Sunday, January 10, 2010

El fin de la profesion

Here at FASLANYC, we (me and my lucha libre alter ego- Don Roman dela Mancha) are particularly concerned with new methods of practicing landscape architecture, of intervening in the built environment. It's not that traditional private practice or speculative academic work are irrelevant, but with their focus on paternalistic pedigree and their conservative approach to work, they are extremely limited. The Office for Unsolicited Architecture seems to capture exactly what I am describing. But it's not; it's just a bunch of unintelligible esoteric bullshit, at best a smarmy take on the traditional professor-student team intellectualizing masturbatory architecture projects.

For innovation in this area, it seems that one needs to look outside of Europe and the US. To the south, we find the group Supersudaca and the architect Jorge Mario Jauregui, both of whom are coming up with creative ways not just of defining and executing program, or speculating about architectural memes, but of mobilizing and empowering constituencies and financing projects (explored in an earlier post here). And this is one area that the European and North Americans come up woefully short, perhaps because design is a class issue, and here landscape architects (and architects) come from a particular social and economic class and we have a relatively effective way of "designing for the other half"- government.

There are many issues people have with our governmental systems and officials, but compared to the majority of the world, our systems work. People pay taxes, people get education, corrupt officials get the boot. Some of those tax dollars also go towards huge bureaucratic agencies that put in sewer lines, build new roads, erect public buildings, and maintain public spaces. That this system works well enough that it has to this point precluded new entities from evolving to fill other roles is to their credit. Designers engaging in public work- institutional and infrastructural projects, open space designs, masterplans, and urbanism- build careers servicing these agencies. Below is a basic diagram illustrating the basic service model for a private or public client.

The process represented by the above diagram has many limitations, the most prominent and consistent of which are:
- community is 2 steps/entities removed from the design process and 3 from the implementation. this despite the fact that they are ostensibly financing it and will consume it at the end.
-government has a heavy hand with money and directives. because of its size, projects must be of a certain scale to register. This trends toward bigger commissions implemented all at once because of long hierarchical chains inherent in governments, and to a lesser extent, private firms.
-consultant produces plan for the government, to be implemented by a contractor. The community is often marginalized through a patronizing community design process and is reduced to consumer of the project once it is deemed completed.
-definitions of "complete", alien to process and landscape, are necessary and become hugely important.

The design project becomes an object to be constructed by mercenaries and consumed by constituent groups. It is then up to disinterested third parties to maintain it and grow it, until such time as an agency allocates another inappropriately large sum to redoing the area.

I should acknowledge that there are smaller, non-governmental agencies organizing around myriad issues. However, these are largely ignored by designers because the scale that they work on is too small and the projects too prosaic to draw our attention. Heretofore it has not been profitable to engage in these small scale projects, and the bureaucratic nature of city agencies makes it unfeasible to fund micro-projects. This means they are usually not addressed because ngo's and community groups rarely possess the knowledge and skills (and "permission") to implement their own project.

This week there is a competition of a different sort wrapping up- the PayPal Developer Challenge. I'm a fan of paypal because of its convenience, security, and anonymity. For instance, it allows me to painlessly and anonymously order new lucha libre masks direct from the CorazonFairTrade factory whenever Don Roman has soiled his.

More to the point, I am interested in ways landscape architects might be able to use PayPal and similar tools to construct new business models and methods for offering design services. If we can circumvent the traditional bureaucratic and hierarchical models there would be new ways for intervening in the landscape that current systems don't enable. Right now we try to change what work is done by writing about it for years, establishing experts in our fields, and getting them recognized by other powerful mouthpieces and decision makers. And with good reason. But this isn't the only way to affect the discourse, trends, and ultimately the built environment.

To that end I've sketched out the following diagram and accompanying key for each of the different vectors in a new method of practice. It is a schematic at best but offers the beginnings of insight into how we might be able to go about doing different work.

