Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Landscape Criticism 3

The final essay 'On Criticism 6: On Bias in Criticism' comes from Stephen Rustow and completes what has been a really fun, if quick, review of the status and possibilities of landscape criticism inspired by Urban Omnibus. The concept of criticism is laid out as a 'revealing' to the larger public what the intentions and for lack of a better word, 'meaning' of a design is: "It is the first job of the critic to list and elucidate for a larger, non-professional public what those questions are; then to ask how, and how well, the project responds to those questions. Finally, the critic must ask what value those questions have in a larger context and whether they are the right questions to be asking at this moment in time."

This personal viewpoint opens up the idea of bias, as the critic is inserting themselves into the argument and taking a stance about some specific contexual or stylistic piece of the work. The goal is not to diminish the importance, but as stated, the critic must have a 'stance' that is well-founded and appropriate. While I'm not convinced that the audience (of the critic, not the work) is actually the 'non-professional public' which is somewhat of a dichotomy. While the users of the work are specifically that public, it is debatable whether the critic is writing to this particular audience - and if it even matters. Either way, perhaps it is the critic that informs the larger discussion within 'architecture' which can engage both the public (users) and the designer (author) in meaningful ways - perhaps just to connect the two is dialogue.

The idea of criticism of that which is 'bad' is an interesting dilemma. While the focus should no solely be on good or bad, there is the need to celebrate both sides - one as exemplars the other as learning moments. Each of these must come with appropriate context as gushing praise without foundation is equally as detrimental as derogatory remarks that are based on nothing tangible. Again this goes back to the question of audience - what is bad to one group may be good to another. Designers may be able to see the constructive criticism, whereas a less educated reader will just blindly say 'That's bad design'. Are they given the tools to make this interpretation for themselves, or is it just given to them from one viewpoint?

As case in point, I recently attended a meeting of green roof professionals where the idea of discussing project 'failures' was met with uncomfortable silence to downright anger. The crux was that anything negative was going to diminish our ability to grow the profession by making us look bad. My thought was that a dialogue about lessons learned removes the danger of making similar mistakes over and over, but also to learn how to get better, more efficient, and more technically solid. While it is hard to hear or discuss dissenting views, if any group is suited to this it is the design professions, which has education and practice based on criticism as a way to learn (a process which never stops for an entire lifetime). You learn to listen, accept that which is valid, interpret that which is directive, and dismiss that which is irrelevant (or perhaps hyperbolic).

Returning to bias, Rustow ends with the thought that contemporary criticism lacks the necessary distance to evaluate context in a meaningful way. Historical referents are great for providing necessary lessons from the past (thus the teaching of history in design schools) but critique of current work, within our messy and unexamined context, is still vital. Locally, we discuss often the work of Halprin in the sequence of connected parks in the south auditorium district - both in the context of today as well as the previous context in which they were built in the early 1970s. Viewpoints vary, opinions fly, and we all think of how landscapes change and culture changes and sometimes the relevancy of longevity of our work will be judged long after we die, as well as the moment if goes into the ground (or maybe earlier).

The connection is between all modes of discussion that span from today towards the past (which the late Howard Zinn shows us is subjective for sure) - all of which incorporates bias in good measure to be successful. Rustow ends:

"Criticism of course is but the first draft of history, not the thing itself. It is journalistic in the original Latin/Francophone sense of the word — ‘of today.’ Its historical aspirations, such as they are, can only be to serve as the raw material of some future, more dispassionate, analysis. But in exchange criticism can — must — make full claim to passion, to the convictions, enthusiasms and biases that animate discussion today, now, in full understanding that once our passions are spent they too will become the subject of more broadly contextual and quieter historical methods. Deprived of any pretense to history, criticism has nothing left but bias: without bias criticism is worthless."


  1. Really good post, Jason. I'm with you, that a critical discussion, as with the green roof one you mention, is most helpful when it includes the negative as well as the positive, particularly when the approach to landscape is a new one. Aside from the pure compositional aspects of landscape, part of this issue has to do with time-frame (how a landscape develops/changes/gains life or obsolescence over time), part of it has to do with use (how people use and enjoy a place), and part has to do with the elements and techniques used to build a design -- all of which ideally get addressed in a good critical discussion.

  2. Though this may already be quite evident, criticism needs to be self-reflective. From my understanding of criticism, though I may be wrong, is that it is not about wrong or right or good or bad but rather about demonstrating different perspectives and opening up possibilities for perspectives.

    In this way there is a possibility to create criticism of the contemporary. If criticism is going to be only of a historical subject, and not returned to the contemporary it is hard for me to see the social function of such a criticism.

