Cosmopolitan Ground, by Terroir

Mar 31, 2009
  • Article by Stuart Harrison

This new book from Terroir is designed by the architects themselves, and therefore can be considered as a design project undertaken by the practice. In this way the book attempts to innovate and be critical; it also clearly aims to capture the diverse activities of this still relatively young practice and research firm. Terroir is well-known as a firm, with offices in Hobart and Sydney, and fosters teaching and research relationships in those cities, and also more recently Melbourne. In this way it encapsulates many contemporary trends – mobility, practice-based research, electronic transfer of information, working collaboratively but remotely.
Cosmopolitan Ground follows the work of Terroir’s architectural practice from 2000 to 2007. The design projects, both built and unbuilt, are positioned in the book chronologically in a central strip across the square pages. In addition, a series of essays that are intellectually driven scroll across a top strip.
The book seems to rely on adjacencies between essays and images that are not directly related, assumedly to create the possibility for cross readings between them. This double reading tries to encapsulate the nature of the practice itself – theory and practice working alongside each other, or perhaps two sides of the same coin. Terroir’s book asks the question directly: what is the relationship between theory and practice? This is different to the tradition of beginning an architectural text with essays as context to the subsequent work. Terroir is perhaps asking us to question how the theory affects the project and how the project affects the theory – the discussion is cyclical rather than linear. To attempt to represent this relationship makes the monograph a more engaging proposition. This has been attempted more successfully before, and recalls the excellent special edition of A+U in 1994 on the work of Bernard Tschumi, which ran parallel project drawings and texts, and created a sense of an interconnected practice.
Generally, the writing varies between clear and condensed project descriptions to the essays, which are both traditional essays by Andrew Benjamin, Marcelo Stamm and Jeff Malpas and edited transcribed symposia from events held at University of Technology Sydney and the University of Tasmania. One symposium excerpt entitled ‘On Images’ (a ‘high end’ discussion about the nature of the image) seems overly complex. It is difficult to follow the discussion (maybe you had to be there), except for a clear short passage from Kerstin Thompson about the process of actually designing a roof.
The third strip of the book is used for line drawings, sketches and quotes, a sort of gutter margin. This contains some of the best content of the book – both thoughts through diagrams, sketches and clear (but often very small) plans, sections and elevations. The quotes contained within this strip are related to the project with which they share the page and provide useful insights into the design process. Many drawings and plans are also placed hem-skimmingly close to the margins – perhaps in a desire to challenge the precision of their printer. Images are not captioned, which on occasion could have elaborated on some of the diagrams and images of references.
As mentioned, Terroir’s team itself has produced the book and designed the layout. This is evident in the design – margins and headings do not form a harmonious sense of book, and this is perhaps intentional. This is the opposite approach to say Reiser and Umemoto’s Atlas of Novel Tectonics, which goes out of its way to accept traditional, or even arcane, publishing conventions to perhaps amplify the radical nature of the content. Photographs, drawings, images of references and, in Terroir’s words, ‘digital paintings’ are scattered throughout the book, sometimes transgressing the ordering system of three horizontal strips. The book is essentially one long line of about 39 metres in length, converted to double-page spreads. The line as a measuring and describing device is utilised in several of Terroir’s projects, and here is extended to the form of the book.
Terroir’s work has been associated with the landscape, the ground, the ‘terroir’. This book, Cosmopolitan Ground, seems to be an attempt to locate these concerns as they may apply in an urban environment. This shift is perhaps best represented in the final project featured – an entry to the Prague Library competition, for which the firm was short-listed. This project features evocative black and white renderings, capturing the mood of a remote city and also blending aspects of the project into the edge-of-park site. The building has a strong urban presence on the adjoining road, with an irregular roof pitch profile making both contextual and landscape gestures. The use of the abstracted hill-like roof form appears in several of the projects in this book, and here undergoes an urban association – distorted gables. It is perhaps also in this project’s pages that the adjacency of the essays works best as well. The final drawing of the book is that of the world, a line drawing showing where both project and research sites are around the globe, and this tells of the ambition of the practice – to fill this map up.

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