LNDSCPR broadcasts the experiments, research and ramblings of mla cadidate, michael geffel, as he investigates the generative capacity of landscape maintenance — that is, how maintenance operations mediate and construct landscape and how they may be utilized as design instruments to engage territories outside the traditional scope of landscape architecture.  Research is organized around three themes: maintenance as infrastructural service, as design activism, and as novel ecology, with specific interest in how maintenance is situated within the context of urban metabolism, shrinking cities, and the anthropocene.  This exploration has emerged in an attempt to bridge a past life in geography, restoration ecology and gardening with the professional model of landscape architecture and the expansiveness of the landscape medium.

To investigate the generative capacity of maintenance as a design instrument, direct 1:1 experimentation is used to understand the logistical and formal properties of maintenance tools, the material and ecological effects of maintenance operations, and the resulting spatial and experiential affects for the human.

These experiments are now cataloged at lndscpr.com

——————-abstract | towards an experimental maintenance practice

Maintenance is usually seen as a collection of mechanistic techniques to preserve landscape in a fixed state. Originally from Middle French, to maintain means literally “to hold in hand,” an expression which can be interpreted two ways: to hold a mute object in place (like a stone in our palm), or alternatively, as an alliance between actors (like two friends walking hand in hand). In essence, maintenance is to enable a condition to continue in being, and therefore operates as an assertion, a constant negotiation with the ephemeral to recreate a condition at the expense of other forces.  LNDSCPR investigates how maintenance mediates and generates landscape and how maintenance operations might be utilized and represented as design instruments in landscape practice. Just as the creation of a garden is not immediate, only coming into full existence through gardening, this research proposes that landscape is equally constructed through maintenance, from the individual actions which aggregate into a vernacular, to the large-scale infrastructural services which we rely on for society to function.

Initially focusing solely on mowing, 1:1 physical experimentation is used to explore a design process where existing conditions generate design intent, the specific materials of site become the maintenance palette, the formal logic and economy of tools mediates the design, and intervention is adaptive, incremental and attentive to schedule. Drawings and photos showcase experiments in Morven Farm and Charlottesville, Virginia which attempt to model how mowing could be used as a design instrument to guide visual and physical access through a site, increase ecological diversity, and give an aesthetic signature to vague terrain. The first charts a rotational mowing strategy to spatially, ecologically and materially diversify “Middle Field” while simultaneously reducing overall maintenance. The second uses the logic of conventional mowing paths to pattern plant succession in vacant lots, balancing the tension between care and neglect, cleanliness and biodiversity.

——————–motivations | understanding landscape process through everyday practice

Thirteen years ago, in introducing his seminal compilation, “Recovering Landscape,” James Corner presents a vision of landscape as cultural practice: an ongoing project constructed through a multitude of actions, and containing its own agency. By emphasizing landscape “as verb, as process, or activity,”i the medium pivoted away from its historic origins as scene or resource, expanding the scope of practice to engage the many systems operating across the boundaries of a site. By emphasizing the constructedness of the medium, landscape becomes an overlooked instrument for understanding urbanization, and despite its eventual reduction to “_____-urbanism,” this paradigm shift can perhaps be credited for the profound resurgence of interest in the field by unemployed the 20-somethings, hipsters, potential MFA’s and disillusioned environmentalists of the oughts (such as myself).

But moving from discourse to practice, how landscape urbanism has engaged with this landscape-as-verb recovery is a bit surprising: digital abstraction of systems, digital representation of idealized landscape, digital production of form—the principle method of understanding and engaging with process is often entirely mediated through computer technology.ii It has become a genre: a mode of landscape research, a mode of marketing, and perhaps most importantly, designed landscapes now resemble their digital technology as much as their designer’s intention. Lefebvre’s Spatial Triad is helpful in understanding this contemporary production of space, the abstract representational space and representations of space in digital design seem to have completely replaced the concrete spatial practices of landscape process that were originally so inspirational. Site context is marginalized by designer utopia.iii

This is not meant to be polemical, nostalgic or techno-phobic, understanding technology is essential to understanding how landscape is produced, and computer technology is but one important category of the many instruments that materially produce landscape.iv But when a designed earthwork or retaining wall now strangely resemble the Triangular-Irregular Network (1973) that translates a surface through my computer screen, it suggests that landscape is frequently being designed to match our visualization technology’s depiction of landscape.

Conventional Design Sequence

While one objective of digital representation and modeling is to generate creativity and alternative approaches to form, several underlying questions remain: how does mediating landscape entirely through digital technology affect design intention differently than direct experience with landscape?v Is it even possible in contemporary practice for a designer to directly mediate the concrete landscape from a distance? How can digital technology represent these practices without replacing them? How can representations of space be adaptive to concrete space? These are not new questions, but continual (or at least should be) quandaries of representation.

