‘Capability’

More abstractly, the rise of informality in garden design coincides with a growing interest in empiricism. A devotion to rational geometry gave way to careful observation of the apparent irregularities of the natural world. The serpentine ‘line of beauty’ identified in William Hogarth’s “The Analysis of Beauty” much resembles the serpentine curves of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown lake. In the middle of the century, Brown (1716-83) was ascendant and he remains the best-remembered of his peers, in part because he was so prolific, but also because of his memorable moniker which derives from his habit of telling his patrons, having toured their estates, that he thought he saw ‘capabilities’ in them, his own word for ‘possibilities’ or ‘potential’. Brown’s design formula included the elimination of terraces, balustrades, and all traces of formality; a belt of trees thrown around the park; a river dammed to create a winding lake; and handsome trees dotted through the parkland, either individually or in clumps. Interestingly, Brown did not call himself a landscape gardener. He preferred the terms ‘placemaker’ and ‘improver’, which in many ways are conceptually closer to the role of the modern-day landscape architect than ‘landscape gardener’. (…)

Criticism of Brown began in his own day and intensified after his death. He was criticized in his own time, not for destroying many formal gardens (which he certainly did), but for not going far enough towards nature. Among his detractors were two Hereford squires’ Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, both advocates of the new picturesque style. To count as Picturesque, a view or a design had to be a suitable subject for a painting, but enthusiasts for the new fashion were of the opinion that Brown’s landscapes were too boring to qualify. Knigts’s didactic poem “The Landscape” was directed against Brown, whose interventions, he said, could only create a ‘dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene’. What was required was some roughness, shagginess, and variety. This is an argument mirrored in today’s opposition between manicured lawns and wildflower meadows. In the United States, where smooth trimmed lawns have been the orthodox treatment for the front yard, often regulated by city ordinances, growing anything other than a well-tended monoculture of grass in front of the house can be controversial.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)

  

Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Blenheim Estate (1764)

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Coffin

Ian McHarg, too, was concerned about unrestricted developement. The idea that some developments are more suitable to some landscapes than to others seems only common sense, but when homes built on floodplains are inundated, or hotels built on cliff tops fall into the sea, the extent of human folly becomes evident. We could avoid such calamities and live more harmoniusly whit nature, thought McHarg, if we took natural processes and values into account. He proposed a method for bringing everything into the picture. Known as ‘landscape suitability analysis’ or sometimes just as ‘sieve-mapping’, the technique he developed involved layering information on acetate sheets. So, for example, in considering the optimal route for a new highway, McHarg would combine layers showing the engineering properties of the substrates with layers showing productive soils, significant wildlife habitats, important cultural sites, and so on. When these were combined, it was the areas which were clearest of symbols that were the better areas in which to construct the road. The method also worked” well for planning development at a regional scale. Typically, after gathering physiographic, climatic, and geological data, McHarg could produce suitability maps, usually zoned for agriculture, forestry, recreation, and urban development. The method, which relied on extensive gathering and manipulation of data, became much easier with the growing availability of computers, and ‘McHarg’s Method’ became the basis of the technology known as GIS (Geographical Information System) which uses digital map layers instead of superimposed drawings.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)


Some years later, however, another nail in the coffin of the designed landscape was drilled: the publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, which cited the natural world as the only viable model for landscape architecture. This text provided landscape architects with both an analytical method and sufficient moral grounds to avoid almost completely decisions of form and design -that is, if design is taken as the concious shaping of landscape rather than its stewardship alone. McHarg emphasized the evolving study of natural ecology and remained within the bounds of natural processes and planning. A strong moral imperative underpinned the discourse; it mixed science with evangelism -a sort of ecofundamentalism. In his writtings and lectures, McHarg took no prisoners and allowed no quarter.

Marc Treib, Nature Recalled (1999)

Ian McHarg, Minimum Social Cost Alignment of a Road (late 1960s)

 

Nobody

Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, and nowadays, hardly anybody likes it when you mention the environment. You risk sounding boring or judgmental or hysterical, or a mixture of all these. But there is a deeper reason. Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, not because you are pointing out something obscene that should remain hidden—that is at least partly enjoyable. Nobody likes it because when you mention it, it becomes conscious. In the same way, when you mention the environment, you bring it into the foreground. In other words, it stops being the environment. It stops being That Thing Over There that surrounds and sustains us. When you think about where your waste goes, your world starts to shrink. This is the basic message of criticism that speaks up for environmental justice, and it is the basic message of this book.

