Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading the Landscape: Landscape as Urbanism

The next essay in the Landscape Urbanism Reader, following 'Terra Fluxus' and the initial 'Reference Manifesto' is a longer essay by Waldheim exploring the idea that landscape is most suited to the modern metropolis, being "uniquely capable of responding to temporal change, transformation, adaptation, and succession... a medium uniquely suited to the open-endedness, indeterminacy, and change demanded by contemporary urban conditions." (39)  This idea could be considered one of the formative structures on which landscape urbanism is built, explained by many writers as a response the failings of architecture and urban design to cope with the complexity of the urban situation, leading to Waldheim's apt, but somewhat hyperbolic statement that "the discourse surrounding landscape urbanism can be read as a disciplinary realignment in which landscape supplants architecture's historical role as the basic building block of urban design." (37)

:: Lower Dons -  River + City + Life by Stoss LU

Ironically, this essay explains clearly that landscape urbanism theory has its origins in the same rejection of modernist architecture and planning, and the retreat to "policy, procedure, and public therapy." (39)  This is a common refrain from contemporary planners as a way to distance themselves from top-down, totalitarian schemes of the mid-twentieth century, which has led to a renaissance of engagement in both community and context that makes all urban design and planning better but also a tendency to favor specific strategies.  Corner is quoted as well, mentioning that "only through a synthetic and imaginative reordering of categories in the built environment might we escape our present predicament in the cul-de-sac of post-industrial modernity, and 'the bureaucratic and uninspired failings,' of the planning profession." (38)

I think at heart it means there is room for both a rejection of modernist planning, along with a rejection of some contemporary approaches as well which may be suited for some situations but not appropriate for all.  As an alternative path to new urbanism, rational planning and similar strategies, the fixed nature of deterministic planning must be questioned - thus forming the heart of this debate, Waldheim mentions:  
"the very indeterminacy and flux of the contemporary city, the bane of traditional European city-making, are precisely those qualities explored in emergent works of landscape urbanism." (39)

The context here is important, as many critics of landscape urbanism point out some form of 'anti-urban, pro-sprawl, pro-car' agenda within the writings, whereas proponents of LU might be summarized as arguing that the current forms of urban planning and design are alternatively 'anti-reality,' as they don't acknowledge the messy reality of shrinking, decentralized, globalizing, capitalist, sprawling, market-driven, polluted, socially diverse and complicated nature of the modern city.  Thus beyond a palliative that uses greenery to mitigate urban ills, the definition includes a more expansive field of view, including infrastructure systems (water, waste, transportation), post-industrial sites, waterfronts, linear systems, public open space, as well as more traditional urban-scaled landscape projects.

 :: The Contemporary Context - image from Drosscape - Alan Berger (link)

The context of environmental movements is important as well, as this drives the landscape architecture to a new relevance in sustainability (yet a marginalization in such contemporary processes such as LEED).  Invoking ecology as a "model for process" (39) where projects "appropriate the terms, conceptual categories, and operating methodologies of field ecology: that is, the study of species as they related to their natural environments." (43)  Corner warns of the ecological being solely about advocacy that leads us into the distance of humans from the natural environment, summing current environmentalism as "nothing more than a rear-guard defense of a supposedly autonomous 'nature' conceived to exist 'a priori' outside of human agency or cultural construction." (38)  Applied in a holistic manner to a range of systems and project types listed above, this fundamental advantage of landscape urbanism and its ecological viewpoint allows for "the conflation, integration, and fluid exchange between (natural) environmental and (engineered) infrastructural systems." (43)

These fundamentals of cultural ecology draw on historical precedents like Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, urban development in Barcelona in the 1980s and 90s, and the human-shaped landscape of the Netherlands, which is often used as a model for a non-pastoral idea of shaped (i.e. cultural) landscape that differs from the American frontier model of verdant wilderness).  More specifically, Waldheim mentions some of the other formative competitions, including the less ecological Parc de la Villette (1982) as well as more recent examples of Downsview Park Toronto and Fresh Kills Landfill which strongly incorporate the ideas of ecology.

