Substance and Structure II: The Digital Culture of Landscape Architecture

Antoine Picon

SYMAP of Tel Aviv, Israel, 1971. (c) Elliot E. Dudnik

SYMAP of Tel Aviv, Israel, 1971. © Elliot E. Dudnik

A Paradoxical Contrast with Architecture

Surprisingly enough, the diffusion of the computer and the rise of digital culture seem to have exerted a less dramatic influence on landscape architecture than on architecture. Part of the astonishment comes from the fact that the applications of computing to geography and landscape are as old, if not older, as those concerning architecture. Harvard’s SYMAP mapping program, one of the major forerunners of present-day GIS systems, dates back to the 1960s, a time when computer-aided architectural design was still in its infancy.1 Another reason to be surprised lies in the natural kinship that exists between key aspects of computation and design software and the principles that govern landscape perception and analysis. From clouds to rocks and foliage, many elements of landscape possess a fractal character, or are at least best represented using algorithms based on fractal geometry, one of the bases of computer graphics. Parametric variation seems especially well suited to the modeling of the often smooth transitions of natural or man-made topography. Given these convergences, it is no coincidence that so many computer-generated images evoke landscape.

One can safely wager that the contrast between the respective degrees of permeation by computer culture of landscape architecture and of architecture will fade in the years to come, as digital tools are about to transform the former as profoundly as they have already changed the latter. Yet, their impact on landscape architecture might prove ultimately very different than what it has been on architecture. Not so much because of the scope of landscape architecture itself, but because of the nature of the transformation induced by new technologies. The digital evolution of landscape could be closer to the one experienced by cities. Contrary to what has happened in architecture, the rise of digital culture has not fundamentally altered the physical structure of cities, at least until now.2 It has changed the manner in which we perceive and understand them as well as the way we monitor and manage their operations, from technological networks management to the organization of urban festivals.

Relationship between dominant site infrastructure and proximal land cover patches classified as either water or open space, Barnstable, Massachusetts. (c) Robert Pietrusko

Relationship between dominant site infrastructure and proximal land cover patches classified as either water or open space, Barnstable, Massachusetts. © Robert Pietrusko

The Production of Landscape

Probably, the most important feature of the ongoing evolution lies in the capacity to accumulate and intersect all kinds of data. Since the birth of modern science in the 17th century, landscape has developed an intimate relationship with knowledge. It illustrates the power of scientific cartography and the principles at work in disciplines such as geology, hydrology or botany. With the development of geographic information systems, this relationship with knowledge has gone a step further. It now seems that landscape is made with the information that pertains to it. In other words, it has become more and more difficult to distinguish between landscape and datascape.

As a consequence, landscape appears as production more evidently than it has in the past. Whereas the pictorial gaze, which has long dominated the cultural understanding of landscape, suggested ideas of stability and permanence, digital tools accentuate the dynamic and instable fields and forces that shape the earth and constrain human interventions on its geography. From this perspective, landscape falls under the category of emergent rather than static reality. It is strange to observe how the discourse on emergence has so far been monopolized by architects and architectural theorists although it applies in a more obvious way to landscape than to architecture.3

Grasped through a prism of information and understood as production, landscape and its evolution can be simulated beyond the mere growth of vegetation. This means that time in its various guises can now be enrolled by landscape architecture. In such a context, linear time is replaced by the more complex temporal patterns that arise from the interaction of various dynamic systems ranging from geological forces to economic trends. This non-linear perception may provide new insights into the crucial question of memory. As historians and theorists like Simon Schama or Sébastien Marot have convincingly argued, memory has always played an essential role in landscape culture.4 Landscape almost always appears as a complex imbrication of immediate reality and remembered elements. But the non-linearity of the interaction between what happens beneath the eye and what is recreated by the mind, using culture as a reservoir of visual and emotional references, has seldom been acknowledged. Hence the recurring confusion between memory and history plagues many reflections on the question. Although many of the features of digital culture seem to be adverse to memorial aspects, beginning with the impression that it bathes in the everlasting present of online sociability, digital culture can actually throw a new light on how memory interacts with the other dimensions that shape landscape. The presentist attitude generated by real-time encounters cannot indefinitely postpone the realization that our world cannot be reduced to the thin layer of stimuli and responses that belong to the immediate present. After all, the destiny of information is ultimately to become an archive. Our contemporary digitally-structured landscape could very well be defined as a by-product of the capacity of information to constitute archives. The contrast with architecture could not be greater in this respect. Whereas digital culture seems to have cut architecture from its memorial roots, it may very well do the reverse for landscape.

