Practice: Landscape Engineers
RUTH SLAVID, Photography Steve Banks
It is easy to draw parallels between the Olympic Games and the Olympic Park. Both broke speed records — one in running, cycling and swimming, the other in planning, remediation and construction. Both brought together the best talents and skills of highly trained people. Both delighted the spectators. And on this analogy, one would have to say that the landscape engineers were the women’s boxing of the games, a sport (discipline) that had not previously been represented, and that proved a surprising source of delight.
If you hear the term landscape engineer, you may think at first of it as a new professional discipline. But in fact there is no such person as a landscape engineer. It was a role played by a team, and the essential point of that role was that it was a team of engineers, led by a landscape architect. The intention — and the actuality — was that a sensitivity to landscape informed all the engineering decisions.
Because the engineering of the park was split in two, there were two teams of landscape engineers — an Atkins team in the north, led by Alison Braham, a director of the practice, and an Arup team in the south led by associate director Tom Armour. The idea for this came from John Hopkins, who was project director in charge of landscape at the Olympic Delivery Authority. ‘Because the project was so complex we needed Atkins and Arup to engineer it,’ he said. ‘It’s a huge civil engineering project but it could have stuffed up what people would actually see. So I suggested the work should be led by a landscape architect, and one called a landscape engineer. If there were any design changes the landscape engineer had to take that decision and the landscape architect had to approve it.’
Effectively then, the landscape engineers acted as a liaison point between the landscape architects and the engineering team — but working within the engineering team who were their own colleagues. The point about being colleagues was important — these landscape engineers were not parachuted in but were used to working together. Braham in particular was used to this collaborative approach having worked on large engineering projects such as motorways. ‘I am used to collaboration and working with people from different disciplines,’ she said. ‘I think it would be more difficult if you were working with people who you did not know.’
‘The whole idea of a landscape engineer is to make sure that the landscape ideas are carried right through the project,’ said Armour. The division between the two practices (made even more complicated by the fact that other members of Atkins had the role of overseeing the Arup work in the south),could have potentially been a problem, since there was an interface between the two where the north park met the southern half. But in fact this was not the case, and the two teams shared details. This is not surprising considering the atmosphere that pervaded the entire Olympic project – it was an exemplar for the construction industry with the ODA setting it up on the basis of cooperation not conflict. The slightly warlike feeling, a result of the very demanding programme, has resulted in everybody pulling together.
The civil engineering challenges on the project were enormous, and the park had to interface with a very large number of other elements — with all the buildings, temporary and permanent, and also with the bridges and all the utilities. Just as in a building there needs to be an architect in control to ensure that all the cabling and light switches line up properly, so on a project like the Olympic Park, there needed to be a guiding intelligence to make sure that all the interfaces had a consistent approach, and that design changes did not imperil the overall feeling of the park.
In another project, in different circumstances, one could imagine the landscape architect having this role. But here the scale of the work that had to be done was so immense (and of course had begun before the landscape architect had come on board) that it would not have been feasible. The stroke of genius was to have landscape architects within the engineering organisations and to give them the power to veto decisions and to suggest better ways.
Both Arup and Atkins found the approach hugely successful. Braham said, ‘The really important thing was the recognition of our role and of what the landscape architect can do.’ Armour believes that this approach could be successful on other projects as well. And both believe that it is vital that the client is committed to the importance of landscape architecture — something that Hopkins, a landscape architect himself, most certainly was.
The Olympic Park should lay to rest the still too prevalent view that a landscape architect can be brought in at the end of a project to provide some pretty planting and a few nice surfaces. The team from LDA Design and Hargreaves Associates was able to shape a new piece of green infrastructure which is both an ornament to and a vital driver in the creation of a new piece of city. The end result would not have been nearly as good without those other experienced landscape architects carrying out the gritty and unglamorous but very satisfying job of landscape engineer, making sure that the many small decisions that had to be made in the process of engineering did not have a deleterious effect on the end result.
Braham believes that the role could have succeeded if she had been working with some outside consultants, but it would certainly have been more difficult if working relationships did not already exist. If more projects are let to landscape engineers, those landscape engineers are therefore most likely to come from within multidisciplinary, and therefore relatively large, practices.
There is not at present a profession of landscape engineer and it is hard to decide if there ever should be. It is the sympathy from those trained to design landscape that is essential in ensuring that civil engineering projects respect the aesthetic implications. What would the training be for a landscape engineer? But that is probably a question that we need not address for some time, if ever. Wikipedia has the following definition of landscape engineering: ‘Landscape engineering is the interdisciplinary application of engineering and other applied science to the design and creation of anthropogenic landscapes.’ That is not quite what the landscape engineers at the Olympic Park were doing, but is not a bad definition of the combination of roles that they and the landscape architect performed at the Olympic Park.
The best boxers can be described as punching above their weight (the origin of that particular cliché). Braham and Armour didn’t exactly do that. They applied their skills to the best of their ability in a slightly unfamiliar role. And just as Nicola Jones’ gold medal did a tremendous amount to raise the profile of women’s boxing, so Braham and Armour have done an enormous service not just to the Olympic Park but to the profession of landscape architect. Or should that be landscape engineer?