[trainer loading the unwilling elephant “Sukie” in 1969 at the Belle Island Zoo in Detroit; landscape urbanism can be understood not as a wilderness ontology, but as an attempt to enable and showcase controlled wildness (controlled within often-vague parameters and sets of probabilities), not unlike a 20th century zoo]
“It is not inconsequential that the thinking around landscape urbanism emerges out of conditions of and design responses to the American midwest, out of Chicago and Detroit.”
– Jill Desimini, “Wild Innovation: Stoss in Detroit”
With that double negative Jill Desimini makes a point that is a fundamental though often overlooked tenet of landscape architectural theory- it is always geographical. In addition to landscape urbanism, which was incubated in Rust Belt towns, evidence of this fact is readily apparent in two influential and well-known examples. One, the historical picturesque, upon which many of the precepts of the profession of modern landscape architecture were built and are still largely beholden to, developed in 18th century England in part as a response to the enclosure of the countryside through the development of industrial agricultural methods. A second, more contemporary example is the as-yet-unnamed body of work uniting landscape infrastructure, cultural geography, and dynamic environmental modeling that is currently being birthed in the Louisiana Delta.
In her influential essay “Situating Modern Landscape Architecture” theorist Elizabeth Meyer lays out this fundamentally geographic nature of landscape theory:
These two situations- the physical and cultural boundaries of each built landscape, as well as the temporal or historic boundaries within which a project occurs- form the space for my own theoretical project, the archaeology and reconstruction of modern landscape architecture.
When combined with the Dessimini's realization and the basic premise of my own work- the possibility of a theory of the American landscape- this formulation by Meyer begs the question: what might be discovered through an archaeology of American landscape architecture?
[this low-res version of the famous 1507 Waldseemuller Map, based on reports from the Amerigo Vespucci's expedition was the first European representation to depict the Americas as distinct from the Asia]
In recent years I have had conversations about landscapes in Latin America with respected colleagues and professors who teach design theory, history, and studio in landscape architecture in the United States. In these conversations the other person has invariably taken up a defense of the European referent and its importance in American landscape design. Something along the lines of “You can't understand urbanism in Latin America without understanding the Laws of the Indies” or “North American students and practitioners should study Northern European landscapes, South American should study Southern Europe, because those are the referents.” While there is something to these assertions, this stance is a gross over-simplification. What is the cultural referent of Buenos Aires, which was built through indigenous conflict by Spanish settlers, contested by the Portuguese, expanded using French planning principles, British capital and German technology, and populated by Italian immigrants? And those are just the European influences. While an extreme example, the complex history of Buenos Aires is common throughout the Americas and suggests that these landscapes deserve to be treated on their own terms rather than mere projections of European society.
This brings up a philosophical question that is fundamental to landscape design: what leads the shaping of landscapes? Ideas or sites? One might easily cop-out here and lean on that old, brilliant German idealist Hegel and claim a fuzzily dialectical relationship, something along the lines of “there is something inextricable between the two- it is impossible to even think of separating the site conditions from the ideas.” And I would agree that the relation is complex. Nonetheless, as Meyer notes in that same essay, “as a field of knowledge, a discipline, and a professional activity landscape architecture has been a pragmatic enterprise, reveling in the contingencies of the site.” If we trust Meyer here then we must conclude that for a discipline that revels in the contingencies of sites to exclude the landscapes themselves from any sort of epistemological or ontological inquiry in favor of cultural referents is a fundamental impoverishment of the possible.
Meyer's revisionist lens leads her to attribute this limitation to an over-reliance on art and architectural theory. Even more damning given landscape architecture's philosophical commitment to site, in this schematic the landscape itself becomes a mere passive receptor of European or Creole American ideas, the green screen upon which modern life is played out. This has been to the detriment of any serious inquiry into and engagement with the intellectual contributions of indigenous and Latin American communities and thinkers to the general discourse. And while this is typically dismissed, either tacitly or outright, as unimportant in our field, basic familiarity with the allied fields of anthropology, geography, archaeology and engineering offers an immediate rebuttal. Consider the ambition and possibility hinted at by archaeologist James Parsons who noted that “an apparent mania for earth-moving, landscape engineering on a grand scale runs as a thread through much of New World prehistory” alongside the implications of Carl Sauer's assertion that much of the grasslands and prairies of the Americas were anthropogenic, or the increasingly conclusive evidence that forests throughout the Amazon had been managed at regional scales for biological productivity for millenia.