Implementation of this method would likely have the following results:
-more community involvement and investment. This would likely create a "lower quality" or less professional finished product project, but a more dynamic and robust process project.
-more accountability for designers.
-almost exclusively utilized for small scale projects.
-favoring of more open-ended initiatives. This is consistent with the intellectual discourse today but extremely rare in practice because of litigious and bureaucratic considerations.
-the work of the professions would become more specific and less specialized. This would lead to a demystification of the profession which would encourage new and more varied forms of practice.
-less of a paternalistic attitude regarding government; projects would be financed by a process of aggregation, not allocation.

It is of particular importance to figure out new ways of practice to address the countless small-scale interventions that currently have no recourse. The deliberate turn towards the huge and the sexy by the intelligentsia of the landscape/urbanism professions (see Joe Brown and Belanger) is at first glance a good, ambitious move in dragging landscape architecture into relevance. However, a singular focus on these projects would be foolhardy and indeed is contrary to general trends in ecology, science, and technology, and culture. (For a more intelligent discussion of this theme, see mammoth's excellent post on the subject).

With cities becoming bigger, more corporate, and pressed by environmental and economic constraints, there is a market for millions of $5K projects proliferating across the landscape, enabling armies of interested and capable citizen designers to address contemporary issues on a micro scale. Projects will grow through aggregation of small sums, not allocation of huge sums.  To get ready, I'll be in the basement hanging out with Howlin' Wolf and working on the details.


  1. Don't landscape design projects have a period for public opinion? I know that large projects, such as dams, do.

  2. Think you're being a bit harsh on the Unsolicited Architecture folks -- yes, it's an academic exercise (with an occasionally irritatingly hyperbolic tone), not an effectual intervention like Supersudaca's work, but it's in a school and done by students and professors, so that doesn't seem too surprising an end result. I'm sure the folks at Supersudaca did student projects, too, and I'd wager that some of them might have been a bit off, or hyperbolic, or even irritating. Not that it's illegitimate to criticize student work (that's what student work is for!), but I'd say you have to come at it with a bit of generosity, aware that it's going to fail, sometimes spectacularly.

    Regardless, a very interesting post.

    I'm guessing since you're in NYC you're familiar with Seeding the City, but it seems like a great example of how micro-projects might eventually have a macro-impact. I also love that it spreads rhizomatically like a social networking utility (which might be another piece of the second kind of design process you're sketching).

  3. interesting ideas! i don't fully understand the role of pay pal here, but i really like your thinking on more direct community involvement.

  4. Thank you guys for the comments.

    Edward, there is usually a public review period, and even occasionally community design workshops (not necessarily a good thing), for public projects much like large engineering projects. I would say it is complicated for a couple of reasons: with dams/bridges/large landscape projects, the technical issues are extremely complex, usually beyond the understanding of lay people. Also, as an agency or multiple agencies are funding a project (it is never coming from a community directly but rather via taxes funneled through a bureaucratic agency) the design/engineer team is responsible directly to the agency. The agency is responsible to the taxpayers/community through votes, though they aren’t directly elected but rather appointed bureaucrats. It’s not a bad system, at least for some projects, but it is convoluted and ineffectual for certain types. You also have the phenomenon of the loud minority, which is at least as bad as it is good.

    Rob, you are right that I was harsh on the OUA guys, perhaps unjustly so. Nonetheless, their melodrama and hyperbole is irritating because it lacks in substance. In addition, they received a lot of good press for what I consider superficial (though interesting) work, and so I figured they could take some criticism too. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so sharp and snarky.

    I didn’t know the seeding the city project, but it is interesting. I did know about and like the line she painted to show the high water mark for sea level rise. That could be a good example of what I mean. Thank you for the link.

    Anonymous, I suspected that it may be a bit confusing. Part of the problem is that I’m not entirely sure how it might work (and it’s a blog, so I try not to bore you guys with too much rambling) but I was essentially using paypal there as a symbol. The main idea is that funds are aggregated, not allocated. One way that might work is that after an initial study/plans are presented or publicized, an account would be set up where contributions could be made (that were tax deductible) and when thresholds are reached work begins. The thresholds, scope, and methods would be part of the plans presented, so people would know what they’re contributing to. If the thresholds are not reached, the money is returned. This would be one advantage of paypal. I’m sure there are other models/ways of using it.

