What Makes Us Us

Julian Raxworthy thinks its time for landscape architects to re-embrace what makes them fundamentally different.

By Zach Mortice

The lago at Roberto Burle Marx’s Sítio, which he composed by eye from truckloads of species collected during his botanical expeditions. Image courtesy Julian Raxworthy.

Since its inception, it’s been hard to find much agreement in landscape architecture over the profession’s purpose and how it should work. For some contemporary designers, landscape architecture, in theory if a bit less in practice, is most visible when ecological systems are designed and deployed to remediate the earth, water, air, and biomes, often at an infrastructural scale. And yet, a profession wholly obsessed with infrastructure would seem to miss the trees for the forest.

The Australian landscape architect Julian Raxworthy posits a way forward in his new book, Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening, published by The MIT Press. Landscape architects, he notes, have retreated from the defining element of their corner of the spatial world: the development and management of planting design. Plants, he argues, are defined by their growth over time and the maintenance used to train them. Gardeners (whose ranks Raxworthy once populated) haven’t lost track of this fact. Growth is landscape architecture’s fundamental currency. From there, he launches into a populist call to tear down the blue collar/white collar divide between gardeners and landscape architects. Raxworthy (who is headed to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, after living in Cape Town, South Africa, for five years, teaching at the University of Cape Town) seems to admire messiness and rebellion against the bespoke and delicate. That preference is not surprising if you chat him up about his days as a music writer in the 1980s in Sydney, attending shows by Public Enemy and Dead Kennedys. Of one of his case study projects (created by a designer who never studied landscape architecture), he writes: “As a gardener rather than a landscape architect, the only plans Korte produced for the project were to satisfy the authorities. All other decisions arose organically through spending four years on site with a gang of four young German laborers who had returned from Brazil and smoked marijuana constantly. He looked back on this way of working with some nostalgia, saying that this time on site was the height of his career.”

These case studies proceed across a spectrum, from intensely planned and plotted landscapes to spaces that arose from less traditional improvisations of site, maintenance, and time. There’s the explicit and humbling observation that the people who maintain landscapes over long periods of time (gardeners) may well have more impact on a landscape’s form than the original designers.

Raxworthy’s thesis also questions the assumption that a landscape isn’t “finished” until its plants reach maturity. A richer understanding of landscape architecture along these lines could offer design that exhibits cohesive compositions at all stages of plants’ size, color, bloom, and canopy spread. Raxworthy frames this work as a kind of material virtuosity that landscape designers are fortunate to make central to their identity—getting access to a shifting kaleidoscope of color, form, material.

The solgård (“sun court”) in Sven-Ingvar Andersson’s garden in Marnas, Sweden, one of Raxworthy’s case studies. Image courtesy Julian Raxworthy.

Throughout the book, Raxworthy scales landscape design’s fundamental unit down to the proportions of a leaf, cataloging the density of vegetation and looking at the ways that patterns of growth are crafted by light. He revisits James Rose’s taxonomy of plant forms, and urges the analysis to go further, underlining landscape architecture’s historical lack of emphasis on theory. From there, Raxworthy closes his book with a “Manifesto for the Viridic,” which makes a case for building a bridge between aesthetics and biology. These two realms are seemingly severed by the overarching emphasis on landscape urbanism’s “process discourse” and “scientism,” as he calls it, the insistence that an all-important empirical discourse has no interest in how a planting looks. Raxworthy points out that the aesthetic of any plant is the product of millions of years of evolution; it’s fundamentally tied to how it operates in its niche.

Maintaining this bridge is one thing landscape architects have a near monopoly on, though they’ve downplayed their connection to plants as the profession’s ambition has grown. In Chicago for a book talk at the Graham Foundation, Raxworthy sat down with LAM to explain why walking back across this bridge is a vital next step for the profession.

Considering your experiences as a gardener and landscaper, what were some of the early inklings that got you formulating this argument?

I didn’t finish high school for a range of personal reasons, so gardening was something I came to quite accidentally. It was largely because a friend of my mother’s had said, “Julian hasn’t got any work. He hasn’t finished school. He’s really got no prospects. But he can sweep my yard every week.” She heard on the radio that [a school] was offering apprenticeships for gardeners through this college of horticulture, and she leaned out the door and said, “Would you be interested in doing that?”

I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve got nothing else right now, so why not?” I spent the next eight years going through the apprenticeship as a gardener and a landscaper. I was lucky enough that when I was at the horticulture college, there were a lot of landscape architects that were running a new version of the horticulture college which was for landscape technicians, people [who] work in the offices of landscape architects, doing plant selection and technical drafting.

I was always interested in the dynamic between landscape architecture and gardening. Back in those days, it was a cynical perspective: “Those landscape architects don’t have any idea what’s really going on.” When I studied and worked in landscape architecture, I was struck by the fact that there was a distancing involved, distancing yourself from the site through representation.

