In Entropy and the New Monuments, written one year before the trip to Passaic, Smithson stated that certain minimal objects celebrate what Flavin called an “inactive history” and what physicists call “entropy” or “energy dispersion”, the measure of energy utilized when one state is transformed into another. They were objects that confirmed the phrase of Vladimir Nabokov, for Whom “the future is simply inverted obsolescence.” According to Smithson, “the new monuments, rather than reminding us of the past, seem to want to make us forget the future.” In the empty spaces, forgotten by their very inhabitants, he recognizes the most natural territary of forgetting; a landscape that has taken on the character of a new entropic nature. In the Tour the description of the territory doesn’t lead to ecological-environmental considerations regarding the destruction of the river or the industrial wastes that make the water putrid, there is a delicate balance between renunciation and accusation, between renunciation and contemplation. The judgement is exclusively aesthetic, not ethical, never ecstatic. There is no enjoyment, no satisfaction, no emotional involvement in walking through the nature of suburbia. The discourse starts with an acceptance of reality as it presents itself, and continues on a plane of general reflection in which Passaic becomes the emblem of the periphery of the occidental world, the place of scrap, of the production of a new landscape made of refuse and disruption. The monuments are not admonishments, but natural elements that are an integral part of this new landscape, presences that live immersed in an entropic territory: they create it, transform it and destroy it, they are monuments self-generated by the landscape, wounds man has imposed on nature, and which nature has absorbed, transforming their meaning, accepting them in a new nature and a new aesthetic. The new landscape that appears in suburbia calls, according to Smithson, for a new discipline capable of grasping the significance of the transformation and mutation from the natural to the artificial and vice versa: “We live in defined structures, we are surrounded by reference systems but nature dismantles them, taking them back to an earlier state of non-integrity. Artists today are starting to notice the strongly evanescent character of this progressive disintegration of structures, Claude Lévi-Strauss has proposed the founding of a new discipline of ‘entropology’. Artists and art critics should orient their efforts in this direction.”
The breadth of knowledge demonstrated by Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and other pioneers in designing and planning the land continues to amaze me. They seemed to have studied and rigorously understood biology, the physical environment, aesthetics, and socioeconomics. They successfully tied together nature protection, recreation, sewage treatment, transportation, land restoration, visual quality, solid waste disposal, and water quality. Amazing!
Today society and the land desperately need designers and planners, or some other knowledgeable group, to step forward onto the broad solid shoulders of those giants. Ecologists, economists, and engineers obviously contribute in major ways. But today each has too few of the tools needed to create a sustainable synthesis of nature and culture. Meanwhile, most landscape designers are inspired by and primarily focused on important aesthetic dimensions, leaving society’s other major objectives to secondary status. And most planners today highlight important economics or public policy dimensions, leaving lesser status to other key societal objectives. Not surprisingly, I salute the impressive exceptions to these general patterns. Also, clearly, each field evolves over time, and today each has its vision of sustainability.
Nevertheless, this leaves society with tough questions: Is landscape design now largely peripheral to the major concerns of society? Is planning now largely enmeshed in the economic and governmental status quo? Is society now degrading landscapes and land at an accelerating pace? Do we hear the environmentalists’ crescendo calling for a sustainable future for land and people?
“Yes” resounds for all four questions. Yet I believe that design and planning have the potential to make a difference for land and people. Indeed, the footsteps of a vanguard of emerging leaders, outlining a new design and planning field, can be heard. Some have their names in this book.
Three key steps are needed to reach this new level.
First, the science of ecology must become a central foundation of design and planning. This will noticeably strengthen the field. But it also makes this the only discipline with a palette of expertise effectively embracing both natural systems and human culture.
Second, theory must become clearly stated and put to use in design and planning. That is, the central body of principles needs to be delineated and refined, both to solidify the field and to underpin dependable practice.
Third, boldness must become the norm. Boldness is an alternative to tinkering or the status quo, not a license that “anything goes.” Rather, to alter the dominant direction of human land-use change that is so detrimental to long-term nature and culture, boldness requires either a multitude of minor changes or a major new vision. In either case, the proposed solution must be sufficiently understandable and beneficial to society that it has real potential to spread widely in the near future. Neither a few minor changes nor an idiosyncratic new vision holds promise for accomplishing this objective. Assuming a major role in society requires stepping forward with bold new solution.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux & Co., Riverside (1869)
Frederick Law Olmsted, Emerald Necklace (1878-1894)
What is this thing called theory, and what does it do? James Corner has highlighted the contrast between two fundamentally different roles of theory. On the one hand, theory can generalize and codify knowledge, as a basis for practical action. This corresponds to the type of theory described by Garrett Eckbo in “Landscape for Living”, as “the generalization of social experience”. Such instrumental theory is typically derived from empirical observation. For example, Joan lverson Nassauer’s development of the concept of “cues for care” as a means to “frame” ecological restoration projects in a culturally acceptable way was developed from surveys of the attitudes of Midwestern farmers. Theory can also evolve from practical experience. The staged approach to site planning, codified into a set of principles by Kevin Lynch and John Ormsbee Simonds, is one of the most widely used theories in landscape architecture. It illustrates the way that such theory can provide a stable and coherent framework for a discipline.
