Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading the Landscape: The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism

The next essay from the Landscape Urbanism Reader is by David Grahame Shane, entitled 'The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism'.  This essay builds on Waldheim's essay and further elaborates on the origins of the theory - with a broad take on the historical foundations and precedents around landscape urbanism as mentioned in the introductory text: “Shane surveys the growing body of literature attendant to landscape urbanism, while tracing the institutions and individuals implicated in the discourse, especially as they relate to the disciplinary formations and discourses of urban design.” (17)

As far as defining landscape urbanism, Shane mentions that the concept "has recently emerged as a rubric to describe the design strategies resulting in the wake of traditional urban forms.” (58) and echoes Waldheim in describing it as encompassing: "the practices of many designers for who landscape had replaced architectural form as the primary medium of citymaking.  This understanding of decentralized post-industrial urban form highlighted the leftover void spaces of the city as potential commons.” (57-58) Furthering this defintiion that provides a way out of the current methodologies of urban design practice.

“Landscape urbanists want to continue the search for a new basis of a performative urbanism that emerges from the bottom up, geared to the technological and ecological realities of the postindustrial world… implies an opportunity open urban design out beyond the current rigid and polarized situation to a world where the past building systems and landscape can be included as systems within urban design.” (65)
Shane mentions this in terms of creating new "recombinations and hybridizations, liberating the urban design discipline from the current, hopeless, binary opposition of past and present, town and country, in and out." (65)  but does mention that although filled with potential as noted above, "All of landscape urbanism’s triumphs so far have been in such marginal and ‘unbuilt’ locations.” (62)  This is another common refrain from critics of landscape urbanism, and it is worth noting that the ideas of contemporary urbanism and its potential solutions are very different in distant open spaces as opposed to dense urban fabric, which is valid, but also misses the point that the theory is attempting to address this situation, not, as many posit, blindly accepting sprawl as a given and deciding to operate within the residual post-industrial or generic Koolhaasian fields of landscape within the periphery.  Rather there is a residual fabric of corridors, edges, and other surfaces that can be re-engaged within this ideology.

:: Louisville Waterfront Park - image via

The precise operational dynamic of works of landscape urbanism is one thing - but to move beyond this and think of ways in which the concepts that interweave into practice is a different approach altogether.  The landscape urbanist project, if you would call it such, is addressing all of this (hence the term distiguished from the suburban), and Shane does explain that “The recent discourse surrounding landscape urbanism does not yet begin to address the issue of urban morphologies or the emergence of settlement patterns over time. The problems of this approach is its amnesia and blindness to preexisting structures, urban ecologies, and morphological patterns.” and concludes that “Landscape urbanists are just beginning to battle with the thorny issue of how dense urban forms emerge from landscape and how urban ecologies support performance spaces.” (63)

This essay is way to dense to capture in any detail, but does offer some thought provoking historical origins of theory spanning the last century.   The change in urban form and dynamics through this time period are exp
ressed by 'decompression', evolving from the ideas of Post-Fordist modes of production, deindustrialization leading to shrinking cities, and the resultant postmodern organization that "became obvious in the 1990s with the proliferation of sprawling cities, gated enclaves, residential communities, megamalls, and theme parks.” (59)

This context of contemporary urbanism is best captured by the provocatively wonderful 'City as an Egg' diagram from Cedric Price, which contrast three city morphologies "traditional, dense, ‘hard-boiled egg’ city fixed in concentric rings of development… the ‘fried egg’ city, where railways stretched the city’s perimeter in accelerated linear space-time corridors out into the landscape, resulting in a star shape… and the postmodern ‘scrambled egg city,’ where everything is distributed evenly in small granules or pavilions across the landscape in a continuous network.” (64)

:: City as an Egg - image via Archiable

A wide array of projects are included as examples.  Some are more obvious or oft-mentioned, such as the Parc de la Villette, Downsview, and Freshkills competitions, and also the East River Competition conducted by the Van Alen Institute.  There are some new ones, includingWest Market Square by West 8 (1994) which is a space owned, maintained and programmed by the city, but " which is also free at times to be occupied by local people of all ages, under the surveillance of cameras and local police.” (60) marking a new example of heterotropic space.  The New Town Competition entry from Koolhaas/OMA from 1987 is another precedent where the residential form is shaped by, in the words of Corner, "linear voids of nondevelopment." (60) hinting at the concept of privileged site over architectural form.

