Pit Of Spikes

To be a pioneer in landscape, it would be necessary to do two things: to conceive and build a new sort of landscape, and to engender the culture that would inhabit and care for it. That is a harsh test to apply, and few would live up to it; even those who invented the public park essentially only follow the logic that all towns of sufficient size should have a royal park for themselves.

For years, I have a let a dumb question nag at me: why can’t you put a pit of spikes in a designed landscape? I don’t mean a proper pit of spikes, that would be concealed; I mean the spectacle of a pit of spikes, something you could look into and shudder, something that would dare you to leap across it. Which is less a matter of bringing spectacles of real torture and death back into the public eye , and more a matter of wondering why we design spaces without physical danger. Although the elimination of such spectacles from the public spaces of the world deserves to be examined in more detail.Without the expectation of a landscape being gentle, the spectrum of possible landscapes greatly widens.

pit of spikes
A real example: a pit of spikes in the park of the Củ Chi tunnels in Saigon.

My recent thoughts on the landscapes of video games turn, in part, on this; that the value and interest of designed digital space comes in large part through meeting with risk. We allow ourselves to encounter danger when found in natural settings, to let others address those existing dangers, but hardly ever to create new dangers – here, as often, the work of Lawrence Halprin’s firm stands apart. If the public has a vulgar taste for labyrinths, this is why. Dangerous spaces, entered into with consent, are engrossing, complicated, and challenging.

Risk, we may say, creates itself, and in the designed landscape we do something conspicuously difficult in our culture: we actively care for others, not in a habitual way, but as a willful act of imagination. It is worthwhile and easy to think of it this way: mandarins like myself can discount the importance of prettiness, of comfort, of whimsy, because we bore easily, because we can float clear of tradition, and because in our contempt for work we do not see the difference between gardening for flowers and excavating a pit for spikes.

But against that, it can be observed that the same medicine is not healing for all; a restorative experience for one person is inert or noxious to another. This is the joint where public health and public taste meet. A dangerous space, a clearly dangerous space, can engender respect, and then attachment. When the space appears as dangerous as it is, it cannot be accused of being treacherous – unlike the blank-faced playing fields, highways, and suburban streets that are our most likely places to find risk.

Let me give an example. Apart from being an indoor landscape par excellence, St. Louis’ City Museum is just such a space of clear and present danger. It disguises itself as a children’s museum, and then turns around and refuses the worst tropes of the type: it creates without being bound within a message, simply assembling physical material to engross and challenge. It takes you through the air in winding tubes of rebar cage; it shoots you down ten stories through a chute; it fits you into an artificial tunnel with an unclear terminus. It lets you physically engage, in the heart of the city, what we generally associate with nature, or a video game – a dynamic interplay of the scenic and the risky.

And here’s the thing: it is inhabited and made by a culture that manages the risk of the structure and will, within reason, rescue you if you take on more risk than you intended to. It is as though rangers set about creating a national park.

(March 2017)