  5. So would you prefer a setup where a budget is set, but funds aren't actually spent until the project is put to a community vote?

    My personal pet peeve for landscape design is trying to use the landscape in a way counter to local conditions. Here in northern Colorado, we have a high-altitude, semi-arid climate. That means it's pretty dry during the summer, and winter is about 5 months long. Yet there are water features all over the place. It's a tremendous waste of water... for about half a year. The rest of the year, they just sit dry.

  6. Rather, a designer undertakes a study and presents an option or several that could be accomplished for various estimates. If people want what they can get for those various estimates, then they could contribute to a fund that is set up through paypal (and so kept separate from the agencies). These would likely be little playgrounds, or planting new street trees in a neighborhood, etc- not revolutionary, but when carried out by agencies they come with a huge multiplier and often take years to attended to.

    However, “paypal” parks could also be part of larger “dispersed” parks- like the kind advocated for by Balmori Associates in their “Next Nature” project. They could also be built in stages- the designer’s initial plan could outline “with X money we will do stage 1, with Y money stage 2, and when we have Z we will finish stage 3” (this, of course, is an accepted mo, though not commonplace).

    I agree with your gripe, and like you and Rob both note, “the public” could very likely end up wanting something the designer doesn’t. In that case, though, they just wouldn’t pay for it. Additionally, in those types of “community” projects (like your anecdote from Colorado), it seems that people want a lot, want the spectacular (fountains in the uplands of Colorado) because they are divorced from the cost and because a paternalistic governmental attitude has been nurtured.

    I am ranting a bit. It would certainly be a tricky deal, but I’m thankful that you are considering it so thoughtfully. Do you have a different strategy in mind?

  7. I love the way you're thinking of ways to use technology to improve landscape design processes and give local communities more direct input. The Pay Pal method of letting people make contributions to projects is incredibly interesting, and completely unique as far as I know. It kind of reminds me of Obama's fundraising campaign, but applied to city planning. I hope Howlin' Wolf continues to fuel these great ideas! :)

    Urban Ecology in the Bay Area has been working to improve communication between designers and local communities, though I don't think their approach includes funding or unconventional uses of the internet. Melissa, one of the polis contributers, recently posted on an approach to community input: Integrated Urban Rehabilitation in Camp Redó, Palma, Spain: Process and Product. As for technology, yesterday Min Li discussed a potentially related idea of interactive public mapping kiosks. Maybe that technology, along with mobile phones, could be used to facilitate community involvement somehow?

  8. So, are you advocating that designers create projects freelance in hopes that someone will buy?

    Wouldn't it still be better to start with a projected want or need, whether it originates from the community or governing agency?

    The other problem I forsee with this idea is that public spaces tend to owned by governments, so any development, be it landscape or otherwise, needs to be initiated at that level. Do you have any ideas on how to get the community actually gain ownership of areas to be developed?

  9. In the second diagram, the “B” notation indicates that the studies could be commissioned or undertaken as pro bono work. This is essentially the same as things currently function, though the pro bono work is most commonly organized via a competition. While not exceedingly common here, public commissions are awarded almost exclusively via competition in Europe. It would not have to be a competition, however. It could simply be commissioned.

    Permits could still be applicable. Many projects often begin via a push from community groups and citizens through their local legislators. This could perhaps circumvent legislators a bit.

  10. Just came across a web-based civic empowerment project from the creators of LimeWire: Open Planning Project. I haven't had a chance to look through in detail, but maybe it could be combined somehow with your PayPal idea?

  11. I think architecture in la will likely be great.
    Rios Clementi Hale Studios was founded in 1985 as a multi-disciplinary design firm. We create singular, integrated and comprehensive solutions for a variety of design challenges. Combined, our talents comprise a wide range of professional skills including architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, interior design, graphics and signage, exhibit and product design. Project types include commercial, residential, civic, educational, institutional, exhibits and product and furniture design.
    We are dedicated to applying a strong interdisciplinary collaborative approach to the design process, whether on projects within our office or in consultation with other design firms. A broad mixture of clients and projects has given us solid experience in dealing with various and complex design issues.
    I think la architecture will be great.