So It Flows

Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory  

By Julian Raxworthy 

In my seminar on contemporary theories of landscape architecture at the University of Cape Town, I recently asked students, during the week allocated to discussing landscape urbanism, to choose a project from Africa that could be called “landscape urbanist.” One student chose the renovation of the Luanda waterfront in Angola. This project is an upgrade that could just as easily be described as conventional landscape architecture or urban design practice. That landscape urbanism seemed to just be landscape architecture to my students suggests how generic the term has become when considered in relation to implementation: It could be just about anything. Landscape urbanism is a vibe.

Landscape urbanism is an evocative term that has exercised great influence over academic design discourse in landscape architecture but has remained ambiguous in practical terms. One of its key propagandists, Charles Waldheim, Honorary ASLA, a professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, has attempted to provide a “general theory” for it in his new book Landscape as Urbanism, which, while engagingly going some of the way toward doing so, leaves the persistent question of “OK, but so what?” remaining.

Talking about landscape urbanism is more like telling a story than theorizing a practice, and Waldheim tells this story well, with an authority arising from his key role in developing landscape urbanism. Previously I would have told students to buy Recovering Landscape, edited by James Corner, ASLA, because, like punk music, landscape urbanism was more exciting before it had a name. On one level Waldheim tells this story again under a more coherent narrative, but on another he makes explicit the links between the genealogical bits that have been gathered together under the title “landscape urbanism.” As a history teacher faced with endless questions from students who love the idea of it but can’t really work out what it is, I am grateful to Waldheim for his new book: Now I can give some readings that have some clarity, accompanied by great writing.

The book “situates the emergence of landscape as a medium of urbanism,” where an “architectural order of the city has been rendered obsolete or inadequate through social, technological, or environmental change.” This is ironic because despite having a landscape thematic, most of the precedents in the book are produced by architects, and in itself, landscape urbanism has emerged as a trope of the architectural avant-garde. In his historical narrative, Waldheim locates a series of disciplinary shifts as making a terrain for landscape urbanism: a de-spatializing move of planning toward the social sciences, a recognition of the object-centeredness of architecture, and an increasing ecological basis in landscape architecture. Accompanying this is an expansion of ecology as both a way of reading the city as well as a metaphor for infrastructure, making ecology not just a description of these systems but an operative tool for propositions about the city. However, in doing so, landscape urbanism can often seem to be talking through an abstract ecological model rather than dealing with the minutiae of natural systems for which ecology arose to provide an account. Fortunately, the work of landscape ecologists, such as that of Richard Forman, has also matured during this time to back up some of the rhetorical claims made about the ecology of the city, for which The Granite Garden by Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, remains the pioneering work.

Continuing the elevation of landscape over architecture, in the first chapter, “Claiming Landscape as Urbanism,” Waldheim characterizes landscape as “horizontality.” As many others have also done, Waldheim points to the unrealized Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) scheme for Parc de la Villette in the early 1980s as the archetype of such horizontal organization, emphasizing its “infrastructural approach.” But the OMA scheme has also been an important precedent because it made landscape something compositionally different from the conventional park in landscape architecture. It made a landscape that architects could appropriate without having to buy into the un-coolness of landscape architecture. In an important design move, this scheme represented a different kind of city: infrastructural, complex, noncentralized, technological, confusing. Quite rightfully, Waldheim centers on landscape as ecology throughout the book, plotting a path from la Villette through the Field Operations scheme in 1999 for the Downsview Park Toronto competition, to West 8, and now Stoss Landscape Urbanism. Ecology was important indeed, but an aesthetic of systems and flows to express it equally so. This idea of representation is important because, despite an interest in effects, the ultimate criteria was that those effects had to look a certain way, or rather not look a certain way—not look like landscape architecture.

Chapter 2, “Autonomy, Indeterminacy, Self-Organization” focuses on a key characteristic of landscape urbanism: emergence, a property of complex systems, brought in through a language of scientism allowed by the potency of landscape as ecology. Waldheim sees this aspect of landscape urbanism as arising from the poststructuralist notion of the “death of the author,” an interesting observation. While emergence is an exciting property of natural systems, the projects he uses to exemplify indeterminacy do not seem to show any of the surrender of control that is inherent in this term, including works like the Yokohama Port Terminal by Foreign Office Architects. Self-organization has been a metaphor or an aesthetic of schemes that show their interest by looking “systemy” in representation, nonetheless using drawings that are propositional, thereby lacking the feedback loops that complex systems must have to develop emergent results. Recent research by Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, and Justine Holzman, Associate ASLA, recognizes this key property of complex systems and looks at how design might be able to do so by sensing and reacting to environments in real time, which may make true the utopian dream of emergence. Problems arise, however, regarding the speed of the desired visible response—between something sensed and a physical response—which lags in the real landscape where dynamic processes like growth and geological process have timescales and speeds that preclude the cognitive “aha!” that seems to be required to see the feedback effects. Landscape architecture is better at doing this, with its assumption of slow, even boring change, though, as I argue in my forthcoming book, Overgrown,
gardening is better.

