UC Berkeley Geography

This is Javier's old retired blog.



Sep '06 - Oct '06

  • anchor

    'When will landscape get its Pritzker?' and other landscape urbanism worries.

    Javier Arbona-Homar
    Oct 23, '06 1:54 AM EST
    Long time, no see, huh? PhD life is, mmm..., "alienating" sometimes (see my last post). Anyway, I wanted to quickly share a little of what I have been thinking of. Let me back up... As a first year PhD in the Geography department, we take a seminar course with Michael Johns, maybe some of you into urbanism know his work (The Retro City, for example). This is a fun class with lots to read on diverse subjects related to epistemology and history of science, this semester. This week: Darwin. Need I say more? Basically, I turn in a paper at the end that responds to the themes of the course. I'll be working loosely under the subjects of disciplinary cultures and ideas that shaped landscape architecture. It should help me define by the end of next semester, and after a new paper, a series of reading subjects for dissertation work...and I think we turn in a proposal at the end of the Spring. Well, anyway, I started to whack out some ideas here... This will touch upon issues of all this city regeneration and ideas of nature stuff, parks and sustainability and that looming question I am interested in about military bases. OK, as to what you're about to read--if you choose to read it, for it is longer than what a blog post should be--I'd love any comments or suggestions or debates, though I am not promising I can answer this week. Things are really, really busy. But I promise to read the responses. Also, this paper proposal mentions people like Zaha Hadid and Thom Mayne as if you Archinect readers didn't know who they are. It's supposed to be readable by a wider audience, that's why. It also is purposefully loose; a work in progress... it has been just a few days of thinking it and the writing is all in one sitting, just to warn you. It could be weird at times. For further study, take a look at "The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism" by Grahame Shane in the HDM. Thanks.


    Last week I read an article in the Los Angeles Times online that took me by surprise. It was about an urban design competition for a fabulous, big new park in that same city. A park might seem in and of itself like a surprise for L.A. but I knew about the competition, so the awe was about something else. As you may be aware, Los Angeles is looking for ways of becoming less associated with its concrete-asphalt carpet. One of the competing teams included über-architect and hometown urbanist hero, Thom Mayne. Make note of that word, “included,” for it is a little weird. In the Bay Area, Mayne is best known for the United States Federal Building now under construction, a metal-sheathed death star looming over the devaluated South of Market area and visible from countless points afar.

    Surprising this was because Mayne, one of a limited number of Pritzker Prizes (or the “architecture Nobel”), is the kind of signature-building guy that wins mega-projects for his Santa Monica operation, Morphosis. Plenty of young architects make their bones by crafting the illustrious presentations that Mayne nails and not because they love the lack of sleep, the low pay or the robotic model shop. It's a great item on a résumé to get in the queue for a faculty position at UCLA or the legendary Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sciarc), or at least an entry to the master's program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Mayne's alma mater. Mayne, by the way, was one of a few founders of Sciarc and teaches at UCLA. Regardless, he does not earn commissions under the leadership of a landscape architect...customarily. But this might be changing for architects. Today, ambitious designers hungry for the highly visible jobs to change the urban fabric may want to consider a career in landscape architecture and work for James Corner, not Thom Mayne.

    James Corner, head of Field Operations and an eminent faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of three landscape architects chasing after the Los Angeles park commission, also known as “the Cornfield.” Had I ever seen something like this before? Yes and no. First with the ”˜no': I had never imagined I would see a Pritzker-winner playing second fiddle to a landscape architect. But, yes, Corner also led the team that seized the vaunted High Line commission in New York for the abandoned elevated rail connecting several Manhattan blocks on an excellent start towards gentrification. In that case, he enlisted the clever and contrarian office of Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, best known perhaps for their conceptually-heavy, ethereal “cloud” at the Hanover Expo, a building completely shrouded in a machine-driven fog, a landscape in itself, perhaps. Incredibly, they defeated another Pritzker winner: the powerful, almost unbeatable Londoner Zaha Hadid. A side-note: the Pritzker's are an enormously wealthy Chicago clan that own, among other things, the Hyatt hotel chain.

    Also, in a winning commission for the gargantuan Orange County Great Park, a former military base, Ken Smith led a team that included Enrique Norten, an architect that recently submitted a master plan for the Rutgers campus in New Jersey. Norten can work big projects. But, I am still not sure how this pro that recently won the commission for a Guggenheim museum in Mexico, chosen by (among-others) pater Frank Gehry, a Prada-clad jetsetter with offices in New York and Mexico City, ended up on a team working for a small landscape firm best known for an ironic fake garden at the MoMA in New York.

    The objective of this paper is, first, to look into the birth of this discipline, landscape architecture, in the Kuhnian vein and see how it got to this level of respectability or in effect, power. The point, second of all, is to discover something about what is known today almost as a new paradigm: “landscape urbanism” and suggest that it says a lot more about an anxiety over the loss of urban power in architecture than about the rise of landscape architecture.

