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]

4 comments:

  1. Pretty sure you structured this entire post around having the opportunity to describe yourself as tumescent.

    I don't want to get into that any further, but, otherwise, excellent stuff. I keep thinking about J.B. Jackson, who I've been reading off-and-on lately. Is there any landscape writing that approaches that quality (or willingness to talk broad subjects in a manner that might appeal to a non-specialized audience) today? No, not really. (I'm probably part of the problem rather than the solution, but that doesn't bother me, really. It's not that everyone needs to be J.B. Jackson, or write for a wide audience; but someone should be. I think it's legitimate to call that out without necessarily having to answer the call personally.)

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  2. ha. undoubtedly true. im tumescent right now.

    yes, this post is a thought that is easy to pick apart, especially because of the popularity of blogs and similar efforts in our own nerdy little corner of the world. you have tons of great things such as the on asphalt website that are exciting and encouraging. But when compared to the historical importance of popular writing about landscape to the development of the profession and of the landscape itself (or to the HGTV folks, which you guys explained so well a few months back), it pales in comparison. Part of this is needing more participation, and I would argue that we need it especially from the academics. That is who I would criticize here.

    There are three people working today that immediately spring to mind as perhaps doing some of this work- Adriaan Gueze, Kate Orff, and Geoff Manaugh.

    Adriaan is an intensely political actor, and his essay "Flatness" (according to him) was a critique of the contemporary political perspective in Holland regarding the historical Dutch landscape, written for a popular audience (it was evidently widely published in the Dutch newspapers).

    Kate Orff is younger, but the Safari 7 exhibition she put together with the help of many folks at Columbia is a great example of opening up meaningful and intelligent conversations about the landscape and including different publics as integral in the discussion. It was shown in subway stations, flyers were printed, mp3s could be downloaded, a website created- in addition to the more traditional architectural exhibition.

    Geoff Manaugh is another super-interesting case, almost the embodiment of "capitalism and schizophrenia". While I have my gripes about certain things, he is talking about landscape in a captivating way and he is prolific, interested, and intelligent.

    The folks at the infrastructurist are in a similar vein. Both bldg blog and the infrastructurist are a bit to technophilic to appeal to most people and I would say that Adriaan and Kate are operating on a different level, or at least in a different way, than Geoff and the infrastructurist.

    Supersudaca also has to enter the conversation with their emphasis on Spanish, their irreverent relatability, and their focus on free, intelligible digital publications (they use issuu a lot).

    How do you think those folks fit in historically or compared to the effect of mass media (including Ourrousoff). It seems to me we need more, especially from the academics and practitioners. Are there others, and are there other ways?

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  3. These are actually all good points. Like you, I'll have to take Adriaan at his word, and not being a New Yorker I can't really gauge the cultural penetration of an effort like Safari 7, but those are efforts that seem right and worthwhile. (And you're one-hundred percent correct in throwing Jane Wolff's Delta Primer in there, too.)

    But I think you're quite right -- though I hadn't really thought in this way -- that BLDGBLOG serves a similar function. Geoff writes in a way that is extremely accessible to the interested outsider, and that seems to me one of the real strengths of his work. When architecture is just for architects, we can have our fashionable parties or whatever, but out there (wherever "there" is) people are watching HGTV and buying books with titles like "A Passion for Interiors".

    The thing that I particularly like about J.B. Jackson is his ability to talk in a cogent and interesting manner about the landscape equivalents of the subject matter of those TV shows and shitty books. (Which is probably not so much what you're getting from Adriaan, Kate, or Geoff, as much as I love what each of them does.)

    This reminds of Charles Waldheim's assertion in a recent interview that landscape urbanism is not so much an attempt to generate a new way of working as an after-the-fact theorizing about a shift that already happened. Specifically:

    These are not theories that we invent in the academy and then try to throw into practice. Quite the reverse: a part of landscape urbanism is trying to theorize, after the fact, transformations that have already happened in practice. Over the last 20 years, as architects and urban designers struggled with urban form, complex remediation techniques, ecological challenges, and sustainable building techniques, landscape architects were increasingly recognized for the skill set that they bring to the project team. I realized landscape urbanism was going to take off when I saw that, if you were in the suburbs outside St. Louis or Chicago, and you had 15 professionals in your firm, and if you were doing what urban planners used to do, you were probably a landscape architect.

    I'm not sure I buy that (do landscape architects designing suburbs really have the kind of agency that landscape urbanists want to claim for the profession?), but it's an intriguing suggestion.

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  4. One other example springs to mind and it speaks to the agency of writing; the work that Rich Haag had to do in the 60's and 70's in order to make possible the idea of a public park at the gasworks was phenomenal and changed the way we work.

    but you're right, at the moment the landscape writing lags far behind the anthropologists, ecologists, and geographers in terms of writing about contemporary issues for a wider audience in a compelling manner. Perhaps we can learn from the geographer who just put out that book you noted- The New North. Supposed to be excellent.

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