Writing

Turning the field: Contradictions in Landscape Urbanism

The following article was first published in Kerb 15.

[Figure 1: Overlaps and intersections. “Green fields. Örsundaån, Sweden”. Photograph: Christopher Line.]

The theoretical genetic code that makes up the DNA of landscape urbanism is spliced from a diverse and eclectic range of disciplines. The selection, mix and concentration of these theoretical components by landscape architects, architects and other professions has resulted in discrete interpretations of landscape urbanism that are often contradictory and representative of specific rhetorical threads. What are these contradictions and how did they form? What is the future of landscape urbanism as a hybrid practice when major differences exist in the way the compound term is interpreted; when there is discrepancy between dogmatic texts and the accompanying projects which claim to follow them; and when the phrase is treated with suspicion by those who might be best positioned to demonstrate how a landscape urbanist might operate?

Contradictions within the compound term

Very simplistically, landscape urbanism is a strategic approach to the formation of an urban scheme through the transformation of processes related to landscape. Depending on which texts one reads, the emergence of landscape urbanism has been argued to have emerged directly from architecture and urban-design as a form of architectural post-modern “rhizomic assemblage”[1] to describe an approach to the network city, or “borne of a reaction to landscape architecture’s trivialisation throughout the twentieth century.”[2] Both arguments are for landscape urbanism as some form of reappraisal of an established discipline (architecture and landscape architecture respectively), however arguments and definitions for landscape urbanism can be found that propose it variously as a hybrid discipline; a new practice; an ethos; or simply a lens through which to view the contemporary city. In distinguishing landscape urbanism from historical movements of city and regional planning, it is positioned as a design discipline, yet this design potential has not been comprehensively manifested in projects. Even simply describing landscape urbanism as a field in the sense of an activity or occupation, causes problems as unintentional associations with the concepts of physical land and territory emerge.

These contradictions and differences start perhaps from the construction and understanding of the compound term itself. James Corner has described the term as:

“a complex amalgam…[that] brings together two previously unrelated terms to suggest a new hybrid discipline. Not unlike the combination of biology and technology to spawn biotech, or of evolutionary science with business management to produce organizational dynamics, the merging of landscape with urbanism suggests an exciting new field of possibilities.”[3]

This statement is a little disingenuous and simplistic: the two words have not amalgamated to form a stand-alone word such as landurbanism or urbanlandscapism for instance; nor has a new composite phrase been produced that unites two new terms specifically appropriated for the purpose and redefines them to represent a new relationship. Instead, the words ‘landscape’ and ‘urbanism’ stand as two very distinct parts of a compound relationship. Complexity and critical baggage underlie each and the misunderstandings of the respective words within their opposing disciplines remain largely unresolved. Without a critical dissection of this background and an understanding of how the two terms might relate to each other outside their respective disciplines, a move toward a concise and clear definition is difficult.

Both words that make up the compound term hold elements of the other within them: rather than being unrelated terms as Corner suggests, the original definitions of each contain reference to the other. Current meanings have shifted, so that on first readings they appear quite different, but both their deeper meanings actually carry much historic and cultural significance with regards human interaction with their environment. These shifts in language which often accompany the adoption of a word by a particular set of people and can reveal much of society’s attitude[4] towards an object or subject: the following brief etymological review of the words landscape and urbanism aims to show how such shifts result in contradiction in the compound phrase.

Much has been written about the recovery of landscape from purely representational meanings[5] in order to retrieve concepts of human interaction and include notions that recognise that “landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of that world.”[6] Corner has written extensively on the idea that a recovered landscape might encompass “new images and techniques of conceptualization.”[7] However, despite the contemporary push to consider such ‘new images’, the general understanding of landscape today largely references a specific end image usually of pastoral or Romantic persuasion. This is in contradiction to much of what the body of landscape urbanism literature appears to encourage. Landscape urbanism theory suggests that its concern appears to be with processes that act on a scale beyond visual limits; with depth below the surface; and with systems that exist across the field. Nevertheless for most people the term landscape is still about the painting, the pastoral scene, the small scale and immediately comprehended view.