    When I was an undergraduate in architecture from 1994 to 1999, we knew of no such thing as landscape urbanism although it already was being experimented with, albeit outside of the powerful post-graduate academic centers (Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Penn). Today, I know of “multi-disciplinary” and “hybrid” degree programs at the best architecture schools like the Architectural Association in London that specifically claim to teach landscape urbanism. The term itself was apparently coined by Charles Waldheim (today at Harvard) when he taught in Illinois to encompass a crosscutting approach to infrastructure, ecological planning and the abandoned interstices. However, it also was (and is) a euphemism-laden reaction to the “decompression” of urban centers that lost thousands of industrial jobs and saw their periphery's natural resources decimated. Industrial capitalism (in some cases in its military form) left behind the unemployed and vacant, polluted industrial land and waterfronts (see Shane, 2004).

    In addition, landscape urbanist theory has also injected this vitality into museum exhibitions and specialized journal publications, further evidence of its paradigm weight. On the other hand, thanks to the wonders and response speed of the Internet, there is a humorous “Landscape urbanism bullshit generator.” Its supposedly automated cerebrum pumps out phrases like “bifurcate pliant operations” and “hybridize hydrological maps ” (see
    Nevertheless, landscape architecture might have finally moved out of the shadow of architecture and I think I can have some explanations that could connect certain visions for redevelopment and profit in the post-industrial century that the U.S. and Europe are dealing with. The Orange County Great Park is a case in point. Here, I will also rely on Manfredo Tafuri's theory of architecture and capitalist development. In reference to the nineteenth century, he said:
    Urban naturalism, the insertion of picturesque elements into the city and into architecture, as the increased importance given to landscape in artistic ideology all tended to negate the now obvious dichotomy between urban reality and the reality of the countryside. They served to prove that there was no disparity between the value accredited to nature and the value accredited to the city as a productive mechanism of new forms of economic accumulation. (Tafuri, 1976, 1996: 8)

    Nonetheless, after over a century of industry, urban naturalism has largely failed, paradoxically creating room for a new urban naturalism: a landscape urbanism.

    However, this cannot be determined entirely by money flows. To better understand the positioning of this profession I need to go back to how various people””architects, gardeners, horticulturalists and arborists””came to see themselves distinctively as landscape architects. I believe this could go a certain way towards explaining how today's landscaper generation has amassed celebrity power away from architects. Why, in this young nation, did the American Society of Landscape Architects get founded almost fifty years after the American Institute of Architects? After that, then, some extra time was required to form a certain body of theory to help ask (and answer) a series of questions that distinguished landscape architecture from architecture and get to where they are today. Another way to put it is I will begin to assemble a collection about the sorts of epistemological questions on the origin of form that had to be drawn up in order to contrast with architecture. At the same time, how did these practitioners also emerge from a society that increasingly viewed essential nature as non-human while the Industrial Revolution consumed more and more of it?

    A fellow architect once told me that it struck him as odd to teach architecture and landscape architecture under the same roof or in the same college. At the time, I was thinking a lot about these recent collaborations of architects and their landscape counterparts. To be honest, I disagreed because I was really excited about the potential of “landscape urbanism” and its common interface for architects and landscape architects. But now I think he was onto something. The two professions look at the world in different ways for certain reasons that I need to understand better. Those reasons are perhaps in part related to the world of industry, cities and where nature “belongs;” to an unfortunate conceptual model of the world that divides space from nature, if you will.

    It will be my argument that in the present, despite a disciplinary buzz about “landscape urbanism,” architecture to some degree is trying to adjust its ideological horizon to better compete in the devastated landscape of cities today, not to really spatialize nature. It's architecture that is getting naturalized, but we need to know more on whose idea of nature it is. Landscape architects are fully engaged in this paradigm shift with the architects. Corner himself has laid down a lot of some excellent theoretical grounding. Yet regrettably, I think, this will also mean disposing of different critical notions of space and politics that were charged up in the late 20th century, ones that landscape could still incorporate if it wanted to. Will “landscape urbanism” deflate what was left of parts of architecture's radicalism while landscape architecture either seizes its first Pritzker or starts its own Prize competition?


    • would be hard to fill out this study without reference to olmsted, i think. though there was certainly landscape design in previous centuries, some at the scale of major infrastructural interventions, olmsted is often credited with 'inventing' landscape architecture for the u.s. so if you think of this profession as a 19thc development, it's not a surprise that it's organizational bodies and professional recognition comes later than those of architects.

      olmsted wasn't simply recreating nature. he, and his contemporaries, were aware that he was creating an urban fiction - an artificially 'natural' condition that, in the case of central park, wove traffic and utilities into the landscape and redeveloped a formerly derelict area (read: unpopular/undesirable residents in the eyes of city leaders). certainly this should qualify as landscape urbanism?

      and, because of the scale of the intervention, the architect, calvert vaux, was the secondary voice in the enterprise. the dairy and the other structures in the plan are merely elements of the larger landscape and its relation to/dialogue with the city. i expect that mayne's intervention is not dissimilar in l.a.