  3. Dear Jason King,
    Thank you very much for this great post. During uncountable presentations at landscape architecture firms about modern green roof technology I realized that landscape architects have the tendency to reinvent the technology and spend endless time designing a simple extensive green roof which isn’t meant to be a designed “garden” from the beginning. Any “design” on extensive green roofs won’t sustain very long without high maintenance or without making it “intensive”. The ASLA green roof in DC is the best example of how not to do. Hardly any extensive green roof which is done/designed or engineered by a landscape architect serves the purpose of a functional, simple technical and inexpensive, long lasting solution. I do like working with Landscape architects but I don’t like their ignorance –or arrogance?- concerning the real purpose of the technology. Modern extensive green roof technology is standardized and highly efficient technology – why going to a car manufacturer and trying re-engineering and designing their cars when you get all what you want a dealer ship – including maintenance?
    In the history of modern green roof technology this development isn’t new at all. I feel bad when saying that -but as a matter of fact- it is so parallel to the German green roof history (like many other things in environmentally friendly design). In Germany there are more than 10 million square feet of new extensive green roof construction annually and none of these extensive green roofs involve landscape architects anymore – not needed – out! (I didn’t do that; the landscape architects did that by themselves).
    If landscape architects really want to chance that and really want to sustain in this market they have to find the ways to add great value to project – currently they are adding initial costs and tremendous follow-up costs which is destructive for the image of landscape architects and the entire implementation of modern green roof technology. Well, I mentioned that in each presentation and that is why I might not have many landscape architect friends left. I apologize when stepping toes – may be it helps to wake-up and emphasize the topic.

    Jorg Breuning

  4. Thanks for the comments... I agree that self-reflective thought is vital and seems lacking in contemporary landscape criticism... while historic critique seems to allow a bit more latitude (due to detachment over time) versus new work, which seems more focused on the compositional parts versus the process and context related to what they accomplish. faslanyc addressed this well in the approach that includes politics, political process, culture, temporality, and polemics - which seem an apt way to at least start.

  5. Jorg. Thanks much for the comments. I agree that the design professions tend to over-emphasize the design aspects (it's an occupational hazard) particularly in reference to the artistic. There are many roofs that require, per client expectations (ASLA HQ, California Academy of Sciences, Chicago City Hall), a higher level of artistic merit, but in terms of the overall potential of green roofing, these are the exceptions, not the rule.

    If we want to truly expand the overall number and quality of green roofs (much like the German model you mention) we need to have the examplary art-roofs, both also 100 fold as many simple utilitarian roofs that require less artistic design and more technical application.

    I do think that LAs have much to offer in terms of green roof design - even in the traditional sense. The concept of 'design' in this case is more akin to good technical competence (which to me is design as well), putting together an efficient system that is cost-effective, maintainable, appropriate, and locally adapted using local materials, plants, and irrigation technologies. LAs can provide the context.

    As green roofs become more of a commodity, many of the projects, maybe 80%, won't require and LA, nor would they be cost-effective for either the designer or client. The other 20% shouldn't be a more expensive and less successful version of the same thing, but a different species altogether, pushing boundaries of the artistic, ecological, and regional - providing examples to be amazed by, ones that work to lure local wildlife, or others that better use local resources in more sustainable ways.

  6. Jason,
    “Occupational hazard” is a great term and I guess in each profession there is an occupational hazard - at least when I read my earlier comments…
    I am approaching green roofs from a user, consumer and environmental perspective. This is based on my history in green roof installations including the City Hall in Chicago as an expert, consultant and installation trainer. It would be interesting to see this project without my expertise acting as a counterweight in this project. I very much agree to your comments regarding the higher level of artistic merit. This draws lots of attention to the technology and the designer. Unfortunately many designers (not only LAs) are more focused on the attention, own ego and some more LEED credits towards “innovation”.
    I think everybody or every professional group has an own “rating system” to measure the success of a green roof. Based on my “rating system” I learned for example that the more design, fanciness and experimentation the less environmental friendliness. Or LEED was a good start but now it is no help anymore for a sustainable development of this amazing technology without undergoing deep chances. LAs can help boosting the technology and changes but in my understanding this will be a rocky and bumpy road which means the necessity of extensive practical background (also in the education of LAs), defining different types and elements of green roofs and probably developing a “rating system” for types and elements, lessons learned on already many failed (in my understanding) projects in US but also in Europe (why doing the same mistakes?), accepting and boosting standardizations of the technology (doesn’t mean uniformity).
    Well – may be many different occupational hazards are able to create an all natural symbiosis?


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