A Word for Landscape Architecture

John Beardsley

Featured in:

12: Sprawl and Spectacle


I wish to speak a word for landscape architecture, for design inextricable from the history of a site, from its spatial, material, and phenomenal conditions, and from natural and social ecology, as contrasted with a design merely of buildings—to regard design as a part and parcel of nature, as well as of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if only to make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of architecture.

Anyone familiar with “Walking,” by Thoreau, will recognize that I have borrowed the rhetoric of the preamble of his essay. Thoreau used hyperbole to make a point; I am inclined to do the same in order to argue that landscape architecture will soon become the most consequential of the design arts. Admittedly, the profession has been beset by various problems. Relatively young, it lacks the rich theoretical and critical traditions of architecture. It has long been constrained by an attachment to the picturesque. In recent years it has been at war within itself, diverse factions pitting ecology against art—as if the two could not coexist. And so far it has failed to attain the public profile of architecture or the fine arts: built works of landscape architecture are not as readily identified and evaluated as paintings, sculptures, or buildings.

Yet as the landscape architect Laurie Olin has written, “It is hard to think of any field that has accomplished so much for society with so few people and with so little understanding of its scope or ambitions.”1

Much in the history of the discipline substantiates this large claim: the 19th-century parks that enhance so many American cities; the national and state park systems; the rise of urban planning in the 1920s, which was an outgrowth of landscape architecture; the development of prototypical garden cities; the stunning Modernist works of such designers as Daniel Urban Kiley, James C. Rose, and Lawrence Halprin; and the embrace of ecology in recent years as a moral compass for the profession. Pressing Olin’s argument, I would insist that recent achievements in landscape architecture are as visually compelling as those of the past and even more technically sophisticated and conceptually complex. Combining elements of architecture and sculpture with knowledge from the natural sciences, landscape architecture today is struggling to meet profound environmental, social, technological, and artistic challenges.

Thirty years ago, in Design on the Land, historian Norman Newton could confidently describe landscape architecture as “the art—or the science if preferred—of arranging land, together with the spaces and objects upon it, for safe, efficient, healthful, pleasant human use.”2 This definition is too terse for the intricacies of practice today. We are now apt to view landscape architecture as an “expanded field,” as a discipline bridging science and art, mediating between nature and culture.3

Landscape architecture is neither art nor science, but art and science; it fuses environmental design with biological and cultural ecology. Landscape architecture aims to do more than to produce places for safe, healthful, and pleasant use; it has become a forum for the articulation and enactment of individual and societal attitudes toward nature. Landscape architecture lies at the intersection of personal and collective experiences of nature; it addresses the material and historical aspects of landscape even as it explores nature’s more poetic, even mythological, associations.

Complexity alone cannot engender consequential works of art. Significant cultural expressions often result from the convergence of a compelling artistic language with an urgent external stimulus. The rise of Cubism, for instance, can be viewed as a register of the radical social and technological transformations of early 20th-century modernization, just as the emergence of Surrealism can be seen as an expression of the influence of Freudian theory. The consequences of such convergences are discernable in design as well as in art. Urgent external stimuli have lately been much in evidence in landscape architecture. Demands for the restoration of derelict and often toxic industrial sites pose artistic, social, and technical difficulties; so does the need to reuse abandoned sites in declining urban centers. The emergence of environmentalism and the ethic of sustainable design are encouraging the development of “green” infrastructure for improved energy efficiency, storm water management, waste water treatment, bioremediation, vegetal roofing, and recycling. Intensifying suburban and exurban sprawl requires new strategies for landscape management and open space preservation. Continued population growth, especially in the Third World, is heightening the need to develop minimum standards for the provision of urban green space, while increased leisure time in the developed world is placing unprecedented burdens on parks and other natural places of recreation. Landscape practitioners today are grappling as well with the dilemma of designing at radically different scales—from that of the small urban space to that of the entire ecosystem.

