Landscape/architectural criticism today is often conservative and superficial. I attribute this to two main causes; the modern insecurity of the professions, and the mystification of the academic aspect of landscape/architecture and their concomitant critics and apologists.
The first issue, the insecurity of the landscape/architecture professions, is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning with the fallout from Modernism. In his seminal essay “Whatever happened to Urbanism?” Koolhaas gave voice to an unsettling feeling that had been haunting practitioners since it became apparent that modernist architecture was not the panacea it claimed and not as important as it supposed. Forced to confront superfluity in a single generation, the critical discourse within the profession took up defensive positions to weather the storm.
The second issue is more ingrained; the mystification and resultant inaccessibility of the intellectual aspect of the landscape/architecture professions. Design pedagogy is defined according to processes of exclusivity: design methods and forms are understood as too sophisticated to be either fully comprehended, funded, or implemented by its constituents. And academic discourse is presented as too complex and profound to be undertaken or appreciated by the plebeians. For this reason, the majority of practitioners have abdicated their responsibility to contribute to the contemporary discourse within the professions. It is currently dominated by writers and theoreticians with no foundation in praxis.
As a result, the critical discourse has become a series of self-catalyzing memes and hyperbolic metaphors characterized by a forced focus on concept and cult of personality. Only projects deemed exemplary according to a conservative set of values (standards of beauty, economic viability, social popularity) are discussed and then largely in a laudatory tone. This is not healthy criticism.
The landscape does not need an apologist. The implicit meanings do not need to be spelled out and given voice, and we do not need to know if the design decisions meet the approval criteria of the author. In recent decades, a generation of design practitioners and writers have taken to conceptualizing a site, wrapping it up tightly in a metaphor (or series of them), and then narrating the argument to us. Marc Treib argues the impotence of this stance was argued persuasively in an essay titled “Must Landscapes Mean?”*
Meaning accrues over time; like respect, it is earned, not granted. While the designer yearns to establish a landscape that will acquire significance, it is not possible to use pat symbols alone as a means to transmute syntax into semantics, that is, tectonics into meanings… differences in culture, in education, in life experience, in our experience of nature will all modify our perception of the work of landscape architecture… We cannot make that place mean, but we can, I hope, instigate reactions to the place that fall within the desired confines of happiness, gloom, joy, contemplation, or delight.
After addressing these two issues, the question becomes what should contemporary criticism focus on? If the purpose of professional criticism is not to explain a project but to make the work better, then there are four areas of focus of contemporary criticism: political process, cultural context, a focus on criticism through time, and polemics.
First, the political process; instead of remaining enamored with the cult of personality, the designer’s thoughts and views should always be presented within the larger context of all of the players in a project. Without exception the significant designers of our time are experts at negotiating the political intrigues inherent in public agencies, affluent clients, vocal constituents, and marginalized communities. This dynamic will always influence a project and the criticism should acknowledge and examine this.
Second, the cultural context – historical, scientific, technological, social and popular – should be present in criticism. This can be implied or explicit but it should be present. It is this perspective that will help to frame the discussion around sustainability, changing it from a tactic that is essentially a marketing tool for designers, developers, politicians, and manufacturers, to a logical argument and thoughtful discussion. If the intellectual context surrounding the implementation of an initiative were more thorough and critical the project could be examined more honestly for effectiveness and appropriateness.
Third, criticism for a project should take place through time. How a place changes over the course of a day, through the seasons, and across a number of years should be considered. The conventional approach is largely the fault of shortsighted editors placing a focus on narrow definitions of timely and relevant in order to drum up readership for their publication. Criticism of a project should absolutely not be limited to opening day, a date set by political and economic agendas. Andrew Blum stated this sentiment in his essay “In Praise of Slowness” and Elizabeth Meyer’s essay “Slow Landscapes”* is a good example of a more thoughtful type of criticism.
Fourth, all landscape/architecture criticism should be polemical. The High Line is an exceptional project — extremely expensive, complicated, and high profile. That it has gotten a free pass from the critics, Jacky Bowring’s critique notwithstanding, is a huge disservice to the professional community. Every project, at various stages and according to metrics deemed appropriate by different editors, should be examined and questioned. As a profession, we gain nothing by constantly patting the same people (and by extension, ourselves) on the back for a job well done. Designers know that no project is perfect. Self-righteous celebration is not the job of criticism within the profession. There is a place for that, and it is with the lobbyists, apologists and at times the popular media.
Ultimately, criticism exists to make the work better, always better. If the discourse can include more voices — practitioners, writers, and academics — all questioning and examining thoughtfully and professionally, we can get at the interesting aspects, stories, intrigues, and facts. If we can get past our fixation on metaphor, concept and style, landscape/architectural criticism will function as a feedback loop with the design process to better the work of designing the built environment.
This is the fifth in an ongoing series of posts that ponders the state of architecture criticism. To read all posts on this topic, please click here.
* “Must Landscapes Mean?” by Marc Treib Landscape Journal. 14(1):46-62 (1995)
** “Slow Landscapes: A New Erotics of Sustainability,” by Elizabeth K. Meyer, Harvard Design Magazine, Vol. 31, Fall/Winter 2009/10, p. 22-31.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
FASLANYC works as a landscape architect for an urban design firm in New York City. He also writes the landscape criticism blog faslanyc and contributes to other design journals with features focusing on urban projects in South America.