Having proposed a change to the basis of urban form from architecture to ecology by giving it properties of self-organization, in chapter 3, “Planning, Ecology, and the Emergence of Landscape,” Waldheim notes that ecological principles in landscape planning have, since Ian McHarg, preceded formal planning. The “urban figure is attained,” he writes, “not through planning…but through the autonomous self-regulation of emergent ecologies.” Here again, projects used to discuss this phenomenon such as the High Line do not justify this claim since they use form to mobilize ecology, rather than the other way around as the quote suggests. Crucially, all operate within a given site, demarcated by land tenure and the configuration of the property boundary. Landscape systems at their most dynamic create their own boundaries that change as inputs into the system change, a quality that landscape urbanism, and landscape planning before it, would seek to appropriate.

A key problem for landscape planning has been that rational patterns of land subdivision rarely have any relationship to landscape systems. This will continue to be a problem as long as capital subdivides landscape according to its own logics. Since the primacy of private land ownership is sacrosanct in capitalism, the ability to talk about formal emergence on a systems scale is limited by this conflict between geometries. This is a fundamental critique of landscape urbanism, since many of its exemplars ignore property boundaries in their urban modeling or favor greenfield sites, introducing sensuous geometries over ignored grids of other people’s land, any of whom could in reality scuttle the design. This demonstrates an apolitical dimension of landscape urbanism, which shows that even as it has criticized the move to the social in planning, without such a move, these kinds of propositions are impossible. The desire for epic-ness misses the fine-tuned and subtle calibration that the mosaic of landscape projects, constrained and with limited means, contributes to the city.

Correspondingly, though chapter 4, “Post-Fordist Economies and Logistics Landscape,” sounds as if it might be concerned with the economic as a social question, its interest lies in “a new spatial order,” a kind of dystopian fetish that stops short of reflecting on the social consequences of this economic change. However, even as landscape urbanism has been ascendant, international migration, a focus on inequality in the west, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century all demonstrate that social sciences tied to economics remain an important focus for any aware design practice. Nonetheless, this focus on the Post-Fordist city does allow his account to locate, perhaps even appropriate for landscape urbanism, recent postindustrial landscape architecture projects like Landshaftspark Duisburg-Nord in a simultaneously spatial and economic framework, as well as a role for landscape professionals in environmental remediation.

Waldheim continues this theme in chapter 5, “Urban Crisis and the Origins of Landscape,” discussing Detroit, a city where the disjunction between landscape systems and property ownership is disappearing, as succession forest begins to colonize vacant and unmaintained land. Waldheim’s Post-Fordist approach reveals a certain neoliberalism in landscape urbanism, that it can ogle and fastidiously document strange, new urban conditions arising from changing economic circumstance but stops short of taking a political or ideological position on them. In the South African context, this is like personally disagreeing with apartheid but admiring its spatial planning, while ignoring its ongoing social consequences.

While not an uncommon or unreasonable academic practice, in his quasi-historical retelling of landscape urbanism, Waldheim extrapolates his theory of landscape urbanism out of pieces of previous research that occasionally feel incorporated for expediency rather than pertinence, and a number of cases are elevated to the status of evidence. Among these, in chapter 6, “Urban Order and Structural Change,” is Lafayette Park in Detroit, which I had the opportunity to visit in 2012. While I found the two-story town houses by Mies van der Rohe and their car-focused landscape by Alfred Caldwell beautiful, the park at the core of the project, separating towers and town houses, had a no-man’s-land quality that I would have associated with Le Corbusier, with his emphasis on density as a quantitative liberation of ground plane. This was clearly a move by Mies’s collaborator Ludwig Hilberseimer, and one that I would have said by and large treated landscape as quantity not quality. This is characteristic of the object–field division of modernism, rather than the kind of relationship that Waldheim seems interested in, one that leads from field to object. That Waldheim rates Hilberseimer so highly, dedicating a chapter to him, seems disproportionate. The landscape architect on the project, Caldwell, receives only passing attention, despite being the guy who clearly had to give qualities to the proposition. He has also been ignored in his role in siting and documenting Mies’s landscape pavilion, the Farnsworth House (not to mention Caldwell’s testimony in court in the legal fight between Mies and Edith Farnsworth). Reminiscent of the historical treatment of Marion Mahony Griffin, the collaborator of Walter Burley Griffin, Caldwell’s drawing of a city in a landscape provides the background for the fluro cover of Landscape as Urbanism. This could be a model for the neglect of the profession of landscape architecture critically, both generally and in Waldheim’s title.

