Working Commons

Does it seem some­times like land­scape archi­tects are try­ing to do too much? Or try­ing to fit too much in? I start­ed to think so after a pro­found encounter the oth­er day with Ohio State’s Wet­land Research Park. This is a park that, despite being designed, despite intend­ing to wel­come, ends up hav­ing a most­ly non-com­mit­tal rela­tion­ship to its vis­i­tors, by virtue of main­ly being a research cen­ter that hap­pens to be acces­si­ble by a trail. A few flour­ish­es of design aside, the park does not try very hard to be pleas­ant; I guess it does­n’t help that it’s most­ly made of wet­lands. But it does give pub­lic access that is most­ly the same as the access meant for the researchers, and so it affords the rare pos­si­bil­i­ty of see­ing peo­ple doing unfa­mil­iar work on unfa­mil­iar struc­tures – improb­a­bly nar­row walk­ways, and look­outs, and perch­es strand­ed in the reeds. 

Its paths are close and mud­dy, the trees young and raw. When you find flow­er­ing cher­ries there, they are a stray part of the cov­er, instead of showy objects on the lawn. And I was struck, see­ing one bare arm of flow­ers, instead of a great pom of them – aren’t the flow­ers bet­ter this way? And I almost said more pre­cious, more rare, more fine. But what I real­ly meant to mean is that my expe­ri­ence of the flow­ers was better.

Now, espe­cial­ly if your work is research­ing wet­lands, is there a very defined line between work and plea­sure? I could ask a researcher, if I want­ed to. But they were all away on a dis­mal April day; and so instead I could spec­u­late on what they would be doing if they were work­ing; what gauges they would be haul­ing up, what flies they would earnest­ly be tal­ly­ing. Spoil­er: I would not ask them any­thing if they were there. I would watch them quick­ly behind the tan­gle of young trees and then move on. 

Here’s a test, one of John Constable’s paint­ings of Hamp­stead Heath from the 1820s. Who is set­ting the fire – clerks on a week­end hol­i­day? Unhoused peo­ple shar­ing a meal? Is it work or is it play? Does it mat­ter from this distance? 

constable painting
John Constable, HAMPSTEAD HEATH, WITH A BONFIRE (ca. 1822).

As part of this semester’s stu­dio, the stu­dents set about find­ing pub­lic spaces designed for the needs of mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, from street ven­dors to the unhoused. Some of the most com­pelling exam­ples are in rich cities of Europe, from Copenhagen’s Folkets Park to the Par­ck­farm in Brus­sels, where immi­grants and mem­bers of the pro­fes­sion­al class­es have tried to make com­mon cause. Despite the names, they seem more like com­mons than parks; places of pub­lic endeav­or instead of man­i­cured pre­serves. Sites like this thrive, at least for the time being, through the live­ly kitsch of com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, not wrought works of Space to ani­mate, but fairs trad­ing in the com­mon goods of fun and health. The com­mu­ni­ty farm­ers, the main char­ac­ters of these spaces: are they work­ing? Are they play­ing? Are they there to be seen?

To this we might add the semi-self-built land­scapes of Berlin, places like Tem­pel­hofer Feld and Gleis­dreieck where a push-pull between grass­roots and admin­is­tra­tion on site has been medi­at­ed by design­ers; to how much of anyone’s sat­is­fac­tion, as a far­away design­er, I do not and will not pre­sume to know.See the help­ful primers on these sites in the March 2014 LAM. Tem­pel­hofer Feld, like Hamp­stead Heath, seems to suc­ceed not through kitsch, not by speak­ing to any­one, but by being blank, a place to stand out­side of forced con­text and watch each oth­er, watch sky­larks and air­planes and tow­ers, being and doing as though they could be on their own.

Are the sky­larks working? 

Tempelhofer Feld
Tempelhofer Feld, via dronepicr on Wikimedia Commons.

(April 2021)