Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happiness is a Warm Gun: The contemporary fixation on landscape as metaphor

Recently Places posted an article by writer Andrew Blum titled Metaphor Remediation: A new Ecology for the city.  This could perhaps slide quietly under the radar where it not also the final chapter in the new Michael Van Valkenburg Associates book and constantly beating the drum:  "I'm a new urban manifesto.  Do what I say."  This particular article is symptomatic of a larger predilection among urban design critics towards metaphor and a general tendency to conflate the term "metaphor" with "myth".  It is not particular to Mr. Blum.  However, I recently had his article shoved in my face twice, and so will focus on that as an example.

Firstly, he starts with a sentimental story about going to Jones Beach for the day with his family as a kid.  Upon returning to New York City in the evening, he sees it rising up in the distance "emitting wavy lines of heat like a cartoon pie" (now that is a real metaphor; a weird and ineffectual one, but at least a metaphor). 

Then, in the second paragraph he begins to set up his thesis.  He does this by throwing in a for-free eye catcher- "the efficiency of cities"- which he expects us to assume as true and upon which he hopes to build his argument.  We can all imagine that he is referring specifically to less material consumption needed for infrastructure, both physical and social, but in reality this assumption is a lot more nuanced than that and shouldn't be bandied about with such recklessness.  This claim is based on the work of brilliant physicist Geoffrey West and is extrapolated from his Metabolic Theory of Ecology (for a smart writeup of how the theory applies to urban centers, see Mr. West's article in Seed Magazine).  The Places article glibly glosses over the negative and 'inefficient' aspects of the theory which states that when a city's population doubles, all of its function increase by a rate of 15% as a general rule.  So, the number of patents increase by 15%, individual weath increases 15%, but also waiting times increase by 15%, traffic increases 15%, disease increases 15%, crime increases 15%.  So extrapolate that out, and you see you are getting less bang for your buck (if the population goes up 100% but patents only 15%, that's not more efficient.  And if a city of 1 million has an average traffic commute of 20 minutes and that same city increases in population to 2 million people, all of which have an average commute of 23 minutes, that's not more efficient than 2 cities of 1 million where people commute 20 minutes).  Suddenly this claim seem dubious, and while I can assume what he is actually trying to say, this statement at the very least requires a more nuanced approach than throwing it between some hyphens.

However, that is not my main gripe.  My main gripe is his insistence on defining the urban landscape via metaphor.  This is offensive.  Metaphor is a wonderful and oft employed literary device used to illustrate a point, lend symbolic importance, and draw parallels and connections between ideas, events, people, and things.  Everyone from the Beatles to Beowulf has employed metaphor to paint fantastic pictures and tell stories that have become a part of the collective conscience.  Nonetheless, the contemporary predisposition to describe the landscape and landscape processes through metaphor is annoying, be it from excellent practitioners and academics such as Colin Rowe and James Corner, or young upstarts from Brooklyn who don't exactly know what a metaphor is (ahem, Mr. Blum).

Tolkien had a point in his dislike of metaphor.  Metaphor is limited in that it is defining; if 'something' is 'something else', then it is not a lot of other things.  We know from Schrodinger's Cat that by defining something, by looking specifically for certain outcomes, we are deciding all of the things that it is not, we are limiting possibilities .  To bound landscape interventions within the confines of a single metaphor is effecient and tidy, yet often inappropriate, especially regarding complex urban sites that offer a palimpsest of historical, social, and ecological narratives.  Landscapes and landscape projects are more appropriately described through mythology, allegory, and simple descriptive prose.

Blum, unfortunately, then proceeds to tell us he will examine a couple of MVVA projects for their metaphorical benefits.  Now, I am a huge fan of MVVA's work, and am loathe to equate their proposal for the highline (truly thoughtful and challenging) with the winning entry (Field Operations' fashion runway sexed-up with today's hot styles).  Blum then begins to vaguely define MVVA's conceptual and critical approaches to the design of the urban landscape which quickly degenerates into a series of loquacious platitudes and buzzwords- a common tactic in architectural criticism.  Midway down, we are greeted with this little jewel of a paragraph:

Landscape architecture operates as part of a larger, open system of ever-increasing scales — from the flowerbed to the watershed and on up to the planet. Inevitably, increasing scale brings increasing complexity, and the straightforward facts architects count on from engineers dissolve into the theoretical models and opinions (however well-informed) of ecologists. In nature — even in the city — the facts on the ground never suggest straightforward actions. Here is where landscape architects begin a balancing act between the needs of the environment and the needs of the city.

By the end of the paragraph I am thoroughly confused.  I know that he is trying to define the practice of landscape architecture for us, and I know that he fails miserably.  Luckily, we are quickly brought back to the main dish:  Metaphorical Implications!  Metaphor, Metaphor, Metaphor!

