The gorilla hanging in the room before any discussion of maintenance, is the term’s suffocating connotation: it’s static, blue-collar, noisy, smelly, complete banality. With landscapers sharing professional kinship to janitors, the topic seems as low-design as connotatively possible. Part of this may lie in its stubborn association with mechanism: the grass grows tall, the gas tank is filled, the lawn is mown, the grass is now short again; input/output connect the dots. Perhaps because landscaping is so commonly associated with machines, we forget that the teleology of mechanism is flawed even when applied to the mechanical arts!
As infamously described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance engine maintenance is not as simple as just replacing filters and oil, but requires continual, experimental and recursive diagnostic to maintain equilibrium. Why should landscape be any different? If we look at the conventional maintenance sequence, we can quickly see that there is nothing static about landscaping, the conditions of each living entity are constantly changing in relation to our actions and other ecological forces, even as the overall identity metamorphosizes.
Ecology describes the earth both as networks of relations and as a series of systems, where dynamic assemblies of individualistic actors organize to create and maintain a holistic order. i How else can we identify an ecosystem, unless some form of equilibrium—even a disturbant equilibrium—is maintained? A system requires order to be understood, and is thus an abstraction or extraction of a messy mesh of relationships. We know how the carbon cycle functions now base on all the actors that maintain it’s integrity, add a few cars, and a little coal and it’s a modified engine and not under warranty. ii Holistic systems thinking is of course a huge step from mechanist reductionism, but because it is an extraction of relationships it runs the risk of generalizing. As the specific relationships that make up the system change — as individualistic animate entities often do — the system requires redefinition to account for the shift.
Despite ecology’s contributions— fostering of an environmental awareness in landscape architecture and redefining the medium in terms of process iii— by reducing the complexity of ecological networks into pre-identified, generalized systems, design outcomes rest on our ability to identify and understand all relevant actors. Unfortunately, the sheer size of networks can overwhelm our ability to design as we attempt to trace their relations. In lieu of this apparent contradiction, ecology can alternatively be approached through maintenance—the specific components of ecological systems are given agency as instruments and the emergent landscape network is formed through their direct mediation and collaboration. iv
Landscape process is not defined by the extracted systems we analyze and diagram from a map but by the continually fluctuating relationship of objects which carve out space, crash against each other and dissolve. Maintenance design practice can engage landscape process through this object-oriented dynamic, with every interaction a distinctive event that may not codify into an ultimate rule. We “learn primarily from doing and creat(ing) via using techniques, which are of course are underlaid by knowledge and theory.”v It emphasizes incrementalism, resilience, and experimentation, allowing a landscape to evolve while retaining its essential qualities and new landscapes to emerge depending on which conditions are maintained.
i Levins, R.; Lewontin, R. (1980). “Dialectics and reductionism in ecology”. Synthese 43: 47–78.
ii Falkowski, P.; Scholes, R. J.; Boyle, E.; Canadell, J.; Canfield, D.; Elser, J.; Gruber, N.; Hibbard, K. et al. (2000). “The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System”. Science 290 (5490): 291–296.
iii Corner, J. (1999). Recovering landscape as critical cultural practice. Recovering Landscape. Princeton Architectural Press.
iv Davis, B. (2012). Instrumentalism. Landscapes and Instruments. Retrieved 7/5/2012 from http://instrumentalism.wordpress.com/instrumentalism/