These phenomena raise an important question. Are these urgent social and environmental demands being met by the development of a compelling design language—a language particular to landscape architecture? Landscape architect Diana Balmori has articulated widespread anxieties within the profession that landscape architecture has yet to find a contemporary idiom. “The profession of landscape architecture appears to be finished,” she argued. “Its edges have been overtaken by architects and environmental artists. Ecology has been taken over by engineers and hasn’t really affected design. At the same time, the profession hasn’t found a core. The center has not been defined and held.”4

In my view, the situation is not nearly so dire. I would argue that external pressures and contemporary expressive means are indeed working together in recent landscape architecture. I would argue too that this convergence is providing the profession with compelling narratives that might restore the sense of a vital center and help it achieve the visibility so lacking in recent decades.

One such narrative is sustainability—an idea that increasingly informs the design of buildings and landscapes. Indeed, sustainable design seems to require some degree of interdisciplinary cooperation or hybridization in the creation of “green” infrastructure. Examples of this kind of work include landscape designer Herbert Dreiseitl’s unusual and visible storm water retention and purification system for architect Renzo Piano’s DaimlerChrysler complex at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. This ambitious scheme features rooftop gardens that capture and filter rainwater, which is then directed to cisterns and used in the building. The cisterns also feed a large lagoon, where reeds provide physical and bio-chemical cleansing; mechanical filters furnish backup purification. The benefits of this scheme are not only technical but also aesthetic, even educational; not simply an element of infrastructure, the lagoon is an attractive public amenity that offers lessons in and demonstrations of urban hydrology. More generally, such collaborations suggest that the knowledge provided by landscape architects is increasingly essential to the responsible practice of architecture.

Landscape remediation is another narrative resulting from the convergence of contemporary subject and idiom. At the 200-hectare site of the former iron and steel plant Duisburg-Meiderich in Germany, the landscape architecture firm of Latz + Partner has designed a park that sets new standards for reclamation—for the kind of reclamation, moreover, that does not disguise the problematic history of its site. Designed by Peter Latz and Anneliese Latz, Landscape Park Duisburg North makes an aesthetic and political strategy out of revealing site disturbances. The facility, abandoned by Thyssen Steel in 1985, included blast furnaces, ore bunkers, and a sintering plant; it was criss-crossed by roads, rail lines, and a canal. The soil of the site was contaminated with heavy metals, the canal polluted. The design of the reclamation was guided by existing infrastructure: elevated rail lines and ground-level roads were retained to provide both topographical interest and a framework for circulation. A sewer line and treatment plant were built to clean the old canal; a new storm water collection system filled the former cooling and settling tanks—once contaminated with arsenic—with fresh water.

At the heart of the project are the preserved blast furnaces. Like other relics of heavy industry, these structures seem at once terrible and awe-inspiring. To emphasize these qualities, Latz + Partner have surrounded the furnaces with trees, making them appear like craggy mountains glimpsed through a forest. There is a precedent for such industrial archaeology—I am thinking chiefly of Gasworks Park in Seattle. Both might be understood as instances of the “industrial sublime.” The constructions at Duisburg surround a space that has been named Piazza Metallica, where forty-nine salvaged hematite slabs—each about 2.5 meters square and weighing nearly eight tons—are set out in a grid; the recycled metal, which once lined casting pits in the foundry, commemorates the melting and pouring processes that occurred there. Near the blast furnaces are the remains of ore bunkers that have been transformed into enclosed gardens. Deep within thick concrete walls, these gardens produce a kind of uncanny juxtaposition: they are cloistered, almost monastic spaces, yet set in a menacing industrial frame. Perhaps more than any other element in the park, they convey the designers’ strategy of retaining and revealing yet simultaneously transforming the structures of the site.

Several remediation techniques have been employed at Duisburg, depending on site conditions. The most toxic remnants, including the old sintering plant, were dynamited and buried. Elsewhere contaminated materials were left in place. Several large slag heaps with low-level hydrocarbon pollution, already in stable condition and colonized by plants, were left undisturbed. They are available for limited access and use while they are gradually decontaminated through bioremediation. Retaining the piles has two advantages: it prevents further dispersal of the pollutants, and it creates compelling memorials to site disturbance. Such “found” landscapes produce some of the park’s most intriguing images, such as that of an ore cart—still in its tracks—sprouting vegetation.

