Kerb: You suggested in Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape that ‘we seem to have a clearer conception of what urbanism was than of what it is or what it will become’.1 Is this still the case? How has landscape urbanism informed our ability to perceive the material changes of the city and altered our perception of what urbanism is or may become? Has our concept of chaos and order changed?
Mohsen: In short, yes. But this lack of clarity is not necessarily wholly negative. The dogma of modernist planning, with all its reductivism, needs to be supplanted by a whole range of new responses to the urban condition. Landscape urbanism in all its various guises constitutes one of many such responses: its key aspect is its capacity to juxtapose the city’s spatial dimensions with its temporal qualities. Many contemporary geographers -such as Ed Soja, for instance -have highlighted the importance of space as opposed to time, but it’s the interplay between the spatial and the temporal that constructs the specific urban situations. It’s through concepts such as duration that we can perceive the material changes of the city. The temporal dimension of landscape urbanism also creates a greater awareness of the anticipatory nature of urbanism, helping to increase the potential correspondence between new frameworks and new and alternative forms of action.
There are of course many other qualities of landscape urbanism that we could talk about, but regarding the last part of your question I suppose that order, rationality and objectivity don’t have the same positive associations now that they once had under modernism: we have become more sensitive to the order and logic of chaos and more appreciative of its beauty. However the argument shouldn’t be reduced to a chaos/order duality. We should be asking instead whether our aspirations as well as our mechanisms of speculation have the capacity to deal with the complex issues that face us today as design professionals.
Kerb: Do you believe that the deregulation and decentralisation of planning authorities has facilitated a new positive structure for urbanism? Could this be another ‘antidote to the implicit finitude of zoning’?2
Mohsen: In some cases deregulation has produced interesting, unexpected results, but in many others it has had the effect of placing the onus for establishing development conditions on the private sector, with quite negative results. The point is to look at what we can learn from the best examples of practice that don’t shy away from a mixed and complex form of urbanism -an urbanism that’s both dynamic and purposive and yet has the capacity to evolve organically. In short, the antidote to the problematics of zoning is not to abolish planning but to come up with alternative strategies for the formation as well as the implementation of planning policy and practice. Landscape urbanism as a critical and some would say ethical form of practice opens up alternative ways of thinking.
Kerb: Landscape urbanism discourse has strongly emphasised staging and notions of indeterminacy. How has this or does this inform the master plan as ostensibly planning strategy?
Mohsen: Indeterminacy and chance produce unexpected conditions that can be fed back into the master plan and responded to during the various stages of development. In the most productive circumstances, a response to these uncertain conditions can become a mnemonic device for the production of new situations and new forms of design. Going back to the previous question about the relationship between chaos and order, we have to find ways to avoid seeing planning as purely an instrument of order, and indeterminacy as an instrument of imagination -we actually have to create forms of planned indeterminacy. New forms of imagination helped along by concepts such as indeterminacy and chance can then be formulated into new techniques and processes. That’s why I was using the word mnemonic: the repercussions of indeterminacy itself are fed back into the loop. We can learn from these concepts of indeterminacy, as a device for design, as a device for thinking.
Kerb: You suggest in Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape that we need to move beyond a nostalgic yearning for lost models of public space’3 and suggest the importance of supporting and constructing ‘alternative models of urbanism that are open to, and encourage, participation by all citizens’.4 To date, prioritising the way the city works and the shift from image-based to operative methods has preferenced commerce and retail in the public/private realm or territory. How can we construct new democratic space?
Mohsen: One of the things that separates our version of landscape urbanism from some of the others is that it actually does emphasise the production of new forms of public space which are not really landscapes, in the sense of a substitute for a traditional square or whatever. The crucial thing here is the relationship between the public and the private domains. It’s not really for the public sector to relinquish all its responsibilities to the private sector; instead it should be working in new ways with the developers to get them to participate in parts of the city that they don’t necessarily want to pay for -going more extensively into the transport system, the road infrastructure and certain kinds of public spaces. Planning policy has also to be implemented in such a way that it encourages the creation of new forms of public space.
And (briefly), in relation to constructing new democratic spaces based on difference not identity, we should try not to separate democratic procedures and operations from their spatial repercussions, and instead see the idea of democratic space as a necessary mechanism for achieving democracy. In other words, democracy doesn’t just happen by itself; it relies on very particular material, physical and spatial conditions. Hand in hand with this goes a celebration of the fact that people will always have different positions and viewpoints, which brings us to the idea of difference and the interest in conflictual spatial conditions, which is a much wider discussion.
‘The word utopian in many ways has had a very chequered history and problematic past.
Kerb: In Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape Ciro Najle, quoting Michel Serres, suggests that landscape urbanism, as a cultural project, has succeeded in the ‘double dissolution of the architectural object and the architectural hero, which is incarnated by the opening of the discipline to the larger realms of the urban and the landscape’.5 Do you agree?