:: Downsview proposal by Corner/Allen - image via ecosistema urbano

La Villette, on the other hand, focuses on ecologically inspired idea of indeterminacy in spatial arrangement and programming, with both Tschumi's winning entry and the OMA/Koolhaas plans providing "a nascent form of landscape urbanism, constructing a horizontal field of infrastructure that might accommodate all sorts of urban activities, planned and unplanned, imagined and unimagined, over time." (41)  Thus the fluidity of the plan is the generation of adaptable, not fixed, form - able to react and change, quoting  Koolhaas from 'Congestion without Matter':
"the program will undergo constant change and adjustment... the underlying principle of programmatic indeterminacy as a basis of the formal concept allows any shift, modification, replacement, or substitutions to occur without damaging the initial hypothesis." (41)
Other current practice that fits into landscape urbanism derive from global context, such as the work of West 8 in the Netherlands, which allows for a wider latitude in cultural conceptions of open space that have been implemented including the Shell Project (Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier), Schipol Amsterdam Airport, and Borneo & Sporenburg, the last referenced as "an enormous landscape urbanism project... suggests the potential diversity of landscape urbanist strategies through the insertion of numerous small landscaped courts and yard, and the commissioning of numerous designers for individual housing units." (46) 

:: Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier - West 8

In addition to the work of West 8, inventive work in the post-industrial realm is evoked, including historical precedent like Seattle's Gas Works Park by Richard Haag, and the more expansive contemporary Duisburg Nord Steelworks Park by Latz & Partners - the model for reclaiming post-industrial landscapes as a cultural landscape.

The list of references is long, with some of the formative writings that have been incorporated in the structure of landscape urbanism, including ecological regional perspectives of Geddes, Mumford, McHarg (Design with Nature), the urban city-theory of Lynch (Image of the City; A Theory of Good City Form), and more recently the expanded realm of the polycentric city with Rowe (Making a Middle Landscape), Lerup (Stim and Dross) and Koolhaas (Delirious New York; S,M,L,XL).  Koolhaas marks the shift in thinking towards landscape using Atlanta as a prototype, stating that "Architecture is no longer the primary element of urban order, increasingly urban order is given by a thin horizontal vegetal plane, increasingly landscape is the primary element of urban order." (42)

:: 2008 Aerial View of Atlanta - image via Ace Aerial Photography

An important contribution to this is an 1995 essay by  Kenneth Frampton entitled 'Toward an Urban Landscape' in which he expands on the early essays on critical regionalism with a focus on the "need to conceive of a remedial landscape that is capable of playing a critical and compensatory role in relation to the ongoing, destructive commodification of the man-made world." (42)  He continues with two main points privileging landscape: "First, that priority should now be according to landscape, rather than to freestanding built form and second, that there is a pressing need to transform certain megalopolitan types such as shopping malls, parking lots, and office parks into landscaped built forms." (43)

 The second source worth exploring in more detail is the essay 'Mat Urbanism - the Thick 2-D' by Stan Allen (2001) - which expands the flat horizontality of the field with imbuing these suficial space as a process landscape.  "Increasingly, landscape is emerging as a model for urbanism. Landscape has traditionally been defined as the art of organizing horizontal surfaces… By paying close attention to these surface conditions – not only configuration, but also materiality and performance – designers can activate space and produce urban effects without the weighty apparatus of traditional space making.” (37)

This essay is another building block in the tradition of urbanism as exploration and study, not yielding specific answers to these questions but looking at the history of critical thought and linking to some of the formative analyses done, as well as some of the preliminary precedents that have emerged in the past century.  Critics have claimed as well that many of the concepts of landscape urbanism theory is not necessarily new - which is true, but is also a claim which sort of misses the point.  We should always look back to sources to inform our current thinking as there is much to be learned from both successes as well as failures - and by looking at new ways to apply these lessons to our current context (which I would posit is unique to cities throughout history).

Thus, Waldheim encapsulates the context of landscape urbanism within this historical framework, where:  "…the ability to produce urban effects traditionally acheieved through the construction of buildings simply through the organization of horizontal surfaces – recommends the landscape medium for use in contemporary urban conditions increasingly characterized by horizontal sprawl and rapid change.” (37)

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