Book Review: Land Art as Climate Action - Designing the 21st Century City Park

Book Review: Land Art as Climate Action - Designing the 21st Century City Park

Résumé en français

In 2009 Diane Menzies, in her then role as IFLA President, released a statement in preparation for the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. In addition to the threats to the landscape posed by climate change, concern was expressed for the potential visual impact of renewable energy plants on landscapes:

“Perversely the global thrust to minimise carbon discharge by moving to renewable energy resources including wind turbines, to reduce the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions, is also having major visual and other impacts on landscapes around the globe. Thus the world’s landscapes (and people) are affected by the impact of climate change as well as current methods to develop renewable energy sources.”

The book “Land art as climate action: Designing the 21st Century city park”, compiled by the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) directly takes up the challenge of the visual impact of renewable energy in the landscape and leans into the idea that can be summed up by LAGI’s tagline: “renewable energy can be beautiful”.

When I first approached this book, I held in my mind the idea of land art as an earth and art-based, environmental movement that emerged in the 1960s and was surprised to discover that the book did not describe what I imagined to be land art projects in the 21st century. From background reading on their website, I have learned that The Land Art Generator Initiative has a focused agenda on art and place-making that specifically incorporates renewable energy technologies. The projects in the book therefore are highly technical and productive, compared to the temporary, natural process-driven installations of the land art movement. I would have appreciated the book more if it had better located itself in relation to (or in departure from) land art typologies.

How this book came to be produced, originates with the Bundesgartenschau (BUGA), the Federal Horticultural Show in Germany. The City of Mannheim was selected as the BUGA 23 festival host city and LAGI was invited to conceptualise an international design competition to reimagine renewable energy technologies as sculptural elements within Spinelli Park, a public open space in Mannheim. The premise of the competition coincidentally aligns with the aim of this AJLA issue: the design competition prompted designers to explore public landscapes that integrate co-benefits such as technologies and food production.

The book includes four short essays that provide additional context to the design competition. The first essay, written by founding co-directors of the Land Art Generator Initiative, gives insight into the vision for BUGA 23 and LAGI competition. My impression from reading this essay is a sense of increasing climate despair in Europe which is framed in terms of the German word Zukunftslosigkeit, loosely meaning futurelessness. As a response to this hopelessness, the essay proposes a re-imagining of the communal allotment gardens of Germany as ‘solar energy commons’ - renewable energy projects that could be built on shared public or community land, for collective social benefit.

This vision is echoed in the fourth essay, whimsically titled “Unexpected Encounters with a Garden Gnome.”  I found the second essay particularly useful as it provided a history of Spinelli Park, the site for the design competition. The essay explains how Mannheim was initially established as a logistics hub for Allied occupation in west Germany in the 1940s and how it expanded into the largest military support facilities in Europe and was the primary U.S. Military operating base following the 11 September 2001 attacks. Following the 1990 German Re-unification, U.S. Military presence gradually began withdrawing and returned the land to the German government in 2014. In 2017 the City of Mannheim purchased the land known as Spinelli Barracks to develop it into a Climate Corridor and site of the 2023 BUGA. The third essay is a provocation: to consider the opportunities for photovoltaic arrays in the landscape that also create social and cultural benefits, enhance biodiversity and integrate agriculture.

The remainder and bulk of the book is dedicated to showcasing the 30 shortlisted entries, including the winner and runner-up, as well as another 30 featured entries. I also discovered that all the entries featured in the book are available online at  Although the book generously dedicates two to three double-page colour spreads to each of the shortlisted entries, understandably the website is able to host slightly more images per entry. Both the book and the website include summary information about each project and a written description of the entries. Although I really enjoy the accessibility of digital media, I also enjoy being able to page through a physical book and found it easy to engage with the projects in the book.

Given the book’s primary function as a record of competition entries, I felt that it could have benefited from including the judging team’s feedback. I would be interested to understand what the judging panel valued in particular entrant’s projects. Given my interpretation of the design brief, I was surprised at the number of entries that were not grounded in the specificness of place on the site. The winning entry, Energy Circus, was one of the few projects that I felt integrated the design with the realities of the site. This entry was also comparatively comprehensive and included a long section through the primary spine of Spinelli Park. Did these factors contribute to its support from the judging panel? Offline Park was another one of the few entries that appeared to explicitly include the surrounding fabric of Mannheim. Readers should make their own speculations about the relative success of each of the projects featured in the book.

Figure 1: Left: Energy Circus, Right: Offline Park (Image source:

The majority of the shortlisted entries appear to capture the expectations of LAGI and the design brief - to imagine renewable energy technologies in modular and sculptural ways. In exploring the projects in the book, I noted three different types of responses: single, sculptural objects or focal points; modular elements arranged into sculptural pavilions; and modular elements arranged across a landscape. I have included some examples of these three types of responses below.

Examples of project entries that imagined a single focal object or sculpture include the tilting and rotating GIRASOLI structures; the Yggdrasil clock tower; and the seemingly ethereal and revolving eTREE.

Figure 2:Left to right vertically: GIRASOLI, Yggdrasil, eTREE (Image source:

Examples of entrants that envisaged sculptural shaded structures or pavilions include the timber and glass structure of the runner-up entry titled Kaleidoscopic Dune; the retractable greenhouse Bloom; and the moon jellyfish-inspired installations of Speak Up.

Figure 3: Left to right vertically: Kaleidoscopic Dune, Bloom, Speak Up (Image source:

Examples of projects that imagine entire landscapes including circulation or activity networks that incorporate energy generation include the landscape of berms, cycle lanes and stormwater swales of Current Notions; the kinetic skatepark in ma duneland and the tree-like structures lining pathways in BAU(M): The Fractal Tree.

Figure 4: Clock-wise from top left: ma dunelane, BAU(M), Current Notions (Image source:

I have been asking myself how this book may be beneficial (and to whom). One of the book’s contributions is that of precedent projects for future designers to build on. There are potential limitations to these precedent examples as they are unbuilt and untested. The solutions are often highly technical, and I wonder how one would determine how realistic these solutions may be. Unfold is one particular entry that stood out as being particularly futuristic. The project taps into Mannheim’s high annual solar radiation potential and high humidity. The design team has imagined light pole-like structures that make use of solar energy to drive a process of absorbing water from the air, filling a collection tank. Once full, a part of the installation is manifested as a drone which follows a programmed path providing artificial rain that irrigates the surrounding landscape.

Overall, the entrants investigated a wide range of renewable energy technologies from concentrated solar to wind turbines to piezoelectric generators to kinetic energy harvesting. The book includes a useful glossary where it unpacks the technologies used by entrants’ projects. Useful to this issue of AJLA, and to future landscape architecture projects, the book also records per project, the co-benefits that entrants included in their designs. I was particularly interested in mapping this range across the projects and have noted the results of this below. As LAGI continue their mission to respond to the climate crisis through place-making, art and renewable energy, perhaps projects like these will move beyond a design competition and be realised as built projects in our landscapes around the world.

Full title: Land Art as Climate Action: Designing the 21st Century City Park

Authors: Land Art Generator Initiative

Publisher: Hirmer

Year: 2023

Reviewer: Christine Price