Friday, August 13, 2010

Goodbye, Landscape Urbanism BS Generator

Sad news... I got an email that the Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator (and the entire ruderal site for that matter) is no longer . One of my first posts mentioned what I think is a great, tongue-in-cheek reference for the overly wordy, obfuscatorily verbose - particularly in terms of the word bank of the early landscape urbanism writings (that's you James Corner, along with many others).

It got me thinking about the state of writing (or content) in the landscape and urbanism spheres, and how the factors of 'good points simply written' are often masked as some high-brow pseudo-academic blabber, that's mostly 'no point overly wrought'...

So why do we subject ourselves to this willingly (both as people doing the writing and as those reading it). Is it that we need this jargon and thesaurus-led wordiness to accurately portray the cutting-edge concepts of which we speak? Look at the evolution just in the LU triad from the important yet painful 'Recovering Landscape' (1999) to the heady and engaging 'Landscape Urbanism Reader' (2006) to the pager turning 'Large Parks' (2007) showing an evolution of published LU discussion over time and a shift from the academic to the much more subdued. There's obviously an economic element in play, as I'm sure the latter two books well outsold the first due both to breadth and accessibility.

While simplicity is good, there's definitely different audiences and they must be kept in mind when writing even within the same audience niche. A good example is one of the better books I've read in a while - 'The Fundamentals of Landscape Architecture', by Tim Waterman. A primer on the profession, I liked it not for groundbreaking thoughts, but just for quality content and focus on what the profession is about - augmented with concise text, explanations of terms, and great graphic content. It's a superb book - and honestly I was quite bored by it... mostly because I am not the target audience for the writing. Anyone new to the profession or looking to get involved in landscape architecture should read it though... it's fantastic.

While simple is a good goal, and some ideas can't be over-simplified, the flip side of this is the publication of what can only be described as a 'planning document'... consisting of a laundry list of terms and ideas that have only been loosely categorized. The most recently example of this I've encountered is 'Agricultural Urbanism' by de la Salle & Holland et. al. Experienced in the ins and outs of planning and design for urban agriculture, the book is flat - reading like the results of a brainstorming session with little in terms of synthesis (and dry as hell to boot). It's a great concept with great info but lacks any sort of poetry that makes reading it much fun.

Another parallel example of a new type of book is the 'behind the curtains' look at process. Publication of 'Above the Pavement, the Farm!' by Andraos and Wood - takes a radically different tack in describing the process of idea generation, design and implementation for the very cool Public Farm 1 display in NYC. Rather than over-theorize or plannerized it, they use an ongoing interview format with jump cuts from those involved dropping nuggets of commentary in what can only be described as a shotgun manner throughout the book. The result: take a great project and I'm sure a competent team of designers and builders, and make them all look trite and silly in the context of snippets and quotes rather than exposing anything interesting or useful to the reader. While I love the idea of a mass-market size book for displaying project specific info - more of a mini-monograph, (although $20 is quite a pricetag) - the approach of ongoing narrative thread is just plain awful.

The more challenging ideas have a different, less information driven role than the above examples. I think there's an innate challenge to these works that makes them more alluring - the fact that rather than merely reading and retaining information (i.e. getting it) we have to strain, work, and pain over the writing, concepts, language - in order to appreciate it on a more significant level of understanding. Currently, I'm re-reading some of the writings of my favorite author, David Foster Wallace, who unfortunately offed himself - keeping the rest . and it's interesting to see the parallels in the verbose in literature vs. that in the academic planning and/or design fields. For all of it's entertainment value, DFW's metafiction is often obtuse, overtly dense, and just plan mean (as anyone with the gall to finish Infinite Jest knows)... as a construct unto itself, that's the point.

So maybe some of the writings become analogous to the self-referential metafiction, a sort of 'metaurbanism' that includes the complexities and chaos of the urban condition in describing itself - giving it not just a message but a significance all in it's own right. I think this is fine, if that's acknowledged that this is the case.
The problem I see is when the verbosity is a mask for having little or nothing new/important/relevant to say (which is arguable with anything depending on context)?

Good ideas (or stories), no matter what they are about, can be described in an accessible manner in simple language, right? What compels the need to wrap the ideas in a cloak of intellectual camouflage but the 'utter lack of ideas'? I'm sure we have examples we can think of, but I'll throw out 'Integral Urbanism' by Nan Ellin as my example of a book that promises much but delivers very little in terms of anything resembling new or interesting ideas.... Again with context, another reader may read the same book and be totally blown away with insights. It's just that variable.

Any others folks would like to throw on the proverbial burn pile? Well, I'm not sure how a quick comment about the bullshit generator led to a treatise on some recent books - but well, who cares.
Nonetheless, even with the different media out there (and the loss of the LU BS Generator), we say 'Long live our ability to: 'enable interstitial networks' and the like... I'm sure the concepts and jargon will live on, as the verbosity=intelligence element is still going strong in academic writing, less so in technical books - and particularly (peculiarly?) in pseudo-intellectual blog world where editors are scarce, and the audience is mostly undefin(able)? A range of media still thrives. Words, ideas, concepts, media... both good and bad, frustrating and succinct - I still love it all, whatever the form or density...


  1. I'm just wrapping up writing a review of The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure by Kelly Shannon & Marcel Smets for Landscape Journal. It's a provocative book because it doesn't say enough. I'll be posting the full review once the journal is out in a few months...

  2. Excellent topic. I googled: "urban planning theory, so much intellectual bull shit". Refreshing to read your article.


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