Nature is Dead: Long Live Design

Reprinted from the newly redesigned Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM). Read a free copy of the January issue.

In recent months, landscape architecture has gained a good bit of attention from an ongoing debate over the notion of landscape urbanism between a vocal critic, Andrés Duany, and its promoters at Harvard University. So the design world is publicly acknowledging the increasing value of landscape architects. But step for a moment outside our design bubble and take stock in the low awareness of landscape architecture among consumers.

Perhaps this is partially because of the West’s philosophical view of nature as primordial. But primordial nature is dead, at least for most of the inhabited world. Nature—as consumers imagine it to be—is a controlled environment influenced by generations of politicians, landscape architects, and planners. The average visitor to Yellowstone doesn’t recognize the role that landscape architects have played in their experience—they assume it was providential. If we seek recognition and political capital, then there is a responsibility for greater legibility in landscape design work. To secure political capital, landscape architects need to articulate clear, contemporary, and relevant design ideas.

Our situation is not helped by the mass retailers that supply the majority of landscape materials to consumers. Regardless of where you are in this country, I guarantee your “neighborhood” Home Depot has a full stock of boxwood, roses, and sod—even in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a result, consumers place little value on locally native plant species and are confused about what constitutes nature. Indeed, the local Earth Day festival near my home in Reno, Nevada, is held in a rose garden. How can we expect laypersons spending the afternoon at Crissy Field in San Francisco to recognize the talent that went into imagining that space and not to assume it has been this way for eternity, especially when the only expression they relate with designed outdoor spaces originates from European designs of boxwood, roses, and sod?

It’s not just the consumer model that is broken. The cultural preference for lush lawns influences public and commercial landscapes as well. We can no longer make excuses for contributing to the expansive panoramas of water-hogging landscapes. It is our responsibility to educate clients and provide artful solutions that meet their needs in ways that do no further harm to our environment. My firm, SWA Group, recently redesigned the campus for a university in a major Mexican city. After persuading the client of the appropriateness of a native planting palette and a design that incorporated the natural systems of the site, we found there were no local wholesale plant suppliers who could provide native species.

This year, several ASLA award-winning projects were expertly rooted in context. Most notably, the Shanghai Houtan Park and the High Line plainly reveal themselves as products of the design elite. However, in the same Landscape Architecture issue that featured the best work among us—with all of these projects’ staggering imagery—the magazine cover depicted an ambiguous reflected hillside in a pond of water with the silly metaphor for the 2010 award winners as a “Watershed of Innovation.” To be recognized among elite designers, we owe it to our profession to step above the clichés. The residential project profiled in the same issue in “Under the Texan Sun” is skillfully crafted, but Tuscan gardens in Texas do not represent our profession’s culture of ideas. Are these the impressions we want to project to the public? Will we recruit the best and brightest design talent when our leading publication is giving off such mixed messages?

Landscape urbanism proponents are making clear the opportunity for our greater role in designing urban environments. But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity we have neglected, namely, building a recognizable brand for our profession. There is a new wave of public interest in environmental responsibility, in outdoor living spaces, in community, in recreation and alternative transportation, in gardening and growing in general. We need to advocate for a greater appreciation of our natural and designed landscapes and the differences between them. We need to educate our clients and the public about the functions of natural systems and the importance of indigenous materials. We need to lobby young people to consider landscape architecture as a career path. We are all responsible for our profession’s status. When our work is so relevant to contemporary culture, what excuse do we have for being invisible?

René Bihan is Managing Principal of SWA Group’s San Francisco Office.

4 thoughts on “Nature is Dead: Long Live Design

  1. Deborah Howe 01/12/2011 / 11:19 am

    I have to take issue with the statement that nature is dead — it makes for a catchy headline, but my belief is that we still live in the natural world, regardless of how much we pave the ground, channelize the waterways, and install painted pickets to symbolize — well, whatever painted pickets are meant to symbolize. (For the most part, “primordial nature” hasn’t ever been part of the urban or human-habitation experience — found in the most pristine and uncultivated places, it is only one manifestation of nature.) I agree that we need to advocate for a greater appreciation of our natural and designed landscapes. But our designed landscapes also exist in nature, and our greater appreciation of nature itself and its role in our inhabited places will lead to better designs.

    Regardless of the condition of a place, we still breathe the air, we still rely on plants for oxygen, we still live in a world where rain falls, and wets the earth, and fills the rivers and streams, and where those rivers, streams, and wetlands — degraded or not — filter and shelter and nurture life.

    Whether we recognize its ubiquity and respect it in its myriad forms, or claim, hubristically, that it is dead, nature is alive — in some places alive and well, in some places doing not so well — and it will persist long after we are gone. A design approach underlaid by that idea and directed toward the intelligent incorporation of natural systems will likely endure far longer than an approach that simply imposes geometric shapes and stylized forms on a place.

    On the other hand, the aesthetic style of a design may offend a one’s sensibility, but it may be worth exploring the question of if that style is important or not, as long as the design’s elements jibe with or effectively replicate the endemic natural systems of a place.

  2. Caleb Schultz 01/13/2011 / 11:24 am

    I think this article is a provocative one because of the direction we’re headed as a profession. The contemporary “high design” aesthetic is proliferating rapidly among our nation’s young designers and they are quickly turning their backs on nature. To many, nature is not as pleasing as the highly manicured aesthetic. To many, justifying a design fee means creating something that a client can readily recognize and view as a return on investment.

    Personally I have a huge interest in agriculture and Western US ecosystems. However, the increasing percentage of young LA’s that I know or meet have very little background in rural areas and are becoming less interested in their people and places. This trend represents a troubling situation where professionals have less and less connection with what true “nature” is and represents. Lacking this connection, considering the natural value of land becomes less inherent in their thought process.

    I think the profession is heavily urbanizing along with our country’s population and it’s a difficult tide to reverse. Much of the new breed of design professionals has an urban aesthetic based in primarily in concrete, lawn and shrubs and may not regard a native plant palette as appealing.

  3. ZoeE 01/20/2011 / 9:44 pm

    Those of us practicing in the medium of landscape exist in an interesting temporal condition: We have incredibly short lifespans in relation to the milieu in which we work. I think this accounts for the wild diversity in the definitions of nature among so many educated, invested landscape architects. I won’t even go there in this response, but i must defend myself and fellow members of the ‘new breed of design professionals’. Sure, many of us have an aesthetic that is informed by Modernism with a capital C. But to say that we have less connection with what true ‘nature’ is because we lack interest in the rural is frankly odd. The rural, at least where i live in central Virginia, is mostly logged, grazed, monocropped, dammed, trailed, suburbanized, and polluted. Unless we spend significant energy figuring out how to make our cities work ecologically and socially, a la Ann Spirn’s “The Granite Garden” the ‘rural’ will continue its transformation into the ‘ex-urbs’. The University of Virginia, and many other schools, are in fact actively advocating increased knowledge of native plants, natural hydrological systems, urban agriculture, and brownfield regeneration. And, for a look at what some youngish designers are doing with the rural, here is a link:

  4. ZoeE 01/20/2011 / 9:46 pm

    That should be a capital M.

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