Thursday, December 16, 2010

Requiem for a briny mud flat

As the winter descends slowly on the northeast our thoughts turn towards our avian friends flying south.  One of the few places that privileges these fellows here in the New York Harbor is Shooters Island, the most beautiful briny mud flat in the world, and one of the many uninhabited islands dotting the harbor.
[Shooters Island sits just off Staten Island's North Shore in the Kill Van Kull; the major shipping channel to Bayonne is just to the north; Shooters Island was nearly blown up in the 1960's to ease navigation in the Kill]

Shooters Island is administered by the New York City Parks Department and closed to the public, and that is all the more reason you should consider sneaking a boat into the South Shooters Island Reach of the Kill Van Kull and paddling through the petrochemicals over to the island.  The history of the place is immediately palpable, but just to render what you already perceive, we’ll note for you a brief synopsis:

The island was little more than a hideout and hunting reserve in colonial times and remained undeveloped until the 1860’s when the first small shipyard was established here.  During the early 20th century the North Shore of Staten Island became one of the biggest shipbuilding centers in the world.  The Townsend-Downey Shipbuilding Company began operating here, manufacturing world famous vessels for the rich and famous; in 1902, the island produced a luxurious yacht for the Kaiser Willhelm II of Prussia.  And then twelve years later it started cranking out gleaming war machines that would eventually rend asunder the good emperor’s navy.
["Yes, yes, your yacht is right this way Mr. Kaiser.  NO!  Please, emperor, you can't look at the warship we are building behind that curtain."]

[remnants of old ships' hulls and dry dock crumbling into the water]

The need for fill to enable the expanding shipbuilding operation made Shooter’s Island a convenient dumping ground for the dredge material from the adjacent Kill Van Kull and the island swelled beyond its primary bulkhead.  Not long after the end of WWII, shipbuilding on the Island was done and it was abandoned, left to soak in the petrochemicals and sewage overflows from surrounding industry and neighborhoods for the next 60 years and now the ever larger dredging operations are slowly eating away at the island.
[the USS Muscatine being fitted out at Shooters Island; it was a 4430 gross ton refrigerated cargo ship (with 10,562 tons of displacement) used by the Navy as part of the logistical supply line during WW1]

In researching this (we obviously use the term "researching" loosely), we came across some interesting web chatter:  a number of Staten Islanders seemed to remember an old woman who lived on the island for years, rowing herself to shore a couple of times a week for supplies and to wander flaneur-like up and down the heinous streets of Staten Island.  In recent years, the city of Bayonne, New Jersey has tried to sell its portion of Shooters Island, ostensibly to “close a budget gap”.  This may or may not be part of some new hard line conservative fiscal initiative, but regardless, whenever you stand to make a few thousand dollars by selling off a priceless ecological sanctuary that happens to embody some of the greatest story lines of your industrial past, you’ve got to do it.
[the NOAA navigational charts show the bathymetry of the channels swirling around Shooters Island.  The South Shooters Island Reach is a minor channel and is not maintained by the same Army Corps contracts as the channel to the north]

We here at FASLANYC are in awe of the lovely, dangerous, polluted island.  The juxtaposition of petrochemical industries and bird sanctuaries, an old boat graveyard and massive modern tankers, shipbuilding histories and hearty, homeless old ladies, all perfectly embodied by that sharp line bisecting the island, demarcating the tidal mud flat from the marshy island- it seems perfect, and makes us want to pan around and around in Bing (of course, we would never go to the island- we prefer to conjure landscape experience through the glowing screen).  We wonder what ever became of the idea floated out in this NY Times piece from the 1990’s, and whether anyone else has any designs on the drawing board for what the island might be.  At the very least, it should be the subject of a most excellent treasure map:  a carefully curated and choreographed journey aboard the Staten Island Ferry, down Richmond Terrace, through the numerous bands of chain link fence, careful to circumvent the combined sewer outfalls, ending with a straight shot across the South Shooters Island Reach of the Kill Van Kull.

[if you want to see me, make your way to Shooters Island; and even if you don't care for birds, it's still an amazing place]

At any rate, the great migratory birds that love the island are heading south for the winter, and we are too.  We still hope to get up some content occasionally, but things are likely to be a little slow until February rolls around and the first thaw begins to show up.  Hopefully we will be able to chime in with new developments, report a bit from down south, and we promise to trot out some new themes, interviews, and to bring you the most lackadaisical reporting around.
[Faslanyc, H. Willis Montcrief, and DRDLM- the turkey buzzard flock of the nerdy landscape blog world- prepare to head south for the winter.  Or is it west?  Do they have any idea of the direction they're headed?]

