Attempts by particular professions or disciplines to define social and· biophysical reality in a particular way are a necessary characteristic of collective action. At the same time, they invariably express to some degree the particular interests of the group involved. The challenge faced by any critically aware practitioner or academic is to recognize the inevitability of this linkage, yet at the same time to maintain a personal commitment to informed and responsible social action.
Simon Swaffield, Roles and Meanings of “Landscape” (1991)
What is the value of “practice-as-criticism” for a discipline in general and landscape architecture in particular? An act of criticism is an act of creation, a productive endeavor. What sort of creation? I will focus on three creative contributions of critical design inquiry.
- Criticism fosters precision of language. As Tafuri has suggested, criticism “sets limits” on the ambiguity of architecture. Through the terminology it employs, the relationships it elucidates, and the strategies it uses -combination, description, comparison, and recomposition— criticism makes precise the formal language of design, whether architecture or landscape architecture.
Criticism produces new ways to think and evaluate. Such commentary or interpretation reflects not only existing systems of value and operation, but may produce new systems of value and operation. Accordingly, the form of criticism itself may suggest new strategies for future work.
Critical inquiry agitates for change. In addition to codifying language and projecting new directions, criticism has, again in Tafuri’s words, the duty to “exasperate, to increase the unease” of a discipline. This unease is frequently a function not of commenting on what was done, but on what was not done or said, on the silences within a project that bespeak much about situational or worldly meaning.
Who produces criticism? As my introduction suggested, designers as well as writers can engage in critical inquiry. However, in order for a landscape architect’s physical creation to be understood as a type of critical inquiry, there must be agreed upon (i.e., well established) norms or codes upon which deviations or commentary can be measured and evaluated (Colquhoun, Silvetti). These norms and codes, embodied in theory, are the basic stuff of a landscape architectural education. They are taught in our courses in design, drawing, history, theory, technology, ecology, and so forth. As such, critical inquiry for a practicing landscape architect is possible or not possible because of the speciﬁcs of landscape architectural education.
Elizabeth K. Meyer, Discussion Papers: Landscape Architectural Design as a Critical Practice (1991)