The Case for a New Landscape Science
Slowly — fitfully — landscape architecture is remaking itself. Its adherents are venturing from the confines of garden, park, and plaza into strange and difficult territory, where they face challenges of a greater order. How will our cities adapt to rising seas? How do we respond to the mass extinction of our fellow species? How can we build places that are more just? Such questions mock the very notion of disciplinary boundaries. Alexander Felson, Nelson Byrd Woltz, Sean Burkholder, Teresa Gali-Izard, Quilian Riano, and Michael Geffel are among the many practitioners and scholars who are transgressing the bounds of landscape architecture, adapting methods from fields as diverse as conservation biology and quantum mechanics, as they pursue more syncretic ways of understanding and shaping environments.
These changes correspond to a growing interest in landscape, broadly defined, which is more prominent in contemporary culture than at any time since the 18th century. As James Corner wrote in 2006, “that seemingly old-fashioned term landscape has curiously come back into vogue.” 1 Architects, especially, have been drawn to the theme, as demonstrated by recent conferences of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and by David Heymann’s excellent essays in this journal. As Heymann put it: “Landscape Is Our Sex.” Scientists concur; a recent policy briefing of the European Science Foundation identified “landscape research” as “a fundamental, integrated research field” worthy of sustained attention. 2
And yet landscape architecture remains in thrall to the discipline whose name it has borne for over a century. In the academy, landscape studies are typically housed in schools of architecture and taught using conventions established in the Bauhaus and Ecole des Beaux Arts. Students learn to think like architects, to fit landscape into boxes made by Vitruvius and Alberti, to model it with bits of chipboard and surface-modeling programs like Rhinocerous 3D. After leaving school they encounter a profession whose practice is based on, and whose remit is secondary to, architecture. “Vogue” notwithstanding, landscape architects are still cast as pliant helpmeets in the service of architects and their clients: the developers, the speculators, the boosters.
Say it again: landscape architecture. The words roll off the tongue as if their union were inevitable. But this is an arranged marriage. Most landscape practitioners know the name doesn’t quite fit, though few give it further thought. If it hasn’t stopped the production of innovative work, they reason, where is the harm? The crucial question is whether the apparent alliance of landscape and architecture conceals other possibilities for how these two parties might relate to each other, and how they might relate to the world.