Folding landscapes – defining a new language of surface?

Leonardo da Vinci, Garment study for a seated figure, 1470-84. Brush and grey distemper on grey canvas, 266 x 233 mm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Leonardo da Vinci, Garment study for a seated figure, 1470-84. Brush and grey distemper on grey canvas, 266 x 233 mm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

To produce a relationship between different disciplines, it is necessary to place oneself on the [external] limits of one’s own discipline
— Enric Miralles

Enrique Cerda and Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge are fascinated by drapes. No, they are not into home-decoration, but are experts in the physics of folding, wrinkling and creasing. They recently published a study entitled ‘The Elements of Draping’(1) in which they present equations which for the first time accurately predict the way fabric folds and drapes under gravity. This ground-breaking work follows on from their significant research into wrinkles in which they broke the boundaries of classical theory in order to predict not simply the position of wrinkles but also their amplitude and wavelength.(2) Such revolutionary research offers the possibility for progress in a broad range of fields outside applied mathematics, including fashion design, computer game rendering, and of course topographical modeling.

The scientists are not the first to be intrigued by the concept of such “complex patterns [arising] from simple causes in the mundane world” (3) and themselves cite examples of Renaissance artists such as Da Vinci carefully studying the intricate draped form of a fabric thrown across a model’s knees in chiaroscuro studies (4). Understanding of such complex forms has until now progressed little beyond these visual studies, which may seem surprising considering the universality of wrinkles: from the macro-level deformations of the earth’s crust that we see in the Scottish Highlands, to the crow’s foot creases at the corners of eyes.

Such new research could potentially be of great interest to landscape architects and architects who have long been fascinated by the folding and deforming of surfaces, in theory and practice. An understanding of how the manipulation of topographies and surfaces impacts our perception of space has always been key to the creation of great spatial designs and with the current vogue for organic yet artificial folded forms in landscape architecture and architecture (5), this awareness looks like it is becoming evermore important. Cerda and Mahadevan are not the only people currently interested in defining complex geometries that have otherwise evaded careful definition: Foreign Office Architects’ recent exhibition ‘Breeding Architecture’ (6) and the accompanying publication read as a textbook for their ideas of defining a “lineage of projects through seven categories of surface diversification”(7). FOA become taxonomists, appropriating the biology term phylogenesis, (8) to describe their carefully constructed organizational tree diagram that classifies surfaces by branching paths as they are assessed for various attributes. In their classification, the first major lineage split is by function, separating ground surfaces from enveloping surfaces. Subsequent branching narrows the species definition under such categories as faciality (how many surface faces are inhabited), discontinuity (whether there are discontinuities in the surface such as ripples, pinches or perforations), and orientation (how the surface relates to gravity). A route down this treemap ultimately produces a species name followed by the ‘Common Name’, which of course turns out to be the FOA project name. Quite a stratagem, but this is more than just a clever way of codifying and post-rationalizing their diverse projects. FOA have really made an attempt to examine what operations and conditions make certain surfaces behave in ways that other surfaces do not. They have made a careful study of what surfaces are produced under what circumstances. By specifically defining each attribute in the process and detailing the options within each category, a relatively objective definition can be assigned to a particular surface along with particular image of what may be expected when experiencing the surface.

The inherent strength of the system is the use of categories and attributes that are applicable to both landscapes and buildings. Thus surfaces are defined in a way that reveals common lineage between what might otherwise be thought of as unrelated projects.Consequently, a project that might traditionally be defined as a building ultimately ends up amongst relatives that might be traditionally described as landscape projects. Thus the extraordinary International Port Terminal at Yokohama is defined as gromulfa_perstricon [ground:multiple face:perforated:striated:contingent] which is closely related to the FOA’s proposal for the South Bank Centre (gromulfa_birforicon_londinium), a relationship that might otherwise not have been immediately clear.

One of the simplest (or should that be the most refined?) creatures to have evolved within the FOA’s system is their soon-to-open Coastal Park and Auditoriums in Barcelona. A newborn of the species grosifa_pin [ground:single face:perforated], the park is part of developments for the cultural festival Forum 2004 (9) and is due to open May 2004. Located on the waterfront where the city’s Via Diagonal and River Besòs intersect, the park is described by FOA as “explor[ing] the organizationally complex landscapes that emerge from topographies artificially generated by a mediated integration of rigorous modeled order”(10). Essentially, the park takes coastal sand dunes as its organizational prototype, and weaves a network of different programmes through this landscape. The result is a circuit of activities: artificial surfaces woven through natural surfaces to produce a landscape rich in section as surfaces fold and perforate constantly(11) and a network of different sport and leisure activities. It is too early to judge how the park fits into its distinguished family lineage, however the project may show the potential for expanding the relatively limited attribute definitions. Such a complex park is reduced to just three differentiating attributes, whilst more architectural interventions receive up to six. This is where landscape projects excel – evolving and developing new characteristics and attributes over time. Initially defined as a relatively base species, grosifa_pin may evolve into FOA’s most complex creation yet.

So why all this discussion of taxonomy, crow’s foot wrinkles and Renaissance artists? Perhaps it is because we are currently in a period of architecture and design where the power of computers to model complex organic built forms is being exploited, resulting in the development of a new design language that works for both architecture and landscape architecture. Could such a common language lead to closer cross-disciplinary understanding and ultimately better designed landscapes, buildings and spaces? If landscape architects are part of the development of such a design vocabulary, there is an opportunity to not only ensure that landscape issues are given value alongside built issues, but also to challenge the territory that may have been lost to other professions. Other professions have started the process; now is the time to push forward and develop the dialogue in order to shape future landscapes.


(1) Cerda, E., Mahadevan, L. & Pasini, J.M. The elements of draping. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, February 17, 2004, vol. 101, no. 7, p1806-1810
(2)Cerda, E. and Mahadevan, L. Geometry and physics of wrinkling, Phys. Rev. Lett. 91, 2003
(3)Cerda, E. p1806 .
(4)Leonardo da Vinci. Garment study for a seated figure, 1470-84, Oil on canvas, 26,5 x 25,3 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris
(5)For examples of such a drift in contemporary landscape architecture see practitioners such as George Hargreaves, Kathryn Gustafson, Enric Miralles or in architecture; Frank Gehry, Greg Lynn and Morphosis.
(6)’Breeding Architecture’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Sat 29 Nov – Sun 29 Feb 2004
(7)’Breeding Architecture’ exhibition text
(8)“The sequence of events involved in the evolutionary development of a species or taxonomic group of organisms”. Definition from WordNet, a lexical database for the English language, developed by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University.http://www.cogsci.princeton.edu/~wn/index.shtml
(9)Fagerström, Christina. View from Barcelona. Architectural Review 2003. June v213. N 1276, p43-45
(10)Barcelona: £1.5bn project to regenerate the waterfront at Besòs for Forum 2004. Architecture Today 2003, March, n136, p9
(11)Indeed such technical grading operations required the development of a specific pre-cast concrete unit paving system that was capable of pinning the ground at steep slopes. Alejandro Zaera Polo, “Recent Works”, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, November 2002.
(12)See Czerniak, Julia (ed) “Case: Downsview Park Toronto”, Prestel, 2001 for FOA’s competition entry to the Downsview Park Competition which can be read as an early development of ideas ultimately expressed in their Barcelona project.

Published as "Folding the land" in Landscape – the Journal of the Landscape Institute, Issue 6, June 2004.