“Needless to say inhabitants of this area are living in an ongoing nightmare threatened by the possibility to suddenly sink into the ground.”
Faust: So, still I seek the force, the reason governing life’s flow, and not just its external show.
Mephistopheles: The governing force? The reason? Some things cannot be known; they are beyond your reach even when shown.
Faust: Why should that be so?
Mephistopheles: They lie outside the boundaries that words can address; and man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.
Faust: What? Do you mean that words are greater yet than man?
Mephistopheles: Indeed they are.
Faust: Then what of longing? Or affection, pain and grief? I can’t describe these, yet I know they are in my breast. What are they?
Mephistopheles: Without substance, as mist is.
Faust: In that case man is only air as well!
“Perhaps we can assume that compared to form, materiality is embroidered with appearance, texture, tactility, acoustics, and all other types of senses. That’s why it generates deeper and broader spiritual interaction with landscape.”
—an anonymous student
CTRL-H: “value-less miasma”¹
“In three different manuscripts Louis himself dictated how people should view the Versailles gardens: he told them to turn left or right, where to pause and ‘consider’ (‘there a pause will be made in order to consider the ramps‘).”
—John Dixon Hunt, “The Role of Movement in Garden Reception”
Not much has changed for our discipline since the sixteen-eighties save that these days “ramps” might be more likely to refer to special onions~
“[The role of the landscape architect] is to build an expanse that can hold what is divided.”
—an anonymous student
The great irony of the discipline is that although our practice is preoccupied with space, our product is pure time. Even the sportswriter-philosopher Graham Harman manged to observe that “a landscape is like a wormhole linking different times. . . . The fossils are themselves the landscape.” When we plant trees, pour concrete, embed stones, and erect mounds, we are burying the fossils that Anthropocene society will use to order its universe. Why, then, do we waste this transcendent power on gazebos and putting greens that will all be underwater before we’re even dead? If we love fishes so much that we’re designing dog parks and jogging trails for them, why do we kill three trillion every year?
“. . .for, as philosopher Erazim Kohák writes: ‘If there is no God, then everything is not a creation, lovingly created and endowed with purpose and value by its creator. It can only be a cosmic accident, dead matter propelled by blind force, ordered by efficient causality. In such a context, a moral subject, living his life in terms of value and purpose, would indeed be an anomaly.’ [. . .] It is within the space of this anonymous dialectic that further discussion of ecology and creativity as active agents in the unfolding of evolutionary time must lie, and from within which more critical and active practices of landscape architecture may emerge.”
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
What can explain the ability of James Corner—way back in 1997—to look unflinchingly into the void at the core of existence and pluck from it a thrilling dialectic—to achieve what so [so!] few have done and transform, rigorously, a metaphysics into an ethics of building without resorting to bullshit or childish wordplay like most [almost all] architects? That is, what power does Corner have over Kierkegaard?
Maybe we’ve been getting climate nihilism backwards; is anthropogenic mass extinction actually the first reasonable argument—ever—for meaning in human life?
Maybe it’s simply the difference between people who grew up in a world where nature made them happy instead of sad (everyone born before 1975, let’s say). Holocene refugees.
Or maybe this just explains why some people become celebrity designers (in this light it is unsurprising that “Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity” passes as “Introduction to Nietzsche for Design Students”).
We have not yet fully appreciated the consequences of unleashing a busy discipline—that which is called “landscape architecture”—across the surface of the Earth without much more than a gesture toward its role or responsibilities.
The website of the American Society of Landscape Architects starts its helpful “What Does A Landscape Architect Do” page with the sentence “Landscape architecture combines art and science,” then links to “What Is Landscape Architeture [sic] PDF,” which begins, “Landscape architecture translates as the design of almost anything under the sky.” (One wonders about “almost.”) A third document on the same website—also titled “What is landscape architecture?”—is mostly about quantifying the “contribution” of “landscape architecture services” to the “U.S. economy.”
This is likely why in the current moment of cathartic and long-repressed reform most of the energy seems focused on the two questions of “who are allowed to be landscape architects?” (mostly white people) and “who is landscape architecture for?” (mostly white people). Less attention is being paid to the third question: “what does landscape architecture do?”—that is, the question of the consequences of landscape architecture.
Of course, much of landscape architecture’s professional identity rests precisely in the belief that we understand consequences: if I build a path here, then people will go there; if I install this soil, then that plant will grow; if I add such program, then property values will increase by so much. These are surficial questions with knowable-seeming answers.
It is harder to believe that one knows the answer to causal questions such as “if I train 26,000 landscape architects without first determining the bounds of the profession and give them authority to interfere in public space, what will they do?” Here are three potential consequences that stand to be further examined:
1. The consequences of how we understand our projects; or, the consequences of scale.
E.g., “If we sort and subdivide causes and effects based on their physical size—i.e., scale—such as is typically the first step in the ‘design process,’ then which hierarchies, singularities, and unidirectional causal arrows are we perpetuating?”
2. The consequences of how we communicate our capacities; or, the consequences of teaching.
E.g., “If teaching is how we expand our capacity to act in the world, then what agencies are we forgoing, or excluding, by limiting this communication to formal, one-way, monocasual classroom relationships?”
3. The consequences of what landscape architecture means; or, the consequences of landscapes.
E.g., “If landscape architecture is the practice of embedding cultural meaning into the physical environment, then what cultures are we creating by focusing exclusively on bourgeois recreation and ecological services?”
“I truly had not realized that Harlem had so many stores until I saw them all smashed open; the first time the word wealth ever entered my mind in relationship to Harlem was when I saw it scattered in the streets. But one’s first, incongruous impression of plenty was countered immediately by an impression of waste. None of this was doing anybody any good. It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores.
It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need. Most of the time it is the members of the ghetto who smash each other, and themselves. But as long as the ghetto walls are standing there will always come a moment when these outlets do not work.”
—James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
Since Olmsted the project of landscape architecture has been to predict, sublimate, and repress intense emotion (paysage ou révolution). The landscape solution to the “intolerable” rage of the oppressed and desperate is generally to provide more-or-less accessible spaces for programmed salutary bourgeois recreation. To wit:
“The situation in Harlem had grown bad enough for clergymen, policemen, educators, politicians, and social workers [ed—in 2020, “designers” surely have a seat at this table] to assert in one breath that there was no ‘crime wave’ and to offer, in the very next breath, suggestions as to how to combat it. These suggestions always seemed to involve playgrounds, despite the fact that racial skirmishes were occurring in the playgrounds, too.”
Landscape architecture should always be on the side of the chronic need to smash, not the side of the improving urge to repress emotion. It is a discipline of death, decay, chaos, and disruption; and it is the only design field that engages the body, fully, in space and in rugged contact with the material world.
“It is unlikely that anyone acquainted with Harlem seriously assumes that the presence of one playground more or less has any profound effect upon the psychology of the citizens there. And yet it is better to have the playground; it is better than nothing; and it will, at least, make life somewhat easier for parents who will then know that their children are not in as much danger as being run down in the streets.”
—James Baldwin, “The Harlem Ghetto”
Is landscape architecture anything more than the question of whether to add one playground more or less?