Designing buildings and landscape solutions in a national park or protected landscape area is specific in many ways. The manager of the protected area is part of the process and requires compliance with rules above and beyond the usual framework. The aim is to protect the valuable landscape and nature from adverse impacts. We have approached several architects who have experience with this type of work in different parts of Bohemia and Moravia, and asked them a few questions. From their point of view, compliance with such rules can be beneficial in some cases, while it may harm the landscape in others. All depends on how enlightened the stakeholders are, including the nature conservation agencies and the individual officials, as well as the estate owners and the designers. Some architects see these rules as bothersome, impractical and useless limitations, while others accept them and take them as a challenge. We have included building design in this last part of the landscape architecture series, because this topic is as relevant for architects as it is for landscape architects – or even more so.
Views expressed in the article:
Architects sometimes complain about complications when designing buildings in protected landscape areas or national parks. What is your experience?
Štěpánka Endrle: Of course, nature conservation is limiting, but there is an emphasis on the environmental aspect in our projects anyway, even without the official rules. Landscape architecture should not be about decorating, but about creating a multi-layered whole that respects a specific place. We have an environmentalist on the team for most of our projects.
Kamil Mrva: Our studio has been working on projects in the Beskydy Protected Landscape Area for over twenty years. At the beginning, it was difficult to get approval for contemporary buildings in a protected landscape. Even today, we have to discuss and defend each of our projects. Unfortunately, some officials lack the necessary expertise and a certain maturity, as well as the aesthetic sensitivity to see harmony between new buildings or landscape solutions and the landscape. Sometimes these “fights” are unnecessarily tough.
Pavel Plánička: Our experience confirms this – designing buildings in a protected landscape area tends to be complicated. The Nature and Landscape Conservation Agency of the Central Bohemian Highlands, which is the area where most of our projects are, takes a rigid approach to newly designed buildings, relying on a set of simplifying rules. In particular, they prescribe a specific roof pitch, roofing colour and window shape. The opinion of the protected landscape area manager is an essential part of the zoning procedure. A negative opinion cannot be appealed separately. This is only possible within the building permit procedure, when the building authority interrupts the procedure on the basis of a negative opinion on the project. But this is a very lengthy process with an uncertain result. Most estate owners don’t even consider it because it is time-consuming and uneconomical. Which, in my opinion, creates an asymmetry of power between the estate owner-citizen and the public administration. Supposedly, this asymmetrical system aims to protect the “character of the landscape” or the “locally customary character” – terms frequently used in opinions. But in practice, this restrictive system often fails. The landscape then suffers damage, even in a protected landscape area – or worse, under the supervision of conservationists. Blanket application of simplifying rules does not automatically lead to quality. Even the most horrible houses in urban-sprawl suburbs can meet the roof pitch and roofing colour criteria. Protected landscape area managers are not able to prevent obvious building excesses, while they fight against small details that could enrich the landscape, or at least do no harm to it. And that is only because they do not meet the rigid rules which, in addition, are often interpreted quite arbitrarily by individual officials. In our experience, when it comes to the built environment, this institution’s ability to distinguish the essential from the unessential, and the good from the bad, is quite poor.
Tomáš Klanc: In my experience, the requirements of protected landscape area managers are generally reasonable and easily met. Personally, I can imagine buildings in those areas that would be much more progressive than those that get protected landscape area managers’ approval, but in principle I understand the practice and I agree with it. It is important to have a level playing field, and for officials to be educated, understand trends and act as partners to estate owners and architects, not as police officers. The situation has been improving recently, which is due to the arrival of a new generation of officials, among other things.
Vojtěch Rýzner: Designing a project in a protected area is always a bit more complicated because there are more regulations or restrictions to work with. When we were designing an educational trail around the Olšina pond in the Třeboňsko Protected Landscape Area, we worked with an area under several different levels of protection. Most importantly, Olšina is a Natura 2000 protected bird area, so the trail had to avoid nesting sites but, at the same time, had to be designed in such a way as to provide bird watching opportunities. The site also has very specific water conditions, and we had to be very careful not to interfere with them, which impacted the choice of structural elements for the trail, for example. The construction methods and the use of machinery were also discussed. In general, it is about taking an approach to the site that will not disrupt its natural functions and character.
In what ways are architects limited by the rules applicable to protected areas? Do you understand the reasons for such restrictions, and do you agree with them? Or do you think something should be changed?
