On Landscape Criticism 2

Following up on the previous review of editorials from Urban Omnibus in the post ‘On Landscape Criticism‘, I wanted to continue with the next three essays. The continuation of thinking delves into some more specifics.

In ‘On Criticism 4’, William Bostick warns of the perils of the broad focus in terms of minimizing the impact of criticality: “When we write about architecture, yes, we should write about it in context. Big, city-shaping forces are at work here, but those can be cumbersome ideas, and trying to talk about them pushes us into metaphor territory or worse, theory.” I think this is a double-edged sword, and perhaps to shy away from it minimizes the overall potential of architectural and landscape criticism. This may be part of the difficulty in establishing a viable strategic stance for landscape, as it isn’t neat and tidy but is big and cumbersome… the hermetically sealed and controlled box is easy to assess, the untidy landscape urbanism is not.

The fact that the ‘danger’ is to, gasp! move into theory is pretty funny – as I can think of no more welcome addition to discourse than some good theory. To explain, I don’t think we need more intellectual posturing or overly wrought scientific methodologies applied to landscape, and there is still the need for critique of objects. It’s more but theory as a hybrid of the analytical and the philosophical – neither completely empirical (which is impossible and irrelevant) nor wholly detached from the reality (which is somewhat useless aside from thought exercise). This is perhaps why the majority of what passes for landscape critique is formless, as we have yet to determine a model that seems to work.

As Bostick continues, he finds the interest in some of the personalities versus the work, which aligns with much of the journalistic bent we find in much writing. We love celebrities (the TMZ reference from faslanyc is an apt metaphor) in all things – even over the actuality of originality of the work. There are many reasons why firms tend to have the names of their founders prominant, not just as a reference to that person’s talent, but as a defined way of ‘branding’ a product. Look at landscape architecture firms – at least the more prominent… mostly name firms, with a strongly branded personality that can both inspire the work and provide a interview-friendly mouthpiece for the media. You know the names – van Valkenburgh, Schwartz, Walker, Hargreaves, Sasaki, etc.. Even recently I noticed that ‘Field Operations’ has tied the name James Corner directly to the firm splash page… as Corner the ‘personality/brand’ has a lot more media potential than Field Ops the ‘firm’. It’s an interesting concept, and important, because when you talk about a firm like ‘Diller Scofidio + Renfro’ you do so as both a collective and as individual people (well, maybe not Renfro), but still marketing genius.

I’ve talked at length before about the celebritization of many facets of new design beyond the firm (i.e. Fritz Haeg, Dickson Despommier, Cameron Sinclair, Emily Piloton, or the pinnacle – Brad Pitt who made Make it Right a household name). This isn’t to diminish the work (which is good, great, and more), but really to point the lens at what matters: the actual work created by these folks and its relevance, or a way of personify the work and literally put a face to it. It may be impossible, but is it possible to talk about the work, it’s context, and it’s people in equal measure? Furthermore, is it possible to detach, in our culturally dense worlds, any piece of work, particularly in criticism, from the myriad forces that shape it (including the media itself?).

Continuing on, I waited with anticipation to read faslanyc’s ‘On Criticism 5’ which focused on the landscape side a bit more (venturing into the small ‘a’ if you will). His tenets regarding the superficiality of the current state includes both the inherent insecurity of landscape architecture and the divide that exists in rhetoric and attitude between academia and practice.

The first, and most visible, is our insecurity, which is frankly obvious in the type of criticism that we tend to embrace… a . As mentioned, this is a product of the demise of modernism and the failure of post-modernism, leaving us lacking in a viable -ism to hand our hat on. Again referencing Koolhaas’ essay ‘Whatever happened to Urbanism?, he: “…gave voice to an unsettling feeling that had been haunting practitioners since it became apparent that modernist architecture was not the panacea it claimed and not as important as it supposed. Forced to confront superfluity in a single generation, the critical discourse within the profession took up defensive positions to weather the storm.”

