Unlocking LU 2: The Re-Representation of Urbanism

Continuing the thread of review for the new landscape urbanism website, I’m discussing ‘The Re-Representation of Urbanism’ by Gerdo Aquino, SWA Principal as well as educator and author of the book ‘Landscape Infrastructure’ (see L+U review here).  As a fundamental opening to his essay, Aquino mentions the major shift that has taken place towards urbanization and linking it to Odum’s ecological idea of the ‘carrying capacity’ as these areas continually add more people.  It’s interesting to think in these terms in numbers we can related to, so the example of the resource base for Los Angeles being about to support 1% of the current population is troubling – as it is a case in point (and a poignant example) of us living well above our means.

:: Los Angeles – image via City Photos

The other major theme mentioned is the use of adjectival modifiers of urbanism – ecological, new, everyday, combinatory, to name a few of the many.  The question isn’t which of these is most appropriate, or ‘right’ but do they address the complexities of the city in meaningful ways and do they lead to appropriate actions.  In our search for solutions we tend to choose a dominant paradigm and stretch it to fit, rather than asking whether it is the right tool for a particular job.  As Aquino mentions:

“The study of cities needs to include many points of view in order to move beyond outmoded planning diagrams that no longer describe how to improve our cities. Despite so many variables, each of these terms argues for an ideas-rich platform for public debate, competition, and academic research in which the specificity of a particular factor can be magnified, examined, and explored in context.”

Which is another way of saying a phrase I just heard again for the first time – “If you have a hammer, every thing looks like a nail”.  So no self-respecting carpenter would carry one tool, but a box (or truck) full of potential solutions that work at varying scales.  Not to oversimplify cities – but you get the idea.  One of the most interesting ideas that landscape urbanism brings to the discussion, mentioned by Aquino in the article is that of a new relationship to graphic methods and imagery.  Many of the formative theories of LU look closely at mapping, representation, and as Aquino mentions:  “The collective visualization of our world…” which “…is even more important in influencing how we understand and think about urbanism and landscape.”

The representation within disciplines is very important but sometimes missed as a key part of the discussion.  A softly rendered static watercolor perspective suffices for a view of a product, primarily because it is easier to convey than the complexity of urban systems and their dynamic properties.  The integration of science, particularly landscape ecology, chaos theory, and social dynamics, ramps up the number of urban variables to a degree where traditional representation crumbles.  Is the solution to retreat back to what is known and understandable (or more importantly, easy to convey as simplification to clients and others)?  Or do we take on the challenge of this, in Aquino’s words – re-representation?

In this regard the essay references a 1997 article “Design by re-representation: a model of visual reasoning in design” by Rivka Oxman [link to PDF here] which Aquino summarizes below:

“…understanding design proposals requires both cognitive knowledge and visual literacy. Oxman’s research explores how emergence, or the way complex systems arise out of relatively simple connections, informs creativity and, particularly, the process of design. Design then can be understood as a culmination of thousands of decisions—and each representation offers a layer of meaning behind these complex ideas.”

This is on the same theme as preliminary writings in ‘Recovering Landscape’ so again, this isn’t really a new idea, but good to reinforce the concept of landscape architecture as a profession well suited for representational experimentation and the ability to capture fluidity and complexity, which is referenced in some of the major graphic convention evolutions during the first decade of this century.  Computers have became a significant tool not just in being able to automate techniques of collage, but also are beginning to aid in crunching significant quantities of data and more specifically, along with video and other media, represent motion and change over time, interrelationship of site actors, and to portray changes that occur on timelines too slow for our comprehension.

The second part of Aquino’s essay focuses not on representation, but on actual places and the lack of a modern method of visual vocabulary for landscape architecture.  The profession is still mired in the pictorial scenery in the Olmstedian tradition (especially in North America) and architecture/urban design in the ‘Main Street’ utopia – so it becomes more difficult to give tangible examples of new ideas when the dominant visual and cultural paradigm is based on powerful, established imagery.  As Aquino mentions, “Landscape architecture… suffers from a poor collective visual vocabulary. The absence of prevalent and progressive design precedents hinders our ability to communicate our ideals for a better urbanism to a broader audience.”

