Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Weak Sauce: New York City projects published in Topos

Given the sorry state of LAM in recent years, I was thrilled when Topos landscape journal started widespread distribution nearly a decade ago. It's restrained cover and layout design, simple type, discreet advertisements, straightforward journalism and international focus made it instantly the de facto outlet for reporting on contemporary built work.

Which is why I am extremely sad to see that reputation eroding, and largely due to small-time New York City practitioners (both, curiously, are members of the NY ASLA executive board). The reason it is eroding is because of the propensity of these guys to write about their own work, especially under the guise of a disinterested third-party observer. In the last year, at least two articles have appeared in TOPOS that reflect this trend, particularly the Erie Basin Park write up by Gonzalo Cruz in issue 65. I noticed in the most recent issue that NY ASLA president and social climber Susannah Drake has written up her "Sponge Park" design, though I haven't bothered to read that yet and so can't report on whether she was upfront about her bias toward that promising project.

Now I'm not here to decry the quality of the article or the merits of Gonzalo's project (the project is not significant and the writing will make you wretch). I'm primarily concerned with the dishonesty of writing about one's own work as if you were a disinterested observer, and the fact that this may be a recent trend in Topos. The article is primarily treated as a chance to expound on the rising importance of waterfront parks in New York City (which would have be a significant new trend in 1989, but is old hat at this point) and in particular this new park built by IKEA for the people of New York City. There is no mention of the contrast and irony in the situating of this park directly across from the far more interesting and vital Red Hook Farm. Suffice it to say that the park looks okay, but is largely devoid of imagination and is not worth visiting. And the article should be ripped out of your copy of Topos- it is the fucking weak sauce.
 Interestingly, within that same issue is an article titled "Dancing Concepts" by Bart Brands of the excellent Dutch firm Karres en Brands (profiled by 'Scape Magazine back in 2006).  The article describes the design process from first-person point of view for a series of community spaces in Amsterdam. The author is very upfront about his integral involvement and partial perspective and instead of trying to write as a disinterested third-person, he uses first person to give us meaningful insights and thoughts and intuition behind various experiments and decisions in the execution of the design. It's an honest article about an interesting project, one which provokes thought and allows for criticism and praise, as opposed to bile-inducing prosaic paragraphs that make you upset and leave you feeling queasy.

I hope that Ms. Drake's article takes its cues from Bart Brands and not Mr. Cruz. It would be sad to see Topos continue down that slippery sell-out slope where they are no longer an outlet for critical writing and fair journalistic reporting and instead just become a mouthpiece of self-promotion for mediocre practitioners designing vapid projects in the glamorous cities of the world. 

If you have a chance and you like Topos, drop the editor an email.  The last thing the profession needs is another LAM.

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