The story of a place in time

Af Klaske Havik og Willemijn Wilms Floet, Delft University of Technology, Department of Architecture

Svava Riesto, Biography of an Industrial Landscape: Carlsberg’s Urban Space Retold
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 224 sider

Almost all stories we read, hear or see, are placed. If a story tells about events unfolding in time through a certain chronological order (or disorder), it also tells about the places and spaces in which these events take place. In novels and films, architectural and urban spaces and landscapes often play a crucial role to situate social activities and even social conflicts. Seen from this perspective, could we also look at places through this notion of storytelling? Is the biography a productive perspective to address the multiple events that have shaped a place in time? Is it possible, through this approach, to reveal the multiple layers that constitute a “sense of place”?

In this book, landscape scholar Svava Riesto investigates the potential of the “landscape biography” approach, by reviewing existing scholarship around notions of place, social space and landscape biography, and by telling the story of the life of a place loaded with history: the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen. The book Biography of an Industrial Landscape: Carlsberg’s Urban Spaces Retold is the result of her dissertation (2011) on the recent and historical development of the Carlsberg brewery located close to the inner city of Copenhagen into a high density urban residential neighbourhood.  The book forms a welcome contribution to scholarship that addresses transformations of the built environment, evaluating design and planning projects and their reception in relation to the current discussion on heritage values. The underlying thought of the investigation is that creativity in urban and landscape development evolves in dialogue with the existing, and that the existing is multifaceted and includes multiple scales and history lines: topography, spatial and material qualities, aspects of use, and socio-cultural practises. All these aspects are “chapters” of a “biography” that helps to understand the complexity of a site and that can create context for new innovative and reflexive interventions. It is key that the knowledge about the built environment, the social practices and social conflicts it accommodates and the diverse cultural imagery that is part of its multiple layers in time should be combined to open new perspectives and overcome naïve preconceptions about developing urban and architectural heritage. Indeed, such preconceptions like “old is better than new” or “heritage is all about buildings” are challenged by this approach. Riesto’s observation is that the value of existing open outdoor space is often unnoticed in heritage evaluations and that the “sense of place” is hardly ever univocal: there are many contradicting voices to be heard when diving into the stories of a site. To catch this sense of place, therefore, an approach of meticulous listening (to stories) and reading (of archive material as well as of spatial and material conditions) is crucial.

The first part of the book constructs a theoretical framework leading to a biographical approach to industrial landscapes as “a lens through which to view changes made to the natural or built environment”. The notion of landscape biography was brought to the fore by amongst others the Dutch historian Jan Kolen. Riesto’s contribution is to propose and test this approach to post-industrial spaces specifically, and thus to connect the landscape biography approach to the debate on architectural heritage development. The theoretical discussion offers an accessible overview of different disciplines and positions, from architect Christian Norberg-Schulz’ phenomenological  interest in the experience and perception of place to unravel genius loci (1965), via the triad of social space of the philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre – the perceived, conceived and lived as decisive and complementary perspectives to understand the built environment (1974) – to a recent tendency to work interdisciplinarily and integrate academic scientific fields such as geography, sociology, archaeology and history when working on the topic of landscape. The notions of geographical perception, human geography and cultural landscapes advocated by Rita Hermans, Hans Renes and Kolen in the edited volume Landscape Biographies (2015) are taken further by Riesto in her analytical work combining different views for the biography for Carlsberg. 

These three perspectives provide the structure for the rest of the book which is dedicated to composing the biography of the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen and organized in three chapters: Site, Space and Sub-terrain. “Site” presents the physical and urban development of the Carlsberg hill as a part of Copenhagen and represents the geographical perception; “Space” focuses on different stories about how Carlsberg shaped the plant and represents the human geography, putting forward the importance of use and every day practises like how open spaces are related to logistics, problems with water sources, or memorable meeting places for workers’ lunchbreaks. “Sub-terrain” presents a very specific feature of the brewery, the hidden cellars which represent the cultural landscape.

In these chapters, historical lines and contemporary plans and processes in the transformation of the Carlsberg Brewery site (competitions and design briefs, the effects of economical fluctuations, discussions about heritage methodologies, the evaluation of architectural and urban projects) are presented, confronted and evaluated. The vast amount of material evokes a picture of unrealised projects, good intentions and missed opportunities, and it becomes clear that the biography of such an industrial site is by no means univocal. Instead, many often conflicting voices are to be distinguished. As Riesto argues through her analysis of the transformation projects for the brewery site, one comes to realise that it is through these many contesting ideas that the urban landscape of Carlsberg was shaped.

However, in the bringing together of all these different voices, in the attempt to combine methodological issues, stories from the site and recent project proposals, the book tends to lose some of its focus. Possibly, the quest for completeness comes with a risk of spreading oneself too thin. Telling a good story also implies an act of selection: some aspects and details are highlighted while others may not add that much to the evocative quality of the narrative. Possibly, the academic format of the publication, as the outcome of a PhD, has hindered some of the potential of the biographical approach. Here, one could question too if the lay-out of the book is used to its full potential: small maps and blurry pictures are implemented as illustrations in between text (despite the extensive captions and size of the pictures[RK1] ) while they could have been combined into sections to form a visual biography as such, while quotes from interviews with company workers, architects and planners could have brought the different voices more to life.

A biography, quite literally, is the writing of life, and precisely that is the potential of a biographical approach to the transformation of such complex and rich industrial urban sites. As Svava Riesto states in her conclusion, it is the life of humans, together with co-habiting actors, that shapes landscapes. And there we come back to some of the theoretical positions the book began with: following Norberg-Schulz, Edward Relph (1976) and Tim Cresswell (2014), Riesto’s approach can be situated within a “humanistic discovery of place”. Her plea for a biographical approach to industrial landscapes challenges architects, planners and other stakeholders involved in transformation processes to carefully consider the intricate, and often conflicting relationships between people and place.

 

Literature

Cresswell, Tim, Place: An Introduction (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2014)

Kolen, Jan, Hans Renes and Rita Hermans, Landscape Biographies: Geographical, Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on the Production and Transmission of Landscapes (Amsterdam: Amsterdam university Press, 2015). Open Access: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15r3x99

Lefebvre, Henri, La production de l’espace (Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1974)

Norberg-Schulz, Christian, Intentions in Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965)

Relph, Edward, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion, 1976)