Recently Places posted an article by writer Andrew Blum titled Metaphor Remediation: A new Ecology for the city. This could perhaps slide quietly under the radar where it not also the final chapter in the new Michael Van Valkenburg Associates book and constantly beating the drum: “I’m a new urban manifesto. Do what I say.” This particular article is symptomatic of a larger predilection among urban design critics towards metaphor and a general tendency to conflate the term “metaphor” with “myth”. It is not particular to Mr. Blum. However, I recently had his article shoved in my face twice, and so will focus on that as an example.
Firstly, he starts with a sentimental story about going to Jones Beach for the day with his family as a kid. Upon returning to New York City in the evening, he sees it rising up in the distance “emitting wavy lines of heat like a cartoon pie” (now that is a real metaphor; a weird and ineffectual one, but at least a metaphor).
Then, in the second paragraph he begins to set up his thesis. He does this by throwing in a for-free eye catcher- “the efficiency of cities”- which he expects us to assume as true and upon which he hopes to build his argument. We can all imagine that he is referring specifically to less material consumption needed for infrastructure, both physical and social, but in reality this assumption is a lot more nuanced than that and shouldn’t be bandied about with such recklessness. This claim is based on the work of brilliant physicist Geoffrey West and is extrapolated from his Metabolic Theory of Ecology (for a smart writeup of how the theory applies to urban centers, see Mr. West’s article in Seed Magazine). The Places article glibly glosses over the negative and ‘inefficient’ aspects of the theory which states that when a city’s population doubles, all of its function increase by a rate of 15% as a general rule. So, the number of patents increase by 15%, individual weath increases 15%, but also waiting times increase by 15%, traffic increases 15%, disease increases 15%, crime increases 15%. So extrapolate that out, and you see you are getting less bang for your buck (if the population goes up 100% but patents only 15%, that’s not more efficient. And if a city of 1 million has an average traffic commute of 20 minutes and that same city increases in population to 2 million people, all of which have an average commute of 23 minutes, that’s not more efficient than 2 cities of 1 million where people commute 20 minutes). Suddenly this claim seem dubious, and while I can assume what he is actually trying to say, this statement at the very least requires a more nuanced approach than throwing it between some hyphens.
However, that is not my main gripe. My main gripe is his insistence on defining the urban landscape via metaphor. This is offensive. Metaphor is a wonderful and oft employed literary device used to illustrate a point, lend symbolic importance, and draw parallels and connections between ideas, events, people, and things. Everyone from the Beatles to Beowulf has employed metaphor to paint fantastic pictures and tell stories that have become a part of the collective conscience. Nonetheless, the contemporary predisposition to describe the landscape and landscape processes through metaphor is annoying, be it from excellent practitioners and academics such as Colin Rowe and James Corner, or young upstarts from Brooklyn who don’t exactly know what a metaphor is (ahem, Mr. Blum).
Tolkien had a point in his dislike of metaphor. Metaphor is limited in that it is defining; if ‘something’ is ‘something else’, then it is not a lot of other things. We know from Schrodinger’s Cat that by defining something, by looking specifically for certain outcomes, we are deciding all of the things that it is not, we are limiting possibilities . To bound landscape interventions within the confines of a single metaphor is effecient and tidy, yet often inappropriate, especially regarding complex urban sites that offer a palimpsest of historical, social, and ecological narratives. Landscapes and landscape projects are more appropriately described through mythology, allegory, and simple descriptive prose.
Blum, unfortunately, then proceeds to tell us he will examine a couple of MVVA projects for their metaphorical benefits. Now, I am a huge fan of MVVA’s work, and am loathe to equate their proposal for the highline (truly thoughtful and challenging) with the winning entry (Field Operations’ fashion runway sexed-up with today’s hot styles). Blum then begins to vaguely define MVVA’s conceptual and critical approaches to the design of the urban landscape which quickly degenerates into a series of loquacious platitudes and buzzwords- a common tactic in architectural criticism. Midway down, we are greeted with this little jewel of a paragraph:
Landscape architecture operates as part of a larger, open system of ever-increasing scales — from the flowerbed to the watershed and on up to the planet. Inevitably, increasing scale brings increasing complexity, and the straightforward facts architects count on from engineers dissolve into the theoretical models and opinions (however well-informed) of ecologists. In nature — even in the city — the facts on the ground never suggest straightforward actions. Here is where landscape architects begin a balancing act between the needs of the environment and the needs of the city.
By the end of the paragraph I am thoroughly confused. I know that he is trying to define the practice of landscape architecture for us, and I know that he fails miserably. Luckily, we are quickly brought back to the main dish: Metaphorical Implications! Metaphor, Metaphor, Metaphor!
At any rate, I am perhaps being unjust. The article does offer some nice insight into two projects from an important professional team (though not much more than can be garnered from the D.I.R.T. and MVVA websites). The article is okay from a scribe’s standpoint. The real problem is the larger phenomenon of Metaphor Fixation. No single poet, novelist, or journalist would write using solely metaphor to communicate ideas and describe actions and things. Metaphor should be used sparingly, both conceptually and critically, within the profession of landscape design. Moreso these days with designers like MVVA who aren’t so much concerned with paradise gardens but rather ecologically and socially complex sites that are not easy to define and are constantly changing.
Mythology, mythical landscapes, and such are a much more pertinent literary device, and more exciting too. Myths and cultural mythologies have defined, informed, and responded to societies throughout time since their inception. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the myth of the Wild West and the Open Road in modern day USA, myths have always been the most powerful and sophisticated method for reconciling human society and their relationship to the land. That is not to say that there is no place for metaphor in describing contemporary landscape practice, but it is hardly the most appropriate method given the scope and scale of the problems and promises faced by the profession and society at large. Our fixation with metaphor combined with pithy insights and sweeping platitudes promises to undermine the very work that such criticism is intended to refine and expand.
Anyways, a tip of the cap to MVVA- they are working with a lot more than metaphors.