Words Of The Sibyl

Masha Gessen’s New Yorker piece from June 7 on the legacy of Orwell concludes on a wonderful insight, a little justification in itself for inviting critics from outside the design disciplines to reviews. She describes seeing a model of a proposed urban farm in Detroit, and contrasts the gray buildings around the periphery, outside the project’s impact zone, with what happens inside brightly-colored project. She knows with a high degree of certitude what will become of the gray buildings: either nothing, or entry into the standard mill of gentrification. But she doesn’t know how it will work inside the farm, how it reaches its suggested targets. It is an invitation to imagine more deeply.

As someone who battles deep cynicism about student projects as a means of projecting the future, this was refreshing. As much as I have disliked the practice of creating a lovely black box that miraculously functions as an engineered object, irrespective of what it plugs into and who plugs into it, I can see Gessen’s point. This can only be justified, though, for a discipline that can stay with its thoughts and sees them through. The great unthought of the Olmsted myth is in plain sight: that he stayed with Central Park to see it into fruition, not only the landscape architect but the superintendent. It says something about the magnitude of this challenge that he could not even consistently do that, escaping for a while to work on the U.S. Sanitary Comission and the Mariposa Estate. The form and the idea of the public park was already part of the conversation via Paxton, Loudon, Downing, and a host of simpler royal conversions, the present challenge being on several levels: to innovate details to make the system work better, to develop the paternalist kernel of ideology into something more robust and universal, and most of all to shepherd that vision through the rocks of an intensely corrupt political climate. This could not, in other words, be made to succeed through innovating for a few weeks in the office and handing down the result to the city. How can we stay with places? How can we cultivate communities around them? These are difficult enough questions, without having to ask how we can push piece by piece toward a utopia that cannot be seen in all its outlines.

Landscape architects could be sibyls, and operate in true blind-chicken-finds-kernel style in search of brilliant, life-changing innovations they can be properly rewarded for; this is the overarching faith of the academic pen. Alternately, they could muddle through in their separate professional quarters as most do today, with a few in the floating heaven of international capital, some more in domestic development’s “real world” of pig-parsley, and still others steering at various municipal helms with little to no thanks from the world of prestige. In this world, we seem condemned to salve our consciences by sneaking evidence-based BMPs in front of an impatient clientele.

Here’s something shiny in the sand from this blind chicken, which may as readily be glass or a rough gem. In the same New Yorker issue, Nathan Heller gives us a fairly sanguine take on David Graeber’s new Bullshit Jobs. Graeber describes a large class of contemporary employment that feels superfluous and accomplishes little. To him, what unites doormen and white-collar report writers is a status that is at once absurd and unacknowledged, one that Graeber diagnoses as a form of “managerial feudalism” that funnels the past centuries of productivity gains into placeholder work. The work generated by contemporary organizations, he asserts, tends to display and fetishize human presence and activity instead of actually doing anything with it.

The writing on the wall at this point, of course, is that labor in general is entering into crisis. Automation is creeping to claim more and more skilled work, while service work becomes increasingly precarious. Labor in the affluent world could fall into the most common model of civilization to date: the majority scrabble “entrepreneurially” day to day to earn a mere living, kept in line by a police class who enforce the distance between them and the elite. Or it could become something better. There is a world around us, after all, that is untended and uncared-for. The efficiencies of our current system have ground it into dross, and there it sits at our elbows. How much work is there, skilled, rewarding, and community-centered, in improving and tending the environment we live in? I realize in writing this that in machine-gunning students’ panacea farms for not taking account of economic and environmental constraints, I have taken entirely the wrong approach. The goal instead should be to cultivate, by trial and experiment, such ideas, and to discover how to make community care a workable proposition that not only fits into but actively betters the larger system. That project is larger than landscape architecture, but it is one within our complex of skills and values have a vital role to play.

(June 2018)