As the author of canonical texts — and now built projects like the High Line in New York City — James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, has achieved a unique stature in contemporary landscape architecture. The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner, 1990-2010, a new collection of his written work, thus serves as a sort of mid-career retrospective. The book brings together the bulk of Corner’s writings over the last two decades — from the early theoretical arguments of a young academic struggling to move the discipline beyond Ian McHarg’s ecological determinism, to an eminent practitioner discussing his major public parks.
Corner’s initial contributions to landscape theory lean heavily on Heidegger and hermeneutics, giving intellectual weight to Corner’s mission to rescue landscape architecture from a period of stagnation and seeming irrelevance to contemporary culture. “In a globalized context of rapid and expedient production,” Corner writes, “landscape must appear an antiquated medium and, its design, a fringe activity sustained through the eccentric passions of a handful of romantics and nature-lovers.” That landscape architecture would never appear so today is the result of a shift Corner contributed to in a fundamental way.
Corner’s writings on representation and landscape urbanism chart new and exciting territory for the field. Some of Corner’s essays are classics and mainstays of landscape architecture syllabi. In this volume they appear all together and accompanied by full-color images.
Rather than the concrete arguments found in books like Corner’s Recovering Landscape (1999) or Charles Waldheim’s Landscape Urbanism Reader (2002), to which Corner contributed, The Landscape Imagination follows Corner’s evolving concerns. These extend from drawing and mapping both in and as design — to the role of landscape in and as urbanism.
Always in tension are the landscapes of the mind and the site. But Corner seeks to defy and transcend these distinctions as he expands landscape’s conceptual scope. Corner focuses on ecology while also emphasizing landscape as a cultural project dealing in meaning, creativity, and imagination — hence the title of the collection. He shows us the through-line from theory to practice.
The more recent texts focus on built or proposed projects by Corner’s firm Field Operations. “Critical experimentation in action,” Corner calls them. They are the works of a mature practitioner and landscape visionary, whose intellectual rigor and influential practice have set the terms for landscape in contemporary life.
This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, PhD, assistant professor, metropolitan studies program, New York University.