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Conscientizaçao of the Landscape: Urban Development as Educational Project

This is the second in a two part post on the Matanza Riachuelo Project in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The project first caught our attention back in September.  You can also read DRDLM’s first post here which discusses the La Salada informal market located on the banks of the river on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Down along the southern edge of Buenos Aires runs the disgusting Matanza-Riachuelo River.  To deal with the 200 year long legacy of unregulated dumping and polluting, a new agency has been created with the mandate to clean up the river and manage urban development (industry, housing, environmental ecology) at the scale of the watershed with the ability to cross municipal and provincial boundaries and cut through the myopic self-interest that often handicaps such efforts.  This is significant.

We’ve previously mentioned the work that pioneer-adventurer John Wesley Powell did in the 19th century when he explored the American West and came back recommending that the territory be settled and managed according to watersheds.  This sage geopolitical advice was soundly defeated by corporate railroad interests and he was relegated to founding the USGS (for more on this story check Jason King’s recent post over on Landscape+Urbanism and this post over on the excellent Strange Maps). 
[Powell's map of the watershed of the arid American West]

But now Powell is having his revenge and scientists/planners/engineers/designers are all colluding, making the case for managing regions based on the watershed (Richard Forman and Kristina Hill’s work immediately comes to mind) and this is resulting in exciting work including Cap-Net and some aspects of water resource policy in Brazil (laid out here clearly in English by Monica Porto).

And so we come to the Matanza-Riachuelo project.  Here, not only has a new authority been created to advise on policy efforts, but the agency has capital- the ability to design and implement projects.  They have the money to build dams and dikes, to install new sewer systems and monitoring stations, and to work with communities on relocation or rebuilding strategies in addition to advising on policy or enforcing regulations and other initiatives that are necessary in urbanized flood-prone areas.  This is extremely rare (unless it’s not, we would love to learn of more examples)- most organizations that have the ability to implement capital projects such as the Army Corp of Engineers, the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, or the NYC Department of Transportation, are not at all based on the watershed but rather various strategic economic and geo-political territories.
 [the Buenos Aires conurbation on the banks of the Rio de la Plata; the hastily drawn red line approximates the course of the Matanza Riachuelo; though it's at the southern edge of the city proper of Buenos Aires, it is surrounding by urbanization on all sides in the lower part of the basin]

[information on specific projects is published using google earth, increasing the accessibility of the information]

But that is not what truly fascinates us about the Matanza Riachuelo project.  For us, the most significant aspect of the effort is that it can be characterized as urban development as an education project.  The project goes beyond the technocratic intervention and management of a complex system with a focus on scientific monitoring and publication of results paired with community engagement, exploration, and production.  This entails many interesting initiatives that are experimental and educational, themes with a special place in our heart here at FASLANYC.  However, the initiative that most captures our attention are two related efforts:  Aguas + Trabajo (Water + Work) and Aguas + Cloaca (Water + Sewers).

These projects are a joint initiative of AySA (Argentina Water and Sewer), ACUMAR (the river basin authority), and some of the cooperativas of the municipalities and neighborhoods in the basin.  The project is an effort to bring water and sewer to 100% of the households of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, a major effort:  within the basin 35% of the population does not have access to drinking water and 65% is not connected to the sewer system.  However, instead of AySA (a massive technocratic bureaucracy) designing, implementing, and maintaining a solution, they instead work with ACUMAR (who has the power to span municipal boundaries regarding water issues in the basin) and local cooperativas to implement a solution- AySA provides the funds and technical training, ACUMAR provides the coordination between municipalities and oversees the environmental development, and the cooperativas get job training, employment, and are agents in the production of space in their barrio.
[here a rather rudimentary temporary station is set up on the grounds of a local school in the Matanza Riachuelo basin; a volunteer from the school is helping to record air quality data with the oversight of a technician from ACUMAR] 

This type of lo-fi, educational approach is worth considering for landscape and infrastructural projects in the future.  Our current technophilic ideal and its concomitant complexity rhetoric is interesting but limiting.  It seems we adamantly refuse to recognize the truth in Paul Virilio’s theory of the Integral Accident in the military-scientific complex and to consider the conscientizaçao of the landscape- landscape intervention as educational project.  In the case of A+T this means employment and skills training for underemployed populations while they work on building their own barrio.  But one can imagine scenarios where future landscape projects include extensions of CLUI’s excellent adventures, widespread DIY aerial mapping of your own little slice of the world, proliferating urban agriculture, or creating your own flupsy for oyster farming in the New York Harbor
[DIY aerial photography of the Louisiana coast line, post oil spill; courtesy of grassroots mapping]