Politically, I’m a believer in the working class. That’s how I ended up in gardening, to some extent, because my father was a communist, so I was interested in the working class and I was slightly anti-professional class. I wanted to be a member of the working class. I didn’t want to be a member of the ruling class. There’s a romance to that that disappears suddenly when you’re scraping up dog shit.

What can this unlock for the discipline itself, or what does it need to unlock? What’s the practical utility here?

That’s a pretty straightforward one for me. Landscape architecture has undertheorized plant material. When I was taught planting design at horticulture college, it was the same way I was taught landscape architecture later on, around the idea that there was texture, form, shape, color, [and] maybe seasonality. I was always struck by the fact of how poor an account that was of plants. I’ve really been struck that a discipline [where the] only major differentiation from architecture is materiality has a really poor theorization. It’s like an open hole that I threw myself into. The only value is that I’ve opened the door on a bit more theorization around plant material.

Is this mostly in the service of developing a richer, more nuanced, and responsive range of formal possibilities, or is there any larger ecological or geopolitical reason to pursue this? Is there a parallel here to landscape urbanism’s tool set to address large-scale environmental crises, like climate change?

Yes, that’s part of it. We’re always working within those larger ecological issues. That’s the gamut of the profession, so that’s implicit.

Julian Raxworthy. Image courtesy Julian Raxworthy.

I oppose the polarization of aesthetics and biology, so to be talking about the ecological or talking about plant biology in terms of things like carbon sequestration, to put that into one category and say, “That’s not about the formal,” is disingenuous. There’s a lot of undiscussed aesthetic predilections in landscape urbanism that are hidden behind what I call “scientism.” You can’t grow a plant if you don’t understand a bit of science. You’ll never select a plant that you don’t like the look of.

Johannesburg is touted as one of the greatest urban forests in the world in terms of the volume of trees. We can talk about that in terms of how those trees remediate the heat island effect. We can talk about what effect they have on aquifers, what effect they have on soil stabilization, but we can also have that conversation while we walk underneath those trees that are casting the most incredible shade. Why would we distance that [first] conversation from the conversation about the dappled shade?

What might be some first steps practicing landscape designers, or practicing gardeners, might take if they’re interested in the sort of cross-pollination you’re advocating here?

In Australia, I have a lot of students that have worked in design–construct–maintain. I would rather [look] at that as a creative practice. The current procurement process of brief, design, consultation, implement, hand over maintenance specifications, and hope for the best—that model is never going to produce anything different. There’s Alexandre Chemetoff’s work at Île de Nantes in France, where he took a contract, and rather than saying, “I’ll have it for one year,” he said, “I’ll take it for 10 years, and you can give me the same amount of money over 10 years, and I’ll get a massive return out of it, and I’ll manage the entire process of change over 10 years.” Those client-to-designer-side-to-manager-side relations need to change. It’s less about, “I’ll deliver this project, and it’s done, and it’s yours, and ever after it’s a catastrophe” than, “Let’s have a long relationship.”

The main ways that practices should change have to be around their relationships to clients. We valorize designers. One of the arguments I make in the book is that there are a lot of other stories involved in landscapes. For the clients, it might be about allowing the client’s relationships to maintenance to gain a bit more weight. I would rather we thought about the idea that the dynamic between the garden staff and the client base changes.

Geoffrey Dutton’s “marginal garden” in Scotland, another of Raxworthy’s case studies. Image courtesy Julian Raxworthy.

The dominant theoretical mode of landscape architecture has been infrastructural landscape urbanism. To what extent is your thesis here a direct rejoinder (or objection) to this seemingly stable dominance?

There’s a lot of people that are pursuing maintenance-based practices, [like] Michael Geffel, ASLA, at the University of Oregon, Isaac Hametz, ASLA,  [at Mahan Rykiel] from Baltimore. I think there’s a whole generation of people who are interested in a different relationship to the discipline.

Part of this is tied into some of the aspects around advocacy, engagement, and community. For me, a lot of it is about real, everyday landscapes. I do a teaching exercise where I say, “We’re going on a field trip. It’s a really exciting project,” and we walk out the door and we’re on our field trip. “Look out in front of you. Here it is.” I’m personally interested in the fact that landscape is made through a whole lot of actions that we currently relegate to be uncreative, but they’re actually highly creative.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Alexandre Chemetoff’s name. It has been corrected. 

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

5 thoughts on “What Makes Us Us”

  1. Historical Landscape Architects in government service tend to work closely with federal gardeners, arborists, archeologists, and grounds foremen to maintain designed spaces of historic importance. This relationship is important because each discipline must advise the other to comply with management plans and federal regulations. We just need each other to get the job done and to get funding for ongoing work in maintaining the places.

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