Work And Care

A recent roundup review on Pub­lic Books by my old friend Mar­i­ana Mogile­vich helped me get a lit­tle fur­ther with a few of my own pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Mogile­vich com­pares two mod­els of land­scape archi­tec­ture, as rep­re­sent­ed in two recent books: a future of opti­mistic and engaged prac­tice rep­re­sent­ed by Kate Orff and her firm SCAPE in their Toward an Urban Ecol­o­gy, and a lin­eage of lofty and removed prac­tice rep­re­sent­ed by Charles Wald­heim in his Land­scape as Urban­ism. Mogile­vich draws out the gen­der divide inher­ent in this divi­sion. She relays con­nec­tions made by the his­to­ri­ans Emi­ly Eliza Scott and Thaïsa Way between Orff and a broad­er tra­di­tion of ecofem­i­nism, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the work of the artist Mier­le Lader­man Uke­les. Mogile­vich, through Scott and Way, affirms Orf­f’s work as uphold­ing the val­ue of ongo­ing, open-end­ed engage­ment with a com­mu­ni­ty, as exem­pli­fied in Uke­les’ decades-long embed­ding in the New York City Depart­ment of San­i­ta­tion — this is prac­tice under­stood lit­er­al­ly as prac­tice, as day-to-day, as work­ing toward the best-possible. 

This is a dis­tinct alter­na­tive to the more habit­u­al under­stand­ing of land­scape archi­tec­ture as the lit­tle fin­ger of Le Corbusier’s hov­er­ing hand. As taught in our schools, land­scape archi­tec­ture is gen­er­al­ly under­stood as the itin­er­ant pro­duc­tion of projects – a hole is drawn, and a prod­uct is excret­ed to fill it, where­upon it is pho­tographed and left behind. In Mogile­vich’s view, land­scape as verb is pit­ted against land­scape as noun; land­scape as care, as con­ver­sa­tion, or con­ver­gence, is pit­ted against land­scape as dis­crete works, ref­er­ence points, dis­tinct dol­mens ris­ing from a plain.

This got me think­ing fur­ther about the ways in which Orff’s work coun­ters, but also car­ries on from the land­scape urban­ist project and the larg­er his­to­ry of object-mak­ing in spa­tial design: most of all, the ways that pub­lic­i­ty makes even spaces that are pro­found­ly not object-like into what appear as bun­dles of objects, signed and under­signed in the man­ner of art­works. Take her Petro­chem­i­cal Amer­i­ca book with Richard Mis­rach, which under­stands Can­cer Alley by trans­lat­ing it into two series of over­lap­ping objects: Misrach’s glow­ing pho­tographs, and map­pings” square­ly in the land­scape urban­ist vein. The result is a removed view that per­suades a read­er that Mis­rach and Orff have bet­ter under­stood this land­scape through the lens of their own work, and in rela­tion to their own lin­eages; but this view does not trans­mit the expe­ri­ences, the ways of see­ing, the ways of mak­ing, of the actors who inhab­it the landscape. 

This seems to me at once com­plete­ly fit­ting and a deep prob­lem. Petro­chem­i­cal Amer­i­ca, as I empha­size when I teach it, is rare in that it is a work by a spa­tial design­er with­out a pre­scrip­tion for the space – it is pure­ly descrip­tive. The book is not an inter­nal doc­u­ment of a design process as worked through with a com­mu­ni­ty, and does not present itself as such; it trans­mits out to a glob­al pub­lic that attunes itself to pres­tige dis­course in design, art, and envi­ron­ment. It rein­forces the place of low­er Louisiana on the map;” it joins a net­work of study and talk around the place and thus makes pos­si­ble invest­ment (in a few sens­es of the word) by out­siders. Most char­i­ta­bly, the book con­tin­ues Orff’s design activism by oth­er means, in anoth­er sphere. 