Other examples include the unbuilt Greenport Harborfront project in Long Island (1997), which is an example of  “the concept of ‘performative’ urbanism based on preparing the setting for programmed and unprogrammed activities on common land.” (59) which is reflective of some of the later work from Field Operations as well.  A built example of the idea, in a more architectural and site scale context, is the sculptural Osaka Ocean Liner Terminal by FOA, where the architects "turn the concept of the green roof into a dynamic, flowing, baroque parkland setting… Pier and park, two previously separate urban morphologies, are hybridized so as to become inseparable.” (65)

:: Yokahama Terminal - FOA - image via Matt Kingstreet

Shane references an even more extensive list of references, which provide some great historical precedents.   Many of these cover basic historical urbanism, such as the work of Kostof (The City Shaped, The City Assembled), history of the Western/US landscape by Slater and Conzen, and early 20th century writings on garden cities from Howard and regionalism, specifically 'Cities in Evolution' by Patrick Geddes from 1915.  Other writings include later writings of Lynch, Rowe, as well as McHarg's 'Design with Nature' and shifts to more contemporary discussions from Harvey and Soja for exploration of postmodern urbanism, writings from Guy Debord 'The Society of the Spectacle' from 1995 and the explorations by Garreau of the edge-city phenomenon from 1991.

::  Tyson's Corner Edge City

A fundamental aspect discussed by Shane is the connection to landscape ecology, specifically the work of Forman (Landscape Mosaics) and Forman & Godron (Landscape Ecology) and mentioning that its strength "is the consideration of the geographical landscape and the ecological cause-effect network in the landscape.”(61)  The connections of landscape ecology and its roots in Europe are important due to the differing relations between nature and culture (rather than just dealing with landscape sans humans).  As Shane elaborates:
"European land management principles merged with post-Darwinian research on island biogeography and diversity to create a systematic methodology for studying ecological flows, local biospheres, and plant and species migrations conditioned by shifting climatic and environmental factors (including human settlements.” (61)

Finally, the essays captures some of the more recent writings tied closely to LU theory, mentioning 'Stalking Detroit' (2001), 'Mississippi Floods' by Mathur & da Cunha (2000), 'Reclaiming the American West' by Berger (2002), 'Sub-urbanism and the Art of Memory' by Marot (2003), and 'Recovering Landscape' edited by Corner and published in 1999 - which i would consider a close precedent to the currrent discussion.  Stalking Detroit is also an important contribution, offering essays by Waldheim and Corner and provides context, within the prominent shrinking city model of Detroit for a changing city typology.  "After Ford' by Schumacher and Rogner, “provides a most convincing explanation for the relation between modern urbanism and Fordist economic imperatives, as well as the surreal spectacle of decay and abandonment found today in many North American industrial cities.” (57)

:: Shrinking Detroit - image via VIA Architecture

The work in Stalking Detroit, although unbuilt, provides some examples of potential operational methods of landscape urbanism.  One project discussed was Waldheim's 'Decamping Detroit', which illustrates a four stage process for recolonization of space in the shrinking city, including "Dislocation (disconnection of services); erasure (demolition and jumpstarting the native landscape ecology by dropping appropriate seeds from the air ); absorption (ecological reconstitution of part of the Zone with woods, marshes, and streams); and infiltration (the recolonization of the landscape with heteropic, villagelike enclaves.” (59)

 :: Decamping Detroit (Waldheim) - image via detroit disurbanism project

This context of deindustrialization and surburban sprawl is a consistent theme, moving away by necessity from the modernist planning ideology and including a different reading of the city, focus on urban morphology, activated with new strains of thinking from landscape ecology with a goal, as explained by Shane:  “A determination not to accept the readymade formulas of urban design, whether ‘New Urbanist’ or ‘generic’ urbanist megaforms a la Koolhaas.” (64)  The key this is a reversal of normal processes, which "opens the way for a new hybrid urbanism, with dense clusters of activity and the reconstitution of the natural ecology, starting a more ecologically balanced, inner-city urban form in the void.”(59)

Check out as well a longer version of this article from the Harvard Design Magazine (pdf) and I would highly recommend 'Recombinant Urbanism' from 2005 for an exhaustive study of urban modelling processes.


