The Summit

“Has landscape architecture failed?” ask Richard Weller and Billy Fleming, by way of inviting us to the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 2016 summit. At this occasion, landscape architects will say that it has, and it has not; that it will certainly fail entirely in the future, unless; unless landscape architecture makes a measurable difference in the precincts to which it has appointed itself; unless – depending who you are talking to – every suburban garden is solidly native, every tailings pit a remediative laboratory, every land use strictly pinned to light rail, every urban waterfront girdled with marshes of bottomless thirst.

Who fails so totally that they fail at everything? Granting landscape architecture corporate personhood, we can attempt give it a performance review, to gauge it against what we understand the requirements of its job to be; upon walking into Penn’s Irvine Auditorium, we will see that we have been saddled with an unwieldy committee to work with. Were this deliberating body to arrive at any such document, we will still not have arrived at a judgment of the whole enterprise; the whole person, as it were.

Landscape architecture is a profession, above all, and a notably artificial one at that. Podiatry makes healthy feet; if it consistently failed at this goal, it would be a failure, and some other profession would have to be convened to make healthy feet through other means. What does landscape architecture do, in three words? As far as I can tell, landscape architecture makes landscape architects; it shuffles together a loose collection of people and interests to make common cause. It is a bundle of twigs, a confederation of small tribes not otherwise affiliated. Following Shaw, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity;” picture the conspiracy of landscape architecture as carried on through ASLA, CLARB, CELA, LAAB, LAF, carried out in public under a bower of London planes. This conspiracy has failed, in that it has not eliminated its competitors; has not assassinated its target; has not even succeeded in finding a target to assassinate. Everyone else continues to make landscape, whether or not they can legally call themselves landscape architects. But the conspiracy has succeeded, insofar as it has invented a community who share a name and to some extent a set of interests and methods.

If we are so keen on measuring outcomes, we should begin with the outcomes of our conclaves; and we should isolate what is being demonstrated, and to whom. What landscape architecture fails to produce, above all, is a we that will ratify any of its factions’ claims-to-we; which is to say, it cannot speak with one voice. Does it follow from that that each faction learning to speak together would reach the ear of the public leviathan?

It seemed to some, for a while, as though we could speak with the voice of McHarg. Was McHarg a delegate from Landscape to the World? McHarg was someone who picked up a method from the far-flung offices of landscape and showed in the most convincing way possible how it could be applied to various problems in the world. In the process, he did what John Law See his “Working Well with Wickedness” in Grain Vapor Ray. has convincingly described as simplifying a wicked problem: treating an unhappy systemic condition as through it had a single trunk that could be cut through. Famously, he came to ignore the problem of the social – that, as Weller and Fleming reiterate, the management of the environment is not and cannot be natural precisely because it is something to be managed. This is not only true of the specter of installing a landscape technocracy, but also the very idea of having a goal that nature is to be brought to; that such goals are necessarily plural and subject to interpretation. He and his counterparts, followers, and confederates could not hold a coalition that fundamentally shifts with the social, that will always want other things from its interactions with landscape.

Most recently, we find that the same thought leaders who enjoined us to be sustainable 10 years ago now assure us that resilience is the sane goal, and in 10 more years might at best have moved on to another importation from the broader world of ideas. Or, at worst, we may have retreated behind various floodwalls into various species of quietism, shrunken back to a race of ingenious little Le Nôtres with ingenious little goals. This is what we fear, and why we seek to make a leviathan of ourselves; why we hope to discipline ourselves into a single voice, a people’s megaphone not needing a standard speaker. As Law asserts, though, McHarg’s model, like any other good model, was false and useful. His disciples did not and could not accomplish what he asked them to; but they acted, to a point, as though they could. At worst, then, as far as we know, McHargianism has been quixotic. But I suspect that it has been far better than that – like other strains of landscape practice, it puts persistent seeds in societal soil that await further breeding, or simply for some impermeable material to be stripped away from the surface.

Landscape practice is, has been, and no doubt will continue to be a house divided against itself. It proceeds from a long, honorable, and various tradition of improving nature, which is to say, of tamping down what is harmful to humans and convening the things they want to experience. In this gradual and half-directed progress there is something of a model for today’s landscape practice, as something at once methodical and blundering, but very little of a moral precedent. The morals we need to act properly with, the standards we need to follow, will not be invented ab ovo in the space of a decade, or a century. Rather, they will need to fight, to blend, to combine, to contest; the hundred flowers will, I hope, add up to a proper plant association.

I believe we should be patient with the development of these native themes of landscape architecture because they are profoundly in conflict with the rest of our culture – landscape remains a subservient approach not because it doesn’t work (that is the only thing that keeps it going!), but because it does not fit with the custom of the country or tenor of the times. When we, as landscape architects, speak with confidence on our own areas of expertise, when we treat problems as we have been taught, we speak at the time-scale of landscape, with the strangeness of landscape; more cloudy, less direct than we would prefer, but with some truth and some efficacy.

Reject the notion of corporate bodies speaking to one another. See what we have credentialed ourselves into as an assemblage of the most far-flung series of problems, tied loosely and variously with methods. Reject the notion of perfect delegation; of the notion that Landscape could speak to the World. Imagine us not as actors for ecology, but ecological actors.

(June 2016)