Big Nature

Our performance -how we consume, how we waste- is incontrovertibly connected to the state of the environment. We have always had a desirous relation to nature- whether agrarian or industrial, literary or aesthetic. As our technological culture accelerates toward entrepreneurial environments, bonding with Big Nature may come… well, naturally.

Recently, critic and landscape architect Richard Weller pointed out that “landscape architecture is yet to really have its own modernism, an ecological modernity, an ecology free of romanticism and aesthetics”. Because of their functionalism, we are tempted to understand these nexts landscapes as a kind of ecomodernism. But to flourish, they will need to appeal, if not to our sense of romance, at least to our sensibility about how decisions we make today impact the future. We are no longer innocent; contemporary culture is coming to grisps with the Anthropocene epoch, a period that, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggests, began in the late 1700s with the onslaught of fueled human activity.

The onus of our new environmentalism includes a call for an advanced stewardship that is not just about protection or remediation, but an entrepreneurial redefinition of our relationship to nature.

Jane Amidon, Big Nature (2010)

Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Qunli Stormwater Park (2011)




Why does the project result in isolation? In fact, the question has already been answered. Each project is above all the declaration of another, new future that is thought to come about once the project has been executed. But in order to build such a new future, one first has to take a leave of absence, a time in which the project shifts its agent into a parallel state of heterogeneous time. This other timeframe, in turn, disconnects from time as society experiences it –it is de-synchronized. Society’s life carries on regardless– the usual run of things remains unaffected. But somewhere beyond this general flow of time, someone has begun working on a project -writing a book, preparing an exhibition, or plotting a spectacular assassination- in the hopes that the completed project will alter the general run of things and all mankind will be bequeathed a different future: the very future, in fact, anticipated and aspired to in this project. (…)

The author of the project already knows the future, since the project is nothing other than the description of it. And this is why the approval process is so highly unpleasant to the project’s author: at the earliest stage of the submission, the author is already asked to give a meticulously detailed description of how this future will be brought about and what its outcome will be. While the project will be turned down and refused funding if the author proves incapable of doing so, successfully delivering such a precise description will also eliminate the very distance between an author and the others -a distance critical to the entire development of the project. if everyone knows from the very outset what course the project will take and what its outcome will be, then the future will no longer come as a surprise. (…)

Sartre once described the state of “being-in-the-project” as the ontological condition of human existence.  According to Sartre, each person lives from the perspective of an individual future that necessarily remains barred from the view of others. In Sartre’s terms, this condition results in the radical alienation of each individual, since everyone else can only see this individual as the result of his or hers individual, and never as heterogeneous projection from these circumstances. Consequently, the heterogeneous parallel timeframe of the project remains elusive to any form of representation in the present. Hence for Sartre, the project is tainted by the suspicion of escapism, the deliberate avoidance of social communication and individual responsibility. So it is no surprise that he also describes the subject’s ontological condition as a state of “mauvaise foi” or insincerity.

Boris Groys, Going Public (2010)

Landscape Architects of Bangkok, The Metro Forest (2014)


Meaning Depends

Meaning depends on all the receptors, whether they are users, sponsors, critics or theorists. This angle is not examined very deeply in the literature because investigating the response of all these ‘beings’ is highly complicated. It demands a deep understanding of the development of the socio-economic setting, the identification of all those who give meaning to the place and for whom it has meaning, and the renunciation of beliefs such as the existence of a single truth to be attained and a universal mental structure. It also demands that we question, as Potteiger and Purinton do, the narrative’s capacity to respond to the programming and forces us to believe in the possibility of giving meaning and still giving comfort, as Herrington says. As these authors suggest, using narrative to lend meaning to a garden involves the users and critics as much as it involves the designers.

Meaning as an approach to landscape architecture is criticised and questioned by the very people who expound it. According to Barnett, the search for meaning does not change the reality of the spaces themselves, while Treib asks whether it is possible to discuss meaning without defining it, and whether the reality, after all, is that the designers simply suggest meaning and it is up to the users to find it.

Nicole Valois, Josiane Paradis, Place Émilie-Gamelin in Montréal – landscape narrative, meaning and the uses of public space (2010)

Imma Jansana + Robert de Paauw, Barcelona Turo de la Rovira Belvedere (2011)


At Ease

While the current climate crisis tightens its stranglehold on contemporary society, many are those who put their faith in groundbreaking design and artistic innovation. As a side effect of the climate threat, this renewed celebration of creative agency may be welcome, not the least from a landscape architecture perspective since, in the context of sustainable development, every design action is also a landscaping gesture with environmental implications. Nevertheless, isolated from a broader societal context, these new eco-scapes risk ending up as nothing but attractive emerald patches disguising a sprawling global ‘junkspace’. As an expanded field of aesthetic and political agency, however, the emerging sustainability culture offers new perspectives on creative spatial practice. Approaching the environmental issue from the perspective of contemporary landscape related art practices, this article seeks to contribute to the articulation of a landscape aesthetics that would meet the requirements of our agitated time. Such articulation, however, requires a reconsideration of landscape aesthetics beyond the consoling and beautiful, as well as a fundamental shift in landscape thinking from representation to agency. The future eco-scape is not necessarily a sphere where you feel ‘at ease’, but a performative and unsettled space in constant transformation and change.

