Landscape as Narrative
June 11, 2016
Designer, PROAP - Arquitectura Paisagista
This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Emerging leaders from LAF’s Olmsted Scholars Program were asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. Select Declarations were then presented at the Summit during the Emerging Leaders panel.
Landscape as Narrative
Before he became known for his nuanced understanding of ecological dynamics, Frederick Law Olmsted chronicled the social dynamics of a young nation. As a journalist at the cusp of the Civil War, he confronted a uniquely fraught period in the American South. At the beginnings of westward expansion, he wrote about life on the frontier and advocated for the national park movement. That singular spirit of “communitiveness” that would later propel his landscape projects was rooted in the narratives — intimate and grand, personal and societal, spanning years and decades and, indeed, nearly a century — that he had worked tirelessly to reveal and understand.
Olmsted’s vision for landscape as a powerful political construct was ahead of its time, and his commitment to creating new kinds of public spaces, steeped in complexity and imbued with agency, is a legacy my generation of landscape architects must embrace. As we look to the next 50 years and craft our roles as spatial and relational thinkers, therefore, our task remains to, first, reveal and understand the sociopolitical dynamics that shape our cities, our territories, our social imaginaries. In order to do this, we must be willing to step outside of our disciplinary boundaries — to question and observe and listen deeply, to often leave behind the guise of expert, to seek collaboration, and to always welcome the role of student.
If a deep engagement with physical and social realities becomes the unified base for our disciplinary future, the question of where and how we, as individual practitioners, choose to engage remains as open and multifarious as the world around us. Indeed, at the core of this declaration is a call for a new multiplicity of intentions, agendas, and commitments. This is a call for challenging and expanding the narratives we, as design students and practitioners, consider part of the conversation — with the aim of not only addressing present questions, but also shaping future answers.
For at its core, design is a creative, narrative act. With each design decision, the landscape architect can shape, heighten, or ignore the narratives that live and breathe in a site. In doing so, she speaks to evolving identities of space and place. When we design, whose histories are we revealing, and what futures are we projecting? What are the tensions between the designer, the changing, breathing material of landscape, and the network of stakeholders? In her narrative choices, the landscape architect bears significant responsibility toward crafting experience, fostering cultural and environmental stewardship, and evoking something simple, yet radical: meaningful engagement with a place and fellow citizens.
My own development as a designer is grounded in the conviction that all built space is inherently political and that, as such, landscape architecture is a political discipline. Landscape architecture is also a key medium through which to draw connections between environmental and social dynamism. At a time when so many scales of conflict — from climate change and resource scarcity to urban segregation and police brutality — are intricately tied to intentional spatial systems of organization, landscape architecture can become a unique tool for change thanks to this ability to connect on both physical and metaphysical levels.
Drawing from ecological principles, the concept of fragmentation is perhaps useful in defining current relationships between the environment and society — and outlining some of the many possible future grounds for the discipline. When we speak of urban fragmentation in post-industrial American cities, for example, we allude to dynamics at multiple scales of experience. The same systematic divestment policies that have led to cities like St. Louis being more segregated than ever — and that speak clearly to social fragmentation along lines of race and class — have also resulted in the breakdown of ecological connectivity. The contested public spaces that form the fabric of a city like Detroit — or rather, its degradation over time — are the embodiment of that breakdown. The role of the landscape architect there might be to design spaces where the value of ecological recovery is deeply related to a commitment to social investment and a stand against systemic violence of any kind. I am considering the potentials of this role in the case of St. Louis’ Greenwood Cemetery, an African-American cultural landscape that has suffered the effects of divestment and prompts deep questions about remembrance and erasure as embodied in the land.
When considering territorial-scale challenges, too, fragmentation provides a useful conceptual framework for the landscape architect. Last summer I researched the traditional and changing roles of water across the Bolivian altiplano, linking the centuries-old aquatic landscapes of Lake Titicaca with the emergent urban rivers of El Alto. As part of one watershed, the two conditions are innately related, yet their fragmentation in the collective imaginary has led to a rupture, and urbanization behaviors in El Alto are directly degrading Lake Titicaca’s delicate ecosystems. There, reimagining the riverfront as public space might both begin to restore ecological balances and recover those less tangible connections.
Yet we must be more than problem-solvers. By crafting sensorially memorable experiences, we must help generate new modes of living and ask new questions. How might spatial quality engender interaction? How might the unexpected promote openness? How might poetry foster stewardship? Above all, we must remember that landscape is uniquely telescopic: it has an uncanny ability to reference memory and the future, the material and the abstract. As Roberth Smithson observed of Olmsted’s work in “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” (1973), the most powerful landscape projects are “never finished; they remain carriers of the unexpected and of contradiction on all levels of human activity, be it social, political, or natural.”
Our task for the next century is to craft those vessels of human experience and agency, to balance between the extreme specificity of a site and an openness of vision that welcomes a range of voices, subjectivities, and tensions. Designing space is a necessarily humanistic endeavor; it is messy. It asks us to both speak to current social realities and ignite radical new ones. Therein lies our greatest potential.