By Michael R. Allen
Delivered in the Modern and Contemporary Landscape Architecture seminar at Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis; November 29, 2021.
Perhaps you also awoke on Friday to news that there was a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, medical experts were pondering its nature, nations were beginning to close their borders and markets were plunging.
Perhaps also you saw a connection to landscape architecture, or perhaps you attempted to spend at least a day or two this weekend to not have to think about landscape architecture at all.
If you saw a connection, could it have originated in the fact that the coronavirus and its inexorable transmission have become a perverse new internationalism, leaping protected borders, customs checks at airports and thwarting all jurisdictional attempts at controlling its spread?
The pandemic is major evidence that nature is not “out there,” but always “in here” – in our nations, our cities, our bodies. Since the start of 2020, the largest force in organizing public and shared spaces has been an invisible invader, not a breathtaking new design, nor a new theory about how to arrange space for a more harmonious society. No, we have either cowered at home with a screen as primary social contact, or become elated at the lifting of restrictions and the second jab of a vaccine.
The spread of omicron from small clusters in one part of the world through single cases elsewhere has us all guessing about what the world will be like tomorrow, or this Friday. And yet here we sit to discuss what landscape architecture has become, with some late notes on its trajectory from practitioner-theorists, one of your peers and, later, some local designers. In the face of the new variant, we seem to risk making a case that will be outmoded as soon as it is claimed.
Charles Waldheim declares landscape architecture to be “a medium uniquely suited to the open-endedness, indeterminacy and change demanded by contemporary urban conditions.” Subtract the word “urban,” and the general idea remains as clarion. Waldheim sees landscape architecture as a discipline that can free itself from the categorical imperatives to implement in certain ways. Indeed, his position of the practice establishes it as a way of knowing spatial conditions, because his version of landscape architecture inquires before it prescribes. In fact, Waldheim calls the field a “lens of representation” that thus not only aids in knowing, but produces knowledge because every representation is never a literal document. The representation is always a new point.
To Waldheim, the representational power of landscape architecture then constructs a medium, also landscape architecture, where interventions into the conditions represented can be strategized. Key to the new technics of the field is a rejection of postmodernism, which pushed us back to veins of nostalgia and stability. Postmodernism often cloaked blockages against indeterminacy, pathways to diversification of capitalist markets and a retrogressive assertion of a social order that has nature in a certain corner as play and expanded meaning. Landscape architecture’s expanded field only came through a synthesis of postmodernism’s rupture of binaries and landscape ecology’s attention to the power of natural systems.
Landscape urbanism disavows the reassuring centering of human cultural stability in favors of a wider ecological consciousness, an ethical empiricism, and a scale that tries to render the site, society and ecological habitat commensurate. Simultaneously, landscape ecology rejects completion and boundaries as desired traits. Time in space, space in time. Everything always changes. The designer brings few of the changes, maybe the most inconsequential. Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette and Corner’s Fresh Kills could be the emblems of a practice that stops seeking to produce either “the view” or “what” is in the view, but attempts to arrange the production of process and the effects of time.
We could now ask the question, what is the meaning of time in the face of climate change? And where are our esteemed theorist-practitioners when it comes to that?
We are living amid evidence of such rapid climate change that Pierre Bélanger’s claim that the future is slow and subtle seems ludicrous. The COP26 has been a demonstration of collective timidity among world leaders and capitalist concerns, so perhaps the world will fall asleep again long enough that your careers will occur in a framework where time regains a stability, so that financial and industrial systems are not upset. That proposition seems dubious, though, given how rapid these changes are becoming. A wide swath of scientists have proposed determining that the world has entered a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, so named because the primary driver of planetary change is coming from humans.
The observation of the scientists has two edges, one an opportunity. If humans are the main drivers of planetary changes, and most of these have become undesirable for the future of inhabitation of the planet, perhaps the recognition of the immense power of our species can inspire corrective action.
Perhaps landscape architecture, as a representational lens, will help identify what needs to be corrected. And perhaps further, it can identify how.
Bélanger offers some provocations that help us channel some of the potential that we humans possess:
Waste is natural, inevitable.
Globalization is irreversible.
Urban systems are actually regional.
Sprawl is inevitable.
Ecology is constructed, by us.
