Saturday, May 31, 2008

Reading List: Nature, Landscape, and Building for Sustainability

I'm in the midst of reading a group of new books recently released that I picked up online. The first Nature, Landscape, and Building for Sustainability, edited by William S. Saunders, is the sixth in a series of Harvard Design Magazine Readers (published by Univ. of Minnesota). This entry in the series specifically focusing on landscape and our inevitable struggles with nature versus culture - amongst a range of other articles that have run periodically through the Harvard Design Magazine over the years.

:: image via Amazon

Ok, for full disclosure, I'm actually re-reading most of this information, as HDM was nice enough to publish PDFs of a number of these articles previously - which made me excited, but a little bummed when I got the book. Not for the content, but a feeling of lacking new info. It is nicely packaged in a small-format paperback which is great for reading on the bus. The following is my in-process view, as well as the reflection on the work as a whole.

As mentioned in the introduction, in a familiar refrain from Robert L. Thayer, Jr. - we've messed up... bigtime. "Humans have torn themselves from the rest of nature, and sustainable design is the only way to repair the rift." (vii). While it's arguable that 'sustaining' will repair anything - Thayer does mention that this is not exactly the point of the book, going on to mention that "...the interacting notions of nature, landscape, and sustaining design at times might seem simple, but they often slip sideways, like a blob of mercury, when pinned down." (vii)

Thus the fifteen essays in this book are part of the discussion, although not a solution, merely, "...recognizes a human rift with nature, strives to understand its cause, contemplates a resolution, and offers meaningful steps toward reconciliation." (vii) And that's just the first page.

Thayer continues to introduce the essays, outlining the various works by contributing authors. Part I consists of a grouping entitled 'Imagining Nature' - and includes a cadre of popular authors such as Bill McKibben (Ch. 2) 'Humans Supplant God, Everthing Changes', Lucy R. Lippard (Ch.3) 'Too Much: The Grand Canyon(s)', and Michael Pollan (Ch.6) 'Beyond Wilderness and Lawn' - discuss power, scale and lawn in the American landscape pysche. These essays are typical well written - quality essays by talented individuals - and I particularly liked Pollan writing about something else other than food (don't get me wrong, I love the food stuff - but it's nice to see that lens pointed elsewhere)

Elsewhere in Part I, essays by Albert Borgmann (Ch.1) gives an [literally] exhaustive overview of mystical nature and our need to return to this state in his essay 'The Destitution of Space: From Cosmic Order to Cyber Disorientation'. This part redeems with a couple of fine essays by Catherine Howett (Ch.4) 'What Do We Make of Nature Now?' and John Beardsley (Ch.5) 'Kiss Nature Goodbye: Marketing the Great Outdoors'. Beardsley tackles the homogenization of nature as packaged by stores such as REI, and the impacts of our created artificial nature on our psyche.

An interesting discussion from Howett, amongst other things, is reference to the conceptual ideas of Robert Smithson, and how (tangentially at least) his views on environmental art shaped the profession of landscape architecture - even though most LAs did not actively know about his work and writings. Upon his untimely death in 1973 at the age of 35, Howett explains:

"It is safe to say that few people in the environmental design professions -- few architects, even fewer landscape architects -- were reading ArtForum in those years; thus, the import of Smithson's death at thirty-five, when he was grappling philosophically and artistically with questions of how human making relates to nature, was not appreciated by those to whom, whether they knew it or not, it mattered msot. It mattered not because Smithson was 'digging through the histories,' as he described it, searching out the sources of how we came to think about nature as we do, examining alternative conceptions that might help us to think more perspicaciously about the relationship between human culture and the rest of nature. His death mattered because he took sharp aim at the romantic myth that sees nature as ineffeably grand, good, and godly, best encountered alone and in quiet out in the wilderness or at least out in the country." (p.45-46)

Part II: Designing (for) Nature, delves into action (sort of). A couple of essays to start span policy and ethics - including one by Rossana Vaccarino (Ch.7) 'Nature Used and Abused...', and Susannah Hagan (Ch.8) 'Five Reasons to Adopt Environmental Design'. Vaccarino delves into Gifford Pinchot's ideology of sustainable forestry and our notions of nature as a tabula rasa - devoid of human occupation and meaning. Hagan follows this up with a treatise on the difficulty of capturing the movement and dynamism of natural processes.