With these questions, I return to landscape-as-verb, remembering how striking it was to read this passage as a former landscaper—as one whose practice involved regular, direct interaction with the concrete spatial and material landscape. My time in graduate school has given me an invaluable theoretical understanding of landscape and many new tools and methods for designing, yet I have also become distanced from the everyday landscape practice that critically shaped my understanding of the medium. When I hear a designer complain that their landscape production “wasn’t maintained correctly,” it seems that often they mean that landscape process is not cooperating with their abstract representational space, their utopia. Is not maintenance the ultimate test of a design? Is it not the mark of a “good” designer when they understand everyday life sufficiently to create lasting design? What if the sequence was inverted, and maintenance—or direct mediation with concrete space—preceded and generated design intention?vi How might the social practices of maintenance be utilized as an innovative, resilient landscape practice?

——————–research question 

How does maintenance mediate and generate landscape and how can these processes be utilized and represented as design instruments in landscape practice?

——————–theoretical basisemergence and the social practices of maintenance

To maintain, from Middle French, is literally to hold in hand, and in essence is to enable a condition to continue in being.vii By beginning with this expansive definition, we can quickly dispense with any simplistic connotations that emphasize human preservation of a helpless object, and instead reflect on the many actions and actors that may perpetuate a particular landscape condition. We can refer to “the Mississippi River maintaining its channel” as easily as “fire maintaining a savannah,” “New Orleans maintaining its streets,” or “Michael maintaining his yard.” In exploring these diverse scenarios, maintenance more closely resembles its use in conversation—as an assertion by an actor toward a condition. By breaking down the essential processes that maintain a landscape condition, a broad variety of actors are implicated in this formerly human occupation, and the door is opened to an ecological and object-oriented interpretation of landscape.viii

created, of course, but also maintained by mississippi sediment

Explicitly, in order for maintenance to occur, an identified condition, situation, circumstance, state, quality or characteristic must already exist; a creation event must immediately precede it. This appears to be in direct conflict the goal of developing a maintenance-led design approach as described in the above motivations. But when we inspect how something is maintained, we find a multitude of internal operations such as diagnosis, repair, calibration, and invention that may be necessary for an existing condition to continue its being. These internal operations provide a window into the generative capacity of maintenance, specifically, how a being might evolve while retaining its essential qualities, how a being might be fundamentally changed, and how a new being might be created.

When I maintain my lawn, it may appear as if I am simply preserving a fixed state, but throughout the process I am comparing the sensual lawn (observed in concrete space) to my idealized lawn (shaped by representational space) and adjusting my behavior for specific spatial and phenomenal qualities, just as all objects adjust to maintain a specific condition. Mowing doesn’t happen whenever I want, but through continual mediation with the other components of the lawn.ix Grass and other species with a low enough growth point maintain verdant coverage, growing, shifting and fading based on their botanical requirements. Rain and my irrigation maintain a steady water supply, while the minerals in my soil maintain an anchor for the grass-roots and a supply of nutrients.

The lawn is not a particular turfgrass mowed at a specified height once a week by the lawnmower-man, but an alliance between many actors that together maintain a condition. I am therefore “part” of the lawn. Without the grass, the lawnmower, myself and a host of other components, the lawn is destroyed. Maintenance is creative, the continual revival of a condition.x

emergent sculpting of the pearl friar-boxwood alliance

During the events when the rain maintains just a little too much water, and the soil retains too much, it becomes clear that the alliance has shifted. Now, to preserve my lawn I must install a french-drain, or maybe I maintain the spatial qualities of the lawn but through entirely different materials (such as the moss that is now replacing the grass). Maintenance becomes inventive, requiring additional components.

In the process of installing my french drain, I travel on roads maintained for my truck to the rockyard which stays in business through my purchase. The quarry mines another batch of stone out of the river, where the sand and gravel has been depositing itself for a while. Maintenance becomes infrastructural, forming the basic organizational structure of an enterprise.

Through these events, landscape can be understood as a DeLandan emergent entity.xi—as originating from the alliance of its domestic actors, and possessing a centrality which links together its many components. These individual components may turn over like blades of grass, and new ones may be generated like french-drains, without the emergent whole becoming a different thing as long as its essential qualities and outward influence remain.xii

I could have used an easier example to demonstrate how a landscape is created and maintained through the assertion of its components (like fire and the oak to the savannah, or a sand deposition on a flooded alluvial levee), but by using the iconic symbol of human control over nature, I am attempting to ground the theory in the everyday social practices of humans with those of every other object. Apart from the metaphysical qualities described, landscape is also still a socially constructed, primarily visual medium: “A portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance.xiii Landscapes are certainly an ongoing cultural practice, but arguably maintained more through macroeconomics, ingrained cultural aesthetics and institutional function than created by the stylistic trends of the digital designer.xiv To participate in this ongoing project requires interaction in everyday life, which is to say, through maintenance of everyday landscapes can the designer engage the medium more fully.

