'Architect of Landscape' Georges Descombes Awarded Prix Meret Oppenheim

John Hill
9. April 2021
Georges Descombes (Photo © Karla Hiraldo Voleau, BAK)

Genevese architect/landscape architect Georges Descombes is one of three recipients of the Swiss Grand Award for Art / Prix Meret Oppenheim for 2021, alongside curator Esther Eppstein and artist Vivian Suter.

Georges Descombes, born in 1939 in Geneva, is described as an "architect of landscape" in today's announcement from the Federal Office of Culture (FOC). The annual awards are given to "individuals in the fields of art, art education and architecture whose work is particularly topical and relevant to Swiss artistic and architectural production." Descombes, Eppstein, and Suter were selected in late 2020 by the Federal Art Commission and will be given the prizes at a ceremony on September 20, 2021, if the situation with the pandemic allows it, coinciding with an exhibition on the prizewinners at Messe Basel.

Georges Descombes (Photo © Karla Hiraldo Voleau, BAK)

According to the announcement, Descombes had formative years with Pier Luigi Nervi and Marc-Joseph Saugey overlapping with his schooling in Geneva, Zurich, and London. He returned to Geneva in 1975, when he started teaching and set up CREX (Centre de Réalisation Expérimentale) at what was then the École d’Architecture de Genève. In addition to serving as a professor of architecture at the University of Geneva, now emeritus, he has taught at the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the University of Virginia in the United States.

Georges Descombes (Photo © Karla Hiraldo Voleau, BAK)

Notable early projects designed by Descombes include: Parc de Sauvy (1980–86) in Lancy, a suburb of Geneva; the Swiss Way, a section of a larger pathway circling Lake Lucerne, a project that marked the 700th anniversary of the Confederation of Switzerland in 1991; and the Bijlmer Monument (1994–1998) in Amsterdam, designed with Herman Hertzberger. Since the turn of the century, his most important work has been the renaturing of River Aire, a canalized landscape (photo above) in the canton of Geneva. Portions of the project were completed in 2015 with Atelier Descombes Rampini, the planning and landscape firm of Julien Descombes, Georges's son, and Marco Rampini.

"Memory" and "recovery" are important terms in the oeuvre of Descombes, who looks for traces of the past and reveals them through a minimum of means. That general approach is most evident in the Swiss Way, in which he designed "something that was already there," in his words, and the River Aire, where lozenge-shaped channels clearly look manmade (video above) but are being transformed by nature into meandering watercourses. The prize announcement calls the latter project "a manifesto of landscape and the 'urbanism of revelation.'" Furthermore, "it prompted a reflection on nature in all its violence and artificiality, at once dominated and dominant, but also on its relationship to humankind, which is both responsible for, and victim of, the Anthropocene."

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