A Fair Field And No Favor

Belat­ed word that I have anoth­er book review in Land­scape Archi­tec­ture Mag­a­zine from way back in May. Avi­gail Sachs’ Envi­ron­men­tal Design takes on the unen­vi­able task of chart­ing a strain of prac­tice with­out much glam­or or romance to it; in this case, the push for unit­ing the exist­ing design dis­ci­plines togeth­er into the holis­tic and all-encom­pass­ing envi­ron­men­tal design of the title. That this push ends up fiz­zling gives Sachs’ account a tone that stands apart from her con­tem­po­raries. For con­tem­po­rary archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry, in large­ly align­ing itself with a his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy, some­how takes on the char­ac­ter of Wal­ter Ben­jam­in’s angel, agog at the trail of engi­neered destruc­tion pil­ing up before it. The sto­ry of the evil demi­urges of Impe­ri­al­ism, Racism, and Cap­i­tal­ism, car­ry­ing out their ruinous work through the tech­ni­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion and moral idio­cy of design­ers great and small, has a cer­tain grim sub­lime to it; it also has the hap­py effect of scape­goat­ing any who would con­tin­ue on in the same vein.

The odd twin of this sto­ry is that of the fail­ures of those who actu­al­ly share much of the val­ues, cri­tiques, and meth­ods of today’s bien-pen­sant left. To exam­ine the doc­u­ments of the late 1960s, where Sachs reach­es her cli­max, is to be shocked all over again at how we have recurred to the same spot, and to be dis­mayed that more peo­ple aren’t point­ing out the resem­blance: the moment of lapse where inclu­sion falls back to tokenism, rad­i­cal­ism back to good vibes, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design to stock appease­ment. Sachs book is, in its way, stronger for not rest­ing on con­dem­na­tion, maybe because it lets you do the con­demn­ing for your­self. But it does seem to make her miss the irony of my favorite part of the book, these sketch­es by Ver­non DeMars, which can now appear as the exact reverse of what DeMars intend­ed, a great work of destruc­tion con­cealed as a great work of peace.

living as is
"living as is"
living as it should be
"living as it should be"

(November 2019)