Learning The Hard Way

Reviewed by Justin Parscher

University of Copenhagen students working with a model and a mock-up of a proposed intervention. Photo courtesy Teaching Landscape: The Studio Experience.

Students should learn to draw by hand, to fly drones, to do interpretive dance, to do light construction. They should collaborate with social scientists, with soil scientists, with local community members, with their counterparts in New Zealand. They need to be able to craft policy, wrangle BIM data, construct dioramas, and plant green roofs. In the best-case scenario, there are only five years to fit this all in. What is crucial? What gets left out? And keep in mind the vast array of wicked problems converging on us while we try to figure that out.

The two new Teaching Landscape books put out by the European Council of Landscape Architecture Schools (ECLAS) give the reader an acute sense of the sheer scope of the mission landscape architecture educators take on. As the former ECLAS president Simon Bell explains in his foreword to the Routledge Handbook of Teaching Landscape, “This book originated in a deeply felt need by all ECLAS members for up-to-date materials to help them to teach. It must be said at the outset that we do not want all schools to be alike and to teach exactly the same things in the same ways—we want to maintain diversity.” The results reflect that. The topics of teaching range widely, from the theoretical to the applied, and from technology to writing. The end result is often difficult to treat as an actual handbook. With some exceptions, like Peter M. Butler’s useful primer for creating a service learning studio, the majority of the contributions are case studies of the authors’ own classes, usually without much context given as to the curriculum in which they sit. The overwhelming variety gives you the same sense of disbelief you have watching the finalists at the Westminster Dog Show: How are these things all related? And how would you judge them against each other?

University of Copenhagen students working with a model and a mock-up of a proposed intervention. Photo courtesy Teaching Landscape: The Studio Experience.In their breadth, these books are a just reflection of the past 60 or so years of landscape architecture education—a loose consensus on issues and approaches that has become complicated enough to explain the ECLAS membership’s desire for clarity. Landscape architecture education is, in its origins, a pan-European goulash, mixing models originating in German universities, English colleges, and French grandes écoles. In the process, it conflates distinctly different ways of thinking about the roles people have to play in landscape architecture. Are landscape architects solitary artists, or facilitators serving communities? Do schools simulate a professional environment, or do they grow visionary alternatives to professional work? Are students individuals to be nurtured, or competing candidates for a placement at a boutique firm?

None of this helps landscape architecture’s perennial identity crisis, which, as these volumes confirm, has hardly eased. In Mick Abbott and Jacky Bowring’s design teaching, “The term ‘laboratory’ is preferred over ‘studio,’ as laboratories are associated with experimentation, testing, and collaboration.” Meanwhile, Thomas Oles—who went on record six years ago in Places as saying that landscape architecture should rename itself landscape science—here says we should look to poetry for a model instead.

Is it really wise that there should be so little definition in this field? While the contributors to the Teaching Landscape books broadly agree on what landscape architecture is for, they vary so widely in how they frame and address problems that it is difficult to make out real schools of thought, controversies, or even conversations. Reasonable conflicts can build communities and drive change, as we can see in poetry and the sciences alike. Few get into this field to pursue conflict, but to an extent it seems impossible to understand the merits or drawbacks of what anyone else is doing without some lively disputation.

We could begin to form such a conversation around the overlapping crises we are confronted with in design education: deeply violent structural racism, a pandemic, a severe recession, and governance that ranges from absent to malicious. Tim Waterman’s “Introducing Hope,” wisely placed in the pole position of the Routledge Handbook of Teaching Landscape, is the most resonant of the contributions today in that it squarely confronts the difficulty of the problems we aspire to solve. He speaks to landscape education as being able to embody “transgressive utopianism,” or the practice of daring to rethink and improve the status quo. He makes clear that such a mindset cannot stay within the studio prompt or the design project, but must also extend to how classes, and the business of the university as a whole, are conducted.

Unfortunately, this commitment to considering landscape education in terms of the whole community is not heeded often enough in the other contributions. Attila Tóth’s foreword to Teaching Landscape: The Studio Experience explains that “the studio experience presented here is…predominantly the experience of studio teaching rather than studio learning…work prepared in the course of the studio…is left to speak for itself.” If I can’t recognize my own experience of teaching studio in any of the contributions, it is for a familiar reason: What has been written is necessarily self-promotion, even where it is not intended as part of a case for tenure. It leaves out disastrous assignments, hurtful reviews, and students who do not agree or do not succeed. Too often, it leaves out students altogether. Most contributions make a rapid pivot from setting up a problem to creating a solution, with very little of the “how” in between explained or justified. Ingrid Schegk describes the satisfaction of a student in a dry-stone walling workshop: “What a feeling of success, when a stone fits after the first try!” But we are left to imagine the difficulty of being a teacher trying to help students lay dry stones, let alone the difficulty of being a student whose stones keep going astray. Because most of us frame our teaching in the same way that we frame the designs we sell—as a miraculous leap from a slate of facts to an elegant design—we hide not only from others, but from ourselves, the nature of the work that leads from one to the other.

Given all that, it is a tonic to read this in Shelley Egoz’s contribution: “Students’ evaluations of the course were persistently poor in all years…teachers’ communication was poor, the course was too vague and unclear about what they were supposed to do, and group work was frustrating.” Climate change and income inequality may be wicked problems, but there’s nothing to say that teaching landscape has to be; if we identify and acknowledge mistakes, we have a decent chance of correcting them. Wenche Elisabet Dramstad and Mari Sundli Tveit point out in their contribution that “Risk-takers tend not to be easily rewarded in academia…and neither is failure commonly understood as a necessary part of the learning process towards success.” In the same way the postoccupancy evaluation opens up the possibility of learning from failure, we need to acknowledge learning from failure in how we teach.

