Working Commons

Does it seem sometimes like landscape architects are trying to do too much? Or trying to fit too much in? I started to think so after a profound encounter the other day with Ohio State’s Wetland Research Park. This is a park that, despite being designed, despite intending to welcome, ends up having a mostly non-committal relationship to its visitors, by virtue of mainly being a research center that happens to be accessible by a trail. A few flourishes of design aside, the park does not try very hard to be pleasant; I guess it doesn’t help that it’s mostly made of wetlands. But it does give public access that is mostly the same as the access meant for the researchers, and so it affords the rare possibility of seeing people doing unfamiliar work on unfamiliar structures – improbably narrow walkways, and lookouts, and perches stranded in the reeds.

Its paths are close and muddy, the trees young and raw. When you find flowering cherries there, they are a stray part of the cover, instead of showy objects on the lawn. And I was struck, seeing one bare arm of flowers, instead of a great pom of them – aren’t the flowers better this way? And I almost said more precious, more rare, more fine. But what I really meant to mean is that my experience of the flowers was better.

Now, especially if your work is researching wetlands, is there a very defined line between work and pleasure? I could ask a researcher, if I wanted to. But they were all away on a dismal April day; and so instead I could speculate on what they would be doing if they were working; what gauges they would be hauling up, what flies they would earnestly be tallying. Spoiler: I would not ask them anything if they were there. I would watch them quickly behind the tangle of young trees and then move on.

Here’s a test, one of John Constable’s paintings of Hampstead Heath from the 1820s. Who is setting the fire – clerks on a weekend holiday? Unhoused people sharing a meal? Is it work or is it play? Does it matter from this distance?

constable painting
John Constable, HAMPSTEAD HEATH, WITH A BONFIRE (ca. 1822).

As part of this semester’s studio, the students set about finding public spaces designed for the needs of marginalized communities, from street vendors to the unhoused. Some of the most compelling examples are in rich cities of Europe, from Copenhagen’s Folkets Park to the Parckfarm in Brussels, where immigrants and members of the professional classes have tried to make common cause. Despite the names, they seem more like commons than parks; places of public endeavor instead of manicured preserves. Sites like this thrive, at least for the time being, through the lively kitsch of community gardens, not wrought works of Space to animate, but fairs trading in the common goods of fun and health. The community farmers, the main characters of these spaces: are they working? Are they playing? Are they there to be seen?

To this we might add the semi-self-built landscapes of Berlin, places like Tempelhofer Feld and Gleisdreieck where a push-pull between grassroots and administration on site has been mediated by designers; to how much of anyone’s satisfaction, as a faraway designer, I do not and will not presume to know.See the helpful primers on these sites in the March 2014 LAM. Tempelhofer Feld, like Hampstead Heath, seems to succeed not through kitsch, not by speaking to anyone, but by being blank, a place to stand outside of forced context and watch each other, watch skylarks and airplanes and towers, being and doing as though they could be on their own.

Are the skylarks working?

Tempelhofer Feld
Tempelhofer Feld, via dronepicr on Wikimedia Commons.

(April 2021)