Štěpánka Endrle: In landscaping, the restrictions mostly apply to the choice of species, which is limited to those that are indigenous or locally customary, without a tendency to grow wild. In protected areas, this restriction makes sense, although the origin of some plants, especially woody plants, is sometimes questionable. The plant business is globalised, and finding plants from local sources is very difficult, if not impossible. In a more general sense, I think the emphasis on the use of indigenous species, such as trees, is sometimes disproportionate. In cities, for example, the conditions are often very extreme and it is necessary to choose species that can cope with such conditions. You cannot use an invasive species, of course, but domestic origin is, in my opinion, a secondary criterion. But naturally, even in an urban environment, local specificity must be taken into account, and plants and other materials should be selected accordingly.
Vojtěch Rýzner: Rules are usually limiting because, to a certain extent, they define the form or function of a building. But they can also be seen as a challenge and lead to atypical, unique solutions. In the case of buildings, the rules mostly regulate the shape, the materials used, and possibly the colour scheme, so that the character of a settlement or larger unit is not disturbed. For landscape architecture, similar principles apply. Plants or materials should not be used that do not culturally belong in the area or would have an unfavourable effect on the local ecosystem.
Kamil Mrva: It is important to define the rules for new buildings and building modifications in a protected landscape area in the right way. On the one hand, it is possible to build houses in the garish style of the new rich, with colourful façades and plastic windows – these buildings have red roofs of the right pitch – or industrial halls and petrol stations with flat roofs. On the other hand, the rules do not allow for a contemporary family house with a low-pitch, green roof and large windows, open to the landscape. For example, a house based on Sokrates’ two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old principle cannot be built in a protected landscape area. Since I started designing projects in the landscape, I have been asking myself: “Do we want low-energy, cost-efficient houses, designed with a feeling for the landscape by authorised architects? Or do we want multi-coloured catalogue houses in our landscape?
Pavel Plánička: The reasons why these rules exist are mistrust and fear. Distrust – unfortunately justified – in the actions of humans in the landscape and in the world in general. The problem is that the restrictive system of protection that we use so massively does not help. It only complicates the building process for the estate owners, and the landscape is still degraded – or, in exceptional cases, the landscape thrives even without the status of a protected landscape area.
Tomáš Klanc: A good architect can cope with this. And you can see it clearly in real life. We can say that modern architecture is slowly asserting itself in protected landscape areas, and something we could call a typical contemporary house for a protected landscape area is starting to take shape. It is a building with a simple mass and a gable roof without too much overhang, often covered with dark grey metal sheets. If there is a dormer in the roof, it is nicely located and does not have an eccentric shape. The house is clad with wood or stone, or the insulation layer is covered with plaster in earthy shades, without any colour eccentricities. The window frames are dark grey, made of wood or aluminium; often the windows are frameless. There is usually one large window in the living room and, if you are lucky, there is a corner window. If this large window is not in the gable, the protected landscape area manager usually has no problem with one large French window. The other windows are of a regular size, but all the more thoughtfully placed, with the same height of the lintel, and are often joined into larger units using connecting spacers in the same colour as the window frames. The requirement to have a gable roof is reasonable in a protected landscape area, as most of these areas are mountainous or hilly. You can also find some smart ways around it, because a building is considered to have a gable roof if there is a gable roof on most of the building. In other words, 49.9 % of the house can have a different type of roof, including a flat one. If, in addition, it is a green roof with a smooth transition to the surrounding terrain, because buildings in protected landscape areas are often situated on slopes, you can achieve a very interesting composition of building masses.
In your experience, are the rules and approaches different in different protected areas? And if so, is this good?
Pavel Plánička: Approaches vary significantly, even within individual areas and agencies that are responsible for them. All depends on individual people, their abilities and good will. This is certainly not good, because for estate owners and designers, it further increases the risk that their projects will be evaluated in an unpredictable, random and arbitrary manner.
Tomáš Klanc: In terms of the key parameters, the requirements are similar in different protected landscape areas. But some regional variability is logical, after all. A traditional log house in Moravia is different from a log house in the Jizera Mountains or in the Bohemian Switzerland. It is a shame that modern imitations of traditional log buildings do not take these regional differences into account; they all look pretty much the same. You can easily find a newly built Moravian-type log house in the Jizera Mountains, and vice versa.
Štěpánka Endrle: The rules are probably not that different, but the approaches to finding solutions definitely are. We greatly appreciate it when we can discuss the individual limits and share our experience.
Vojtěch Rýzner: While enjoying the same type or level of protection, different areas may have different contexts and specificities. Then it is understandable that approaches vary. The way the rules are interpreted may also play a role, and this is ultimately up to the official who assesses the project. Our Olšina project was atypical due to its scale. It is seven and a half kilometres of trail through different types of terrain, so there was a lot of negotiating.
Kamil Mrva: So far, we have designed projects in the Beskydy and Poodří protected landscape areas. I am not sure if the rules are different for other protected landscape areas. Our studio drafted a manual for the Pustevny – Radhošť area, creating aesthetic guidelines for the Beskydy protected area’s prominent peak.
