Role of Beauty

Sustainable landscape design is generally understood in relation to three principles -ecological health, social justice and economic prosperity. Rarely do aesthetics factor into sustainability discourse, except in negative asides conflating the visible with the aesthetic and rendering both superfluous.

This article examines the role of beauty and aesthetics in a sustainability agenda. It argues that it will take more than ecologically regenerative designs for culture to be sustainable, that what is needed are designed landscapes that provoke those who experience them to become more aware of how their actions affect the environment, and to care enough to make changes. This involves considering the role of aesthetic environmental experiences, such as beauty, in re-centering human consciousness from an egocentric to a more bio-centric perspective. This argument in the form of a manifesto is inspired by American landscape architects whose work is not usually understood as contributing to sustainable design.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Sustaining Beauty (2008)

Piet Oudolf, Hummelo (2017 video)

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Hypernature

Hypernature: the recognition of art
The recognition of art is fundamental to, and a precondition of landscape design.
This is not a new idea; nineteenth-century landscape design theorists J.C. Loudon, A.J. Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted advocated as much when making the case for the inclusion of landscape design or landscape architecture as one of the Fine Arts. More recently, Michael Van Valkenburgh and his partners, Laura Solano and Matthew Urbanksi, expressed their interest in exaggerated, concentrated hypernature – an exaggerated version of constructed nature. Creating hypernature was prompted by pragmatic acknowledgements of the constrictions of building on tough urban sites and the recognition that designed landscapes are usually experienced while distracted, in the course of everyday urban life. Attenuation of forms, densification of elements, juxtaposition of materials, intentional discontinuities, formal incongruities -tactics associated with montage or collage- are deployed for several reasons: to make a courtyard, a park, a campus more capable of appearing, of being noticed, and of performing more robustly, more resiliently.
Sustainable landscape design should be form-full, evident and palpable, so that it draws the attention of an urban audience distracted by daily concerns ofwork and family, or the over-stimulation of the digital world.
This requires a keen understanding of the medium of landscape, and the deployment of design tactics such as exaggeration, amplification, distillation, condensation, juxtaposition, or transposition/displacement.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Sustaining Beauty (2008)

 

Michael Van Valkenburgh, Teardrop Park (2009)

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Open-Ended

Many design critics and theorists, including me, have commented on the shift from spatial to temporal preoccupations in landscape theory and practice since the late 1980’s. More recently, more premiated entries in large parks competitions, from Landshaftpark Duisburg-Nord, to Freshkills, to Downsview Park, have employed design strategies that exploited the temporal qualities of the landscape as a dynamic, performative, open-ended process medium.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Uncertain Parks: Disturbed Sites, Citizens and Risk Society (2007)

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James Corner + Field Operations, Freshkills (2000-)

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(See Freshkills Park Timeline)

Toxic Discourse

Large Parks on disturbed sites should be recognized as landscapes of consumption as well as production. It is tempting for designers of large parks built on abandoned industrial sites to heroicize the buildings and machines that remain. Such strategies, however, privilege the histories of production over the histories of consumption that are also embedded in such sites. This allows visitors to distance themselves from the histories of human, material, and chemical flows on and off the site, and to limit their own culpability in and responsability for such histories.(…)

Toxic discourse is an expression of a collectivity of consumer-citizens who perceive their environment through the lens of uncertainty and risk. Disturbed sites are byproducts of economic policies that viewed nature as a resource and that accepted environmental degradation as the inevitable consequence of technological progress. The experience of designed landscapes on and in disturbed sites can render visible the consequences of the economic, political, and social decisions that led to those risks.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Uncertain Parks: Disturbed Sites, Citizens and Risk Society. (2007)

10369986_619454298189906_8759324547411185758_nÉdouard Manet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863)

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Collectif 6, Déjeuner sur l’herbe version

Uncertain

Large Parks on disturbed sites should be recognized as landscapes of consumption as well as production. It is tempting for designers of large parks built on abandoned industrial sites to heroize the buildings and machines that remain. Such strategies, however, privilege the histories of production over the histories of consumption that are also embedded in such sites. This allows visitors to distance themselves from the histories of human, material, and chemical flows on and off the site, and to limit their own culpability in and responsibility for such histories. (“Malevolent industrials polluted the air and water, not my ancestors and certainly not me.”)

Similarly, design strategies that focus primarily on the ecological processes of remediating a toxic industrial site fail to account for the intermingling of the natural, social, and industrial processes that permeate such sites. Forest, earth, and rivers are processed into lumber, ore, and water that are the raw materials for industrial production. The results of the processes are consumer goods and emissions into the ground and waterways. Technology doesn’t simply transform nature into commodities, it cycles back new and often toxic byproducts into nature. Thinking about landscapes on consumption and production requires thinking of the circulation of need, desire, material, goods, energy, and waste across disciplinary categories such as nature and culture, ecology and technology, and even public and private. We need design strategies that make visible the past connections between individual human behavior, collective identity, and these larger industrial and ecological processes.

A timescape conception of large parks leads to a recognition of uncertain sites-spaces where matter, flow, and waste know no boundaries -and to a different conception of consumer society.

Toxic discourse is an expression of a collectivity of consumer-citizens who perceive their environment through the lens of uncertainty and risk. Disturbed sites are byproducts of economic policies that viewed nature as a resource and that accepted environmental degradation as the inevitable consequence of technological progress. The experience of designed landscapes on and in disturbed sites can render visible the consequences of the economic, political, and social decisions that led to those risks. 

Elizabeth K.Meyer, Uncertain Parks: Disturbed Sites, Citizens and Risk Society. (2007)

HOSPER Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, GENK C-m!ne (2012)

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Site-Readings

How could one design for a site seen only in photographs taken by someone else? Impossible. Site analysis, at a large scale and recorded through detached rational mappings, has given way to site readings and interpretations drawn from first-hand experience and from a specific site’s social and ecological histories. These site-readings form a strong conceptual beginning for a design response, and are registered in memorable drawings and mappings conveying a site’s physical properties, operations, and sensual impressions.

Instrumental and Critical

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.

 

 

Simon Swaffield, Introduction to Theory in Landscape Architecture. A Reader (2002)

Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1970)

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Three Parts

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.

Yi-Fu Tuan, Foreword to Kenneth R. Olwig’s Landscape Nature and the Body Politic (2002)

Thomas Dolliver Church, El Novillero Donell Garden (1948)

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Industrial Sublime

At Gas Works Park, the industrial works and the waste burial mound were transfigured through site design into aesthetic objects. This was achieved, first, through masking their presence with a thick, green wall separating the parking lot from the park, and then through juxtaposing silhouetted towers in the foreground with the city in the distant background. These objects were made heroic by their isolation and lack of functional context. They evoked the technological sublime awe of our ability both to control nature, space, and time through technology and to create magnificent forms clearly expressive of that control.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Seized by Sublime Sentiments (1998)

Richard Haag, Gas Works Park (1972)

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Criticism

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)

Carve Landscape Architecture + OMGEVING Landscape Architecture, Play Landscape be-MINE (2016)

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