Rein-Cano: Breaking Down Borders

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Martin Rein-Cano personifies the zeitgeist of contemporary Europe. His design philosophy is open to all the influences of old and new culture and embraces all the shifting realities of a post-modernist world. He has a Latin temperament; a passionate social conscience, razor-sharp wit and a unique Germanic take on the 18th century English Garden. As founder of Topotek 1 Berlin, he lived up to his prodigious reputation at the recent Landscape Australia Conference in Melbourne where this year’s theme, Art and Nature: Conflict and Harmony in the Landscape, provided the ideal stage for this master of landscape design.

Freunde-von-Freunden-Martin-Rein-CanoHe led his audience on a humorous and kaleidoscopic tour of cultural elements and stylistic influences from the Romanticism of the English Garden to the hyper-realism of film in which Brokeback Mountain is airbrushed into the film Brokeback Mountain to the absurd statue of ‘Rocky’ that graces the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the global impact of social media, making his case for the urban garden as a space for a constantly changing cultural translation.

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SUK_Image by Iwan Baan_27Paradoxically, he was at pains to firmly root his landscape design principles in the ideals of the 18th century Romantic English Garden defined by its break with classicism and its untamed quality. He is technically inspired by its manicured hills, lakes and trees sculptured into the terrain. He is captivated by its picturesque follies – castles, grottoes, Gothic ruins, exotic Chinese Bridges and Turkish pavilions – mazes and meandering paths that “break down borders” and enable the viewer to constantly experience new perspectives.

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Rein-Cano’s 2012 design for the urban park Superkilen in Copenhagen (a collaboration with BIG Architects and artist’s collective Superflex) draws on all the idiosyncrasies of the English Garden. Foreign and exotic elements are imported to transform the space into a powerful realization of 21st century urban multiculturalism. His follies – icons and brands – become agents of social activism. They articulate and celebrate what he describes as the “big issues” – “migration, dysfunction, hybridization, identity and connectivity.” This is surely an example of art and nature: conflict and harmony in action.

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SUK_Image by Jens Lindhe_01Broken into three zones over 2.7 hectares – the Red Square, Black Market and Green Park form the framework for diverse activities and elements. Danish trees blend with imported Palm trees and distinct cultural objects and icons are sourced from residents and imported from their former homelands including Qatar, Russia, Jamaica, Spain, China, Israel, Poland, Ireland, Palestine and Asia.

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A Thai boxing ring brings hostilities and street fights out into the open and shifts the aggression into open-air fitness.

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The Burka transforms into a giant octopus slide for children, chess tables for gaming and BBQ’s for cooking bring people together and mix aromas.

Martin_Rein_Cano_1A bus stop sign from Jordan stands aside a bus shelter from Kazakhstan and earth is brought in from Palestine. Symbols and icons of the past are proudly translated, a ‘contextualised’ mix of the old with the new cosmopolitan culture.

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Superkilen-0043The success of this design lies in Rein-Cano’s determination to engage all sixty nationalities in the troubled neighbourhood, to consult with residents and explore and encompass their identities. Like Martha Schwartz (with whom Rein Cano worked at the outset of his career) he achieves what she calls the social “buy in’ and he uses his power as a designer to create “a connective platform for the city’s environmental, social and economic health.”

In contrast, the task set by UNESCO to recreate the footprint of the lost Lorsch Benedictine Abbey that closed in 1557 inspires the Topotek 1 team to invoke the past and create a presence from austere nothingness.

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Once the site of a scriptorium for the production of medieval manuscripts and despite only remnants of the abbey surviving the centuries, UNESCO declared it a world heritage site in 1991.

The project did not allow for excavations in order to keep the past and the layers of time in tact. Rather than reproducing a physical past Rein-Cano devises a minimalist strategy to link the ancient past with the present through the more subtle language of landscape. He extracts and delineates by sculpting raised edges and slopes along archaeological indicators to suggest what once was. Stone pathways and protruding stonewalls lead the eye through an architectural ground-plan that was once church and cloisters, now a set of topographical gestures. Potent architectonic forms partly emerging and partly buried beneath the ground stimulate the imagination.

Martin_Rein_Cano_3Surrounded by a gently undulating expanse of open space and lush green landscape the visitor captures the historical significance and experiences a strong sense of place and time through a quiet, poetic understatement. An extremely challenging heritage project, it achieves the seemingly impossible. As a masterpiece of exquisite sensitivity, it is not surprising that it was awarded First Prize in Germany’s 2015 Landscape Architecture Awards.

Martin_Rein_Cano_4On a less sacred note, Rein-Cano took his comic playfulness to a level of pure fantasy in true Alice-in-Wonderland ‘down the hole’ fashion at the 2011 Xi’an Garden Show in China.

Martin_Rein_Cano_10Entitled ‘The Big Dig’, the concept for the installation derives from the childhood adage that if you dig and dig and dig… you will eventually reach China. Fanciful and sentimental in western culture, it is a highly irreverent concept to take to China. What the Chinese audience made of it is anyone’s guess. That seems to make it even funnier.

Martin_Rein_Cano_11Constructed as a ‘real fake’, it consists of a deep hole covered in fake grass from which Western music emanates “from the other side of the world”! It is surrounded by a glass wall “ to prevent the Chinese visitors from falling into accidental international travel” and alludes to the “fine line between reality and fiction”. It’s an insight into the bold irreverence of Martin Rein-Cano and an example of his creative and comic genius. It also, he claims “proves that the earth is round!”



Jo Moulton from JOMO Steel is compiling a profile collection of leading sculptors and designers for the architectural, interior and landscape design market. Jo’s interest in sculpture and design stems from her past work in leading Australian museums and art galleries. She has her own design practice specialising in exterior design.

Images credit to Hanns Joosten, Iwan Baan and Matthias Weingärtner.