At any rate, I am perhaps being unjust.  The article does offer some nice insight into two projects from an important professional team (though not much more than can be garnered from the D.I.R.T. and MVVA websites).  The article is okay from a scribe's standpoint.  The real problem is the larger phenomenon of Metaphor Fixation.  No single poet, novelist, or journalist would write using solely metaphor to communicate ideas and describe actions and things.  Metaphor should be used sparingly, both conceptually and critically, within the profession of landscape design.  Moreso these days with designers like MVVA who aren't so much concerned with paradise gardens but rather ecologically and socially complex sites that are not easy to define and are constantly changing. 

Mythology, mythical landscapes, and such are a much more pertinent literary device, and more exciting too.  Myths and cultural mythologies have defined, informed, and responded to societies throughout time since their inception.  From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the myth of the Wild West and the Open Road in modern day USA, myths have always been the most powerful and sophisticated method for reconciling human society and their relationship to the land.  That is not to say that there is no place for metaphor in describing contemporary landscape practice, but it is hardly the most appropriate method given the scope and scale of the problems and promises faced by the profession and society at large. Our fixation with metaphor combined with pithy insights and sweeping platitudes promises to undermine the very work that such criticism is intended to refine and expand.

Anyways, a tip of the cap to MVVA- they are working with a lot more than metaphors.


  1. Reaction (mostly, I agree) here. Also, thanks for pointing out the essential dissimilarity between the Terragrams' High Line proposal and the constructed proposal; that can't be noted enough.

  2. You mention Michael Van Valkenburgh enough that you ought to at a bare minimum spell his name correctly for Christ Sake.

    Michael Van Valkenburgh- note the 'h' on the end.

  3. Fair enough. Evidently I've been mispelling Jimmy "James" Carner as well.

  4. I've been meaning to respond a bit to your comments here and at Places, and now at Urban Omnibus.

    As a writer, not a designer, I am nearly always dealing with analogy. I make no things themselves, only representations. I traffic in symbols. And when it comes to "green" architecture and environmentalism, what I see above all else is that those symbols nearly always stand for nature; or even more specifically, they stand for nature outside of the city. I believe they should stand for nature inside the city. That's my point in this piece, my thesis: "the environmental movement of the near future desperately requires metaphor remediation: an urban image to elbow aside Half Dome as the Mona Lisa of environmentalism." I believe MVVA's work helps this process of "metaphor remediation." (Watch out, there's a joke in that phrase-- and a metaphor!)

    I am not "defining the urban landscape via metaphor." The other way around. I am defining what metaphors I find via urban landscapes. I am exploring what urban landscapes mean to people, what I believe they stand for, and how MVVA's designs suggest specific and alternative new meanings. I stress that those meanings are *in addition* to a landscape's function: to its phenomenological and democratic pleasures, and its technical work. My admiration for MVVA's work is based in the fact that their landscapes do all of the above; they work both practically and as symbols, as I describe at length in the piece. You're absolutely right: MVVA is working with a lot more than metaphors.

    You define metaphor as a literary device whose application to landscape architecture is "offensive" and "annoying." I define it more broadly. The narrowness of your definition does your own work an injustice. For example, as you describe it, “Public open spaces are the great democratic spaces, the ultimate common ground.” Your "the ultimate" I take as a suggestion that they have worth and meaning beyond what people do in them; you are seeing in your real parks abstract meanings of democracy, not just literal shared ground but ideological "common ground." You're making a metaphor, and an important one.

    As for the manifesto-ness of the piece: yes, guilty. My essay is earnest in its effort to put forth a new idea. In contrast, I'm confused by your tone. Your shrillness is all the more striking given your veil (metaphor!) of anonymity, and most striking given your "FASLA" status. Your expertise should warrant a willingness to present your ideas publicly.

    I'll back up that gauntlet (metaphor!) with an invitation to contribute an essay to Urban Omnibus.

  5. andrew, thank you for commenting.

    I still think the metaphor is limited, and that there is an infatuation with it in the contemporary discourse of landscape/architecture. one reason is because some of the critics are, like you, writers who do not build things and so use metaphor to interpret. but the landscape does not need justification- i think my point was clear but there is a significant article by Marc Treib titled "must landscapes mean" that is in the same vein (landscape journal, 1995). perhaps his way of putting it is more cogent (and also, it is not a blog but a scholarly journal and so was edited and peer-reviewed with citations).

    sometimes metaphor is a good way of describing a landscape intervention or process, but not always. and the manifesto-ness (and timeliness) of your piece was why i zeroed in on it. The insistence on utilization of metaphor and the braggadocio in claiming to create a new lens through which the urban landscape should be interepreted falsely ascribes meaning to process and place which need no conceptual justification. landscape is a part of the cultural milieu and doesn't need metaphor.

    at best metaphor is a tidy, succint way of communicating a design (a design-byte). but i get irate because it is actually the critics and designers telling people what a place is.

    the first commenter on this line had a good idea when he simply removed references to metaphor and then reread the piece. the work you were talking about was interesting in its own right, and the manifesto layered on top was not.

    that said, both articles of yours that i've commented on have had some good stuff in them in my opinion, and judging by your bio, many people think much more of them. i appreciate that.

    i am interesting in contributing to the omnibus. they do a great job of keeping their ear to the ground in my opinion.