Do you think it is easier, in a protected landscape area, to get approval for a landscape project than for a house?
Kamil Mrva: Yes, from our experience it is certainly more difficult to get approval for the construction of a house in a protected landscape area than a garden or a trail.
Pavel Plánička: I think both can be equally easy or difficult. It depends on the place and the person in charge.
Tomáš Klanc: I don’t think there is a big difference. If there is a difference, the main reason, in my opinion, is that a house is typically built by a private investor on their own land, and nobody else, apart from the protected landscape area manager, has a say in the project. In contrast, landscape projects, such as cycling trails, cross many land plots with many owners. Such projects are usually debated publicly and, quite logically, it is more difficult to have something approved in such a situation. Getting approval for such a project without the support of the municipality or a large local investor is virtually impossible. But a lot of landscaping projects, especially small structures, can be introduces slowly, step by step, even in a somewhat “punk” manner. Examples include footbridges, various shelters and lookout towers designed by well-known architects or students of architecture. We know now that such structures attract visitors and benefit the whole region. Such a structure can even become the defining element for a place that was previously unknown.
Vojtěch Rýzner: It may be the case; perhaps it depends on the situation. Landscape architecture may reflect some higher public interest, while a house may be seen as a smaller intervention in a protected area than a landscape project. When we discussed our educational trail project, there was an interesting debate on whether it is appropriate to bring visitors into such an unspoiled area and risk disturbing the local ecosystem. This was partly reflected in the project. For example, there are no rest areas or places along the trail that would encourage visitors to stay longer. So the area has been opened to people, but only for short visits.
Are there any new trends in landscape architecture, and architecture in general, that could be used with success for buildings in protected areas or, possibly, are already in use? As examples, green roofs, vertical gardens or rainwater management come to mind. Or possibly some new materials or building elements?
Štěpánka Endrle: In my opinion, new trends are not in conflict with nature conservation, but are primarily intended for urban environments.
Tomáš Klanc: I have already partially answered the question. As for green roofs, water management and other energy-saving approaches, this is an obvious response to the current situation – the need to cope with global temperature change. We need to realise that investors in such projects are generally well educated, and thanks to their good architects, they understand architecture in a broader context. They are aware of the fact that we have borrowed the planet from our children, and they approach environmental issues with humility. The only problem I see is that it is not possible to use standard black photovoltaic panels – which is good. But we are starting to see first examples of photovoltaic systems concealed in roof tiles or in corrugated roofing, which provide the function but, at the same time, cannot be seen.
Vojtěch Rýzner: Today, architecture is faced with the concepts of sustainability and environmental friendliness on a daily basis. This also applies to construction projects and interventions outside protected areas. I also count among modern approaches, for example, the return to some old architecture and building principles which took into account, understood and used various natural factors. The Plasy monastery is a great example, where Santini used simple laws of nature to build a system that would be very difficult to build with the use of current technologies. Such approaches can generally be more helpful than new technologies or materials.
Kamil Mrva: We always take the history and traditional materials of the given region as our starting point. We adhere to my mentor, Karel Prager’s motto: “The place determines the story”. We like to use materials in their natural form: wood, stone, brick, glass and architectural concrete – and not only in the landscape.
Pavel Plánička: The landscape, along with human settlements, was formed long before we started trying to protect it. In the past, humans behaved in a pragmatic way, but they probably realised, much more than we do now, that they absolutely needed the landscape and were part of it. And, of course, they also had much weaker tools to destroy the environment. Pragmatism, a limited choice of available materials and technologies and, perhaps, a better awareness created environments and landscapes that we now perceive as harmonious and would like to follow up on, or at least maintain. Unfortunately, we can’t. The expanded range of material and technology options, the availability of everything, the lack of sensitivity and non-superficial goals make it impossible for us to follow up on the development of many centuries. And it is not in the power of protected landscape area managers or any other conservationists to compensate for this handicap of ours. We have little choice but to do our best. And this is clearly happening.
Speaking about design projects in protected areas, is there anything else you would like to add?
Tomáš Klanc: I wanted to say that good examples can impact the whole region. Malá Úpa in the Giant Mountains is a typical example. At first, there were two nice cottages designed by well-known architects – like two Cinderellas. Then a number of property owners in the area got inspired by them, and many other new buildings have been built in a similar contemporary style.
Kamil Mrva: I would like to mention simplicity, tidiness and, above all, maintenance. Sometimes it is enough to clean and tidy up, and to rediscover the work of our ancestors. I am now travelling in North America, and it is incredible to see how people here treat nature, how they take care of gardens, parks and their surroundings.
Text: Filip Grygera for ARCHITECT+ magazine 37