A couple of interesting posts during the past few weeks over on Free Association Design and Infranet Lab hearken back to a series of projects by Israeli landscape architect Shlomo Aaronson done in the mid-80’s in the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. These projects- the sculpting of excavated fill from a phosphate mine into abstractions of the natural topography for hydrological and aesthetic purposes, and the siting of an 18km conveyor belt through protected desert terrain from the mine to the train depot, are significant in their scope and scale and were harbingers of the work of the landscape urbanists/infrastructurists (though Alan Berger would have you believe he has entirely invented the interesting work he is doing).
This work, together with the push to rebuild the national infrastructure, is the generator of much speculation and excitement regarding the future role landscape/architecture. Recently on mammoth their expansive “architecture of the decade” post turned into an interesting discussion about the definition of landscape/architecture and its future role in constructing the built environment. Additionally, Conditions Magazine is currently having a call for papers examining the possibilities for added value in architecture. And that got me thinking.
The term infrastructure is less than one hundred years old, originating in the US in the 1920’s and quickly becoming commonplace with the WPA and post-war building boom. The term was specifically an engineering term and the dictionary definition is illuminating:
in·fra·struc·ture (ĭn’frə-strŭk’chər) n.
1. An underlying base or foundation especially for an organization or system.
2. The basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.
Usage Note: The term infrastructure has been used since 1927 to refer collectively to the roads, bridges, rail lines, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function. The term also has had specific application to the permanent military installations necessary for the defense of a country. Perhaps because of the word’s technical sound, people now use infrastructure to refer to any substructure or underlying system.
Infrastructure is historically defined as follows:
INFRASTRUCTURE = POLICY + ENGINEERING
Given that, a critical question to debate if landscape/architecture is going to have an integral role in the future conceptualization and construction of infrastructure: what is the added-value of landscape/architecture in this equation?
In answering this question, it is important to remember works like the Negev Phosphate Works and the Dead Sea Conveyor Belt. The focus of landscape/architects is always shifting, but we the consitent thread has been that generalist craftsmen. We have always been generalists, competent to both influence and interpret policy-makers’ decisions (who are often removed from the building professions by at least a factor of 2) and directing, siting, and integrating engineers’ decisions. At the same time, we are rarely the builders ourselves, instead working with the tradesmen and scientists to effectively intervene in realspace, not just in abstract documentation of space.
It seems that the trend in the profession is toward generalist policymaker, and this has certain beneficial effects, given that for generations we confined ourselves to a medium of “site“ as opposed to “ground“ [see “Groundwork“ by Robin Dripps for a brilliant explanation of this difference]. However, we must not forget the craftsmen aspect of our legacy. It is the ability to conceive and direct well-executed details that reinforce that larger theoretical and conceptual framework defining any given intervention that separates landscape/architects. It is there that we add value; the landscape/architect is the catalytic agent that creates a positive feedback loop between the scientists, politicians and planners that make policy, and the engineers and tradesmen that execute them.
I hope Belanger and Joe Brown and Berger continue to expand the practice of landscape, but we must not lose our ability to execute policy. Speculation is fun and ideas are cheap, but execution is necessarily a narrowing of possibilities; for that reason it carries responsibility. And so responsible and innovative execution is the real added value.