"Landscape Is A Verb"

Fourth Pass

When I say “landscape is a verb,” I am thinking of a tendency I’ve seen in some practitioners in the world of landscape architecture. That tendency, to me, brings together all those people who act as though they would rather see the work of making landscapes as active, as an open-ended and dynamic process, instead of being, narrowly, the design of a fixed plan. Another way to say that: for this group of practitioners, the body of the landscape-maker does not get subtracted from the landscape.

It’s a tendency I first met with early on in my own landscape path: reading Teresa Galí-Izard’s The Same Landscapes, way back in 2006. I’ve seen it in Marc Miller’s work, though what I’ve seen from him recently has a more digital focus. It’s there in Gilles Clément, and in pieces in Georges Descombes; it’s one element in the MVVA mix. It’s in younger firms like Future Green and Terremoto. Terremoto, says their website, “takes issue with the prevailing mainstream tendency in our profession of not acknowledging/portraying the human beings who build landscape projects. We respect and honor the the laborer by making their contributions present, clear and explicitly visible in our work.” Julian Raxworthy’s Overgrown has gone out and circulated it. Michael Geffel does it out at the Overlook Field School. My colleagues at Present Practice, Katie Jenkins and Parker Sutton, do it too. It’s in the work - it is the work! - of Roland Gustavsson, and I imagine many others around the world whose work should be circulated more among the rest of us. It’s Detroit Future City after Stoss leaves, as the group figures out how to approximate the original grand vision within its means.

Are these characters all shadowboxing with their class consciousness, with the guilty conscience of an elite dictating terms to the workers? (Note that some of them, like Raxworthy, have seen both sides of that equation.) Have they all caught themselves short in telling the thousandth person-at-a-party that no, they couldn’t do their yard? Why should landscaping be such an awful word, anyway?

Third Pass

I was looking at Marc Miller’s Twitter after I had already posted the first version of this piece, and realized with a start: I had forgotten I had taken the name “Landscape is a Verb” from his handle in the first place. Poking around for the same phrase to see where else it has cropped up, I can see that he also had an excellent blog of the same name.

W.J.T. Mitchell says it in 2002’s Landscape and Power; from there it has circulated in academic channels a little, most recently in Overgrown. Laurie Olin is quoted in Baird and Szczygiel’s paper “Sociology of Professions: The Evolution of Landscape Architecture in the United States” to the effect that it is a shame that the general public should see landscape as a verb.

The OED tells me that landscape has been a verb for a while, with the sense of “making a physical landscape” first documented in 1927. Way back in 1661, it was used in the sense of “drawing a landscape,” which is how Robert Browning uses it in 1868. I think the public knows something we don’t - if landscape, for them, is a verb, it is because landscape tends to manifest itself to the public as active making. The design laying underneath is dead, but the landscapers aren’t.

Second Pass

It seems to me that making ecologically should lead to making ecologically should lead to making ecologically. That is: a site that would contribute to a larger movement for a robust ecology should itself be made through a robust ecology; and to set that ecology rolling on a site, we should use robust ecological forms as the basis for how we think it through and test it.

Out of all of approaches that have been floated for instituting new ecologies on sites, some seem more practicable and ethical than others. To design an ecology is the Apple-of-Cupertino sense is, I think, a hateful thing; that is, making an artificial linkage of products that hang together off of human needs. I can’t see how such an ecology wouldn’t always end up being experienced as a parasite on our social body. And that, in turn, tends to make me suspicious of any proprietary set of modules we could propose or build, that would attempt to spread itself from one site to another - whether it was made up of play widgets in plastic, or coastal stabilization forms in concrete.

How else could you meaningfully kick off an ecology? I think of one of the clearest and least recognized ways in which elite culture has benefitted people at large: through incubating games, most notably the various forms of football, that can be spread and enjoyed at minimal cost throughout the public at large.

chess disabitato
Moscow, 1985: Kasparov defeats Karpov in a marathon match for the world championship.

I have been working with my students to explore this: that an ecology for a site could be started by agreeing upon a gamelike system of allowable moves, using common, innocuous landscape elements that already have their rules baked in. Unlike a pawn, queen, or rook, we find that redbuds, black oaks, and slate shingles each have their own necessary set of requirements and potentials baked in. Those requirements and potentials are vague - but then, as our experience designing with them to this point proves, they are also as knowable as we need them to be. In creating the ecology of a site, we could abstract each element’s properties into a set of rules. If written well, these rules would still give enough breathing room for any element’s individual representatives to be somewhat different than the abstract type. For instance, say that once planted, an oak would have to be given no less than 10 and no more than 50 feet of clearance on all sides.

The success of such an system could certainly be measured by its ecological performance, or its beauty; but mostly it would be measured by how enthusiastically it was taken up by the community maintaining it, and how readily they could adjust that given system to adapt to reality.

First Pass

The longer I spend in this field, the more dangerous it seems to be to cast a work of landscape in stone, which is to say, to regard it as any analogue to a durable piece of architecture.

To be preserved in the usual sense, a landscape must have a definite form. But that landscape need not have a definite form to be perpetuated; it need only have an identifiable process through which it is produced. If you can make out a purpose in a landscape you encounter – if that process is visible in its results, as say with a hedgerow – you can respect it, engage with it, further it. Otherwise, you will bracket it off, pass it over, put an end to it.

For now, something like Teresa Galí-Izard’s vision in the Parque Central competition seems like the most practicable version of landscape-as-a-verb, because the system it proposes has been engineered enough to resemble at a glance the product of conventional authorship. Who knows if that is an approach that can sustain itself? We haven’t found out yet. Insofar as it points toward an actual two-way working relationship with the people who build and maintain landscapes, it is one possible step toward equity and solidarity.

(September 2020)