Both Sanford Kwinter and Corner propose terms that might more readily accommodate a recovered landscape and correspondingly better convey landscape urbanism’s intent: respectively territory[8] and the German landschaft.[9] Corner draws from writings by J.B. Jackson and John Stilgoe to suggest that landschaft comprises a deep and intimate mode of relationship not only among buildings and fields but also among patterns of occupation, activity, and space.”[10] Such a definition makes an immediate acknowledgement of human impact on land and furthermore a crucial and contemporary move from object to active field. The Russian approach to the differences of meaning is to use two discrete words: peyzazh refers to “landscape in its subjective aspect; its poetic, pictorial and emotional associations”[11] whereas landshaft refers to landscape in its technical and objective aspect. Kwinter’s concern is also with the processes that work on land, but without necessarily reducing the term to only those forces: “territory exceeds landscape in both expanse and depth; it is wider because what it denotes extends far beyond the reach of the eye, and because it is organized by a multiplicity of forces without obvious formal unity.”[12] These alternate words hold organisation as key to their definitions, yet it is not organisation as an overt order: deep, sometimes invisible rules govern the fields that they describe.[13] To favour mutability over a fixed image is a characteristic of both alternate words and is perhaps more appropriate to the realm of landscape urbanism and its proposed operational mode than the original definition of landscape.

Urbanism is at once simpler to define and yet just as emotive a term as landscape. Whilst contemporary definitions focus heavily on the impact of built-form on cities, the original meaning was coined by Ildefons Cerdá to describe “the science of human settlements at various scales and times, including countryside networks.”[14] Although Cerdá’s original definition referenced natural systems, the impact or understanding of these systems’ influence on built development (and vice-versa) appears to have been lost in contemporary definitions. The re-association with landscape seems therefore appropriate when urbanism is paired in the compound term. Cerdá also intended urbanism to be specifically a science; subsequent shifts from the original 1867 definition are reflected in more contemporary understandings which still bring the human element of city life to the fore, but expand the study to include economic, political, social and cultural environments.[15] Rather than being an objective study of the needs of humans in urban settlements, it could be argued that the contemporary understanding of urbanism is the actual construction of buildings, surfaces and voids.[16] The reality of economic forces and real estate development appears to have taken over any initial ideas of urbanism as a study of human needs, be they base or higher; the result is a discipline or study in which the needs of those living in the city are largely dictated by commercial and retail factors.[17]

It is the contradictions inherent within the compound term which demonstrate why landscape urbanism is still a relatively unknown field: key assumptions about its structuring terms misleadingly suggest a realm with which the field is not concerned. Landscape urbanism draws on quite scientific and rational disciplines (such as ecology, infrastructure) as inspiration towards an approach, yet is not a strictly scientific field. This difficulty is reflected in both of the words of the compound term, which despite some traces of scientific objectivity, are actually very subjective terms that reflect changing and fluid notions with regard to human interaction with their environment. In parallel, the original  definitions of each word overlap and repeat themselves, yet the repetitions do not necessarily result in a strengthened meaning. Were either word to revert to their original meanings, it could be argued that a richer definition would emerge.

Figure 2: “Malfacone steel yard, Malfacone, Italy”. Photograph: Christopher Line. Patterns emerge from simple rules everywhere.

Contradictions between theory and praxis

In addition to contradictions within the phrase itself, there appear significant differences between the dogmatic key texts and the accompanying projects which claim to manifest their rules. Examples of these contradictions can be seen when examining the text and projects that follow the mode of landscape urbanism as proposed in the Architectural Association publication, Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape. Landscape urbanism in this mode works by the creation of a machinic medium which handles the multiplicity of information in urbanism projects, specifically organising across scales and disciplines, integrating temporal and non-physical forces. The machinic is described as a “technically controlled sieve”[18] which must be able to not only receive and manage information, but also generate organisations and protocol and eventually move toward the expression of materiality and fine scale details. In practice this ‘sieve’ mechanism is usually a computer program  employed to synthesize data and produce organisational diagrams and subsequent architectural forms.[19]

Like other landscape urbanism texts, the AA publication presents as a coherent field, texts and projects from various theorists and practitioners which frequently conflict. A close reading reveals some significant differences between the prescriptive texts that comprise the ‘manual for the machinic landscape’ and the work presented as examples of the manual in operation. Especially indicative of this difference are the student projects from the landscape urbanism programmes: their diagrams and projects move inexorably towards built forms that are as fixed as the texts surrounding them are fluid.