Timothy Morton. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. (2000)

Leviathan-poster

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Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan (2014)

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Most critical readings of Leviathan focus on its treatment of the relationship between state power and the individual, overshadowing the importance of the land. Yet, land is a central issue in the film. It is Nicolai’s land that functions as a motor of the story; its prized position on the edge of the cape is what sparks the Mayor’s desire to acquire it, and it is Nicolai’s ancestral connection to the land that drives him into a self-destructive opposition to state power. The central question of Leviathan can thus be read not only as, “How much power should the state have over the individual?” but also how much power it has over land and nature. The destruction of Nicolai’s house and its replacement by a new church serves as the key visual metaphor of the film; Nicolai’s organic bond to his natural surroundings is destroyed in a methodical act of house-demolition, paralleling the moral, judicial, and psychological destruction of its owner. However, as Simon Schama suggests, landscape, in contrast to nature, is constructed by the mind and pervaded by memory.

Julia Vassilieva, Russian Leviathan: Power, Landscape, Memory, 2018

 

Desubstantialized

Nature, ecology, and landscape are important reference concepts for landscape architecture. Traditionally, all three have been considered polar opposites from culture or humanity, in a dualistic relationship. With regard to the latter two, this position has changed ecology has been conceptualized as something cultural that can be designed by humans, and a similar shift has occurred with the traditional understanding of ‘landscape’; for example, with recent definitions by J. B. Jackson as a man-made, artificial system, or by the European Landscape Convention as ‘the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors’. A like integrative understanding of ecology and landscape has also been proposed in landscape architectural theory (as well as in philosophy) for some decades now, serving as the foundation for new movements, such as landscape urbanism or ecological urbanism. Yet nature, the most far-reaching of the three concepts, is still mainly understood in the traditional way. Nature is seen as a counterpart to human culture, as something independent from human influence a concept that has dominated the Western world since Aristotle. But, is this a problem? It would be if this type of nature -something independent from human influence- no longer existed, which is precisely what many philosophers or scientists propose today.

According to philosopher Slavoj Zizek, ‘Today, with the latest biogenetic developments, we are entering a new phase in which nature itself melts into air: the main consequence of the breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of nature’s construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus “desubstantialized”, deprived of its impenetrable density’.

Inspired by the nearby mountain range, Khao Yai, Thailand’s largest rain forest, the landscape is created as the link between the architecture and Nature. Instead of trying to produce a faked natural forest, the architecture is interpreted as big trees while the landscape represents the green areas underneath. Working with different qualities of sunlight, the landscape solution successfully introduces the man-made sustainable forest, which inspires the residents to understand and appreciate what Nature is all about.

T.R.O.P., Botanica Khao Yai (2014)

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Metamorphosis

Climate change is creating existential moments of decision. This is unintended, unseen, unwanted, and is neither goal oriented nor ideologically driven. The literature on climate change has become a supermarket for apocalyptic scenarios. Instead, the focus should be on what is now emerging—future structures, norms, and new beginnings.

Metamorphosis is about a new way of generating and implementing norms in the age of climate change. A brief look at the history of world risk society illustrates this concept. Before Hiroshima happened, no one understood the power of nuclear weapons; but afterward, the sense of violation created a strong normative and political momentum: “Never again Hiroshima!” Violations of human existence like Hiroshima induce anthropological shocks and social catharsis, challenging and changing the order of things from within.

“Never again Holocaust!” This metamorphosis decouples our normative horizons from existing norms and laws. I am referring here to something profound. A former basic principle of national law was that an act could not be judged in hindsight against a law that did not exist at the time the act was committed. So while it was legal under Nazi law to kill Jews, it became, in hindsight, a crime against humanity. It was not simply a law that changed, but our social horizons—our very being in the world. This is exactly what I mean by metamorphosis. In the case of climate change as a moment of metamorphosis, nature, society, and politics coalesce.

Ulrich Beck. How Climate Change Might Save the World: Metamorphosis. (2014)

Ecosistema Urbano, Eco Boulevard Vallecas (2007)

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Header: Maurits Cornelis Escher, Metamorphosis II (1940)

Dig Down

ln its original meaning, ‘landscape’ was not a net draped over the surface of things. lt was a thing shaped from, and the act of shaping, the earth. It was the digging of ditches and canals, the mounding up of berms and walls, the shaping and reshaping of these things over centuries. The substrate was the matrix of this shaping. Landscape went deep beneath the feet into the topsoil, into the gurgling bubbling under that, then deeper still into rock and heat. This early, earthy side of landscape was all but lost in the seventeenth century, and we live in the shadow of that loss. For without knowing the world under your feet, you will never fully know the world before your eyes.

So: get down on your knees. Lay your hands on the ground, then start digging and do not stop until your hands are bloody. Then turn your palms upward and smell the landscape there. Feel the roots of things. 

Thomas Oles, Go with Me. 50 Steps to Landscape Thinking. (2014)

THUPDI + Thinghua University, Shangai Quarry Garden (2010)

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