      Oct 23, 06 7:29 am  · 
      Smokety Mc Smoke Smoke

      Oooh, crackling good topic, Javier ....

      Oct 23, 06 7:44 am  · 

      javier- you win the jkaliski award for most intelectual blog post.

      for all those neophytes to Landscape Urbanism- this article in the Harvard Design Mag does a great job tracing the development of the ideas...

      Oct 23, 06 12:44 pm  · 

      there is a book edited by Charles Waldheim that was released earlier this summer. it is entitled The Landscape Urbanism Reader. it contains the above mentioned article from the HDM. it also contains articles from all the usual suspects.

      i found the book released by the AA a couple years ago too hard to digest, or at least too hard to apply in practice. hearing Moshen Mostafavi speak on the subject has always been enlightening though. too bad he couldnt parlay some of that into the book.

      the journal Praxis did an issue on landscape a couple years ago that also has some relevant articles.

      researching this topic has been my pet project over the past couple years. i got my MLA in 03' and have been debating going back to school for an MUD or MArch and concentrating my studies in urbanism/landscape urbanism. i just cant seem to make the commitment though. right now i am leaning toward getting a few more years experience and then rocking the PHD.

      anyhoo, your topic sounds pretty interesting. would love to read what you come up with. keep us informed.

      Oct 23, 06 3:29 pm  · 

      javier, interesting stuff. I think steven ward has it right on the money, that you could do a lot worse than to look to olmsted as a window on the idea of landscape architecture. first off, because he invented the word and thus the profession. secondly because he came along at a very specific moment in history, the point in the nineteenth century when careers and professions were beginning to take on a life of their own, disconnected from the traditional means of livelihood and the old systems of patronage and imperial authority that fueled almost all landscape design up t that point.

      third of all, because his personal story is such an interesting one - he was a (multiple) career changer, tried his hand and failed at several lines of work before hitting on the idea of landscape architecture as a distinct profession. which, when you think about it, was both a great synthesis (of architecture, horticulture, civil engineering, planning, and a whole lot else besides) and a schism from architecture itself. there have been plenty of people, and still are plenty, who feel that detaching landscape architecture from architecture had the effect of ghettoizing it, leading to a severe image problem that persists to this day.

      while I find the cornfields competition very interesting, I would be a little hesitant to declare it any kind of great watershed in the status of landscape architecture, either vis a vis architecture or in the eyes of the wider public. while I believe it's true that the profession of landscape architecture is on the rise in terms of public esteem and awareness, this is a rather relative measure, and I think the vast majority of the public still thinks landscape architecture is backyard flower gardening, to the extent that they think of it at all.

      as for landscape urbanism, I remain unsold, not necessarily on the broad outlines of the concept, but on the label. I am not yet convinced that it represents an intellectual synthesis that will re-synthesize that which has been torn asunder; maybe I just haven't been hearing the right arguments. we'll see.

      Oct 23, 06 11:59 pm  · 

      i'm in the first year MLA over at Wurster and also did my undergrad in the geography dept. You should stop by and share some of you ideas. i'm still trying to figure out how many different definitions of landscape urbanism I can find. Been in the school zone way too long, too long since i checked out archinect too.

      Nov 25, 06 4:05 am  · 

      Interesting read. Landscape urbanism and the place that landscape has taken up in architecture's mindspace recently is quite interesting. It seems quite fruitful too. And not only regarding the trend against monumentality, biological theories or LEED-stuff. I'll tune in to your future thoughts on the subject with pleasure.

      Yea, it was funny how little connection there was between architecture and landscape at Cornell. But the little I knew from knowing a few of their grad students, their theory was not our theory, so it was kind of hard to converse. Things like geography seem to be bringing similar, uh, for lack of a better adjective, Soja-esque theories to both... along with the interest in globalization theories, or even perhaps things like Splintering Urbanism.... making people more aware of the politics of infrastructure or other things once felt to be pure and outside of politics. Like landscape. Hmm. I seem to have lost my way with that point, sorry. Anyway, it's neat stuff.

      Flying over europe, this American was quickly acquainted with the extent of the Jeffersonian grid's influence on the divisions of the American landscape. No spoke and wheel arrangements of farming for us. Might we nominate Jefferson and the surveyors he spawned as early landscape urbanists to balance the arty Olmstead?

      Oh yea, the very idea of postmodern farming, that was another neat one I credit to this intersection you are chronicaling. (Is that a word?)

      We had this guy come and speak about postmodern farming, it was an eye opener for me.

      Jan 5, 07 10:15 am  · 

      Block this user

      Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?


      This is your first comment on Archinect. Your comment will be visible once approved.

    • Back to Entry List...
  • ×Search in:

About this Blog

Javier's notebook.

Affiliated with:

Authored by:

Other blogs affiliated with University of California, Berkeley:

Recent Entries