May 2021 | Design | Turkey
"We have no choice but to bring nature to cities"
Words | Onur Baştürk
Rasmus Astrup, partner and project director of SLA, one of Scandinavia's leading landscape, urban design and architecture studios. Astrup, an expert in sustainable landscape architecture, integrated climate adaptation and nature-based design, leads SLA's forward-thinking landscape projects. The award-winning Novo Nordisk Nature Park with its 100% water balance, the lush Copenhill Power Plant and Urban Recreation Area built on the roof of the waste-to-energy generation facility of Reinvent Paris and Copenhagen with its air-cleaning facades are among Astrup's most up-to-date projects.
In recent years, we have come across architectural designs in which green is prominent and even the leading role. Organic farming areas and mini parks are created on the roof areas of the buildings. Parks with socializing areas are being built in unused idle areas of cities. There are even ecological cities that will be rebuilt, such as BiodiverCity in Malaysia. Do you think all this is enough? Or is it just the beginning for the "green revolution"?
First of all, green is just a color -so I am happy to hear “ecological”- because yes, this is just the beginning and we are so far from there. There are so many crises in the world right now, and even though all the current focus understandable is on the pandemic, I belive that the biodiversity crise is the biggest of them all, and cities can actually contribute to solve it. When we bring nature into the cities, we are not only solving problems like stormwater, urban heat island and pollution. We are also creating awareness, well being and social connections.
Will we come across cities with increased green areas in the next decade? Are you optimistic about this issue?
We are currently experiencing a global demand from our clients towards more urban space and city nature, and that is definitely positive and bringing me optimistic energy. Basically the urban space is the “social glue” or the democratic fundament for cities. We always use City Nature as a broad term for our approach to urban design, we want to make them sustainable, resilient and healthy, but we also believe that the urban public realm is the most democratic place. It’s the place where everyone can meet equally and engage despite gender, age and religion.
As in Liam Young's fictionalized film "Planet City" of 2050, what we need to do is return a significant part of the world to the wild? Is this our salvation? What do you think about this?
Yes we need to bring nature into cities, and yes it has to be more wild to solve to global challenges, but for us the wild expression has 2 purposes. It both brings a lot of climatic utility values, but equally it also brings an aesthetic value. Actually there are several scientific evidence reports that concludes how important wild nature is for our mental health, but in our studio it’s also a clear design driver. We are deeply inspired by the process and dynamics of nature.
NOVO NORDİSK IS MY FAVORITE PROJECT
In one of your interviews, you showed the parking lot for Novo Nordisk as your favorite project to date. What excited you about that project? And I am really curious about is; What is the project that excites you right now?
Novo Nordisk Nature Campus is the Global Head Quarter for the biggest company in Denmark, and a world leading supplier of diabetes medicine. When we together with them developed their previously grey concrete area into a super wild nature campus, it was a paradigm shift. It was the first time we managed to get a global company to commercially brand themselves with our values. They did it internally for the employees, but also externally to brand the company with biodiversity, 100 % stormwater management and sustainable materials. I actually still think it’s my favorite project because of what it started.
For a project in Denmark, you found a quarry containing waste stone fragments and used those pieces to create pavements in the parking lot. Can such a sustainability study be included in every project?
Yes it can, because it’s all about how we are working in the studio. It’s embedded in our design process, always to be starting with research, knowledge and discussions. It happens before we start to design an actual shape. So in that particular projects we initiated our projects with a 3 days road trip around the projects site, and it was there we discovered the nearby quarry with a lot of beautiful left over granite gravel, that then became a design driver for the pavement.
The "New Order of Nature" project was also very interesting and caught my attention… Doesn't moving and scaling nature according to users' demands also mean spoiling people too much?
I think the short version is that you can never spoil people with too much nature. People are part of nature, this is the “order” where all of us belong.
WE CREATED AN ICONIC EXPLORATION AND NATURE ARENA
There are points in your "Naturkraft" project that I do not understand. There is talk of a human-made form of ecosystem. Can you give information about the exact implementation and actualisation?
The ambition of Naturkraft located on the Danish west coast is to create an iconic exploratorium and nature arena about the power and aesthetic values of nature. It’s extra relevant these days to make awareness about how nature can provide new solutions to old problems. It’s a round nature arena that encourages and challenges visitors to experiences on the powers of nature through physical play, enlightening learning activities and intuitive understanding of the interaction between humans and nature. Here, visitors will get fascinated by, experience, feel and sense how the physical and aesthetic powers of nature will shape the sustainable cities and communities of the future.
WHAT DID THE SEWING ON THE POWER ROOF PROVIDED?
The landscape design on the steeply sloping roof of the power plant in Copenhagen was also quite extraordinary. I see such projects as a kind of "green dressing". Can it be valid for every building? Is the sustainability of such a landscape 100 percent? Or is it necessary to constantly renew plant varieties?
We work with the same values anywhere, and it’s based on nature, so therefore the projects never look the same! Nature is responding to climate, topography and in cities it’s influenced by culture. When our friends from BIG invited us to design the park along the skislope, we wanted to work with the existing biodiversity of the surroundings, but we discovered that there wasn’t any. Therefore we had to add new nature, a planting that not only would work on the super steep roof on a plus 80 meters tall waste to energy facility -but also a planting that would bring biodiversity to the surroundings. A new resilient planting that would be spread by birds and wind, so it generously brought value not only to the users that climb it but also to the surroundings.
MY PASSION IS NOT TO BE GOOD, BUT BEING
How do you view the world, cities and your profession when you are at the beginning of your career? What has changed in your vision over the years? What remained the same?
My passion and curiosity is actually growing by the years. It’s this weird paradox, that the more knowledge you gain, the more you understand how much else you need to discover, learn and develop. It’s also the beauty of our profession, you never get “good enough”. Not that I am driven by being good, my passion is to “do good”. I think the projects we work with in SLA are bigger and more complex than ever. We are not just designing projects that is getting built, we are also working with thought leading, strategic advising on city level, books and exhibitions. Do be able to do that we have an interdisciplinary mix of competences, from biologist, anthropologist to light designers. And I love the input’s and endless knowledge it brings me.
Finally, I am also curious about the design approach you have adopted in landscaping. Do you want to make nature too regular, or do you want the liberation of nature to reveal the flaws, as in the far eastern philosophy Wabi-Sabi?
We definitely agree with the Wabi Sabi view in the perfection in natures processes. The fact that it’s a process means that it’s never the same, it can not be tamed. Many people spend their whole life trying to defeat or control nature is because they think it’s chaotic, but it’s not. It’s another order, the nature order. If we all understood and accepted that fact, the world would be far better.