[Poverty Point in northern Louisiana is a 910 acre site dating from 3500 years ago; now some 15 miles from the Mississippi River channel, the site currently consists of major geometric earthworks; its original use and scale remains somewhat unknown; image from 1938 by the USACE, via wikimedia commons]
In her theoretical project Meyer seeks to combat this by actively engendering “a sense of belonging to a tradition- modern landscape architecture history and theory- that is active and alive.” What new insights might be gained when considering the urban formation of Chicago or future landscapes of the Minnesota Iron Range if they were understood to be part of a tradition that includes Poverty Point, the ancient copper mines of Lake Superior, modern day São Paulo, or the thousand year old Chuquicamata Copper Mine Complex in the Atacama Desert?
These contemporary problems help to clarify the geographical dimensions of a theoretical project of the American landscape. Namely, it must be two-fold, both resulting from conditions of the broader American landscape and leading to a specific geographic focus. This second dimension takes the form of the frontier landscape. The role of frontiers in American landscape architecture theory and practice, though unexplored, is historical and fundamental. At the turn of the 19th century when modern landscape architecture was firmly establishing itself as a vital urban discipline the importance of the frontier in modern American culture was famously declared by historian Frederick Jackson Turner. In his Frontier Thesis Turner showed that the American frontier as a spatial and social condition was fundamentally different from the European equivalent, and that the civic institutions, economic development and even moral character of the United States could be explained in large part by the existence of this unique frontier typology. This work sparked a half century of wildly productive work in the fields of history as well as American studies and continues to provide a historical foundation for interpreting the social and economic history of the United States.. Subsequent frontier historians showed that the frontier was not merely Turner's always-receding line between civilization and wilderness, but was a non-directional and multi-dimensional space, a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and external interests are smashing into one another over and over.
What Turner couldn't understand at the time is that this condition was both broadly applicable and extremely local throughout the American landscape. Canadian philosopher and historian Harold Innis' Staples Thesis reveals a similar condition and further elaborates on the role of governmental bureaucracy, private capital, and vast expanses of territory in shaping modern Canadian society. Jimeno and Robinson, among others, reveal similar forces at work in contingent and heterogeneous ways throughout Latin America during the same historical period and prove that the United States was not exceptional in possessing a frontier during the latter half of the 19th century- this was a condition endemic throughout the Americas. If Turner and the subsequent century of historians, economists, and sociologists were on to something, if the aesthetic values and economic possibilities afforded by the frontier were inscribed in American societies, then they might become a focus of landscape design studies in the Americas. Rather than always looking to the middle, the metropolis, and Europe, we must shift our focus to the edges, the hinterlands, the Americas.
To return to the original question, if we could recover an authentically American landscape history and theory what might we gain? By engaging the material and intellectual contributions of American landscape-makers outside of the Eurocentric art-historical tradition (including Native Americans and Latin Americans), American landscape architects might begin to understand our work as part of a long tradition in the history of American landscape-making. And this history would necessarily include much more than the tiny sliver of fancy, civic, designed landscapes we tend to be myopically focused on. Philosopher Scott Pratt shows the importance and potential of this work, and the role of the frontier in this theoretical project:
…the frontier is not a part of manifest destiny or some inevitable stage of human development… the life of American thought is to be sought along borders, including the one between European immigrants and their descendants and America's native peoples. This suggestion applied to a a critique of received histories directs one to look not only at the composition being played out by the recognized figures in well-known events, but also to the experience of the borderlands, geographical and intellectual, where American thought gains its character and complexity.