Furthermore, every site of disaster that we have wrought on the face of this planet, from Lovel Canal to Chernobyl, “may appear exceptional, but they are not unique.”
The things that we endeavor to avoid, correct, remediate or overcome are things that may well be perpetual. Thus we must learn to swim time when we learn to swim space, because there is no single landscape design action commensurate with nature’s forces to change climates or our own propensities to destroy or overreach. The actions must be chained together, and must endure past the duration of a single project or a single career of practice.
Here there is no revelation, no epiphany, but only a recognition. What we call landscape architecture is a series of interventions joined mostly in intention, but diverging across time in method and outcome. Landscape architecture is not a fixed practice. Calling it a field of practice in fact is an ideological pronouncement, but perhaps a useful one. If landscape architecture is a practice that represents differences beyond political, economic and architectural systems of representation, it offers much that can help redirect the energies that may harm the world.
In fact, in the very vastness of the parameters of representation that landscape architecture can direct, it may deliver us out of intractable divisions in other spheres of social practice. Geographer Edward Soja, writes that “[r]ecognizing the multiple forces that shape the social production of urban space leads away from the creation of monolithic and narrowly-channeled social movements and toward more crosscutting coalition building.” Justice requires honoring diversity, but diversity is a static thing in and of itself. Solidarity is where transformation begins.
The landscape architect Kofi Boone, in his essay “Black Landscapes Matter,” offers a key principle of an anti-racist landscape architecture: practice must enable the value of being seen. Landscape architecture can be a practice of such seeing, and furthermore a practice of teaching publics to also learn such seeing.
As we live in a world where our systems seem blind to people’s needs, the impacts of viruses and the future of the planet, indeed seeing is a radical act. The way in which we define perception loads our value. We sometimes see what we want to see, or what we think has value. What we don’t see is often as important or more important than what we see. And we only see what we look at.
Karl Kullmann posits that landscape architects condition “landscape-things,” and that these are gatherings or assemblages of variable elements. Some of these can appear on plans, sections and planting programs. Others, like weather, water, viruses and animal behaviors, are implicitly structured through propositions. Ultimately, the landscape architect cannot compel, but try to direct and then, most importantly, try to observe and then redesign. Kullmann asks each of you to be the “mapper within the map,” waiting and watching. You are inside of your designs, never apart. At best you choreograph.
We are here to end a historicized survey of landscape architecture since 1850 with the promise of advanced ways of practice. I remind everyone that the pandemic is a challenge to any of the ideas that present themselves in vogue. No design idea has had as much biopolitical power as COVID 19. And reading articles about how design will change due to the pandemic won’t yield anything stirring or stronger than a quick gimmick. If we value ecologically-rich and socially-complex lives, we can’t spend the near term focusing on devising ways to stay isolated, protect the affluent from the effects of the pandemic, or keep profits feeding an economic system that today has created a vaccination gap so wide it has allowed COVID 19 to mutate.
However we define landscape architecture, it holds a common tenet that shared natural spaces are a social good. It also holds that designers should find ways to observe and learn from disruptions in systems, and then correspondingly endeavor to redirect those disruptions to achieve ends that benefit planetary health – health that needs to be measure across interdependent metrics. People say that history is the dismal science because it forces confrontations with bleak facts. Perhaps landscape architecture can be the optimistic science, because it can transform the dismal into the thriving.
We have spent weeks reviewing ideas of what constitutes landscape architecture. As you now know, there is no standard definition.
No matter what anyone will tell you – and they will. Remember, there are more dead strips of grass alongside Wal-Mart parking lots than innovative post-industrial greenways. More mansion lawns consuming chemicals than green spaces filtering and sorting stormwater. More landfills than well-funded, well-designed public parks. While all of this is landscape architecture, and perhaps a survey of the field that omits that fact is misleading, none of this is what we want it to be.
A landscape architect that simply reproduces dominant structures of power has ceded the definition of the practice to people who have no investment in the definition, who just want a commodity produced that flattens both space and time into dead sentences instead of exciting questions.
All of you who endeavor to practice landscape architecture will get to define it, not once, but every day of your work. All of what we have studied this semester is just an arsenal of possibly useful ideas, methods and perspectives. The specific places in which you practice will be just as useful. So will the times in which you find yourself. As veterans of a global pandemic and landscape architects, you should be exceptionally well-suited for the planetary challenges ahead.