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Gillian Darley

Land in Common

My first impression of Råängen, seen on a damp grey afternoon in early autumn, was of a stretch of farmland at rest before the enforced stasis of winter. The name1Råängen was first used as a title for the Cathedral’s project in Brunnshög. Gradually, it has become the name for the place itself. The shift in the meaning of Råängen in this text thus reflects a change that has occurred during the project’s development. As a name, Råängen unites the place and the idea. translates as ‘raw meadow’ and was appropriated from that of a small area of nearby unfarmed land. It conveyed two ostensibly contradictory notions, opposing rough, unmediated, nature with something gentler, tending to the romantic. ‘Meadow’ lays a trace of poetry on the scene. That trace lies, for these purposes, in a pocket of land lying at the centre of the area in question. It is designated as Hage (enclosed garden), though its extent that day was conveyed by no more than a scattering of marker posts.

Skåne, the southernmost part of Sweden, is a farming province with undramatic topography but extremely fertile soil. Malmö is the regional capital, but Lund with its historic university and venerable Cathedral of steel grey sandstone, surmounting an ancient crypt, anchors the area within its deep past. Suggesting a very different future, sited to the north-east of the town is a 450-hectare development called Brunnshög, an initiative spearheaded by the municipality and involving a number of partners including, perhaps quite surprisingly, the Board of Lund Cathedral. From the 150 hectares that are currently in the church’s ownership in Brunnshög, ten have been earmarked for development and the church itself has opted to take charge. The Board is profoundly aware of the responsibilities it bears in taking such an unfamiliar direction so, from the outset, is committed to proving itself a visionary, even highly unusual, developer, justifying all the ambitions as well as the practical outcome and bringing an exceptional imagination to bear on every detail of the project.

As a defined first step, Hage can call upon a rich slew of alternative, or historic, readings of shared open space or common ground within a (loosely) urban context. Albeit no bigger than a generous garden or orchard – some forty metres square, roughly the dimensions of a typical local farmstead – it sits at the core of the new settlement and
is, thus, both tabula rasa and nascent design. All functional and aesthetic decisions must be markers of the high values and considerable aspirations which the church is aiming to bring to its wider, novel, enterprise. Ownership, it believes, comes with responsibilities and the provision of open ground pro bono publico is essentially a statement of moral intent, facing up equally to sustainability and social response. The physical reality of Hage will itself be an anchor, even a measure, for the wider plan. At this stage a seemingly random fragment, in the form of a walled public garden, it might seem broken off from the city. It lies well beyond its boundaries and is sufficiently disconnected to look like a kind of environmental dyspraxia, a disruption to the planned order. Or, inverted, can it be seen as the potential heart of Råängen, for the moment just a marker for the eventual settlement? Everything is possible.

I like the notion of a little lost garden with an indeterminate past. The ground can absorb complexity and resonance at will and yet be redolent with new possibilities. Talking to Geir Brendeland, partner in Brendeland & Kristoffersen, the Norwegian architectural practice invited by Lund Cathedral to design this landscape fragment, we discussed parallels. My own journey around the notion has taken me far afield and then back to Scandinavia.

I began by considering the maidan, tracing its roots back to Islam and nomadic Persia. In seventeenth-century Isfahan, markets came and went according to custom and when cleared, gave way to processions, religious festivals and even sport. Such an indeterminate open area lying at the core of a great city was (and is) both a void, to be a valuable interval in the built fabric, as well as an intensely used space, deflecting and mediating urban density. The maidan was an open place in practice, but never a circumscribed design. In Anuradha Mathur’s thoughtful essay titled ‘Neither Wilderness nor Home’2Anuradha Mathus, ‘Nether Winderness Nor Home: The Indian Maidan’, in James Corner (ed.), Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Theory. Princeton University Press, 1999. he aligns it with the notion of commons, providing an environment ‘for which customary law exacts specific forms of community respect’, quoting Ivan Illich. Such terrain offers ‘individual freedom and collective engagement’ as nowhere else in the city.

In ‘British’ India the maidan proved durable, for all that its extent and purpose were quietly subverted for imperial display and colonial diversions, later available to provide essential release from urban tribulations such as desperate over-crowding and pollution. The critic and planner Gordon Cullen, writing in The Architectural Review in 1971, remarked how the Maidan in Calcutta provided a universal ‘window’ in that massive and already exploding city, its effect ‘to punch a hole right through and let people breath with the spirit as well as with the lungs’. It’s a vivid analogy.

The area of Råängen is adjacent to two major new focal points in the spillage of the city beyond the historic boundaries of Lund. Both are the latest world class outposts of the university. The Max IV Laboratory, a materials research centre  is already operational, while the European Spallation Source, a multi-disciplinary research facility, is due to open in the middle of this next decade. Grassy tram tracks currently divide the two extraordinarily advanced scientific hubs from the unassertive agricultural landscape of Skåne beyond them, where only a scattered handful of barns and farmhouses point to its continued function. Nearby, a Viking mound, apparently long forgotten and only recently excavated, tells of routes and of ritual but its precise significance cannot now be unravelled in relationship to the current developments. In simply practical terms, the farmland at Råängen is exceptionally fertile, and once the soil has been removed it becomes imperative that it is used in the best possible fashion. This process in itself adds meaning to the development, a kind of grounding of materials in the specific location.

Hage is a three-sided enclosure with 2.4 metre high walls made from recycled old bricks. The fourth side is left open and covered by a canopy, offering a strongly engineered framing device, through which the open landscape can be seen to best advantage.

