unexamined consequences of landscape architecture

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?”

 

 

through a wilderness of smashed plate glass

“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?

how should we know the one power we never look in the face?

“We exhaust all our forces, which ought to face death boldly, in distracting our will from it. We deliver death into the dim hands of instinct, and we grant it not one hour of our intelligence. Is it surprising that the idea of death, which should be the most perfect and the most luminous, remains the flimsiest of our ideas and the only one that is backward?

How should we know the one power we never look in the face? To fathom its abysses we wait until the most enfeebled, the most disordered moments of our life arrive.”

—Maurice Maeterlinck, Death

Consider reading  “we” as “landscape architects”; and further consider, as examples of “disordered moments,” such existential crises as the climate apocalypse, the fight for Black lives, and the ruinous pandemic. Is our field relevant to anyone outside it?

pessimism

“Critics have often mistaken a depiction of the world for a choice about our future, as if philosophers had rejoiced at the decline or decay that they described. But this is like deriding scientists who warn of global warming because their models give apocalyptic predictions. . . . this assumption says more about the critics than about their targets. Who is it, exactly, that cannot bear a story unless guaranteed a happy ending?”

—Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Why are we afraid to make our clients sad? (It’s because we are also afraid to be sad ourselves.)

a class of objects within which violent events of unknown nature occur from time to time

“When one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth.

Or alternatively, it may seem as distant as the interstellar events referred to by scientists who speak to us mysteriously of not yet detectable intergalactic screams or of ‘very distant Seyfert galaxies, a class of objects within which violent events of unknown nature occur from time to time.’”

—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain

Pain cuts in both directions for landscape architects. We are tasked with masking the scars of violence done to the land itself (masking violence is the project of the Picturesque); but we are also uniquely capable of (and responsible for) shaping the land in such a way as to draw out hidden pain (ecological, historical), making it legible to others. The second task is far more important, but we are much better at the first.