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Henri Bava, landscape architect and designer of harmonious urban spaces

09.01.2020
Henri Bava

Henri Bava remodels urban landscapes from Los Angeles to Shanghai, Geneva and Casablanca. He draws on the city’s history to bring back a sense of harmony to the spaces he designs, restoring the connection between neighborhoods and the people in them.

“I lived in an orange grove facing the sea in Cape Bon, on the tip of Tunisia, until I was seven.That’s almost certainly what made me want to do this as a career.” As landscape architect Henri Bava’s memories come to the surface, it’s clear where his passion for his profession started. “As a child, I thought it was just a huge garden, but my grandfather explained that it was a production space, and that each natural element had a specific function. I realized I liked that idea,” confides the 62-year-old Parisian in his rich voice.

A global benchmark

He caught the bug early, and never shook it off. After obtaining his degree in plant biology in Paris, he then graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage in Versailles in 1984. Two years later, he founded Agence Ter alongside two partners. The agency is now a global benchmark in landscaping, with some 50 employees and offices in Karlsruhe, Detroit, Shanghai and Barcelona. Nobody could have imagined it would be such a resounding success. “When we created the agency, our profession was little known and not really recognized.We had to get our architect friends to include us in their projects,” recalls Bava, a former president of the French Landscape Federation and an elected member of the Berlin Academy of Arts since 2006.

Landscape architects as the cornerstone of urban redevelopment

But growing awareness of environmental issues and a collective desire for wellbeing, leisure time and feeling closer to nature turned the picture upside down. “Urban projects nowadays are all about mobility, homes and architecture…and landscape architects are often called on to lead a multidisciplinary team.Rather than taking a construction-focused approach to urban development, cities want the landscape to take center stage,” explains Bava.

The designer is involved in city redevelopment programs that he heads up from A to Z. “Colleagues have even told me that it’s the decade of the landscape architect!” says Bava, who teaches occasionally at Harvard University’s landscape department.

“I deal with mobility every day”

“Now that water has become an important feature again, and with more weight placed on reclaiming public space for pedestrians and creating more bike and walking paths, I deal with mobility every day, although I’m not a specialist.” In his landscapes, Henri Bava looks to restore logic and create a coherent, harmonious whole, all while conserving the city’s history and identity. “Building a vision for the future often means looking backward and understanding how a space became what it is today.Often, you notice that a city lost its way at some point, that its urban personality fractured, and that its infrastructure expanded, piled up, without logic or limit.Why was a certain road put in a certain place, for example?Or why did this feature, which was supposed to bring people closer together, end up pushing them apart? Our biggest challenge is finding a natural logic and continuity to restore a city’s identity,” explains Bava, who founded the agency that won the Grand Prix de l’Urbanisme in 2018.

Uniting spaces

In Barcelona, for example, Agence Ter is currently remodeling the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes. The highway bridge that crossed it has been removed and is being replaced with a canopy acting as a sort of ecological garden over the square. “The part that’s already complete has been drawing people in.Residents of the neighborhoods around the interchange now have a space that brings them together and unites them, rather than separating them.And we didn’t have to cut off road traffic to achieve that,” notes Bava. Mobility was also a key factor for the Ring highway around Antwerp. The city’s residents demanded that it be covered up. So, alongside the Antwerp authorities, Henri Bava set to work to design spaces crossing over the ring road – parks, bridges for cyclists, etc. – that would make it feel less like a barrier between the city center and the outskirts.

“The perfect city is a dangerous idea”

With his dozens of projects all over the world, Henri Bava takes on each undertaking to model the cities of tomorrow with the same enthusiasm. But that doesn’t mean he dreams of creating the perfect city. “My approach is the complete opposite of that. I think it’s a dangerous idea.I’d rather understand the space’s past and how it became what it is and adapt to that, its history and its characteristics, to redevelop it as well as I can.Old maps and even postcards can inspire us, for example.Landscape architects have to play the long game.”

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