The Magra River a disputed landscape



River landscapes represent a complex space-time process, shaping the surrounding territory in different ways and, at the same time, the environment. The design in this chase is the representation of complex processes that characterize river landscapes. The large amount of data and maps that were previously drawn were disconnected one from another, and presented themselves as separate layers. For this reason, the research has focused on how this information could be kept together in one image, thus stimulating a new understanding of the territory. The representation and the data are combined giving rise to circular shapes, where the shape suggests a previously lacking 360° degree spatial vision. The circle containing the map becomes at the same time the container and interface where the latent relationships between territory and quantitative data are shown. The representation is therefore transformed and acquires the ability to communicate a new identity.


Landscape architecture plays a profound role in the reconstruction of the meaning and value of our modern cities and communities, on urban, regional and geographical level. Not only it generates natural and open space areas, but it represents an important invention of a project whose goal is to build the human spirit, develop the structuring of deep forms of being, experiences and shared values.

With this in mind, how can the river landscape be summarized in a drawing?

The problem of representing a landscape lies in the fact that it is very different from the architecture of a building. In fact, the word “landscape” carries the meaning of “perception”, and not just from a single point of view, but a 360° degree spatial vision. For this reason, through the word “landscape” we try to convey not just an image, but rather a moving landscape.

Not surprisingly, the European Landscape Convention states: “Landscape means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.”

So how can the river landscape be told through a unique design while describing the totality of the place? The representation and the data are combined giving rise to circular shapes, where the shape suggests a previously lacking 360° degree spatial vision. The large amount of maps that were previously drawn were disconnected one from another, and presented themselves as separate layers. For this reason, the research has focused on how this information could be kept together in one image, thus stimulating a new understanding of the territory. The circle containing the map becomes at the same time the container and interface where the latent relationships between territory and quantitative data are shown.

The research was conducted in a defined geographical area: the catchment area of the Magra river. This is a flood plain located between southern Liguria and northern Tuscany, location of a historically disputed territory between water and human presence. The survey choice of this location was determined by the present problems in terms of hydrogeological, landscape and perceptual instability.

Each river models the surrounding landscape in different ways and the same is true for the environment, which has an influence on the river: one conditioning the nature of the other. Precisely for the outlined multiple factors that determine its shape, there are few elements in nature like the river, whose ability to transform in both time and space and depending on the environment allows it to preserve its right to exist. The river landscapes are thus the expression of a complex spatial-temporal process.

For this reason it is necessary to start with a thorough analysis of the phenomena and of the features characterizing complex river landscapes. The chosen approach was to investigate the phenomena and systems in an interdisciplinary and comprehensive way. The analysis could not ignore that the perceptual quality of the landscape, and the ecological, structural and structuring elements are in a constant dynamic relationship between themselves.

It was therefore necessary to factor in the elements characterizing the landscape, in order to analyze its multiple points of view, both primary and secondary, and those purely scientific, engineering, and perceptual; after the analysis, reassemble the pieces and generate a new understanding of the territory.


Starting from this basis, the method applied is marginally based on the methodological prescriptive-technical theory, giving instead more room to perception and to the culture of imagination

In this analysis, the method divides the territory into several abstract “spatial layers”, describing them as individual and distinctive systems of landscape geography. The deconstruction is dictated by the choice of keywords that have characterized the “drift” in the basin of the Magra river.

From these premises, the territorial system, defined in this case from the social point of view, has given rise to three main areas:

The mythical dimension

The utopian dimension

The daily dimension

From this input were defined seven possible starting cues, seven routes which cross the materiality of the landscape in a spiritual way, and only at a later stage in a physical way:


is defined by the development of mental constructs, which affect the territory and its cyclical nature, conforming to the requirements of crossing. This type of process is imperceptible, since it invisibly plows the territory.


defines the necessary condition for grasping and assimilating the complexity of the landscape, manifesting itself through perceptive capacity. Therefore, by associating the human dimension to a territorial system, we can create and understand new forms of perception or simply reveal others that have remained latent.

The trail,

is read as a system of differences rather than as an image or an isolated presence. This marking element expresses a visual value, signaling the system to third parties as a public reading.

The shape,

characterizes our architectural and artistic ability, becoming the measurement unit for the landscape, generating new urban, territorial and geographical scans, mostly becoming an eidetic and generative activity rather than a simple method of analysis and reflection.


presents itself as the instrument through which the landscape is generated, resulting closely related to geography and topography, and presenting itself as a highly characteristic phenomenon. One can therefore understand how the landscape is formed by the set of spatial, cultural and natural pattern relationships.


generated through the new relationship established between space and form, connotes a new method of analysis, where the two elements appear to have two meanings, signs or weights of relative equivalence. This new link will be perceived in two different ways, by means of the “bi-perceptual significance”, which resides in the same object by generating an ambiguity between the background and the figure, and the “bi-conceptual value”, which is located in the relationship between the elements rather than the event itself.


describes in a unique way the geography of a given place, making it known to us through an accumulation of fragments, deviations and incidents, that settle their meaning, overlapping doses to what already exists. The geographic system, both territorial and urban, therefore cannot be reduced to a single point of view or frozen at a single moment, because a certain system features and repeats an infinite number of landscapes sometimes in individual form, some others simultaneously.


merges with the history of previous maps, giving the place a significance that exceeds that of the original function. It defines the place as the only possible milestone of the path that was previously started. This event, which is imperceptible to consciousness, gives the landscape a new mode of perception, transforming it from a physical presence in a spiritual one.

