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Future Landscape Architecture Essays

  1. Time and Landscape

 “What Time is this Place?” asked Kevin Lynch, exploring how communities manage environmental change.1 His question was prescient. Globalization of technologies, societies, and economies is transforming the world along diverse and unforeseen pathways, and landscape architecture is challenged by the need to both respect the past and confront the certainty of an uncertain future. 

Landscape architecture theorists and practitioners typically frame their understanding and response to landscape change as a dialogue with an evolving and emergent landscape2 that has accrued meaning and significance “like a patina.”3 Alexander Pope wrote of the environmental conversation which informs landscape design, consulting an enduring genius loci—the water, topography, and vegetation.4 More recently, Ian McHarg reframed the conversation as one of “design with nature,” arguing that landscape intervention be grounded in the contextual study of landscape processes.5 His mapping and layering approach is now widely used to systematically grasp the “the flowing face of nature in its motion”6 and to project future design relationships.7

However, in our conversations with landscape and in projecting design possibilities, landscape architecture must always anticipate the unknowable. The “stuff” of landscape—the materiality of soil, plants, water—is dynamic, transient, and to a significant degree, indeterminate. Much contemporary design has been reconfigured as a process that progressively transforms urban landscapes along multiple ecological dimensions.8 A related shift is a reorientation of design goals from program9 to performance.10 Design outcomes become expressed as a rich and diverse stream of services and values11 such as biodiversity, heritage or recreation, and their expression is inevitably less easy to define and predict than the form of particular object or surface installations. However, some assumptions about continuity in the material conditions of landscape are still needed. Examples of “open-ended” design are typically set in known landscape contexts—even if particular sites are in flux—and are based on predicted or assumed relationships within landscape. As McHarg expressed it, they still presume “the place (is) because,”12 and make assumptions about how it will “become.” Design “open-endedness” is thus conditional and bracketed within known landscape processes, institutional arrangements, design operations, and construction methods.

Landscape architecture also typically presupposes a relatively predictable temporal frame, which provides opportunity for careful analysis and leisurely conversations with the genius loci. Engagement with biophysical and cultural contexts grounds us in place, whether reading the landscape of Pope’s hills, vales, and waters, or interpreting the contemporary voids of urban decay. But how can design be imagined when the conversation with landscape is radically disrupted? What happens when design context, design object, and landscape relationships all become indeterminate?13

In this essay, we reflect upon experiences of a series of major earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand to explore conceptual, emotional, and material dimensions of uncertainty in landscape architectural theory and practice. The earthquakes and their aftermath provide vivid insight into the enigma of design in a truly dynamic landscape. Rather than a benign character progressively revealed and shaped as a pleasant setting for a postcolonial city, the genius loci of Christchurch has been dramatically unmasked as a force possessed, prone to violent and unpredictable outbursts. 

The earthquakes began in September 2010 with a 7.1 magnitude event on a known fault some distance from the city. Hopes of return to normality were shattered on February 22, 2011, when two shallow and locally intense quakes on a previously unknown fault close to the Central Business District (CBD) caused widespread devastation, resulting in 185 fatalities. Over 10,000 aftershocks have since shaken the region, and continued as we wrote some 18 months later. Such seismic events radically recast temporal frames and demand profound rethinking of our place within landscape. They highlight the vastness of geological time, the instantaneous nature of change, and amplify its recurring unpredictability. Other contemporary landscape dynamics are also unpredictable—economic crises, civil unrest, and climate change and its effects—and such conditions are arguably becoming more “normal” than the relative stability experienced in much of the developed world since 1945. Our reflections in the face of intense tectonic change are therefore offered here as insights into understanding and designing the “new normal” of shifting landscapes “in-between times,” of working in those temporal conditions where everything is suspended in an indeterminate state. These ‘in-between times’ heighten the very nature of landscape as process, while landscape as product—‘finished’ plazas, streetscapes, parks, and gardens—is revealed as an illusory aspiration, a hoped for future in the face of constant, relentless change.

  1. Ruin Time and Landscapes Past

While geological time provides a conceptual measure for physical landscape, the vastness of time becomes palpable through the presence of relics and ruins. Often compared to natural landscapes, particularly when weathered and invaded by vegetation, ruins are central to landscape architecture’s engagement with the past.14 However, while established ruins confer continuity and are familiar cues for place identity in conventional design responses, new ruins are distressing and unsettling, a raw wound in our consciousness. Whether from earthquakes or human-induced disasters, new ruins are confrontational, and the experience—especially where lives were lost—is intensely emotional. 