Part of the issue is in communication, the other part is more political – in actually convincing people that there is a better urbanism, and that the natural (or native) should not be the proper ‘frame’ for the ecological.  The debate of cultural frameworks and perceptions will continue to evolve as mentioned as we integrate more ecological thinking and systems into projects – but will they be required to fall into the fate of such techno-ecological marvels as Olmsted’s Back Back Fens project – a landscape ecological urbanism in disguise as a natural wetland park?

Aquino then comes to the crux of the solution – and that is to build the work.  As he mentions:  “Educate through practice. Landscape architects, planners, and urbanists need built precedents to demonstrate that a more integrated approach to landscape and urbanism is possible. Policy and planning does not spark a collective re-imagination of our future in the way that tangible, built work does.” 

This goes to the heart of the debate about landscape urbanism – and really becomes perhaps the wicked problem that we all face in trying to elaborate a new representational and methodological process.  At this point we have some of the fundamentals we want to achieve… flexibility, adaptability, indeterminacy and multiplicity… driven by ecological principles and woven into complex social and economic milieu – in response to cultural and market conditions.  This is the urbanism parts – the working aspects of cities and systems we want to address.

The problem with implementation – and with re-representation, is that we haven’t actually figured out the representation part – so it is a giant leap to building.  While he offers examples – these are good works of urban planning and design, interdisciplinary landscape architecture, and innovative ecological solutions at work – but they aren’t built works of landscape urbanism, and they aren’t even really physical examples of the representational transformation of the disciplines… which haven’t yet matured on the drawing boards, and definitely haven’t been realized in the field.

I just don’t see the connection between theory and practice being strong enough to justify a new label – and resistance within disciplines to new ideas notwithstanding, perhaps it will just become a natural maturation of all of the above disciplines with infusions of some aspects of new theory from all of the various ‘urbanisms’.  It isn’t really worthy of a label like ‘landscape urbanism’ or even ‘landscape infrastructure’ – although we do love new labels.  Is is okay to modify urbanism as ‘study’ and keep the disciplinary frameworks of applied methodology intact – so LU can influence and change and expand landscape architecture or architecture or planning without being considered a failed theoretical attempt?  I’d much rather see that than to try to formalize it into a method (ala New Urbanism) or to force projects into a new category of definition as Landscape Urbanism. 

Either way, I’m with Aquino partway, and agree that:  “Over the next decade, as the work communicated in words and pictures transforms into real places in the world, the public understanding of both urbanism and landscape architecture will expand, while new challenges and opportunities emerge for designers to tackle.”

What we will call these works… these re-representations and re-implementations… that’s the question?

3 thoughts on “Unlocking LU 2: The Re-Representation of Urbanism”

  1. I appreciate this conversation but have a basic question. The clearest formulation I have heard of landscape urbanism is a position that considers the landscape as the fundamental building block of cities, or better, as the appropriate unit of analysis for understanding and intervening in cities. I think this is compelling- for instance, the scalar ambiguity inherent in landscape is allows you to immediately understand urbanism in more expansive (urban center and hinterland/nature) and microscopic terms (mycorrhizal associations in the soil making for healthy urban forests)

    One basic question though would be: what is landscape? Do these guys offer a definition? If its really to be the unit of analysis and intervention for urbanism then surely we need a specific definition, right? Have they done any work to define it? Or are they relying on someone else’s work that I’m just missing?

  2. hah, I think your comments were probably more insightful than the actual essay. As I understand it, Aquino’s essay about the re-representation of urbanism states that new words, and new methods (or combinations) of visual representation are needed to move forward a new collective image of what the city is and can be. I think one of the most exciting new developments in the field is the rise of “temporary urbanisms” that give a fast, cheap taste of the possible. The layering of these temporary moves, uses, and installations may be the very thing that moves the discipline forward fastest.


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