Lares And Penates

Work in landscape architecture seems to occur in two separate realms; but no one ever takes the time to go about defining what those realms are. A colleague and I were talking in the hall about this a while ago – what is the dividing line? One cares more about ecology than the other? No. More ornamental than the other? Not really. More infrastructural? Not anymore! More traditional? No – each has its own inherited household gods. Where is that line, and who stands on either side of it, or astride it?

Rather than the Germany and France of the mid-20th century, leaning against each others’ brows at the Maginot, these two realms are the “Germany” and “France” of the Renaissance: zones of influence extending out from Saxony and Paris, with the majority of practice a vague Alsace-Lorraine around the midpoint. These zones weaken as they mix, troubled here and there with entirely different spheres, pockets, and interruptions.

The first realm erects official organizations, standards, and practices, specifying the ins and outs of lobbying, accreditation, professional organization – while the second looks out to what continental philosophy, contemporary art, or activist culture would think. The first is evidence-based; the second genuflects to evidence. The first is preoccupied with the native plant; the second is not. The first has the virtue of stating its values up front as eternal truths; the second defers to the spirit of the times in a way that for all its conviction often seems to have its finger in the wind and an eye on the clock.

These two do not diverge from a historical split; they do not map onto opposed founding figures, or even named schools of thought. The opposition between New Urbanism vs. Landscape Urbanism, as put in nicely apocalyptic terms by Andrés Duany, gets at the difference, but is not identical to it; the one being a defined organization, and the other a genre tag, and one already substantially dead. 

This split was neatly solved for me when another colleague told me, sometime later, about the long-standing division between the profession and the discipline in architecture. As Stanford Anderson had it, “The profession is centrally concerned with the current structure of practice in order that it may fulfill commissions to the highest standard…[the discipline is] a collective body of knowledge that is unique to architecture and…is not delimited in time or space.” The first realm of landscape, then, bends its intentions toward the world as experienced by professional landscape architects, with a limited scope of intervention and ability to persuade, resigning itself to what the usual client at hand can be made to accept. The second realm explores the space of the discipline with its full complement of tools, and is continuously trying to expand that realm further out by adding new tools. The client, here, is the faintest voice in the distance.

I have been mulling the difference ever since for what it means for the landscape-as-a-verb crowd inside landscape architecture. Banham lays out in “A Black Box” that architecture is a historically and geographically specific practice that has been fatally confused with building as a human activity; the result being as though Chinese opera was used as the base type from which the rest of theater deviated, and that any problems globally connected to theater could and should be solved by the judicious application of the principles of Chinese opera. Similarly, to assert that a master builder armed with drawings and an understanding of their own tradition is best equipped to meet the wide-open future of the built environment seems like a chimera. As disciplinary landscape architecture turns its head back to its roots in gardening, it is nonetheless loath to give up its autonomy; it hardly seeks to go back to the estate. But it is hardly prepared to surrender its authority to the client, the community, the culture, or often even to the ecology.

To look at the likes of Cedric Price or Andrea Branzi is to guess that the bargain of disciplinary architecture is to articulate what is thinkable, and not doable, within the professional world, in order to secure a place among the lares and penates on the discipline’s great overcrowded shelf; certainly not in order to apply critique (what does that even mean?) beyond the disciplinary house, or surrender any control to the ciphers projected to quietly wander through their open frameworks. The problem posed by the disciplinary realm to the more modest body of landscape architects is different. The art of proposing simple systems that do not work in disciplinary landscape architecture has a particularly treacherous relationship to the original motivation of most landscape architects, which is to solve problems in an innocuous and inoffensive fashion, to be “creative” and help people at the same time, and perhaps to spur a leap into some unknown future that is more innocuous and inoffensive. While making castles in the air, or bioswale moats in the air, acts as a reasonable substitute for solving problems in your own life, or even your own community of thought – since it resembles having solved that problem – that satisfaction will go vanishingly little toward the future, or present, out in the streets.

(February 2020)