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Sceptred isles: the possibility of the archipelago


As discrete objects in a larger terrain, the geographical condition and cultural history of islands suggests radical ways of thinking about the relationship between buildings and landscapes

Throughout history, the notion of the island has been extensively mined for its imaginative and evocative power. Literature and philosophy present an infinite array of fictional islands: mythic Atlantis was cited by Plato as an allegory on the hubris of nations. Thomas More’s Utopia describes an imaginary sojourn to an island-republic inhabited by an ideal society. Perhaps the most famous fictional island is the Island of Despair, named by Robinson Crusoe after he was shipwrecked there in Daniel Defoe’s novel. During his 28-year enforced stay, Crusoe attempts to replicate his own society and model of civilisation; entangled with the threatening thought of such a marooning is the suggestive power of the island as a space of possibility.

As the expression of a finite, framed and bounded space, the island also represents a microcosm, both isolated and rich with structural oppositions of inside and out, inland and edge; a hermetic system of self-contained relations ready to incite visions of an ideal or idealistic society. The island is a paradigm, in Plato’s sense of the term, an ideal reality conceived as a model for existing realities. While its alluring and allusive power has played, and continues to play, a role in architectural discourse, the island can also be implemented as a tool, both within the creative imaginary as a conceptual and figurative metaphor, used to interpret reality and shape it in new and sometimes unexpected ways, and in the sandbox-potential of its typical nature as a physical and geographical entity.

‘Despite the clear delimitation set out by their physical properties, islands are inherently ambiguous entities, presenting a dual nature suggestive of both isolation and connection’

One way of looking at the island as a creative device lies in the exploration of its conceit as a miniaturised world. Inujima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, has provided the physical framework for an initiative to transform an ex-industrial and nearly deserted island into a model of reurbanisation. Inujima is one of a group of three islands which are the site of contemporary art and architecture interventions programmed by the Benesse Art Site Naoshima collective. Japanese practice SANAA, together with other architects and landscape designers, has been involved in the Inujima Landscape Project since 2008. Underscored by the concept of ‘using what exists to create what is to be’, over time the island has been transformed into an open-air museum. Small exhibition pavilions have been constructed and vacant buildings renovated to host art galleries, artist studios, temporary housing or convivial spaces. The ruins of a former copper refinery have been transformed into an art museum. Urban open spaces have been remodelled into stages for outdoor artworks. SANAA’s recent interventions consciously stand out, their curvilinear geometries and transparency forming a counterpoint to the island’s vernacular architecture.

Here, the island functions as a proxy of a project site, the vacancy presented by the leftover framework of declining industry acting as an opening for development. The landscape forms a backdrop for architectural experiments, and the island itself provides materials for design; the physical challenge of importing external resources reproduces the enclosure of the island’s textural network, endemic references folding back on themselves to insulate and isolate. The island simultaneously shapes and is shaped by the interventions. Its finitude makes it a place where wholeness – qualities of integration and completeness – is achieved by means of spatial confinement and boundedness.

Despite the clear delimitation set out by their physical properties, islands are inherently ambiguous entities, presenting a dual nature suggestive of both isolation and connection. They are strongly linked to and dependent on their mainland – or each other, if part of an archipelago. Distance, in both the insular and archipelagic condition, can be a means of generating alternative connections. Archipelagos are essentially a plurality composed of single elements separated by the sea. Although physically separate, component islands are linked by powerful relationships to form an overall whole, whether related through collective identifi cation, or more literally linked by infrastructure. The concept of islands and archipelagos punctuating a fluid surface can also be translated into the idea of a blank canvas on which to dispose units of territory. These are distinctive pieces of land, which may share sizes, intentions and characteristics. Once connected, relational geographies overcome and transform the local scale.

Teshima museum rna 1321 (2)

Teshima museum rna 1321 (2)

Source: Iwan Baan

The curvilinear geometry of SANAA’s Teshima Art Museum forms a contrast to the existing buildings on Inujima Island

This idea has influenced the work of Colombian architect Luis Callejas, founder of LCLA. Callejas has a strong fascination for islands and atolls as figures because of their capacity to make sense of complex and vast geometries at a territorial scale. When repeated and aggregated, they create an impact ‘at macro levels using micro tactics’: as a configuration, the archipelago can be employed to address complexity and vastness, controlling and transmuting large-scale territory and landscape through small and timely interventions. One expression of this approach is ‘Tactical Archipelago’, a project devised by LCLA in response to the Kiev Islands Master Plan competition. Artificial islands are created in the Dnieper River to develop the river’s relationship with the community through intensive new programmes. The proposed islands are clustered together with existing ones, suggesting an alternative way to experience the river.

