American Landscapes: Questions and Provocations

“…the absence of an authentically Peruvian landscape history is all the more notorious in light of the Eurocentric historiography of landscape, which omits any reference whatsoever to the landscape practices of the Incas or the Aztecs, in contrast to the superlative importance given to the landscapes of Sumer, Egypt, and Rome. Of course, this is not their problem. The primary responsibility is ours.”
– Wiley Urquizo Ludeno

Modern day Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico

The Eurocentric focus of landscape studies identified by Urquizo Ludeno in Peru is a common issue in the Americas. One need only think back to the history or theory course from university, or to consider the informal contemporary canon of modern projects, which consists largely of European, North American, and a few East Asian examples. For Urquizo it is not enough to point out this deficiency; he intends to take on the more difficult task of constructing a critical history of the Peruvian landscape, a task that he sees as a responsibility for Peruvians. If we can accept for a moment that this is a shared condition and endemic throughout the Americas, then the situation begs the question: what would happen if this insight of Urquizo’s is scaled up? Might we take a cue from the field of Hemispheric Studies, which considers the Americas “as a broad system of exchange, movement, and influence” and “examines the overlapping and dynamic geographies and cross-filliations between peoples, regions, and nations of the American hemisphere?” What new insights, methods, histories, and concepts stand to be won if we move beyond those developed for the relatively small, homogeneous, densely populated, tame continent of Europe and deal with American landscapes on their own terms? What are the origins of this Eurocentric orientation in landscape architecture, and in what ways has it shaped the discipline? Over the course of the next three weeks I hope to take on these questions in a series of posts specifically from a landscape architectural perspective, that is with a focus on landscape architectural histories, concerns, and issues.
In the seminal book Taking Measures Across the American Landscape, Alex MacLean and James Corner offer a partial answer and a good starting point. They describe their method as an “open-ended search” to “experience and record some of the aerial vistas that are unique to the great landscapes of America.” If, however, they had turned their gaze southward they would have noticed that the bigness, the heterogeneity, the American-ness of the landscape they are open-endedly looking for is also found in the pampas of Argentina, the Amazon basin, or the Central Valley of Mexico. Ana Berrizbeitia draws from scholarship in Latin Studies to offer a critical history of Roberto Burle Marx's great work in Venezuela. In it she states that “hybridization refers to the crossing of indigenous, Spanish colonial, African, and European cultures…” failing to realize that her definition of hybridization can be found in varied forms throughout the Americas. Limitations aside, the great influence of these two works by Corner and Berrezbeitia in our field beg the question of what might happen if these scholars had begun their project by heeding the words of Mexican artist Diego Rivera who proclaimed in 1931 in San Francisco “When you say America you refer to the territory stretching between the icecaps of the two poles”? This is the first issue that must be addressed in this project- the realization that from a landscape perspective the Americas have more in common than is typically recognized. And by studying them using a hemispheric approach we stand to gain much in the field of landscape architecture regarding the study and design of landscapes in the Americas.

the Central Valley of California as seen from the air, a technique explored in depth by Alex MacLean and James Corner in their work Take Measure Across the American Landscape

Eurocentrism in landscape architecture tends to mean an emphasis on or privileging of the European referent. This may be philosophical commitments, theoretical approaches, or historical and contemporary precedents. So, in studying the urban plan of Buenos Aires more weight is given to the ideas imported from Paris in the 19th century by Carlos Thays, than the adaptation demanded from Thays by the imperious demands of the continent, lessons learned working in western Argentina, or the influence of indigenous culture. In part this is a symptom of the difficulty in establishing a point of origin for any given American landscape. Whereas in European histories, ideas and places tend to hold together nicely- at least over the last 500 years- this does not hold true in the Americas, where both populations and geographies have historically been highly mobile, pluralistic, and heterogeneous, and the last five hundred years have been marked by a high degree of violence.
Cultural theorists have identified a similar effect- the impossibility of cultural essence and the radically shifting nature of cultural identity- across modes of social expression and political organization in both North and South America. Discussing Latin American identity Homi Bhabha distinguishes between the pedagogical and the performative. For Bhabha the pedagogical is the idea of identity based on origins, whereas the performative is a “process of signification that must erase any prior originary presence… to demonstrate the prodigious, living principle of the people as that continual process by which the national life is redeemed and signified as a repeating and reproductive process” (297). Similarly, Michael Walzer claims of the United States that “the country has a political center but… it doesn’t aim at a finished or fully coherent Americanism. Indeed, American politics, itself pluralist in character, needs a certain sort of incoherence.” Philosopher Scott Pratt has identified pluralism as one of the basic tenets of classical Pragmatism, with roots in the cultural concepts of the Haudenosaunee federation. Given these insights from fields including Latin Studies, anthropology, literary criticism, and post-colonial studies, as well as landscape architecture's own fundamental interests in sites themselves, it is unclear is why European referents should continue to dominate the discussion to the detriment of indigenous concepts and the history and nature of sites.

Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In her book On the Plaza, anthropologist Setha Low shows that reading site histories, something landscape architecture is uniquely equipped to do, offers a way in to more complex and nuanced understandings and spatial possibilities in public landscapes. She shows that orthogonal plazas had long been a central aspect of urban design for indigenous cultures in Latin America. She then notes that most historical accounts of the urban plaza in Latin America “are based on the tacit assumption that the plaza-centered urban design was of solely European derivation” and she rightly asserts that this tendency had more to tell us about the power relations of the writing of urban history than about the plaza itself” (53). In fact, we not only have material evidence of places like Teotihuacan and Tiwanaku that show importance of the orthogonal plaza in American urban sites well before the Laws of the Indies were laid down, we also have the written texts of early Spanish explorers themselves which occasionally portray a rather surprising attitude regarding American urbanism. Writing about the Inca road network Pizarro said “nothing in all Christiandom equals the magnificence of theses roads” (LePlongeon 57).
What might be at stake in this endeavor? Is it really necessary to refute or critique European concepts of public space, infrastructure, garden design, and urbanism and begin a project of the American Landscape? I hope to show that the answer is an unequivocal yes. Cultural theorist Amaryll Chanady writes that “we must problematize the transfer of a European paradigm… to a postcolonial society that has constituted itself as a challenge to metropolitan domination and monolithic paradigms of the colonizers”. While Chanady is speaking specifically about national identity in Latin America, this assertion is even stronger when applied to landscape theory which enrolls cultural values alongside geography and political economy. To take an example which has received much attention in the last decade, consider the case of New Orleans. The notion that Rotterdam should be the urban and infrastructural model for New Orleans seems specious at best when one simply considers the difference in magnitude of the river and storms converging on the latter, not to mention the wild heterogeneity of the ecology and culture there, the divisive racial history, and the massive wealth and income disparity. Rotterdam, by contrast, is built on the banks of a relatively small, tame river carrying little sediment and less water by a rich population that is relatively homogeneous with an even distribution of wealth and no massive racial divisions or divisive class histories. We are looking at two fundamentally different contexts within which landscapes are being conceptualized, paid for, executed, and inhabited.

photographer and proto-archeologists Alice de LePlongeon and her husband Augustus, documenting Mayan structures

Of course, it is not that we have nothing to learn from studying the great projects as well as failures of the European landscape. But the wholesale importation of ideas, forms, and technologies has reached a level of hegemony that is to the detriment of our field, and the American landscape more broadly. What variety of possibilities for our cities, infrastructures, industrial landscapes and recreational pleasure grounds are we missing out on by dismissing the lessons of the great deltaic earthmovers of Poverty Point, the four thousand year old mining works of upper Michigan, the urban designers of modern day Medellin, or the garden designers of Tenochtitlan? What new insights might be gained through serious study of the myriad forms of urbanism in the arid American West of Peru, Argentina and Chile that took shape long before Pizarro's escapades, the unique adaptations of 19th century designers such as Benito Carrasco, or modern day efforts in the burgeoning financial capital of São Paulo? Until now the result of our Eurocentrism has been a fundamental impoverishment of American landscapes and a push towards superfluity for our discipline as we have been hesitant or incapable of dealing with these landscapes on their own terms, instead defaulting to worn European tropes. What is needed is an American landscape project.

One thought on “American Landscapes: Questions and Provocations

  1. Pingback: Three Landscape Approximations | landscape archipelago

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