Central to the effort behind FASLANYC is the belief that the world needs more landscape architecture. As such, this blog is at times an exercise in unabashed boosterism for intervention in the landscape by all manner of folks in all manner of ways, and were it ever criticized as such we would undoubtedly pee a little bit and grin impishly to ourselves.
It is with such effervescent, tumescent enthusiasm that we jump into this week’s topic- the agency of writing. Landscape writing for a large public audience was fundamental to the development of the profession and its influence in 19th century urbanism. It is well known that the dashing AJ Downing, in between visits to the haberdashery and high society parties in the northeastern US, was busy shaping public opinion regarding the validity of “a great central park with a naturalistic aesthetic” for Manhattan through his writing in The Horticulturist.
[the dashing AJ Downing, just before going to the haberdashery]
Frederick Law Olmsted, inasmuch as he had a profession, was a journalist and maintenance man (granted, park superintendent) long before he ever thought of becoming a designer; in addition to dispatches for the New York Daily Times on slavery and the landscapes of the South, he penned articles for Downing’s Horticulturalist and later cofounded The Nation simultaneously while he and Vaux were starting their design firm. His ability to influence perceptions and political discourse and mobilize various constituent groups was critical in bringing about the realization of Central Park.
But something has happened in the last 150 years. Popular writing in the profession has been abdicated. Sure, there have been and continue to be a few excellent efforts through the years- Landscape, Places and Volume are three that come to mind, though those have always been for a largely academic audience. In recent years the accessibility and readership of a few blogs as well as online publications such as the Urban Ominbus or the Center for Landscape Interpretation is an encouraging phenomenon, the trend to develop project-specific blogs in support of major park initiatives is a bizarre and wonderful bird, and Jane Wolff’s recent Delta Primer was a worthy effort to make reading about landscape interesting and accessible. In general, however, the popular conception of landscape remains outside of the influence of these efforts. This is because the above developments, when compared to the media machines of the Scripps Network, hardly register. And most damningly, our academics- our most brilliant and respected writers- dare not cover themselves in the stink of the common person, put on the bear-shirt, and enter into the contemporary discourse.
Well, this is too bad. Because now, instead of Olmsteds and Downings, we have the folks over at HGTV guiding the popular conversation at best there is an occasional piece by a newspaper architectural critic. And architectural critics are not a bad thing, but given that only the major metro newspapers still pay to keep these guys on staff, on the rare occasion when a landscape project is discussed the discourse is skewed toward big names, big cities, and big projects.
[seriously? Seriously; the popular voice of landscape]
The result is that while the profession and the discourse is growing, it remains the purview of technophilic and academic specialists who politely whisper to the policy makers and the capitalist lords that maybe, perhaps this or that should be considered, if there’s some money and it’s not too politically unpopular. This conversation takes place using an esoteric and hermetic jargon, and while there is a place for using a specific and technical vocabulary (such as giving us something to hate, or at least pick on), the emphasis on florid verbosity and hyperbolic proclamations is simply not interesting.
We here desperately hope for more voices from the profession, all in dialogue and refining one another while deigning to enter in to the larger conversation. It is pathetic that the two major discourses in the fields of landscape today are an exclusive academic club and the commoditized broadcasts from a media conglomerate. There are thousands of capable and thoughtful students, practitioners, and aficionados, and auto-didacts who have their own ideas, insights and critiques. We should look to those two innovative fields that we lift all of our metaphors and vocabulary from- software and ecology- and develop publishing efforts– magazines, books, podcasts, pamphlets, websites and videos- that can bring insightful, informative, and critical writing to a larger audience. More of us should put on the goddamn bear-shirt.
[this gentleman has donned the bear-shirt]