Have we reached a post-landscape condition? Have new designs, representations and physical forms been realized which provide for collective actions and alternative relations with where we live, work and visit? In Recovering Landscape, Corner describes his inspiration for advocating a ‘recovery’ of landscape as ‘less the pastoralism of previous landscape formations’ but instead the ‘yet-to-be disclosed potentials of landscape ideas and practices’. But as economic and political contexts shifted, during the global economic collapse and the subsequent recession, can we identify an emergence of alternative practices and landscape forms? Concerns for ecological restoration and programmatic approaches to landscapes are emphasized by Corner whose Field Operations designed the master-plan for New York’s Fresh Kills Park and realized the rehabilitation of the High Line as a public park. However, Corner describes that ‘massive process[es] of deindustrialization’ have placed new complex demands on land-use planning requiring the ‘accommodation of multiple, often irreconcilable conflicts’. Landscape projects that remediate and repurpose polluted post-industrial sites have gained currency in urban redevelopments, building on the work of land artists Such as Mel Chin, and landscape architects like Peter Latz. But while we can identify inventive approaches that decontaminate formerly abandoned landscapes, few contemporary landscapes or urban design projects have confronted their contribution to increasing land-values, displacement of remaining industries and aggressive gentrification. Environmental recovery of landscapes facilitates urban redevelopment, provides a foundation for spatially and aesthetically reproducing cities and furthers opportunities for economic returns for individuals and organizations that own brownfield sites. Projects improve ecological conditions but fail to address, and in many cases exacerbate, businesses displaced, jobs lost and individuals excluded from renewed urban areas. While in some cases, as Cosgrove claims of recent critical thinking, ‘landscape is approached as a spatial, environmental, and social concept rather than as a primarily aesthetic term’, prevailing landscape practices remain tied to economic priorities. And although Corner reminds us that landscape is inextricably ‘bound into the marketplace’ neither his writing nor his landscape practice provide clues for how these relations can be uncoupled or rethought.
A surface is a living system with its own structure and cycles of production. It is a performative medium that conveys water and supports organisms like bacteria, fungi, plants, and animal life. It is the result of processes that take place under it such as the decomposition of rocks and their migration upwards from the depth of the ground. It is also the result of processes that take place over it like erosion caused by wind, water, and human activity. It responds to external systems like climactic patterns that evolve in their own composition. In its biological sense, the surface in landscape architecture is less a boundary and more a zone of connectivity. It is a place where vegetational, hydrological, and soil systems interact.
If we had this conversation twenty years ago there would be discussion of the formal properties of surface. We might be looking at the paintings of Malevich or Kandinsky, or the photography of Gursky.
In all design disciplines, we speak airily about ‘representation techniques’. ‘Representation’ is often used where we might have said ‘presentation’, being the set of drawings you show to present a project. In reality, representation is quite a complex notion. Generally, representation is understood as ‘standing for something else’. In our design world, this ‘something else’ is the designed building or landscape. Linguistically, Corner argues that one could, in fact, say the built building represents the drawing – as the drawing was earlier. (…)
This does not solve two other problems. The title of my research is ‘Drawing time’. Once again I admit to favoring the short and less abstract words, instead of ‘Representing time’. Is drawing the same as representing? No – but the question could also be put the other way around: what architects do, is that drawing or representing? Until now, I have found no definitions which sufice to make clear the distinctions between ‘drawing’ and ‘representing’. For my research, I favor the physical aspect of drawing versus the quite abstract word representing.
The second problem is related to the first. If landscape architects represent landscapes, I would argue that only a complete plan (the set of drawings, text and oral explanation) is the representation.
Fewkes Canyon at Mesa Verde National Park
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)
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.
Landscape Urbanism describes a disciplinary realignement currently underway in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism. For many, across a range of disciplines, landscape has become both the lens through which the contemporary city is represented and the medium through which is constructed.
Consider that landscape urbanism does not exist; that it is nothing more than an advertising campaign intended to promote the writings of its authors, helping them sell books and get promoted. It is another manifesto for a discipline overrun with manifestos. It will soon be replaced with the next forward thinking, ‘big idea’ answer for the problems plaguing contemporary urbanism.
Rather, what does exist are different ways of thinking about landscape, which come from different people, with different histories, voices and contexts.
From the beginning, this process has been about landscape. It has been about ways of thinking about landscape architecture and ways of approaching a post-industrial urbanism and trying to sew it together with places for people, culture and nature.
In the opening years of the twenty-first century, that seemingly old-fashioned term landscape has curiously come back into vogue. The reappearance of landscape in the larger cultural imagination is due, in part, to the remarkable rise of environmentalism and a global ecological awareness, to the growth of tourism and the associated needs of regions to retain a sense of unique identity, and to the impacts upon rural areas by massive urban growth. But landscape also affords a range of imaginative and metaphorical associations, especially for many contemporary architects and urbanists.
Landscape comes into English language geography primarily from the German landschaft. Much has been written about the fact that the German word means area, without any particularly aesthetic or artistic, or even visual connotations.
The word landscape finds its roots in the Old Dutch word landskip, which designates a stretch of cultivated land. The word paysage in French stems from the Latin word pagus, which simply means an extent of land made by the peasant. In other words, landscape is the belabored making of the peasant, and has nothing to do with the ideal of untouched wilderness.
Christophe Girot, Immanent Landscape (2012)
Historically, landscape has had a range of meanings, some quite unrelated to art. One such meaning applies to civic classification of territory. It has been argued that the German Landshaft or Lantshaft was not originally a view of nature but rather a geographic ares defined by political boundaries. In the late fifteenth century, the land around a town was referred to as its landscape, a meaning that still survives in some places, as in the Swiss canton of Basel Landschaft.
This distinction can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which at first refered not to land but to a picture of it, as in the later, selectively framed representations of seventeent-century Dutch landschap paintings. Soon after the appearance of this genre of painting the scenic concept was applied to the land itself in the form of large-scale rural vistas, designed estates, and ornamental garden art. Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imagining.
Landscape is a familiar term that is rich and evocative, but also complex and at times confusing.
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)
…the function of mapping is less to mirror reality than to engender the re-shaping of the worlds in which people live.