While I agree with the above assessment, I think it has more to do with an inherent lack of confidence in the validity of the argument, or at least in our ability to express it in appropriate ways. The closest analogy I can include (at the risk of getting political) is the ability of the ‘right wing’ to hone in with laser precision on the essence of the issue and create a collective viewpoint, versus the ‘left wing’ looking a nuance and subtleties (context you may say) and getting mired in the details, resulting in a watered down and incoherent message. It’s an oversimplication, but people tend to understand a simple black-white argument and place themselves within that versus muddling through various shades of gray. Do we want to over-simplify things to the point of polarity? No. But we do need to specifically occupy critical terrain and build fortifications with continuing expanded thought to strengthen that position. Otherwise, we internally bicker or worse, flip-flop 🙂

The second is more insidious, as it addresses the severed split between the academic and the pracitioner – which results in a typically incomplete application. One side is mired in complexity of language as a way to distance itself, the other can’t be bothered with ‘theory’, because we have important work to do. The blending of both thought and action is notably absent to the majority of the profession – much to the detriment of the whole. As faslanyc points out: “For this reason, the majority of practitioners have abdicated their responsibility to contribute to the contemporary discourse within the professions. It is currently dominated by writers and theoreticians with no foundation in praxis…”

…As a result, the critical discourse has become a series of self-catalyzing memes and hyperbolic metaphors characterized by a forced focus on concept and cult of personality. Only projects deemed exemplary according to a conservative set of values (standards of beauty, economic viability, social popularity) are discussed and then largely in a laudatory tone. This is not healthy criticism.”

Continuing on, we move to the concept of meaning in landscape architecture, which was captivating for me early in my career. The idea of instilling meaning into a design is fascinating for a fledgling landscape architecture professional – giving another facet to provide depth to design beyond ‘style’ or in modern obsession ‘sustainability’. You can have both, right? Referencing Marc Trieb’s essay on the subject from Landscape Journal ‘Must Landscapes Mean?’ (of which I have a dog-eared copy somewhere) it is easy to think there is possibility in a collection of narrative metaphors linked into a language. But will anyone understand, or better yet, will they care?

Finishing up, there is the overall idea of where to go – which goes back to our current situation of landscape architecture criticism – ‘where do we start?’ faslanyc includes four ideas to consider: “political process, cultural context, a focus on criticism through time, and polemics.” I’ll leave you to read them in the essay specifically, but a few thoughts spring to mind.

Regarding political process, this seems to be the beauty of some of the more interesting landscape urbanism thinkers – navigating the manifold players and barriers, spread over long periods of time, to achieve an appropriate and flexible solution (and perhaps more important, convincing these folks that the ‘design’ is never done.) Corner at Fresh Kills seems the best example of this in action, with a glacial timeline and myriad bureaucracy to navigate making the political as much a site factor as the site itself.

Culture has been addressed previously, but seems the antidote to one of the great flaws to the overly rational methods incorporated in the McHargian method – infusing the aspect of people and culture to inform the purely scientific. Data with a conscience perhaps? Additionally, landscape absolutely needs the element of temporality in design and criticism, both in terms of inherent flux in the system, but also to highlight the unfinished nature of the work and the role of maintenance personnel as actors work towards.

The final portion, polemics, is the key to our taking a fresh look at professional criticism – and needs to be included – with good argument and context in support. While all projects exist in a cultural frame, each has differing goals and objectives – so something as simplistic as ‘cost’ isn’t a viable argument. While the High Line is mentioned, a more appropriate case for this is my ongoing criticism of the ASLA Headquarters Green Roof. The critique is not with design, technique, application, or intent – but that the goals of the project were to promote the concept of green roofs as a visible pilot project. While the former are well executed, the latter came to bear with a price tag that would make all but the most motivated of clients flee. In this regard, it is a failure and should be considered such. The purpose of course, isn’t degradation, but an honest accounting of all of the goals and how well we met them. Every designer should be able to handle this.

As a profession, we gain nothing by constantly patting the same people (and by extension, ourselves) on the back for a job well done. Designers know that no project is perfect. Self-righteous celebration is not the job of criticism within the profession.”

These four elements proposed by faslanyc are a great working method for current landscape criticism, as they expand the argument beyond mere style or sustainability to include other factors that must be included within all arguments. The inclusion of a range of voices from many different disciplines, working with an honesty and transparency, will do nothing but help us improve.

A final essay on Urban Omnibus is left to discuss, focusing on the idea of ‘bias’, of which this post is already too long to accomodate… stay tuned.

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