Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Landscape Criticism

A great ongoing series of posts on Urban Omnibus delves into one of those topics that seems missing from the dialogue in landscape architecture -- that of real criticism regarding the profession. I don't mean the type of mindless carping that happens based on polarities of viewpoint or in response to the profession being declared 'dead'. For the most part, the concept of criticality seems absent from most thought processes, project work, review, engagement, discussion or interaction, save the occasional provocative essay or graduate theory class.

The editorials focus on the big 'A' that has typified design of building objects (i.e. Architecture) rather than more broadly encompassing little 'a' architecture that I feel discusses a wider range of design. As mentioned on the opening part of the discussion by Andrew Blum, 'On Criticism', the key question is scope in terms of that particular professional lens:
"Is architecture criticism still architecture criticism? Is it still – if it ever was – about merely architecture? Or do the forces that change the built environment come from a broader toolkit: from urban planning, certainly, but also from the more engineering-heavy realms of infrastructure, or more policy-heavy realms of politics?"

Big 'A' architecture criticism seems to be at a crossroads - wondering in this context: 'Where Next?'. This seems driven by a perceptible shift to a new expanded era of urbanism and infrastructure and a continued disengagement from starchitecture and its inherent lack of depth. This is where the interdiscplinary and less-building-centric 'small 'a' architecture (of which landscape architecture and urbanism exist) is uniquely suited for this scale and scope. Aside from just neo-infrastructural systems or new, better versions of sustainability, this shift offers the opportunity for landscape architecture to insert themselves fully into this arena and fully embrace a dynamic new era of professional relevance. The question is, do we still continue on our current path of tepid critical inquiry, or do we embrace the need for self-consciousness as a way not of marginalizing ourselves but as a method for expanding our reach and relevance.

The need for art is not to be downplayed, as it the poetic is just as important as the technical. The difference is that it isn't a binary position as we have seen it, over the past half century slipping into a new versions of the art v. nature debate that has sustained the majority of landscape architecture criticism of thinking. As mentioned in Diana Lind's followup 'On Criticism 2' the dichotomy was best expressed in the broad viewpoints of Herbert Muschamp and Jane Jacobs - both in New York but worlds apart in ideology: "Jane promoted common-sense principles and ideas. You shouldn’t put a highway through the middle of SoHo; a street with broken windows looks unsafe and thus will encourage crime. Herbert, on the other hand, championed risk-taking — in architecture, in writing, in life." Lind expands that point by reinforcing the tomy, particularly in discussion less of building per se (Muschamp; Big 'A') and the idea of context (Jacobs, small 'a'):

"Architecture criticism has become too much of a discussion of form and ability, and not enough about context. We wouldn’t dare call Jane Jacobs an “architecture critic” now — but she wrote about how buildings function in a society. What Jane and Herbert didn’t do was write about architects. They both used the built environment to comment on how it symbolized something more profound about society. As architecture criticism has been pushed further to the outskirts of regular arts coverage, we architecture critics can’t further isolate the discussion by writing solely about an architect’s talent or a particular building’s aesthetics. Maybe it will no longer be a matter of choice. How can we write about singularity in this time of populism and interconnectedness?"

This idea of context, populism, and interconnectedness is the foundation of the landscape idea, so the ability for us to address bigger issues that . While a beautiful project gives us hope and makes us sometimes forget our trouble, does it really do anything in this larger context worthy of our praise. Alec Appelbaum 'On Criticism 3' delves somewhat into the, discussing this lack of context in relation to larger factors like climate change: "You’d expect those of us who “see” urban design to highlight projects that foster dialogue and blunt climatic calamity.Yet too often we acclaim renderings that airbrush conflicts out of urban scenes – like Rem Koolhaas’ mischievous new midrise, or Steven Holl’s constellation-like Shenzen experiment. Who will flag insidious design choices... and challenge them?"

It's interesting that Koolhaas and Holl are pulled into this argument in this particular way. Not that they aren't still significant big 'A' style practitioners, but compared to a Liebskind or Gehry, they represent a more robust side of architecture that is less focused on the building that has expanded into the realm of the urban and contextual. It's also telling that many of the more vocal and articulate writers on the concepts of landscape urbanism seem to be architects (as opposed to planners or landscape architects) many riffing on some of the conceptual terrain laid out by Koolhaas. That isn't to say some voices are out there such as James Corner, Elizabeth Meyer, Richard Weller, and Kristina Hill (to name but a few) are expanding the number of landscape voices out in the media. These and others have laid out a foundation of thought that is slowly starting to find a voice and some application in actual project work. Is this getting addressed in the large discussions (i.e. media) of landscape architecture, beyond fawning over the High Line or parsing the latest graphics from a high-profile design competition? Even our main-stream criticism is relatively hollow, consisting of question of technique over larger questions of relevance.

The stars are aligned
an opportunity for the profession to step up and occupy some of this rich terrain. The transformation of the architectural scope beyond building, the focus on urbanism and infrastructure as more appropriate systems for building and growing, and the acknowledgment of the importance of context all lead towards a more expansive role of landscape architecture in the dialogue. While we as LAs seem to content to give more and more ground to others more willing and articulate to map this vision out, perhaps it is time to step up and make ourselves heard. Ten years from now we will look back at this as a critical turning point in the profession, and reflect on our ability to ... Could this be the marking of the end/beginning of an era?

Maybe this means the death of the profession in a traditional sense, but maybe that's not a bad idea?

More essays on Urban Omnibus to discuss, including a landscape-specific installment by faslanyc, so I'll split this into a couple of posts... stay tuned.

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