Ecuador is a country with some of the most diverse landscapes and environments in the world. However, its practice of landscape architecture is relatively young and underdeveloped. Instead of a mature profession as it is for instance in the Netherlands, in Ecuador landscape architecture is often considered as a subcategory of architecture. Yet, there are indications that Ecuadorian landscape architecture as an independent field is growing.
[Images by Abel Coenen, unless mentioned otherwise.]
One thing that I noticed before I started working in Ecuador was the amount of innovative architecture projects in the country. When you scan through the database of sites as Archdaily or the Plataforma Architectura, for example, a selection of buildings comes up. Mostly built from materials like wood, bamboo and natural stone, connecting interior and exterior spaces, and breathing a natural and modern atmosphere.
Landscape architecture in Ecuador
When looking at landscape architecture in Ecuador this curriculum is not so extensive. During my work I noticed that landscape architecture here is often considered and treated as a subcategory of architecture, both in the practical field as in education and research. There are several university tracks for urbanism but one for landscape architecture is lacking. However, assuming that landscape architecture therefore has no role in Ecuador is not correct.
I learned that landscape architecture and Ecuador are two concepts that mingle really well together. Not only because of the country’s spectacular scenery and its diverse natural landscapes. But also because of its rich history of land cultivation and its capability to create residential settlements on locations with challenging geographical conditions. And because of the pride of the Ecuadorians for their landscape and the location-specific culinary dishes which they will convince you as a foreigner to try. When you understand landscape architecture as a field that comes from a cultural tradition of creating and designing landscapes as qualitative places for living and working (Thompson 2014), Ecuador has actually a long tradition of (re)shaping and designing landscapes.
The first appearances of landscape design in Ecuador as we understand it know must be the plazas, patios, gardens and parks designed during the Spanish colonization (from 1535). This mix of a Mediterranean and Arabic style is still recognizable throughout the country, in Quito mainly in the historical centre (Peralta 1991). To respond to the rapid growth in the 19th and 20th century, the city constructed a much bigger urban park north of the centre, Parque La Carolina, somewhat resembling New York’s Central Park. Like most spatial projects in this period, the park was initiated and designed by the Municipio del Quito, the Quito municipality (Peralta 1991).
But, until now, landscape architecture as a profession has seemingly not succeeded to take a profound position in the design and management of Ecuador’s public spaces. At least not as in The Netherlands, for instance, where the field originates from the Dutch technocratic fight against and with water, and the French and British aesthetic tradition of botany and garden design. Nevertheless, landscape architecture can fulfil an important role regarding spatial issues in and around Quito:
- A lack of parks and other green spaces, necessary for countering urban heat problems and infiltration of rainwater, but which also gives the city spatial quality;
- The problems in mobility in many parts of the city, especially from a pedestrian point of view (which I also discussed in my previous blog);
- The strong division between public space (e.g. the street) and private gardens, fenced off and invisible due to stone walls and gates;
- The rivers, that historically had a main role in the development of the city, but now hidden beneath the surface, are hardly visible or accessible and heavily polluted;
- The uncontrolled urban expansion by informal initiatives, for instance on mountain slopes, which is known to cause erosion and problems with drainage and infiltration of rainwater;
- And, moreover, the lack of a visible connection to and physical relation with the city and its surrounding mountain landscape.
Internationally, these kind of issues are often very important in the work of professional landscape architecture. What is the role of landscape architects in Ecuador in these matters?
Although Ecuador does not have its own schools for landscape architecture so far, there is the possibility for students to study abroad, for instance in the USA or England, with a scholarship provided by the State. This regulation demands that, after finishing the scholarship, the graduate has to return to Ecuador and work there as a professional for at least a few years. Because of this scholarship, the amount of landscape architects is slowly growing, and so are the projects that landscape architects are involved in.
Throughout the city of Quito there are several examples of Ecuadorian landscape architecture projects to be mentioned. First, there is the design for the Parque Urbano Cumandá initiated by Carolina Hidalgo, a landscape architect who studied at Harvard University. Together with a team of Luis López López Arquitectos she proposed to turn this abandoned bus station into a multi-functional cultural and social park with many sport facilities and with bridges to connect it physically to the surrounding neighbourhoods. Since the park has been opened in 2014, it has been a successful urban hub and is, both in form and function, quite a contrast to other public spaces in the city.
