"Landscape Is A Verb"

Fourth Pass

When I say land­scape is a verb,” I am think­ing of a ten­den­cy I’ve seen in some prac­ti­tion­ers in the world of land­scape archi­tec­ture. That ten­den­cy, to me, brings togeth­er all those peo­ple who act as though they would rather see the work of mak­ing land­scapes as active, as an open-end­ed and dynam­ic process, instead of being, nar­row­ly, the design of a fixed plan. Anoth­er way to say that: for this group of prac­ti­tion­ers, the body of the land­scape-mak­er does not get sub­tract­ed from the landscape. 

It’s a ten­den­cy I first met with ear­ly on in my own land­scape path: read­ing Tere­sa Galí-Izard’s The Same Land­scapes, way back in 2006. I’ve seen it in Marc Miller’s work, though what I’ve seen from him recent­ly has a more dig­i­tal focus. It’s there in Gilles Clé­ment, and in pieces in Georges Descombes; it’s one ele­ment in the MVVA mix. It’s in younger firms like Future Green and Ter­re­mo­to. Ter­re­mo­to, says their web­site, takes issue with the pre­vail­ing main­stream ten­den­cy in our pro­fes­sion of not acknowledging/​portraying the human beings who build land­scape projects. We respect and hon­or the the labor­er by mak­ing their con­tri­bu­tions present, clear and explic­it­ly vis­i­ble in our work.” Julian Rax­wor­thy’s Over­grown has gone out and cir­cu­lat­ed it. Michael Gef­fel does it out at the Over­look Field School. My col­leagues at Present Prac­tice, Katie Jenk­ins and Park­er Sut­ton, do it too. It’s in the work — it is the work! — of Roland Gus­tavs­son, and I imag­ine many oth­ers around the world whose work should be cir­cu­lat­ed more among the rest of us. It’s Detroit Future City after Stoss leaves, as the group fig­ures out how to approx­i­mate the orig­i­nal grand vision with­in its means.

Are these char­ac­ters all shad­ow­box­ing with their class con­scious­ness, with the guilty con­science of an elite dic­tat­ing terms to the work­ers? (Note that some of them, like Rax­wor­thy, have seen both sides of that equa­tion.) Have they all caught them­selves short in telling the thou­sandth per­son-at-a-par­ty that no, they could­n’t do their yard? Why should land­scap­ing be such an awful word, anyway?

Third Pass

I was look­ing at Marc Miller’s Twit­ter after I had already post­ed the first ver­sion of this piece, and real­ized with a start: I had for­got­ten I had tak­en the name Land­scape is a Verb” from his han­dle in the first place. Pok­ing around for the same phrase to see where else it has cropped up, I can see that he also had an excel­lent blog of the same name. 

W.J.T. Mitchell says it in 2002’s Land­scape and Pow­er; from there it has cir­cu­lat­ed in aca­d­e­m­ic chan­nels a lit­tle, most recent­ly in Over­grown. Lau­rie Olin is quot­ed in Baird and Szczy­giel’s paper Soci­ol­o­gy of Pro­fes­sions: The Evo­lu­tion of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture in the Unit­ed States” to the effect that it is a shame that the gen­er­al pub­lic should see land­scape as a verb. 

The OED tells me that land­scape has been a verb for a while, with the sense of mak­ing a phys­i­cal land­scape” first doc­u­ment­ed in 1927. Way back in 1661, it was used in the sense of draw­ing a land­scape,” which is how Robert Brown­ing uses it in 1868. I think the pub­lic knows some­thing we don’t — if land­scape, for them, is a verb, it is because land­scape tends to man­i­fest itself to the pub­lic as active mak­ing. The design lay­ing under­neath is dead, but the land­scap­ers aren’t.

Sec­ond Pass

It seems to me that mak­ing eco­log­i­cal­ly should lead to mak­ing eco­log­i­cal­ly should lead to mak­ing eco­log­i­cal­ly. That is: a site that would con­tribute to a larg­er move­ment for a robust ecol­o­gy should itself be made through a robust ecol­o­gy; and to set that ecol­o­gy rolling on a site, we should use robust eco­log­i­cal forms as the basis for how we think it through and test it. 