The educational project as opposed to the production and consumption of the commoditized environment- the Conscientizaçao of the Landscape.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

La Salada Sagrada

Last weekend while lazing about resting on our laurels, we received a cryptic cable from DRDLM saying only: 

Que vengas ya!  Me vuelvo histerico, that’s why it smells the way it does.  – DRDLM (fiorito).  

Knowing that he was on assignment in Buenos Aires investigating the new developments in landscape design and trying to track down Max Zolkwer of Supersudaca, we grabbed our passports, a fistful of pesos, donned our lucha libre masks and headed to JFK International Airport.

“Fiorito” was the name of the villa where the great Diego Maradona grew up on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, so we began our weeklong search for DRDLM there.  When we finally got to him he was babbling and frenzied, riding a child’s tricycle around and around with a dunce cap on like a hairless Russian bear.  Once he finally calmed down (it took copious amounts of argentine steak, wine, and Pall Mall cigarettes), he recounted some of what he had seen which we have translated and summarized for you here.  This post is the first in a two-part series on new developments in landscape in Argentina.
[DRDLM on assignment in Argentina; image courtesy of Monkeyworks]


The Feria La Salada market is the largest, most dynamic commercial economic zone in the city of Buenos Aires and the biggest informal market on the continent.  It employs over 6,000 people and draws over 20,000 visitors each day it is open, many of whom come in the 200 buses bringing people from all over the country just to shop at the market.  Over U$ 500 million annually is moved by the market.  Located on a formerly abandoned strip of land along the Matanza Riachuelo River on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the market is informal, illegal and absolutely critical to the well-being of thousands of families.  It also provides consumers who come from all over the country with the consumer goods that are too expensive in western-style shopping malls that have proliferated throughout the city in recent years.  And it is a point source of pollution and degradation for the beleaguered Matanza Riachuelo River.
[Feria La Salada at night, a bustling and fraught economic zone]

Begun 20 years ago by Bolivian immigrants, Feria La Salada grew exponentially when the economic crisis of 2001 forced huge portions of the population to the economic margins.  It is still growing.  The layout of the market is based on small rentable units that face onto streets running parallel to the river.  This almost-modular layout is essentially an extendable, flexible land use system that allows for every kind of vendor from shirt salesmen, cobblers, and fry cooks to set up easily, customize their space with a sign showing prices, and present their goods to the multitudes streaming by on the hard-packed dirt streets.  Its success is directly attributable to low prices- futbol jerseys here can be 1/10 the cost of a similar product from a store in the city center. 

The success of the market and complete lack of municipal regulation has subsequently given rise to a particularly economic strategy for growth- take the garbage generated by the market, dump it in the river along the banks, build on top of it when it’s high enough.  Of course, this short term solution creates more pollution in the river and a precarious building situation for vendors occupying these stalls, both of which work to undermine the long-term success of the market. 
[the bridge on the right is one of the main access routes into the Feria La Salada, bringing people from the field where the buses park, across the Matanza Riachuelo River on the old railroad bridge along an ad hoc pedestrian walk cantilevered off of the far side]

Current expansion strategies for the market include the beginning of regularization of activities, including the creation of a bus depot, a cinema and other entertainment facilities, and creating more credit mechanisms so that vendors can capitalize their operations and the market can begin to open for more days each week.  Simultaneously a new watershed-wide effort is underway to clean the Matanza Riachuelo, an effort that will certainly influence the future of the market and the way it grows and manages its activities.

One glaring question arises as a starting point:  why is the market located on the river?  Did it offer some advantage?  Was it due to some peculiar socio-economic or physical aspect of the environment?  And in the future, how might the effort to clean up the river work in concert with the need to address the accessibility and physical stability of the market?  (Why, through the landscape, of course!)  What are the lessons that can be taken from the ecological processes of the river basin?  And is there any way to make it so the smell of the Matanza Riachuelo at this area doesn’t induce vomiting?  Because vomiting is bad for business.

