Daniel Urban Kiley Lecture: Georges Descombes, “Designing a River Garden”

Photo by Fabio Chironi.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the Aire River, which runs northeast into the Rhine, was progressively canalized near Geneva, where it flows through valleys historically devoted to farming. In 2001, the State of Geneva opened a competition with the idea of restoring the Aire to its original shape and meanders by eliminating the canal. Atelier Descombes Rampini proposed instead, in their winning entry, to combine the clear territorial cut of the canal with a parallel new vast divagation space for the river. In the process, as Georges Descombes stated in the proposal, “the canal becomes the pointer for the transformations, a reference line giving the possibility to understand the ‘before’ and ‘after’—a becoming which superimposes both situations” and accepts that “something began which was already there.”

The design’s complex organization links the new river space to a linear series of gardens in the former canal. The realized design has become a long linear garden that organizes the views in a true Einsensteinian montage, aiming at introducing into this territory “shocking” juxtapositions intended to prompt “questions, worries, hopes” that will renew attention and emotion.

Among Descombes’s architectural realizations are the Swiss Path around Lake Uri in Switzerland, the Bijlmer Memorial in Amsterdam, and Parc de la Cour du Maroc in Paris. The Aire River project was awarded the Schulthess Swiss Gardens Prize in 2012, was named Best Swiss Landscape Architecture Project of the Year in 2015, and is a finalist for the 2016 Rosa Barba Landscape Prize.

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