Aerial photography has completely changed the ways we see and study landscapes and cities, which is the focus of Waldheim’s seventh and eighth chapters titled “Agrarian Urbanism and the Aerial Subject” and “Aerial Representation and Airport Landscape.” The post-McHargian, postmodern aerial photographic studies of James Corner and Alex MacLean, as well as Alan Berger, have been a hallmark of the body of thinking and practice that has emerged during the period of landscape urbanism, characterized by treating geography as propositional. Waldheim explores the history of the aerial view thoroughly both as a new way of reading the landscape and changing the relation of the subject to it. However, I would say we are now past this, since I now have to point out to my students that there is something unusual about the aerial view, noting that aerial photography used to be precious and hard to come by. Of even greater influence, I would argue now, both for cultural and privacy reasons, is the ubiquitous Google Maps, which has brought a scary naturalness to what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari called the “plane of organization,” in essence the plan, which has supplanted its opposite, “the plane of consistency,” the phenomenological experience from eye level. The map on the screen is the new normal for landscape architecture students and the larger community. And while there is no doubt that the airport represents a paradigm shift of spatial type in the 20th century, so do the business park, the car park, and many other infrastructural landscapes that landscape architects make their bread and butter working on, which lack some of the prosaic weirdness of a big piece of metal improbably flying through the air like a bird.

The question “what about landscape architecture?” has always remained at the back of my mind when considering landscape urbanism and indeed persists in this recent book, despite being the subject of chapter 9, “Claiming Landscape as Architecture.” This chapter explores the development and etymology of the term “landscape architect,” hinting that the name really had nothing to do with architecture, the latter appellation referring to the putting of buildings in the landscape. Despite plants being the most tangible means for emergent conditions to arise in a landscape urbanist approach, implicit within the discussion is a trivialization of the gardening part of “landscape gardener” in the definition of the profession. On the one hand Waldheim, rightfully, suggests that landscape architecture is better placed to claim the discipline of urban design than architecture is, but when the discipline is discussed, he defers to Frederick Law Olmsted and McHarg, ignoring an enormous body of practice that has shaped cities since that time, only occasionally referring to other designers like Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, or Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, from West 8, and notably Turenscape in detail at the end. Instead, urban design is proposed and then disqualified, and ecological urbanism preferred. In determining a trajectory for landscape urbanism, Waldheim echoes Julia Czerniak’s call for a move from “appearance to performance,” and treats the ecological as a multimodal model for an ecological urbanism. I dislike this model of ecology because it denatures it; it treats it as an algorithm rather than a specific account. Returning to my students’ mis-selected landscape urbanism projects, I am reminded that my intuitive response was “OK, they do landscape urbanism type things, but they don’t look like landscape urbanism projects.” While “performance” is the key word coming from landscape urbanism, we can truthfully invert Czerniak’s phrase and note that such projects must also have the appearance of performance.

Though I have been critical of landscape urbanism from the start, this has not been because of a disagreement with its aims, or even a dislike of its work (where it exists), but because it treats its own rhetoric with the righteousness of science, indeed inventing a whole new language, and does not recognize its inability to live up to those claims. However, in the face of Andrés Duany’s apoplectic hatred of landscape urbanism, it’s important to ask: Is landscape architecture more interesting because of landscape urbanism, to which I would answer unambiguously, “Hell, yeah!” The question then must be, “Is the urban landscape itself better because of landscape urbanism?” For this question the jury is out, and won’t yet be swayed by this book, relying as it does mostly on unbuilt work. With a multitude of generations of graduates from programs with a landscape urbanism focus now working their way up the office food chain (or better, starting their own offices), in the next five years we may see many such projects arise. I for one will be curious and excited to see what results.

Julian Raxworthy is a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and a Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts grantee. His forthcoming book is titled Overgrown: Practice Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening (MIT Press, 2017).

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