Sorting Through Contemporary Landscape Architecture

thinking-the-contemporary-landscape
Thinking the Contemporary Landscape / Princeton Architectural Press

Thinking the Contemporary Landscape, a new collection of essays edited by EHTZ professors Chistophe Girot and Dora Imhof takes on the considerable task of creating a unified understanding of landscape. The essays’ takeaways don’t quite paint as cohesive a picture as the editors suggest. But if the rational and the poetic in landscape are to be reconciled, as the editors insist they must be, this scattershot approach seems as good as any.

Several of the essays deal with the critical issue of place, and how design might enhance rather than obscure it. Girot, in his essay, points to the trend of homogenized ecological design as a missed opportunity to enter a dialogue with the local context. An increased reliance on 2D mapping techniques is to blame for this, Girot argues. An alternative? 3D, of course. Girot is an effective pitchman for the point cloud and the specificity it allows designers to access. Still, it seems too convenient to blame out-of-the-box designs on one set of tools or methods. Girot himself describes these ecological designs as a trend. And as trends are by nature fleeting, perhaps the fear of homogenization has outgrown its actual threat.

In her essay, Allesandre Ponte at the University of Montreal suggests the mapping craze Girot refers to might be a sign of insecurity on the part of designers who find themselves groping around a dark and ever-expanding room of ecology, territory, and culture. The multitude of ways designers can approach sites could come as a relief to some but also induce further “paralysis by analysis” in others.

A meditation by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, on model-making weaves together interesting personal anecdotes to make a valid criticism of 3D technologies. Rhino and Grasshopper are a necessity but don’t confer good landscape sense. One trusts Gustafson writes from experience when she shares that a designer cannot explore a landscape with just a keyboard and mouse. “Where are you?” Gustafson prods. “What are you truly experiencing? This is the only thing, for me, that really matters.”

It’s possible to get the impression from some contemporary landscape architects that the greatest transgression a designer can make is neglecting aesthetics in the pursuit of ecological function. Reading of people drowning in the streets of Beijing due to urban flooding, one can forgive Kongjian Yu, FASLA, this offense in his deployment of urban sponges. “Healing the ecological system at the national scale needs simple, replicable, and inexpensive solutions, not self-indulgent ornamental design or artistic form,” writes Yu. Of course, Turenscape’s Qunli Stormwater Park is staggering in its messy functionality. Yu shares its origins as well as the genesis of Turenscape in one of the book’s more personable essays. It’s organized as a guide, with steps such as “Do not Try to Influence the Experts,” and “Make a Proposal to the Prime Minister.”

The book’s most successful essays tell stories. Yu’s falls into this category, as does Susann Ahn and Regine Keller’s delightful essay on nature and imitation. Conceiving of nature as a construct can be extremely liberating. But what happens when that conception runs up against cultural expectation? Designers buckle and imitative natures get built. “The question remains whether, and when, the imitation will render the original meaningless.”

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