Haunting In Progress

We do land­scape archi­tec­ture to make places that work. But in valu­ing works of land­scape archi­tec­ture – dis­trib­ut­ing awards and atten­tion – our actions show that we val­ue the design above and beyond the result­ing site. Why do we think of the life of a project as its afterlife? 

This seems to come down to four ten­den­cies. First, the prac­ti­tion­er ele­vates the design, and not the site, as some­thing that can hov­er above the every­day of phone calls, emails, dri­ving, air­ports. It gives a lode­stone through all of this nego­ti­a­tion and toward suc­cess of the fin­ished site – the design is, among oth­er things, a sign that stands in for the bun­dle of expe­ri­ence and val­ue that the site will hope­ful­ly cre­ate. But as it diverges from the orig­i­nal design, becom­ing real­ized as an inhab­it­able body, the site gains an uncom­fort­able auton­o­my – it is no longer ful­ly the design project. The design dies in the com­plet­ed body. 

Sec­ond, there is a gulf between design­er and users as to how a project ful­fills their desires. The major­i­ty of users want the site to exe­cute pro­grams; it is defined by what can be done with­in it on a con­tin­u­ing basis. Past the moment when the design­er is sell­ing their own con­cep­tion over another’s, this want does not match up well with the designer’s abil­i­ty to incar­nate a spe­cial place, with a per­son­al­i­ty. This basic want for pro­gram, that is, does not acknowl­edge the designer’s belief, which is that this very per­son­al­i­ty is the cru­cial thing that the design­er has con­tributed to such a project. The pub­lic want for pro­gram, more­over, does not match up with the designer’s knowl­edge that what the design­er imbues in the project is pre­cise­ly the unsayable, bound up in art school talk about neg­a­tive space, spa­tial rela­tions, spa­tial dynam­ics. Oth­er­wise, the design­er knows, an engi­neer might as well come in and pack the space with swings and ten­nis courts. In great suc­cess­es, artis­tic suc­cess­es, civic suc­cess­es, pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess­es, the site phys­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly resem­bles the design; it ends up liv­ing the life that was intend­ed for it, and is a con­tin­u­ing source of pride for the design­er. In such cas­es, space has suc­cess­ful­ly done the work of enchant­i­ng the assem­blage of mate­ri­als. Oth­er­wise, there is only a scrib­ble on the ground that skirts around the splash pad; and the mud­dling for­ward of the site and its vis­i­tors is some­thing of no con­cern to the par­ent who has for­got­ten it. 

Governors Island
Governors Island in a bardo, 2009.

Third, there is a minor­i­ty group of users and design­ers who invest in a sym­bol­ic econ­o­my of projects that maps onto that for art objects – a game of propo­si­tions that can be used as sym­bol­ic tokens, stand­ing in the short term for a play of sig­nif­i­cance, and then ulti­mate­ly for pres­tige. As each such token enters into life as a site, its auton­o­my and clar­i­ty is mud­died. But the orig­i­nal design, bound up in ren­der­ings and pro­gram­mat­ic state­ments, can stay on the board as anoth­er counter in the pres­tige game.

Fourth, and final­ly, and most fun­da­men­tal­ly, con­sid­er the labor posi­tion of the land­scape archi­tect. The land­scape architect’s role is in part premised on hav­ing with­drawn from the phys­i­cal life of the site and into a tier of project man­age­ment, a man­age­ment of intel­lec­tu­al and finan­cial cap­i­tal, a man­age­ment of con­struct­ing and design­ing bod­ies but rarely of main­tain­ing bod­ies. The labor of the mak­ers in the first place, and the labor of their inher­i­tors, those who main­tain and gov­ern, in the sec­ond; scru­ti­nized, these tend to decom­pose the clar­i­ty of the design, to dis­cor­po­rate its util­i­ty as a token. In cast­ing the work of land­scape-mak­ing into the archi­tec­tur­al mod­el, land­scape archi­tec­ture repro­duces a prob­lem of archi­tec­ture that becomes fatal for open sites: it assumes the per­sis­tence of the designer’s vision in a phys­i­cal heap of materials. 

How does the design haunt the site? It appears in flash­es to the sen­si­tive. It is vis­i­ble only in cer­tain places, from cer­tain van­tage points. It exists in the motions of a cer­tain class of vis­i­tors, tak­ing pic­tures of details. 

Walden Bench
Submerged bench at Walden Pond.

(September 2017)