Key physical issues and possibilities exist here at the confluence of the most polluted waterway and the most dynamic and precarious economy in the whole region.  If entertainment programming, new areas for expansion, increased biodiversity, decreased pollution, and improved access are what is desired the Matanza Riachuelo must become a protagonist in that effort.
[the river provides the market with little more than landfill space, the market does little more than dump whatever can't be sold here]

So sayeth Don Roman De La Mancha.

Monday, November 22, 2010

NU v. LU: It's all Copacetic

You may or may not have heard of the recent dust up between proponents of “New Urbanism” and “Landscape Urbanism”.  Jason King over at Landscape+Urbanism has been following the proceedings and we suggest you check in there if you want to read a thoughtful, well-written series about middle-aged, elitist white guys lobbing softballs to one another to drum up interest in their particular political game:

- ok, Charles, here you go.  Now remember what we rehearsed.
- got it, Andres.  I’m sending it right back to you. 
- just be sure not to pop out to shortstop like last time.
[andres duany, devastating all landscape urbanists with his chiseled features]

It’s not that interesting.  Though each side brings up their points (and each side has good points) it’s less an academic debate and more an awkward slap fight between pubescent boys that leaves passersby befuddled and confused.  Whenever the game heats up this way (and by “heats up” we mean gets extremely GSD-centric, old white man-centric, hermetic, and anti-septic) we look for a way out, preferring instead to spend our days exploring urbanism’s nether regions.  Two of our favorites, which we hope to see more on, are the idea of “landscape ruralism” and F.A.D.’s “embodied urbanism” (this one in particularly is exciting, capturing a lot of new urbanism’s relevant ideas about scalar relationships between the built environment and the human body without the over-reliance on formulaic application of concept, without privileging sentimentality, and without proposing the city as a series of spaces and experiences to be consumed).

But today we want to head in a different direction- Magical Urbanism.  That’s right.  Now, you might think this has to do with the Kafka-esque literary genre.  Perhaps you would expect a drug-addled Don Roman pontificating about the relevance of Cortázar, Borges, and Bolaño to contemporary urbanism, or the magical wonder that Huell Howser brings to the world.  Or maybe you are thinking H. Willis Montcrief will weigh in with a landscape critique of the influence of the Fania All-Stars on urbanism.  All valid points; but today we wanted to take a look at what the painting of Neo Rauch might bring to the topic.
[what does Roberto Bolano know about urbanism?  Plenty]

Magical Urbanism is, of course, the blending of the fantastical and the real in pictographic mythologies that are strange yet familiar.  Expressions of power, hate, beauty, toil, industry, and nature all find purchase here.  Characters from the past- strange men in uniforms, old wash maids and beggars- spring to life to intimidate the office worker or dress the business man.  Yet, this urbanism is not so pedantic as to formulate anything, relying instead on a methodology that:

views the process of urbanism as an extraordinarily natural form of discovering the world, almost natural as breathing.  Outwardly it is almost entirely without intention.  It is predominantly limited to the process of a concentrated flow.  I am deliberately neglecting to contemplate all of the catalytic influences that would have the power to undermine the innocence of this approach because I would like to express a degree of clarity in these lines by way of example.  [note- I substituted "urbanism for "painting" in the first sentence of Rauch's quote]
[is this urbanism?  it's definitely landscape]

[old urbanism?  landscape urbanism?  nope-  Magical Urbanism]

As a method for painting, the effect is obvious- prolific, striking, and haunting.  As a method for urbanism it is perhaps a bit more dubious, but instructive nonetheless.  As noted in the excellent essay by Peter Connelly, one of the defining characteristic of landscape is the notion of openness, increased connections, and new relations between historical realities and new possibilities.  As a professional methodology this is extremely difficult to construe; it barely works for painting, where only someone like Neo Rauch seems to be capable of pulling it off.  Perhaps landscape urbanism currently comes closest, but there are serious limitations to how it is practiced, as New Urbanists everywhere will be happy to point out. 

Nonetheless, as noted by Peter Reed a recent piece for Topos, the field of landscape urbanism is still not fully defined and may yet evolve new methods, strategies, and concepts.  Of course, we could probably get there faster if fewer of us were fighting over the scraps from the table of civil engineers, developers, and politicians, and embraced the possibilities in landscape architecture for defining urbanism and intervening in the landscape.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Agency of Mapping: Acts of War

This dispatch comes from our Latin American correspondent Don Roman de la Mancha somewhat belatedly.  Translating his missives can take a while because, while FASLANYC is a bilingual operation, no one here speaks the other’s language.  As such, DRDLM’s dispatch had to be painstakingly exhumed, translated, edited, and posted; an arduous task given that he tends to use antiquated literary prose to express the most basic landscape concepts.  Nonetheless, we now present you with his ragged report.

