The New Humboldt Institute of Ecology and Plant Genetics


Behind the hill, into the wild, the title of our studio course at AHO Oslo, linked the landscapes of the cold high-altitude Andes and the Norwegian mountains, that have been described with superlatives as dramatic geography, extreme beauty, abundance of water resources and ecosystems that respond to altitudinal variations. Colombia, the country that has one of the richest ecosystem in South America, proposes us the idea to delocalize the ,,lnstituto de lnvestigaci6n de Recursos Biol6gicos Alexander von Humboldt” in Bogota, into the heart of one of the richest ecosystems, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt and Le Douanier Rousseau, both influental proponents of art and science, who in 1800 brought nature, science and imagination together, we created two platforms in very contrasted sites, that are establishing new microclimates: The dense jungle with its five different layers; and the param6, a tropical ecosystem situated above the continuous tree line that could be compared to some landscapes in Norway.

The overall architecture of the space either floats lightly and transparent in between the trees of the jungle, or thicken to merge with the ground to create enclosures in the param6. Both platforms create a new light atmosphere, a new microclimate, and impact on the temperature and humidity of the two sites, to anticipate and prevent it from global warming.

Researchers in both platforms work directly with artists. Together, in the manner of Joan Foncubertas artwork Fauna, they create new plants under the roofs in different laboratories, to let them grow in an enclosed garden in order to establish a new scenery. It’s a futuristic view into Colom bias ecosystem, that might loose it’s diversity due to climate change.

Our project proposes to preserve and conserve a part of Colom bias diverse ecosystem that just recently became accessible for foreigners, a landscape that is in constant and growing pressure from extraction practices, torn by civil war, but on the other hand theses landscapes also present the extreme beauty of some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems of the world. With the two platforms that we created, we hope to open Colom bias landscape to the public, the education and the arts.


Who influences you graphically?

The process we went through during this project really lays between art and science. We have been fascinated at the same time by German scientist Alexander von Humboldt and his scientific journals, Essay on the Geography of plants that dates back to 1799 when the explorer first started his expedition to the Andes, and French painter Le Douanier Rousseau. Both were influential proponents of art and science in the 1800s and brought nature, science and imagination together. Before being inspired graphically by those two figures, that is really the whole process we have been learning from them : the first one bringing the plants of the New World to Europe, the second one doing the opposite by depicting tropical landscapes from Paris. Art was seen here as a scientific process, more than just a final product. We could also quote Joan Fontcuberta whose artistic work Fauna, a catalogue of non-existing plants and animals, directly influenced us on a speculative and scientific approach. That is why we looked a lot into the work of Jun’ya Ishigami, Office KGDVS, DOGMA, Fabio Alessandro Fusco, but also Andrea Branzi, Fumihiko Maki and his investigations in Collective Form. The purity and the simplicity of their pictural work and the forwardness of their architectural ideas influenced the way we positioned ourself as explorers – working at the same time as architects, scientists and artists.

What is you take on color? what defined the absence/presence of this within your drawings?

Our scientific approach made us generate a collection of transparencies (from digital pictures taken in the north of Norway to clichés from the wilderness of Colombia). Those different transparencies served as tools to categorize, isolate, capture and eventually decontextualize landscape elements observed during trips to various landscapes. As modern day explorers, we did not just take random shots with divergent interests and motives but, as the landscapes visited were already charted and massively photographed, the images we produced were attempting to create differentiation by isolating specific elements of the landscape perhaps not so obvious to passing tourists.

The color here works as another layer, documenting and revealing subtle phenomena, natural elements and expose them with obsessive seriality. In certain of our drawings the absence of it can be defined as a retranscription of landscapes that would already be massively known by a larger public although it is a mental construction from our imagination. With a very scientific approach, we chose to use a monochrome palette by adding just certain tones of color in order to draw attention to important details. Moreover we got inspired by Humboldt’s journals which focus on the context and the botanical details of the landscapes he encountered. He drew a lot of sketches that are mainly on stokes, hatching and lines and are mostly uncolored. This gave us the inspiration to focus on line drawings, by being very accurate on plants description, as botanists.

How important was the map as a means to explore and draw the territory? What si your take on this human construct and the notion of ‘the map is not the territory’?

Colombian territory just recently became accessible for foreigners. Landscapes that are in constant and growing pressure from extraction practices, torn by war and in some cases extreme scarcity, on the other hand also present the extreme beauty of some of the most biodiverse ecosystems of the world.

Mapping was at first our main mean to explore this unknown territory. It helped us define how we wanted to position ourselves towards the questions of ecology and global warming in the world : when overlaying a map of scientific institutions in the world with one of the biodiversity, nothing coincides. In parallel we studied and went carefully through the text from 1939 of « The Cabot expedition to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia » by trying to map it at the same time. It gave us a new idea of what conservation means by constructing a different imagery of the tropics. Here the map was more a human construction with a precise point of view rather than a global representation of a larger territory. This process helped us interact with alpine environments and to speculate inaccessible landscapes first through mapping, and then through imaging and imagination.

