nature of her proposition, which is liminal in its presence but real in its ambition. Hollie’s design project was shortlisted for the AJ Student Awards 2018.
Design as Cultivation was the focus of Elizabeth New’s work. Lizzy proposed a new cultural centre for authentic textiles in the Brecon Beacons, which aimed to specialise sheep farming practices by propagating genetically preferable native breeds to produce high quality wool, and controlling flock sizes to reduce grazing damage. The Cwmyoy Woollen Mill aims to re-invigorate the welsh woollen industry and economically re-purpose the Llanthony Valley. Her architectural design celebrates process, skill and craft, all of which influence the design of the form and materiality of the building and its relationship to the landscape.
Danielle Simpson explored the theme, Immersive Industry. Dani’s architectural thesis was about how to configure a series of large scale buildings supporting a new timber industry in the sensitive landscape of the Grwyne Fawr Valley. Her proposal considered a phased removal of non-native evergreen species supplying only low grade timber suitable for palettes, (once described by Raymond Williams as an ‘alien landscape’), and replanting the valley over time with high quality native species to re-vision and economically re-purpose the valleys of the Black Mountains. This re-imagined landscape is supported by built intervention, a timber centre of excellence, the figure ground of which is sensitively integrated into a wooded setting as series of pavilions linked by a promenade route along the Grwyne Fawr river.
Other projects included a City in a Garden - a vision for a new autonomous live-work residential settlement for the creative industries within a productive landscape; a re-visioning of the Olchon valley as a landscape for high intensity factory farming, a vision which proposed a large scale grid of greenhouse growing spaces and an integrated supporting infrastructure of aquaponics, water management and research and education laboratories; and a linear hillside settlement and retreat with a focus on culinary delight and winemaking and high quality local produce.
Unit XIV Topographical Stories students:
(1) BBC Panorama, Britain’s food and farming: the Brexit effect, July 2017
(2) Christopher Tilley, Body and Image: Explorations in landscape phenomenology
(3) Raymond Williams, Border Country, (Parthian, Library of Wales, first published 1960)
(4) Dai Smith, Wales Arts Review
(5) Christophe Girot, Land and Scape series: Landscape +100 words to inhabit it