Mohsen: I think there has been an opening up of the discipline. One of the key topics for me personally is the idea of what we can learn, and how we learn. It’s very easy on one level to create a kind of objective relationship to historical planning, to understand its goals and ambitions in terms of method. So before we rush into obvious, readily imaginable solutions we should try instead to develop new tools and techniques for learning. The term landscape urbanism should not be used in the same way that the word deconstruction was used in architecture, to create and imagine something that you utter. On the other hand the suggestion about the dissolution of the architectural object and the architectural hero seems a bit too optimistic. Architectural heroes are not going away -if anything they seem to be more prevalent. There has also been a renewed emphasis on the architectural object as an entity, a form in its own right, independent of all the other objects which make up the city, which make up the social and cultural political milieu. The celebration of the pure aesthetics of the object has become so dominant.
But partly by emphasising the idea of infrastructure, by emphasising the idea of the relationship between objects and this larger scale of operation, we can begin to think about the possibility of an architecture that’s really concerned with something beyond itself, with what was previously called the city. On the one hand landscape urbanism seems to offer new forms of thinking and learning about processes of invention and imagination, on the other hand it’s providing this possibility for new kinds of urbanism. To be honest, we really don’t know exactly how i is going to pan out. Setting up the Landscape Urbanism programme at the AA [Architectural Association] was part of an investigation to try and find out try and find out more about these tools. What we did was very preliminary, very tentative and very much focused on discovering new ways of thinking rather than fully fledged solutions.
In some other circles the question of landscape urbanism has been co-opted, as bringing a lot of landscape into the urban. This is basically something that has been going on since the latter part of the sixteenth century, when you had, with the Counter Reformation, a very clear collapsing c the concept of landscape on the city itself -you had people like Pope Sixtus V, who one minute was experimenting in the garden and the next was designing the city of Rome. During this period you find really very close parallels between the way that they worked in their garden and way that they designed the city, and it’s something that continued through the the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It’s the topic that Abbé Laugier went through very systematically in terms of the analogy between the city and the garden. Now I think the time has come, not so much to try and find ways that the city can become a landscape, or have more parks, but rather to look in very precise ways at how we can learn from the field of landscape for the purpose of doing -urbanism -for the purpose of coming up with new forms of urban thinking. So while I am very sympathetic to some of the work that has been done under the heading of landscape, I would like to try to keep the emphasis very much on urbanism and on questions of density and the places where people are living and working and being together, rather than, for example, ending up with a situation where you run the risk of suburbanising the urban environment, or at best providing a lot of bucolic spaces. Not that that’s necessarily the agenda of others, but I just think that the emphasis here should be on the word urbanism rather than on the word landscape.
This is not something that’s altogether black and white. Though it’s good to have different versions of things that people work on, you don’t want to end up just with the idea of a multiplicity of modes of representation for its own sake. What you want is a clarification of the differences -it’s this clarification that is useful. How is what you are doing different from somebody else? In what way does this constitute some notion of additionality, of contributing some new forms of knowledge?
When you are dealing with graduate programs it’s important to set up the possibility of new domains of research or investigation that potentially open up new horizons. I am not suggesting for a moment that what we did in the Landscape Urbanism book is the last word, or indeed is without any problems. For example, when you’re dealing with the idea of the large scale it’s difficult to get a full understanding of the relationship between part and whole, given the limited time available for the conception and implementation of the project. Because of this, you try not to have a part and whole discussion too early on, as there is a danger of ending up with very large-scale projects that become architecture at the scale of the city. At a later stage, you really need to go into more detail to begin to understand smaller segments of the city in relation to the methods you have utilised. This, for example, is work that we didn’t do that still needs to be done. But that’s why the idea of the way in which you do research in these kinds of areas is potentially really productive for the future.
Kerb: The Landscape Urbanism Reader was to have been called Landscape Urbanism: A Reference Manifesto. Does landscape urbanism need a manifesto/manifestos?
Mohsen: I think that you know the obvious and immediate answer would be no. Manifestos have become a little discredited because they tend to be associated with a kind of dogma. If one is trying to find out new ways, then the point is not to end up with a list of solutions or pronouncements about how things should be done, but with new ways of making that are open rather than closed. At the same time historically there is a utopian aspect to the manifesto, which I see as something productive. The word utopian in many ways has had a very chequered history. I have written a little on this question of utopia and architectural utopian thinking. There is a deep-rooted need for us to have some level of utopian thinking in our work. It is the dimension of the unknown, of aspiration. It is really about projective forms of thinking that suggest unexpected, unrealised forms of spatiality -of environments, of cities, of places where we live together. In this sense it is also linked to the concept of hope.
Landscape urbanism is a projective mode of thinking -that’s why I used the word ‘anticipatory’. It’s also kicking against something; it’s saying don’t know exactly where this is going. But there is in fact a kind of utopian dimension to it that is not fully realisable, not fully operational in the instance where it is born. This utopian dimension is worth this experimentation, worth investigating. And this is what I think is really the purpose of graduate education. Just to go back to the point about the opening of the discipline to the larger realms of the urban and the landscape, would see the shift from the manifesto to the utopian dimension of thinking as perhaps being more beneficial, as it puts the onus on the contributors to think projectively, with a certain agreement all around that one doesn’t have all the solutions