The “Synoptic Map of Hydrography”. Thanks to its circular shape, this map is able to highlight the complexity of the branching of the hydrologic system of the basin of the Magra river, thus describing all primary, secondary and tertiary tributaries. The comparison of the quantitative data concerning the width of the sub basins, the length and the average flow of the tributaries, with the drainage capacity of the “Landscape Units”, has highlighted the critical areas of the river.

The research thus relates the elaboration of “geographical synoptic maps, closely linked to spatial layers” defined by the “drift” understood as freedom of the vision enjoyed on the water level of the Magra river. “The action of going adrift” is defined in this case as the first approach to the exploration of the territory, where by means of the crossing partly casual and partly planned, people can discover the nature of the place.

“Drift”, manifests itself in the projection on the catchment area of seven “spatial layers” that, through their symbolic power, try to tell the spatial complexity of the catchment area of the Magra river.

The condition for developing this approach is accepting that the landscape is not frozen in a concluded moment in time and within a static frame, but on the contrary it is crossed by numerous imaginary, perceptual, spatial, and temporal layers that define sensorial and formal geometries.

“Spatial layers” materialize on the territory by turning “geographical synoptic maps” into circular shapes.

The data and “geographic synoptic maps” are crossed with the aim of making new information clear, such as the link between Land Use and Geology, the identification of the Landscape Units and studies concerning the link between Land Use and Soil Permeability.


The “Synoptic Map of Land Use”, results to be one of the more complex elements that descrive the river basin, not only because it lists all the usage of the land that defines the immediate proximity of the river, but also defines what happens outside of that area. In this way we can comprehend how the information merging inside this complex territory, defines the constant evolution of the morphological and the anthropological factors that affect the river itself.

The “Biogeocenosis” is the link established between the Land Use and its plant cover, describing the places in two respects, which inextricably links the anthropogenic component to the natural one. This overlapping therefore demonstrates how the drainage capacity of the soil varies due to its being dependent on what the ground bears on its surface. Drainage capacity constitutes a key element in the description of the hydrogeological, perceptual and landscape instability of the river system.

The “Synoptic Map of Sacred Streets, Churches and Hospitals” acts a link between past and present, thanks to its circular shape, this map is able to define how during time the pilgrimage defined and shaped the territory of the Magra river, generating not only new centers of religion but also consolidating the old ones. The external circle shows how this 3 Sacred Street pass thought the basin of the Magra river, combining themselves to the environment and landscape, describing the territory.

The 6 “Synoptic maps of the Landscape Units” were subsequently designed, allowing for an in-depth investigation of the landscape and morphological traits of the territory. These characteristics have configured the definition of the term “Landscape Unit” as “measuring unit” of a territory that features physical, biotic and anthropic homogenous traits. This characterization and analysis have been studied through the use of geographical sections, which have a constant size of 2,780.00 m.


Who influences you graphically?

We do not believe an architect has a consistent graphic style, we think that style should evolve in function of what the project wants to become. You have to follow the descriptive line of the story you want to represent without having the fear of falling from your style line.

We were gazing to have a graphic design similar to the one Field Operations has, but then after a close look we moved more and more over something we didn’t know and at this point the Synoptic Histogram. This type of representation is something in-between Peter Eisenman’s Synoptic Diagrams and James Corner’s Taking Mesure.

We were pursuing to build our own type of communicative diagram and we hope that we succeeded.

Could you talk us through your process of research?

What we tried to investigate was how the complex process of time-space has been able to build the surrounding Riverscape and how the hydrogeological instability could be solved. Starting from this point we tried to develop a method in order to investigate upon this elements.

This thoughts brought us towards the manifesto that we’ve written. A manifesto that doesn’t trie to give a linear method but from the other side gives you the possibility to proceed in different directions.

When we thought to our aim, we defined the process, that tool that allowed us to constantly connect to the territory that was constantly evolving. Whit-in this tool we put all our data and simultaneously we tried to allow it to proceed towards his own direction.

Nothing was casual but in the same time all the elements were free to move in our time-space manifesto.

What were your sources, how did you catalogue all the data to the map it as ‘one image’?

We had 2 types of sources, scientific ones and folk ones.

The scientific sources where mainly the Dock Authority and in a second wave the GIS of Toscana and Liguria. This two instruments gave us an enormous amount of data that we didn’t expect to achieve. This process took 2/3 months in order to select the data and the basic points of interest for every map.

