gravity and grass

As humanity enters a period of intimate engagement with death, and as landscape architects and planners reach for the mantle of green saviors, it is more important than ever that we remember the fundamental dialectic at the core of landscape architecture: between black and green, between death and growth.[1]

Adolf Loos wrote that the primordial act of architecture is the silent burial mound in the woods; but of course, this intervention is simply cut-and-fill—that is, it is strictly speaking an act of landscape architecture. It is likely that humans have been planting bodies for far longer than we have been planting seeds; even before Homo sapiens, older humans were caching their loved ones in the earth, first in caves, then in graves.[2] A 14,000-year-old Levantine graveyard saw humans buried with fresh flowers and fragrant herbs; the black-green dialectic has old roots.[3]

Killing remains at the heart of landscape architecture, though today we may be guilty of trying to hide it. Jacqueline Rose pointed out this ambiguity in analyzing the writing of Elena Ferrante: “It is, Ferrante explains, the deep-rooted mistake of every city to lay claim to be a city of love without labyrinths.” This is why Ferrante’s idol was Medea, the mother who murdered her own child. If we weren’t killers, then we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs; we’d just go hiking on the weekends like all the other nature-lovers. Instead, we destroy: we uproot, poison, girdle and burn, oil eggs and eradicate “invasives”; we stroll through nurseries picking winners and losers like Schutzhaftlagerführers or slave auctioneers. And we lament the bleeding-heart public who object to shooting deer and poisoning cats; our claim to expertise rests on this dialectical awareness that growing requires killing.

The landscape architect who most directly embraced this dialectic was Robert Smithson, who heaped scorn upon the “wishy-washy transcendentalism” that tempts us into admiring the meadow without appreciating the violence of the windstorm (or the steam shovel) that necessarily preceded it.[4] Of course, Smithson practiced what he preached by dying young in a fiery explosion. So too did Andrew Jackson Downing; and similarly Charles Eliot, though his inflammation worked from the inside out. How much consideration should we give to the violent early demises of these most revolutionary landscape theorists—especially at a moment when our discipline seems stagnant, firmly in the grasp of old ideas and even older designers? What is the ideal lifespan for a landscape architect?

Following the annihilation of Pompeii by an earthquake in 62 CE, Seneca asked: “What can ever seem safe enough, if the very earth is violently shaken and its most stable segments start sliding around? What refuge will our bodies escape to when anxious, if our fear springs from the inmost regions and is drawn up from the depths?”[5] The ground beneath humanity’s feet has never been less stable. After Nietzsche proclaimed God’s demise, he asked, desperately: “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”[6] Scarcely a century later, we’ve surpassed that murder—for the idea of nature is far older than the idea of God. Consequently, our festivals of atonement must be all the more profound. As humanity prepares to mourn the paradisal Holocene, landscape architects—the original undertakers—must lead the burial procession.

 

 

[1] That bleakest mystic, Simone Weil, identified the embodiment of this dialectic in plants themselves, which are rooted in the mundane darkness of the Earth but feed on the celestial spirit of the Sun. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, New York: Putnam, 1952.

[2] Paul Pettitt, “When Burial Begins,” British Archaeology, 66 (August 2002).

[3] Dani Nadel et al., “Floral lining from burials at Raqefet Cave,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 29 (July 2013), 11774–11778.

[4] Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” Artforum, vol. 11, no. 6 (1973).

[5] Seneca, Naturales quaestiones, Book VI: On earthquakes, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974.

Energy landscapes

“According to residents, there were landslides in 2018 and 2020 on the solar panel-covered slopes.

‘My rice paddies were buried in sand and mud,’ a local 62-year-old farmer told the Mainichi Shimbun. ‘Things like this didn’t used to happen.’ Another farmer said, ‘Sand and mud have come flowing down and muddied the waters, and I’m worried about how it’ll affect rice cultivation.’ Boars, possibly having lost their natural habitats, have also come down the mountains.”

does landscape architecture aspire to technological relevance, at all?

Design students are technically skilled and primed for critical discourse—even students in MLA programs, despite what their departments might think! And yet landscape education, critique, and design seems to be content to allow a division of creative labor whereby the most self-avowedly “speculative” practitioners limit their engagement with new technology to the (end-user/consumer-level)  realm of “representation”; while any technology with the potential to generate authentically new design solutions and landscape interventions is left to a small group of peri-designer sediment and fluvial dynamics enthusiasts. That is, “speculative” design is reduced to nothing more than graphic novel production, while the only acceptable role for actual innovative technology is the efficient tracking of mud. (In a recent taxonomy of the state of landscape discourse, Richard Weller introduces some protagonists of a “digital natures” subdiscipline, then notes, almost incidentally, that “all of [them] are modelling fluvial landscapes.”)

This discourse in landscape education is bound to produce designers expert in imagining and drawing futuristic settings but lacking the skill or technical capacity to participate materially in the design of those futures. Bradley Cantrell has referred to a “historical division” between “toolmaker” and “tool users”; this is clearly not simply a historical division, unless we limit our view only to the so-called sediment bros. A more robust speculative design discourse must introduce speculation not only as a narrative trope but also at the level of technology, design methodology, and theory. Speculative design lacking in any of these three will remain aspirational, aimless, or misguided; it would be a shame for the only really currently widespread discourse in the landscape schools with even a slight interest in engaging anything more than the most immediately prosaic and bourgeois social concerns to remain in its current state of, more or less, developer-funded neoliberalism graphic fan-fiction. And yet here we seem to be. . .

There is no reason that innovative technology should be limited to elective seminars, grant-funded research laboratories, or the individual projects of specific faculty, while speculation in design studios should be limited to the illustration of critical narratives using traditional representational tools. An authentically speculative landscape architecture can trust itself to be stranger, more creative, and more disciplinarily assertive—to participate in shaping strange Anthropocene futures instead of just drawing them. But this requires that designers (really, students) take up the tools of futurity instead of just making photocollages of them.

imagine

“As proof, we cite the hilarity induced by imagining landscape architectural connections to Eminem, Britney Spears, Steven [sic] King, Steven Spielberg, Julia Roberts, John Williams. . . imagine any current, well-known landscape architect (Martha Schwartz or Laurie Olin, perhaps) having the desire, connections, and wherewithal to host a prime-time TV show”

 

Birds

“When becoming familiar with animals, we are in the same situation as Husserl’s bird that can fly off to another planet. The bird, reminds Merleau-Ponty, ‘does not have a double ground’ but ‘from the sole fact that it is the same bird, it unites the two planets into a single ground.’”

—Christiane Bailey, “Kinds of life: On the phenomenological basis of the distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ animals”

“Could Heidegger‘s analysis have been any different had he adopted a dog?”