It was just a little while ago
blackbirds on the telephone wire
as I eat yesterday’s
at 6 a.m.
an a quiet Sunday morning.
one shoe in the corner
the other laying on it’s
yes, some lives were made to be
– Charles Bukowski
The modern paradigm in landscape architecture is the creation of leisure and beauty for the passive user. This mandate doesn’t come from within the profession but exists in a dialectic with cultural expectations. Joan Iverson Nassauer explores this relationship at length in her work on the interface of the cultural expectations and landscape ecologies.
However, this is not another rant about how we need to incorporate work into the landscape processes (much to the disappointment of my tens of readers). Instead, what I’m interested in today is what landscape architects can learn from the work of Charles Bukowski, that hideous, disgusting man.
The above poem was written by the man. We here at FASLANYC don’t read much and so can’t offer pithy insights but we can say that we like it. It is so direct, so honest, so devoid of hyperbole and in true Bukowski fashion it ends with a gut punch, a punch which doesn’t leave you writhing on the floor, but makes you realize just how hollow you are on the inside. And he’s talking about himself.
Bukowski was many vile and interesting things, but there are 3 themes in particular where landscape can learn from his work:
1. the ability to take the nasty, the damning, the painful, the destructive- much of it self-inflicted- and make it meaningful, interesting, alive, and sometimes beautiful (without privileging beauty).
2. utterly embracing the underbelly of the American Dream.
3. he was prolific.
Regarding the first point, landscape architects claim to be working on this, and admittedly a few are serious. These tend to be people who have the protection afforded by institutional support. However, the majority of the professionals that even acknowledge our environmental legacy merely employ the rhetoric as a disingenuous marketing strategy. This can be understandably attributed to market realities- what people are willing to pay for. But it is also an approach that is spear-headed by our professional organization ASLA in licensing and lobbying practices.
The second point is related and largely ignored. Living his whole life in Los Angeles, Bukowski was particularly suited to relate this nasty side of the American Dream. I’ve never been forced to go to L.A., praise god, but it is undeniable that it is the true American City: located at the edge of manifest destiny, the source of unmatched luxury and squalor, choked with its own excess, an unparalleled combination of environmental beauty and degradation, the epicenter for illegal immigration and unbridled ambition. It devours the dreams of the masses that flock there and remakes the broken into gods if only they’ll give up their souls. It is American in a sense that is larger than the United States; it is todoamericano. Bukowski captured this honestly, and even if I couldn’t specifically relate, it was interesting.
Lastly, Bukowski was prolific. He wrote. He wrote about writing. He wrote about failing at writing. He worked at it, and was thoughtful, but he didn’t create precious works. He didn’t work himself into a Proustian sweat fussing over a single work, a picture of life observed from the other side of an ornate fenestration. He lived a life, admittedly a vile one, and then he wrote about it.
We here at FASLANYC are fascinated by what may be wrought by an embracing of the Bukowski mentality among landscape architects and we think it is particularly relevant today. We need new attitudes, new models to confront the challenges facing us- exponential loss of biodiversity, extreme environmental degradation and pollution, and rapid global urbanization. Trying to reconcile and proactively engage these issues while working under the beauty and leisure paradigm will not do.
One example of this, briefly mentioned here before, is the Red Hook Farm in Brooklyn. We emphasize this farm to dispel any fears that a Bukowski-scape would necessarily be filled with disgusting old drunk perverts. Profiled in the USDA publication Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-Being through Urban Landscapes (available here for free), the farm is one example of embracing this mentality.
The farm, sprouting like a bountiful ailanthus from a blacktop park, doesn’t negate the nasty legacy left behind by previous decades. It uses it- soil was spread out over the asphalt expanse, a greenhouse was constructed by volunteers, schoolkids, and interns, compost is brought in from local restaurants and food is sold to them. Programs focus on school kids in the area and the space is open to anyone during operating hours. During the summer the farm partners with farmers from outside the city to run a farmer’s market. And it grows; from 1,000 square feet of raised planting beds and after school programming 7 years ago, the farm now has 40,000 square feet, composts over 80 tons of waste per year, runs programs for 7,200 school-age kids, and a CSA for 40 families.
The Red Hook Farm is a Bukowski-scape. It takes the nasty, the damning, the painful, the destructive- much of it self-inflicted- and makes it meaningful, interesting, alive, and sometimes beautiful. It utterly embraces the underbelly of the American Dream- the legacy left post-WWII urban policies, by drug and crime economies, the undefended communities harmed by classist and racist initiatives and by self-destructive tendencies. And it is prolific- the farm is growing, and not just producing more food, but expanding social interactions, forms of recreation, education and work, and diversifying local economies.
Landscape architecture should get over our Proustscape fixation and embrace this Bukowski mentality. There are great examples of this, notably the work of Achva Stein in that very same Los Angeles 20 years ago (for which she was the first of two landscape architects to ever receive the Chrysler Design Institute Award. The second? James Corner). This type of work should get more attention than who-the-hell-ever’s recent pretty park-as-commodity promising to boost real estate values. And not because of some bullshit altruism, but because beauty is beautiful, but it’s just not that interesting.
Just ask Bukowski.