From Practice to Theory

In a world increasingly conscious of the environment, landscape urbanism has become an autonomous discipline, developing its own mode of practice and ideology

I

n recent decades, and in particular since the 1997 Graham Foundation conference in Chicago and key faculty changes at Harvard Graduate School of Design, the term ‘landscape urbanism’ has been widely debated, and its theoretical and programmatic foundations analysed.1 The theory of landscape urbanism, which is based on a critique of the discipline of urban design and the traditional models of urbanism and city planning, is presented as an alternative to the ‘New Urbanism’2 movement, and puts forward a model of experimentation that is a hybrid of landscape design and urban planning. To this, speculation has recently been added on the possible environmental dimension of such an approach – or rather an attempt to bring about a transformation of urban disciplines according to an ecological tenor, in response to adjustments in the contemporary sensibility.3

The simplicity of the theoretical framework, the attempt to propose a cultural and disciplinary syncretism in the name of a lost naturalness and the adaptability of the term landscape together created favourable conditions for an enthusiastic reception and immediate success with the critics, so that – in the last decade – landscape urbanism has become an autonomous discipline for which there are now projects, university courses and extensive academic output.

Landscape urbanism thus takes the form of an ideology as well as a practice.4 In practical terms it lays down that the city can be conceived and designed as if it were a landscape,5 overcoming the antithesis of greenery/concrete (from the planning, social and cultural points of view) and suggesting the concept of an urban landscape ‘in movement’ capable of promoting positive development.6 Although the landscape has historically always played a role in the construction of the form of the city, landscape urbanism – as James Corner suggests – goes beyond the design of places like parks, public spaces and gardens, and presents itself as a practice that can be related to more than one urban scale.

However, for some years now we have become accustomed to encountering calls, at different scales, for a new approach to planning in relation to the activity of several contemporary landscape architects: for example, in territorial planning, in projects for the reclamation of large disused and residual urban areas or infrastructures, and in the design of public spaces and parks. The structural conditions that have, over the years, led to urbanistic action oriented towards the landscape were revealed when the ‘traditional’ urban model appeared inadequate if applied to post-industrial situations, and when we realised that the places we live in are more suburban than urban, more open than closed, more characterised by works of infrastructure than by works of architecture.

The growing use of the landscape as an agent of urban regeneration cannot, in fact, be separated from a rise in the number of difficult places presented by and in post-industrial cities. While the responses of architects to design challenges, such as the enormous craters found in mining and industrial landscapes, wavered between strategies, ideal representations, territorial schemes and images, landscape architects (like Kienast, Walker, Girot, Geuze, Dietrich, Field Operations and Latz) indicated how it was possible to actually transform such territories, on what time scales, and using which techniques. It has seemed logical to entrust the task of tracing in time the new hybrid landscapes of the city to their culture and their expertise.7 This represents a genuine discovery for the European milieu, as well as the realisation that landscape urbanism has been a widespread practice in the United States, as had been documented by authors including Christian Zapatka and Peter Walker.8

The fact is that, at least since the 1983 competition for the Parc de la Villette in Paris, the interventions of Peter Walker and George Hargreaves or those of Peter Latz and Michel Desvigne with Christine Dalnoky, questions of contemporary landscaping have appeared as an original response accompanied by the surmounting of an idea of landscape as absence of architecture, by the theorisations of the French school and by many expressions of land art. Inventions of great originality and a variety of experiences have for some time suggested three new factors: the new ecological paradigm as a guide for all actions, the encroachment of art on the landscaping discipline in parallel with a new idea of ‘active’ and ‘participant’ public space, and the proof of the inability of architecture and planning to tackle and resolve certain urban places entrusted to landscaping as an agent of urban regeneration.

So the landscaping approach, especially in the last few decades, has been the premise for a profound reappraisal of the planning disciplines which has allowed the overcoming of a number of contradictions, and has proved instrumental in the solution of unsettled urban episodes, especially in the creation of public places and interstitial spaces between individual buildings, between centre and periphery, and between town and country.9

What has been happening for some time, in both Europe and the US, is an increase in the importance of the action of landscaping: as a solution to the gap between one building and another or between blocks, in an effort to establish connections between scattered works of architecture, and in an attempt to find a medium that would substitute for any perceived loss of sociality. It is a discontinuity which, inserted into daily scenarios, is able to revive lost relationships with the character of places in a process of mending degraded or post-industrial urban environments, in the presence of phenomena of congestion and dispersion alike.

