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Lay of the Land

Art Review

Apr. 28, 2009
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In the 21st century the term "landscape" has largely outgrown the classical contrivances and picturesque notions of the past. Nevertheless, an exhibit at UW-Milwaukee's School of Architecture and Urban Planning shows that alongside the significance attached to landscape in our age, some of its romantic and spiritual dimensions still prevail.

The exhibition brings together study and sketch models, photographs, computer renderings and technical drawings of recent projects by La Dallman, one of the city's brightest architecture firms. The title, "Fabricated Landscapes," challenges the immutability and inimitability of nature, substituting it with the candor of an age marked by the expansion of the term "landscape," which now enjoys urban and even technological implications. However, several projects represented in the exhibit (through May 8), despite being invariably well wrought and deeply thought-out designs, don't deliver on the suggestive promise of this title.

This is rather understandable in private projects like Levy House, a Fox Point residence given pride of place in the exhibit. The building, perched on the edge of a ravine and surrounded by woodland, seems to serve as an aperture capturing carefully orchestrated views of the surroundings. In a blown-up photograph occupying the wall facing the gallery's entryway, the structure appears almost to buttress the woodland behind it, while various-sized openings appropriate parts of the landscape into the very makeup of the building, offering an element of transience into the uncompromising permanence of the Cor-Ten steel cladding.

This appropriation takes on a greater level of abstraction in an international competition entry for Atlanta's Andrew Young Plaza, for which La Dallman came in second. The design, represented by study models, sections and computer renderings, is composed of an undulating terrain of timber planks, subtly organized around three elements-"the spring," "the tablet" and "the grove"-which conjure up the symbolic and spiritual components of the medieval garden without recourse to rigid geometries or enclosed spaces. The landscape here becomes an interlocutor in urban life, albeit a rather taciturn one that allows human drama to hold center stage.

However, it's when the firm probes the thorny relationship between man-made and natural forms that the term "fabricated landscape" attains fuller promise. The Great Lakes Future exhibit, a permanent installation housed in Discovery World, transforms a natural phenomenon into an object that can be walked through, toyed with and surveyed from various perspectives. La Dallman has instilled the display with a furniture-like quality that celebrates the presence of the human hand rather than trying to disguise it. A study model displays the conflict between the display's organic and unruly form and the strict geometries of the space. The sinuous mantle of the sky overhanging the exhibit appears like a billowing stretch of fabric straining against the pinioning arms of the structural columns bearing down on it.





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