Aesthetic appreciation of recent ruins is also ethically fraught, from John Ruskin’s critique of the “heartless picturesque”15 to Damien Hirst’s controversial statement that the ruins of the World Trade Center were a “visually stunning artwork.”16 Recent ruins are emphatically sublime, terrific, and incomprehensible, but only time can provide the lens to appreciate their beauty. As literary critic Jean Starobinski observed, for a ruin to be beautiful, “the act of destruction must be remote enough for its precise circumstances to have been forgotten” and then “it can then be imputed to an anonymous power, to a featureless transcendent force–History, Destiny.”17 Florence Hetzler calls this “ruin time,” a temporal interlude in which a damaged structure loses its raw and painful appearance.18 Rose Macaulay describes this shift when she writes how bombed cities, like ancient ruins, needed “the long patience and endurance of time” before they “mellowed into ruin.”19

Design involving recent ruins is thus conceptually, emotionally, and politically unsettling. In Christchurch, the controlled deconstruction of the central icon of the city, Christchurch Cathedral, has generated intense debate and confrontation. Can or should the damaged structure be stabilized and restored, or is the process too dangerous? How could this be afforded, when there are pressing social needs for housing? What is the design response to calls for a memorial garden in the footprint of the contested building? These decisions require a consideration of different physical, emotional, economic, and political risks—a dimension of practice as yet underdeveloped in our discipline.

The new and raw landscape ruins of the wider city are equally challenging. Significant parts of the eastern suburbs of Christchurch are uninhabitable. Many were built on former wetlands now revealed to be unsuitable due to lateral spread and soil liquefaction, and are “red zoned” (in the new local language of planning)—meaning their residents must resettle elsewhere. It is not that the genius loci was mute on such natural hazards when the suburbs were created—rather, those responsible were selectively deaf in their conversations, and did not “read the signs.”20 The ruptured landscape now lies partly abandoned while government deliberates on its future. The designated red zone is a truly landscape-scale ruin, as opposed to the object-like ruins of buildings. And herein lies one of the critical problems of large-scale sudden and unforeseen change—the landscape and its communities need time to respond and evolve, to adapt to a new state and set of conditions. 

While interventions at the scale of an object or even a site can be relatively quickly made, at the landscape scale the complexity of the biophysical landscape, as well as the entwined and complex nature of the cultural landscape, including such challenges as property boundaries, means that change must be incremental. Landscape planners and communities can quickly generate exciting possible futures, such as proposals for the naturalization of damaged areas as future flood protection parks,21 but the agencies responsible have to reconcile many conflicting imperatives, intensified through crisis. Faced with the socio-economic aftermath of violent change, there is an overriding desire to clean up, repair basic infrastructure, and restore both public and private cash flows. At the same time, this is precisely when imagination and vision are most needed to initiate strategic changes in the way we live,22 and enable society to better adapt to the revealed dynamics of landscape. How can these conflicting imperatives be reconciled? One option is to seek out pressure points where modest actions can have community-wide significance, for example by foregrounding evidence of the events as a prompt for collective action. 

  1. The Unexpected and the Surreal

Strange juxtapositions in the landscape heighten our appreciation of time. Through drawing attention to the extraordinary within the ordinary, surreal landscape moments intensify our apprehension of places. Sometimes the landscape’s strangeness can emerge from incremental changes over time, where erosion creates ghoulish forms, or vegetation grows in seemingly impossible places. At other times, the landscape becomes surreal with shocking suddenness. Abrupt and unexpected changes in the landscape can result in strange new configurations as earthquakes or tsunamis transform seemingly immutable landscape elements. This creates opportunities to strategically curate change,23 to mark and re-present the process and experience of landscape transformation—recording the past while shaping a new future. 

Preservation of tangible evidence of change—ruins, landscape fragments—is difficult in immediate post-disaster regimes, but can be profound in its effect. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, severely damaged land in the port area was left unrepaired, and is now “exhibited” in contrast to the landscape context. In 2011 in Ishinomaki, Japan, a memorial offered itself from the wreckage. A giant can, previously used as an advertisement, was washed onto the street by the tsunami. Recognizing its potency as an objet trouvé—a ready-made—the can was left in the middle of the road and traffic diverted around it. Its emergence from the devastation, a product of the dramatic force of the event, resonates with the Ground Zero cross, which materialized from the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Kobe’s damaged land, Ishinomaki’s big can, and Ground Zero’s steel cross all endured the post-disaster period to become curated landscape fragments that bear witness to past events. 

Unexpected objects and sites thus present potent possibilities in the curation of the landscape. Akin to curating exhibits in a gallery, these elements can be revealed and amplified, while the landscape around them proceeds to a new condition. These small features of the landscape offer a kind of datum against which landscape change can be referenced, representative evidence—
a cross, a giant can—that becomes a microcosm of wider events, a landscape synecdoche. The products of an instantaneous shift that produced unexpected results, these landscape elements embody notions of attachment and meaning in the wake of disaster. In Christchurch, such fragments are yet to be curated in any systematic way, but the possibilities lie ready—boulders still strewn along side roads, collapsed cliffs abutting abandoned houses, heritage buildings lying shattered behind security fences—and there is also opportunity to curate change more explicitly in the way future parks are reconfigured out of land abandoned as a “red zone.” 