On the other hand, theory can have a more critical role, which resists and challenges taken-for-granted ways of thinking, and puts forward alternatives. Elizabeth Meyer’s exploration of landscape architecture as other is an example of a critical theory. It challenges the modern view of landscape as a largely passive setting (or ground) for architecture, and instead argues for landscape architecture as an autonomous design practice expressing its own language of space and form. A second example of a critical theory is Corner’s advocacy of “recovering” landscape, with a consequential recasting of its role from being a passive product of culture to become an active and strategic agent of culture. Theoretical work that critiques current knowledge in this way disrupts and destabilizes the discipline, stimulating a search for new forms of knowledge and new ways of working.
Another potential role for theory lies between these two positions. Corner referred to the hermeneutic tradition of interpretation, and interpretive theory is well recognized in related disciplines as a form of knowledge that does not attempt to predict and control the world in the same way as instrumental theory, yet neither is it as disruptive as critical theory. Instead, an interpretive theory helps us better understand a situation, without necessarily changing it. Much of the knowledge of landscape history expressed in J. B. Jackson’s work is interpretive in this sense.
Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1970)
Errare humanum est…
The act of crossing space stems from the natural necessity to move to find the food and information required for survival. But once these basic needs have been satisfied, walking takes on asymbolic form that has enabled man to dwell in the world. Baby modifying the sense of the space crossed, walking becomes man’s first aesthetic act, penetrating the territories of chaos, constructing an order on which to develop the architecture of situated objects. Walking is an art from whose loins spring the menhir, sculpture, architecture, landscape. This simple action has given rise to the most important relationships man has established with the land, the territory.
Nomadic transhumance, generally thought of as the archetype for any journey, was actually ‘the development of the endless wanderings of hunters in the Paleolithic period, whose symbolic meanings were translated by the Egyptians in the ka, the symbol of eternal wandering. This primitive roving lived on in religion (the journey as ritual) and in literary forms (the journey as narrative), transformed as a sacred path, dance, pilgrimage, procession. Only in the last century has the journey-path freed itself of the constraints of religion and literature to assume the status of a pure aesthetic act. Today it is possible to construct a history of walking as a form of urban intervention that inherently contains the symbolic meanings of the primal creative act: roaming as architecture of the landscape, where the term landscape indicates the action of symbolic as well as physical transformation of anthropic space.
Dimitris Pikionis, Pathways to the Acropolis (1957)
A typical American suburban home is made up of three parts: house, backyard, and front lawn. An imaginary line runs through the middle, to one side of which is nature and community, to the other side splendor and society. Kitchen, located at the back of the house, caters to bodily needs. But it is also a center of communal warmth. Guests linger here, children run in and out, begging for a taste of the pie. Kitchen spills over into backyard, especially in summer. Family members, friends, and neighbors gather around the barbecue grill to chat, eat, and, after eating, perhaps sing. There pervades an air of good fellowship and informality. How can it be otherwise when one’s fingers are gooey with barbecue sauce? Further out is the vegetable garden. No flowers grow there-at least, nothing fanciful. The politics on this side of the home is communal and egalitarian, its ideal one of organic wholeness and wholesomeness, of human contentment nurtured by intimate contact with people, growing things, soil and earth.
To the other side-the front side-of my imaginary line are the more
formal spaces of living. Residents dress up to perform their roles. Everyone’s social standing is more on display. Young children are excluded, or made to behave like adults. Low-status people (salesman, maid, and plumber) penetrate the line when their work requires it, by way of the back door. A lawn with parterres of flowers spreads before the house, its size a measure of the family’s wealth and power. Life and its settings bespeak discipline, and discipline is indicative of a pretension to higher states of being. The body is disciplined by its encasement in glamorous but uncomfortable clothes. External nature is disciplined: weather is left to rage outside the house, while inside warmth rises from heat ducts, and smart conversation flows over a polished table. The lawn and its flower beds are geometrically arranged, a piece of regimented nature to be seen rather than used. From the upper floor’s front window, the owner of the house commands a view-one that extends beyond his own lawn to other people’s lawns.
The word “landscape” applies to the home from three points of view.
One important arena for building common ground in design and ecology, for example, would be developing an understanding of health that integrates ecological health and human health. In ecology, health has most often been thought of from the standpoint of biodiversity and sustainability, whereas landscape design in its early formulations included human health as one of its core concerns through civic design. A more unified concept of health than either discipline has embraced to date might conceive of human health in ecological terms, and in ways that dispel the illusion that we and our bodies are somehow separate from ecological realities.