Lares And Penates

Work in land­scape archi­tec­ture seems to occur in two sep­a­rate realms; but no one ever takes the time to go about defin­ing what those realms are. A col­league and I were talk­ing in the hall about this a while ago – what is the divid­ing line? One cares more about ecol­o­gy than the oth­er? No. More orna­men­tal than the oth­er? Not real­ly. More infra­struc­tur­al? Not any­more! More tra­di­tion­al? No – each has its own inher­it­ed house­hold gods. Where is that line, and who stands on either side of it, or astride it?

Rather than the Ger­many and France of the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, lean­ing against each oth­ers’ brows at the Mag­inot, these two realms are the Ger­many” and France” of the Renais­sance: zones of influ­ence extend­ing out from Sax­ony and Paris, with the major­i­ty of prac­tice a vague Alsace-Lor­raine around the mid­point. These zones weak­en as they mix, trou­bled here and there with entire­ly dif­fer­ent spheres, pock­ets, and interruptions. 

The first realm erects offi­cial orga­ni­za­tions, stan­dards, and prac­tices, spec­i­fy­ing the ins and outs of lob­by­ing, accred­i­ta­tion, pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tion – while the sec­ond looks out to what con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy, con­tem­po­rary art, or activist cul­ture would think. The first is evi­dence-based; the sec­ond gen­u­flects to evi­dence. The first is pre­oc­cu­pied with the native plant; the sec­ond is not. The first has the virtue of stat­ing its val­ues up front as eter­nal truths; the sec­ond defers to the spir­it of the times in a way that for all its con­vic­tion often seems to have its fin­ger in the wind and an eye on the clock. 

These two do not diverge from a his­tor­i­cal split; they do not map onto opposed found­ing fig­ures, or even named schools of thought. The oppo­si­tion between New Urban­ism vs. Land­scape Urban­ism, as put in nice­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic terms by Andrés Duany, gets at the dif­fer­ence, but is not iden­ti­cal to it; the one being a defined orga­ni­za­tion, and the oth­er a genre tag, and one already sub­stan­tial­ly dead. 

This split was neat­ly solved for me when anoth­er col­league told me, some­time lat­er, about the long-stand­ing divi­sion between the pro­fes­sion and the dis­ci­pline in archi­tec­ture. As Stan­ford Ander­son had it, The pro­fes­sion is cen­tral­ly con­cerned with the cur­rent struc­ture of prac­tice in order that it may ful­fill com­mis­sions to the high­est standard…[the dis­ci­pline is] a col­lec­tive body of knowl­edge that is unique to archi­tec­ture and…is not delim­it­ed in time or space.” The first realm of land­scape, then, bends its inten­tions toward the world as expe­ri­enced by pro­fes­sion­al land­scape archi­tects, with a lim­it­ed scope of inter­ven­tion and abil­i­ty to per­suade, resign­ing itself to what the usu­al client at hand can be made to accept. The sec­ond realm explores the space of the dis­ci­pline with its full com­ple­ment of tools, and is con­tin­u­ous­ly try­ing to expand that realm fur­ther out by adding new tools. The client, here, is the faintest voice in the distance.

I have been mulling the dif­fer­ence ever since for what it means for the land­scape-as-a-verb crowd inside land­scape archi­tec­ture. Ban­ham lays out in A Black Box” that archi­tec­ture is a his­tor­i­cal­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic prac­tice that has been fatal­ly con­fused with build­ing as a human activ­i­ty; the result being as though Chi­nese opera was used as the base type from which the rest of the­ater devi­at­ed, and that any prob­lems glob­al­ly con­nect­ed to the­ater could and should be solved by the judi­cious appli­ca­tion of the prin­ci­ples of Chi­nese opera. Sim­i­lar­ly, to assert that a mas­ter builder armed with draw­ings and an under­stand­ing of their own tra­di­tion is best equipped to meet the wide-open future of the built envi­ron­ment seems like a chimera. As dis­ci­pli­nary land­scape archi­tec­ture turns its head back to its roots in gar­den­ing, it is nonethe­less loath to give up its auton­o­my; it hard­ly seeks to go back to the estate. But it is hard­ly pre­pared to sur­ren­der its author­i­ty to the client, the com­mu­ni­ty, the cul­ture, or often even to the ecology. 

To look at the likes of Cedric Price or Andrea Branzi is to guess that the bar­gain of dis­ci­pli­nary archi­tec­ture is to artic­u­late what is think­able, and not doable, with­in the pro­fes­sion­al world, in order to secure a place among the lares and penates on the discipline’s great over­crowd­ed shelf; cer­tain­ly not in order to apply cri­tique (what does that even mean?) beyond the dis­ci­pli­nary house, or sur­ren­der any con­trol to the ciphers pro­ject­ed to qui­et­ly wan­der through their open frame­works. The prob­lem posed by the dis­ci­pli­nary realm to the more mod­est body of land­scape archi­tects is dif­fer­ent. The art of propos­ing sim­ple sys­tems that do not work in dis­ci­pli­nary land­scape archi­tec­ture has a par­tic­u­lar­ly treach­er­ous rela­tion­ship to the orig­i­nal moti­va­tion of most land­scape archi­tects, which is to solve prob­lems in an innocu­ous and inof­fen­sive fash­ion, to be cre­ative” and help peo­ple at the same time, and per­haps to spur a leap into some unknown future that is more innocu­ous and inof­fen­sive. While mak­ing cas­tles in the air, or bioswale moats in the air, acts as a rea­son­able sub­sti­tute for solv­ing prob­lems in your own life, or even your own com­mu­ni­ty of thought – since it resem­bles hav­ing solved that prob­lem – that sat­is­fac­tion will go van­ish­ing­ly lit­tle toward the future, or present, out in the streets. 

(February 2020)