Out of all of approach­es that have been float­ed for insti­tut­ing new ecolo­gies on sites, some seem more prac­ti­ca­ble and eth­i­cal than oth­ers. To design an ecol­o­gy is the Apple-of-Cuper­ti­no sense is, I think, a hate­ful thing; that is, mak­ing an arti­fi­cial link­age of prod­ucts that hang togeth­er off of human needs. I can’t see how such an ecol­o­gy would­n’t always end up being expe­ri­enced as a par­a­site on our social body. And that, in turn, tends to make me sus­pi­cious of any pro­pri­etary set of mod­ules we could pro­pose or build, that would attempt to spread itself from one site to anoth­er — whether it was made up of play wid­gets in plas­tic, or coastal sta­bi­liza­tion forms in concrete.

How else could you mean­ing­ful­ly kick off an ecol­o­gy? I think of one of the clear­est and least rec­og­nized ways in which elite cul­ture has ben­e­fit­ted peo­ple at large: through incu­bat­ing games, most notably the var­i­ous forms of foot­ball, that can be spread and enjoyed at min­i­mal cost through­out the pub­lic at large. 

chess disabitato
Moscow, 1985: Kasparov defeats Karpov in a marathon match for the world championship.

I have been work­ing with my stu­dents to explore this: that an ecol­o­gy for a site could be start­ed by agree­ing upon a game­like sys­tem of allow­able moves, using com­mon, innocu­ous land­scape ele­ments that already have their rules baked in. Unlike a pawn, queen, or rook, we find that red­buds, black oaks, and slate shin­gles each have their own nec­es­sary set of require­ments and poten­tials baked in. Those require­ments and poten­tials are vague — but then, as our expe­ri­ence design­ing with them to this point proves, they are also as know­able as we need them to be. In cre­at­ing the ecol­o­gy of a site, we could abstract each ele­men­t’s prop­er­ties into a set of rules. If writ­ten well, these rules would still give enough breath­ing room for any element’s indi­vid­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tives to be some­what dif­fer­ent than the abstract type. For instance, say that once plant­ed, an oak would have to be giv­en no less than 10 and no more than 50 feet of clear­ance on all sides. 

The suc­cess of such an sys­tem could cer­tain­ly be mea­sured by its eco­log­i­cal per­for­mance, or its beau­ty; but most­ly it would be mea­sured by how enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly it was tak­en up by the com­mu­ni­ty main­tain­ing it, and how read­i­ly they could adjust that giv­en sys­tem to adapt to reality. 

First Pass

The longer I spend in this field, the more dan­ger­ous it seems to be to cast a work of land­scape in stone, which is to say, to regard it as any ana­logue to a durable piece of architecture. 

To be pre­served in the usu­al sense, a land­scape must have a def­i­nite form. But that land­scape need not have a def­i­nite form to be per­pet­u­at­ed; it need only have an iden­ti­fi­able process through which it is pro­duced. If you can make out a pur­pose in a land­scape you encounter – if that process is vis­i­ble in its results, as say with a hedgerow – you can respect it, engage with it, fur­ther it. Oth­er­wise, you will brack­et it off, pass it over, put an end to it. 

For now, some­thing like Tere­sa Galí-Izard’s vision in the Par­que Cen­tral com­pe­ti­tion seems like the most prac­ti­ca­ble ver­sion of land­scape-as-a-verb, because the sys­tem it pro­pos­es has been engi­neered enough to resem­ble at a glance the prod­uct of con­ven­tion­al author­ship. Who knows if that is an approach that can sus­tain itself? We haven’t found out yet. Inso­far as it points toward an actu­al two-way work­ing rela­tion­ship with the peo­ple who build and main­tain land­scapes, it is one pos­si­ble step toward equi­ty and solidarity. 

(September 2020)