An example of the contradictory views within the AA publication that seem to pervade the machinic landscape mode relate to the concept of the machine itself. Najle appears to promote the idea of the new landscape as machine which “embodies the ultimate opportunity to intermingle systems in a consistent cybernetic universe, a machine with its own laws”[20] whereas Zaera-Polo is quite contradictory in his preceding text and states that “the mutant, the hybrid and the morphed are likely to replace the machine or Frankenstein as the stereotypes of [emerging landscape] this century.”[21] This is perhaps a disagreement over language rather than deep structural concepts: it is specifically the machine as understood in Modernist terms that Zaera-Polo and others want to move away from. Yet basic questions remain unresolved in the book: does the machine emerge from the landscape, or does the cyborgian designer apply machinic systems to the landscape?[22] This inconsistency over language is evident throughout texts regarding machinic landscape and clarity of expression is not helped by the density of the supposedly precise introductions to each chapter theme. The jargon, synthetic words and intractable sentences are essentially a response to the complexity of what the authors want to tackle: the entire urban scene.

The response and ultimate output from the machinic landscape ‘technical sieve’ is a piece of architectural infrastructure formed through the “use of the intensity and urgency of [site] ecologies and economies [and by] the enhancement and escalation of natural systems in complex pieces of infrastructure.”[23] The process and output is termed organisation, yet the static projects presented alongside the text seem in high contrast to the obvious delight taken by the authors in the complexity of indeterminate sites and situations in temporal flux. Considering one of the consistent critical shifts which prompted landscape urbanism theory is the move from the representational to the operative, there is a definite contradiction that arises when such dynamic systems are formally represented and finitely defined in pieces of fixed architectural infrastructure. In the accompanying projects, systems and flows of energy that have been sensitively mapped and analysed are all too often translated into massive elements of built form in the rush toward an architecture that is in some way recognisable. Riparian patterns are literally transformed into floorplans; land-use analyses determine the elevational data points for monumental grading exercises; and habitat surveys determine grids for space-frames that cover acres of ground.

The result, as identified by Bart Lootsma, is that the ecological aspect of a site is only really represented in the organisation of the end product.[24] During the design process these complex systems allow an organic development in the diagrams or buildings; the move to final architectural and built form however is something of a brutal break in these processes: “this approach in the end produces only a simulacrum of life, not life itself in the original ‘ecology’ (by which I do not mean the ecology of the computer but the ecology that feeds the computer.)”[25] The unstable nature of ecological systems does not suit a final, fixed end product in which the smallest change can ruin a design.

The danger with landscape urbanism as practised through the machinic landscape is that the identification and analysis of data territories for use in the design mechanism becomes an end in itself. In a way, to practice landscape urbanism in this way is to create a data network that is ultimately self-referential and fails to acknowledge the real world from which it is allegedly derived.[26] Is this organisation or architectural infrastructure anything more than a simple extrusion into form of abstract forces? It appears largely to be the appropriation of data as design generation in order produce form and nothing more.[27]