Just as important, although less obvious, Landscape Park Duisburg North is an example of social as well as environmental restoration. A place that no longer had any real value to society and that otherwise would have been an eyesore has been given an entirely new life, one that few might have imagined it could have. In a region with little open space, the park offers significant and unusual opportunities for recreation: the blast furnace can be climbed to height of about fifty meters; the cooling tanks are used for swimming, the concrete chimneys for climbing. At a more speculative level, the park offers a lesson in the environmental costs of modern industrial policies and an occasion to wonder about future appropriate choices. Effacing the site’s history and erasing its contradictions would have been far less compelling. As Peter Latz says, “The point is, where is the imagination most challenged, in a state of harmony or in a state of disharmony? Disharmony produces a different statement, a different harmony, a different reconciliation. . . . The seemingly chance results of human interference, which are generally judged to be negative, also have immensely exciting, positive aspects.”5

In such circumstances the role of the designer is to decide what to retain, what to transform, and what to replace. Disharmony, discontinuity, contradiction: these are the conditions driving the development of a contemporary language of landscape architecture.

But if I had to choose one project that suggests all the intricacies of recent landscape architecture, it would be Parque Ecológico Xochimilco in Mexico City. Not only does this project articulate the commanding narratives that undergird recent practice, such as remediation and sustainability, it also addresses the challenges of urbanization in one of the most populous cities in the developing world, providing both open space for recreation and productive land for economic development. And it does all this on multiple scales, from the circulation in a flower market to the workings of an extensive ecosystem. Even more than Landscape Park Duisburg North, Xochimilco suggests the large role that landscape architecture can now play in social and environmental remediation.

Xochimilco, meaning “the place where flowers are grown,” is a fragment of a pre-Conquest—in places even pre-Aztec—landscape of artificial garden islands, created in the lake that once filled a large area of the valley of Mexico. The islands, called chinampas, were constructed by piling soil on reed mats and anchoring their edges with salix trees. Dating to the 10th century, this landscape of canals and rectangular islands was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987; the designation prompted a large-scale environmental restoration project undertaken by Mexico City and the borough of Xochimilco. Designed by Mario Schjetnan of Grupo de Diseño Urbano and built in the early 1990s, the project encompasses some 3,000 hectares of surviving islands.

The site presented extraordinary challenges. Many of the islands were sinking due to the many wells that fed upon aquifers. Urban development was increasing storm water runoff and subjecting the area to increased flooding. Surface water was contaminated; canals were choked with aquatic plants. Those islands deep in the canal system were hard to reach and thus unavailable for agriculture; those nearer the edges of the site were being encroached on by unauthorized residential buildings. The design was guided by hydraulic strategies: water was pumped back into the aquifer to stabilize the site; large reservoirs were created to retain storm water; polluted water was processed at treatment plants, and the treated water was discharged back into the lake to regulate the water levels in the canals. Eroded islands were recreated using meshes of logs filled with dredge and stabilized by salix trees. (More than 1 million trees were planted on the site.) Agriculture was reintroduced: some islands have pastures for grazing; others are planted with flowers and vegetables. A tree nursery was also located on the site; every year it produces 30 million trees that are then planted throughout Mexico City. Canals were cleared of harmful vegetation and rehabilitated for recreation as well as agriculture. Today, pole barges ply the canals of Xochimilco, especially on weekends; gondolas and gondoliers are available for hire at embarcaderos built along the edge of the site. Out in the canals, you can collect sustenance for body and soul: kitchen barges sell food, while others ferry professional musicians, available to serenade visitors with patriotic and romantic songs.

At one edge of the chinampas landscape is a 300-hectare park, whose different zones emphasize natural, recreational, and interpretive areas. Water again provides the basis for design: the terraced entry is focused on imposing stone-lined aqueducts that discharge cleansed water into the lake; a plaza features a water tower in the form of an Archimedes screw. A visitor center completes the complex. It includes an auditorium and galleries with exhibitions focused upon the region’s ecology, archaeology, and agriculture; a roof terrace affords vistas over the lakes and canals toward distant snow-covered volcanoes. From the entry, a 400-meter pergola leads to an embarcadero, past an arboretum and flowerbeds representing the productive activities dispersed across the chinampas. The remaining park area features playing fields and ball courts, wetlands to collect storm water runoff, and demonstration agricultural zones. To enhance economic activity on the site, the largest flower market in Mexico City was built adjacent to the main highway approach. Its 1,800 stalls are fully leased and very busy, especially on weekends. In all, the park is a microcosm of the larger landscape, highlighting its ecological, historic, agricultural, and recreational attributes. More than something just to look at, this is a working landscape.

