Working within landscape architectural design education recently, both here and in the United States, two things have disturbed me. The first is an obsession with what gets referred to as ‘process’ in design. The second is a virtually unremarked upon unconfidence of students to understand what real landscapes do. This unconfidence is not a problem of students. It instead reflects a greater landscape architectural unconfidence in the ability to understand what landscapes do and therefore on landscape architectural practices and education in general. My disturbance is for students. Students have been let down by the environment that they find themselves in. Practice will then suffer. These two things that disturb me are connected in two ways.
Firstly, they are connected by the notion of open systems. ‘Process’ is championed in the name of open systems or self-organisation etc. The story goes, and I basically agree, that open systems are about process and not about form. What tends to be meant by process’ is the problem, however. There seems an extreme and accepted shiftiness in the common usage which uncritically conflates at least four different senses or uses of process:1 firstly, landscape processes being anything which is not ‘static’ or which does not keep still - movement systems, organisational systems, ecological dynamisms, phasing the implementation of a design over time; second, process being any design process which involves setting up ‘machines’ for the generation of design and in particular the generation of designs which don’t keep still; third, computational processes; and last, processes being the interaction of various dimensions of the landscape in time and space and the affects2 produced by such interactions. The most important aspect of process for landscape architecture — what open systems are about above all else — is the last of these, the production of landscape specific affects. Strangely, this is the part that receives least attention. Such shiftiness is both enigmatic and distracting. The resultant conflation is itself problematic and defers from landscape specific affects.
What commonly happens is that the latter notion is not recognised or embraced and the former notions are foregrounded. This seems the norm in design studios in ‘progressive schools’. Influential texts contribute to this.3 In other instances what seems to happen is that the latter is assumed or mouthed and provides the raison d’être for the others - and it might be argued or presumed if ‘backed into a corner’ that the former are in the service of the latter - yet operationally the attention is commonly on the former aspects of process.4 It seems presumed - or rather practised - that these are the main game and that they or the particular assemblages setup to explore such processes provide their own raison d’être. Movement, in the various senses alluded to above which might be referred to as ‘metric’ movement - and responding in terms of movement, becomes its own reason. The design studio reflex and preoccupation is to design (with) things that don’t keep still. Representation, in such an environment, is in the service of this function. Students (and others) seem to assume that designing in open systems is about designing in situations where things don’t keep still or is about designing things or systems that don’t keep still.5
An important dimension of the recent emphasis on open systems, it should be said, is on the continually shifting nature of situations encountered. How to deal with the flux of contemporary situations? Again, the problematic notion of process gets in the way of the value of this preoccupation. These situations tend to be presented as collections or entwinements of metric movement, when they should really be regarded as of the order of an event and such events — being part of the same open world — are inseparable from landscape specific affects — and might best be considered as landscape specific affects themselves. Such events and affects are not metric. They cannot be mapped onto an abstract space. Such situations involve a transformation of space itself. Landscape specific affects involve a transformation of all that is the landscape, not just all that is, effectively, on landscape. For philosopher Manuel De Landa, for instance, real ‘process’ involves a change of properties. For the writers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, central catalysts of this whole discourse on open systems, ‘real movement’ as opposed to that which can be notated, involves qualitative transformation.6 In contrast the more metric and ‘common sense’ notion of ‘process’ can be simply notated. The metric notion is very easy to understand and consume and, from teaching experience, notoriously difficult to budge. There is little evidence to suggest that such an idea is not almost completely accepted in progressive schools and recent design writings.7
What might this sense of process involve? To get at this, with students, I often discuss well-known local examples of landscapes with students as they are convenient and, to put it bluntly, fully in reality - in comparison to what you might find in a journal, for instance. Federation Square is often discussed. Most tend to agree when they are asked, and even if they say that they ‘do not like it’, that it brings some new form of life to Melbourne. One student identified a kind a of ‘timelessness’ that is part of the movement into the space from the street. The movement from the grid of Melbourne and deep into the central outdoor space of Federation Square tends to involve a shift from being on a trajectory toward a destination to that which is more diverting — involving a movement away from the workaday city. The movement away is simultaneously across, up and around onto what becomes a surface which has shifting points or zones of tendencies which tend toward other points or zones on the surface in a way that is itself distracting. The bodily relation in this movement shifts simultaneously with: the greater shift from the suburbs and the workaday city to this destination of distraction; the shift into the greater surface configuration of the square; the shifts in the micro-surface geometry; the shifts in the visual relation between where you are stepping, what is around you and where you are going and what is off in the distance and where you might be going. The closer and greater geography of Federation Square involves the asymmetrical plugging in of functions and also systems of relations that enable and integrate with, and provide the critical mass for, this bodily movement. This timelessness might be experienced as the realisation of a distracted wandering around the square. The transformation is less conscious but not less real for being less conscious.