The contradiction between praxis and theory is not limited to the AA publication however. In order to step beyond traditional methods and techniques of working in design and planning, texts published recently in The Landscape Urbanism Reader[28] suggest that the skillset of the landscape urbanist must extend well beyond pen and mouse skills. Writing in the collection, Christophe Girot suggests that  “the potential impact of the moving image on both urban design and decision-making processes is considerable”[29] whilst Corner suggests that not only should film-making be expected, but that working methods should extend to cartography, mathematics in the form of “the algebraic, digital space of the computer while messing around with paint, clay and ink, and engaging real estate developers and engineers alongside the highly specialized imagineers and poets of contemporary culture.”[30] The adoption of these creative and poetic methods is seen as the only way to counteract the failure by “oversimplification [and] reduction of the phenomenal richness of physical life”[31] by the earlier approaches of urban design and regional planning. The manifestation of spiritual and cosmological relationships to the environment is usually the first to be lost in any contemporary development as the need to diagram and plan the urban gives way to wholly practical pressures: whilst the entries for competitions such as Downsview and Fresh Kills display obvious marks of rich methods of dealing with multiple stimuli and data, the ultimate end product appears to be the quite conventional written and illustrated masterplan.[32] The contradiction between the desire to draw out the unseen and the unknown and the subsequent pragmatic designs is strong, although it should be noted that the actual number of designs which can be compared to the original landscape urbanist intentions is limited.

Figure 3: A pragmatic but poetic line. “Coal surplus. Hostrupskov, Denmark”. Photograph: Christopher Line.

Fallow ground

It could be argued that landscape urbanism has not thus far proved able to develop a concise and identifiable body of physical work because of these very contradictions. It should be noted however that the field is still relatively young and furthermore the kind of projects which might demonstrate a control or approach to the common issues are not easily achieved within the time-scales of traditional built development, but must be considered in time-scales of decades rather than years. But is the desire to operate and design as a landscape urbanist perhaps best forgotten about? Can any practice or methodology (no mater how multi-disciplinarian) adequately deal with the many factors considered within the bounds of landscape urbanism? Perhaps the power and influence of landscape urbanism comes not as practice or discipline, but as a way of thinking that highlights issues of territory,  process and natural systems that might otherwise be forgotten by the traditional practices of city planning and urban design. How the designer, planner, architect or landscape architect then deals with those issues is a wholly separate issue; one which perhaps landscape urbanism is not scaled to tackle.

To continue and conclude the analogy begun in the title of this article, perhaps now is the time to let the theoretical field lie fallow for a time and allow the germination of the many seeds of projects that lie below the surface. These seeds have been planted by landscape architects, by architects and others who each interpret landscape urbanism differently and have modified it to their own specifications. The projects that emerge may display none of the qualities that landscape urbanism might hope to nurture, or they may just translate the various strands of their diverse genetic code into strong and clear manifestations of landscape urbanism.

 Figure 4: Breaking and turning the earth. “Turning the field, Lodi, California”. Photograph: Christopher Line

Figure 4: Breaking and turning the earth. “Turning the field, Lodi, California”. Photograph: Christopher Line

This article contains material drawn from my Master of Architecture dissertation “From emergence to divergence: modes of landscape urbanism.” Thanks to the editors of Kerb for their comments on the first version of this article and to Christopher Line for permission to use his outstanding photographs in both my dissertation and this article.

Footnotes

[1]Shane, David Grahame. Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modelling in Architecture, Urban Design and City Theory. John Wiley, England. 2005, p147

[2]Weller, Richard & Musiatowicz, Martin. “Landscape urbanism: Polemics toward an art of instrumentality?” in The MESH Book: Landscape/Infrastructure. Raxworthy, Julian & Blood, Jessica (eds). The MESH Book: Landscape/Infrastructure. Melbourne, RMIT University Press, 2004, p58

[3]Corner, James. “Landscape Urbanism” in Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism : a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p58

[4]See Batty, Michael. Cities and complexity : understanding cities with cellular automata, agent-based models, and fractals. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2005, v for a brief discussion of just such a shift in language with regard to the words complexity and complication.

