Saturday, March 15, 2008

Landscape Architecture without LAs

A recent reference on Treehugger pointed me to Bernard Rudolfsky's 1964 book Architecture without Architects led me to direct this line of inquiry to the landscape profession. Rudolfsky reconnected building with the stability of traditional, 'non-pedigreed', design (quoted via Treehugger): "...vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles. It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection."

:: image via Treehugger

There has definitely been a long history of writings on traditional habitation in the architectural sense. There is also a good deal of scholarship associated with the indigenous and non-designed landscapes throughout history. This encompasses historical landscape interventions, but also our more recent cultural leanings towards shaping our spaces.

When the topic of the vernacular landscape comes up, I immediately turn to the writings of J.B. Jackson, who defined the concept in relation to the field of landscape architecture for many, including myself. The seminal tome, from 1984, is obviously 'Discovering the Vernacular Landscape' which in classic Jackson style is imminently readable with a subtle depth. Always a pleasure to dig through notes of Jackson, I've unearthed some of the gems (and trust me, there are a LOT of gems):

:: image via Yale University Press

“Only very rarely is there a glimpse of the history of the landscape itself, how it was formed, how it has changed, and who it was who changed it, and even more rarely does landscape research produce any speculation about the nature of the American landscape.” (p. xi)

“…I suspect that it is by studying the vernacular that we will eventually reach a comprehensive definition of landscape and of landscape beauty.” (p.xii)

"Environmental designers, I have noticed, avoid the word landscape and prefer land or terrain or environment or even space when they have a specific site in mind. Landscape is used for suggesting the esthetic quality of the wider countryside.” (p.3-4)

“It follows that no landscape can be exclusively devoted to the fostering of only one identity. …utopias where everyone is civic-minded, and there are many descriptions of the delights of living in harmony with nature as certain pretechnological societies presumably did. But we sense that these visions are not true to human nature as we know it, and that these landscapes can never be realized; and that is why many of use find utopian speculations unprofitable.” (p.12)

“Change in itself is not out of the ordinary; every cultural landscape has evolved, sometimes violently, more often slowly, over the centuries. What differs here is that we are able to watch the transformation as it takes place; able to record it and even to understand some of its signs.” (p.67)

Touching back on the Vernacular, in this case focussed on dwelling, in a chapter in the book, should be required reading for anyone who utters the term. One poignant concept is that of labelling versue truth, particular of 'vernacular': "This definition is largely the product of architects and architectural historians, hence the emphasis on form and building techniques and the relative neglect of function or of the relationships to work and community." (p. 85)

Jackson further continues, lamenting the current environmental design: "Compared to traditional, pretechnological dwellings ours are spiritually and culturally impoverished. Our almost uncontrollable love of making ‘environments’ – never stronger than now – compels us to create in our houses as well as in our cities environments almost entirely without content.” (p.87)

Finally, in this summary and the book itself, an essay entitled 'Concluding with Landscapes': "The greater the number of landscapes I explored, the more it seemed that they all had traits in common and that the essence of each was not its uniqueness but its similarity to others. It occurred to me that there might be such a thing as a prototypal landscape, or more precisely landscape as a primordial idea, of which all these visible landscapes were merely so many imperfect manifestations." (p.147)

And the meat of some of Jackson's theory, consisting of Landscapes One, Two, and Three, which form an evolution of thinking and interpretation of the vernacular. Landscape One being essentially the medieval landscape which is formed by intermingling of spaces and forms without particular organizational qualities. Landscape Two, or the Renaissance, consists of single purposed designed landscapes and "... sets great score on visibility; that is why we have that seventeenth-century definition of landscape as ‘a vista or view of scenery of the land’ – landscape as a work of art, as a kind of supergarden.” (p.152)

Landscape Three is the emphemeral 'place' we discuss and strive for, requiring not just space but the connection to humanity: "…to a far greater degree, we derive our identity from our relationship with other people, and when we talk about the importance of place, the necessity of belonging to a place, let us be clear that in Landscape Three place means the people in it, not simply the natural environment.” (p.155)

I could go on for volumes - but it's better to read for oneself, and I would encourage looking at all of the writings, which are still fresha and relevant. The concept of Landscape Two consists of our cultural need for 'objects' still gets in the way of our creation of 'places'. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they rarely come together as planned by the designer.

