Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Landscape Architecture's Finest Moment?

Is the profession of landscape architecture entering into a new golden age? If the 2012 ASLA awards are any indication, the answer may be yes.

Award of Excellence: “A Green Sponge for a Water Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park,” Haerbin City, China. Design by Turrenscape and Peking University, Beijing. Photos by Kogjian Yu.

Landscape architects have long lived with a dualistic view of the profession. Inside the profession, LA’s see themselves as heirs to Frederick Law Olmsted’s heroic and sweeping ambitions. Landscape architects shape cities, create National Parks, protect the environment, and even stimulate social reform. But this rather ambitious internal view of the profession is undercut by landscape architecture’s relative obscurity in the public eye. Introduce yourself as a landscape architect at a cocktail party and questions about lawn mowers, flowers, or plant diseases immediately follow. Since Olmsted, the chasm between what landscape architects think they do and what the majority of them actually do has been very deep. Until now.

Landscape architects may indeed be gaining influence. “Landscape urbanism,” the theory that landscape—rather than architecture—is more capable of organizing and enhancing cities has moved from obscure theory to the dominant pedagogy in design-related higher education. Large scale urban projects all over the world are being lead by elite landscape architecture firms rather than by architects. Landscape architecture is moving away from merely ornamenting buildings and instead shaping the very infrastructure of cities.

The 2012 ASLA Awards are another indication of landscape architecture’s emboldened scope. The awards feature a stunning array of projects, including a seven thousand acre stormwater park; a park highlighting urban agriculture; a former quarry turned garden; the defining memorial for 9/11; and two new botantical gardens that feature not just plants as horticultural objects, but the ecological relationship between them.

Honor Award: “Quarry Garden in Shanghai Botanical Garden,” Shanghai China. THUPDI & Tsinghua University.

What is remarkable about this year’s ASLA Awards is not just the variety of projects, but the ambition of each of them. The Qunli Stormwater Park in China shows that a gorgeously designed recreational park can also be a green sponge for the entire city. Lafayette Greens in Detroit shows how an engaging public space can also be a productive vegetable garden. The Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus shows how the ecological fabric of the Sonoran desert can be a setting for a campus. Canada’s Sugar Beach shows that playfulness and whimsicality can contribute to the beauty of an urban waterfront.

What’s different about these projects is not just their scope, but their voice. The names of the projects by themselves—“Quarry Garden,” “Green Sponge for a City,” “Sugar Beach,”—suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of all these projects. These projects are not about making spaces that slip quietly into their context; they are instead a declaration of war. Their anthem is a simple: landscape matters.  Lanscape architects are no longer decorators of architecture; they are green knights who march foward with with the conviction that any outdoor space--from quarries to waterfronts, from gardens to cities--can be conquered with design.

Honor Award: “Canada’s Sugar Beach,” Toronto Waterfront. Claude Cormier Associes Inc. Images by Claude Cormier Associates and Nicola Betts.

Honor Award: “Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability,” Detroit, Michigan. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture.  Images by Beth Hagenbuch.

Honor Award: “Sunnylands Center and Gardens.” Rancho Mirage, California. The Office of James Burnett. Images by Mark Davidson and Dillon Diers.

For the full list of the 2012 ASLA Awards, including more images and fuller project descriptions, click here.


  1. I just received my copy yesterday and am excited to read about these projects. I have to say, though,I am getting tired of Bradford McKee's morose and cynical editorials. The one he wrote for this current issue makes me want to slit my wrists.

    1. Ha! I have to admit, I haven't read his editorials yet, but now I'll have to.

      The projects are really impressive. One of the best groups I've ever seen.

    2. I agree that, overall, these are the best set of winners in years—especially in the general design category. Still I have to express my usual disappointment in the residential winners. First of all, the Andrea Cochran apartment building garden looks so much like her 2007 Curran House submital that I can’t believe it won the top award! Check it out: http://www.asla.org/awards/2007/07winners/049_acla.html.

      Secondly, while these are all distinguished designers producing high quality work, the aesthetic is a strikingly similar across the residential design winners, if not the winners as a group. The only diversity is that dictated by geography. The style is consistently contemporary, the plant palettes are hardly expansive. The rhythmic repetition of what might otherwise be characterized as “specimen plants” is cool, but kind of a one trick pony. Everything, everywhere is linear, linear, linear! Obviously, this strategy compliments the lines of the new contemporary residences. It’s Dwell with more plants (For a fun time visit http://unhappyhipsters.com/)
      Frankly, my favorite in recent years is the Crack Garden from ‘09. Alas, it exists no more. It was ephemeral http://www.asla.org/2009awards/330.html Now, that’s a garden with whimsy, in fact I’m not completely convinced it wasn’t submitted partly as a joke—which does not undermine it as a creative use of space. The joke lies in the name and the project description : “The design is conceived as an intervention that functions as a lens, altering perception of a place rather than completely remaking it. The intervention can reveal the physical and material qualities of the place, and/or become a catalyst to incite new program activities. In the case of The Crack Garden, completely remaking the garden was highly unlikely because of the tiny budget. By fully embracing a strategy of design as intervention, the garden relies on its previous identity as much as it does on the changes that were imposed.” This “design speak” fulfills the submission requirements (e.g. one -page project narrative) where the simple sentence, “We had more creativity than money,” would not serve.