[5]See Corner, James (ed). Recovering landscape : essays in contemporary landscape architecture. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 for a collection of essays that supply various definitions of landscape beyond the representational

[6]Cosgrove, Denis E. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Croom Helm, Kent. 1984, p13

[7]Corner, James. “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” in Corner, James (ed). Recovering landscape : essays in contemporary landscape architecture. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1999, p15

[8]Kwinter, Sanford. “American Design?” in Praxis: journal of writing + building, no. 4, 2002, p6

[9]Corner, James. “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” in Corner, James (ed). Recovering landscape : essays in contemporary landscape architecture. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1999, p154

[10]Corner, James. “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” in Corner, James (ed). Recovering landscape : essays in contemporary landscape architecture. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1999, p154

[11] peyzazh in Cowan, Robert The Dictionary of Urbanism. Streetwise Press, Wiltshire. 2005, p289

[12]Kwinter, Sanford. “American Design?” in Praxis: journal of writing + building, no. 4, 2002, p6

[13]Compare this language with another field that has had a significant impact on the development of landscape urbanism: chaos theory. Systems that exhibit the phenomenon known as chaos, whilst popularly thought to exhibit complete disorder, are “actually deterministic and thus orderly in some sense”, hence an order, but an invisible order. See “Chaos theory.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2 Aug 2006, 13:49 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Aug 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chaos_theory&oldid=67237999>.

[14]Shane, David Grahame. Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modelling in Architecture, Urban Design and City Theory. John Wiley, England. 2005, p83. Shane gives an extended history of the term urbanism in its various modes and its dynamic relationship with urban design.

[15]Cowan, Robert The Dictionary of Urbanism. Streetwise Press, Wiltshire. 2005

[16]Mostafavi, Mohsen. “Landscapes of Urbanism” in Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism : a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p7

[17]“Urbanism doesn’t exist; it is only an ideology in Marx’s sense of the word. Architecture does really exist, like Coca-cola: Though coated with ideology, it is a real production, falsely satisfying a falsified need. Urbanism is comparable to the advertising propagated around Coca-cola – pure spectacular ideology. Modern capitalism, which organized the reduction of all social life to a spectacle, is incapable of presenting any spectacle other than that of our own alienation. Its urbanistic dream is its masterpiece” Koolhaas, Rem & Mau, Bruce. S,M,L,XL : small, medium, large, extra-large.Benedikt Taschen, 1997, p1269

[18]Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism : a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p39

[19]These may be off-the-shelf Computer Aided Drawing  tools, customised Geographic Information Systems, or bespoke programs written for specific projects. Certain programming languages have been adopted, usually written specifically for the simulation of cellular automata. Specific data inputs can produce diagrams and 3d forms that are then extracted to more conventional architectural software.

[20]Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism : a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p141

[21]Zaera-Polo, Alejandro. “On Landscape” in Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism: a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p132

[22]For a further discussion of the cyborgian designer see Meyer, Elizabeth K. “The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture” in Thompson, George F. & Steiner, Frederick R. (eds). Ecological Design and Planning. Wiley, New York, 1997, pp45-79

[23]Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism : a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p141

[24]Lootsma, Bart. “Biomorphic Intelligence and Urban Landscape” in Brayer, Marie-Ange & Simonot, Béatrice (eds). Archilab’s Earth Buildings: Radical Experiments in Land Architecture. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. 2003, p35

[25]Lootsma, Bart. “Biomorphic Intelligence and Urban Landscape” in Brayer, Marie-Ange & Simonot, Béatrice (eds). Archilab’s Earth Buildings: Radical Experiments in Land Architecture. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. 2003, p34

[26]Easterling, Keller. “Error” in Mostafavi, Mohsen and Najle, Ciro (ed). Landscape urbanism : a manual for the machinic landscape. Architectural Association, London, 2003, p156

[27]See Raxworthy, Julian. “Landspace landscapism” in Architectural Review Australia, no. 88, 2004, p26

[28]Waldheim, Charles (ed). The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, June 2006

[29]Girot, Christophe. “Vision in Motion: Representing Landscape in Time.”in Waldheim, Charles (ed). The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, June 2006, p89

[30]Corner, James. “Terra Fluxus” in Waldheim, Charles (ed). The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, June 2006, p32

[31]Corner, James. “Terra Fluxus” in Waldheim, Charles (ed). The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, June 2006, p32

[32]Compare the competition entries illustrated in Praxis: journal of writing + building, no. 4, 2002 with the draft masterplan for instance. Fresh Kills: New York City, Department of City Planning. “Fresh Kills lifescape.”  <http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/fkl/fkl_index.shtml> accessed on 3rd August 2006