A companion later work of Jackson is 'A Sense of Time, A Sense of Place' published in 1994, (he died in 1996) which delves into historical roles of landscape. In Jackson's typical note of positivity, he ends the preface not with dispair, but a sense of hope in this reconnection with our past: "In time, we will find our way and rediscover the role of architecture and man-made forms in creating a new civilized landscape. It is essentially a question of rediscovering symbols and believing in them once again." (p.viii)

This work investigates, amongst other things (via Amazon): "...time and movement rather than place and permanence, Jackson examines the new vernacular landscape of trailers, parking lots, roads, and shopping malls, and traces the development of dwellings in New Mexico from prehistoric pueblo villages to mobile homes."

It reminds me of newer investigations into cultural ephemera, such as the fantastic essays in 'Blue Monday', specifically the site:nonsite:quartzsite project and the annual migration and inhabitation of the City of Quartzite, Arizona during the Gem Festival. Somehow I feel as if AUDC's founders Varnelis and Sumrell have taken Jackson's spirit of the vernacular in action - and reinvigorated it to a new crowd of landscape theorists and designers.

:: Quartzsite, Arizona - image via BLDGBLOG

Another resource is the collection edited by Paul Groth and Todd W. Bresi, entitled 'Understanding Ordinary Landscapes', a cultural geographers view of landscapes - with a "...focus on the history of how people have used everyday space – buildings, rooms, streets, fields, or yards – to establish their identity, articulate their social relations, and derive cultural meaning.”

One of my favorite quotes is via geographer Pierce Lewis (in Groth & Bresi, p.4-5): "...'If we want to understand ourselves, we would do well to take a searching look at landscapes.' The human landscape is an appropriate source of self-knowledge, according to Lewis, because it is '...our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, even our fears.'"

This is further expanded to design and personal taste in the work of one of my heroes, Joan Nassauer, and the work on the aesthetics of ecological design, most notably the work in Placing Nature: Culture and Landscape Ecology, and the perhaps even more influential essay from Landscape Journal: "Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames," which posits that ordinary views and attitudes towards landscapes have strong impacts on the success and failure of ecological design - and that there must be knowledge and application of these ideas by designers in order to meet people's aesthetic expectations.

The recent Walker Art Center show of the New Suburban Landscape reinforced these ideas as well - tying our cultural baggage to the ways in which we continue to degrade ourselves and the land. Returning to Jackson for a second, a quote via Wikipedia reinforces this thought process: "The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes and seek to understand them, the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence and that that beauty derives from the human presence."

:: Angela Strassheim (Untitled) - image via Walker Art Center

The concept of 'vernacular' encompasses not only our interpretation of landscape, but serves as a differentiator for design. From an oft-quoted National Park Service study, referenced in a document from California DOT, regarding Identification of Historic Landscapes:

"In the early 1980s, the National Park Service identified four types of historic landscapes: sites, vernacular landscapes, ethnographic landscapes, and designed landscapes. For the purposes of cultural resources survey identification, landscapes can now be divided more simply into two basic types: designed (consciously created to reflect a design theory or aesthetic style) or vernacular (developed or evolved through function or use), by answering the question of why a landscape looks as it does. Sites and ethnographic landscapes can be identified as a subset of either a vernacular or a designed landscape."

This differentiation of designed and vernacular is the crux of any conversation on the issue. The issue with landscape versus architecture is that it is much more difficult to discern the style and substance in landscape, as it is caught in the paradox of using the same materials in which it is referencing. A building is taking materials (both natural and man-made) and applying them in formalistic ways. Landscape is more subtle, with varying degrees of legibility and comprehension (or even base understanding that things landscape don't necessarily mean 'nature').

:: Designed Nature, Back Bay Fens - image via Wikipedia

The other side of the vernacular that differs somewhat from architecture, is the relative safety of 'gardening' and 'landscape' - and the fact that most people feel comfortable tackling these outdoor design and construction - with varying results (i.e. the good, bad, and ugly). Few would stretch to build a house without an expert, whether that is an architect or more likely a builder. How many of these people don't hesitate to manipulate the earth and ecology without expertise or even a horticulturist?

A world of landscape without landscape architects may be a true touchstone to the way we think and live. It will incorporate the ideals and as Lewis states, '...become our unwitting autobiography...", but will lack the true essence of the human condition. To create and build with conscience, knowledge, and poetry - and to translate the wishes of humanity into places that provide joy, healing, and beauty for all species. That makes it a viable and truly innovative endeavor.

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