Once upon a time James Corner penned a nice little exhortation to make more maps (and then proceeded to beat the entire landscape department at UPENN about the head and face until they became a pseudo-scientific, mildly speculative cartography school).  What Corner manages to do in a mere 11,000 words is make a compelling case that mapping is a creative act.  By making decisions, conscious or not, about what to include, emphasize, or relate to other various aspects of the map, the act of mapping itself is a cultural project, a way of intervening in the landscape.
[the territory in dispute, as formerly rendered by Google maps]

Apropos of this notion, recently there was a development in Central America that speaks specifically to the agency of mapping.  Evidently, Google got hold of some old data from the U.S. State Department and haphazardly drew in a small piece of the Honduras-Costa Rica border incorrectly, prompting the Nicaraguan army to casually stroll into defenseless Costa Rica and plant the ol’ blue and white on this piece of Caribbean coast.

The result was a nasty little dust up that resulted, ultimately, in the Nicaraguan official blaming Google.  He claimed that the reason he thought that piece of Costa Rica was actually Nicaragua and promptly rushed a regiment in there was because it showed up in Google maps as such.  Now that’s agency.  But this got us thinking about something interesting that we noticed over on bldgblog just a few weeks ago:  trap streets.  In bldgblog’s words, trap streets are “deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.”  What if this border dispute was the result of a “trap border”, a deliberate cartographic error introduced to induce an aggressor nation in to attacking a rival?
[Is this Costa Rica or Nicaragua?  Let's ask Google.]

While bldgblog spirals the notion of trap streets inward, speculating on how trap rooms create a psychological thrill-world mediated and navigated by use of an iphone, I am especially intrigued to consider the geo-political implications of trap “geographical entities”.  What if hackers working for the Argentine government move the border in Google maps to incorporate small slices of Uruguay where they have been trying to build their paper factories for years?  “Look, Google says that land is Argentine, so back off.”  On a scale closer to home, perhaps corporations in Texas can pay Google a bit extra to have their factory annexed by Mexico for tax season, or politicians can gerrymander their own districts using “my maps” without having to wait for a sympathetic governor to be elected.

At any rate, the agency of mapping as a critical, creative, and political act is undeniable, as is its propensity to be used and abused for nefarious purposes and as a means for consolidating or subverting power.  Given such a dim future, I for one turn an optimistic eye towards that most enviable, venerable of all mapping traditions:  the treasure map.  Using the agency of maps as a means to power is certainly a venerable tradition, but I prefer to believe the methodology was not created by surveyors of the Medici family, but rather as means for pirates young and old to recall where they put their buried treasure.  Power is one aspect of the agency of mapping, but another aspect?  Exploration, fun, and adventure.  The pirates of the Caribbean.

[treasure maps are awesome]

Google changed the map.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Complications with Complexity

complex n 1: a whole made up of two or more separable or identifiable elements [synonyms composite, compound]  2: hard to separate, analyze, or solve [synonyms byzantine, complicated, daedal, elaborate, intricate, labyrinthine] [related bewildering, confusing, distracting, disturbing, baffling, confounding, mysterious, mystifying, obscure, vague, involute]  3: a group of repressed desires and memories that exert a dominating influence on one’s personality or behaviors

complication n 1: the quality or state of being complicated  3: a disease or condition that develops during and after the course of a primary disease or condition

complicated adj 1: consisting of parts intricately combined  2: difficult to analyze, understand, or explain
[the mycorrhizal mycelium of a simple pine sapling- wildly complex; image courtesy of the folks at the University of Aberdeen]

It is time to address complexity, or rather the widespread use of the word.  In the last decade it has become one of the pillars of technophilic obfuscation- one of those vague terms used to dance around ideas or elaborate issues in a completely unjustified and ostentatious manner.  Recently, over on Places Journal there was an article titled “Infrastructural Ecologies:  Principals for Post-Industrial Public Works”.  The title was a mouthful but the article made some very thoughtful, interesting points.  Yet at the end, we get this admonition:

America’s infrastructure needs are dauntingly large, complex, and urgent.  Ultimately, if we are to regain not only economic stability but also prosperity, if we are to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will need to demonstrate the capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.

Holy Lord!  We are doomed!  Doomed!  Doomed!  Doomed! 

