Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LAs + Plants

Ok, this is not another post about James Corner (but it does have some more images). Instead, there were some observations from a couple of recent comments that came from 'Corner(ing) the Market' a few posts back that I thought worthy of throwing out into the world and seeing what grew. The commentary was particularly aimed at some comments from Susan Szenasy of Metropolis. I mentioned that Metropolis seems to be covering more landscape-related materials, as well as the fact that Ms. Szenasy made some seemingly disparaging or clueless commentary about our fine field.

:: James Corner's Beyond Building A-Z, Venice Biennial - image via Lisa Town

'Wes' mentioned the lack of understanding of the profession: "I was appalled at Susan's comments coming from a respected design journalist and editor in chief of Metropolis magazine. There's much to criticize about the field of landscape architecture and the direction it is going; but she clearly has no concept of even what landscape architects do!"

:: Detail of Corner's corner - image via Lisa Town

'Argyle' followed up with a different story from a panel at the 2008 ASLA Conference (here's an edited snippet): "Susan Szenasy hosted a morning general session at the ALSA conference in Philly last month... essentially she told a story about being on a site with several LAs and only one of them could ID a plant when she asked about one ...Kathryn Gustafson ... took the comment to heart and made the reply; Gustafson put Szenasy in her place by letting her know that LAs are not horticulturists. We have to know such a broad spectrum of details across so many related disciplines that we can't possibly be expected to know plants that well. She said LAs are constantly put in the position of team building… bringing together specific professionals such as geologists and horticulturalists... and trying to use their specific knowledge to form/transform space."

So the question that is begging to be answered:
Are landscape architects synthesizers of knowledge from plant and other specialists, or can they be specialists in plants themselves?

I know this is one of those age old questions, much like the 'what do we call ourselves' or 'art vs. science' that seem to crop up occasionally and spark some interesting online debate. To me this is a more complex question...that has as much diversity of reason as the profession has facets. The amount of knowledge, of course, is based on what you do along the continuum of landscape architectural practice.

On one hand Gustafson is right on... we are broadly competant and able to bring together design, science, social, and political elements in coming up with dynamic spaces. This macro-scale view does not rely on knowledge of a particular species of plant, but on the balancing of hundreds of variables. Does a single plant here or there matter? Can you do this work and remain a plants expert?

In the middle ground, there's professionals working a variety of scales and project typologies - some which tap into the complexity of group and system dynamics, and others that work at site and detail scale. This jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none paradox makes us need to be able to see big picture dynamics, understand complex systems, and also prepare detailed documents to make these a reality. Can we switch scales and do each of these well - or do we marginalize the entirety by the impossibility of this massive undertaking?

On the fine grain scale, there a common cop-out for landscape architecture to remain somewhat ignorant of the actual physical tools we use in our daily practice (i.e. soils, plants, materials, et.al.) There is also an often equal countervalent patronizing tone from the 'plant' people that LAs have no clue about plants. Both are patently disrupting to the profession and process.

In the end, to be work, any of these process must become the human-scale reality of all of that broad based synthesizing and hand-waving... it's the reality that exists as the actual built product. This is the stage where it is vital that a project works. So as we ponder this... there seem to be a million more questions... Are you a specialist or generalist? Do you know plants, or do you farm this knowledge out in specialized cases (or every case)? Is there an implication that a landscape architect must be a plant pro, or does this oversimplify and reduce the profession to it's former 'shrubbing up' status? And on... and on.

Anyone have any thoughts?


  1. We are not nor should ever have to be plant identifiers. The beauty of books is that all of the information needed in selecting growing mediums is available to us. An intimate knowledge of how these mediums will perform should never be dismissed. But with the organic quality of plants, part splendor and part challenge, how they react to a variety of microclimates will never be completely known.

    I've often tried to theorize why so many outside the design world, and even several architects continue to misunderstand our profession. I think part of it has to do with scale. When one looks up at a tall building, pop culture has told them that an architect designed it. When asking this question they're standing in landscape architecture, but the inherent human scale of landscape architecture doesn't as often impose the same question of "How did this get here"?

    To me there in lies part of the beauty of the profession and the frustration. The ability to design spaces that are intuitive while not being insistent, but this very attribute doesn't force a need for understanding and perhaps a reason so few know the difference between landscaper and landscape architect.

    As more commentary on landscape architecture permeates its way through the peripheries of the design world, which your Landscape+Urbanism, Trevi's Pruned, my site Design Under Sky, and several others are accomplishing, the understanding of the profession will one day reach the masses.

    Much Love,


  2. But besides what others think of us, what about what we think of ourselves? I think there can be a lot of pressure within our profession, a lot of it self-inflicted, that we do need to know so much.

    Personally, I don't see the lack of specialization a bad thing. In fact, I think it's wonderful! There is so much that we CAN do and so many areas that we can choose to focus on and that's why people in our profession tend to be pretty good team players. Grab a handful of landscape architects and chances are, each one will have a different focus and together we are stronger.

    And with those choices, that means that we are free to follow our passions and exercise our creativity. This also makes us flexible in that we keep learning and growing and changing.

    Actually, we a are a lot like plants...

  3. I agree with the idea that there are surely specialists in our field who are plant experts, but as it was well written above… I don’t see many plant books on my shelf authored by landscape architects. That alone is very telling.

    Perhaps our profession is going through a slight metamorphosis. I see landscape architects as plant/ecology specialists becoming more important as landscape reclamation becomes a commonly provided service in firms. It’s not the foundation of our profession though.

    Maybe there’s an alternative approach: How can we better help ecologists and horticulturalists bring their significant knowledge to our built environments? (built-natural environments?) A relationship needs to be formed there. In a hopeful future, when our past ecological transgressions can be mitigated by new understanding in ecology and natural process, will those professions turn to landscape architects to get those ideas on the ground? ---- We shouldn’t claim to be the authority on their work, just as we’ve found an outlet for persistent complaint in not wanting architects to be the authority on our work.

    The issue is more about the design community's perception of what we do. Although, that dialog has been beat to death as well. I’m not about to rehash the ‘science vs design’ conversation… but in the end, as was mentioned, it’s often (hopefully) a built product. This profession is a design profession.

    I believe a single plant here or there does matter in many situations, but our profession is not defined by having that knowledge at the tip of our tongues. It’s defined by our ability to perform the required research or to carefully manage the thought process in choosing that correct plant. In designing landscapes, our set of decision variables go far beyond ecological process and biological classification – into that murky world of aesthetics.

    I would actually like to know if there are LAs out there working in an aesthetic vacuum… a sincere absence of aesthetics in their work? Even in hardcore landscape reclamation, healing the land, reintroducing natural process… aesthetic variables are considered.

    Alan Berger’s (MIT) P-REX project, which I’m completely fascinated with (part of the foundation for a new arm to our profession), is based on the concept of “Systemic Design” – building natural process into designed landscapes, as opposed to relying on cosmetic modifications. It is part of that metamorphosis, part of the Landscape Urbanism shift. But I don’t believe landscape architects should not be the authority on natural process. We should be the authority on bringing natural process into the human scale.

    At any rate, as far as authority goes, most LAs coming out of school know more about all the tools and options in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop than they do about plants - and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But they’re hardly the authority on graphic design.

  4. Jacks of all trades and masters of none - both a blessing and a curse.


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