Ok, this is not another post about James Corner (but it does have some more images). Instead, there were some observations from a couple of recent comments that came from ‘Corner(ing) the Market’ a few posts back that I thought worthy of throwing out into the world and seeing what grew. The commentary was particularly aimed at some comments from Susan Szenasy of Metropolis. I mentioned that Metropolis seems to be covering more landscape-related materials, as well as the fact that Ms. Szenasy made some seemingly disparaging or clueless commentary about our fine field.
:: James Corner’s Beyond Building A-Z, Venice Biennial – image via Lisa Town
‘Wes’ mentioned the lack of understanding of the profession: “I was appalled at Susan’s comments coming from a respected design journalist and editor in chief of Metropolis magazine. There’s much to criticize about the field of landscape architecture and the direction it is going; but she clearly has no concept of even what landscape architects do!”
:: Detail of Corner’s corner – image via Lisa Town
‘Argyle’ followed up with a different story from a panel at the 2008 ASLA Conference (here’s an edited snippet): “Susan Szenasy hosted a morning general session at the ALSA conference in Philly last month… essentially she told a story about being on a site with several LAs and only one of them could ID a plant when she asked about one …Kathryn Gustafson … took the comment to heart and made the reply; Gustafson put Szenasy in her place by letting her know that LAs are not horticulturists. We have to know such a broad spectrum of details across so many related disciplines that we can’t possibly be expected to know plants that well. She said LAs are constantly put in the position of team building… bringing together specific professionals such as geologists and horticulturalists… and trying to use their specific knowledge to form/transform space.”
So the question that is begging to be answered:
Are landscape architects synthesizers of knowledge from plant and other specialists, or can they be specialists in plants themselves?
I know this is one of those age old questions, much like the ‘what do we call ourselves’ or ‘art vs. science’ that seem to crop up occasionally and spark some interesting online debate. To me this is a more complex question…that has as much diversity of reason as the profession has facets. The amount of knowledge, of course, is based on what you do along the continuum of landscape architectural practice.
On one hand Gustafson is right on… we are broadly competant and able to bring together design, science, social, and political elements in coming up with dynamic spaces. This macro-scale view does not rely on knowledge of a particular species of plant, but on the balancing of hundreds of variables. Does a single plant here or there matter? Can you do this work and remain a plants expert?
In the middle ground, there’s professionals working a variety of scales and project typologies – some which tap into the complexity of group and system dynamics, and others that work at site and detail scale. This jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none paradox makes us need to be able to see big picture dynamics, understand complex systems, and also prepare detailed documents to make these a reality. Can we switch scales and do each of these well – or do we marginalize the entirety by the impossibility of this massive undertaking?
On the fine grain scale, there a common cop-out for landscape architecture to remain somewhat ignorant of the actual physical tools we use in our daily practice (i.e. soils, plants, materials, et.al.) There is also an often equal countervalent patronizing tone from the ‘plant’ people that LAs have no clue about plants. Both are patently disrupting to the profession and process.
In the end, to be work, any of these process must become the human-scale reality of all of that broad based synthesizing and hand-waving… it’s the reality that exists as the actual built product. This is the stage where it is vital that a project works. So as we ponder this… there seem to be a million more questions… Are you a specialist or generalist? Do you know plants, or do you farm this knowledge out in specialized cases (or every case)? Is there an implication that a landscape architect must be a plant pro, or does this oversimplify and reduce the profession to it’s former ‘shrubbing up’ status? And on… and on.
Anyone have any thoughts?