But less char­i­ta­bly, it repeats once more the pro­duc­tion of objects, of names, to fill voids. The bespoke, taste­ful object may as eas­i­ly mark the reifi­ca­tion, or the end, of engage­ment. Orff is not new in using land­scape as pub­lic ser­vice, in see­ing her prac­tice as activism addressed to com­mu­ni­ties; even in the strictest sense of the term, this goes back to the 1960s in pro­fes­sion­al land­scape archi­tec­ture. Where she is new, I think, is in build­ing a brand net­work around this core of ideas that can be accept­ed in the gen­er­al pub­lic and the more rar­efied precincts of the design world, enter­ing into a dif­fer­ent canon of taste. As much as the rough-and-ready visu­al cul­ture of the engaged prac­tice of the 1960s has come into the fold, it is hard­er to see cer­tain aspects of what was being done, say in and around Berke­ley, ever being inte­grat­ed into the world of cof­fee-table mono­graphs – if com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment does not need to sen­ti­men­tal, unpol­ished, and home­ly, it very often is, and for very good reasons.

Chang­ing the ecol­o­gy of design thought by chang­ing the objects inhab­it­ing it is one thing. What about the built work, and the fir­m’s respon­si­bil­i­ties to it? SCAPE’s site projects tend to cen­ter around New York, the firm’s home, and it is easy enough to imag­ine its design­ers keep­ing their hands in the process­es of for­ma­tion that allow such new land­scapes to be at their best as actors, to con­tin­ue to speak to their orig­i­nal aims. Will this be pos­si­ble with land­scapes made far­ther afield, as the scope of the fir­m’s work enlarges? These new projects have every rea­son to fall afoul of the usu­al dan­gers of designed land­scape – sleep­walk­ing main­te­nance and a creep­ing lack of invest­ment. Even if land­scapes seem to have low­er mor­tal­i­ty rates than build­ings, the more they risk, the more they seem liable to be replaced by more nor­mal­ized ver­sions of them­selves. See Sky­line Park, or Har­le­quin Plaza.

Here we reach the ques­tion: should the design­ing firm retain the charge of the spaces they help make at all? Or should they rec­og­nize that new spaces have to leave the fold and work as actors on their own, or rather, as con­ven­ers of their own communities? 

As I teach the his­to­ry of land­scape archi­tec­ture before land­scape archi­tects, I am always fas­ci­nat­ed by the half-seen fig­ures of those who made land­scapes before the advent of pro­fes­sion­al­ism. I real­ize that I tend to revert to the idea of an unknown chef care­ful­ly fash­ion­ing his chef‑d’œuvre. If such a fig­ure is lack­ing, it frus­trates our learned per­cep­tions of worth, not least the ones we pick up in our design edu­ca­tion – if we wish a bet­ter knowl­edge of the built envi­ron­ment to our peers out­side the pro­fes­sion, we often want that to take the form of see­ing and acknowl­edg­ing author­ship. Because we define our pro­fes­sion by mak­ing projects, we exalt the project-mak­ers and set aside the com­mu­ni­ties that do the work of car­ing, of slow rein­ven­tion. Women, it seems plain, need names and need vis­i­bil­i­ty; they need to be cred­it­ed and attend­ed to. But they may also con­tin­ue on tra­di­tions of worth that evade the expec­ta­tion of mas­ter-names and mas­ter-pieces. How bet­ter to give val­ue to the women and men who con­tribute to SCAPE? The out­side actors who guide and ful­fill their found­ing aims? The inher­i­tors who fur­ther the orig­i­nal aims of the project? 

Mogile­vich ends her piece, Design Against Dis­as­ter,” by plac­ing land­scape archi­tec­ture work as our best bul­wark against dev­as­ta­tion – pre­cise­ly because it can com­bine both dra­mat­ic and incre­men­tal mea­sures.” Under such a mod­el, sweep­ing visions of a bet­ter future can be worked toward tac­ti­cal­ly and rela­tion­al­ly, with meet­ings of open minds. Think­ing on it, I can’t con­ceive of a bet­ter char­ter for retain­ing our iden­ti­ty and his­to­ry, retain­ing an us” that focus­es on the work of land­scape-mak­ing while mak­ing nec­es­sary changes in our notions of who is count­ed and included. 

But this, a big ship in of itself to turn around, has to reck­on with the oth­er, yet big­ger, ships maneu­ver­ing in the crowd­ed harbor.

(November 2016)