If, with Callejas, the archipelagic figure is employed to bring spatial organisation to a vast region, there have been cases in which the same figure has enabled the reading of existing realities and the suggestion of a vision for the future. For example, when Oswald Mathias Ungers wrote his 1977 manifesto The City in the City: Berlin, a Green Archipelago, he employed the island and the archipelago as metaphors to interpret the dynamic of West Berlin. Due to the presence of the Wall, that part of the city had itself become an island. It was shrinking due to population decline and would have eventually turned into a sparsely inhabited conurbation interspersed with more densely populated enclaves.

2 geipel page 14 tc

2 geipel page 14 tc

Source: LIN / LIA

Urban ‘islands’ floating in the ‘sea’ of West Berlin, as envisaged by Oswald Mathias Ungers

Ungers embraced this scenario, translating it into a paradigmatic urban project. In his model, ‘urban islands’ – designed artefacts clotted around the remains of the city – ‘floated’ within the ‘sea’, an interstitial space composed of natural zones and pastures. Defined by hard boundaries, ‘small and legible units’ were created based on the historical, social and environmental qualities of the places in which the remains were found. Ungers rationalised a complex system of landlocked islets within the greater enclave of West Berlin, while transforming this reality into a paradigmatic, projective model; in effect, a polycentric urban landscape that shifts focus back to the network.

Comprising three principal physical features – the inland, the edge, and the surrounding medium – the basic organisation of the island’s structural elements also represents an elemental system of spatial relations that can be deployed as design components. This applies to islands as territorial elements in their own right and in relation to other elements. As geographical entities, islands transcend scale: when zoomed in or out, their spatial attributes do not change. Therefore, if Ungers’ urban model of built nuclei surrounded by flourishing vegetation were reduced to the scale of the design site, the relationship between island and surrounding medium would remain steady.

‘In relation to urban discourse, islands can be deployed as cognitive devices to make sense of complex spatial phenomena’

As a site of potential, and as a tool, the natural occurrence of the island has proved full of potential, but there are also rich examples where artificial islands have been conceived entirely by design. One example is Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, designed by Gilles Clément in the first half of the 1990s. A brownfield site left over from railway decommissioning, the park lies near to the then newly built TGV station. Its main components are a vast grassland area with little topographic variation, patches of woodland on its edges and Derborence Island, just off set from the park’s centre.

Deriving its shape from the Antipodes Island in the South Pacific Ocean, it is designed as a plateau rising 7m from the ground and 2,500m2 in area. This new island is named after the Derborence Forest in Switzerland, one of the few remaining primary forests in central Europe. Defined by a vertical wall of raw concrete, it was partly built with the earth and rubble from the construction work generated by the TGV station. Conceived as fallow land and an ecological sanctuary, Derborence Island was deliberately designed to be inaccessible. The intention was to create a wild space where nature could flourish without human interference. The island was devised as a scientific observatory, a contained field experiment to encourage and evaluate the independent agency of nature. As part of the original brief, a research and educational centre and periscope could observe and monitor the ecological processes over time.

Banqueimages matisse 72920 parc matisse lille l ile derborence 084

Banqueimages matisse 72920 parc matisse lille l ile derborence 084

Source: Gilles Clément / COPYLEFT

Derborence Island in Lille’s Parc Henri Matisse, a 7m-high insular plateau by Gilles Clément as a petri dish for unmanicured nature

Unfortunately, that part of the project was never built and the island remains unreachable unless visitors are equipped with a ladder. By letting nature take its undisturbed course and making that course visible, the idea of an island as a remote entity is expressed to its full potential, while the public is marooned in the inverse, left to wander the seas.

These examples provide some insight into how the island can be utilised as a design apparatus. In relation to urban discourse, islands can be deployed as cognitive devices to make sense of complex spatial phenomena. They can also function as agents of spatial ordering and generation. They can serve as mesocosms for experimental utopias and as testing grounds. For architects, the finitude, boundedness and seclusion of islands can be compelling design tools. For landscape architects, the island’s ability to frame flows and reveal natural processes gives rise to some equally compelling responses that prompt new ways of seeing an ancient physical, geographic and cultural archetype.

Lead image: Luis Callejas and Charlotte Hansson’s Pelagic Alphabet models islands subjects to territorial disputes, manipulating their topographies to play with a web of contested claims (source: LCLA Office)

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today