Both Landscape Park Duisburg North and Parque Ecológico Xochimilco exhibit the high ambition and conceptual complexity of contemporary landscape architecture. Each uses the history of its site to create stirring places and compelling cultural narratives. Each envisions landscape as both natural and social space embodying the potential of design to enhance cultural and biophysical phenomena. Both reveal the capacity of landscape architecture to address the challenges of degraded landscapes and to achieve at least some level of sustainability. And both are works of art; they attain a kind of iconic power in their revelation of the problems and the possibilities of the contemporary landscape.

But what is the narrative being told in these landscapes—told in the language of landscape architecture aslandscape architecture? At the risk of sounding like the boor in The Graduate, who summed up the hero’s career possibilities with the word plastics, I would like to respond with a single word: what is being explored and revealed in these contemporary landscapes is entropy. Entropy is disorder or randomness in a system. In thermodynamics, entropy measures the quantity of thermal energy, or heat, available for useful work: the greater the entropy, the less the available energy. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics—the law pertinent to my argument—the change in entropy of a system during any process is either zero or positive; that is to say, the amount of disorder in an isolated system is always stable or increasing. Shuffle a deck of cards, and the result will be as or more random than the initial sequence; the cards will not organize themselves into suits or into numerical order. Heat flows only from a hotter substance to a colder one, never the reverse. Gas expands to fill its container; it will not contract. As heat is dispersed or as gas expands, entropy increases. Natural processes result in a universe of greater entropy.

Those conversant with the language of contemporary art know that entropy was a particular preoccupation of Robert Smithson. Several of his earthworks can be interpreted as pedagogic exercises in entropy. Smithson dumped asphalt into a quarry and let it run randomly down a slope; he piled dirt on the roof of a woodshed until the supporting beams cracked. His Nonsites—sculptures created by collecting materials from a place, sorting them into bins, and exhibiting them along with maps or photographs of their sites—might be described as efforts to reverse the effects of entropy, if only temporarily. “The fact remains,” he insisted, “that the mind and things of certain artists are not ‘unities’ but things in a state of arrested disruption.”6

On a broadly theoretical level, Smithson recognized that patterns of human and natural disturbances in the landscape were undermining the reassuring conventions with which landscape has been represented. “The ‘pastoral,’ it seems, is outmoded. The gardens of history are being replaced by sites of time”—by sites, that is, that manifest the transformative effects of human action or of natural processes like erosion and decomposition. “A sense of chaotic planning engulfs site after site . . . but to what purpose?” Smithson asked. To Smithson, the struggle against chaos was enormously intriguing. Anticipating Peter Latz’s argument that discord excites the imagination more than harmony, he wrote: “A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids, and subdivisions is an esthetic process that has scarcely been touched.”7

How is entropy relevant to landscape projects like Duisburg or Xochimilco? In each project, the designers addressed conditions that were highly entropic. At Xochimilco, the islands were sinking, the soil eroding. Water was polluted; the land was unproductive, the edges of the site compromised by chaotic urbanization. At Duisburg, the steel works had been demobilized, the energy removed from the site in a literal way; what remained was contaminated earth, polluted water, and abandoned infrastructure. Both Xochimilco and Duisburg might be interpreted as excursions into the “bleached and fractured world” described by Smithson, as efforts to hold the line, albeit briefly, against the drift toward randomness and disorder. (Entropy still marks Xochimilco: the park has not been maintained as it should be.)

