Few people attempt the difficult fusion of the roles of artist, ecologist, and landscape architect. Chip Sullivan, landscape architect and a disciple of ecologist Howard Odum (author of Energy, Power and Society), is intent on tackling environmental issues within the framework of his art -- which actually means that his many graphic landscape designs remain unbuilt so far. This is a choice Sullivan has deliberately made to retain the purity of his ideas. Therefore, he is known for the character and nature of his images rather than his realised work. This does not diminish the potential influence of his thought within the landscape profession, nor his activities in the development of new forms of design and theory.
Disillusioned by the unavoidable watering down of idealism -- from concept to realisation - which happens in professional employment, Sullivan began to express his purist design in a myriad of drawings, paintings and constructions which are the building blocks for his exhibitions and installations. He believes that drawings are a means of exploring ideas, hence the importance he places on them over the built form. The graphic work becomes an end in itself, an icon, 'the possibility of being secret and mystical. The ability to stop and enclose time ...' not subject to the change, decay and dissolution of the real world, and therefore able to carry the explicit message.
In focusing on the graphic art, Sullivan developed several forms of framing -- the reliquary, the triptych, the diorama, the box and the specimen jar. All these intensify and encapsulate the garden. Of the genesis of the garden reliquaries he says: 'The destruction of vegetation by acid rain evoked in me a sense of loss, instilling in me a desire to create gardens of permanence ... the garden as a sacred icon, the garden as a surreal space, the garden as a metaphysical metaphor, and the garden as a plan for real, built environments'.
The roots of Sullivan's ecological conscience go back to the early seventies. Studying landscape and planning at the University of Florida, his concern about the destructiveness of prevailing energy-guzzling air-conditioned architecture led initially to research 'Scoring the Fitness of Trees in the Landscape', an exploration of microclimate moderation which he then applied in his alternative designs. Although concerning himself with energy flows of ecosystems in the landscape, Sullivan did not take the McHargian route of designing naturalistic self-sustaining systems, but has always worked with the art form as an integral part of the design equation. His personal insistence on the development of art as a necessary component of landscape design led him to continue his studies, this time at the Art Student's League, New York City.
His 'garden art' developed as a series of hypothetical low-energy-use residential gardens. 'I looked for possible methods for capturing the garden as a unique art form, but at the same time presenting the garden as passive architectural device.'
These softly coloured, mainly symmetrical garden designs are contemporary interpretations of historic Mediterranean gardens -- design ideals which he explored as models for passive cooling of microclimate while at the American Academy in Rome. He transforms these historic precedents in his early garden designs, using stylised wedge-shaped hedges and parallel tree planting patterns to funnel wind for cooling and shading in summer, and to act as wind-breaks in winter. This strange formalisation of the landscape initiates a new design form in the interpretation of landscape design for energy conservation.
Installations and exhibitions bring the ideas to a wider audience. Potent political statements on issues of pollution and cleansing, for instance, appear in his installation Garden of the Four Winds.
In The Garden of Linnaeus, the allegory and symbolism of naming and taxonomy acts to capture and intensify the quest for the true meaning of the garden. This theme of true meaning is taken into one of his most recent works, Chinese Take Out Garden.
Now in California, where he is teaching at UC Berkeley, Sullivan's previous peaceful designs have evolved into jagged, landscape artworks. The presentation techniques reflect his early fascination with comics and the cartoon culture of rocket ships, hot rods, custom cars and the language of Jack Kerouac. The colours include hot oranges, reds and browns, and the spiky forms from earlier 'Energy and Icon' installations have moved into the designed landscape.
Sullivan's own interpretations of these gardens tend to rationalise the graphic anger. He describes them as grinding, gnashing, mechanical forms and images of conflict and motion, a representation of the untameable violence of nature (particularly as experienced in California, with its life-threatening fires, mud-slides, floods and earthquakes). A contemporary deconstructivist language is perhaps also apparent in these broken forms.
The drawings are seductive, with a focus and intensity which is rarely realised in real life. They act like a magnifying glass. Perhaps, of built landscapes, George Hargreaves' SWA design, Harlequin Plaza, comes closest to being able to capture the intensifications of dissonant pattern and perspectives that Sullivan's drawings achieve.
In his own garden, one of his few built designs, the translation into a living landscape diffuses the intensity of colour and focus of the design drawing. This raises the question of whether the landscape 'icon', which is presented as a fixed viewpoint, is always more seductive than the landscape itself. And, if and when more of Sullivan's icons are realised into landscapes -- in the light of growth, change and people being able to move about within them -- will they lose their strength, and will they beread as social commentary? Some of Sullivan's drawn landscapes have the flavour of the cubist and surrealist gardens of the 1930s. Sullivan admires the European gardens of Gabriel Guvrekian and Andre Vera, as well as the later influential American works of Thomas Church and Garrett Eckbo. These pioneers of modernist landscape design transposed painting on to the land to bring new perceptions of design.
Is Sullivan's work a continuation of this movement, and in his later landscapes, is climate moderation still apparent? Can his message about ecological design be read in his landscapes or is it confined to the installations? Sullivan is an artist who came out of a 1970s ecological background. Will his merging of art, myth and climate moderation be an influence in the emerging American typology of twentieth-century landscape?
1 Eds Francis, Mark and Randolph T. Hester Jr. The Meaning of Gardens. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990.
2 Landscape Architecture, March'77.
3 The Meaning of Gardens, idem.
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|Title Annotation:||the art of landscape architect Chip Sullivan|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1994|
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