Do Landscape Architects Need to Open Up the Conversation?

When landscape architects get together formally to talk about the profession these days, their conversations all seem to follow a similar arc. They begin by addressing the “big” problems we will face in the near future, then quickly settle into a bout of modest soul-searching and existential angst, and finally conclude with some well-meaning but not very practical advice to students and young professionals to “pursue your dreams, follow your passion,” and so on. I graduated with a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from University of California, Berkeley, this spring and have been to more than a handful of these panels lately. I am getting a little frustrated. Instead of providing any real answers, these forums and panel discussions only seem to regurgitate the same questions.

Earlier this month, I attended a forum hosted by the North Carolina State University College of Design called, “Changing the Conversation: Landscape Architecture Beyond 2012.” It featured four local designers along with Mark Johnson, FASLA, founder of Civitas, who was visiting from Denver, Colorado. The panel was comprised of Charles “Chuck” Flink, FASLA, the president of Alta Planning and Design, Christine Hilt, FASLA, the president of CLH Design, Mark Hough, ASLA, the campus landscape architect of Duke University, and Paul Morris, FASLA, the Deputy Secretary for Transit for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The forum was moderated by Dan Howe, ASLA, the Assistant City Manager of the City of Raleigh, NC.

I had been looking forward to an evening of new ideas, and while the forum was rousing and often entertaining, it left me somewhat frustrated. The topics discussed ran the usual gamut from international work and climate change to professional ethics and even Twitter, mixed with a spattering of direct, if not confrontational, questions from the audience. My gripe about the forum is the same as about others I have attended:  it was a room of landscape architects talking about landscape architecture with a bunch of other landscape architects.

The potential value of these types of discussions, especially for landscape architecture students and emerging professionals, can’t be understated. Hearing directly from working professionals as they speak candidly about their careers has certainly made an impact on me. However, if practicing landscape architects have experienced successful collaborations with the public and other professionals (to which the panel testified), then why is the discussion still so exclusive? It seems that in order to really change the conversation, the conversation needs to open up to a lot more people.

Hilt, the only woman on the panel (another conversation that needs having), made the point indirectly while she was explaining how to defend the profession from becoming a commodity. “Our profession is about a lot of people with limited resources,” she said, “We collaborate with a lot of allied professionals, and it’s absolutely critical we get them involved in [the design process].”

Her point seems obvious but is worth reiterating. The ability to collaborate with other disciplines is one of the things that makes landscape architecture so great. Although she refers specifically to our collaborators in allied professions, I would argue that we need to involve everyone – the public – in the process.

This won’t be easy, but it’s possible. There are a few examples of this type of interaction already happening that are worth mentioning: ASLA’s public awareness campaign – The Understory – which was initiated on August 11, 2011 as a “day of action” encouraged landscape architects to get out on the street to make themselves known in all sorts of ways, including holding signs in public plazas reading “Designed by a Landscape Architect.” James Corner, principal of Field Operations, appeared in Gary Hustwit’s (director of Helvetica) city-focused documentary Urbanized, discussing the High Line in New York City. “Tactical urbanism” darlings Rebar and their revolutionary Park(ing) Day, held once a year on a Friday in September, brings public space curbside, directly engaging the public in conversation and interaction. These are all great examples of how we can engage a wider audience.

Furthermore, the role of landscape “starchitects” came up during the discussion, but it didn’t get as much focus as I had hoped. Flink mentioned Ian McHarg and his 1960 CBS television show, The House We Live In, but didn’t offer a contemporary comparison to McHarg or his communication efforts.

Howe followed a lengthy and circular exchange between the panelists and the audience about how to define what landscape architects do by posing the question “do we,” referring to our profession, “need another personality?” The panel looked at each other, quietly shook their heads, and only Johnson replied with “I know who I am and I just go be me. I’m unapologetic about the consequences.”

The panel seemed to agree that the struggle to educate clients and the public about the wonders of landscape is a market-driven struggle. Speaking from the audience, Swink reminded the panel and the other guests that “this is a great time to be a landscape architect. We are more understood than we’ve ever been.”

Overall, “Changing the Conversation: Landscape Architecture beyond 2012” didn’t break any new ground, but it did end on a high note, suggesting that the circular discussion was close to finding a new direction. Howe wrapped things up with, “this is a navel we have been picking for generations.” Sensing some unrest from the mostly young audience, Hough declared, “we are the status quo,” referring to himself and the other panelists, “it’s up to you to change the conversation.”

