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Archive for the ‘LA Education’ Category

Image of McHarg on this 2007 book by Margulis, Corner, and Hawthorne

It’s a curious thing, the haunting, and conflicting, influence of Ian L. McHarg on landscape architecture. He is certainly one of a very small number of widely acclaimed, internationally recognized, landscape architects of the 20th century, and his influence extended well beyond the discipline. He’s been called “legendary.” Nevertheless, landscape architecture academics (perhaps others, but that’s the group I know) have been tied in knots over McHarg for the better part of the past few decades now.

Last week, I asked a group of 30 3rd-year landscape architecture undergraduates if they had ever heard of McHarg or the book Design With Nature. I have been asking this question for several years now, but this year is the first in which no one in the class raised their hand. This result did not come as a total surprise since the number of hands raised has been very small over the last couple of years, but it still startles me. I think there’s a very good chance that students in programs across the U.S. today graduate without ever hearing about this prominent, however polarizing, figure in the profession.

My first encounter to vehement …dislike??… of McHarg among my academic colleagues came when I started teaching 12 years ago. I was photocopying an excerpt from Design With Nature to use in class when a fellow professor said something to the effect of “Argh, what a misanthrope that guy was!”  I have tread cautiously ever since, mindful of what seemed to be a mounting volume of journal articles and book chapters that have dissected McHarg’s legacy in the profession, much of which casts it in an unfavorable light. Contrasting this with what is written about McHarg from those outside of landscape architecture, and how many times his writing continues to be cited favorably today, reveals a paradox, in my opinion.

So it is with great curiosity that I observe a number of landscape urbanists prominently featuring images of McHarg and the book, Design With Nature, in their public presentations. For example, in this video of Charles Waldheim‘s November 2010 address to architecture and urban design students at the University of North Carolina, Waldheim discusses McHarg’s ideas of ecological planning, drawing a line between landscape planning of McHarg’s generation and the newer ideas of landscape urbanism. And Waldheim’s perspective is critical too, referring to the “failed McHargian project.” But the failure that Waldheim cites has nothing to do with a schism between art-based and science-based perspectives, often the root of conflict among LA academics to date, but instead is about the reliance of the “McHargian project” on planning bureaucracy. (That’s another story – the demonization of planners who are a weak force in the U.S., at least, in the face of the moneyed interests of the Growth Machine.)

When McHarg attended Harvard in the late 1940s, he found that the works of Olmsted and Charles Eliot were barely acknowledged (according the McHarg’s biography A Quest for Life). Olmsted was essentially rediscovered in the 1960s (it’s hard for current students to believe he was ever forgotten), while Eliot remains obscure for most. As the academics of the 1980s and 90s retire and what has seemed like personal baggage among some becomes irrelevant, will McHarg be rediscovered? Is that already happening?

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Determined to get ahead of the beginning of school demands and thinking of new profs teaching grad students…

Walt: Daddy what’s gradual school?
T. S. Garp: What?
Walt: Gradual school. Mommy say’s she teaches at gradual school.
T. S. Garp: Oh Gradual school is where you go to school and you gradually find out you don’t want to go to school anymore.

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I implicitly asked for comments in the post, A Blog is a Curious Thing, and two fellow bloggers kindly responded. Donovan Gillman of the Urban Choreography blog and Jason King of Landscape + Urbanism share their thoughts on why blogs are suspect among academics and also why academics just need to get over it (my crude summary).

I love the point that Donovan makes about interesting applications of science often coming from the “crazy ideas of people who barely understand the science, but are able to creatively visualize its potential and communicate it to others.” As faculty in a college of environmental science and forestry, in the lone design program, I can REALLY identify with this statement!

Jason and Donovan both identify the root cause of academic distrust of media such as this – that it is not peer-reviewed research. It is clearly something else, but can this new something lead somewhere that we couldn’t reach in the past?  Naturally, I think the answer is yes, and this opinion is partially based on my agreement that the continuum of dissemination that Jason identifies is valid/needed and partially on the unique nature of landscape architecture. More on this uniqueness in a follow-up post…

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For academics anyway. After nearly 3 months of this blog “experiment,” I find the reaction to it among academics to be curiosity and skepticism. The academic world is very conservative and has long shunned “opinion.” So blogging and social networking stretch the imagination in ways that academics find uncomfortable. I am personally excited by the possibilities, especially for landscape architecture – and for landscape architecture in the university setting. I think this media offers some interesting possibilities for linking multiple worlds – professional practice, academia, those in developing and in developed countries, etc. Outside of the university, these possibilities are well-known. I take comfort in the fact that at least one well-known Nobel Prize winner spends a little time each day blogging. Good company!

