Embodied Landscape

A designed land­scape is made both through acts of foun­da­tion and through acts of iter­a­tion; between the acts of the design­ers and the acts of the inher­i­tors. These acts are phys­i­cal­ly different! 

Hav­ing gath­ered visu­al infor­ma­tion regard­ing the site, land­scape archi­tects repro­duce it at a scale that suits the motion of the eye and hand. They draw on top of these repro­duc­tions, mak­ing draw­ings. They repro­duce these draw­ings for oth­ers to see, often being fixed to a wall. Pre­sent­ing to an audi­ence with the draw­ings, the land­scape archi­tect says for the draw­ings what they can­not say for them­selves, sup­ple­ment­ing what they show. Land­scape archi­tects guar­an­tee the con­science of the pre­sent­ed image through their own phys­i­cal presence. 

If these draw­ings pass through the gate of accept­abil­i­ty, they can be trans­lat­ed into instruc­tion-draw­ings, made to guide the under­tak­ing of phys­i­cal labor. Hav­ing phys­i­cal­ly inspect­ed and select­ed the key­stone mate­ri­als for the project on site, the land­scape archi­tects walk and re-walk the site as watch­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Hav­ing drawn up a char­ter of rec­om­men­da­tions for main­te­nance, they with­draw, only return­ing to gath­er new images as the site matures into nature. 

Con­trast this to the work of the inher­i­tors of a site. One group main­tains the site in shape; they mow, leaf-blow, prune, and clean. They apply a stan­dard range of tools and tech­niques to the site that they car­ry from past expe­ri­ence or con­cur­rent respon­si­bil­i­ties; ask­ing them to do dif­fer­ent­ly in any one case is, most like­ly, ask­ing them to do more work. The stan­dard for land­scap­ing labor hav­ing been estab­lished, the land­scape archi­tect asks for a spe­cial case, wager­ing that a greater good (an aes­thet­ic vision, an eco­log­i­cal imper­a­tive, per­haps a reduc­tion in resources used) will serve to estab­lish a new covenant on the site – with this covenant itself per­haps spread­ing to oth­er sites in the future. 

Anoth­er group of inher­i­tors admin­is­ters the site, dic­tat­ing fund­ing and pro­gram­ming. These home­own­ers, or city depart­ments, have every rea­son in the world to con­strue this site as oth­er sites have been con­strued; to treat it in the way that sim­i­lar sites are treat­ed. They can scale up and scale back their lev­el of engage­ment or invest­ment in times of boom and bust. They, too, have a com­mon vision of the rela­tion­ship with land­scapes that they rein­force, spar­ing­ly in this case, with their bod­ies, their pres­ence and voic­es. They have exam­ples before them of pho­tos and din­ner par­ties, reports and galas. 

This is all to say: when land­scape archi­tects shift the terms of what and how they con­struct, of what the nature of a made land­scape can be, they often do so with­out a clear vision of how the design is to be main­tained – which is to say, in reimag­in­ing the phys­i­cal life of the site, they do not both­er to recon­struct a phys­i­cal life around the site. Sce­nar­ios or sim­ple state­ments of flex­i­bil­i­ty hand off respon­si­bil­i­ty to those who, to be clear, are most like­ly to take the path of least resis­tance. Some­times this will mean rad­i­cal accep­tance of emer­gent con­di­tions on site. But more like­ly, such sites will be con­strued as parks and gar­dens, and treat­ed accordingly. 

I would main­tain that the landscape/​ecological urban­ist approach is dan­ger­ous­ly tilt­ed to a fire-and-for­get approach – not just out of native opti­mism, or even, more defen­si­bly, in the expec­ta­tion that emer­gent sys­tems will arise to do the nec­es­sary job, giv­en a good start­ing point. I believe that this comes from the land­scape architect’s uncon­scious expec­ta­tion that once the acts of foun­da­tion are over, a com­mu­ni­ty with the cor­rect set of ref­er­ence points and well-drilled phys­i­cal habits will take charge of the site. Land­scape archi­tects are gar­den­ers who walk away from their gar­dens, sure that the gar­dens will con­tin­ue to grow. 

This is not only a mis­match between the land­scape imag­i­nary and the real­i­ties of after­life; it is a prob­lem of dif­fer­ent sets of phys­i­cal capac­i­ties and phys­i­cal knowledge. 

Some aspects of the land­scape architect’s approach to plan­ning have clear antecedence in oth­er aspects of their process – priv­i­leg­ing the liv­ing, the open, the shift­ing. If we break into that com­plex of sim­ple words, we can see a set of mate­r­i­al prac­tices. First and fore­most, the land­scape archi­tect is con­di­tioned from past expe­ri­ence to think that cre­at­ing favor­able ground con­di­tions and gen­er­ous­ly seed­ing them with liv­ing enti­ties is a viable and suf­fi­cient strat­e­gy for the long-term main­te­nance of this state of affairs. This is only the case because the land­scape archi­tect has set the open­ing gam­bit among a group of play­ers who will then fol­low through for the fore­see­able future.

The land­scape design­ers I find the most inter­est in – Tere­sa Galí-Izard, or Gilles Clé­ment – fore­ground the ele­ment of main­te­nance in their own prac­tices. In doing so, in rela­tion­ship to tra­di­tion­al land­scape archi­tec­ture they para­dox­i­cal­ly seem con­cerned with epiphe­nom­e­na, inap­pro­pri­ate fix­a­tions – mow­ing, prun­ing, seed­ing – that are gen­er­al­ly left to the main­te­nance crews to come. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, they min­i­mize a key part of land­scape archi­tects’ com­mu­nica­tive road: to trans­mit an exact inten­tion of the ini­tial con­di­tion to those who actu­al­ly con­struct the landscape. 

What seems the most rhetor­i­cal form of land­scape pos­si­ble – that depends on pub­li­ca­tion (or at least sig­nage) to com­mu­ni­cate the his­to­ry and inten­tion of a form-poor inter­ven­tion – is in anoth­er sense the least, in that it requires the min­i­mum of draw­ings and oth­er communications. 

What acknowl­edges the dig­ni­ty of labor? What makes a land­scape that does not just relax work­ing peo­ple, but says that their labor is impor­tant? Social­ist real­ism isn’t one of the worst crimes of com­mu­nism, but it isn’t too con­vinc­ing either. The con­tem­po­rary bent toward refin­ing, stream­lin­ing, and vapor­iz­ing the mate­r­i­al of build­ing has the effect of remov­ing the body of allied labor from the work.

Much of tra­di­tion­al archi­tec­ture, not at all enlight­ened or admirable from the per­spec­tive of labor rela­tions, at least vis­i­bly embod­ies the work of a work­force. It does not incar­nate ide­al forms through a process increas­ing­ly medi­at­ed only by the knowl­edge econ­o­my (pic­ture a giant 3D print­er turn­ing out hous­es with­out assem­bly, and load­ing them onto self-dri­ving flatbed trucks), but com­mu­ni­cates that it works with tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge and forms, local mate­ri­als, and so on. 

Labor rela­tion­ships and labor costs have changed, and will not be as they were. But what would it mean to think through a con­tem­po­rary land­scape with respect, lit­er­al­ly with respect, to labor? Would we take into account how mow­ing and prun­ing is done? Would we insist less on ecol­o­gy” doing all the work for forms that have to work with peo­ple, in the end? 

(February 2018)