250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know
Edited by B. Cannon Ivers; Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2021; 512 pages, $34.99.
Reviewed by Gale Fulton, ASLA
What does a 21st-century landscape architect need to know?
The question is daunting. At least it should be, in the field and especially for those of us in academia who are tasked with laying the foundation on which future landscape architects will continue to build throughout their careers. But determining which skills and what knowledge are essential in such an expansive discipline is elusive at best. The book 250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know attempts an answer.
As the director of the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I’ve received periodic words of wisdom over the years from professionals about what is critical for students to learn while in school. This advice ranged from the ideological to the pragmatic, and occasionally the visionary, but the majority remained on the side of technical know-how and tradition: Hand lettering seemed to some almost a foundational skill of the discipline; a lack of plant knowledge remained a fairly typical critique of entry-level landscape architects; and I was once even told that new employees should know “how to draw a guy on a bench.”
But there were also moments of generosity born out of perspective, such as when Peter Walker, FASLA, visited our school in 2013. Walker said the tendency of his office at the time was to hire people who think creatively, not simply those who are competent at completing technical tasks. He suggested that it’s important for the schools and the profession to be clear on what each does well and what they can and should leave to the other.
Schools expose students to creative design practices, provide alternative frameworks through which to think about the built environment, and offer the time and (conceptual) space for students to explore and test ideas and project futures. Offices, while also participating in such creative processes, are experts in detailed design, construction documentation, and professional practices, and they train through repetition and mastery. Unfortunately, it seems that many professionals forget how little they knew the first day they arrived at an office and expect entry-level candidates to know how to do everything. This is unreasonable, and if schools agree with this outlook and attempt to satisfy such requests by doubling down on the technical know-how that such critics crave, the academy will quickly be reduced to what is effectively a vocational tech approach to landscape architecture. And students still won’t know what they need to know on the first day. Instead, schools and the firms and organizations that they supply need to continue to work toward a symbiotic relationship in which both understand how they can participate together in the education of the landscape architect.
Thankfully, the short statements included in this book, edited by B. Cannon Ivers, are more visionary and inspirational than they are reactive. The book is a compilation of 250 submissions from 50 practitioners and theorists of landscape architecture from around the world (although most of the entries are from North America, Europe, and Asia). Taken as a whole, the volume is a generally optimistic, proactive series of ideas for what landscape architects—whether in school or in practice—should consider as important knowledge for the future if the discipline is going to continue to live up to its potential as a leading field in the design of the built environment.
The book is inspired by the 2018 list “Two Hundred Fifty Things an Architect Should Know,” by Michael Sorkin, which was republished posthumously as a stand-alone book in 2021 after his untimely, coronavirus-related death in 2020. Sorkin errs toward the poetic; his is truly just a list of 250 things with no elaboration on why an architect would need to know these things or how they might learn them—that’s left to the reader to consider, and, if in agreement, to pursue. Sorkin, for example, includes:
- The creativity of the ecotone.
- The need for freaks.
- Accidents must happen.
- It is possible to begin designing anywhere.
Ivers’s version for landscape architects is much wordier, with many of the entries averaging somewhere around the 200-word mark, and, as a result, some of the pleasure of Sorkin’s whimsical, lyrical approach is lost. But there is also much of value in the longer entries: They flesh out why the often-provocative statements are so important for landscape architects.
Each author was asked to contribute five things they thought a landscape architect should know, and since we don’t really know how this work was requested or prompted by the editor, it is interesting to consider how the contributors interpreted their task. Are these statements examples of timeless wisdom acquired through decades of practice or learned scholarship—the equivalent of commandments that readers should follow on each new project? Or should the book be read more as the chatter gleaned from networks of practitioners—something on the author’s mind at the time, but not timelessly relevant? The book contains some of both.
Veteran designers Laurie Olin, FASLA, and Walker offer thoughts from decades of practice on topics including the importance of quality soil, the inevitability of landscape maintenance, and the ability to predict how spaces will change over time and how to make sense of the scale of a site. These hard-earned lessons brush up against the inchoate wisdom offered by relative newcomers such as the Chilean designer Marcial Jesús, the founder of Shanghai-based 100architects, whose practice emerges in a radically different time and place than those of his predecessors. Jesús offers suggestions about how to launch a new design practice using tactics of “radical differentiation and surprise”—as illustrated by his firm’s absurdist optical art project High Loop (2020). Other writers deliver the equivalent of moral imperatives, while some drift toward the technical, and some (though not enough) offer a bit of comic relief to what at times feels like a very (self-) serious endeavor.