What was your work process in terms of research, translation of research and project? What mediums did you use? how important was the drawing as process medium?

Our work process could be called « landscape speculation ». We first entered in the project by exploring photographic images from analogical field trips as a way to approach an alpine design site which was inaccessible : The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia. Alpine landscapes of the Norwegian Scandes were seen as a compressed model of the Colombian Andes. Our method included landscape photography, figure ground editing, image collaging, study of light through physical models.

In parallel, we created a visual atlas of narratives, histories and relationship between North / South depictions of mountainous landscapes. We focused our research on artists, explorers, geographers, cartographers and photographers who explored the regions of the North and the South. We especially studied the work of Alexander von Humboldt whose scientific expeditions to Central and South America with botanist Aimé Bonpland set the course for the great scientific surveys of the Nineteenth century and inspired such artists as Goethe, Rousseau and Church.

We were exclusively drawing on transparent paper. The drawings we produced consisted as real physical tools which we used as objects : we overlayed them, cut them, transformed and manipulated them in every way we could. We called them transparencies and played with them on a horizontal light box from the start to the end of the project : it was our main mean of experimentation. The light box completely changed our way to interact with our produced work: superposition, extraction, addition, contrasting was part of the production process, as a scientific experimentation, a continuous method of research more than just a final method of representation. Drawings really served us as tools to categorize, isolate, capture and decontextualize landscape elements. In each one we tried to reveal and explore the multitude of layers and transparencies which constitute our project by mixing different methods : edited pictures, 3d models, computer drawings, hand drawings, perspectives, axonometries.

All we used in our collages were our own photographs from Norway and Colombia, from excursions to the Norwegian west coast and later to the South American Andes, in Colombia. We occupied space and positioned ourselves in the landscape as a way to evaluate color temperature and atmospheric conditions reflected by golden capes. For representing landscape in a futuristic way, we edited our pictures by color-ranging them. We left blank spaces for situations of uncertainty or avoid to show too much context that gives away scale. In this way real landscapes disappeared and we reconstructed topography. By keeping a high degree of abstraction, our collages should be capable to describe an unvisited landscape, and by extension the collages became landscapes on their own terms.

With this project we wanted to develop new images of an accessible tropical landscape. It should be a preserved place where artists and scientists could develop new species that could live with the upcoming climate change.

To what extent did LCLA’s unique language of representation effect the way you choose to graphically reveal and explore the project?

LCLA’s unique language of representation was for us a first source of inspiration. Their sensitive and minimal drawings reveal perfectly the spatial and architectural qualities of their various projects. From them, we learnt to be very subjective in our own work, by stressing some aspects and by hiding or lightening other implemented elements of the project. It is a very poetic process which is placing the observer as a part of the project, using his own imagination and speculation to render a new reality.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when developing the project?

Approaching a site without visiting it was for us, architect students, at first, the biggest challenge. Depicting an unknown landscape through paintings, narrative stories, expedition trails was truly interesting but at the same time a bit destabilizing to legitimize our intervention as architects in this preserved and yet untouched territory. We then, later in the project process, turned it around to make it the asset of our work.

Another challenge we encountered was about the program : we identified four main zones of vegetation in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and our scientific institute was going to decontextualize the very traditional Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute located in Bogota into the heart of the dense ecosystem of the costal mountain. We drew different platforms that would be placed in the landscape. In the beginning we developed four stations from the sea to the glacier of the mountain. We thought of preserving species and displace them to different levels. In the end we decided to go with two platforms that are placed in the main vegetation zones: jungle and páramo.

How has this project influenced your further studies and the shaping of you as architects?

First, graphically, it made us obsessive with the simplicity and the sensitivity of our produced work.The medium of photography opened us a new way of seeing images as a tool to work with in our project. A drawing can be way more than just a nice image to look at but a real projection of our position as architects of the twenty-first century, working in regions of difficulty, mapping, contemplating and being in interaction from a distance. This project revealed that the process behind it, is the heart of our work, before the final result. As architects we can come up with a constructed methodology that could be used for any other project and reveal different specificities of a site, a city, a landscape. We ask ourself to what extend we have to draw and to interfere in the production of space : do we have to set strong principles and intentions at the territorial scale and let the inhabitant appropriate themselves the local scale (bottom up) or do we interfere systematically (top down) ? For us, architecture has a capacity of transformation, it is alive and it is not something that is rigid and motionless, that is why the process takes and will take a major importance in our further productions. This project also introduced both of us to landscape architecture and gave us a real understanding of what the architecture of nature and more specifically of the vegetation is and how it can be used. This is something we will always have in mind when working on other architectural, design or urban projects.


Lara Nixdort is a german student of architecture, currently studying at HCU Hamburg, Laura Brase, a French student of architecture, currently studying at ESNAPB Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Paris-Bel leviIle. The project was done at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Norway, course: Behind the hill into the wild – Luis Callejas