Terrain vague: place and landscape: Archaeology in Reverse

15 December 2007 | blog, cities, comment, place making, strategy

Image from Archaeology in Reverse by Stephen Gill

In an article in the Guardian on 8 December 2007, Robert Macfarlane described a walk around the perimeter of London’s Olympic Games site with Iain Sinclair. The walk was to be in Sinclair’s words, “…a complex transitional ecology of CGI imagery, doomed allotments and virtual arcadias.” Light industrial spaces, car-wreckers yards, abandoned beer cans, graffiti and floral excess typified the walk. The idea that urban landscapes such as this have any value – cultural, historical, aesthetic, ecological (anything other than monetary) – is not central to most regeneration practice in the UK.

Images from Archaeology in Reverse by Stephen Gill
Stephen Gill’s photographs of the Lower Lea Valley published in October 2007 under the title “Archaeology in Reverse” capture the infinite variety and richness of the area. They are a record of the area prior to its clearance and new life as London’s Olympic Park. They are also an inspiration for planners, urban designers and landscape architects who can see value in transitional and spontaneous landscapes. The sanitised images of the Olympic proposals seem dumb and one-dimensional in comparison.

Image from Archaeology in Reverse by Stephen Gill

The connections between the imagery of Gill, landscape urbanism movement and the writings of James Corner and others are obvious. The idea of terrain vague – a concept denoting vacant land which is not always even physically vacant as an unused resource within the city – has been around for some time. The concept contains both the lack of something as well as possibilities and openness to something new. Celebrating the culture of the city and valuing the terrain vague of post-industrial transitional areas have been keynotes of the inspirational regeneration of the Emscher Park in Germany’s Ruhrgebeit. Among a great deal of environmentally-sensitive new development (much of it of very high quality) this former heartland of coal and steel has found new uses for industrial buildings, consolidated others as romantic ruins and landscape features, and treated its spontaneous landscapes as valuable urban woodlands and wildlife havens.

Many of these principles and approaches to post-industrial landscapes will be embedded in our forthcoming report on Sheffield which will be completed in early 2008. See this link for further details.

Link to Stephen Gill’s excellent website.

Willie Miller, the founder and principal of WMUD, died on 12th January 2021 after a short illness. Willie was a much-loved husband and father and had a huge circle of friends  and professional colleagues. He was a multi-talented urban designer whose work had a major impact on hundreds of cities, towns and neighbourhoods throughout the UK and over the past 25 years. He also worked in Ireland, the Channel Islands and the USA.

Ines Triebel has been with WMUD since 2005, and she will continue the practice, drawing on her skills as a planner and designer. Ines has worked on place strategies, masterplans, policy guidance, regeneration and development frameworks, and the design of public realm and streetscape projects. She has extensive experience of working with communities, including charrettes.

WMUD will continue its long-standing strategic partnerships with Benton Scott-Simmons, Nick Wright Planning, Kevin Murray Associates, icecream architecture, yellow book and others. Please direct inquiries to Ines at [email protected] or contact any of the practices named above.