All designed landscapes can be seen, in some ways, as expressions of the entropic passage of time. Here too one can find resonances between landscape and contemporary sculpture. The work of Richard Serra, especially, has been studied for how it encourages, even impels, motion through space and over time as a condition of its perception. But the time of sculpture, usually, is limited to the perceptual experience. The time of landscape architecture is more complex. No place is a tabula rasa, without history; any intervention by any designer is part of a series of interventions, of marks already inscribed or yet to be inscribed on the site. Every design is subject to the actions of dynamic and unpredictable natural and cultural forces—the continual transformations produced by growth and decay, for example, or by changing patterns of social use and habitation. Smithson once described a park not as a “thing-in-itself” but “a process of ongoing relationships existing in a physical region”—an idea now exemplified by much forceful design work.8

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana, and the firm’s Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh are designed to withstand periodic flooding from nearby rivers; George Hargreaves describes his firm’s park projects as “theaters of the environment,” intended to reveal geophysical, biological, and cultural forces at work in the landscape. If much painting and sculpture aspire to what critic and historian Michael Fried once called “presentness”—the condition of being fully observable in an instant—and if architecture strives for some measure of permanence, then landscape architecture, in contrast, struggles to embrace the dynamic.9

Of course, entropy is only one of many forces at work in the world. Current scientific studies of complexity propose that there may be some counterforce to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, exemplified in the tendency of matter and biological life toward ever-greater levels of organization. Many natural systems are aptly described as chaotic—the weather, the flow of turbulent fluids, the orbit of particles—and in such systems, small changes in initial circumstances can produce big differences in subsequent conditions. But complex systems seem to change within predictable limits and to exhibit tendencies toward self-similar patterns, or fractals. Thus the temperatures at a given place on the globe will vary, but within predictable limits; clouds and waves will resemble each other but will not be exactly the same.10

Complexity science attempts to describe such patterns. It depicts a world that is dynamic and mutable but self-organizing at ever finer levels, for instance in the emergence of life from inert matter, in the evolution of more elaborate life forms from simpler ones, and in the increasingly intricate interdependencies within complex ecosystems like coral reefs and rain forests. Complexity theory might serve as a useful metaphor for contemporary cultural practice.11

Complexity isn’t necessarily better; but it increasingly characterizes our environmental and social circumstances. An appreciation of complexity might make cultural responses more discriminating, more robust. Landscape architecture is today exhibiting, in its own way, the tendency toward greater organization and complexity described by theorists and scientists, and in so doing it is endeavoring to keep at bay randomness and disorder. And it is this tension—between order and disorder, between organization and entropy—that provides much of the narrative power of contemporary landscape architecture.

Long overshadowed by architecture and the fine arts, landscape architecture is producing remarkable transformations in our public environments. The profession is maturing, conceptually it is more complex. It is developing the artistic and technical tools to address extraordinary social and environmental demands. The ways in which we understand and represent our relationship with nature are enormously important in the expression of culture. The ways in which we meet the challenges of urban sprawl, open space preservation, resource consumption and waste, and environmental protection and restoration are crucial to the quality of our lives—maybe even to the survival of our species. It is landscape architecture that confronts these challenges. I wish to make an extreme statement, if only to make an emphatic one: landscape architecture will prove the most consequential art of our time.

1 Laurie Olin, letter to the Graham Foundation, August 3, 1999.

2 Norman Newton, Design on the Land (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), xxi.

3 Borrowed from linguistics, the term “expanded field” entered the language of contemporary art criticism chiefly through an essay by Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” originally published in October in 1978 and reprinted in her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 276-290; the term was subsequently used by Elizabeth Meyer in “The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture,” in G. Thompson and F. Steiner, eds., Ecological Design and Planning (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 45-79.

4 Diana Balmori, in conversation with the author, January 1998.

5 Peter Latz, in Udo Weilacher, Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1999), 129.

6 Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 87.

7 Ibid., 85, 83, 82.

8 Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” in Holt, ed., Writings, 119.

9 Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum (June 1967).

10 General introductions to complexity science include M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) and Roger Lewin,Complexity: Life on the Edge of Chaos (London: J. M. Dent, 1993).

11 Charles Jencks has begun to discern the relationship between complexity science and contemporary design. See The Architecture of the Jumping Universe (London: Academy Editions, 1995).

John Beardsley is a writer and curator who teaches at the Harvard Design School; his books include Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape.