Remnants of Spain’s early 21st century speculative urbanization pursuits. From Christopher Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was.
A few months back, we published a short appeal for more landscape architects to apply for the storied Rome Prize with the hope that the breadth of the field could be better represented. On April 23, the American Academy in Rome announced the 2015–2016 fellows, which included three new fellows in landscape architecture: Christopher Marcinkoski, Alexander Robinson, ASLA, and Thaïsa Way, ASLA.
The Rome Prize, which provides significant time, research materials, and studio space at the academy’s recently restored Villa Aurelia in Rome, has long been a coveted honor. Described as “life changing” and “transformative” by the 1997–1998 fellow Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, it is also a way of benchmarking where and how the concerns of landscape architecture converge with currents in the arts and humanities. Along with a cohort of musicians, writers, artists, scholars, and architects, the new landscape fellows will live and work in Rome for six months to a year.
Christopher Marcinkoski is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former senior associate at James Corner Field Operations. His project, “Rome, Empire Building, and the City That Never Was,” expands from the research in his forthcoming book, The City That Never Was, by looking at the emergence of speculative settlement and infrastructure projects. “My project in Rome intends to use the historical lens of Roman urbanization to think about ongoing projects that are being pursued in Africa,” Marcinkoski says. Using the example of megaprojects in Spain and Ireland that were begun but then abandoned during the recession, Marcinkoski says that these kinds of projects are now appearing in places such as Angola and Morocco, built by outside entities and sometimes in exchange for access to material resources. Coming off a long book project, Marcinkoski plans to use his time for more design experimentation, rather than written critique, though he notes that these speculative projects on the African continent deserve close attention. “There’s an incongruity between what is being proposed and what is needed.”
An interface for the Owens Lake Dust Control Project explores the nexus of infrastructure performance and experience. Credit: Alexander Robinson.
Alexander Robinson’s research deals with some of the major water infrastructure projects in the western United States; his work was recently featured in After the Aqueduct. He says that working on that exhibition helped him understand what he wanted to do with the Rome prize, and his project, “A Projective Picturesque: Reconciling Pictorial with Performance in Landscape Architecture,” will bring his research in infrastructure into a conversation with often-maligned picturesque aesthetics. Robinson is interested in “recognizing that there is a rift between performance and pictorial—there’s a lot more embedded in what we see than the scenic.” The project at the American Academy in Rome will take him back to his roots as a landscape painter to reconcile those aesthetics with the use of the planimetric design tools that are the mainstay of his current position as the director of the Landscape Morphologies Lab at the University of Southern California. “How do we think about the pictorial and the visual syntax of landscape architecture in the context of landscape infrastructure and performance?” he asks.
Thaïsa Way’s project, “Drawing a History of Landscape Architecture,” sounds perfectly scholarly, but it has an unexpected twist. The project will allow Way, a landscape historian, to study the relationship between drawing and landscape from its architectural origins to its current idiom as a form of professional communication. “I’m really interested in the history of drawing. It’s what makes us as a profession, makes us different. We use drawings to think, create, and communicate in a huge range of ways. How did those ways of thinking come to be?” But there’s more: “I am going to also draw—as a historian, to really understand what it is to draw, I need to draw!” she says. To do this, Way will look at the drawings of former landscape architecture fellows—the Rome Prize for landscape architecture was established in 1915, so she’ll have a deep archive to draw from—and then bring them to the sites where they were made, immersing herself in the relationships between the subject, the site, and the hand. Way says experiencing the act of drawing will inform the way she writes about drawing. “As a historian and a critic, I read differently because I also write, and I wanted to have that same experience,” she says.
Part of why Way is excited about starting the fellowship in Rome is because of the way her work fits together with that of Marcinkoski and Alexander. All of the Rome Prize landscape projects in some way deal with issues that are in the forefront of contemporary practice, and each new fellow has pulled back and asked how history might inform these questions more fully. But they also speak to the field in other ways, tying individual research to the concerns of the field at large. Way says: “They’re all really about the profession, not just about ourselves.”