    3. Hi Susan!

      I totally agree about the residential category. I still just so surprised that ASLA even features a residential category, I forget to give it a more critical eye. Great point about Cochran's garden.

      I remember reading the project description of the crack garden and literally almost spewing coffee across my computer screen. The language is so ridiculously archi-jargon. I can only hope it was a joke. Though, I kind of doubt it. If you like collecting good examples of architecturally embellished language, look at the winners of the Rome Prize in the landscape architecture category. Can you translate this for me:

      "I want to explore the relationship between the corporeal experience and the spatial-sculptural conditions of temporal and unplanned urban sites. As a corollary and qualification, these sites must sponsor voluntary and spontaneous use by individuals or by a community. I propose to study how a visceral response is provoked by resultant or ruinous landscapes formed by material accrual, intervention and entropy over time, and how these aleatoric conditions can be applied to the designed landscape to elicit a heightened corporeal response."

      Golden! The landscape urbanism bullshit generator is a great website for this as well if you haven't already seen it. Google it.

      So glad you stopped by.

  2. Very cool! I'm always happy to see our profession, and the few I know in it, rise out of the old-guard ways that almost drove me from it before my first job out of college. I've seen some improvement in how I am allowed to practice as part of a team, though not anything grand. Your writing is certainly a nice addition to keep me from becoming a CPA (hiding the $) or drug dealer (making the $). Ha!

    Are you going to the ASLA convention in Phx? Wish I could, just too busy...but you never know if I might pop in for a bit of it, since it is just 6+ hours away for me by car.

    1. Hi David,

      Probably the shift is happening in large cities and Europe more than it is elsewhere in the country. There's still a lot of "old-guard" around, though less and less every year.

      I just love the boldness of so many of these winners. Subletly and contextualism is important, but every once in a while, it's great to see a project that really does something big.

      Drug dealing?! Is that how you pay the rent? I'm still trying to figure out what night jobs I need to work to live as a designer.

      Probably won't make it to Phoenix. Can't afford those plane tickets on the designer's salary. But if I started dealing drugs . . .

      Always good to hear from you.

  3. Landscape architecture is not going to be taken seriously by the architectural vanguard until projects like the Harvard ones are the norm. It seems like the only LA program that resides in the 21st century is Harvard and that is probably due to their intimate association with the architecture school. Golden Age? Maybe in a couple decades.

    1. Whether these excellent projects are outliers or the norm is a valid question. My feeling is that we are at sort of tipping point that makes landscape-led urbanism more than just a rare example. But you may be correct . . . perhaps we're not there yet.

      I have to disagree that Harvard is the only LA program that resides in the 21st century. You can look at the diversity of schools represented in the ASLA Student awards in the last few years. Each of these student projects represent brilliant, 21st century-relevant work. Something must be going right within the design schools.

    2. You have to understand that I am approaching these projects from a grounding in avant garde art and architectural theory. I am an architect working in Los Angeles and I work with people that have degrees from places like SCIArc and UCLA. They have taught at those places and also LA at Cal Poly Pomona. Every time we even hear the word regenerative we shake our heads. Schools like Cal Poly are so rooted in a design mentality from the 60s-70s that it is painful to sit on a review. Until LA discards this environmentalist regenerative and restorative landscape talk and get about the business of making art, they will be consigned to the back of the bus. I stand by my opinion that the only projects that would even merit discussion at elite architecture schools are those from Harvard.

    3. I’m fascinated by your comment. It helps me understand where you’re coming from. Do you write or have a blog site? I’d be fascinated to learn more about what drives your work. I am a fan of architectural theory, but must admit some ignorance as to what exactly constitutes the avant garde in architecture these days. There does not seem to be a unified theory—and perhaps it shouldn’t—but I would be interested in learning more about it.

      There’s no doubt that landscape architecture has (and perhaps always will) lag behind architecture in terms of theory. Much in the same way architecture lags behind art in terms of theory. And art behind philosophy. Peter Eisenman’s “deconstructionist” buildings were constructed a full two decades after Derrida first proprosed the idea.
      I’m less bothered with the lag time than I am with landscape architecture creating derivative or recycled ideology. I think you’re partially right in your critique of much the “restorative landscape talk” that dominates landscape architecture now. Much of it is recycled dogma from the 1970’s. But I think your critique doesn’t address the complexity (and diversity) of thought that leading practitioners and minds of landscape architecture now espouse.

