Doing Almost Nothing: The Landscapes of Georges Descombes

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Until now, writings about the architect/landscape architect Georges Descombes have been relatively limited, appearing primarily in publications in Switzerland and abroad as conversations, interviews, and conference proceedings; most of them have appeared only in French. However, during his forty years of practice, Descombes has developed and applied a method unique to landscape architecture, one in which an extremely broad vision, both scientifically and culturally, shapes his thinking and projects. Descombes enters each project by attempting to understand the existing conditions on site and how, using minimal means and interventions, those conditions can be modified to meet the requirements of the program and those appropriate to the natural or urban environment. To some critics it would appear that Descombes has always done too little on and to the site, and in some instances have condemned him for “doing almost nothing.” Although simplicity usually demands greater concentration and study, it often yields greater rewards that result from just that restraint. Perhaps how we approach the world is more important that how we shape the world. Descombes’s landscapes are instructive in this regard.

In our current era, the concern for the planet as a whole, its dwindling resources, the despoiling of its air, water, and land, and an exploding population have skewed the profession’s focus toward sustainability, ecology, resilience, and other related concerns. In the process, the social role played by landscape architecture has been lessened, if not forgotten, and the role of form, space, composition, and materials—that is to say the aesthetic dimension of landscape design—has become a distant concern. Descombes’s practice strikes that vital balance between effective environmental performance and the ethical creation of beauty. Instead of favoring one pursuit over the other, or relying on a delimiting specialization, he works in a way that may be justifiably regarded as both/and rather than either/or – a comprehensive vision that weds nature and culture, landscape and architecture, people and milieu.

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¥5,000 tax included