Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Man Down! Bill Thompson ends the reign of meekness

So Bill Thompson, the longtime editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, has officially resigned his post. Let the consternation and gnashing of teeth begin.

Under his watchful eye, LAM become notorious for its conservativism, almost to the point of rendering itself obsolete. The format, graphic layout, and content have remained staunchly in the 1980's despite lip-service to current issues, ideas, and work by professionals. Used to be, LAM was relevant as the only nationwide outlet for current issues in landscape architecture, and it was supplemented by scholarly journals and occasionaly short-run publications of interest.

As publishing outlets proliferated from Topos and Praxis to countless small publications, university publications, LAM maintained market share as the trade journal, the place you would go for tips, tricks, and some manufactured products. Now, with the ubiquity of the internet and the Web 2.0, LAM finds itself an irrelevant vestige of things past. No project is ever published there that isn't shown on flickr or blogged about first, and designers find manufacturers on Google a lot faster than here.

The only market share left for LAM (right now it is ubiquitous because landscape architects have to pay for it to be a memeber to ASLA which is kinda like a massive federal government backing a failing financial institution) is in the arena of critical discourse within the profession. And this is where I'll miss J. William "Bill" Thompson the most. To highlight the direction the magazine took under his leadership, I have chosen an issue at random and spent 15 minutes looking it over. Of course, we all know the full-bleed image that is always on the cover. Now, I'm not against the full-bleed, but a little discretion could perhaps be used. Some images are more interesting set in white space. Mr. Thompson loathes white space.

I have randomly chosen the issue from August 2007, and flipping through it I am quickly assaulted by one of the hallmarks of the Thompson-era LAM: the pithy designer quote! This one is a nice example in that while being a good point, it's not particularly profound. Yet LAM takes it out of context and blows it up in hideous font. Of course, it has to do that if it wants you to pay any attention to the article at all because this one, like most in the magazine, is totally overshadowed by the half-page, full-color ad for some banal landscape products.

Despite being unable to get interested in what was a promising article, I move on hoping that once I get into the "meat" of the magazine, I will find fewer ads and the content will be rightfully respected. One of the clever columns featured in each issue of LAM is "firm focus". Now, in all fairness, this article tends to pick up on firms that are not often highly publicized. Whether they are good or not is a total crapshoot, but at least it's not reporting on Field Operations and MVVA every time (that is saved for the yearly 'awards' issue). This particular issue focused on a firm that appears to be similar to 90% of the firms in the US. That is, an agglomeration of frumpy white people, the older ones in charge, the younger ones emasculated and waiting their turn to become an older one. It's a miserable and deplorable site, that firm photo of those guys sitting on the front step, one that is perfectly offset by the equal horrible-ness of the rendering set at the top of the page. There is obviously nothing interesting here, and if there is, it's not worth the pain of reading the article unless you are into masochism and auto-asphyxiation.

Thoroughly demoralized at this point, I decided to give it one last try. I flip forward a few pages and lo' and behold, my eye is caught by a compelling scene that LAM managed not to fuck up. Sure they put a goofy caption on the article as usual, but the 3/4 bleed seems to work here, and my eye is caught by the author. Jimena certainly will not be winning any Pulitzers any time soon, but at least she reports on interesting projects and does it in a thorough and professional way. She also does a good job of avoiding the campy, smarmy howdy-doody feel to the prose that Thompson pushes on the other writers, a fact which I attribute to her ESL status. Jimena is something of a John the Baptist figure at the Lord's Supper of the ASLA. She's the lone person dispatching from outside of North America consistently, and while it is tempting to commend Thompson for cultivating that relationship, it's actually an appalling track record when one considers that other, less sanctioned, less known publications get pieces from all over the globe consistently because, really, it's just not that difficult to set up over the internet. I digress. But Jimena's articles are often interesting and at least curious and offer a hint of what LAM could be like, utilizing it's (relatively) massive resources and inherent advantage as the mouthpiece of ASLA to take some risks on their reporting and writing in order to contribute to the edification of the practive of landscape design, as opposed to just the profession.

Well, it's time to wrap this up, but here's hoping that the next editor is one who has the vision to utilize the publication in relevant and interesting ways to encourage critical discourse and the appropriate practice of landscape design before it becomes completely obsolete. Thompson, at least, did manage to make the magazine digital before signing off. Better late than never.


  1. While reading this article, I realize how absurdly low my expectations for LAM usually are. Compared to the AIA's publication, we get very short shrift.

    Here's hoping the next editor is more adventurous.

  2. Brutal, but true. There's a reason I recently threw out all my back issues...

  3. Unfortunately I can't think of one Landscape Architect I know that doesn't shit on LAM. You've posted many of our comments.

    And as far as its online presence, the "digital page turn" is an absurd user experience, not to mention your limited zooms.

    Given the recent fall of I.D. magazine, which I loved, as well as print in general, a proper online fix is long over due.

    Also, if you're an outsider with an interest in landscape architecture, good luck trying to find the magazine to buy.