The new temporal understanding of landscape fostered by digital culture reinforces, on the other hand, an analogy with the city. Like landscapes, cities obey complex non-linear temporal patterns. In both cases, memory plays a crucial role. Like the landscape experience, the perception of the urban owes a lot to the interaction between the visible and the imagined—an interaction that was at the core of Aldo Rossi’s proposal for the analogous city. The rise of landscape urbanism feeds upon the resemblance between landscape and cities to which digital culture lends a new credibility by promoting a common interpretation based on mapping practices. In both cases, mapping appears indeed as an essential component. Like landscape, cities are changed by digital tools though not as much through the direct transformation of physical attributes as through the new perspective from which they are envisaged. Digital mapping tools seem to transmute the very matter to which they are applied. Mapping and monitoring become inseparable, just like the understanding of what lies beneath the eye of the observer and what is not yet there. Mapping understood as the exploration of scenarios of evolution rather than as the production of static representations enables the blending of these two categories.

Tropical Ecology as Coastal Infrastructure. Portraying the effects and opportunities of tropicalization, the above map depicts a combined projection of energy resources, climates, and infrastructures that are transforming the Australian continent. Courtesy Pierre Bellanger. Source: OPSYS, 2010

Tropical Ecology as Coastal Infrastructure. Portraying the effects and opportunities of tropicalization, the above map depicts a combined projection of energy resources, climates, and infrastructures that are transforming the Australian continent. Courtesy Pierre Bellanger. Source: OPSYS, 2010

From Performance to Politics

Envisaged as a production that may be steered using digital tools, landscape is expected to produce certain effects, in other words to perform. In this case, it shares this performing orientation with architecture. Rooted in the cybernetic vision of a world populated with actual and potential events, with situations and scenarios, digital culture tends to promote an approach to design focused on practical objectives rather than centered on the production of a harmonious composition following predetermined principles. From the emphasis put on the production of effects to energy requirements, contemporary computer-aided architectural design bears the mark of this approach.5 The expectations raised by landscape architecture are very comparable. Landscape is not only supposed to convey sensations of diffuse pleasure but also to contribute to the advent of a new technological and social order, an order in which 
urban agriculture, for instance, would challenge more traditional uses of city space while sustainable sources 
of energy like wind farms would become visual land-marks in the countryside.

Information ignores the distinction between the natural and the artificial. By the same token, one of the major consequences of the rise of digital culture in landscape architecture is the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between these two categories. How is one to make sense of such a situation beyond Bruno Latour’s very general statements about what it entails?6 His suggestion to reorganize politics to allow for the representation of the hybrids of nature and technology that surround us and their consideration as full-fledged actors is difficult to put in practice. Pierre Bélanger’s proposal to consider landscape as a kind of infrastructure may provide the beginning of a more feasible solution.7 As a performing hybrid between nature and technology, contemporary landscape is perhaps better understood as an infrastructure than in reference to former conceptions based on the dichotomy between the natural and the human realms.

An unintended consequence of this blurring lies in the crisis of the Kantian notion of disinterestedness that dominated landscape aesthetics from the late 18th century onwards.8 For Immanuel Kant, the perception of landscape as an aesthetic genre necessitated putting aside practical interests such as agrarian concerns. Because it is supposed to perform, because we can no longer contemplate it from outside as non-involved spectators of the fight between man and nature, our digitally-informed contemporary landscape has become the very embodiment of the fate that awaits us. It is actually a part of ourselves, if we are to believe late cyberneticists like Gregory Bateson, or more recent theorists of the digital condition like William Mitchell who posit that we are not separated with our surroundings but seamlessly united to them.9 Information flows back and forth like blood between our body and the landscape in which we move. There are political consequences to this continuity promoted by digital culture. Feedback loops relate the management of contemporary landscape to political and social issues that start at the level of the individual. Of course, the link between landscape and politics is not entirely new despite the Kantian appeal to disinterestedness. 17th century Dutch polders or 18th century English “artificial” pastures were inseparable from political and social concerns. They were already like infrastructures. However, a new turn has been made. The political involvement with landscape now starts at the level of the individual. The Kantian position was made possible by the distinction between landscape as a collective production that could possess a political dimension, and landscape as an aesthetic perception that was both individual and disinterested. Now, political engagement with landscape starts at the level of the individual, and is clearly related to one of the most fundamental characteristics of digital culture. As Nicholas Negroponte famously observed, digital culture possesses a strong individual dimension.10 Today more than ever, landscape appears as a political question, a question centered on the individual just like the new information-driven society in which we live.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1