Posts Tagged ‘landscape architecture theory’

On Thursday, around the time I was showing the Waldheim video (mentioned here) to my class, the video that includes the West 8 Dutch “Shell Project” as an example of landscape urbanism, an interesting post was going up on the new Landscape Urbanism website. The author, Laura Tepper, discusses the ephemeral nature of the project, a fact that she says is not mentioned when this project is used as an example today (true of the Waldheim video also). The key graph is this one, in my opinion, but the entire article is definitely worth reading.

The contrast between the barrier’s austere utility and West 8’s erstwhile shell installation force us to confront challenges beyond the project’s early acclaims. The storm surge barrier—with its complex programmatic functions, sophisticated engineering, and costs—illustrates what landscape architects and urbanists face with ambitious infrastructural projects. Generally speaking, when infrastructure washes away unintentionally, it is considered a failure. The integration of infrastructural and public programming can impel social, ecological, and practical transformations. However, we must take on the seemingly contradictory synthesis of permanent armatures and dynamic cycles. We must modify our objectives against empirical evidence and clarify our intentions, lest the works of the landscape urbanist discussion become decorative and slip away unnoticed.

As it turns out, stripes of white and black shells on a surge barrier are not sustainable. Perhaps they washed away; it is unclear what happened to them. Of course, there are ways to explain this as being the original intent of the project, but that fact is omitted when this project is referenced. This is where theory and concept meet praxis. Can the ambitious ideas of landscape urbanism, especially those that suggest that ecological systems can be effectively harnessed to meet design goals, become realities in the sense that we usually ascribe to landscape architecture, or is the emphasis on temporality and long-term dynamics a mask for pure speculation?

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Or do we? We are inclined to think that “our time” is the most extraordinary ever. But then we stumble upon something from the past – people’s previous preoccupations, thoughts, ideas – and realize that we are not the first ones to be thinking these thoughts. That’s my feeling when I find references to the problem of traffic jams and urban congestion … in the 1920s. Or when I read about the how overwhelming the world has become as a result of technology and available information … in the 1960s.

In The Reflective Practitioner (1983), which I am re-reading, Donald Schön discussed the crisis in public faith in professional knowledge stemming from that turbulent period, the late 1960s. Schön noted an unprecedented need for adaptability, and that professionals faced the dilemma that they were being asked to “perform tasks for which they had not been educated” (p. 14). Catching up with new demands on professional practice would be transitory, at best, because of the rapid pace of change. “The patterns of task and knowledge are inherently unstable” (p.15) – doesn’t that sound familiar? Everything seems inherently unstable today … too. And about those wicked problems:

The situations of practice are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder, and indeterminacy.

Here Schön is following the ideas of John Dewey. And he goes on to quote Russell Ackoff, a founder of the field of operations research (the ultimate in positivism and rational problem solving), who had his own terminology for wicked problems.

managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. [Emphasis added] Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes.

Citation: (1979) Journal of Operational Research Society 30 (2): 93-104.

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Landscape architecture academics frequently debate the role of “theory” in the discipline. There is a sense that landscape architecture cannot mature without a body of theory supporting it. Some authors have sought out and expounded upon theories from other disciplines that apply to ours, and others have articulated theories that are unique to landscape architecture. What this debate suggests, though, is that practice is not enough. Especially on university campuses. Doesn’t this give practice short shrift? (more…)

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