The Landscape of Pleasure

LA+ Pleasure / LA+
LA+ Pleasure / LA+

A recent New York Times money column encourages financial planning for play. Architect Bjarke Ingels pitches projects of “hedonistic sustainability.” The second issue of LA+, a new journal from University of Pennsylvania’s landscape architecture department, sets aside questions of saving money or the earth to focus exclusively on pleasure for its own sake. What if landscape architects ignored the perils of inundation, extinction, and urban anomie in favor of the pleasures of the flesh? The authors of the short piece, “Why so serious, landscape architecture?,” argue that such pieties help neither the earth nor the profession. The journal’s collection of articles guide us through an alternative landscape of leisure and sensory delight.

To understand why this approach feels so transgressive, we can look back to Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Stoic view of pleasure as “something lowly and servile, feeble and perishable, which has its base and residence in the brothels and drinking houses” (so said Seneca). Yet an article on the urbanism of pleasure in Rome shows, to the contrary, how that city’s landscape developed as a space of leisure as opposed to an arena of virtue. Contributions go on to describe the central role of pleasure to the shaping of cities, from Rome back then to New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore today. They render pleasure as eternally fundamental to the development of urban form and experience, but also as something whose parameters are constantly changing.

But the larger forces behind the evolution of leisure go unexamined here. For example, how have we gone from the rise of pleasure-driving to new designs for a pedestrian-friendly Las Vegas strip?

Las Vegas Street Signs / Stefan Al and Cricket Day
Las Vegas Street Signs / Stefan Al and Cricket Day

Critique is no fun. Yet some contributors hint at the role of pleasure in combating contemporary landscapes of austerity or promoting joyful coexistence. The strongest articles are the historical ones, tracing the linkages between pleasure and the development of Rome, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and New Orleans. All the landscapes in question here are overwhelmingly urban. The spaces that support our pleasure through extraction—of diamonds or opium poppies—make only a brief appearance. So does the landscape of outer space travel, perhaps pleasure’s final frontier.

In a triumph of pleasure over method, the journal itself takes a wunderkammer approach, more interested in the joy of collecting than in the pursuit of science or editorial logic. LA+ bills itself an interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture, and indeed, design projects and interviews here share space with articles in fields ranging widely from philosophy to sociology to marketing to neuroscience.

While it is heartening to see such a drive to engage with knowledge beyond the field of landscape architecture, there is little through line from one contribution to the next. A stronger organization could help guide readers and direct a path through such historical, geographical, and disciplinary variety. Issue 3 will be dedicated to “tyranny.” Perhaps the editors will bring an iron hand to their task.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, a historian of architecture and urbanism, whose research focuses on the design and politics of the public realm.

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