But wait a second- the author has just spent 3,000 words meticulously describing various contemporary infrastructure projects around the world and then raising some good questions and critical observations.  So why the language at the end? 

The unnecessary emphasis on complexity struck a familiar chord with us- it is a recurring trope, one that designers fall back on when demanding that their work is important.   A quick survey of two of the influential texts of contemporary landscape theory yields the following:
Recovering Landscape (11 essays, published 1999):  complexity- 15, complex- 29
Landscape Urbanism Reader (14 essays, published 2006):  complexity- 29, complex- 53
Utterly fucking absurd.  At this rate, future LU publications will require mention of “complexity” in every paragraph and if the author fails to comply the word will just be inserted into every other sentence during copy-editing.
[an afternoon surfing the web and drawing landscape details in cad- unbelievably complex; image courtesy of the excellent CNVerge]

[the movements of one team during a game of soccer- unfathomable complexity; image from mammoth, by David Marsh]

The overuse of “complexity” is obviously rhetorical- a political act.  Political action through design activism is a prominent topic in recent years and likely to become more so, given the rate of change in our economic and environmental situations and the fact that intervening in the landscape is fundamentally a political action.  But this use of “complexity” is also ontological, attempting to define the very foundation of landscape theory through the term.  The problems with this approach are two-fold:

One, defining anything as complex is meaningless, because everything is complex.  Literally everything.  From the sophisticated financial instruments of globalized late-capitalism to a jolly afternoon watching two chums hit a ball back and forth across a net, everything is as complex as one's understanding of and familiarity with it.  Always emphasizing the term is not necessary.

Two, as a political act it has consequences.  And in this case those consequences are something we here at FASLANYC hate- emphasizing complexity excludes and mystifies, suggesting that normal folks couldn’t possibly understand what is going on and that any new interventions are best left to the technoratti.

Now granted, by emphasizing complexity and offering it as the conceptual foundation of landscape, these theorists are attempting to differentiate their reading of the landscape- focused on process, possibilities, systems, and unknowns- from modern and post-modern conceptions.  But the problem with this specific etiology is that it is not intelligent.  By choosing to define landscape through complexity we make it vague and meaningless, because complexity is based on understanding, not essence.  As a method for expanding definitions something in order to gain operating space (intellectually or politically) this is excellent, but it stunts the dialogue by saying nothing with a lot of words.  There are other ways to expand the agency of landscape. 

It is our hope that more landscape writing can become like this piece, communicating subtlety, complexity, technical aspect and beauty in a concise mythology that is compelling and erotic.  Of course, we may not all have the ability or time to write at that level, but if we really desire increased political agency, we would do well to relax with the complexity fetish.
[also complex; but why talk about it that way?]

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Studio Must Die! (and other ruminations on design pedagogy)

This week we bring a discussion that took place between the garrulous DRDLM and our lovable H. Willis Montcrief while they were milling around at the Rally to Restore Sanity.  The below occurred following a fascinating argument on the respective merits of the Ford Granada and bikram yoga and is a transcript of their discussion on design pedagogy.

HWM:  I really think we oughta reexamine the way studio is working right now.  Thar’s all this effort to expand design agency and a general trend away from design as an artistic discipline and towards scientific intervention.  Which is fine I reckon- design’s big enough to grab both of ‘em. 

DRDLM:  Ya en este tiempo se había levantado Sancho Panza, algo maltratado de los mozos de los frailes, y había estado atento a la batalla de su señor don Quijote, y rogaba a Dios en su corazón fuese servido de darle vitoria, y que en ella ganase alguna insula de donde le hiciese gobernador, como se lo habia prometido. 
[this is the kind of thing on H. Willis' mind, when he's not thinking about landscape]

HWM:  If that’s the case, but design pedagogy remains studio based, it tends to relegate any investigation to pseudo-science.  Folks might say that the other school classes are for gettin’ all that info, but any semester with studio is immediately ren’ tasunder with the workload.  Sure, you can read a few essays er put together a powerpoint for a class er two, but to try an’ take on any real fieldwork or lab work or serious fabrication effort, well, you can pretty much forget that.  Which is too bad. 

DRDLM:  Viendo, pues, ya acabada la pendencia, y que su amo volvia a subir sobre Rocinante, llegó a tenerle el estribo y antes que subiese, se hincó de rodillas delante dél y, asiéndole de la man, se la besó y le dijo…

HWM:  Well, it just seems like studio’s a pretty good thing- allows you to learn a lot, put a lot of thangs t’gether in yur mind, practice investigatin’, iteratin’, producin’, and presentin’.  But a lot of folks think that studio is design, and I’m afraid that’s just not the case. 

