Performative Landscapes

This year’s slogan of the International Landscape Biennial, “Performative Landscapes”, emphasizes the need to create landscapes which face today’s threats, playing ecological, social and political roles at the same time. The event, the 10th in a row, was organized by the Catalan Architects Association and the UPC University and took place in Barcelona from 25th to 29th September.

What does „Performative Landscape“ mean? The ‘Rosa Barba Prize’ Jury had chosen nine landscape projects from around the world, either already built or only planned and designed, but all of them created between 2013 and 2018 to answer to this question. Finally, the Rosa Barba Prize went to Landslag from Iceland for the Saxhóll Crater Stairway.The company has participated in many winning proposals in architectural competitions and has gained much experience in large-scale landscape design under the harsh Icelandic circumstances.

Stairway to heaven

Saxhóll is a 45 meter high volcanic, oval-shaped crater. It rises up from the moss-covered lavafields in Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellsnes peninsula West Iceland. The walk to the top of Saxhóll follows a path that was formed through time by visitors climbing the easiest way to the top. With the fast growing numbers of visitors in recent years the hillside´s loose and materials were beginning to deform and the way up was already splitting into parallel and deformed paths. In 2014 a decision was made to step in with an intervention to prevent further damage to the vulnerable landscape. A stepping path made of black steel was built in units to stabilize the path. It consists of two curves meeting halfway uphill in a small resting spot with a little bench. The total length of the path is 160 meters and the number of steps is 396. The path was completed in 2016 and the surface of the black steel rusted quickly and blended well into the red shades of the volcanic crater and the arctic vegetation. The result is that almost every visitor now stays on track. On social media the path is often named „the stairway to heaven“ or „the orange stairway“.

topos had the opportunity to talk to Landslag landscape architect Þráinn Hauksson about the winner’s project.

You are the winner of the Rosa Barba Prize – How would you describe your project “Saxhóll Crater Stairway” and what is so special about it?
Our project is a simple stairway winding its way up the hillside of a 40 meters tall crater shaped like an oval. It creates a kind of “infinity walk” as there is always something new around the bend. The 1,5 meters wide stairway is made of units 3 meters in length that are connected like a chain or a necklace along the hillside. I guess our project is special in its simplicity and, if I may say, beauty.

How did you approach the crater and the surrounding landscape?
We studied the crater´s topography very thoroughly and especially traced the existing path up the hillside that was rather worn out. Our approach was to make as minimal an impact on the landscape as possible, but still create something safe and solid. We wanted the project to blend in with the colours of the lava stones and the alpine vegetation.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when creating the stairway?
The biggest challenge was to make sure the calculations for the gradings and the curving of the pathway were correct and would lead to the correct amount of units. We surveyed the crater with a drone. That was a first for us. And we weren’t certain how accurate that would be. But it all worked out in the end.

Iceland has a very special landscape – how do you cope with the harsh Icelandic circumstances, when it comes to realizing landscape architecture projects?
Most of our work is situated in urban settings and established with quite similar methods and results as in other nordic countries. But when we work in the open landscape and in the natural environment, it becomes a different thing. We have to take into account the strong forces of nature and, not least, the weather. This calls for strong and durable solutions. We approach our work in the countryside with great respect for the landscape and experience feelings of both excitement and anxiety while doing so.

What does Landslag EHF stand for?
Landslag stands for respect for the natural and cultural environment and creativity for the benefit of the people within the urban environment.

What was the first thought that came into your mind when you realized that the Rosa Barba Prize is now yours?
I took me quite a while to realize. I felt a bit like a thief who had taken something that someone else had deserved. All the other finalists presented fantastic projects. But very soon the feeling changed into appreciation, pride and joy. And I thought that this achievement was priceless, for my team and the profession of landscape architecture in Iceland.

The finalist projects were:

Linear Park, Cuernavaca Railway
Ciudad de México (Mexico),
Gaeta-Springall Arquitectos

Saxhóll crater ladder
Reykjavík (Iceland),
Landslag ehf

Remodeling of the Tel Aviv seafront promenade
Tel Aviv (Israel),
Mayslits Kassif Architects

Open spaces and project of the historical park of Sacca Sessola
Venice (Italy),
CZ Studio associati

Performative and Transformative: Quzhou Luming Park
Beijing (China),
Turenscape

Cohabitation landscapes
Athens (Greece),
DOXIADIS+

Outdoor Museum of San Michele in Gorizia Karst
Camorino (Italy),
Studio Paolo Bürgi

Proposal by Jiahe River Country Park at the risk of urban flooding
Haidian District (China),
Beijin Foresty University

Halle Pajol, garden Rosa Luxemburg
Paris (France),
InSiTU

The members of the jury were:
Gary R. Hilderbrand – Landscape architecture professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design and FASLA.

Walter Hood – Professor and former director of Architecture of the Landscape in the University of California, Berkeley, and director of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, CA.

Kathryn Moore – President of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) and Full Professor Landscape at the University of Birmingham City University, UK.

Teresa Moller – Landscape architect and founder of the firm Teresa Moller Asociados 27 years ago.

Michael Jakob – Professor at HEPIA and at HEAD in Geneva, Switzerland. Professor at the Grenoble University, France. He is the founder and director of the magazine COMPAR(A)ISON.