Embodied Landscape

A designed landscape is made both through acts of foundation and through acts of iteration; between the acts of the designers and the acts of the inheritors. These acts are physically different!

Having gathered visual information regarding the site, landscape architects reproduce it at a scale that suits the motion of the eye and hand. They draw on top of these reproductions, making drawings. They reproduce these drawings for others to see, often being fixed to a wall. Presenting to an audience with the drawings, the landscape architect says for the drawings what they cannot say for themselves, supplementing what they show. Landscape architects guarantee the conscience of the presented image through their own physical presence.

If these drawings pass through the gate of acceptability, they can be translated into instruction-drawings, made to guide the undertaking of physical labor. Having physically inspected and selected the keystone materials for the project on site, the landscape architects walk and re-walk the site as watchful representatives. Having drawn up a charter of recommendations for maintenance, they withdraw, only returning to gather new images as the site matures into nature.

Contrast this to the work of the inheritors of a site. One group maintains the site in shape; they mow, leaf-blow, prune, and clean. They apply a standard range of tools and techniques to the site that they carry from past experience or concurrent responsibilities; asking them to do differently in any one case is, most likely, asking them to do more work. The standard for landscaping labor having been established, the landscape architect asks for a special case, wagering that a greater good (an aesthetic vision, an ecological imperative, perhaps a reduction in resources used) will serve to establish a new covenant on the site – with this covenant itself perhaps spreading to other sites in the future.

Another group of inheritors administers the site, dictating funding and programming. These homeowners, or city departments, have every reason in the world to construe this site as other sites have been construed; to treat it in the way that similar sites are treated. They can scale up and scale back their level of engagement or investment in times of boom and bust. They, too, have a common vision of the relationship with landscapes that they reinforce, sparingly in this case, with their bodies, their presence and voices. They have examples before them of photos and dinner parties, reports and galas.

This is all to say: when landscape architects shift the terms of what and how they construct, of what the nature of a made landscape can be, they often do so without a clear vision of how the design is to be maintained – which is to say, in reimagining the physical life of the site, they do not bother to reconstruct a physical life around the site. Scenarios or simple statements of flexibility hand off responsibility to those who, to be clear, are most likely to take the path of least resistance. Sometimes this will mean radical acceptance of emergent conditions on site. But more likely, such sites will be construed as parks and gardens, and treated accordingly. 

I would maintain that the landscape/ecological urbanist approach is dangerously tilted to a fire-and-forget approach – not just out of native optimism, or even, more defensibly, in the expectation that emergent systems will arise to do the necessary job, given a good starting point. I believe that this comes from the landscape architect’s unconscious expectation that once the acts of foundation are over, a community with the correct set of reference points and well-drilled physical habits will take charge of the site. Landscape architects are gardeners who walk away from their gardens, sure that the gardens will continue to grow.

This is not only a mismatch between the landscape imaginary and the realities of afterlife; it is a problem of different sets of physical capacities and physical knowledge.

Some aspects of the landscape architect’s approach to planning have clear antecedence in other aspects of their process – privileging the living, the open, the shifting. If we break into that complex of simple words, we can see a set of material practices. First and foremost, the landscape architect is conditioned from past experience to think that creating favorable ground conditions and generously seeding them with living entities is a viable and sufficient strategy for the long-term maintenance of this state of affairs. This is only the case because the landscape architect has set the opening gambit among a group of players who will then follow through for the foreseeable future.

The landscape designers I find the most interest in – Teresa Galí-Izard, or Gilles Clément – foreground the element of maintenance in their own practices. In doing so, in relationship to traditional landscape architecture they paradoxically seem concerned with epiphenomena, inappropriate fixations – mowing, pruning, seeding – that are generally left to the maintenance crews to come. Not coincidentally, they minimize a key part of landscape architects’ communicative road: to transmit an exact intention of the initial condition to those who actually construct the landscape.

What seems the most rhetorical form of landscape possible – that depends on publication (or at least signage) to communicate the history and intention of a form-poor intervention – is in another sense the least, in that it requires the minimum of drawings and other communications.

What acknowledges the dignity of labor? What makes a landscape that does not just relax working people, but says that their labor is important? Socialist realism isn’t one of the worst crimes of communism, but it isn’t too convincing either. The contemporary bent toward refining, streamlining, and vaporizing the material of building has the effect of removing the body of allied labor from the work.

Much of traditional architecture, not at all enlightened or admirable from the perspective of labor relations, at least visibly embodies the work of a workforce. It does not incarnate ideal forms through a process increasingly mediated only by the knowledge economy (picture a giant 3D printer turning out houses without assembly, and loading them onto self-driving flatbed trucks), but communicates that it works with traditional knowledge and forms, local materials, and so on.

Labor relationships and labor costs have changed, and will not be as they were. But what would it mean to think through a contemporary landscape with respect, literally with respect, to labor? Would we take into account how mowing and pruning is done? Would we insist less on “ecology” doing all the work for forms that have to work with people, in the end?

(February 2018)