Irrational Exuberance

Where did landscape urbanism go? It succeeded it gaining attention around a comprehensible bundle of ideas. It sunk those ideas into a small pool of high-profile commissions. It mounted the most prominent perches, and set about building proper foundations for itself. As it studied, its mission crept; it stopped cutting and pasting, and took up scripting and plotting. Within a decade, it had started building a tomb about itself, using a series of monographs for bricks: Landscape Is…, Landscape as Urbanism, Landscape as Infrastructure. Now, what’s so wrong with landscape that it needs to be redefined every three minutes?

The orange of the term “landscape urbanism” itself was quickly sucked dry, to be replaced with “ecological urbanism,” and then – really nothing at all, not yet. In recent years of the Harvard Design Magazine, the disciplines themselves are shown to be so tired that it in place of design it is preferable to patch together any live form of power reasonably close to what used to be the design domain: the genealogist of technology, the biennale itinerant, the blithe philosopher of Singapore.

The landscape urbanists and their heirs followed a sound intuition: that landscape architecture is a disciplinary formation with baggage, and one that could be added up in an entirely different way. And, in acting as though their version of landscape architecture is real, they began to do something I wish the profession was better at: projecting a future in such a way to nudge it toward being enacted. It is in all ways a salutary thing to imagine ecologies being made ecologically, formed iteratively over time over artful frameworks. But as a matter of practice, it comes up against two significant obstacles, less technological than social.

First, attention around the culture of design is apportioned according to human attention spans and fashion cycles. An attempted institution is likely to suffer crib death between being announced with fanfare and establishing itself independently, for lack of financial and libidinal investment. We can see the diverging paths followed by the High Line and Fresh Kills. One repeats itself in loud, intelligible steps, remaking a humble asset through showering profligacy on it. Everyone else wants one. The other toils quietly in obscurity, absent runway shows and signature tax shelters for oligarchs. Working habitat takes time to grow upon utter ruin; and attention cannot wait.

Second, large portions of landscape urbanism and the (small) entirety of ecological urbanist design is entirely predicated on utter state control over a long period of time, to keep the hand firmly on the tiller. Unfortunately, the established levers of power come articulated through arbitrary spatial and temporal units, meridian lines and election cycles, which are at a long remove from recognizable ecological units – watersheds, or drought cycles. If that state did shift its terms to meet the pressing ecological challenge, it would almost certainly seek to do so through an utter fiat – and we could expect to see more gilets jaunes in the streets. It would probably speak less in terms of the common terms of progress or improvement, and more through its own fetish terms, a set of parameters for performance that would part ways with a larger agenda of human social good. As totalitarianism marches on to meet climate change, and compromises like Italy’s Five Star Movement are struck between xenophobia and sustainability, it seems reasonable to suppose that hateful states will strike their own balances between green infrastructure and exclusion, blessing Manhattans behind high gardens and damning the world’s outer boroughs to starve and disperse. Until those times, the agenda of an ecological urbanism will be suspended in stalemate; hence, the substitution of massive, withdrawn descriptions of the crisis at hand rather than works of engagement.

The excellence of ecology as a metaphor for anything else in the world of bodies, or of ideas, comes down to this, in practice: it speaks to the fate of things in general, of having each other to contend with; where any alliance is provisional and open to change. If we want to effect systemic change, we move toward regulation, knowing all the while that there is a razor’s edge of common acceptability between the regulation that emancipates people at large and the regulation that is acceptable to moneyed interests.

If those working in landscape want a more fertile design practice, a way out of the last ten years of doldrums, we might ask ourselves: do we really always just need more time, more tax support? Do we really have a common-enough aim and a common-enough platform? With the time we have wasted over our century and a half of existence on redefinitions and worryings about legitimacy, further renamings and repositionings only seem likely to entrench ourselves further, sighing all the way. Perhaps this time it would be better for us to worry about how we do, and our own rather un-ecological position as project-based professionals. We do not sail; we fire and forget.

If I point toward visionary mountains and yard shows, I do so in part to valorize the making of landscapes as a broad-spectrum activity, with no special need for professionals or technocrats; I do so to valorize the making of landscape as sheer exuberance with no end in sight; where harm is not hedged off through prohibitions, but through the investment of care and time. The locust quality of contemporary humanity, which is always content to move on so as to not have to stay, is what I am bent against; and I bend toward a knowledge of out-and-out grotesquerie as a condition of deep equality and evenness along the margins.

(December 2018)