Irrational Exuberance

Where did land­scape urban­ism go? It suc­ceed­ed it gain­ing atten­tion around a com­pre­hen­si­ble bun­dle of ideas. It sunk those ideas into a small pool of high-pro­file com­mis­sions. It mount­ed the most promi­nent perch­es, and set about build­ing prop­er foun­da­tions for itself. As it stud­ied, its mis­sion crept; it stopped cut­ting and past­ing, and took up script­ing and plot­ting. With­in a decade, it had start­ed build­ing a tomb about itself, using a series of mono­graphs for bricks: Land­scape Is…, Land­scape as Urban­ism, Land­scape as Infra­struc­ture. Now, what’s so wrong with land­scape that it needs to be rede­fined every three minutes? 

The orange of the term land­scape urban­ism” itself was quick­ly sucked dry, to be replaced with eco­log­i­cal urban­ism,” and then – real­ly noth­ing at all, not yet. In recent years of the Har­vard Design Mag­a­zine, the dis­ci­plines them­selves are shown to be so tired that it in place of design it is prefer­able to patch togeth­er any live form of pow­er rea­son­ably close to what used to be the design domain: the geneal­o­gist of tech­nol­o­gy, the bien­nale itin­er­ant, the blithe philoso­pher of Singapore.

The land­scape urban­ists and their heirs fol­lowed a sound intu­ition: that land­scape archi­tec­ture is a dis­ci­pli­nary for­ma­tion with bag­gage, and one that could be added up in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way. And, in act­ing as though their ver­sion of land­scape archi­tec­ture is real, they began to do some­thing I wish the pro­fes­sion was bet­ter at: pro­ject­ing a future in such a way to nudge it toward being enact­ed. It is in all ways a salu­tary thing to imag­ine ecolo­gies being made eco­log­i­cal­ly, formed iter­a­tive­ly over time over art­ful frame­works. But as a mat­ter of prac­tice, it comes up against two sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles, less tech­no­log­i­cal than social. 

First, atten­tion around the cul­ture of design is appor­tioned accord­ing to human atten­tion spans and fash­ion cycles. An attempt­ed insti­tu­tion is like­ly to suf­fer crib death between being announced with fan­fare and estab­lish­ing itself inde­pen­dent­ly, for lack of finan­cial and libid­i­nal invest­ment. We can see the diverg­ing paths fol­lowed by the High Line and Fresh Kills. One repeats itself in loud, intel­li­gi­ble steps, remak­ing a hum­ble asset through show­er­ing profli­ga­cy on it. Every­one else wants one. The oth­er toils qui­et­ly in obscu­ri­ty, absent run­way shows and sig­na­ture tax shel­ters for oli­garchs. Work­ing habi­tat takes time to grow upon utter ruin; and atten­tion can­not wait. 

Sec­ond, large por­tions of land­scape urban­ism and the (small) entire­ty of eco­log­i­cal urban­ist design is entire­ly pred­i­cat­ed on utter state con­trol over a long peri­od of time, to keep the hand firm­ly on the tiller. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the estab­lished levers of pow­er come artic­u­lat­ed through arbi­trary spa­tial and tem­po­ral units, merid­i­an lines and elec­tion cycles, which are at a long remove from rec­og­niz­able eco­log­i­cal units – water­sheds, or drought cycles. If that state did shift its terms to meet the press­ing eco­log­i­cal chal­lenge, it would almost cer­tain­ly seek to do so through an utter fiat – and we could expect to see more gilets jaunes in the streets. It would prob­a­bly speak less in terms of the com­mon terms of progress or improve­ment, and more through its own fetish terms, a set of para­me­ters for per­for­mance that would part ways with a larg­er agen­da of human social good. As total­i­tar­i­an­ism march­es on to meet cli­mate change, and com­pro­mis­es like Italy’s Five Star Move­ment are struck between xeno­pho­bia and sus­tain­abil­i­ty, it seems rea­son­able to sup­pose that hate­ful states will strike their own bal­ances between green infra­struc­ture and exclu­sion, bless­ing Man­hat­tans behind high gar­dens and damn­ing the world’s out­er bor­oughs to starve and dis­perse. Until those times, the agen­da of an eco­log­i­cal urban­ism will be sus­pend­ed in stale­mate; hence, the sub­sti­tu­tion of mas­sive, with­drawn descrip­tions of the cri­sis at hand rather than works of engagement.

The excel­lence of ecol­o­gy as a metaphor for any­thing else in the world of bod­ies, or of ideas, comes down to this, in prac­tice: it speaks to the fate of things in gen­er­al, of hav­ing each oth­er to con­tend with; where any alliance is pro­vi­sion­al and open to change. If we want to effect sys­temic change, we move toward reg­u­la­tion, know­ing all the while that there is a razor’s edge of com­mon accept­abil­i­ty between the reg­u­la­tion that eman­ci­pates peo­ple at large and the reg­u­la­tion that is accept­able to mon­eyed interests.

If those work­ing in land­scape want a more fer­tile design prac­tice, a way out of the last ten years of dol­drums, we might ask our­selves: do we real­ly always just need more time, more tax sup­port? Do we real­ly have a com­mon-enough aim and a com­mon-enough plat­form? With the time we have wast­ed over our cen­tu­ry and a half of exis­tence on rede­f­i­n­i­tions and wor­ry­ings about legit­i­ma­cy, fur­ther renam­ings and repo­si­tion­ings only seem like­ly to entrench our­selves fur­ther, sigh­ing all the way. Per­haps this time it would be bet­ter for us to wor­ry about how we do, and our own rather un-eco­log­i­cal posi­tion as project-based pro­fes­sion­als. We do not sail; we fire and forget. 

If I point toward vision­ary moun­tains and yard shows, I do so in part to val­orize the mak­ing of land­scapes as a broad-spec­trum activ­i­ty, with no spe­cial need for pro­fes­sion­als or tech­nocrats; I do so to val­orize the mak­ing of land­scape as sheer exu­ber­ance with no end in sight; where harm is not hedged off through pro­hi­bi­tions, but through the invest­ment of care and time. The locust qual­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary human­i­ty, which is always con­tent to move on so as to not have to stay, is what I am bent against; and I bend toward a knowl­edge of out-and-out grotes­querie as a con­di­tion of deep equal­i­ty and even­ness along the margins. 

(December 2018)