(Upper image: James Corner with Prince William and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (now Prime Minister) visiting the Queen Elizabeth Olimpic Park in London, (Field Operations Website)

Distance and Engagement

Particular conception of design processes; derived from Claude Levi-Strauss’s analysis of Edgard Allan Poe’s short story of two brothers who suffered a shipwreck caused by a whirpool. During the ‘Descent into the Maelström’, one brother, in awe of his immediate circumstances, is overcome with fear and drowns (engagement); the other brother detaches himself from reality, ensuring his survival by clinging to a floating drum (distance).

Gunther Vogt cit. Alice Foxley (ed.), Distance and Engagement (2010)


1695 Novartis Campus Park_pic13




Günther Vogt, Basel Novartis Campus (2011) (Christian Vogt photos)


Fashionable Ecologism

The beginning of the organic movement had a mistaken attitude, because it didn’t place any emphasis on pleasure. It was an ideological, almost religious approach. It ignored pleasure. Pleasure is not antithetical to health, pleasure is not the enemy of sustainability. Pleasure is moderation, and with moderation we can be sustainable. An environmentalist or an organic farmer that is not also cultivating pleasure is just out of this world.

Carlo Petrini, Slow food: the case for taste (2004)

Examining a number of strategies to popularize environmentalism in the United States, Damien Cave of The New York Times presented a prescient (and humorous) argument for environmental branding in his 2005 article, “It’s Not Sexy Being Green (Yet).” Cave’s essay, in the “Fashion and Style” pages, drew upon the expertise of advertising executives, cultural critics, and environmentalists to, in effect, make being green cool. Reflecting on past environmental crises, Cave recalled the 1970’s as an era of malaise, symbolized by the cardigan sweater President Jimmy Carter wore while delivering his “Crisis of Confidence” speech (1979), a speech that encouraged the general public to reduce their use of energy. This infamous sweater, once denoting lower thermostats and a dwindling energy supply, seems emblematic some twenty-five years later of a challenging and less prosperous time, synonymous with a “righteous denial of fun” and an unfortunate fashion statement. Ironically, Carter was the first president to bring photovoltaic panels to the White House, a fashionable statement of the time that was promptly negated during the Reagan years when they were disassembled.

That environmentalism might escape its sartorial rappings, Cave recognized the need to resituate the green movement for the twenty-first century. Following a number of experts who advocated a newly branded environmentalism -including Earth Day founder, Denis Hayes, who proposed “the easiest way to make something cool is to get cool people to do it”- Cave suggested environmentalism’s spokesperson might need to be a bit sexier than Jimmy Carter, asserting singer Michael Stipe or rapper Mos Def would be better candidates. To this end, Cave advocated the employment of numerous branding strategies, ranging from the use of humor and self-deprecation to irony and satire, even suggesting “conservation needs to become more trendy than a line of sneakers”.

So, why not draw from a broader rank of artists in this quest for coolness? Bruce Sterling, for instance, sci-fi author and founder of the Viridian design movement, could lend his skills in satire, as evidenced by a number of Viridian spoofs including the “Welcome to the Greenhouse” issue of Whole Earth.

Lisa Tider, Ecologies of Access (2010)

Agence Babylone, Riverside Square (2014)



The urban park was a 19th-century concept, its invention necessary to provide relief to the urban victims of the new, untamed metropolis. (…) Planning, real estate development, and the poetic presence of nature were combined. Properly regarded, these were the purest forms of landscape urbanism—or landscape-as-infrastructure.

This Olmstedian principle seems still to be the ideal of landscape urbanism, although in practice hardly any critical attention is paid to some of its weaker aspects. Why is it so easily taken for granted that the green of parks will bring a better world?

First, the steadily increasing area of suburban green structures is of a dubiously hybrid character: they are often loud statements of overdesigned park architecture expressing a desire for liveliness, and for the cultural significance of beloved 19th-century city parks; but on the other hand, they attempt to create an idealistic wilderness. Realization of these plans often results in a strange nonworld of cultivated innocence. The essential characteristics a park needs to survive, so exhaustively described by Jane Jacobs, are almost always lacking. According to her analysis, for parks and greenery to succeed, a good context is fundamental. Many city dwellers see peripheral green zones as valuable green background, but also as potentially dangerous, and as places to be avoided. There is simply too little activity and no mixing of user groups. Park designers have not succeeded in giving these parks the allure of nature and wilderness.

Second, landscape architecture is fundamentally linked to nature, to mother earth. But the perception of “nature” is a cultural phenomenon, quite different from one country to another. The elemental forces of nature have also, through prosperity or privation, shaped behavioral second natures— yielding national identities, religions, livelihoods, and even wars. From these basic conditions cultures are formed, each with its particular perceptions of nature. When you talk with di erent nationalities about nature, you are confronted by deeply rooted feelings and cultural convictions, all of which are assumed to be a matter of “common sense.”