  1. Any reference to Ignasi Sola Morales in Shane’s essay, especially his concept of terrain vague? It would seem, especially given the importance of Stalking Detroit in the discussion, that it would figure somewhere in there.

    Have you done much thinking on the subject? In my mind, I remain a little unclear if that concept of terrain vague is one of the central concerns of landscape urbanism or simply was one of the many catalysts that has largely been pushed aside (which is fair enough- sometimes it’s time to move on). It seems to be more a concern of Waldheim’s than some other folks, but I sense that the general disengagement with the political aspect of vacant spaces of the city in most LU work leaves some room for bringing that point up again and again. That isn’t to say that LU theories and projects don’t map and project political dynamics to some degree, but they seem to be much more interested in economic and ecological aspects, considering the political aspect only as a means to an end.

  2. Shane mentions Sola Morales and Terrain Vague in passing as sort of a context which breeds LU theory:

    "Waldheim saw landscape urbanism, like landscape architecture, as an interstitial design discipline, operating in the spaces between buildings, infrastructural systems, and natural ecologies. In these context, landscape urbanism became a useful lens through which to view those 'unseen,' residual terrain vagues once inhabited by conceptual and land artists like Robert Smithson or advocated as marginal spaces worthy of attention by the architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubio." (59)

    It reminded me to post on the original Terrain Vague... I think designers tend to have an issue with terrain vague or indeterminacy in general echoed by de Sola-Morales (quoted from Center 14)

    "the role of the architect is inevitably problematic. Architecture's destiny has always been colonization, the imposing of limits, order, and form, the introduction into strange space of the elements of identity necessary to make it recognizable, identical, universal... they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magic of the obsolete into the realism of efficacy."

    In essence, designing within this context ruins the very nature of the terrain vague - giving it a shape, a label, a form. While landscape architects should be better equipped for this due to more experience with larger fields that require less formal organization, open-ended and constantly changing systems, there is still a disconnect in the actual agency - how it is employed - in order to employ 'creativity' while not leading to homogenization through validation.

    I don't consider this a failing, but rather an opportunity for further exploration. I'm equally intrigued by Foucault's heterotopias (discussed in Shane's book - Recombinant Urbanism) as interstitial pockets of freedom within controlled space. More on both of these topics for sure.

  3. thanks for the response. I've thought about the problematic role of the designer in those situations. I've been classifying it with the bombastic title "militarization of space" (meaning simply to make a territory of an environment).

    I actually think this is just as fundamental to landscape as to architecture, though Nam brought up a good point on my post on the subject. He suggested that the landscape/architectural project can be used to destabilize/deconstruct a territory (the environment with its controlling regime), a notion which is super interesting and optimistic (thank God for Nam). I agree that it is a rich field for speculation and research. To this end I've been exploring the theme under the "conscientizacao of the landscape" posts, which to me suggest that conceiving of urbanism as an educational project is one way to interrogate and even undermine this tendency. This line of thinking has led to the importance and agency of guides and manuals- as opposed to or in conjunction with capital projects. It's something I'm only now chipping away at, but am interested in.

    Looking forward to more.

  4. Would just like to say that I'm really enjoying this series of online readings. I'm hoping that you won't renege on your promise to do the same for the infamously opaque "Manual for the Machinic Landscape"!

  5. Thanks Joey. Yeah, I have a copy of the book - and will attempt to tackle in in upcoming months - it is a good distinction between the two competing 'schools' of LU if you will - where the stuff coming out of the AALU is much more academic and dense (rendering it infamously opaque as you put it)... I think the distinction between means and ends between the AA approach vs. North American approaches will be important to discuss.

    Stay tuned.

  6. That Yokaham Terminal is amaxing. That is the first time i have ever seen it.


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