The Landscraper

Ownership of land can be indicated by enclosing it, exploiting it (by cultivating it, mining it or tenanting it), reshaping it, and building on it. Owning land or the rights to build on it is a prerequsite for all building activity – buildings built on other people’s land don’t tend to remain for very long. If buildings, as if by definition, indicate the ownership of property then:

  1. There is no need for concepts of architectural beauty to do the same.
  2. The Formalist view on this is bad news for those who wish to believe in an Architecture distinct from building, because even indavertently articulating the possession of land can’t be a valid concern of architecture or architectural aesthetics since building, farming, mining etc. can all perform the same task. One logical way out is to accept that architecture is subservient to building because it merely represents what building already denotes. I don’t remember who said “What’s the point teaching logic in a world where everyone thinks the sun is setting when it’s really the horizon rising?” 

Across the road from me is a four-storey deep hole out of which, over the next two years, a G+63 storey building will grow out of the ground at a rate of about one storey every ten days.

Once it’s complete, no-one will say it appears to have grown out of the ground for that’s praise reserved for buildings with pretensions to being “natural” or “organic”. This seems to be some sort of Wrightian hangover as it’s simply not possible for buildings grow out of the ground in the same way plants do. That impossibility is important to architecture for it offers a new way of displaying how much money can be spent attempting to make a building appear to grow out of the ground. It other words, it is a new form of beauty, the new weightlessness, the new transparency.

In the early-1990s fractal geometries and self similarities were everywhere. Buildings such as Peter Eisenman’s 1991 proposal for Max Reinhart Haus were being designed and, increasingly, constructed with complex curves faceted for ease of fabrication. It was a matter of time before someone would try to create a building that appeared to grow out of the ground and create an architectural product out of what people thought architectural beauty was anyway – it couldn’t fail! I had a crack at it myself. Representing movement in a very static building was a tall order but the Futurist sculpture concept of lines of force and Umberto Bocchioni’s Bottle Evolving in Space seemed a good place to start.

Zaha Hadid got there first though with her 1999 Landscape Formation One one. The ZHA website says it “rejects the concept of building as ‘isolated object’ – bleeding out of and dissolving back into the surrounding landscape …” 47.585843°, 7.62036°. See for yourself.

Later buildings appropriated existing landscape or cityscape features to appear to be growing out of their surroundings as inevitable consequence. In still later projects lacking sufficiently obliging landscapes, the building and the rest of the site morphed into each other to form a single landscape-building objects that were just as isolated as buildings as isolated objects had been. It’s a trope we haven’t seen the last of. 

If any mixed-use building taller than it is wide is a vertical city then, thanks to Zaha Hadid, architectural lore now has it that any building wider than it is tall is now a landscraper. [1]  The bogus conceit of landscrapers is not so much that they grow out of the ground but that they are of the very ground itself. In a world of slender skyscrapers miserly with land, an architecture that takes up as much as it can oozes class or at least abundance. This point was rammed home by OMA with the graphics for the 2007 Ras Al Khaimah Convention Centre proposal. Fat became the new skinny. A building couldn’t be too low or too long.

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The term landscraper already claimed, Thom Mayne had to invent the term hybrid landscape to describe his version of the same product. Lebbeus Woods wrote of touching the ground heavily as if it were the new touching the ground lightly. The man is a legend.

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This next image is Thom Mayne and Morphosis’ 20010 Giant Group Campus in Shanghai. As insult to both land and language, this one has an affinity for water and becomes airborne at one end.

Trains are notoriously longer than they are high and the buildings they stop at have huge landscraper potential. Unlike the trains it is there to serve, Morphosis’ Vialia Vigo station in Spain’s Galicia is loathe to touch the land. Ideas above its station.

Google’s planned new London HQ – I forget who by – is much longer than it is tall, even longer than the 310-metre high The Shard is high. [Does The Shard even have a proper name? I don’t warm to buildings eager to be known by their nicknames without ever having done anything to earn familiary or affection.]

King’s Cross has two mainline stations and a major confluence of tube lines. It is an ideal location for tall buildings but is forever blighted by being within the Kenwood House to St Paul’s Cathedral protected view corridor[2] It’s easy to imagine how, in two hundred years, London will be carved up by view corridors in much the same way Broadway divides Manhattan or high-voltage lines cross Russian forests. This next graphic is from cargocollective. The view corridor from the viewing gazebo at Kenwood House is the one beginning where that little orange box at top left is. 

Although the view corridor extends some distance past St. Paul’s Cathedral and across the River Thames, “a view of St. Paul’s” can be interpreted as “a direct view of St. Paul’s” and not as “a view of the sihouette of St. Paul’s” which is the most distinctive thing about it. 

Here’s how the building will fit between three other buildings each about 300 metres long but not famous for being landscrapers.

Here’s how the centreline of the Kenwood House View Corridor crosses King’s Cross.

Here’s a link to the planning document history for Application No. 2017/3133/P DEVELOPMENT ZONE A KING’S CROSS CENTRAL YOUR WAY LONDON at the Planning and The Building Environment department of the London Borough of Camden. Document Nos. 170526 parts 1~5 give a good overview of the project. The view corridor restriction is already embedded in Parameter Plan KXC 014 and so doesn’t need to be referred to in the planning application let alone any subsequent press release. People never get to know what values are shaping their environment.

A decision from Historic England dated June 19 recommends no archaelogical requirement. At first I was surprised, and then I wasn’t. London’s first tube line, the Circle Line from Paddington to Farringdon Street was constructed along the course of the former River Fleet. This corner of King’s Cross was one of the only places the river could be forded and legend has it it is where Queen Boudicea famously trounced The Romans in AD60 (giving rise to King’s Cross’ former name of Battlebridge, after the bridge later built.) This is land nobody wants to see scraped too deeply in case the legend turns out to be fact. Excavator operators will be instructed to ignore skeletons.

This could be why this landscraper wears its soil and trees on top. First generation landscrapers pretended they were down with the land. Second generation landscrapers distanced themselves from it. Third generation landscrapers are squat skyscrapers. The only land they acknowlege is the footprint to be replaced by intensive development.

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The header image is of a CAT 637G Wheel-Tractor Scraper.

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  1. Thanks to Sonny Flex for the idea for this post, and also for the heads up on Thom Mayne.
  2. Novelist Peter Ackroyd believes parts of London have a default character that resists change – as if genus locii could go either way. I do also. From 1993 to 1999 I lived at Flat 1, 317 Grays Inn Road. WC1X8PX. As late as 2015 this corner was exactly as I remember it and not that different from what it must have looked circa 1830.

    This terrace was one of the last buildings to be built along Gray’s Inn Road as the site had been used as a construction waste dump prior to 1830. The terrace is longer than it is tall. Instead of appearing to grow out of the ground, it is of the very ground itself as it was constructed with bricks fired from clay dug while excavating the basements.

    The building is what living above shops meant in 1830. Upper floors were split across their depth with a single large room to the front and a smaller room and stairwell to the rear. Around 1960, bathrooms and kitchens were added to convert them into flats. Too much time on my hands, I once colour-coded the walls to highlight this history but, after thinking of the number of people who’d passed through that space over the years, I repainted all walls a drab green I imagined them destined to be. Before doing so, I made this ballpoint sketch I’m still proud of.

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