Leadership Through Listening
June 10, 2016
Associate Principal, Mithun
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.
Leadership Through Listening
It’s getting noisy out there.
In the 50 years since the Declaration of Concern, new technology has emerged and engendered a cacophony of voices about our world. Good ideas abound more than ever before, but the multiple ways of communicating are constantly shuffling the deck; the good ideas are hidden amongst pretenders. In this new reality, listening is the challenge.
The process of landscape architects designing public space mirrors this societal trend in many ways. Even in my short career span, I’m stunned by the range of voices I’ve worked with in developing landscape designs. Museum curators in Los Angeles and New York; mayors in Charleston, South Carolina and Oakland, California; environmental activists in Jackson, Wyoming and Memphis, Tennessee; civil rights activists in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles; software engineers in Silicon Valley; children of all ages and their teachers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends. And from all of their points of view—intensely disparate as they are—the landscape has something to offer all of them. And they are acutely aware of this.
This range of voices has had significant influence on design practice. In too many cases, strategies for dealing with this influence have turned toward hyper-specialization and over-dependence on personality dominated work (‘starchitecture,’ if you will). These are two ways of working that frankly don’t value listening. The result is often work that is formulaic or self-referential. Two things the landscape must never become.
So, how can landscape architects ensure our work transcends the growing shrillness of public discourse and intense variation of user input without becoming formulaic or self-referential? For my personal approach, it requires leveraging two aspects of landscape architecture that aren’t really new, but with which we desperately need to reconnect.
First of all, we are listeners. From the beginning of our training, we are taught to listen to and read a landscape. We learn to observe patterns of drainage, vegetation, fauna, wind, and sun. We learn to watch people move through, occupy, and manipulate a landscape. We observe these patterns not just for their potential performance, but just as importantly, for their poetry.
Secondly, we are designers. Our legacy is Olmsted, le Notre, Jekyll, Church, Eckbo, Kiley, Walker, Halprin, Olin, and Haag. These practitioners understood form, pattern, and texture. They understood scale, proportion, and tectonics. We cannot lose these. We cannot exchange them for complex three-dimensional models and eye-popping renderings and pretend they are somehow the same thing. On some occasions, our profession has relinquished design thinking to our architect counterparts, who may have the best of intentions, but likely haven’t had our training in listening to a landscape. We can’t do that anymore. The role of the landscape and the landscape architect is too important.
Of course, we need to continue our focus and drive toward sustainability and ecological performance. We should continue to cultivate our techniques and refine our methods for this portion of our work. But sustainability and performance need to be the base, not the ultimate characterization of our work. We’re past that.
We must be able to devise clear and delightful design gestures in the landscape, just as easily as we size a swale. Why? Because the spaces that endure are the ones that are imbued with too much meaning and too much beauty for the descending generations to remove them. It’s the definition of sustainability and performance over time.
Lucky for us, we have partners to help unlock the beauty and enduring nature of a project. We have kids and software engineers and mayors and civil rights activists. They love the landscapes they live in. We can lead them by listening. And during the listening, we must apply the environmentally restorative approaches we care so much about, along with the poetry of design. (The ‘freedom of musicians’ to paraphrase Jens Jensen’s Siftings.) This will not only distinguish us within the design and engineering professions. It will differentiate us among modern society. It’s getting noisy out there. We know how to listen. Now should be our time to lead by listening.