      And to be fair, part of the problem for landscape architecture—at least in terms of creating avant garde work—is that it is fundamentally constrained by a site and its context. Architecture must respond to site as well, but it can liberate from context if it chooses. And I would argue that the need to respond to context constrains (though does not prohibit) the discipline’s ability to make statements.

      Perhaps the question I would pose is this: is architecture and landscape architecture really in the “business of making art” as you say? What has always separated architecture and landscape from the fine arts is that people have to live in our products. Dwelling and function are their defining characteristics. We don’t just make statements, we make places that people inhabit.

      I have mixed feelings about the desire to be avant garde. In many ways, it liberates the built arts from the constraints of program, client, and context. And historically it has pushed both our fields in wonderful new directions. But when the desire to be avant garde replaces the need of our work to be relevant to real people, then it consigns itself to the back of the bus.

    4. I would suggest checking out "The Atlas of Novel Techtonics" ( http://www.amazon.com/Atlas-Novel-Tectonics-Jesse-Reiser/dp/1568985541) as a good place to start with regards to contemporary architectural theory.

      I disagree that site context is a constraint or that site even necessarily constrains beyond the obvious physical limitations. To often history and nostalgia are brought in as a necessary constraining "context" that are unnecessarily self imposed. And these real world limitations have no bearing on the work of students.

      As to whether architecture regardless of discipline is art I will only say that architecture has been one of the 'high arts' along with painting, sculpture, and music for a very long time. So long perhaps that it has been forgotten.

      Of course not everyone can be in the avant garde, but the highest awards should reflect the most aspiring work that does push the field in those wonderful new directions. Derivative work cannot do that.

    5. I ordered a copy of the Reiser book. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I’m always a little suspicious of designers—like Reiser—who make an ideology out of “novelty.” You yourself say—perhaps correctly—that producing “derivative” work is a sin. Likely because it is not “new” or original.

      The problem I have with the cult of the “new” is that nothing is really new. “New” is an empty promise. One of the few (and truest) lessons of postmodernism was to point out that nothing is, in fact, new. Everything is a product of influence, dialogue, image, and replication. So while Reiser + Umemoto champion “beneficial novelty,” their built projects rely on forms such as perforated architectural skins that are somewhat trendy in architecture now. Their work looks like so many other architects now: organic –shaped buildings covered in perforated architectural skins. It’s not that this is bad, it just makes their claims to newness ring hollow to me.

      Almost every decade of the 20th century brought another architectural manifesto declaring the new “new.” So when designers swear an oath to the cult of the “new,” I am skeptical.

      You can save your friends dedicated to the avant garde a lot of time by reminding them: everything is derivative of something. The only option is for the designer to acknowledge the ideas or work their design is shaped by. And then responds within or against that tradition. That is the only path to authenticity.

    6. I don't know from where this anti-novel strawman argument is coming. No one has made any claim to some Platonic form of originality. What you are arguing against are arguments that no one ever makes. However, the avant garde by definition are trying to push the field in a new direction. That much is true. It does not follow however that because they are trying to create something new, that they have no awareness of that which has come before or the echoes that still reverberate from those things and ideas.

      But those types of influences are not to what I refer when I speak about derivative work. I am referring to the abundant use of cliches and tired metaphor like that terrible Sunnylands project with a labyrinth for quiet contemplation or the sinuous paths that are representing some sort of natural course as opposed to the straight line of the built world. Now compare that to the military project from Harvard where they are taking a ton of contextual data and using that along with algorithms they have created to generate interesting landforms and planting patterns. Using ballistic trajectory data to design a landscape seems pretty original to me and I certainly haven't seen anyone propose a complex digital planting plan utilizing programmable drones to carry it out.

      Now sure, one of the common complaints is that all that algorithmic architecture looks alike. I find that to be fairly ignorant in the same way that someone might say, for instance, all Chinese people look alike. While this may be a true statement from the point of view of the speaker, it is only because of a lack of experience with the minute idiosyncratic differences in the faces of the Chinese people that it would seem this way. This is known as the cross race effect. I think that there is a similar effect with regards to other forms as well. Just think about residential architecture and strip away all the little details and materiality. What you are left with are a lot of structures that are very similar. They are generally orthogonal. Perforations are generally rectangular as are the plans of the rooms. You only have a couple of types of roofs. If you were to take someone that had only ever experienced that 'organic' or more accurately emergent or algorithmic architecture, they would probably think that all those boxes with triangles on top look alike. We don't see it that way because we ignore all that similarity with which we are so accustomed and focus on the differences in siding and color and roof pitch, etc.