Called upon opportunistically to fill or somehow create a place by finding a possible coherence between architecture and the contemporary city, especially in urban cases around or on the margins of infrastructure or large-scale buildings, the intervention of landscaping (even before landscape urbanism) has therefore succeeded in completing, in finding a remedy, in therapeutically mending and aesthetically recomposing the problematic situations created by building practices declared no longer manageable, to the point of overturning a traditional relationship and, at times, paradoxically transforming the architecture near these new situations into urban voids.

Thus the important ideological and programmatic premises put forward by James Corner, Mohsen Mostafavi, Alex Wall, Stan Allen and Charles Waldheim seem to have taken on the character of a theoretical formulation of practices already in use for some time – a formal transition and construction of rules with a view to legitimising a discipline made up of a range of different areas of expertise. The complexity and problematic nature of combining lessons from diverse disciplinary theories and from the pluralism of practices and experiences might, however, run the risk of undergoing a drastic reduction, a simplification and a ‘normalisation’ that pave the way for a levelling out of experimentation.10

But it is not important to argue for the superiority of practice over theory, nor to establish who was the first to coin, with such clarity and immediacy, the terminology of the movement; the task of this essay is to demonstrate the breadth of these experiences which have, in any case, developed independently of the more recent theorisation as well as of the pressures of a traditional and, at times, reactionary disciplinary structure. So we will try in the first place to trace, in the practices of the last half century, a diorama of the experiences (including theoretical ones) to which landscape urbanism has recourse today, investigating some of the innovations that have emerged thanks to contemporary landscaping: the new concept of public space, the encroachment of art, landscaping as an agent of urban regeneration, and the ecological paradigm.

Public space: Situationist practices and ‘experience architecture’

It is possible to discern a first point of rupture, with respect to the ideas of the city held by the Modern Movement and functionalism, in the reversal of approach promoted by a realist and situational attitude. This was the conclusion of a long journey from the rejection of CIAM city planning, which passed first through Aldo van Eyck’s proposal that a project should be adapted to a precise urban situation instead of working with a set of mathematical data, thereafter by way of other members of Team 10,11 and finally the practices of the Situationist International and the phenomenologists.

In his turn van Eyck had under his belt a literary and artistic preparation that favoured a different way of looking at the built environment, noting within it objects and situations that before passed unobserved so as to redefine parts of the city and its boundaries on the basis of the perception of the people who live in it. The four functions of the Athens Charter were replaced by existentialist and phenomenological notions like the house, the street, the district and the city, as superimposed and distinct levels of ‘human association’.12 Everything was aimed at overturning the spatial order of the city defined by authorities in an antagonistic reversal of the hierarchy of public and private space between a space democratically understood as place of participation and an oligarchic one where decisions were taken. Without abandoning an imposed planning, architects and city planners began to collaborate and learn from the peculiarities and irregularities of leftover spaces, holes and tears in the urban fabric, working with the gaps instead of putting them aside.13

In parallel, the writings of Guy Debord and the Situationists, like Constant’s ‘Description of the Yellow Zone’ in the Internationale Situationniste, identified as a principal feature of their operation the search for a social relationship between people, favoured by a succession of situations arranged at random, of ‘exquisite corpses’ able to generate a meaning in action.14

Approaches similar to this idea, of spaces that set themselves the goal of creating or fostering sociality, can be found again in the projects for parks and public spaces realised by landscape architects in recent years – even those less well-known than West 8, Peter Latz, Vito Acconci or Ian Hamilton Finlay: both in the adoption of various techniques for the production of localities, going beyond mere aestheticising, and in producing an ‘active’ public space as the outcome, one that stimulates participatory uses as an alternative to static contemplation. Such activation and engagement, as applied to public space, is exemplified by the current phenomenon of urban farming.

So the legacy taken up and enunciated by so-called landscape urbanism, but not by it alone, appears to be that of an interest in the lived dimension of urban space as a place of real sociability – a place to spend time in and not just to be traversed; no longer solely an aesthetic element.

