Landscape Architecture Magazine Ι June 2016
IN RECENT ISSUES OF STUDENT LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE JOURNALS, there are articles about the landscape implications of graffiti, the ghost towns of the industrial Arctic, the consolidation of rural Midwest post offices, transit networks of the nuclear waste storage industry, and (unavoidably) how the Internet affects perceptions of landscape. This wide focus maps out a de facto definition of landscape architecture by highlighting everything that surrounds it and letting the practice itself fill in the void in the middle. (In the University of California, Berkeley’s Ground Up, Jill Desimini’s survey of inner-city horse stables in Philadelphia evocatively connects landscape architecture to an unexpected subculture. Also in Ground Up, Nick Gotthardt’s exploration of how marginalized people colonized sewer pipes in the East Bay is a diagram of social structures and countercultural folkways. Similarly, in the University of Colorado Denver’s Root, Robert Ng documents the repurposing of abandoned landscapes filled with building refuse in Detroit into ski jumps with an ultrarational, sociological eye. In the pages of University of Virginia’s Lunch, Chinatowns across the world are cataloged and pinned down like insects in a natural history museum’s glass vitrine.
Student landscape architecture journals serve a lot of purposes. They’re a banner for the pedagogy each school promotes, opportunities for aspiring designers to practice writing as they prepare to assemble portfolios and pitch clients, exploratory forums where unformed and ambitious students find their niche, and a bridge between academic research journals and trade media.
“It’s a chance to articulate what our individual and collective voices are going to be in the profession,” says Laurence Holland, an editor of the University of Virginia’s Lunch, which is drawn from the school’s architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and architectural history programs.
It’s a dispersed editorial mandate, equally concerned with serving students, the profession, and, to some extent, the public. But somehow, among the small group of independent, student-run journals that focus their efforts outside their immediate academic context, there’s broad consensus on what landscape architecture is and how it should function.
Schools on both coasts and in the middle of the country have dedicated their student journals to a sense of landscape architecture in which the highest calling is turning waste into ecologically sensitive infrastructure. This idea of landscape architecture seeks out inequality and uses this infrastructure to mitigate it. And it’s a profession that works at a decades-long time scale, unself-consciously wandering across the borders of all environmental design disciplines.
These editorial priorities yield thick tomes (and minimal web presence) in the age of the tweet, produced at a glacial pace that allows for the crafting of a treasured design object. (Lunch’s latest issue is 250 pages long.) “As designers, we love a good artifact,” Holland says. Their covers are either stark photography or abstracted representations of landscape, which bring the reader into an infographic-heavy interior, filled with satellite imagery and sober renderings. The journals are often better at defining a problem than proposing solutions, relying a lot on infographics to communicate ideas better explained by narrative. And there are a few standbys that the journals return to again and again. It’s hard to go more than 30 pages without an article about or involving dredging. But on the whole, this group of publications is wildly eclectic, but in a similar way.
Editorial turnover is nearly 100 percent a year, as each new group of students takes charge of producing the publication. But this aesthetic and editorial consistency remain through time and space. Ground Up, Lunch, and Root are run by graduate students with little faculty oversight. They produce one issue a year, based on a broad theme: “representation,” “grit,” “alien.” They’re largely catalogs of working landscapes performing ecosystem services. At Virginia, it’s not difficult to detect the influence of Landscape Architecture Department Chair Julie Bargmann’s rough-edged but restorative landscape adaptive reuse. But this approach is pervasive at the other schools as well. Ground Up’s third issue featured a plan from the University of Pennsylvania MLA student Joshua Seyfried that recasts brick yards polluted by coal-fired kilns in Bangladesh as community centers. Another piece considers the aftermath of freeway teardowns, proposing a park defined by the cylindrical columns that held up elevated highways. In Root’s fourth issue, one study explores the tension between landscape architecture’s current mandate for ameliorative infrastructure with past perceptions as being purveyors of shrubbery for the well-to-do. In “Intimate Infrastructure: Garden-Making as a Spatial Tactic in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Meg Posey tours simple backyard gardens of township residents, cataloging the roles each garden plays: subsistence, cash crops, and neighborhood beautification. In this study and elsewhere, formal explorations of landscapes are almost entirely absent. Instead, featured projects draw their formal power from the juxtaposition of the scars of the past with clever reinventions of the future. For students of landscape architecture, the tabula rasa site doesn’t seem to have much to teach.
While the rest of the design world is enamored with do-it-yourself tactical urbanism sourced from social media, student landscape architecture journals are invested in how landscapes change over decades, not weeks. “We’re driven to think on a longer time scale, to think [geologically], about the layering of time,” says Amanda Coen, a former Lunch editor. A century-long flood mitigation strategy for the Bay Area, “Making Ground/Farming Water,” by Tom Leader Studio is featured in Ground Up, and proposes demolishing structures that are likely to be flooded and placing the rubble into reefs that will slow oncoming floodwaters and act as platforms for new productive agricultural landscapes. Root’s “Regenerate” issue traces the nearly 100-year history of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge as it’s transformed from agricultural fields to a Cold War nuclear arsenal and then to an industrial brownfield.
Another commonality is a fascination with extreme environments (such as the Arctic) and speculative proposals that question landscape architecture and the expectations people have of it at the most fundamental levels. “City of Blubber: A Fantasy” in Lunch’s ninth issue dispenses with the tired assumption of an explicit ground plane altogether in favor of landscapes of flowing gelatinous goo. An interview in Ground Up with the designer and ecologist Brent Bucknum catches him musing: “When you start to suggest that we irrigate the wall with urine or drip irrigate feces water to it, it starts to become taboo.” These journals are less about landscape architecture itself, and more about where landscape architecture meets the rest of the world.