The folk source was given us as tales of the people that we have meet, like the lady from Pastina, a town where the road ends and where you are going to find the best fried lamb ribs. This kind of data did not find a physical representations inside the maps but they’ve guided us towards our design thoughts

For the first time we thought about how people could live the Landscape – Riverscape in a exchanging bivalent relationship.

What was your work process?

We defined our work process from the starting point of our research, this consisted of 2 site inspections. This was a difficult choice to make, but it turned out to be very useful because we were encouraged to look at the Landscape – Riverscape – Environment with a careful and critical eye.

First of all we must say that we have tried to avoid reading informations regardless the areas where we had to work with, in order to avoid prejudices about what could have been done. This type of approach lasted until the first survey.

The first survey was taken in 4 days during the first week of May 2016.

This site inspection was for us ground 0 because we did not know anything about the territory we were trying to discover. During this survey we built a daily map where we drew and wrote where the photos were taken, where we walked, how many km we had traveled with the car and of course which cities we reached by car and on which by foot.

The second survey was made in 4 days during the last week of October.

The site inspection was a bit different because the Landscape was changing according to the season. During this round we tried to visit the same places that we discovered the first time, to see their state of evolution. We were surprised to see how the Landscape positions changed in such a short time, confirming a small part of our initial thesis.

After these 2 on-site inspections and the Big Data we acquired, we wondered what other secrets would have been left in our 1700 sq. Km area. The last point was to contact and meet the Dock Authority who was studying the Landscape – Riverscape of the river Magra.

What softwares did you use?

All the vector elements were built both in Rhino and AutoCAD, as per example all the topography of the Magra River Basin and the calculations for the water flows.

After this process we had a large use of Acrobat softwares in our workflow. As per example Photoshop – Illustrator – InDesign build the basic graphic tools that produced the images and simultaneously we used backup software like GIS that gave us the necessary informations on the geographic scale as layers.

In the meantime, in the process of creating our graphic layout, all the colors we chose were carefully processed by Kuller Color Wheel (a nice Adobe Suite plugin).

What were the greatest discoveries when combining all of the data together?

After combining all the data together we understood how the drainage capacity of the soil varies due to his reliance with the anthropic ground that is sustained on his surface. The drainage capacity is a key element in the description of the hydrogeological and perceptual instability of the Landscapes that is claimed by the river system.

The comprehension of the soils drainage capacity of the and the estimated surplus of rainwater was fundamental in understanding how “Landscape Units” evolved within the river catchment area.

The comparison in-between the estimated amount of data concerning the width of the sub basins, the length and the average flow of the tributaries, with the drainage capacity of the “Landscape Units”, highlighted the critical areas of the river. The last phase was the design process focused on these areas.

What were the biggest challenges when moving from research to design?

The biggest challenge was how we merged the analysis goals to the design phase. The analysis were aiming to define a new territorial vision of the Landscape – Riverscape. We have therefore aimed to redefine with our proposals a Third Landscape – Riverscape, where the natural evolution of the new alliance Humans – Nature could evolve into a stronger relationship within the rivers basin.

The challenge here was to investigate solutions that focused our attention on river Landscape – Riverscape perception from the river itself, from the city and from the surrounding nature. The goal was to  restore the perception of the river dynamics, establishing this way a new relationship between the inhabitants and the surrounding Landscape, making them conscious of the problems.

Therefore it was necessary to rethinking the margins between the anthropic Landscape and the natural one, not only considering the hydraulic engineering aspects but also allowing to the inhabitants to identify and understand natural and dynamics phenomena.

When looking back to the initial concept, how far/close is the outcome?

Looking back to the initial concept, we believe that the outcome is close to the aimed goal. In the beginning we had only a non specific concept because we didn’t know how the project would be like.

We wanted to leave the design proposals free and without prejudice, only later we started to imagine how it could become the Landscape – Riverscape.

This kind of approach was our fundamental rule that defined our entire process, study and most of all approach.

We don’t want to be caged in-between lines, we want to be free.

How important were the initial conceptual diagrams as reference points to go back to throughout the development of the project?

The initial Manifesto F defined the basic rules for the design process. The diagrams were the projections of the maps that we wanted to build, even if in the first time we didn’t know how and in what measure that could be possible.

We started from that rules, we investigated and in the end we tried not to break them. The maps that were developed from this process define a new way to read the Landscape – Riverscape. A place where the things that we sense are constantly evolving or merging to the environment giving us a new sight, a more sensitive and human one.

This concept thought lead us towards our project development. We didn’t had any doubt, we didn’t look behind, in other words we tried to indulge towards this evolutions.


Dumitru Alexandru Musteata was born in Romania and later settled down in Italy. He took his Master Degree in Architectural Design in 2016. Intellectually formed as an architect in Dublin, Rome, Madrid and Helsinki, where he has worked at ALA Architects. Currently he is working together EDGE Architects in Rome.

Francesca Di Benedetto took her Master Degree in Architectural Design in 2016 from the University of Roma Tre. She is working on architecture at multiple scales: landscape, little buildings and temporary architecture. After working at Nufactory and as a freelance architect, now she is carrying on her research at the University of Roma Tre.