With relatively little advertising (mostly emails to people I know), this blog has received several thousand page views since it went online. That is encouraging, and I hope to keep the content frequently updated even as the hectic semester gets underway. What is less exciting is that I am finding the blog format to NOT be particularly interactive (through reader comments). It would be great if the number of comments increases over time! Otherwise, the potential of this media would seem to be more limited than it could be. I hope that readers are finding interesting and useful information here! Thank you for stopping by.

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Congratulations, George!

Jot D. Carpenter Teaching Medal: George Curry, FASLA
George Curry, FASLA, will receive the Jot D. Carpenter Teaching Medal. The award recognizes significant and sustained excellence in landscape architecture education. Curry’s academic career spans more than four decades at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. A pioneer in the field of cultural landscapes, his dedication to his students and profession earned him numerous recognitions, including the 2008 New York Professor of the Year designation from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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When thoughts turn to the fall semester. I miss the students and the pace, however hectic, of the academic year. A few lines from the classic book, The Courage to Teach, (P.J. Palmer, 1998) seem appropriate. Perhaps some readers are getting ready for this too?

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illuminated by the lightening-life of the mind – then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused – and I am so powerless to do anything about it – that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool was I to imagine that I had mastered this occult art – harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well! (pp. 1-2).  [snip]

After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches – without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns (p. 10).

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I say broadly! Several posts in this blog are directed at new graduates and job seekers (check the Recession Watch category to the right). This one follows in that vein. It is common for landscape architecture education to be narrowly tailored and made to conform to accreditation standards. This means that the end goal of landscape architecture education has been traditional design practice, even if that goal is unstated (there have always been alternative career paths). Curricula are developed to facilitate this outcome and maintain accreditation. What happens if the likely outcomes for graduates are something other than traditional design practice, as is happening now? What does that mean for the value of LA design education? If traditional LA practice were the only use for a LA education, we’d be doomed. As a pragmatic type, I’ve struggled with this question. But I’ve decided that a design education, and a landscape architecture design education in particular, is a tremendous opportunity for students these days – even if the slim job offerings say otherwise. Why would I say that? (more…)

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In February 2011, Fast Company featured a blog post by entrepreneurship educator, Steve Blank, titled College and Business Will Never Be the Same.  The essence of the post: interdisciplinary education that includes design thinking is urgently needed in a “volatile, complex, and ambiguous world,” and most current educational models are inadequate for the task. His examples of better approaches were from design education – Stanford’s D-School (a graduate program) and Philadelphia University’s new undergraduate degree in Design, Engineering, and Commerce.

Blank’s post was a reaction to a question that has been in educators’ minds for some time now – a question perhaps best articulated by Colorado educator, Karl Fisch in a 2006 ppt-gone-viral video called Did You Know? Shift Happens. Originally prepared for fellow teachers in his Colorado high school, Fisch identifies some of the rapid changes occurring in the world. In the video, Fisch states “We  are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, [where they will use] technologies that haven’t yet been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” How do we do that? What should education in a period of rapid change look like?

The Silo Model

In the Fast Company article, Blank suggests we think about the model presented by the Philadelphia University program as one response. The graphics used by Blank depict the old silo model and the new, interdisciplinary model. The business world has a lot of things to say about all of this, by the way, including talk of the need for T-shaped people, or perhaps I-shaped people, to spur innovation in companies.

The Philadelphia Model

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Two dots, anyway. One dot concerns general workforce needs. 3 basic skills needed in a knowledge economy, according to Tony Wagner, Harvard education expert and author of The Global Achievement Gap, summarized in a NY Times column (Nov. 21, 2010) by Thomas Friedman: “the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.” This is good news for landscape architecture because the studio model of instruction does this – or at least it has the potential to do this. Can the studio model be pushed further to do this better?

Another dot concerns present opportunities for landscape architects – opportunities that are perhaps unique to the present moment. An unusual source for this dot – a YouTube video from the Future of Design conference held at Taubman College, University of Michigan in late 2009. It’s unusual because conference organizers videotaped the tables of conference attendees during a small group discussion session and posted the videos online. And it is unusual because the attendees are architects talking about landscape architecture. I think it’s helpful to see how others view us, especially those in allied fields. (Presumably, the people speaking in the video are architecture faculty members – if you recognize them, let me know.)  Some lines that caught my attention: (more…)

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In the comment section of this post on whether the economy and jobs should affect landscape architecture education (i.e., lead to changes in curricula or program emphasis), Chris asks who should sound the call for change and mentions professional organizations and clients as possibilities. While not a total laissez-faire believer, I do have a healthy respect for market forces. Market forces in higher education originate with students who have interests in particular subjects and perhaps a sense of demand for a certain set of knowledge, skills, and abilities. For many subjects taught at universities, there is no need for a connection to jobs (regardless of the often-stated college degree = job connection). (more…)

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