Words Of The Sibyl

Masha Gessen’s New York­er piece from June 7 on the lega­cy of Orwell con­cludes on a won­der­ful insight, a lit­tle jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in itself for invit­ing crit­ics from out­side the design dis­ci­plines to reviews. She describes see­ing a mod­el of a pro­posed urban farm in Detroit, and con­trasts the gray build­ings around the periph­ery, out­side the project’s impact zone, with what hap­pens inside bright­ly-col­ored project. She knows with a high degree of cer­ti­tude what will become of the gray build­ings: either noth­ing, or entry into the stan­dard mill of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. But she doesn’t know how it will work inside the farm, how it reach­es its sug­gest­ed tar­gets. It is an invi­ta­tion to imag­ine more deeply.

As some­one who bat­tles deep cyn­i­cism about stu­dent projects as a means of pro­ject­ing the future, this was refresh­ing. As much as I have dis­liked the prac­tice of cre­at­ing a love­ly black box that mirac­u­lous­ly func­tions as an engi­neered object, irre­spec­tive of what it plugs into and who plugs into it, I can see Gessen’s point. This can only be jus­ti­fied, though, for a dis­ci­pline that can stay with its thoughts and sees them through. The great unthought of the Olm­st­ed myth is in plain sight: that he stayed with Cen­tral Park to see it into fruition, not only the land­scape archi­tect but the super­in­ten­dent. It says some­thing about the mag­ni­tude of this chal­lenge that he could not even con­sis­tent­ly do that, escap­ing for a while to work on the U.S. San­i­tary Comis­sion and the Mari­posa Estate. The form and the idea of the pub­lic park was already part of the con­ver­sa­tion via Pax­ton, Loudon, Down­ing, and a host of sim­pler roy­al con­ver­sions, the present chal­lenge being on sev­er­al lev­els: to inno­vate details to make the sys­tem work bet­ter, to devel­op the pater­nal­ist ker­nel of ide­ol­o­gy into some­thing more robust and uni­ver­sal, and most of all to shep­herd that vision through the rocks of an intense­ly cor­rupt polit­i­cal cli­mate. This could not, in oth­er words, be made to suc­ceed through inno­vat­ing for a few weeks in the office and hand­ing down the result to the city. How can we stay with places? How can we cul­ti­vate com­mu­ni­ties around them? These are dif­fi­cult enough ques­tions, with­out hav­ing to ask how we can push piece by piece toward a utopia that can­not be seen in all its outlines. 

Land­scape archi­tects could be sibyls, and oper­ate in true blind-chick­en-finds-ker­nel style in search of bril­liant, life-chang­ing inno­va­tions they can be prop­er­ly reward­ed for; this is the over­ar­ch­ing faith of the aca­d­e­m­ic pen. Alter­nate­ly, they could mud­dle through in their sep­a­rate pro­fes­sion­al quar­ters as most do today, with a few in the float­ing heav­en of inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal, some more in domes­tic development’s real world” of pig-pars­ley, and still oth­ers steer­ing at var­i­ous munic­i­pal helms with lit­tle to no thanks from the world of pres­tige. In this world, we seem con­demned to salve our con­sciences by sneak­ing evi­dence-based BMPs in front of an impa­tient clientele.

Here’s some­thing shiny in the sand from this blind chick­en, which may as read­i­ly be glass or a rough gem. In the same New York­er issue, Nathan Heller gives us a fair­ly san­guine take on David Graeber’s new Bull­shit Jobs. Grae­ber describes a large class of con­tem­po­rary employ­ment that feels super­flu­ous and accom­plish­es lit­tle. To him, what unites door­men and white-col­lar report writ­ers is a sta­tus that is at once absurd and unac­knowl­edged, one that Grae­ber diag­noses as a form of man­age­r­i­al feu­dal­ism” that fun­nels the past cen­turies of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gains into place­hold­er work. The work gen­er­at­ed by con­tem­po­rary orga­ni­za­tions, he asserts, tends to dis­play and fetishize human pres­ence and activ­i­ty instead of actu­al­ly doing any­thing with it. 

The writ­ing on the wall at this point, of course, is that labor in gen­er­al is enter­ing into cri­sis. Automa­tion is creep­ing to claim more and more skilled work, while ser­vice work becomes increas­ing­ly pre­car­i­ous. Labor in the afflu­ent world could fall into the most com­mon mod­el of civ­i­liza­tion to date: the major­i­ty scrab­ble entre­pre­neuri­al­ly” day to day to earn a mere liv­ing, kept in line by a police class who enforce the dis­tance between them and the elite. Or it could become some­thing bet­ter. There is a world around us, after all, that is untend­ed and uncar­ed-for. The effi­cien­cies of our cur­rent sys­tem have ground it into dross, and there it sits at our elbows. How much work is there, skilled, reward­ing, and com­mu­ni­ty-cen­tered, in improv­ing and tend­ing the envi­ron­ment we live in? I real­ize in writ­ing this that in machine-gun­ning stu­dents’ panacea farms for not tak­ing account of eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal con­straints, I have tak­en entire­ly the wrong approach. The goal instead should be to cul­ti­vate, by tri­al and exper­i­ment, such ideas, and to dis­cov­er how to make com­mu­ni­ty care a work­able propo­si­tion that not only fits into but active­ly bet­ters the larg­er sys­tem. That project is larg­er than land­scape archi­tec­ture, but it is one with­in our com­plex of skills and val­ues have a vital role to play. 

(June 2018)