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.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

urban landscape lab- hear Kate Orff roar

Kate Orff and her folks at the Urban Landscape Lab had a kickoff for their Safari 7 Reading Room exhibition this past week.  Accompanying kegs of Six Point and local luminaries in the Architectural Literati, including Mitchell Joachim, was a fun and interesting series of big canvas posters and a beautiful, rough, plywood model of the parts of Queens traversed by the 7 train.

The exhibition is essentially the socio-ecologic findings of the group as they rode the 7 train from beginning to end, from Flushing, Queens to Times Square.  There is documentation of the book stacks beneath Bryant Park, the weedy species that proliferate in vacant lots, the cock-fighting industry out in "barrio gallenero", and the political intrigues behind the '64 World's Fair and its physical remnants.  There is nothing profound about the findings, nothing one could not put together with a wifi connection and an mta card, but it is all well-executed and presented sensitively and with a touch of mirth.  The star of the show is a huge- approximately 10' x 15'-model of the groundplane of Queens over which the elevated 7 train travels.  Really, it is the esoteric brain-child of someone who got very intimate with the CNC-router.  That is, there are many symbols and things represented which are not readily apparent nor interesting enough to try and figure out.  But it does have headphone jacks that invite you to plug in at each stop along the 7 train and listen to a podcast that was put together discussing some interesting factoid particular to that spot.

One can't help but wonder why the 7 train was chosen.  The "Lab" states the reason as being "The MTA 7 Line is a physical, urban transect through New York City's most diverse collection of human ecosystems, and a site of continuous public engagement. Affectionately called the International Express, the 7 line runs from Manhattan's dense core, under the East River, and through a dispersed mixture of residences and parklands, terminating in downtown Flushing, Queens, the nation's most ethnically diverse county."  Perhaps more importantly, the train is elevated for most of its route, which allows New Yorkers to actually perceive some of the things they are passing.  The fact the New York's trains are primarily underground affect the mindset here in the city in a greater way than is usually acknowledged.  People rarely move through the landscape here, instead spending their time in buildings and tunnels.  On the 7 train, this is not the case.

The exhibition is a fun and idiosyncratic trip along the 7 train.  The drawings are massive and easily understandable.  While not exactly plumbing the depths of urban ecological knowledge and experience, the exhibition does an amazing job of connecting the dots and making information, and stories, accessible.  Which is exactly in keeping with their stated objectives.  You can even buy cute, themed American Apparell t-shirts that say "citizen scientist" and "pocket park ranger".  I love the de-specialization and de-mystification-of-professions they are promoting here, making info and ideas accessible and encouraging synergy and interaction.  Jimmy Corner and the rest of the ivory tower elite better watch out- Ms. Orff and her ilk are coming for you.

I highly recommend you cruise through the office of Studio X to check it out.  It's on exhibit until the end of the year.  Here's to hoping that the Lab has many more wonderful exhibitions.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Entertainment vs. Work; the changing nature of recreation in new york


Recreation has been synonymous with public parks almost since their inception. This legacy is passed to us today by the usually staid and stultifying beaurocracies known as Parks and Recreation Departments. These agencies can be found in most major cities and are responsible for the codification of recreation and parks, for better and worse.  And like a ship listing badly they are slow to turn unless, of course, they are run by a power broker.

But the DPR is not what I'm concerned about today. There is a hard wind blowing, and with it is coming a change in the cultural significance of recreation. Since the rebirth of landscape design in the 90's and 00's, recreation has primarily been defined by entertainment, both people watching and performing. This has given rise to voyeurism and spectacle as the predominant experiences in public parks today. The excessive materialism and full relegation of labor to the purview of others (most if it having be farmed out to the machines or developing countries) has resulted in a listless and dissipated approach to public space. Even the most celebrated park to open this year, designed by the badass tag team of Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, is an example of this- a place people wander through watching other people and pretty things, and being watched.


To understand the idea of recreation, it is helpful to go to the etymology. The word comes from the old French and means literally to "re-create" one's self. Beginning in the middle ages with countryside villas and protected grounds useful for hunting, strolling or occasionally escaping the bubonic plague, open land became a way to escape the ills of urban living.

The concept of naturalistic spaces-as-healing-places was fully deployed by the social engineers/landscape designers of the industrial revolution who began designing parks within or adjacent to dirty industrial cities with the idea of providing a place of relaxation and refreshment for the working masses and city bourgeoisie. While a brilliant stroke at the time, the success of Central Park and other places like it left a heavy legacy that narrowed the possibilities of uses for future public spaces. This paring and subsequent ossification of possible uses of public space came at a critical time as over the next one hundred and fifty years the world's population would more than quintuple and become heavily urbanized.


As time went on and our society became post-industrial a century later, our jobs became physically easy and focused on over-specialization, our lives defined by material excess. New information techonologies increased connectivity and the growth of our cities allowed for increased anonymity. A large portion of the society could pay for whatever they needed done, move about easier from place to place, and no longer knew their neighbors personally. Public space became a dead zone that you passed through, a meaningless necessity, the leftover spaces in our cities. They were parking lots and interstate overpasses and empty plazas colonized by pariahs and stigmatized by the rest. In order to revive them it was right to make them experiences that couldn't be had on the computer. So we ended up with bombastic and didactic places that screamed for attention, that sold themselves to the highest bidder, and that told you what to do. Landscape architecture became fashion, most of it shitty fashion that you would find off-season at a department store.

But today, this is changing. In recent years there has been a coupling of landscape design and infrastructure and an interest in using public spaces a staging grounds for the construction of social capital. New urban community gardens spring up in derelict lots, micro-economies are shifting and flourishing, and spaces are being appropriated for building and learning. With the failure of unfettered capitalism and techonology as a way to provide for all our social needs people are again placing their hope in public spaces.

Adriaan Geuze once stated that his goal in designing a space is to create a place that encourages people to take possession of it. It provides, protects, and challenges at once. Landscape design as cultural florescence is decadent and lacking in substance. If a place's only purpose is to entertain or delight it better be damn good to compete with social networking sites and consumer havens. The way to meaningful work in landscape design is the implementation of productive landscapes and the expansion of that term to include micro-economies, construction of social capital, and ecological infrastructures. Public space, specifically parks, can find new relevance and serve as the staging ground, not just for major entertainment events, but for myriad new uses. The question becomes, if the lawn is the perfect entertainment typology, how will these new uses influence the design of our future parks? Hopefully we figure it out, before highlines proliferate.