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.

The Authentic Garden

The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design / The Monacelli Press
The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design / The Monacelli Press

In The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design, Richard Hartlage, affiliate ASLA, and Sandy Fischer, ASLA, founders of Land Morphology in Seattle, show us the planting designs that have shaped landscape architecture, featuring “never-before-published” examples of 60 influential gardens. Organized by design movement, the book features more than 250 full-color photographs highlighting the work of well-known designers such as Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Michael Vergason, FASLA, and many others. The book’s strength is its breadth, even within the seemingly-narrow focus on planting design.

Plants as Architecture

Plants can create structure for a larger landscape. This idea is the very “essence of landscape architecture, and essential to garden- and place-making,” the authors write in the book’s first chapter, which focuses on how plants can be used to divide and manipulate spaces. The chapter begins with the history of English topiary gardens dating back to the 1700s before transitioning to more contemporary interpretations.

OLIN’s design for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a contemporary standout, with mature trees creating a striking division between the museum and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The mottled trunks on these London plane trees also provide a complement to the fossilized limestone of the buildings’ façade, while drawing attention to their height.

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Barnes Foundation by Olin Partnership / By Michael Moran for the Architectural Review

Artfully Naturalistic Gardens

Those familiar with naturalistic planting design, an approach that appears seemingly natural but is actually constructed, will undoubtedly recognize the names of William Robertson and Gertrude Jekyll who pioneered the style in the late-1800s. While the approach has remained popular over the last 125 years, The Authentic Garden delves into how it has evolved from the 1800s to present day. Over the centuries, two design principles came to the forefront: first, create multi-seasonal gardens and, second, make them ecological. These principles, according to the authors, have helped to ensure the naturalistic approach endures as designers adapt English traditions to their own climates.

One of the most compelling examples of this evolution is California-based Elysian Landscapes’ design for a courtyard beside an Isabel Marant store in Los Angeles, California. Using native plants adapted to the dry southwest climate, the firm formed “casual massings,” out of “loose tufts of perennials” that are bright and exotic, but subtly pay homage to a more traditional planting system. Such examples, found throughout The Authentic Garden, provide inspiration to designers in all climates.

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Isabel Marant in Los Angeles by Elysian Landscapes / The Monacelli Press

Graphic Planting Design

Graphic planting design — which incorporate plants in large, often mono-color blocks to create a graphic effect of the landscape — were perhaps made most famous by Brazilian landscape architect, artist, and ecologist Roberto Burle Marx. Known for his affinity for strong forms and bright colors, Marx has inspired many generations of designers. However, as with other traditional planting styles, graphic planting design has evolved over the decades since Marx, becoming even more popular today, the authors assert.

Attracted to the strong aesthetic of these designs, as well as the ease of maintaining larger masses of plants, firms such as Sonoma, California-based Roche+Roche have made this style their own in the 21st century. Using massings of copper, blue-green, and lavender plants “that hold up well in strong light” at a Napa Valley residence, the firm created a memorable landscape striking within the pages of the book.

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Residence in Sonoma by Roche + Roche / The Monacelli Press

Subsequent chapters highlight more contemporary planting design styles, such as ecological, seasonal, and temporary planting. The authors show how climate-sensitive adaptations of traditional, European-style planting approaches can be achieved in gardens in dry and tropical climates, too.

Though the book is defined by its large, vibrant imagery, The Authentic Garden is more than just a coffee-table book. A must have for landscape architects and horticulturalists alike, it serves as reminder that even as beauty should be ecological today, there is still nothing wrong with adding in some “beauty for beauty’s sake.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

OY/YO sculpture by Deborah Kass / Etienne Frossard/Courtesy of Two Trees Management Co, Vulture
OY/YO sculpture by Deborah Kass / Etienne Frossard/Courtesy of Two Trees Management Co, Vulture

New York Has Solved the Problem of Public Art. But at What Cost? Vulture, 12/17/15
“It is such a simple joy to feel the real rhythms of the city and see this perfect public sculpture, especially in an age when public space seems more and more turned by developers into private arcades for the privileged.”

Obama Center Chooses Architects Strong On Modernism, Innovative Thinking The Chicago Tribune, 12/21/15
“I also wonder when — or if — landscape architects will be brought into the process. Their involvement seems crucial, given that the presidential center will be built in an Olmsted park.”

Four Finalists Announced for Revamp of Pershing Square in Downtown LA Dezeen Magazine, 12/22/15
“Architecture studio Morphosis and landscape architect James Corner Field Operations are among the four teams that have been shortlisted to redesign one of Los Angeles’ oldest public parks.”

Building a More Resilient Landscape With PolycultureDallas News, 12/23/15
“Much research using native plants has focused on conserving and restoring open lands, but corporations, hospitals, restaurants, housing subdivisions and college campuses have many open areas — some are acres, others are small beds outside a door.”

The Green Shoots of Gardening in the UAE The National, 12/24/15
“In the Middle East the winter months are a time of growth and abundance in the garden and represent the peak of the growing season.”

Peter Latz: Rehabilitating Postindustrial Landscapes – The New York Times, 12/30/15
“The landscape architect Peter Latz grew up amid the ruins of postwar Germany in Saarland, a coal- and steel-producing region whose bombed-out factories and mines would inspire his work.”