The Summit

Has land­scape archi­tec­ture failed?” ask Richard Weller and Bil­ly Flem­ing, by way of invit­ing us to the Land­scape Archi­tec­ture Foundation’s 2016 sum­mit. At this occa­sion, land­scape archi­tects will say that it has, and it has not; that it will cer­tain­ly fail entire­ly in the future, unless; unless land­scape archi­tec­ture makes a mea­sur­able dif­fer­ence in the precincts to which it has appoint­ed itself; unless – depend­ing who you are talk­ing to – every sub­ur­ban gar­den is solid­ly native, every tail­ings pit a reme­dia­tive lab­o­ra­to­ry, every land use strict­ly pinned to light rail, every urban water­front gir­dled with marsh­es of bot­tom­less thirst. 

Who fails so total­ly that they fail at every­thing? Grant­i­ng land­scape archi­tec­ture cor­po­rate per­son­hood, we can attempt give it a per­for­mance review, to gauge it against what we under­stand the require­ments of its job to be; upon walk­ing into Penn’s Irvine Audi­to­ri­um, we will see that we have been sad­dled with an unwieldy com­mit­tee to work with. Were this delib­er­at­ing body to arrive at any such doc­u­ment, we will still not have arrived at a judg­ment of the whole enter­prise; the whole per­son, as it were. 

Land­scape archi­tec­ture is a pro­fes­sion, above all, and a notably arti­fi­cial one at that. Podi­a­try makes healthy feet; if it con­sis­tent­ly failed at this goal, it would be a fail­ure, and some oth­er pro­fes­sion would have to be con­vened to make healthy feet through oth­er means. What does land­scape archi­tec­ture do, in three words? As far as I can tell, land­scape archi­tec­ture makes land­scape archi­tects; it shuf­fles togeth­er a loose col­lec­tion of peo­ple and inter­ests to make com­mon cause. It is a bun­dle of twigs, a con­fed­er­a­tion of small tribes not oth­er­wise affil­i­at­ed. Fol­low­ing Shaw, All pro­fes­sions are con­spir­a­cies against the laity;” pic­ture the con­spir­a­cy of land­scape archi­tec­ture as car­ried on through ASLA, CLARB, CELA, LAAB, LAF, car­ried out in pub­lic under a bow­er of Lon­don planes. This con­spir­a­cy has failed, in that it has not elim­i­nat­ed its com­peti­tors; has not assas­si­nat­ed its tar­get; has not even suc­ceed­ed in find­ing a tar­get to assas­si­nate. Every­one else con­tin­ues to make land­scape, whether or not they can legal­ly call them­selves land­scape archi­tects. But the con­spir­a­cy has suc­ceed­ed, inso­far as it has invent­ed a com­mu­ni­ty who share a name and to some extent a set of inter­ests and methods. 

If we are so keen on mea­sur­ing out­comes, we should begin with the out­comes of our con­claves; and we should iso­late what is being demon­strat­ed, and to whom. What land­scape archi­tec­ture fails to pro­duce, above all, is a we that will rat­i­fy any of its fac­tions’ claims-to-we; which is to say, it can­not speak with one voice. Does it fol­low from that that each fac­tion learn­ing to speak togeth­er would reach the ear of the pub­lic leviathan? 

It seemed to some, for a while, as though we could speak with the voice of McHarg. Was McHarg a del­e­gate from Land­scape to the World? McHarg was some­one who picked up a method from the far-flung offices of land­scape and showed in the most con­vinc­ing way pos­si­ble how it could be applied to var­i­ous prob­lems in the world. In the process, he did what John Law See his Work­ing Well with Wicked­ness” in Grain Vapor Ray. has con­vinc­ing­ly described as sim­pli­fy­ing a wicked prob­lem: treat­ing an unhap­py sys­temic con­di­tion as through it had a sin­gle trunk that could be cut through. Famous­ly, he came to ignore the prob­lem of the social – that, as Weller and Flem­ing reit­er­ate, the man­age­ment of the envi­ron­ment is not and can­not be nat­ur­al pre­cise­ly because it is some­thing to be man­aged. This is not only true of the specter of installing a land­scape tech­noc­ra­cy, but also the very idea of hav­ing a goal that nature is to be brought to; that such goals are nec­es­sar­i­ly plur­al and sub­ject to inter­pre­ta­tion. He and his coun­ter­parts, fol­low­ers, and con­fed­er­ates could not hold a coali­tion that fun­da­men­tal­ly shifts with the social, that will always want oth­er things from its inter­ac­tions with landscape. 

Most recent­ly, we find that the same thought lead­ers who enjoined us to be sus­tain­able 10 years ago now assure us that resilience is the sane goal, and in 10 more years might at best have moved on to anoth­er impor­ta­tion from the broad­er world of ideas. Or, at worst, we may have retreat­ed behind var­i­ous flood­walls into var­i­ous species of qui­etism, shrunk­en back to a race of inge­nious lit­tle Le Nôtres with inge­nious lit­tle goals. This is what we fear, and why we seek to make a leviathan of our­selves; why we hope to dis­ci­pline our­selves into a sin­gle voice, a people’s mega­phone not need­ing a stan­dard speak­er. As Law asserts, though, McHarg’s mod­el, like any oth­er good mod­el, was false and use­ful. His dis­ci­ples did not and could not accom­plish what he asked them to; but they act­ed, to a point, as though they could. At worst, then, as far as we know, McHar­gian­ism has been quixot­ic. But I sus­pect that it has been far bet­ter than that – like oth­er strains of land­scape prac­tice, it puts per­sis­tent seeds in soci­etal soil that await fur­ther breed­ing, or sim­ply for some imper­me­able mate­r­i­al to be stripped away from the surface. 

Land­scape prac­tice is, has been, and no doubt will con­tin­ue to be a house divid­ed against itself. It pro­ceeds from a long, hon­or­able, and var­i­ous tra­di­tion of improv­ing nature, which is to say, of tamp­ing down what is harm­ful to humans and con­ven­ing the things they want to expe­ri­ence. In this grad­ual and half-direct­ed progress there is some­thing of a mod­el for today’s land­scape prac­tice, as some­thing at once method­i­cal and blun­der­ing, but very lit­tle of a moral prece­dent. The morals we need to act prop­er­ly with, the stan­dards we need to fol­low, will not be invent­ed ab ovo in the space of a decade, or a cen­tu­ry. Rather, they will need to fight, to blend, to com­bine, to con­test; the hun­dred flow­ers will, I hope, add up to a prop­er plant association. 

I believe we should be patient with the devel­op­ment of these native themes of land­scape archi­tec­ture because they are pro­found­ly in con­flict with the rest of our cul­ture – land­scape remains a sub­servient approach not because it doesn’t work (that is the only thing that keeps it going!), but because it does not fit with the cus­tom of the coun­try or tenor of the times. When we, as land­scape archi­tects, speak with con­fi­dence on our own areas of exper­tise, when we treat prob­lems as we have been taught, we speak at the time-scale of land­scape, with the strange­ness of land­scape; more cloudy, less direct than we would pre­fer, but with some truth and some efficacy. 

Reject the notion of cor­po­rate bod­ies speak­ing to one anoth­er. See what we have cre­den­tialed our­selves into as an assem­blage of the most far-flung series of prob­lems, tied loose­ly and var­i­ous­ly with meth­ods. Reject the notion of per­fect del­e­ga­tion; of the notion that Land­scape could speak to the World. Imag­ine us not as actors for ecol­o­gy, but eco­log­i­cal actors.

(June 2016)