Open World

It is odd that in such a small field there should be so little ability to see the whole thing at once; but that seems to be where we are in landscape architecture. I never feel that I quite know what is going on, what people are saying, where the ground is shifting; every so often, I hear a loud voice, and then it goes silent again just as suddenly.

In connection with this, I’ve been thinking a lot about the artist Ian Cheng. Cheng’s work is interesting for the landscape field, I think, in part because he works with procedural simulations: he sets up frameworks and then puts them in motion to see what happens. In the past, this has appeared as self-playing video games – odd characters bumbling and interacting with each other in an unfolding digital landscape. More generally, Cheng has characterized what he does as “worlding,” a conscious process of setting up an elaborate, but limited space for things to happen in. What counts as a world? According to Cheng:

A World is a reality you can believe in: one that promises to bring about habitable structure from the potential of chaos, and aim toward a future transformative enough to metabolize the pain and pleasure of its dysfunction.

That last word is a key part of the appeal of this definition to me: it accepts from the beginning that a world will not ever be perfect. That does not necessarily make you able to anticipate which parts of the world will most bear that dysfunction. But it does at least charge you to try to be real about what your world will not do well. By the way, it might well be that the same features that work to sustain that world are what make it dysfunctional.

In one sense, it seems useful for us to think of designed landscapes as worlds unto themselves, optimized for the living things that share them. And I think I’ll have more to say about that. But just as Cheng has to make his worlds with one eye toward the established art world he operates in, those who design landscapes nest inside the world of landscape architecture; and at the moment, that larger scale is the part that interests me more.

cheng emissaries

So, landscape architecture as a field is a constructed world, made out of whole cloth around the turn of the century. It identifies a missing piece of the larger world, a model for safeguarding and replicating what is valuable in pre-industrial landscapes. It tasks a group of people to make up that piece, borrowing most of its apparatus from the discipline of architecture. In creating a professional, college-trained corps, it makes a cohort likely to share with and support each other. But it also tends to exclude a wide spectrum of people who would have otherwise been able to contribute to the same project, from immigrant landscapers and gardeners to women landscape gardeners. It sees some landscapes, but hardly all of them. To go back to Landscape magazine: it preoccupies me in part because it showed another viable model for making a world of interest around landscape, one that cast a meaningfully different net. But that was dependent on one magnetic personality, and an unstated set of rules for who got to contribute.

At some point, it becomes necessary for every world to be a shared creation; one where members of a wider group can 1. contribute to the project of world-building, 2. further their own interests in doing so, and 3. see how these contributions and interests are meaningfully reflected in the space of the world. In a profession, that would happen through publications, awards, and general chatter. Strangely enough, in a time of ubiquitous media, this last quality of visibility seems the hardest one for landscape architecture to sustain. I bring this up with colleagues and they agree enough that I don’t think I’m making it up: it seems to make the impression of a lack of worlding, or will-to-world. It is hard to say what is going on, or even to make the effort to know what is going on. ASLA, LAM, LAF, TCLF, CELA: each seems to be an observation point speeding away from the others, separate galaxies blowing apart. None of them seems to be a compelling point of leverage to actually change the sparse world it tries to survey.

venturini kriegsspiel
A map from Venturini's Kriegsspiel, one step in the foundation of the wargaming world.

Why should this be? A few first explanations come to hand. One is that the easiest way to populate a shared world is with heroes; like the wider world, the landscape world is short on heroes, or sick of heroes – or, the heroes it would want are not the heroes it has. Add onto that a problem I’ve mulled over before: that landscapes themselves move too slowly to be observed, and can only be seen at all partially, usually at a great distance. This, too, tends to sap the ability to see the world at work. Finally, and most bitterly: it seems to be broadly agreed that the world of landscape has little intrinsic meaning or worth beyond its ability to serve the world beyond it. Notice how I defined the field above, as something that plugs a hole? It seems like common sense that any sustainable world would not only serve what it nests inside, but be seen as a meaningful world unto itself, something worth making in of itself. And it seems odd, painfully odd now to look back all the theoretical dust kicked up in the 1990s, rising from the base assumption that landscape was just such a worthwhile world of its own.

It is impossible not to problem-solve here, and to start by noting that if there is a hole in the wider world corresponding to the landscapes people need and would not otherwise have, there is equally a hole corresponding to the ability of people to make landscapes; that the people of a culture who want to help make their surroundings should be able, within reason, to do so. But to take my own argument seriously, every world has its pains; and it may be that we can expect this particular world to go on, but go on ever blinder to itself.

(September 2021)