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DESIGN: Journeys through the landscape and working with nature.

DESIGN: Journeys through the landscape and working with nature.

As a child, I remember asking my father why roads were not built in straight lines. Why, I asked, did they twist and turn? Sometimes roads even doubled back on themselves.

Ah that classic child’s question… but why?

But to me, as a young child, Ireland’s twisting and turning roads seemed unnecessarily complicated. My father explained patiently that the course a road takes is one of negotiation. A road has many aspects to be considered, he explained, all of differing weights of influence.

My father sold cars for a living. And one of the things we did together was drive. Let’s go for a spin! he’d say.

We drove through the land, over the mountains, beside the lakes and along the rivers. We journeyed to lakes far away, to check on his boat. Every so often, we’d take the boat out on the water. Sometimes, he even let me steer the outboard. These journeys were some of my first interactions with the wider landscape.

As we drove along I’d ask questions about what I saw out my window. And mostly what I saw was nature, and how people are changing it.

 

Timber steps cut to fit between rocks at The Experimental House by Alvar Aalto.

 

Our built environment is always a negotiation between the maker and the world, between people and nature.

We stand to lose so much when we build straight roads. Yes, they may transport us faster from one place to another…but… straight roads disregard their setting, the history of the place, the unique ecosystems that differ from one place to another.

A good road negotiates all these differing influences, it goes around rather than through.

A good road will have character and a certain air of destiny, an indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere, be it east or west, and not coming back from there.

If you go with such a road, he thinks, it will give you pleasant travelling, fine sights at every corner and gentle ease of peregrination that will persuade you that you are walking forever on falling ground.

But if you go east on a road that is on its way west, you will marvel at the unfailing bleakness of every prospect and the great number of sore-footed inclines that confront you to make you tired.

If a friendly road should lead you into a complicated city with nets of crooked streets and five hundred other roads leaving it for unknown destinations, your own road will always be discernible for its own self and will lead you safely out of the tangled town.’

From Flann O'Brien's ‘The Third Policeman’.

Good design brings you on an effortless journey telling you how to use something, what its made from and how its made all at once. Sometimes a good design comes from focusing on what the materials want and doing less of what the designer wants. Working with nature, not against, often yields the best results.

A good designer respects their materials and understands their materials’ properties. They don’t force or try to bend their materials to their will. A design with a sense of harmony more likely comes about when a designer works with nature.

 

Timber fence cut to match the hill at Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto.

 

We could all build straight roads, but at what cost?

Some of the most interesting roads in Ireland are anything but straight.

These are the roads that take on huge challenges with limited resources, no tunnelling, no huge bridges just slow persistent determination.

A good road is built over centuries. Millions of different footsteps, human and animal, have decided which direction to go next. A good road evolves it is not made. It is the result of considerable negotiation with the landscape, it tells the story of our ancestors’ journeys.

Great design is also a negotiation between, form, function, material and history. The more we listen to our environment the better chance we have of finding harmony.

 

Notes:

Some of the epic journeys in Ireland are The Connor Pass on the Dingle peninsula; The Gap of Dunloe outside Killarney, County Kerry; The Sally Gap in County Wicklow and The Atlantic Drive in Achill, County Mayo.

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