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