  1. The Recurrent: Transient Landscapes and In-Between Times

Recurrent but unpredictable natural events create distinctive and profoundly unsettling temporal regimes. Landscape theorists and practitioners are familiar and accomplished at designing around and through predictable cyclic phenomena such as diurnal changes in light, temperature and activity, seasonal changes, lifecycles, ecological successions and so on. Even irregular events like rainstorms are framed statistically, with predicted return periods providing a conceptual design platform for storm water systems. Prediction of earthquakes, however, remains a dark art. Furthermore, earthquakes bring aftershocks, some as devastating—
or in Christchurch, more devastating—than the original event, but impossible to predict. The continuing shaking has created a Sisyphean sense of recurrence, as attempts to restart life are set back or undone—and the sustained unpredictability of in-between times makes landscape reconstruction problematic. 

At the time of writing, the Christchurch earthquakes are the world’s third most financially expensive natural disaster. Topped only by the 2011 floods in Thailand and the 2011 Japanese tsunami, costs were disproportional to the physical magnitude of the event because of extensive insurance. However, insurers now argue over liability for each new event and are reluctant to provide further coverage while aftershocks continue.24 Significant parts of the CBD remain closed as high rise buildings are deconstructed,25 and many suburban areas still await insurance decisions on future occupancy.

In such in-between times, innovative approaches to landscape intervention provide alternative means of reactivating the city. These are intentionally transient, moving from site to site to accommodate the constantly morphing nature of the city. Community organizations such as Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble claim vacant sites for temporary landscapes. A Dance-O-Mat (a moving platform powered by an old Laundromat washing machine with an iPhone dock to provide music) a giant chess set, and outdoor bowling alley have been created. The city as a landscape at the mercy of some exterior force is suggestive of a board game, where the roll of a dice determines which buildings stay, or are demolished, and which color different parts of the city are zoned. Playing on this, one intervention takes the form of a colored square, complete with two houses, and a digger as the game token, all suggestive of a well-known property acquisition game. Projects like these are reminders of the importance of humor as a coping strategy, where small and simple designs can bring delight and relief amidst the bleakness of a wrecked city. Close by, a shopping precinct of shipping containers is a hub of activity amidst soon-to-be demolished buildings and razed sites in the CBD. When relocated to other areas as rebuilding commences, the temporary shops become catalytic, colonizing and reactivating the expired city, and fostering the slow change that characterizes landscape-scaled responses.

Memorials also take temporary form. Working against the grain of embedded associations of memorials with permanence—with the vastness of time—there is an escalation in temporary memorials worldwide in response to tragedy.26 Memento-strewn fences marked sites like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in Christchurch, the security fences excluding the community from the CBD also became sites for the expression of the loss of both people and buildings. On the first anniversary of the February quake, artist Henry Sunderland’s symbolic and poignant landscape vision of encouraged residents to put flowers in thousands of road cones became a city-wide memorial. Temporary memorials imbue even the most humble landscape objects—fences and road cones—with heightened significance, reminders that the power of landscape comes not from big budgets and expensive materials but through creativity and thoughtfulness. 


LAF Releases New Landscape Declaration Book

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Rare Bird Books have released The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century. This landmark book features the 32 “Declarations” written for LAF’s 2016 Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, along with excerpts from panel discussions and an opening essay by Richard Weller of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

The book was launched at the 2017 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles where it was a top-seller in the EXPO bookstore. It is now available in hardcover and ebook form through online retailers, including Powell’s, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century
ISBN: 9781945572692
Hardcover, 240 pages
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
Author: Landscape Architecture Foundation
List price: $29.95

On the eve of its 50th anniversary, LAF asked a powerhouse of leading thinkers in landscape architecture to reflect on the last half-century and present bold ideas for what the discipline should achieve in the future. Through essays, TED-style presentations, and panel discussions, these designers discussed their role in addressing weighty issues such as climate change, urbanization, management of vital resources like water, and global inequities. Their ideas were used to craft the New Landscape Declaration, a manifesto for landscape architecture in the 21st century.

The book brings together all of these ideas and includes original essays from James Corner, Azzurra Cox, Tim Duggan, Gina Ford, Randy Hester, Nina-Marie Lister, Kate Orff, Alpa Nawre, Mario Schjetnan, Martha Schwartz, Carl Steinitz, Kongjian Yu, and others.

Learn more here.