Nowhere is that failure more pronounced than in landscape architecture’s stated commitment to equity in race and gender. Like most other professions, in the 50 years or so that we have given lip service to equal representation in the field, we have failed over and over again to meet remarkably similar lists of eminently sane demands: proportional representation in leadership, teaching that addresses relevant topics, and real investment in recruiting and retaining a diverse community. Kofi Boone, ASLA, has pointed out one typically shameful result of this inaction: The percentage of Black students in landscape programs in the United States has persistently stayed below 2 percent. The only good thing about this recurring situation is that we are able to look back and learn from what we have done wrong.

If we are forced to take stock of our teaching in pandemic conditions, it seems that the first thing to examine is our creaky model of common sense in teaching. I started my teaching career by simply relaying what I had been taught, subtracting what I didn’t think was important, and adding what I thought had been missing. But like many of my colleagues, in moving to online teaching I have also been searching out teaching strategies that are proven to be equitable and effective. I don’t want to do any further harm to students already receiving a thoroughly raw deal. While our privileged students come with the leisure time and support systems to navigate the hidden curriculum and figure out what it is we are asking for, the students we hope most to reach are persistently left out. Most of the contributions to these books do not help in addressing this problem, and in fact do not seem to find much to worry about in how teachers of landscape relate to our students. In general, educational theory is conspicuous by its absence, and where it is present it is outdated (“learning styles,” now well-debunked in the literature) or oddly applied. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is important for every teacher to acknowledge, but I’m not sure that it exactly maps onto doing community engagement with Norwegian schoolchildren.

Instead of teaching diversity and inclusion as an add-on—the paragraph of university boilerplate in the syllabus—those of us in teaching roles need to take a much harder look at the implications for our own exclusionary practices, be they Eurocentric histories or extravagant costs to print and model. When Kasia Gallo describes the need to teach students jargon, for instance, it seems important to make a distinction between technical terms that empower students to make the most of their field and out-and-out gatekeeping cant (looking at you, “materiality”).

A performance by landscape architecture students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. Photo by John S. Webb.

Likewise, Davorin Gazvoda explains how to nudge students toward more “interesting and complex” garden designs in studio without justifying why this is necessary or valued. The tastes and preferences of professors, esoteric as they are, can have real conflicts with the lives and interests of our students; when we build our own brands through their blood, sweat, and tears, there is no guarantee they will benefit. Taking up scant time in the curriculum on our own hobbyhorses has the potential to be a disservice to the time of students who are workers and caregivers and to the hopes of our students to be able to help their communities.

This should not be read as an endorsement for a purely vocational turn. Contributions from Joan Iverson Nassauer, FASLA; Shannon Satherley; and the team of Lisa Diedrich and Mads Farsø all speak eloquently to the need to balance practical skills with ethical thinking and open-ended reflection. Nassauer’s contribution stands out in its ability to forthrightly synthesize these demands; as she makes a case for more rigorous learning and application of scientific method and literature in the studio, she bases it in the ability of students to use scientific literacy to actively fuel creativity and critical thinking.

A site in the Blekinge archipelago of Sweden, seen in the late 1990s. Photo by Roland Gustavsson.

If the Teaching Landscape books model a sorely needed spirit of international collaboration, virtual communities only go so far. At my institution, we are experiencing a fall semester where access to studio and lab spaces has been sharply restricted. So right now, the most wonderful thing about the books is the general agreement that landscape should be taught outside as much as possible. And out of the many entries that present field-based work, the most compelling is that of Roland Gustavsson, Allan Gunnarsson, and Björn Wiström, describing an outdoor course that has been taught for more than 30 years in the Blekinge archipelago of Sweden. Over three days, landscape students work with each other and local stakeholders to choose, maintain, and plant sites on the islands.

Such students enter into so many dialogues—with themselves, their peers and mentors, their predecessors, the ecology, the cultural landscape—that their authorial stamp is almost forgotten. Looking at the photographs provided, the reader is hard-pressed to find where the wealth of student work is, exactly. But this might be a virtue if we begin to value landscapes that are “just green enough” to avoid fueling gentrification, or if we acknowledge that from the Appalachian Trail to the National Park System, our most meaningful accomplishments are practically invisible to the people we serve.

Landscape architecture could continue to get caught up in envying research scientists, civil engineers, and performance artists. But if it wants to stand on its own feet and contribute in its own right to a better world, it could also concentrate on what makes it special. The archipelago course lacks some of the high-tech glamour of other field experiences described in the books: learning to program a precision excavator, or snorkeling to scan mangrove roots into a point cloud. But for me, it seems to point to a heart for landscape architecture.

Students at the Queensland University of Technology visiting their studio site, a repurposed power plant in Brisbane. Photo by Tim Job.

The Routledge Handbook of Teaching Landscape, edited by Karsten Jørgensen, Nilgül Karadeniz, Elke Mertens, and Richard Stiles; London and New York: Routledge, 2019; 422 pages, $245.

Teaching Landscape: The Studio Experience, edited by Karsten Jørgensen, Nilgül Karadeniz, Elke Mertens, and Richard Stiles; London and New York: Routledge, 2020; 270 pages, $46.95 paperback/$160 hardcover.

Justin Parscher is an assistant professor of practice at the Ohio State University. He writes on landscape and rhetoric at rhymepaysage.com.


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