It is nearly impossible, and perhaps unproductive, to try to lump the entries together, but there are some shared themes—common ground among this diverse group, who seemingly submitted without knowing what others contributed. Water is, unsurprisingly, a major topic of interest. Plants, another. But we’re mostly spared the tired rhetoric we’ve long heard, that students need to know their plants. In 250 Things, a novel way of thinking about plants as part of larger living and material systems emerges. While not new to all landscape architects, it does represent a different way of thinking about the materials we work with—including stone, soil, plants, and others—as both active and intelligent collaborators. Or, as the landscape architect and academic Aisling M. O’Carroll states in her entry, “Take Time to Appreciate the Otherness of Plants”: “Designing with a raw material imbued with its own intelligence, agency, and vitality requires a nuanced mediation between designer, site, and material.” Others writing in this vein include the Australian academic Julian Raxworthy, who offers landscape architects the term “viridic,” understood to have the same importance as “tectonic” in architecture. He argues that we should more fully embrace our living materials since “their very nature is constant change.”
Like Sorkin’s book, 250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know is unafraid of taking a political stance, which produces a tome that is unlike most collections of landscape architectural thought. The designer and professor Jane Mah Hutton reminds us to remember “Who Else You Are Working With,” since we are part of “an exploitative labour system rather than external to it.” She argues that by fully understanding how our designs affect and rely on the work of others—those who implement and maintain landscapes, for example—our design processes might more regularly expand in scope and consider up- and downstream impacts of the initial landscape installation.
Kate Orff, FASLA, in “Landscapes Are Messy and Very, Very Hard Work,” critiques our outsized emphasis on the imaging of beautiful, perfect landscapes that so often overshadow the messy realities of landscape—whether as ecological process or processes of construction and care that are critical to the built landscape. As Orff says, “This is marketing, not reality. Landscapes are labour.”
The short-form, almost aphoristic format of the book perhaps contributes to moments in which the polemic trumps the pragmatic, but perhaps such provocations force the reader to think more critically about how their experiences and beliefs align (or don’t) with the authors’. Mary Bowman’s assertion that “One should never discuss, change, or design a landscape without visiting it first” is a more nuanced take on site location, design team structure, and project budgets. Similarly, the claim by Chip Sullivan, FASLA, that “our reliance on digital techniques” is distancing us from direct observation of the landscape and therefore its genius loci, will hopefully provoke a critical consideration of the discipline’s evolving relationship with not only digital media but all forms of representation. The reality is that there has never been a more representationally robust moment than the current one (and this will remain true indefinitely, it seems). But that robustness is a product of a plethora of media and techniques by which to analyze, understand, and project new landscapes, not mired in the ideology of the analog.
Overall, the good far outweighs the bad in 250 Things, which includes everything from Walker stressing the importance of history to the advice of Jerry van Eyck, ASLA, of !melk, on practice steeped in inspiration and lessons drawn from a wide range of references such as Star Trek and the funk musician Bootsy Collins. Entries by Robin Winogrond, International ASLA, are beautiful reflections about reenchanting geographical oddities and the importance of the “irrational and the intuitive” in landscape architectural designs.
I also found myself thinking, wondering, about how 250 Things might best be used and by whom. I once read a book on leadership that contained a series of rules to be followed, and the author suggested that rather than rush through the book, the reader should read one rule and then take time to work at it daily to explicitly apply its lesson in practice. This collection could serve as a similar series of prompts for one’s daily thought and practice. Alternatively, my approach was to read it straight through in large chunks over the course of a few weeks. This was productive in the sense that I was forced, via the randomness generated from the book’s alphabetical organization (from Andersson to Zhong), to try to reconcile ideas of people separated by great distances in their conceptual, geographical, and temporal situations.
For example, Walter Hood of Oakland, California, is followed by Eelco Hooftman of GROSS.MAX. in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and Jane Mah Hutton of Toronto—three widely divergent voices from different eras of education and different approaches to practice, and which, when read together, force a new way of thinking about the contexts of their practices and the merits of their ideas. Hood’s entries are preoccupied with landscape as a narrative medium that tells stories and indexes site histories. Hooftman’s work is indicative of the affective and performative project that landscape turned to in the late 1990s and through the 2000s. And Mah Hutton’s work might best be understood as a form of “new materialism,” in which overly stylistic concerns give way to deeper understandings of the processes and politics of a landscape’s formation—including materials, labor, and policy, among others.
The multiplicity of positions and approaches validates landscape architecture as a compelling pursuit, in a medium full of social and ecological potential: symbolic, affective, political, performative, etc. This is not to say that all the contributions are equally compelling and useful. Critical readers will find outdated ways of thinking about nature and ecology or form and space scattered among passages that provide much more valuable and contemporary ways of thinking about the profession and practice. But by collecting the thoughts and experiences of such a broad group of practitioners and scholars in a single volume, the book provokes us to think critically about landscape architecture now—its ongoing problems as well as its enormous potential.
Gale Fulton, ASLA, is the director of the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.