    7. It's not a strawman; the Reiser book you refered me to says "beneficial novelty is the preferred condition and driving agenda behind architectural practice.". The rest of the book is variations on the theme of novelty. What is the "avant garde" (who--by the way--actually refers to themselves in such a self-consciously elitist term?) if not a pursuit of novelty?

      The analogy of my comments about algorithmic architecture to a racist comment about Chinese people is absurd (and slightly offensive). I'm was not discounting algorithmic architecture, just pointing out that it is entirely trendy. It is. Perhaps you're too absorbed in your "grounding in avant garde art" to notice that, but from someone outside your bubble, I promise you, it is. That doesn't mean it doesn't have value. It's just not as novel as some like to think.

  4. skr is off the mark in my opinion. There is an important distinction between art and design. As Thomas points out, above, function is key to design. Yet a very forceful argument could be made that function has no place in art. The artist's charge is to express him or herself to other people in a creative or compelling way.

    The designer's charge is to provide solutions to problems people present--clients, the public, etc. When designers start thinking of themselves as artists they tend to become self-serving (which artists are of necessity) and the solutions they propose offer less value. Design is not a "day job" for artists.

    Which directly relates to the "architecturally embellished" language from the Rome Prize Thomas so thoughtfully provided above. I can translate: Graffiti. This person wants to study graffiti.

    With regard to the value of deconstruction, I can only say this: It certainly had a major impact on historical scholarship, especially when I was a grad student in history (1989-1991.) Deconstruction had important lessons to teach historians, but the language of deconstruction has had a negative impact on scholarly writing in general.(In fact, I almost used the term “discourse” when what I really meant was writing.) Not only did it introduce new hackneyed phrases e.g. “trace the trajectory,” “map the terrain,” but for some reason historians felt they needed to copy the style of Derrida and Foucault.Hence this wonderful joke:

    What do you get when you combine a used car salesman and a deconstructionist?

    You get an offer you can’t understand.

    It’s been decades, people, remember the valuable lessons deconstruction offers, for example, “ The denied is the affirmed and the affirmed is the denied” and move on to something new.

    1. I disagree completely. Art and design are not mutually exclusive. You are setting up a false dichotomy. Art is that which is created to provide a profound aesthetic experience and good design does that. Are those designers not also artists? The solving of problems also does not preclude the making of art. Was Brunelleschi not an artist as well as an engineer while solving the problems of the duomo?

    2. Oh, and people thankfully moved on from deconstructionism a while ago.

    3. skr's arguments are a total Aunt Sally. Thank you for the entertainment. I guess outside of Harvard designs, the whole world we live in is gray and sad in comparison. Haha!

  5. If I may, what is a "restorative" or "regenerative" landscape?

    1. It's basically just a term for green design, but more focused on design treatments (engineered, architectural, and landscape) that bring back some kind of ecological functionality to a landscape. It was big in landscape architecture in the 1970's--though with a slightly different focus than now. Then it was more focused on site development; now it's more focused on creating more ecologically dynamic urban spaces.

  6. I venture this with trepidation, not being a landscape architect, but didn't Ian McHarg lead the "ecological" planning movement that resulted in the discipline's focus on environmental restoration and regeneration (big picture stuff including people and how they live as well as plants). As I understand it, design was the loser in this development. Environment dictated design, not aesthetics or other goals.

    Now the LA's can clarify.

    1. I'm not sure I'm the expert on McHarg, but I'm not sure that "design was the loser." That was definitely a critique, particularly in the 1980's when landscape architecture--partly as a reaction against the more scientific approach of McHarg--turned more to making highly graphic landscapes for corporate campuses.

      McHarg's focus was highly analytical. He used analysis of natural systems to shape regional development. He had a massive influence on landscape architecture and re-established environmental planning (a legacy of Olmsted) as a part of our scope.

      If you look at the very cutting edge work that comes out of Harvard and U Penn now, it is deeply indebted to McHarg. Landscape urbanism is obsessed with infrastructure--one of those invisible "systems" that McHarg new shaped the land. The High Line (designed by James Corner, chair of UPenn) is perhaps the best example of a landscape urbanism project, and I'm not sure that design was the loser there.

      So yes, McHarg was not very focused on design in a purely formal, artistic sense. But I'm not sure I'd say that his style of site planning was not about design. It was just design as ecological process.

      Ok, I probably butchered that one. I'll leave it to better historians to clean that up for me.

    2. Actually, that's very helpful. I had gotten the idea landscape urbanism was a reaction to McHarg, not an outgrowth. Where does a layperson go to take courses in such subjects?

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  8. Great post. Landscape designers really do matter. I've seen some amazing gardens and they make a huge difference to making one feel welcome.

  9. Hi – It’s good to read such interesting stuff on the Internet as I have been able to discover here. I agree with much of what is written here and I’ll be coming back to this website again. Thanks again for posting such great reading material!!

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