Are People Design Materials?

In Keller Fountain.
The author in Halprin's Keller Fountain.

The inter­est­ing thing about what we in land­scape do is that we design with liv­ing mate­ri­als. In this way, as the Hal­prins rec­og­nized, we share impor­tant things with chore­og­ra­phy and with the­ater. Unlike the per­form­ing arts, the life we design with lives slow­ly, moves min­i­mal­ly, and com­mu­ni­cates only half-intentionally.

Of course, to lis­ten to the Hal­prins, the land­scape design­er is design­ing with peo­ple as well; the with” here osten­si­bly mean­ing a process of tak­ing part.” Anna Halprin’s prac­tice sets the tone here; if her name is the one to which cred­it has accrued, it has accrued in part in recog­ni­tion of her sur­ren­der, or rather divi­sion, of author­ship. Ali­son Hirsch See her arti­cle in Land­scape Jour­nalFacil­i­ta­tion and/​or Manip­u­la­tion?” has cast doubt on how this was car­ried into in Lawrence Halprin’s work; she sug­gests the ways in which con­sent from work­shop par­tic­i­pants was cul­ti­vat­ed (or pre­tend­ed), and rou­tine­ly made to reflect the Hal­prin fir­m’s pref­er­ences. So much for the process of design­ing; what about what had always remained in ques­tion, any­way – the cul­ti­va­tion of par­tic­u­lar behav­ior in vis­i­tors? Pre­scribed move­ment on side­walks and street cross­ings, or slides and swings, is suf­fi­cient­ly gen­er­al to be treat­ed as a social com­pact, ema­nat­ing from every­where and nowhere. Any­thing beyond this, when exam­ined in detail, seems a form of hyp­no­tism, or worse, mag­ic – capri­cious­ly mold­ing behav­ior through mold­ing space. Who wants to be made to dance?

My inter­est in liv­ing muse­ums stems from this prob­lem. For a liv­ing muse­um, as it is pre­sent­ed, is depen­dent on pro­gram­ming peo­ple sta­tioned at the site for inter­ac­tion with both their sur­round­ings and those who vis­it them. They are made to seem as though they spring from these sur­round­ings; they are sub­or­di­nat­ed to the envi­ron­ment, rather than the reverse. In most sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions – a front desk, a ser­vice counter – we assume a dual con­scious­ness of the per­son in front of us, who is both a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a larg­er enti­ty and irre­ducibly a per­son with a sep­a­rate life. Denizens of the liv­ing muse­um share with actors Stephen Eddy Snow’s Per­form­ing the Pil­grims makes clear that many reen­ac­tors do not think of them­selves as actors. a desire to dimin­ish the per­cep­tion of their own selves below this cus­tom­ary halfway point; but then, these reen­ac­tors are not con­tained with­in the mag­ic vol­ume beyond the prosce­ni­um arch. They are the will­ing ser­vants of the environment.

A Plimoth reenactor.
A reenactor in Plimoth Plantation.

The anx­i­ety around liv­ing muse­ums and sim­i­lar enter­pris­es can like­ly be par­tial­ly attrib­uted to this – that the prac­tice of act­ing has strayed out of its space, and will infect us as well. This may either sim­ply rep­re­sent one form of per­va­sive top-down creep from cor­po­rate bod­ies – the gen­er­al mold­ing of speech, action, ges­ture, and thought, the liv­ing muse­um being a par­tic­u­lar­ly per­verse end­point – or, even worse, serve as its own direct con­ta­gion, as reen­act­ment prompts a coun­ter­feit­ing of authen­tic inter­ac­tion, and as a more dis­tant result con­di­tions respons­es of acqui­es­cence to unac­cept­able conditions. 

Do we design with peo­ple as our mate­ri­als? I would sus­pect: not as much as we would like to and more than we would care to admit. The exis­tence of a canon of pro­grams to design with, where an appro­pri­ate form is asso­ci­at­ed to a reper­toire of behav­ior, smooths this over; when we seek to prompt new desires and new actions, the unease starts again. If many peo­ple are shy around reen­ac­tors, or goad them into break­ing char­ac­ter, it is in part because of this; they are sirens, beck­on­ing us off the ship, and we need to tie our­selves to the mast.

(June 2016)