Work And Care

A recent roundup review on Public Books by my old friend Mariana Mogilevich helped me get a little further with a few of my own preoccupations. Mogilevich compares two models of landscape architecture, as represented in two recent books: a future of optimistic and engaged practice represented by Kate Orff and her firm SCAPE in their Toward an Urban Ecology, and a lineage of lofty and removed practice represented by Charles Waldheim in his Landscape as Urbanism. Mogilevich draws out the gender divide inherent in this division. She relays connections made by the historians Emily Eliza Scott and Thaïsa Way between Orff and a broader tradition of ecofeminism, particularly in the work of the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Mogilevich, through Scott and Way, affirms Orff’s work as upholding the value of ongoing, open-ended engagement with a community, as exemplified in Ukeles’ decades-long embedding in the New York City Department of Sanitation - this is practice understood literally as practice, as day-to-day, as working toward the best-possible. 

This is a distinct alternative to the more habitual understanding of landscape architecture as the little finger of Le Corbusier’s hovering hand. As taught in our schools, landscape architecture is generally understood as the itinerant production of projects – a hole is drawn, and a product is excreted to fill it, whereupon it is photographed and left behind. In Mogilevich’s view, landscape as verb is pitted against landscape as noun; landscape as care, as conversation, or convergence, is pitted against landscape as discrete works, reference points, distinct dolmens rising from a plain.

This got me thinking further about the ways in which Orff’s work counters, but also carries on from the landscape urbanist project and the larger history of object-making in spatial design: most of all, the ways that publicity makes even spaces that are profoundly not object-like into what appear as bundles of objects, signed and undersigned in the manner of artworks. Take her Petrochemical America book with Richard Misrach, which understands Cancer Alley by translating it into two series of overlapping objects: Misrach’s glowing photographs, and “mappings” squarely in the landscape urbanist vein. The result is a removed view that persuades a reader that Misrach and Orff have better understood this landscape through the lens of their own work, and in relation to their own lineages; but this view does not transmit the experiences, the ways of seeing, the ways of making, of the actors who inhabit the landscape.

This seems to me at once completely fitting and a deep problem. Petrochemical America, as I emphasize when I teach it, is rare in that it is a work by a spatial designer without a prescription for the space – it is purely descriptive. The book is not an internal document of a design process as worked through with a community, and does not present itself as such; it transmits out to a global public that attunes itself to prestige discourse in design, art, and environment. It reinforces the place of lower Louisiana on “the map;” it joins a network of study and talk around the place and thus makes possible investment (in a few senses of the word) by outsiders. Most charitably, the book continues Orff’s design activism by other means, in another sphere.

But less charitably, it repeats once more the production of objects, of names, to fill voids. The bespoke, tasteful object may as easily mark the reification, or the end, of engagement. Orff is not new in using landscape as public service, in seeing her practice as activism addressed to communities; even in the strictest sense of the term, this goes back to the 1960s in professional landscape architecture. Where she is new, I think, is in building a brand network around this core of ideas that can be accepted in the general public and the more rarefied precincts of the design world, entering into a different canon of taste. As much as the rough-and-ready visual culture of the engaged practice of the 1960s has come into the fold, it is harder to see certain aspects of what was being done, say in and around Berkeley, ever being integrated into the world of coffee-table monographs – if community engagement does not need to sentimental, unpolished, and homely, it very often is, and for very good reasons.

Changing the ecology of design thought by changing the objects inhabiting it is one thing. What about the built work, and the firm’s responsibilities to it? SCAPE’s site projects tend to center around New York, the firm’s home, and it is easy enough to imagine its designers keeping their hands in the processes of formation that allow such new landscapes to be at their best as actors, to continue to speak to their original aims. Will this be possible with landscapes made farther afield, as the scope of the firm’s work enlarges? These new projects have every reason to fall afoul of the usual dangers of designed landscape – sleepwalking maintenance and a creeping lack of investment. Even if landscapes seem to have lower mortality rates than buildings, the more they risk, the more they seem liable to be replaced by more normalized versions of themselves. See Skyline Park, or Harlequin Plaza.

Here we reach the question: should the designing firm retain the charge of the spaces they help make at all? Or should they recognize that new spaces have to leave the fold and work as actors on their own, or rather, as conveners of their own communities? 

As I teach the history of landscape architecture before landscape architects, I am always fascinated by the half-seen figures of those who made landscapes before the advent of professionalism. I realize that I tend to revert to the idea of an unknown chef carefully fashioning his chef-d’œuvre. If such a figure is lacking, it frustrates our learned perceptions of worth, not least the ones we pick up in our design education – if we wish a better knowledge of the built environment to our peers outside the profession, we often want that to take the form of seeing and acknowledging authorship. Because we define our profession by making projects, we exalt the project-makers and set aside the communities that do the work of caring, of slow reinvention. Women, it seems plain, need names and need visibility; they need to be credited and attended to. But they may also continue on traditions of worth that evade the expectation of master-names and master-pieces. How better to give value to the women and men who contribute to SCAPE? The outside actors who guide and fulfill their founding aims? The inheritors who further the original aims of the project?

Mogilevich ends her piece, “Design Against Disaster,” by placing landscape architecture work as our best bulwark against devastation – precisely because it can combine both “dramatic and incremental measures.” Under such a model, sweeping visions of a better future can be worked toward tactically and relationally, with meetings of open minds. Thinking on it, I can’t conceive of a better charter for retaining our identity and history, retaining an “us” that focuses on the work of landscape-making while making necessary changes in our notions of who is counted and included. 

But this, a big ship in of itself to turn around, has to reckon with the other, yet bigger, ships maneuvering in the crowded harbor.

(November 2016)