Last week SLU (Swedish University of Agricultural Science) in Alnarp hosted Beyond-Ism, a conference focused on the past, present, and potential future role of Landscape Urbanism within the field of landscape architecture.   

As the conference wound down from three days of lectures, presentations, and discussions, participants were invited on a much-appreciated breath of fresh air for a tour of SLU’s Landscape Lab.  

“A landscape laboratory should be seen as an experimental platform for many landscape contexts; from multi-functional countryside landscapes, city fringe landscapes, to park and garden landscapes. In practice one does what one believes is best, a landscape laboratory means a chance to compare relevant types side by side, and to follow the processes in a strict way.” – Roland Gustavsson

Since the Lab began in the 1980’s, the mission has been to breakaway from homogenization in landscape design by creating a space that expands understanding of the dynamics and interaction between plants.  This is done via hands-on learning, experimentation, and side-by-side comparison of different landscape concepts.   

The site in Alnarp is one of three in the region that are a part of the Landscape Lab.  Two others are located in Snogeholm, SE and Holstebro, DE offering variable climates and geology.  Founder Roland Gustavsson advised during a presentation about the Lab in 2009 that landscape labs should not try to do too much on one site but rather use several different sites to complement one another.  Altogether the different sites illustrate concepts for woodland interior, woodland edge, exotic trees, woodland belts, pedestrian walks and avenues, small water systems, meadows and meadow strips.

A crucial practice of the Lab is that students make decisions directly on site rather than back in the studio.  This pushes them to work more closely with a space – physically and psychologically – and see how their decisions may look in situ rather than in plan view drawings.

A considerable asset of the Lab is that there is long-term stewardship of the different experiments.  This offers a comprehensive and rigorous exploration of certain horticultural habits and how different landscape concepts develop over time.  Additionally, the project has shown that landscapes can be interesting soon after planting if a creative and thoughtful approach is taken.   

Besides offering an impressive array of landscape concepts, the Landscape Lab is also simply a beautiful site to walk through.  It does not have the diversity or specimen approach of botanical gardens but stands that have, on average, twenty or so species of plant and usually one or two species of tree.  There are sections that have been sculpted to artist specifications and some remaining structures of previous projects scattered about.  

These spaces are captivating.  One project the Lab should make efforts to formalize is their curiosity on how different visitors experience the site.  Presented in a casual conversation (and sometimes recorded with questionnaires), the tour guides relayed a variety of reactions from visitors ranging from feeling invigorated to uncomfortable.  

To a group of landscape architecture scholars, students and practitioners, the reactions seemed unanimously positive, and any of the visitors that day would be hard-pressed not to recommend a trip to the Landscape Lab to future visitors of the area.