Pit Of Spikes

To be a pio­neer in land­scape, it would be nec­es­sary to do two things: to con­ceive and build a new sort of land­scape, and to engen­der the cul­ture that would inhab­it and care for it. That is a harsh test to apply, and few would live up to it; even those who invent­ed the pub­lic park essen­tial­ly only fol­low the log­ic that all towns of suf­fi­cient size should have a roy­al park for themselves.

For years, I have a let a dumb ques­tion nag at me: why can’t you put a pit of spikes in a designed land­scape? I don’t mean a prop­er pit of spikes, that would be con­cealed; I mean the spec­ta­cle of a pit of spikes, some­thing you could look into and shud­der, some­thing that would dare you to leap across it. Which is less a mat­ter of bring­ing spec­ta­cles of real tor­ture and death back into the pub­lic eye , and more a mat­ter of won­der­ing why we design spaces with­out phys­i­cal dan­ger. Although the elim­i­na­tion of such spec­ta­cles from the pub­lic spaces of the world deserves to be exam­ined in more detail.With­out the expec­ta­tion of a land­scape being gen­tle, the spec­trum of pos­si­ble land­scapes great­ly widens.

pit of spikes
A real example: a pit of spikes in the park of the Củ Chi tunnels in Saigon.

My recent thoughts on the land­scapes of video games turn, in part, on this; that the val­ue and inter­est of designed dig­i­tal space comes in large part through meet­ing with risk. We allow our­selves to encounter dan­ger when found in nat­ur­al set­tings, to let oth­ers address those exist­ing dan­gers, but hard­ly ever to cre­ate new dan­gers – here, as often, the work of Lawrence Halprin’s firm stands apart. If the pub­lic has a vul­gar taste for labyrinths, this is why. Dan­ger­ous spaces, entered into with con­sent, are engross­ing, com­pli­cat­ed, and challenging.

Risk, we may say, cre­ates itself, and in the designed land­scape we do some­thing con­spic­u­ous­ly dif­fi­cult in our cul­ture: we active­ly care for oth­ers, not in a habit­u­al way, but as a will­ful act of imag­i­na­tion. It is worth­while and easy to think of it this way: man­darins like myself can dis­count the impor­tance of pret­ti­ness, of com­fort, of whim­sy, because we bore eas­i­ly, because we can float clear of tra­di­tion, and because in our con­tempt for work we do not see the dif­fer­ence between gar­den­ing for flow­ers and exca­vat­ing a pit for spikes. 

But against that, it can be observed that the same med­i­cine is not heal­ing for all; a restora­tive expe­ri­ence for one per­son is inert or nox­ious to anoth­er. This is the joint where pub­lic health and pub­lic taste meet. A dan­ger­ous space, a clear­ly dan­ger­ous space, can engen­der respect, and then attach­ment. When the space appears as dan­ger­ous as it is, it can­not be accused of being treach­er­ous – unlike the blank-faced play­ing fields, high­ways, and sub­ur­ban streets that are our most like­ly places to find risk. 

Let me give an exam­ple. Apart from being an indoor land­scape par excel­lence, St. Louis’ City Muse­um is just such a space of clear and present dan­ger. It dis­guis­es itself as a children’s muse­um, and then turns around and refus­es the worst tropes of the type: it cre­ates with­out being bound with­in a mes­sage, sim­ply assem­bling phys­i­cal mate­r­i­al to engross and chal­lenge. It takes you through the air in wind­ing tubes of rebar cage; it shoots you down ten sto­ries through a chute; it fits you into an arti­fi­cial tun­nel with an unclear ter­mi­nus. It lets you phys­i­cal­ly engage, in the heart of the city, what we gen­er­al­ly asso­ciate with nature, or a video game – a dynam­ic inter­play of the scenic and the risky. 

And here’s the thing: it is inhab­it­ed and made by a cul­ture that man­ages the risk of the struc­ture and will, with­in rea­son, res­cue you if you take on more risk than you intend­ed to. It is as though rangers set about cre­at­ing a nation­al park.

(March 2017)