Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 1–15)

Cyborg Landscapes / Bradley Cantrell, Kristi Cheramie, Jeffrey Carney, and Matthew Seibert, Louisiana State University Coastal Sustainability Studio, the design firm Invivia, and Urbain DRC.

Design Profile: Q&A with Marcel Wilson of Bionic Landscape Architecture
The San Francisco Chronicle, 9/2/14
“Marcel Wilson, the principal of San Francisco-based Bionic Landscape Architecture, sees every project as a possibility for invention.”

Grand Park Benefits Made in America, but Is the Reverse True? – The Los Angeles Times, 9/2/14
“Luckily, even as concertgoers were tramping across Grand Park’s lawns and through its flower beds, they were also helping demonstrate pretty clearly where its design might be tweaked and improved. They made up a huge and unwitting landscape-architecture focus group.”

Unveiled: 5 Visions for Landscape Above Crissy FieldThe San Francisco Chronicle, 9/4/14
“They vary widely in looks, but each of the five new conceptual visions for the landscape above Crissy Field have two things in common. Each has seductive aspects – and each tries too hard to bedazzle, in a setting where flash is not what we need.”

Changing Skyline: Dilworth Park Has Many Irresistible Features, but It’s Stiff, Uncomfortable The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/6/14
“They’ve reconstructed the space in front of Philadelphia’s palatial City Hall, furnished it with a cafe, a high-tech spray fountain and movable chairs, and rebranded it Dilworth Park. But the vast granite prairie is still very much a plaza, with all the weaknesses the word implies.”

These Synthetic Landscapes Respond to Nature in Real Time to Protect Us — and the Planet Fast Company, 9/8/14
“Bradley Cantrell, a landscape architect and TED fellow who will speak at the upcoming TEDGlobal2014 conference, is one of the pioneers exploring how the human-built world may begin relating differently to the natural world. ‘The goal is to embed computation, but with this kind of conservationist viewpoint,’ says Cantrell.”

“Dice Park” Fiasco Holds Lessons About Rising Expectations for Civic Design in Cleveland: Commentary The Plain Dealer, 9/12/14
“The brief life and rapid death last week of the Horseshoe Casino’s concept for the so-called ‘Dice Park’ in downtown Cleveland may have set a speed record for the public condemnation of a weak design idea.”

Land Matters: Expressing a World of Hurt

What kinds of memorials are fitting for disasters that are almost too horrible to contemplate? As school massacres, airliners flown into buildings, and similar horrors proliferate, should their memorialized expressions move us to tears—or should they strive to be bright and cheery?

A recent memorial installed in Canberra, Australia, demands that we ask this question. It commemorates the deaths at sea of 353 people, mostly women and children, all of them refugees from Indonesia seeking illegal entry into Australia. They were crowded on a small, leaky vessel that sank when a violent storm struck them on the high seas. The final anguish of the passengers, especially mothers who saw their children being swept under the raging waves, must have been horrible beyond words.

As chronicled in this month’s Critic at Large, the event spurred a small group of activists to create a memorial to publicize the plight of refugees who, like the drowning victims, are denied entry by Australia’s tough immigration policies. The effort pulled in thousands of Australians, including schoolchildren, who competed to create the best design. The winning entry by a 14-year-old schoolboy consists of 353 white poles, each bearing the name of a drowning victim, and decorated by school and church groups across Australia. Some of this decoration reminds me of candy canes or the cheery designs on a baby’s crib. Were the volunteers struggling to put a benign face on the dark and terrible event?

Maya Lin had a different idea in her design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I really did mean for people to cry,” Lin said. “As you read a name or touch a name, the pain will come out. Then you can, on your own power, turn around and walk back up into the light…. You have to accept that this pain has occurred in order for it to be healed.”

Memorial designers like those in Australia seem to make the opposite assumption—that when the pain and grief are too great, the designers must cover them over with a sweetened (or at least neutral) expression. Sometimes grieving families mandate this, as in the case of the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, where families insisted on “no flames and no planes” in the design. And who can blame the bereaved for wanting a place of solace?

It’s sometimes said that the process of design is cathartic for families who increasingly drive the design of memorials such as the one to the Columbine High School massacre. The resulting Columbine memorial (see “Private Grief, Public Place,” Landscape Architecture, October 2008) is, to my eye, the blandest thing anyone could imagine, but if taking part in its design comforted any of the bereaved, who cares what it looks like? Put another way, is the visual form of a memorial as important as the process that brought it into being?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine

Photo credit: Gweneth Newman Leigh, International ASLA