Within the walls, the ground will be planted more as orchard than park, with trees introducing verticals into the horizontal natural landscape that lies beyond. Surfaces underfoot are gravel rather than grass (a glance towards the French enclosed garden of monastery or city). This high wall is not defensive, nor does it encircle the vulnerable. Beneath the portal, an open door to a shared place, is an immense table, some seven metres long, which is designed to symbolise the conjunction of the church with the wider and variously constituted society that will eventually form the wider population of Brunnshög.

The shared walled garden suggests the begijnhoven or almshouse tradition of the Catholic Low Countries – places of refuge for the elderly or sick which are the forerunners of the modern hospice movement, environments in which palliative care and outdoor space are intimately linked. But in Scandinavia, common ground within a settlement inevitably carries residual memories of village assemblies, the old Norse thing, or ding in German, ting in modern Scandinavian usage. Based upon the precedent of the open-air election of early medieaval monarchs, such ground in town or village was allocated to assemblies or even courts at a very local level. The democratic and customary resonance of a thing/ting stands at the opposite extreme from the maidan with its fluidity of purpose and extent. The ubiquitous Swedish open-air assemblies, the location to enact customary law and more recently, byelaws, have left innumerable physical traces to their presence in the form of stone mounds and other markings. That Nordic democratic forum for local decision-making, so deep rooted, has endured to this day, in procedures to distribute land along reclaimed coastal areas of western Finland, to adjudicate on farmers’ claims when facing the loss of farmland for road schemes in north Norway and even enduring in Orkney.3 In London from the early eighteenth century, parish churches, their crypts full to bursting, sought open space for burials beyond the boundaries of the capital. These in turn became so overcrowded that they were forced to close by the mid-nineteenth century. A few decades later these forgotten pockets of wilderness, punched into the desperately over-crowded city centre, were transformed by Victorian social reformers and municipal visionaries into what one activist, Octavia Hill, was to call ‘outdoor sitting rooms.’ Thoughtfully redesigned around mature London plane trees and interspersed with winding paths and seats, with no more than a handful of chest tombs and monuments as reminders of their original function, they became, and remain, prized breathing spaces in the claustrophobic urban fabric. To this day they remain legally church property while vested in local authorities and watched over by attentive local volunteer groups.

Coincidentally enough, Coram’s Fields, an ‘urban meadow’ in that same area of central London, would inspire Hage. The Fields occupy the site of Dr. Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, built in the early eighteenth century and demolished two hundred years later. It had been a large institution, caring for homeless infants and orphans, but had tempting development potential, due to the generosity of its setting, and eventually the hospital relocated. The protracted case of the Foundling Hospital site, argued from Parliament downwards, helped to give teeth to tougher national planning policies and challenged the long-held assumption that a replacement building must rise on a previously built-up site. Here nothing new was to be built; the gain, secured in 1936, was a seven-acre city centre public meadow. Vested inalienably in a charitable trust, it is for all, although only adults accompanied by a child can enter. With its delightful inversion of the norms, Coram’s Fields remains a remarkable testament to the social responsibility of interwar London politicians, close on the heels of their Victorian forbears, while it remains a unique example of regained public open space punched back into the all-enveloping urban fabric. As a model for his practice’s commission in Lund, Geir Brendeland could not have found somewhere with greater resonance.

The Cathedral in Lund is enveloped in greenery, its dense trees heavily populated with disconcerting rookeries. Out at Råängen the birds are more scarce and there are few trees. Somewhere in the distance that day I saw the ears of a hare over the reeds; as yet this remains their kind of place. Here, the earth is the single prevailing element, offering essential value to all of its accretions, its memory, its levels and depths.

The walls of Hage signal, and then mark out, the public nature of the project. It is to be an asset at the disposal of the local community and must take on the characteristics that they wish to give it. The Board is a highly unusual client and is committed to listening carefully to the wishes of those who will live there. Each phase of the development can, they intend, offer clues and pointers to what follows next. Christian Norberg-Schulz, the late Norwegian architectural historian and critic, wrote of the concept of place, implying an inside and an outside, ‘a larger context’ than merely of itself. Comparing perceptual space with existential space, he suggests that the latter serves as a ‘frame of reference for the transitory perceptions and turns them into experiences’.4Christian Norberg-Schultz, Meaning in Western Architecture. Studio Vista, 1975. Is it fanciful to think of Hage as becoming a ting – a place, a domain, in which people can apportion their needs and wants for their locality within an open-air forum?

Traces and memories of past use on the site can offer links to other habits, other experiences, other models. As Norberg-Schulz puts it, ‘concepts of character and spatial structures are brought together in the inclusive concept of genius loci’,5Ibid. pointing to predetermined meanings and cultural symbols. Yet the wall apart, there are no overt signposts, no landmarks within Råängen. Within the walls of Hage a version of a garden is emerging, a rereading of a village green or meeting place, somewhere for shared pleasures and, above all, a safe harbour for the social and political evolution of a new and growing settlement. With all that, the first permanent element of the new landscape at Råängen comes heavily freighted with high hopes. Much as Jonatan Habib Engqvist muses on the journey between the symbolic, as conveyed in Nathan Coley’s sculpture for Råängen,6Nathan Coley, And We Are Everywhere, 2018. Råängen, Lund. to the real, so I find myself, vice versa, pondering on the impending physical reality of Hage, the embodiment of an immense cargo, a host of potent symbols to be sensed, or grasped, as the case may be.