Another contemporary urban park is Parque Bicentenario, designed by Ernesto Bilbao, on the location of the recently relocated international airport Mariscal Sucre. This strip of land lies in the northern part of Quito and, as such, Bicentenario is part of a linear strip of parks through the city. Ernesto Bilbao won a competition with a design based on the reconstruction of the landscape into different ecological zones (such as forests and ponds) and the reintroduction of native species. With this, he manages to bring the Ecuadorians closer to their landscape. At the moment, the park is still under construction but promises to be an original addition to the city.
Also worthwhile to mention is the work done by Felipe Palacios, a young landscape architect who studied at Auburn University. He recently founded his own company and works with a combination of landscape and architecture, mostly on smaller scales like gardens and parks. His designs are elegant and sober and deal with both natural processes as aesthetic qualities.
Last but not least, the two people that I have mainly worked with here in Ecuador are both perfect examples of the strong influence that scholarships have on Ecuadorian (landscape) architecture. Landscape architect Daniel Sáenz, recently graduated from Pennsylvania University, works freelance on different projects varying from gardens to larger design projects. At the moment, he is also part of the municipality’s team for spatial planning and architecture. He combines a broad knowledge of native plant species with a visionary approach to landscape architecture.
Together with Daniel I was part of the team of Santiago del Hierro, an architect graduated from Yale University, who acts on the interface between architecture projects and landscape projects on a bigger scale. One of his main projects, in collaboration with Estudio A0, is that of the Ikiam campus, a university campus in the fragile ecosystem of the Amazon. The design of several campus buildings is structured by an adaptive masterplan proposing innovative interventions for rainwater drainage and reforestation of the area using native plant species. Routes and buildings are embedded in the landscape, creating a working and learning environment that is unique in the world.
A landscape approach to architecture
Ecuadorian architect and critic Ana María Durán Calisto recently reviewed current architecture projects in Ecuador and in which she described the Ecuadorian visión territorial de la arquitectura (“the landscape approach to architecture”) (Durán Calisto 2015). She refers to the anthropologist Tom Zuidema, researcher on Inca and indigenous Andean cultures who claims that the first residents of the Andes already called their living environment a “sacred landscape”. Hence, the most sainted is what rises above us.
In modern Quito, architecture is just considered a humble response to the sanctity of the mountains. Therefore, the mountains are the ultimate form of architecture. On the contrary, in flat landscapes like in The Netherlands where buildings are often the highest points, the prestige that is pursued by architecture is much stronger (Durán Calisto 2015). Instead of striving for prestige, Ecuadorian architecture contains a certain element of humility or sustainability. I think the mentioned projects all show a humble but effective approach to landscape and to architecture. This has its own particular influence on the character of Ecuadorian landscape architecture, although it is still a relatively young discipline. When landscape architecture can disconnect itself from the field of architecture and emancipate into an independent discipline itself, it will be able to solve many of the spatial problems in Quito and create a more sustainable perspective for Ecuador’s future.
References Durán Calisto, A.M. (2015) ‘Arquitectura contemporánea de Ecuador (1999-2015): El florecimiento de una crisis’, rita_ 2015 (03), pp. 40-51, available: http://ojs.redfundamentos.com/index.php/rita/article/view/55 [accessed 5 June 2015]. Peralta, E. (1991) ‘Evaluacion y perspectivas’, in Peralta, E. e.a. (eds.), Arquitectura Paisajista: Quito, Conceptos y Diseños, Quito: Direccion de Planificacion, I. Municipio de Quito, Ecuador, 221-232, available: https://ws147.juntadeandalucia.es/obraspublicasyvivienda/publicaciones/04%20COOPERACION%20INTERNACIONAL/quito_03_%20arquitectura_paisajistica/quito_03.pdf [accessed 17 July 2015]. Thompson, I. (2014) Landscape Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.