Yesterday was the final day of the national ASLA convention in Washington, D.C. We dispatched our southern correspondent, gentleman landscape architect-bait store-and-bike-shop owner H. Willis Montcrief to the event to take stock of the situation and offer up some insights and opinions. The following is his report.
Well, since this here’s a landscape convention, I reckon you gotta start with the site- the D.C. Convention Center. This thang here is an abomination. It’s massive, it’s expensive, and disorienting. Like the Belvedere hotel described by Varnelis, it’s like somethin’ outta The Second Coming, a rough beast slouchin’ toward Bethlehem to be born. Movin’ on, the ASLA did organize various field trips to interestin’ places in D.C. such as “Virginia Hunt Country” and a boat ride up the Potomac River. Of course, many of those came at an additional cost. Let’s do a back o’ the napkin calculation: you’r-a profession’l; you pay $550 to register, $250 to get here, $200 per night to sleep (4 nights), plus you wanna go on a coupla these here trips. You’re gonna pay over $2500 for the conference. Is it worth it? Let’s take a look.
The sessions are pretty right on. Each day you get two, and they are all over the map in terms of content- green roofs and public policy, retrofitting suburban strip malls, wild urban plants, management of institutional knowledge, inside the army corps of engineers. That’s just a slice of the first day. There ain’t no way you can go to all the good stuff there. Of course, even the ones you can go to will leave you wantin’. You’ll be a big, dim carpeted room, the talkers will be up on the dais and a series of powerpoints will be flipped through like it was 1999.
Can you learn from them? Yep. A lotta info and opinions are presented, albeit after they’re taken out of the pantry, scooped from the can, put into the bleached filter of professional decorum, and slowly strained into yur opened mouth. But these guys and gals are good, and the research and opinions are serious and very often well-considered. However, do you get more outta ’em than you would by occasionally readin’ journals, surfin’ the ‘net, and talkin’ about them with your friends? No.
Let’s move on to the expo.
I walked into the expo, vomited, got dizzied, and passed out. When I came to, I was in the fetal position next to a neatly stacked pair of pavers in front of a brightly colored display while a smiling, middle aged man of great girth tried to give me his business card and a glass of unsweet tea (an affront). As I sat up, all around me were brightly colored metal bars and drab, new-fangled materials formed into questionable objects. As I stumbled through the rows, looking for that sweet, sweet neon gleam of an exit sign, I was assaulted on all sides by puffs of fog and tufts of grass-like substance, I stumbled over containers and benches of hideous proportions and materials, and was nearly undone by a giant display of prison/play equipment. Sweet Jesus.
The expo is where you go if you want people to tell you about stuff that you can put places, I reckon. It was a horrible, horrible scene- a cavernous subterranean room with a black ceiling and carpeted floor, gridded little plots for each poor entrepreneur there to push their product, and middle-aged, successful but unsatisfied professionals all milling about, trading little paper pieces and smiles. Nowhere was there an example of someone who’d figur’d out how to use them products in a neat way, and there absolutely were not any places for materials and methods which weren’t pre-packaged products. Where was the creative reuse of pallets and recycled concrete? Better yet, where were the tradesmen? The welders, plumbers, machine operators? I’m guessin’ they had better sense than to come ’round and passed the afternoon with a cool one in one hand a fishin’ rod in the other.
Seems to me that the industry expo is some kinda outgrowth of the state fairs and such, when farmers, ranchers, mechanics, manufacturers and the like would get together and show off their new equipment, techniques, and lines of produce. They’d swap secrets and sell their wares, make good connections for the comin’ year and education the resta the folks ’bout what they was up to. That kinda changed with the auto industry and the spectacle of the car show. Here Detroit- the corporations- flexed their muscles and wowed the competition and the regular folks with their ingenuity and power. That was the start of the expo.
The expo was always a place where you go for a day or two. In that short time you learn all the latest innovations, you get wildly entertained, and you have a social experience. It’s cool to see and be seen. In many ways, the state fair and the expo are kinda like the world’s fair. But like the world’s fair, the expo seems ta have peaked in the 70’s and despite material and technological advances and a wildly differ’nt social, ecological, economic, and political context, the expo is pretty much the same. And when you’re not showing cool cars and big ‘ol heifers and tractors, but rather some shitty synthetic turf and concrete planters- yesteryears bricabrac scaled up- it just don’t work at all. No one likes it.
So to sum up, the convention center’s no good, but the content of the sessions is. The networkin’ might make it worth it, except in those cavernous impersonal non-places whatever cool energy a nerdy group like landscape architects might generate immediately dissipates. And the expo is an abomination at this point, 30 years past it’s prime if ever it had one.
But I was thinkin- those folks up in Canada at the Reford Gardens gotta good thing goin’ with their yearly garden festival. They make new gardens every year, make ’em pretty cheap, and each one is an experiment in materials and construction methods. And it draws people- both to help design and build ’em, and to come check ’em out. If you figure in the cost of stayin’ in these big cities and puttin’ on these giant conventions (a weird little historical moment whose time has passed), then why not move toward havin’ regional conventions with a national one every four years. Heck, why not have a truly American one (includin’ South and Central America) every ten years too. And instead of havin’ comp’nies come set up their dumbass booths and try to rope unsuspecting passersby into taking their business card, they could instead sponsor part of a garden, giving material donations in-kind and the equivalent of their salesman’s expo expense account to an installation. Piggy-backin’ on the success of the ASLA green roof (which is pretty cool, and includes all sorts of monitoring of the systems up there) these installations would be small gardens, kinda like them up at Reford, each one showcasin’ materials, thinkin’ about themes, an exuberant exploration of the medium of landscape and the methodologies for intervenin’ in it. This kind of expo- a World’s Fair writ-small, would delight visitors and educate the designers that come for the convention. The only employment that comes out of these expos now is for salesmen. Assembling expo gardens would employ designers, craftsmen and laborers. We need less salesmen and more tradesman.
Now I reckon you could say that linkin’ the conventions that closely with gardens could tumble the profession back to the front yard. And that might be a danger. We oughtta ask Claude Cormier and Chris Reed how doing the garden festival up at Reford worked out for them. There’s probl’y a lotta things that would have to be worked out- it would be hard and risky, which might be why the good folks at ASLA haven’t done it yet. And so we’re left with a little suburban-style ASLA-ville for an expo. We need to know our materials, and the products out there, but seein’ ’em disembodied and strewn about the basement of a convention center like some kind of post-modern material freak show will not suffice.
– H. Willis Montcrief