Such a movement is or involves a timelessness which is not so much metric as involving a rhythm, a transformative rhythm where the before transforms the after.
This is a rhythm that certainly involves moving bodies but is not reduced to moving bodies. Moving bodies are only part of visible by-product parts of — of what liberates this timelessness into the world. The open system that might be called Federation Square is not an assemblage of metric movements. It instead is an affectual interaction which very selectively transforms all manner of things we tend to consider ‘metrically’ as real material things - things in this new preoccupation which are said to be ‘static’, such as the surface of the ‘square’. This selection is expresses as this half-conscious affect of timelessness. This particular surface is inseparable from the form of life that includes or is this timelessness.
A mental exercise, for anyone who knows this square, might be useful here to draw out the specificity of the realm that is this form of life. If anything of the above might relate to what the reader knows of Federation Square then the reader might consider speculating on what small changes to specific spatial, and therefore temporal, relations might do. The timelessness that has been identified might be considered inseparable from a certain sociality or interactivity which seems unlike that of other local spaces. The shifting zones of trajectories are inseparably social interactivities. The square has its own interactivity. The surface itself is part of this sociality. It might be seen that the surface is in a sense life — full. It is not just stone. Such life affects involve very concrete relations in time and space. Alteration of this surface effectively alters life. To flatten or part flatten, speculatively, the bow in the surface is to alter this interactivity and timelessness. Alteration is an alteration of concrete relations in time and space. Alteration of such relations alters life as this is the real material being altered. Representation provides just this power as it can reduce the world to that which enables an alteration of relationships that alter life. Such concrete relations involve changes in realms and connections beyond and across and within this square, changes which transform this square as it transforms them. An alteration in one relation, because this is an open system, alters the other relations. It seems ignored but we are able to, or may be able to, connect to such affects as we are, I would suggest, very obviously, part of such life forms. Such an understanding is only one way of connecting to this space, but one that may be pursued as others could. To take a notation as the affect or what the square does is not only to devalue the life of space, it is also to separate you from that life and from the greater realms and connections that are also part of the great enlivening that is landscape. It is often suggested with the recent preoccupations with process that what effectively amounts to as I suggest movement, is against the scenographic - but the scenographic is not just restricted to that which does not move, the view but, instead to anything which cuts itself off from life. Just as we can cut ourselves off from the life of the landscape representation has strong tendencies to do ss as well. It can, just because of its very selectivity and narrowness, do exactly the opposite. Notation by itself tends toward the scenographic. It has no privilege when it comes to the scenographic. Registrations of time are no more capable of escaping the scenographic than so-called static representations of space.
In previous issue of Kerb#11 I gave an example of what termed ‘repetitive phenomena in the landscape’. The particular example considered spaces in suburban Melton in outer western Melbourne. This example referred to a particular affect associated with a type a of space peculiar to the realm of Melton. An affect which can only be accounted for if it is approached from an open system perspective which affirms the concreteness of relations involved in landscape affects. For another example the reader might consider this short article.
This brings me around to the second thing that the author finds a disturbing — that there is a profound unconfidence that students and others have with understanding how landscapes function. This a is a truly unacknowledged and serious issue. The silence about it does not make it any less true. A painter is expected to develop a sophisticated connection to how paintings function.