Challenge accepted.

This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of California, Berkeley.

Image credit: Phillips Garden’s Parking Day Installation / Phillips Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

8 thoughts on “Do Landscape Architects Need to Open Up the Conversation?

  1. Robin Karson 11/26/2012 / 11:05 am

    I completely agree with these points. It’s why I wrote a book about Fletcher Steele, who was completely unknown twenty years ago and founded the
    Library of American Landscape History, in Amherst, Massachusetts– dedicated to “fostering understanding of the fine art of landscape architecture.” We’ve been at this since 1992–through readable (affordable) books, touring exhibitions, lectures, and online resources that include documentary films. (If you haven’t seen “Designing in the Prairie Spirit: A Conversation with Darrel Morrison,” please go to our website click “films.” It’s really good.) We also publish VIEW, a magazine that features articles on North American landscape design from all periods (downloadable from our website). We used to send it to ASLA members free; now that it’s 48 pages long, full color, we send by subscription. Next year, we will launch a paperback series with W.W. Norton on American landscape architecture, beginning with the modernists.

    We would love to hear from you (the profession) about how to extend our reach to greater numbers of the general public and to design professionals in other fields. Our goal is to promote understanding of the profession and its amazing accomplishments.

  2. Mark Francis 11/26/2012 / 12:29 pm

    Kudos to Daryl Jones for his critical and challenging take on current discourse in landscape architecture. He is correct in observing that we too often tend to talk to one another at these forums (including ASLA conferences) and rarely do we draw in points of view outside our profession. Where is the theologian, anthropologist, art historian, psychologist, community activist, etc. in these conversations?

  3. Jane Roy Brown 11/27/2012 / 12:21 pm

    To Mark Francis’s observation, I add, And where are the journalists? The profession can take a cue from Brad McKee’s excellent panel at the 2012 ASLA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, in which design critics from major daily newspapers in US cities and Toronto discussed issues affecting urban design, ranging from funding to policy to regulations. Their acquaintance with such broad trends and influences comes from their training; rarely does a journalist start out as a specialist. This generalist approach yields insight beyond the professional box, and can be encouraged through conferences that convene participants across disciplines with topics of common interest. Thanks again, Brad, for demonstrating a way to enlarge the discussion.

  4. Bernadette Clay 11/28/2012 / 11:01 am

    I think the real issue is that we as landscape architects don’t really DO anything. We talk a lot. We draw some. Design a bit, but fewer of our projects are successfully built than other allied professions such as engineering, architecture, etc. We are largely viewed as fundamentally unnecessary to projects, especially in the harsh economic times currently facing the USA and the world. The gray areas we operate in don’t sell first; they are leftovers, effects of other necessary evils. We may make progress in this conversation if we focus on showing the public, the world, and allied professionals the tangible contributions we make, improvements that can be measured in value, not just talked about.

    • J Smith 07/03/2013 / 8:38 am

      this is correct. We are not seen as architects by the other professions and general public and tend to be associated with ‘”landscaping”. LAs should focus on land development plan preparation, especially stormwater management and grading and be less focused on the plants and environmental side of development.

  5. B Davis 11/30/2012 / 7:29 am

    I think the author is right that we need to communicate better, and write more in general. Part of the problem is that not many of us write, and those that do (mostly our critics and theorists in universities) write for the professional audience- to get peer-reviewed publications and invited to these conferences the author mentioned. Meanwhile the Scripps network pumps out shows and magazines every day that speak to pop culture. I think more of us should write for popular outlets- the Times, local newspapers, Wired magazine, national geographic, or even some rag from Scripps. Olmsted wasn’t trained as a designer but rather a journalist, and he wrote for the Times during the shaping of Central Park.

  6. jean 07/10/2013 / 7:50 pm

    I doubt the conversation will ever change. Ever since I have graduated I see Landscape Architects looking out for themselves only. I see awards given to awful projects and I see the public not questioning any designs. In between all of this, I see all of these never ending discussions with no answers, but a lot of praise? The real designers must get together and bring back real landscape architecture instead of fighting each other for an internship or autocad monkey job.

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