The man who thinks big

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The point cloud model developed by Christophe Girot and his team makes the GotthThe point cloud model developed by Christophe Girot and his team makes the Gotthard rail tunnel uniquely tangible and visible. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Professur Girot)
Christophe Girot brought landscape architecture into the digital world and taught a generation of architects how to think on a larger scale. After more than 20 years as an ETH Professor, he is now retiring.

Nature is always culture

Christophe Girot grew up near London’s Richmond Park. The woods, trails and meadows in the southwest of the city are like a second home to him. At the age of eleven, he moved with his family to Versailles - and what awaited him there could hardly have been more different: out went the tamed wilderness of English gardens, in came the absolutist austerity of the Palace Gardens of Versailles.

At a young age, Girot was impressed by the sheer variety in approaches to designing landscapes. The contrasting impressions he gathered in Paris and London made him aware that every culture perceives and relates to nature in its own way. "To humans, nature is always culture," he would later write.

Beyond the garden fence

In the early 1980s, Girot attended the University of California, Berkeley, to study for a double Master’s degree in architecture and landscape architecture. From that time on, he understood how these two disciplines are unwaveringly intertwined: "Back then, there was hardly any dialogue between the two. Landscape planning was focused on conserving nature and heritage, while architecture was seeing the dawn of postmodernism and architects were adopting a formal language that distanced them ever more radically from the environment," he recalls.

For Girot, it was clear even then that the two disciplines belonged together, like two sides of the same coin. "As soon as humans settle down and build a fixed roof over their heads, they must also shape the environment by planting fields, clearing forests and tending meadows. Even today, landscape architecture begins by reaching beyond the garden fence," Girot says.

Designing Berlin’s Invalidenpark

After ten years in the United States, Girot returned to Versailles in 1990 to take up the Professorship of Landscape Architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure de Paysage. Girot was also active as a practitioner during this period through his studio, "Phusis", designing parks in Paris and some smaller French towns.

In 1992, Girot’s design for Berlin’s Invalidenpark proved to be his greatest landscape architecture success up to that point, for which he was later awarded the Fritz Schumacher Prize. The fact that the Germans had commissioned a Frenchman to redesign this symbolic site on the border between East and West Berlin was considered a sensation at the time.

What made Girot’s design particularly striking was its large pool of water into which a granite wall appears to be sinking. "The park created a place for people to meet in a city that had been reunified for only a few years, and at the same time it reminds us of the Berlin Wall, which stood nearby," he explains.

Strengthening landscape architecture

When Girot came to ETH Zurich in 1999 as a visiting professor after the untimely death of ETH Professor Dieter Kienast, landscape architecture was considered rather a marginal activity in the Department of Architecture. This was soon to change: step by step, Girot managed to embed the discipline more firmly in the department.

He convinced his colleagues to teach landscape architecture also as a design studio, rather than just as an elective. "Since 2005, architecture students have been able to devote an entire semester to landscape designs. That was a quantum leap," he says looking back.

’One in every four or five streets in Zurich will have to be turned into a green space ten years from now, otherwise things will be uncomfortable.’

Christophe Girot

In the same year, ETH Zurich created a second Professorship of Landscape Architecture, with Günther Vogt filling the position. Together with Vogt, Girot founded the Institute of Landscape Architecture. From then on, the two men consistently advocated what Girot had already recognised while a student in the United States: that architecture and landscape architecture belong together.

In 2020, this constant upward revaluation of landscape thinking at ETH Zurich finally culminated in the introduction of a dedicated Master’s programme in Landscape Architecture - the first at a Swiss university.

3.7 million cubic metres of excavated earth

The move to ETH Zurich was also a turning point for Girot’s career as a practitioner: from then on, he devoted not only his research but also his projects to larger scales. In addition to several urban development projects, among them the design for a new university campus in Zurich, this change in perspective is particularly evident in the "Alp Transit Project".

From 2003 to 2020, Girot was concerned with what should happen to the 3.7 million cubic metres of excavated material resulting from the construction of the Gotthard rail tunnel. His design envisaged placing the excavated material in terraces at the foot of Monte Ceneri and planting it with greenery. Over the more than 15 years of construction activity, this is how a barren slag heap was gradually transformed into a green recreation area.

Moving mountains digitally

For the "Alp Transit Project", Girot wanted to better understand the topography of Monte Ceneri and calculate the volume of material to be excavated. To this end, he opted for the first time to practise a method whose potential for visualising landscapes he had recognised early on: point cloud modelling. "Whereas in the past we used to design primarily using plans and pictures, today we can represent entire city districts or mountain valleys in three dimensions and then edit them on the screen," Girot explains.

By integrating this technology into his courses and research projects, Girot has played a significant part in ushering landscape architecture into the digital world. His efforts to establish the technology have also repeatedly involved entering into collaborations with researchers from other disciplines. One example is the Laboratory for Landscape Visualisation and Modelling, which he founded together with ETH Professor Adrienne Grêt-Regamey in 2009.

Topologically inspired design

But Girot is also a passionate landscape theorist. Together with his professorship colleagues, he coined the term "topology" in a pamphlet published in 2012.

By topology, the authors mean a holistic view of space that gives earnest consideration to local conditions such as the soil, vegetation, weather, but also the behaviour of people at the site. "Topologically inspired design perceives places in terms of their uniqueness and is oriented toward people’s well-being," Girot explains.

This vision of landscape architecture seems modest and sensitive: it doesn’t aspire to interventions that generate maximum attention. Rather, landscape architects should design thoughtfully, taking into account what is already there and thinking over as long a term as possible.

Resilience through good landscape architecture

For Girot, landscape architecture is more important now than ever before: "The landscapes we design today not only have to withstand the more extreme weather conditions of the future. They must also help us to cope with the inevitable warming of the Earth," he says.

This is particularly relevant in cities, where temperatures above 40 degrees will be much more common in future. What this means for Girot in concrete terms is that our urban spaces need much more vegetation to cool them: "One in every four or five streets in Zurich will have to be turned into a green space ten years from now, otherwise things will be uncomfortable. Urban planning is increasingly becoming landscape planning," he says. In keeping with his vision, it seems landscape architecture and architecture are now two sides of the same coin after all.
Christoph Elhardt