In contrast - take landscape architects into the field and the last thing that they are confident with connecting to is the landscape - their medium, their material. No-one really takes this seriously.8
That this medium is perplexing in relation to other mediums has been the subject of some discussion. A number of authors have commented on the reasons why landscape architecture tends peculiarly toward the scenographic and away from the processes that constitute landscape, for instance. As I have tried to too briefly argue above what tends to be meant by processes, in such uses, is usually assumed to be more metric than affectual. However, anyone who has spent a bit of time looking at open systems, theoretically and in conjunction with practice, might know that open systems oriented practice, if we can posit a such a thing, places what real examples do above models and presumptions. If anything, current educational practice, writings and published ‘progressive projects’ do the opposite in the name of open systems. Most notably they tend to give very little attention to what actual landscapes do, despite what gets said. They effectively tend to focus attention away from the challenge of what the landscape does - a challenge which is greater than anyone would like to admit - and defer onto assumptions about process or onto the rigours and imperatives of the currently fashionable processes of design set-up to deal with ‘processes’. When attention has been given to what the landscape does it has tended to see landscape in very limited and selective ways.10
So, the second connection is that, the historical unconfidence of landscape architects with their medium is further increased by recent practices rather than brushed aside, as it should be. This unconfidence is in contrast to the apparent confidence and glamour of theoretical and architectural texts - the glamour of the latter glosses over both the power and the perplexity of the landscape. The result is a deferral from what real landscapes do to a contemporary image of what real landscapes do, an image that the common idea of process reflects. Unconfidence is connected directly to the common idea of process.
In the 1990s a small number of authors thought relatively clearly and freshly about representation and landscape11 The question of representation, in such writings, was intimately tied up with the question of the nature of the medium characteristics that made it a different medium and to a limited extent attempted to affirm the different things that this medium does. It seems, however, that such useful pioneering thought has given way to new presumptions about what landscape does and hence what representation is for.
Open systems thinking has the great promise of affirming what landscape does and yet it seems that landscape architects will yet again passively fall in line with thoughts from outside their own discipline and in doing so yet again fail to affirm their own disciplines - and when it comes to representation these are disciplines and practices that have hardly been articulated. These are practices that can only emerge if the representational question is inseparable from the serious challenge of embracing what real landscapes do. Representation is central to the connection that a designer can make to life. At this moment, I would argue, we should be looking for and championing uses of representation and notions of representation that allow landscape architecture to open up an ability to connect to and affirm the strong things that the landscape does. Without such affirmation we will yet again affirm the new presumption and its various reflexes, in the name of open systems.
- Each of these are important investigations yet they are really secondary to the last of these, and by not embracing the last of these then the others are also undermined and do not make sense.↩
- Peter Connolly, ‘Embracing openness: Making landscape urbanism landscape architectural: Part 2’, The Mesh Book: Landscape/Infrastructure, (eds.) Julian Raxworthy and Jessica Blood, Melbourne: RMIT Press, 200-214.W↩
- aldheim Charles, 2002, Landscape Urbanism: A Genealogy’, Prazis: Landscapes, no. 4, 10.↩
- Nutzungen Situationen and Zuntande des Raums, Interviewed by Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto Werk, Bauen + Wohnen, May 9001, 18-23.↩
- And that a ‘system’ is seen as a relatively separable realm of bodily movement.↩
- Manuel Delanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, New York: Continuum, 2002, 14.↩
- A Clarke Getch, A Holly, ‘Landscopic regimes: Exploring perseptival representation beyond the pictorial project”, Landscape Journal, vol 24, 1-5, 2005.↩
- The more interested practitioners develop an awareness or wisdom about this through experience with lots of examples of real landscapes and such wisdom and awareness does not have a language and mode of communication in landscape architecture.↩
- James Corner, ‘Representation and landscape: Drawing and making in the landscape medium’, Word and Image, 8, 3, Jul-Sept, 1992, 243-75. The agency of mapping: speculation, critique and invention’, Mappings, (ed.) Dennis Cosgrove, New York: Reaktion Books, 213-15.↩
- Elizabeth Meyer, ‘Landscape architecture as modern other and post-modern ground’, The Culture of Landscape Architecture, (eds.) Harriet Edquist and Vanessa Bird, Melbourne: Edge Publishing, 1994, 20-25 and Corner, 1999.↩