A Fair Field And No Favor

Belated word that I have another book review in Landscape Architecture Magazine from way back in May. Avigail Sachs’ Environmental Design takes on the unenviable task of charting a strain of practice without much glamor or romance to it; in this case, the push for uniting the existing design disciplines together into the holistic and all-encompassing environmental design of the title. That this push ends up fizzling gives Sachs’ account a tone that stands apart from her contemporaries. For contemporary architectural history, in largely aligning itself with a history of technology, somehow takes on the character of Walter Benjamin’s angel, agog at the trail of engineered destruction piling up before it. The story of the evil demiurges of Imperialism, Racism, and Capitalism, carrying out their ruinous work through the technical sophistication and moral idiocy of designers great and small, has a certain grim sublime to it; it also has the happy effect of scapegoating any who would continue on in the same vein.

The odd twin of this story is that of the failures of those who actually share much of the values, critiques, and methods of today’s bien-pensant left. To examine the documents of the late 1960s, where Sachs reaches her climax, is to be shocked all over again at how we have recurred to the same spot, and to be dismayed that more people aren’t pointing out the resemblance: the moment of lapse where inclusion falls back to tokenism, radicalism back to good vibes, participatory design to stock appeasement. Sachs book is, in its way, stronger for not resting on condemnation, maybe because it lets you do the condemning for yourself. But it does seem to make her miss the irony of my favorite part of the book, these sketches by Vernon DeMars, which can now appear as the exact reverse of what DeMars intended, a great work of destruction concealed as a great work of peace.

living as is
"living as is"
living as it should be
"living as it should be"

(November 2019)