Ground Up’s “Seeping Boundaries” article, by Suzanne Harris-Brandts, is something like a bull’s-eye, situated dead center in this crop of these journals’ editorial consensus. It’s a pitch to reuse debris from demolished structures in the contested Israeli/Palestinian West Bank as sewage filtering systems for Palestinian residents. This lucid proposition is the platonic ideal of a student landscape architecture journal article: It reaches out to an oppressed group with refuse re-envisioned as infrastructure. It evolves over years and years. It seeks out controversy. And it reaches past the borders of landscape architecture to touch other disciplines. Probably the greatest measure of consistency seen across these journals is that many stories hit all these sweet spots.
In “Seeping Boundaries,” the focus on hydrology and civil engineering also makes it clear that aspiring landscape architects have zero concern about crossing into the turf of other design disciplines. Several editors spoke about the difficulty they found in pinning down landscape architecture’s core identity, caught between ecology, architecture, and urban planning, and this question is asked in several of the journals. But the most interesting answers in this regard come from the wide range of disciplines the journals’ editors see landscape architecture engaging. There are many pieces on how people use neglected or marginalized spaces such as the shuttered Albany Bulb landfill, projects that deal more with sociology than with landscape architecture. A plan in Ground Up to install mist-emitting pylons that keep particulate matter out of the air in forests is mostly an exercise in urban forestry.
For the student editors, the reasons for this inclusive, multidisciplinary approach go hand in hand with landscape architecture’s social mandate. “The really big issues aren’t going to be solved by any one discipline,” says Makena Roeswood, an editor of Root.
This transition away from hyperspecialized monocultures toward a more balanced and eclectic approach has an analogy in 20th-century urban planning patterns. Postwar planners segregated every programmatic use in its own district, a pattern that’s been re-evaluated in favor of more authentically heterogeneous and mixed-use development. Similarly, these journals’ approach today is more “urban” and diverse: placing elements of architecture, planning, and botany right around the block from each other.
These journals do, however, express their interdisciplinary priorities in different ways. Ground Up and Lunch ask for credibility outside landscape architecture’s strict bounds by working within intensely specialized, research-based proposals. When the underlying theory doesn’t quite come together, the result can be a fair amount of academic throat clearing before the grand idea is unveiled. Root approaches cross-disciplinary relevance in the opposite way. Its articles tend to be more accessible and practical—easier to explain to nondesigner colleagues who start fiddling with their phone at the mention of “anthropogenic comaking of geologic and hydrological processes.” Roeswood says her editorial team’s goal is “a little bit less high-academic,” which flows from their school’s instruction. “The deeper you go into it, the further you get from anyone who’s not deep into it,” she says. Root’s sixth issue, for example, featured an article on the ways children experience landscapes, and on the next page is a smart and insightful landscape evaluation of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe —disparate topics that both met the reader on their own terms.
Ground Up’s editorial sensibility also stems from its school’s pedagogy and cultural context. Karl Kullmann, the Ground Up faculty adviser, says that the journal began in 2010 as the recession lingered, administrators ratcheted up tuition in response, and the Occupy movement fermented on Berkeley’s campus. Students were angry and “felt really dispossessed,” he says, questioning the investment and potential payoff their degree would get them. The question became: “How can we harness that energy and turn it into a positive force?” Kullmann says. The answer was Ground Up issue No. 1, “Landscapes of Uncertainty.” It’s been fundamentally based in Berkeley’s rich history of social activism and protest ever since.
Ground Up’s next issue, “Delineations,” will have a more pastoral genesis. Much of it was hashed out over a winter break retreat in Bodega Bay, led by the coeditors Story Wiggins and Michelle Hook, where the staff read through submissions, cooked meals together, and hiked along the coast. In homage to Lawrence Halprin’s 1960s “Experiments in Environment” workshops, they put together a sculptural Driftwood City on the beach. The conversations they had there “just would not have happened at a Monday meeting at 6:30 p.m. after studio when you’re totally exhausted,” Wiggins says.
With their Driftwood City as evidence, it’s clear that the students at Berkeley still hold previous generations of landscape architects in thrall, even if the professional discourse has moved on in the past 50 years. But Kullmann says this newer, unified consensus seen in the journals is poised to topple after more than a decade in the spotlight. “I think there’s a new set of questions that the world is facing that these current interests aren’t fully equipped [to handle],” he says. “There’s a rupture in the discourse that’s about to happen in the next few years.” Landscape architecture’s fascination with infrastructure wasn’t new 10 years ago either, Kullmann says. This idea first appeared in the profession around the 1930s New Deal. “These things tend to move in cycles,” he says.
Satellite imagery made gargantuan-scaled infrastructural projects approachable for landscape architecture, and Kullmann and his students are waiting on the next technical innovation to push the field and the journals that document it forward. One intuitive place to look is the most important information technology development of the last quarter century: the Internet. Its ability to unify and polarize small subcultures is celebrated (crowdfunding a pocket park) and reviled (global terrorist networks), but above all, it’s well documented. It’s easy to imagine the small subculture of landscape architecture students feasting on the same media, imagery, and ideas, and coalescing a common vision at schools thousands of miles apart. Roeswood wonders if this consistency is driven by the homogeneity of graduate school students themselves, largely white and middle- to upper-middle class.
As landscape architecture changes in the years ahead, whatever presents itself as the Patient Zero of the new zeitgeist is likely to appear first in a student journal. They’re produced and read by audiences unencumbered by tradition, undiscriminating in their interests, and obsessed with connecting landscape architecture to the rest of the world in any way they can. No matter what it says on the cover, the real theme of just about any issue is “The Future of Landscape Architecture.”