theoretical basis

emergence 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.i 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.ii

created, of course, but also maintained by mississippi sediment

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.iii 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.iv

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.

emergent sculpting of the pearl friar-boxwood alliance

emergent sculpting of the pearl friar-boxwood alliance

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.v—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

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.vii 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.viii 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.ix 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

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.x 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.



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

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

iii Parc du Sausset, Atelier Corajoud (1981)

iv Ryoan-ji, Hosokawa Matsumoto (17th ce)

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

vi Food Carts, Portland. (2008)

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

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

ix McCormick, M. (2002). The Subconcious Art of Graffiti Removal. Rodeo Film Company.

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

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