DRDLM:  Sea vuestra merced servido, señor don Quijote mio, de darme el gobierno de la insula que en esta rigurosa pendencia se ha Ganado; que, por grande que sea, yo me siento con fuerzas de saberla gobernar, tal y tan bien como otro que haya gobernado ínsulas en el mundo.

HWM:  Well, if you look at what that fella did out in Portland recently, that’s pretty tough to pull off in a studio class.  Maybe you could set up some kind’a independent studio or somethin’ like that, but it sure ain’t encouraged. 

DRDLM:  Sea vuestra merced servido, señor don Quijote mio, de darme el gobierno de la insula que en esta rigurosa pendencia se ha Ganado; que, por grande que sea, yo me siento con fuerzas de saberla gobernar, tal y tan bien como otro que haya gobernado ínsulas en el mundo.

HWM:  Studio’s still about the big speculative project, and that teaches us to go work places doin’ that stuff.  But we could really use folks figurin’ out new ways to practice; I mean the studio dates back to the architecture atelier of the 18th century or somethin’ like that, when folks were workin’ for rich states, rich industrialists, and newly expandin’ corporations.  Well we still got all that stuff, but thangs ain’t exactly the same.  That historian Kazys Varnelis made a great point about the inability of architecture/landscape to question its deepest assumptions- this is one of them assumptions.

DRDLM:  Advertid, hermano Sancho, que esta Aventura y las a ésta semejantes no son aventuras de ínsulas, sino de encrudijadas; en las cuales no se gana otra cosa que sacar rota la cabeza, o una oreja menos.  Tened paciencia; que aventuras se ofrecerán donde no solamente os pueda hacer gobernador, sino más adelante.

HWM:  It ain’t that it's pedagogically wrong, but it absolutely is limiting and so it ain’t always appropriate.  It gets us thinkin’ how to do big projects for the elites, which is fine, but it’s a little borin’ if that’s the only way we’re practicin’ landscape architecture.  And it squeezes out everything else, which is too bad.
[one of the faces of non-studio landscape practice; image from free association design; see their recent posts for the great documentation of "ruminant urbanism"]

DRDLM:  Calla, Y dónde has visto tú, o leído jamás, que caballero andante haya sido puesto ante la justicia, por más homicidios que hubiese cometido?

HWM:  Well, that’s anuther thang.  This point about workin’ for elites- political, economic, social, whatever- seems like it’s also a part of the pedagogy, startin’ from just how hard it is ta get n’ta architecture school.  Now, I’m not sayin’ it should be all opened up or whatever.  I ain’t real sure about that.  But it does seem like schools should be much bigger, an’ maybe there should be lighter versions of design programs- field schools, management schools, certifications, consortiums, extensions, stuff like that.  And you don’t have ta be a card-carryin’ member to get in there and get to work.

DRDLM:  Yo no se nada de omecillos, ni en mi vida le caté a ninguno; solo sé que la Santa Hermandad tiene que ver con los que pelean en el campo, y en esotro no me entremeto.  Pues no tengas pena, amigo, que yo te sacaré de las manos de los caldeos, cuanot más de las de la Hemandad.  Pero dime por tu vida:  has visto más valeroso caballero que yo en todo lo descubierto de la tierra?

HWM:  See, we got this idea that design is really a way of seein’.  Well, that’s a beautiful idea, an’ I really think thars somethin’ to that.  The ability ta innately read th’environment around us in terms of processes goin’ on, materials it’s made of, and have ideas about how to intervene in it is powerful, creative, empowerin’.  Why don’t we put ‘n emphasis on gettin’ that to more folks, at least to some degree?  I mean, mobilizin’ folks, empowerin’ ‘em- it’s a huge untapped potential for the thangs we’re all talkin’ about, but we seem to have all this invested interest in keepin’ the right to the city contained in our little technophilic circle. 

