yard urbanism and the dialectical landscape

After documenting and sketching a potential maintenance site, I mowed my lawn, had a cup of coffee and some apple pie, and did some reading. The mowing quickly revealed the limitations of my equipment, but the food heightened my patriotism as did the reading, which described the evolution of the American yard. Not only did it help situate my research in the vernacular landscape, it also helped to solidify an important distinction that I have been hovering around: landscape is not and will always be more than a garden. Pulling from JB Jackson, landscape, “a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as  infrastructure or background for our collective existence,” the garden as loosely defined through John Dixon Hunt, a bounded place signifying a cultivated, higher-order of nature. Landscape is rectilinear, the garden is square. Any comparison (our hope) of managing the earth “like a garden” is an impossibility because of the voids and entropy that landscape makes visible– but is also ethically a fool’s errand by ignoring all the horrors that occur in name of gardening. Admittedly, this comparison is often made by those who organically garden (albeit those who may also use a little neem and bat guano when necessary), but even with this analogy, we would have to ignore that the majority of lots never reach garden status. They are landscaped. Into yards.

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The yard has everything to do with utility, with use. From raising and slaughtering livestock in the agricultural barnyard and dooryard, to the privies, woodpiles and garbage dumps of the utility yard during industrialization, American backyards were not tended but used. The miraculous transformation of our front yards to the united, park aesthetic of the garden-city is the purest acknowledgement of the squalor lurking behind the house (and the former importance of our front porch). But although the American front yard is an idealized construction of nature (lawn, tree and foundation shrubs) it can not be considered a tended garden, it’s appearance is for the use of the public, for the cohesion of the neighborhood (i.e. infrastructure), with numerous lawsuits against environmentally friendly home owners as evidence of this ingrained aesthetic function.  The yard represents the vast middle ground between the agrarian and the garden, and must be the context for intervention if landscape architecture is to operate outside its current class structure.  This is what has brought me to the topic of generative maintenance: in subverting the techniques that we take for granted, by operating in those landscapes that resist conventional maintenance, by complicitly tuning our ritualized relationships with nature, numerous and immense voids of landscape become open for intervention.  This is not typical designer space nor a visionary reorganization of society.

This is similar, but not the same, to the land artists of the 60’s who reclaimed ravaged, marginalized sites.    It is inspired by Oppenheim’s indifference to gallery (studio) culture, and especially by Smithson’s dialectical landscape. The juxtaposition of site (intervention, ephemerality) and non-site (documentation, displaced material, locus of discourse) is perhaps more important than ever to engage and communicate landscape outside of the prevalent mode of digital atmosphere.  The beauty of the dialectical landscape lies its frank admission that the non-site is forever inadequate at representing site, though there is access between in “a space of metaphoric significance.”  The emphasis on abstraction and displaced material may serve as a better bridge to the complexity and dynamism of landscape more effectively in that it references our personal abstractions of space and can not be confused with the actual site.

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The graphic aesthetic may resemble early landscape urbanist mapping, but the instrumentality is quite different, most notably by avoiding literal translation of non-site to site.

But instead, this research looks to the vernacular and the everyday landscapes of our decaying suburban dream, not to celebrate entropy, but to experiment with subtle tactics that may create vastly different outcomes. I can’t wash my hands of the sixth extinction and rising social inequity and pretend that there are no ethics involved in design.  So strangely I will be mowing grass. Mowing the base level of the landscape condition, which determines where the Ailanthus forest will live in Detroit and the Tallow swamp in New Orleans. Experimenting with the middle-conditions between.

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