Landscape Architects Improvise with History

At Dumbarton Oaks, landscape architecture historian John Dixon Hunt examined how contemporary landscape architects deal with history, arguing that many of these designers, being artists, are actually “improvising with history.” Improvisation may even be a key part of their job, but they must do it well. Unbound from “memory and context” but still knowing a site’s history, landscape architects can then be free to invent their own versions of history.

Today, many landscape architecture students don’t want to bother with history. “They want to design something new,” says Hunt. A site’s history can be about the natural history of the site, the site’s development, the changing ownership, and also “memory,” which “doesn’t even need to be historical,” but can be “fabricated.”

Hunt pointed to a number of contemporary landscapes to illustrate his ideas. For example, at the GasWorks Park in Seattle, an old industrial site turned into a park, the site’s history literally leaches out of the ground in the form of toxic sludge. Even though park visitors can pay close attention to the site’s history if they want, much of that history has been repurposed. Old tanks are now used by scuba-divers to explore. Walls are now meant to be scaled. Bunkers are now gardens designed for meandering. In a similar example, Park Bercy in Paris features old wine storage facilities and casts embedded into the new park. In a contrasting example in Paris, Citroen, a French car manufacturer, completely demolished its old car manufacturing plants to create Citroen Park.

One Parisian park Hunt spent time exploring in his talk about landscape and memory was Park Atlantique, which sits above a high-speed rail station. The park has a maritime theme with seaside plants, games, a promenade, and weather station. “The site isn’t derived from historical events. However, it successfully creates a memory of trains and the seashore on an anonymous location.”

Jumping to New York, Hunt said Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, has created a new form of history with his fake rooftop garden for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which can only be seen by those working in the huge buildings looking down on it. Smith created a “camouflage-like painted garden” in this instance. In another example in the UK, Martha Schwartz, ASLA, transformed history in her Manchester Exchange Square project by “designating a new boundary between the modern and medieval times.” There’s a sloping edge indicating the space where a bomb hit, and other key “story elements” incorporate into the site. In Portugal, Joao Gomes de Silva used a set of consecutive gardens to “bring home distant memories of distant colonies to Portugal.” Each garden uses native plants and design elements from those colonies, like Macao, to create a “memory of empire.”

Finally, he pointed to Maya Lin’s masterful Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which makes a painful history abstract and accessible to all. “With its sunken descent into the ground, we follow the litany of death.” 

Landscape architecture is one of the few arts in which history can be created. “Landscape doesn’t have to honor history.” Pillaging an “endless bank of history,” landscape architects play the role of “critical historians.” That being said, these artists of the built environment should “always study history. If they are good, they can then invent their own.”

These days, Hunt said, there’s an awful lot of terrible landscape architecture out there, “really bland stuff,” that could be picked up and put anywhere. He’s also “fed up” with many landscape historians who want to spend a week on a studio trip to a foreign city. “This is just like some sort of tourist trip, and helping to create a global, homogenous view of landscape.” In other words, to invoke history properly, the landscape architect has to be “sensitive to that place.”

Check out Hunt’s book on the “afterlife” of gardens.

Image credit: (1) Seattle Gasworks Park, Ping Chen / Picasa (2) Parc Atlantique, Paris.

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