DRDLM:  Todo eso fuera bien excusado si a me se acordara de hacer una redoma del balsam de Fierabrás; que con sola una gota se ahorraran tiempo y medicinas.
[this is not DRDLM and H. Willis Montcrief debating the various merits of expanding pedagogical practices and design schools, but it's nearly as serious]

HWM:  I just think it’d be way more effective an’ interestin’ if we talked about what we’re really dealin’ with- we don’t need Anu Marthur to do some more esoteric brilliance, or WRT to project another technological monster- we already got them folks and they’re good at it.  Seems to me we need to get more folks understandin’ and carin’ about the environment- whatever that means in today’s world- and wantin’ to do somethin’ with it themselves instead of assumin’ some mysterious professional’s gonna take care of thangs.

DRDLM:  Has hablado y apuntado muy bien y así, anula el juramento en cuanto lo que toca a tomar dél nueva venganza; pero hágole y confírmole de nueveo de hacer la vida que he dicho, hasta tanto que quite por fuerza otra celada tal y tan Buena como ésta a algún caballero.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Agency of Writing

Central to the effort behind FASLANYC is the belief that the world needs more landscape architecture.  As such, this blog is at times an exercise in unabashed boosterism for intervention in the landscape by all manner of folks in all manner of ways, and were it ever criticized as such we would undoubtedly pee a little bit and grin impishly to ourselves.

It is with such effervescent, tumescent enthusiasm that we jump into this week’s topic- the agency of writing.  Landscape writing for a large public audience was fundamental to the development of the profession and its influence in 19th century urbanism.  It is well known that the dashing AJ Downing, in between visits to the haberdashery and high society parties in the northeastern US, was busy shaping public opinion regarding the validity of “a great central park with a naturalistic aesthetic” for Manhattan through his writing in The Horticulturist
[the dashing AJ Downing, just before going to the haberdashery]

Frederick Law Olmsted, inasmuch as he had a profession, was a journalist and maintenance man (granted, park superintendent) long before he ever thought of becoming a designer; in addition to dispatches for the New York Daily Times on slavery and the landscapes of the South, he penned articles for Downing’s Horticulturalist and later cofounded The Nation simultaneously while he and Vaux were starting their design firm.  His ability to influence perceptions and political discourse and mobilize various constituent groups was critical in bringing about the realization of Central Park.

But something has happened in the last 150 years.  Popular writing in the profession has been abdicated.  Sure, there have been and continue to be a few excellent efforts through the years- Landscape, Places and Volume are three that come to mind, though those have always been for a largely academic audience.  In recent years the accessibility and readership of a few blogs as well as online publications such as the Urban Ominbus or the Center for Landscape Interpretation is an encouraging phenomenon, the trend to develop project-specific blogs in support of major park initiatives is a bizarre and wonderful bird, and Jane Wolff’s recent Delta Primer was a worthy effort to make reading about landscape interesting and accessible.  In general, however, the popular conception of landscape remains outside of the influence of these efforts.  This is because the above developments, when compared to the media machines of the Scripps Network, hardly register.  And most damningly, our academics- our most brilliant and respected writers- dare not cover themselves in the stink of the common person, put on the bear-shirt, and enter into the contemporary discourse.

Well, this is too bad.  Because now, instead of Olmsteds and Downings, we have the folks over at HGTV guiding the popular conversation at best there is an occasional piece by a newspaper architectural critic.  And architectural critics are not a bad thing, but given that only the major metro newspapers still pay to keep these guys on staff, on the rare occasion when a landscape project is discussed the discourse is skewed toward big names, big cities, and big projects.
[seriously?  Seriously; the popular voice of landscape]

The result is that while the profession and the discourse is growing, it remains the purview of technophilic and academic specialists who politely whisper to the policy makers and the capitalist lords that maybe, perhaps this or that should be considered, if there’s some money and it’s not too politically unpopular.  This conversation takes place using an esoteric and hermetic jargon, and while there is a place for using a specific and technical vocabulary (such as giving us something to hate, or at least pick on), the emphasis on florid verbosity and hyperbolic proclamations is simply not interesting.

We here desperately hope for more voices from the profession, all in dialogue and refining one another while deigning to enter in to the larger conversation.  It is pathetic that the two major discourses in the fields of landscape today are an exclusive academic club and the commoditized broadcasts from a media conglomerate.  There are thousands of capable and thoughtful students, practitioners, and aficionados, and auto-didacts who have their own ideas, insights and critiques.  We should look to those two innovative fields that we lift all of our metaphors and vocabulary from- software and ecology- and develop publishing efforts- magazines, books, podcasts, pamphlets, websites and videos- that can bring insightful, informative, and critical writing to a larger audience.  More of us should put on the goddamn bear-shirt.
[this gentleman has donned the bear-shirt]