Open World

It is odd that in such a small field there should be so lit­tle abil­i­ty to see the whole thing at once; but that seems to be where we are in land­scape archi­tec­ture. I nev­er feel that I quite know what is going on, what peo­ple are say­ing, where the ground is shift­ing; every so often, I hear a loud voice, and then it goes silent again just as suddenly.

In con­nec­tion with this, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the artist Ian Cheng. Cheng’s work is inter­est­ing for the land­scape field, I think, in part because he works with pro­ce­dur­al sim­u­la­tions: he sets up frame­works and then puts them in motion to see what hap­pens. In the past, this has appeared as self-play­ing video games – odd char­ac­ters bum­bling and inter­act­ing with each oth­er in an unfold­ing dig­i­tal land­scape. More gen­er­al­ly, Cheng has char­ac­ter­ized what he does as world­ing,” a con­scious process of set­ting up an elab­o­rate, but lim­it­ed space for things to hap­pen in. What counts as a world? Accord­ing to Cheng:

A World is a real­i­ty you can believe in: one that promis­es to bring about hab­it­able struc­ture from the poten­tial of chaos, and aim toward a future trans­for­ma­tive enough to metab­o­lize the pain and plea­sure of its dysfunction.

That last word is a key part of the appeal of this def­i­n­i­tion to me: it accepts from the begin­ning that a world will not ever be per­fect. That does not nec­es­sar­i­ly make you able to antic­i­pate which parts of the world will most bear that dys­func­tion. But it does at least charge you to try to be real about what your world will not do well. By the way, it might well be that the same fea­tures that work to sus­tain that world are what make it dysfunctional. 

In one sense, it seems use­ful for us to think of designed land­scapes as worlds unto them­selves, opti­mized for the liv­ing things that share them. And I think I’ll have more to say about that. But just as Cheng has to make his worlds with one eye toward the estab­lished art world he oper­ates in, those who design land­scapes nest inside the world of land­scape archi­tec­ture; and at the moment, that larg­er scale is the part that inter­ests me more.

cheng emissaries

So, land­scape archi­tec­ture as a field is a con­struct­ed world, made out of whole cloth around the turn of the cen­tu­ry. It iden­ti­fies a miss­ing piece of the larg­er world, a mod­el for safe­guard­ing and repli­cat­ing what is valu­able in pre-indus­tri­al land­scapes. It tasks a group of peo­ple to make up that piece, bor­row­ing most of its appa­ra­tus from the dis­ci­pline of archi­tec­ture. In cre­at­ing a pro­fes­sion­al, col­lege-trained corps, it makes a cohort like­ly to share with and sup­port each oth­er. But it also tends to exclude a wide spec­trum of peo­ple who would have oth­er­wise been able to con­tribute to the same project, from immi­grant land­scap­ers and gar­den­ers to women land­scape gar­den­ers. It sees some land­scapes, but hard­ly all of them. To go back to Land­scape mag­a­zine: it pre­oc­cu­pies me in part because it showed anoth­er viable mod­el for mak­ing a world of inter­est around land­scape, one that cast a mean­ing­ful­ly dif­fer­ent net. But that was depen­dent on one mag­net­ic per­son­al­i­ty, and an unstat­ed set of rules for who got to contribute. 

At some point, it becomes nec­es­sary for every world to be a shared cre­ation; one where mem­bers of a wider group can 1. con­tribute to the project of world-build­ing, 2. fur­ther their own inter­ests in doing so, and 3. see how these con­tri­bu­tions and inter­ests are mean­ing­ful­ly reflect­ed in the space of the world. In a pro­fes­sion, that would hap­pen through pub­li­ca­tions, awards, and gen­er­al chat­ter. Strange­ly enough, in a time of ubiq­ui­tous media, this last qual­i­ty of vis­i­bil­i­ty seems the hard­est one for land­scape archi­tec­ture to sus­tain. I bring this up with col­leagues and they agree enough that I don’t think I’m mak­ing it up: it seems to make the impres­sion of a lack of world­ing, or will-to-world. It is hard to say what is going on, or even to make the effort to know what is going on. ASLA, LAM, LAF, TCLF, CELA: each seems to be an obser­va­tion point speed­ing away from the oth­ers, sep­a­rate galax­ies blow­ing apart. None of them seems to be a com­pelling point of lever­age to actu­al­ly change the sparse world it tries to survey.

venturini kriegsspiel
A map from Venturini's Kriegsspiel, one step in the foundation of the wargaming world.

Why should this be? A few first expla­na­tions come to hand. One is that the eas­i­est way to pop­u­late a shared world is with heroes; like the wider world, the land­scape world is short on heroes, or sick of heroes – or, the heroes it would want are not the heroes it has. Add onto that a prob­lem I’ve mulled over before: that land­scapes them­selves move too slow­ly to be observed, and can only be seen at all par­tial­ly, usu­al­ly at a great dis­tance. This, too, tends to sap the abil­i­ty to see the world at work. Final­ly, and most bit­ter­ly: it seems to be broad­ly agreed that the world of land­scape has lit­tle intrin­sic mean­ing or worth beyond its abil­i­ty to serve the world beyond it. Notice how I defined the field above, as some­thing that plugs a hole? It seems like com­mon sense that any sus­tain­able world would not only serve what it nests inside, but be seen as a mean­ing­ful world unto itself, some­thing worth mak­ing in of itself. And it seems odd, painful­ly odd now to look back all the the­o­ret­i­cal dust kicked up in the 1990s, ris­ing from the base assump­tion that land­scape was just such a worth­while world of its own.

It is impos­si­ble not to prob­lem-solve here, and to start by not­ing that if there is a hole in the wider world cor­re­spond­ing to the land­scapes peo­ple need and would not oth­er­wise have, there is equal­ly a hole cor­re­spond­ing to the abil­i­ty of peo­ple to make land­scapes; that the peo­ple of a cul­ture who want to help make their sur­round­ings should be able, with­in rea­son, to do so. But to take my own argu­ment seri­ous­ly, every world has its pains; and it may be that we can expect this par­tic­u­lar world to go on, but go on ever blind­er to itself. 

(September 2021)