Finally, the pretension often is that parks are the result of ideology and craftsmanship, and are therefore inherently unique and valuable. However, landscape architecture, in contrast to architecture, is concerned almost exclusively with the public realm—parks, boulevards, riverfronts, streetscapes, and so on. To reach decisions and establish nances, we must work with politicians, local citizens, and bureaucracies with diverse legal systems. Landscape architecture will always focus on outreach, public opinion, interaction, public policy, implementation, and compromise. The discipline cannot avoid responding to sociopolitical contexts.

Economists have an acronym to identify the forces driving development: PESTEL (politics, economics, sociology, technology, environment, and law). It is critically important that contemporary planning initiatives explicitly take these factors into account. Clearly such diverse issues as governance and legislation, high- and low-tech implementation strategies, grassroots advocacy, and megaprojects all are attendant on public policy. So in practice landscape architects and park designers work in a realm between illusion and public policy, and our work is inevitably the most banal and compromised among the design disciplines. At the end of the day, are the built realities anywhere close to the dreamt-of parks and artist’s impressions?

SWA Group, Ningbo East New Town Eco-Corridor (2013-)


Destruction of Public Space

Watching Children of Men, we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. Once, dystopian films and novels were exercises in such acts of imagination – the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living. Not so in Children of Men. The world that it projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it. In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist. In Children of Men, public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and stalking animals (one especially resonant scene takes place inside a derelict school, through which a deer runs). Neoliberals, the capitalist realists par excellence, have celebrated the destruction of public space but, contrary to their official hopes, there is no withering away of the state in Children of Men, only a stripping back of the state to its core military and police functions (I say ‘official’ hopes since neoliberalism surreptitiously relied on the state even while it has ideologically excoriated it. This was made spectacularly clear during the banking crisis of 2008, when, at the invitation of neoliberal ideologues, the state rushed in to shore up the banking system.)

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative? (2010)


Header: Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men (2006)


Thus, long before the Earth was viewed from the moon, our perspective has changed. In a movement that seems at first contrary to ecology, we are looking according to Vidal de la Blache, at the relationship between Earth and man from a greater distance and in ever more comprehensive ways. He had already seen how phenomena in the atmosphere affect not only their immediate surroundings but also places thousands of miles away. No part of the planet exists in isolation. All of Earth’s parts are coordinated. Every local study is subject to the general laws that apply to all local studies. This fundamental unity of the planet has been recognized since antiquity, but it was only in the 19thcentury during the early stages of globalization that it found expression in human experience. Think, for instance, of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. We scarcely realize how thin earth’s hospitable surface is –a mere veneer, at most- and how intimate our bond with it is.

Blinded by the market, which has been only too pleased to comply with the demand for more artifice and difference, architects have preferred to ignore this terrestrial unity. Buildings, we know, are responsible for some 40% of all CO2 emissions. This fact alone should prompt architects to look beyond a mere compliance with regulations and encourage them to explore the general conditions of the earth and the reciprocity between these conditions and their work. 

Irénée Scalbert, New Apples (2010)

(Thank you Despoina Zavraka)


Kathryn Gustafson, Shell Petroleum Headquarters Garden (1991)



Social Sculpture

One of Beuys’ most popular and final pieces of art was a commissioned piece titled “7000 Eichen” (7000 Oaks). The piece was something Beuys considered to be a “social sculpture.” He was commissioned in 1982 to do a piece for Germany’s Documenta 7. He then delivered a large, mysterious pile of basalt stones. Somebody then noticed that if viewed from above, the pile made the shape of an arrow which then pointed to a single oak tree that Beuys had planted along with the stones. Beuys then went on to announce the full scale of the project: He asked that no stone be moved, unless it were to have an oak tree planted right beside its new location. For the next five years, numerous people pitched in to help this project reach full fruition. Although it was first viewed as controversial, 7000 Eichen went on to perfectly represent the idea of a social sculpture, in that it was defined as both “participatory and interdisciplinary.” Beuys had an insistence on making every human an artist all contributing to one piece, and what better example than this could he have produced? He united a community through participation, and changed the land around him and his community as a result. Now the city of Kassel, Germany is riddled with 7000 trees, and Beuys art has lived on, giving back to a community long after he has passed.

Douglas, Joseph Beuys (2010)

Being coherent with our own premises on knowledge, we borrow here a post from a Portland State University student’s blog about “INTRODUCTION TO THREE-DIMENSIONAL DESIGN” that describes with precision a famous Joseph Beuys action. In it, we can see clearly a typical case of participation becoming relationalism (see Exchange with the Audience). Beuys creates a device for people’s landscape transformation that needs to be developed complicity and collaboration among participants. This procedure open, in fact, a powerful strategy of design that changes the communicative structure of the typical work of art because even if the artist (or designer) is still there giving an opportunity and some rules to the public, the work of art becomes more than the landscape generated, the relational process open into the public, the birth of alliances, the people’s expression, and the transformation of the human landscape of the city.

7000 Oak Trees 1982 by Joseph Beuys 1921-1986

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks (1982)