The thread continues with essays by architect Peter Buchanan (Ch.9) 'Invitation to the Dance...', which discusses the impact and potential of sustainable projects like BedZED, as well as Robert France's (Ch.10) reverse homage to Thayer in 'Green World, Gray Heart? The Promise and Reality of Landscape Architecture in Sustaining Nature.' France definitely strikes a nerve in the LA as artist versus LA as ecological designer debate, by focusing on poignant combinations of both in tandem.

The idea of landscape in urban areas comes out in Kristina Hill's (Ch.11) essay 'Green Good, Better, and Best: Effective Ecological Design in Cities', which explores green infrastructure as a holistic idea - not just a collection of disparate places. Using Berlin, and the work of Herbert Dreiseitl, as well as projects in Seattle as examples - she explores the question of "...if these designs have the potential to be implemented widely enough to make a broad difference to the state of urban ecosystems." (p.145) She sums the process up, simply, in the following quote:

"The recent focus on the ecology of infrastructure systems in Berlin, the cities of the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere supports the very real possibility of eventually creating a new urban ecosystem. In my view, that is the central challenge that ecological design must accept in all cities, if it is going to achieve anything of real importance." (p.155)

Other essays with some interesting technical insights are Michael Addington (Ch.12) 'Energy, Body, Building: Rethinking Sustainable Solutions', Niall Kirkwood (Ch. 13) 'Here Come the Hyperaccumulators! Cleaning Toxic Sites from the Roots Up', and Peter del Tredici (Ch.14) 'Neocreationism and the Illusion of Ecological Restoration'. I had read both Kirkwood and del Tredici's essay's previously and both were great the second time. Addington looks to human nature - notably our sensory inputs, as inspiration for design, and "...compels us to base design practice on the human as a living organism, not as a bureaucratic automaton." (p.xii)

This fits nicely into the final word, a work from art historian John Beardsley (Ch.15) 'A Word for Landscape Architecture,' provides apt summary of the concept and context of all of these writings. "

"Landscape architecture is neither art nor science, but art and science; it fuses enviromental design with biological and cultural ecology. Landscape architecture aims to do more than produce places for safe, healthful, and pleasant use; it has become a forum for the articulation and enactment of individual and societal attitudes toward nature. Landscape architecture lies at the intersection of personal and collective experiences of nature; it addresses the material and historical aspects of landscape even as it explores nature's more poetic, even mythological, associations." (p.186)

Wow, takes your breath away... and that's not even the payoff yet. After some discussion of the work of, amongst others, Peter Latz, and the fantastic Landscape Park Duisburg North - Beardsley gives some stature to the profession - even if we as professionals don't see this potential. Read on:

"Long overshadowed by architecture and the fine arts, landscape architecture is producing remarkable transformations in our public environments. The profession is maturing; conceptually, it is more complex. It is developing the artistic and technical tools to address extraordinary social and environmental demands. The ways in which we understand and represent our relationship with nature are enormously important in the expression of culture. The ways in which we meet the challenges of urban sprawl, open-space preservation, resource consumption and waste, and environmental protection and restoration are crucial to the quality of our lives - maybe even to the survival of our species. It is landscape architecture that confronts these challenges. I wish to make an extreme statement, if only to make an emphatic one: landscape architecture will prove the most consequential art of our time." (p.196-197)

Yeah, I got goosebumps yet again from reading it that one more time. What a way to end this collection...

In summary, overall I'm a big fan of 'readers' as a way to summarize and gather a range of disparate thoughts into one volume to provide a span of experience for the reader. It seems in a single-author/concept book - the idea or voice is often stretched too thin to accomodate the weight (or cost) of publication - and thus it get's fleshed out in graphics, typography, or formatting to give it the necessary gravitas. In this case, the essays chosen were diverse - allowing for many points, concise - giving a taste and most often leaving you satisfied, and coherent - there were a few turns into academic drudgery, but for the most part were a quick and fun read. This would be a great companion for a theory studio - and one worth a read from practioners as well.

For another HDM read from the latest issue, check out Kristina Hill and Jonathan Barnett's article on 'Design for Rising Sea Levels'... good stuff - and probably in the next version of the reader... where it can be re-read again.

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