What makes TOPOTEK 1 tick?

Configuring the Landscape

November 2015
Rather than defining gardens, courtyards, and public squares as neutral places, Berlin-based landscape architecture office TOPOTEK 1 provides them with narrative qualities. Roofs are revived by graphic shimmering, social hotspots are transformed into intercultural meeting points, and playgrounds appear as geological meta-levels. The practice has distinguished itself within the landscape genre. For the recent transfiguration of the UNESCO World Heritage Abbey in Lorsch, it has received the 2015 German Landscape Architecture Award, an impressive accolade. DAMN° spoke with the founder about TOPOTEK 1’s geometric tendencies and other such penchants.
Landscape architecture is not always a quiet discipline. “The public space is an area where you test conflicts”, insists landscape architect Martin Rein-Cano. In 1996 he founded TOPOTEK 1 in Berlin – now an acclaimed practice in the field of landscape and urban design. As for the unusual name… “When I studied Landschaftspflege (which literally translates as ‘landscape care’), friends always asked me if that had anything to do with caring for the elderly”, Rein-Cano reminisces. And so, in naming the practice, all reference to the unfortunate term was avoided. The choice instead was to fuse topos, the Greek word for place, with tectonics, equivalent to making or stabilising. “Because we were the first to do this, we called the office TOPOTEK 1”, declares Rein-Cano, who was born in Argentina and raised in Germany. The first project of the self-proclaimed Topotekts was realised on the roof of their Berlin studio. At this early point, graphics already played a crucial role – it is a topic that links many later projects. The surface of the Himmelsgarten / Jardin céleste (Sky garden) is patterned by stripes in varying rhythm, with echoes of crosswalks and parking islands demarcated on the car-free rooftop – thus letting the viewer's thoughts travel.
It didn’t take long for the roof garden to arouse the interest of fashion photographer Hanns Joosten, whose studio was in the same building. In order to be able to use the rooftop as a backdrop for a shoot, he came to at an agreement with the young landscape architects: “In return, he would take beautiful pictures of our work. This is how we landed on a book cover”, recounts Martin Rein-Cano. Due to that publication, TOPOTEK 1 immediately became known within the scene – even though the practice had only completed one single project.
One of TOPOTEK 1’s first commercial projects followed in 1998, the courtyard of the DKV Insurance headquarters in Berlin – a building designed by architects Alsop & Störmer. “Will Alsop was a visiting professor in Hannover, where I studied. It was great that we could work together after graduation”, enthuses Martin Rein-Cano. As the garden covers an underground car park, there was no place for plants and trees. The solution consisted of a graphical surface with wide, coloured stripes intersecting each other and thereby generating momentum. “The game between the second and third dimension is an issue that excites us. These are interventions that almost develop qualities of a trompe l’oeil”, continues Martin Rein-Cano, who leads a team of 40 together with partners Lorenz Dexler and Francesca Venier.
The optical illusion theme also plays an important part in the Superkilen design in Copenhagen, for which TOPOTEK 1 collaborated with Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The colourful square, with its dazzling pink/red surface, functions as an urban stage for an eclectic choice of objects from different cultures and identities. In the middle of the square is a vintage bus stop from Turkmenistan, which serves as a meeting place. Other elements gallantly oscillate between furniture, toy, and sculpture. Since its transformation, this former social hotspot situated in a migrant neighbourhood has become the 10th most visited site in Denmark. “Play always offers the possibility to act subversively. We want to break the clarity and hyper-functionalism in towns, and to create locations that remain unclear to some extent”, Rein-Cano says of the practice’s approach. In his opinion, landscape design should stimulate interaction.
Despite an affinity for play, TOPOTEK 1 has realised a few proper playgrounds. “It is a difficult topic, as many playgrounds are impurities within the urban space. Our goal is different: we want to create fun situations for children and adults, without aesthetical numbness”, emphasises Rein-Cano. Atop a railway deck in Munich, the office created a playground in the form of compressed scenery. In the front section, sand dunes can be read as ships or animal skeletons, while the wedges in the rear section look like the precursors of mountains. Again, TOPOTEK 1 had to work on terrain where there was no space for classic garden design. “I think we are strong where conditions are bad”, Rein-Cano remarks wryly.
As to whether the practice’s work has changed since the early days… “Maybe we have become mellower with age (laughs). At the beginning, we were more fond of the French Baroque, with its strict geometrically-clipped hedges and straight paths. We thought it to be honest and direct because the aspect of human intervention is clearly visible”, responds Rein-Cano. Today, the office also designs in the English garden tradition, with natural paths and flowing landscapes – which aren’t less artificial than rigid geometry. For TOPOTEK 1, the most fascinating aspect of the English garden is movement. While French gardens form a fixed frame that serves as a stage for the people, English gardens turn the actor into the observer, with the garden defining a series of sets through which people can move.
The creation of scenic qualities is what attracts the Topotekts. “I believe that parks are much closer to film than to buildings”, expounds Rein-Cano. Unlike architects, landscape designers have to deal with the changes of season. “It’s one of the few art forms where you create an experience for all the senses. You feel the humidity, cold, heat, and you always smell and hear something”, he continues. It is this sensual element that makes the work not only complex, but also – to some extent – unpredictable.