Landscaping follows design and construction, so its identity is often reduced to preservation, clean up and control—to the point that it is classified as a janitorial occupation by the Federal Government—yet maintenance is instrumental to understanding the socially constructed objectives and physical tactics that produce landscape. The landscaper can be thought of as an editor, landscape a continually curation, reflecting the assertion of actors with and against our intentions.xv Like an editor, there is always the option of a rewrite, but it can never be total because the landscaper is but one actor of the landscape that includes the lawn, the soil, the rats under the porch, Wall Street, cinder block, Capability Brown, lead, and all else in the network.

maintenance collage of paving and graffiti removal

A design approach led by maintenance is certainly not a panacea to a site’s marginalization by a designer’s abstract representation because its outcomes are still entirely dependent on the intentions and objectives of the designer. It is not meant as a wholesale substitute for new creation, a replacement for traditional research, or total alternative to digital technology. However, this theoretical framework offers a different approach to engage the medium by beginning with everyday life and collaborating with the many actors that maintain landscape.xvi It emphasizes humility in the emergent landscape and flexible, incremental innovation. By grounding design in the social practices of the site, it fosters resilience instead of inserting utopian design vision.

——————hypotheses |

Much has been written on the garden as a metaphor for human interaction with landscape process, but the metaphor should be exploded to include maintenance at a variety of scales. Landscaping is the closest analog to gardening at the landscape scale. As such the lessons of the garden can be applied to the office parks, highway medians, urban forests and subdivisions of the contemporary landscape.

The generative capacity of landscape is defined as the potential and possibilities that occur from events, and is therefore different that its productive capacity which focuses on efficient outcomes over a set time.xvii It can therefore be better understood through direct observation and material experimentation instead of using predictive models.xviii

By applying observations from specific cases to specific experiments (transduction) instead of attempting to discern general rules, there is the potential to discover distinct material and spatial qualities, and collaborative opportunities previously hidden behind the computer screen.xix

By consciously observing the agency of digital design tools, we may avoid allowing the agency of these tools from dictating design intent. Conversely, through hyperbolic critique of our maintenance and construction tools, we may better understand their generative capacity, how we might innovatively employ them.xx

Infrastructure may be thought of as a product of maintenance as it is the basic physical and organizational structure that facilitates the operation of a society. Just as a path is paved and a ditch is excavated, infrastructure is often produced to address an identified deficiency that threatens a condition. Infrastructure is both created to maintain landscapes and creates landscapes by maintaining other conditions.

Along with preservation, conservation and restoration activities can also be understood as maintenance. Conservation case studies can be particularly helpful in understanding how maintenance objectives produce infrastructure, whereas restoration can be helpful in understanding retroactive maintenance.xxixxii

iCorner, J. (1999). Recovering landscape as critical cultural practice. Recovering Landscape. Princeton Architectural Press.

iiDee, C. (Jan, 2010). Form, utility and the aesthetics of thrift in design education. Landscape Journal, 29(1), 21-25.

iiiLefabvre, H. (1974/). The Production of Space. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford, 1991.

ivDavis, B. (2012). Instrumentalism. Landscapes and Instruments. Retrieved 7/5/2012 from http://instrumentalism.wordpress.com/instrumentalism/

vCourajoud, M. (2002). Nine rules of a propadeutics for learning landscape design. Gardens in Arms/Jardines Insurgentes. Barcelona.

viRaxworthy, J. (2011) Gardening forms: Landscape architecture and gardening in Sven-Invar Andersson’s garden at Marnas. Journal of Landscape Architecture, 12, 6-19

viiDefinition developed from the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and the Online Etymological Dictionary

viiiHarman, G. (2005). Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Open Court.

ix Parc du Sausset, Atelier Corajoud (1981)

xRyoan-ji, Hosokawa Matsumoto (17th ce)

xiDeLanda, M. (2006). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. Continuum.

xii Food Carts, Portland. (2008)

xiiiJackson, J.B. (1984), Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, p. 8 Yale University Press, New Haven and London

xivNassauer, J. (1995). Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal, 4(2), 161-170.

xvMcCormick, M. (2002). The Subconcious Art of Graffiti Removal. Rodeo Film Company. http://vimeo.com/368367

xviTerraGRAM, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates/DIRT Studio/Beyer Blinder Bell. (2006)

xviiDavis, B. (2011). On Landscape Ontology II: Production, Extraction, and Generative Capacity. FASLANYC. Retrieved 7/05/2012 from http://faslanyc.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-landscape-ontology-ii-production.html

xviiiLatour, B. (1984). Irreductions. The Pasteurization of France. trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988.

xixTopiary Garden, Pearl Fryar.

xxHarman, G. (2009). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. re.press.

xxiFire Protection, Erosion Control, Civilian Conservation Corps


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Kuhn, N. (2006). Intentions for the unintentional: Spontaneous vegetation as the basis for innovative planting design in urban areas. Journal of Landscape Architecture, autumn 2006

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