Dark Matter

a mixture of the unknown and the tangible - by Jennifer Newsom

Landscape Performance

Last night I stayed in New Haven after teaching in order to attend the Charles Waldheim lecture on Landscape Urbanism. His talk was insightful, and he is clearly a passionate and brilliant thinker who is a champion of his profession (rightly so, as he is the Chair of the Landscape Architecture program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design). He discussed two veins of landscape architectural approach: ecology-driven and performance-driven. Both lend themselves to a "the science/program made me do it" defense of design claims, and he talked very little about the term "design" in the way that the public or even architects might know it. The debate between Landscape Urbanists and New Urbanists has been well documented, so I don't need to go into that here. Despite current directions, the truth is that landscape architecture as a profession began as a way of forming (not scripting) the land around us, and was heavily influenced by the picturesque movement in painting. But while Waldheim acknowledged Claude Lorrain's influence, he didn't talk about aesthetics in a traditional sense. There was a conscious omission of "design" as a prescriptive, dogmatic, and far-too-limiting stance. For Charles to carve out a wide berth for landscape, and Landscape Architects in particular, there is a reluctance to limit the terms. This approach resonates with me, in the sense that "Black architecture" is similarly amorphous. But it made me realize that folks are hungry for definition, for a box to carefully put something in. I found it hopeful (even if it means that I need to re-position my practice) to think of the built environment in a freer way, but was also cautious because "freedom" can often end up in places that have no architectural character or experiential richness, whose defense is obfuscated by insider jargon. When I asked Mr. Waldheim what he thought about folks like William Kent, his garden at Rousham, and the construction of space using a filmic or picturesque language, he said that his field was divided. Half were interested in that stuff (himself included), and half saw it as trite. I am not on the front lines of these debates, but I think the performative/ecological approach (certainly politically and environmentally correct) combined with a discussion of aesthetics and traditional conventions of planning and pre-1997 landscape architecture will yield the most fruitful places to work and live. Mr. Duany and Mr. Waldheim, "can't we all just get along?"