To this can be added the awareness of having to respond to new environmental, social, touristic and cultural demands. And also, a response necessary for a second aspect of innovation as well: the progressive change of attitude provoked, now that the ‘Bilbao effect’ has faded, by the contemporary experience of tourism. Mass and low-cost tourism has raised levels of expectation with regard to practices of entertainment and enticement. These practices are now oriented less towards individual works of architecture as to the urban aspect – to the ‘liveability’ of cities – recognised as product and sum of a decorous mix of public spaces, both pedestrian zones and parkland, and landscape. We might also add that this has been accompanied by the production of strands of weak architecture with two seemingly contradictory characteristics: on the one hand, buildings upon which a strong iconic impact is imposed and, on the other, buildings that are supposed to reassure, reduced to a few archetypes and a sort of ahistorical abstraction.

Tourism in this genre focuses on the search for a lost ‘urban liveability’ and this explains why, today, many projects purport to nod in the direction of architecture that prioritises experience,15 thereby reinforcing the link between what happened in the 1950s and ’60s and new practices. The imagination and the capability of the entertainment industry seem, in fact, to have leapfrogged the bounds of theme parks to place themselves at the service of a tourism industry and discourse, seeking to create seductive urban experiences through the production of localities. In the past, the task of so-called ‘experience architecture’ was precisely to create fantastic places/events that mix up landscape, high-tech, nature and media, and use diverse stories and histories to distinguish one event from another. Content and communication have, in the past, given rise to places of public information such as trade fairs, ‘expos’, theme parks, Olympic parks and carnivals, as well as ‘brand environments’ or ‘brand attractions’; these processes have even been applied to rest stops on motorways and express routes.

In addition to artistic interventions that constitute elements of rupture and discontinuity, and whose true objective is a strengthening of the imagination, projects such as these have often made use of spatial devices derived from the contribution, suppression or preservation of pre-existing elements: from elements of the territory able to offer purchase for the gaze, for stories and for social practices. Sometimes the content of the narration of these alternative realities has coincided with the environmental and ecological improvement of a place, with an ideal search for its roots, or it has been enriched by elements reflecting the region and the values that it represents.

And in pursuit of these goals a desire has emerged to challenge architecture on a larger scale, so that we observe the notion of planning being used to upgrade individual spaces, pieces of cities or entire regions that rely on an aestheticisation of the urban experience, rather than its regulation, as their sole instrument and organising principle. Some of these planning projects appropriate the strategies of urban marketing, through which an attempt is made to communicate content by the staging of spectacular and emotional actions, presented with educational and narrative – and therefore cultural – characteristics and aims.16 In addition, adopting as they do the same mechanisms as were used in the early expos, these new projects are today considered symbolic of the civil progress of the nations that host them and, looked at close-up, of the cities that propose them. And, like theme parks, they have an impact when they succeed in accessibly combining the specific features of the place – which grounds the element of narration – with an environmental and media programme.

If in the past the work of the landscape architect was required only at the end, today he or she is brought in right from the inception of a project and, as in the designs of the most famous theme parks, traditional architects and planners have often stepped aside for landscape architects who in turn have given their intervention the strong connotation of a natural (although counterfeit) vision, which is the current positive vision of progress in the Western world, paradoxically considered primitive and shunned up until a few decades ago.

The encroachment of art and the crossing of disciplinary boundaries

One of the paradigms of the theoretical framework of landscape urbanism is its critique of the rigid separation of disciplines, to which it opposes an interdisciplinary approach to the city and to architecture, one sought in urban planning and tackled in the debate over the landscape; this is a debate which has looked, in recent years, for a rapprochement with other ways of thinking instead of composing a pre-established picture.

The 1997 Chicago conference proposed eliminating traditional disciplinary codifications and distinctions between architecture, landscape architecture and city planning in favour of an infrastructural and systemic conception of the built environment. For example, James Corner suggested that such an interdisciplinary approach should bring together the sciences of urban and territorial planning, ecology, geography, anthropology and sociology, cartography, aesthetics, philosophy and economics, to the point where the sciences of space would lose their centrality.

If we look at what has been realised, among the crossing of boundaries between fields, it is the artistic ingredient that appears most significant in recent years to the point of having thrown disciplinary schematics into disarray: announced by the avant-gardes, suggested by three masters of landscaping – Isamu Noguchi, Luis Barragán and Roberto Burle Marx – and conceptualised and elaborated in the works of land and earth art. Mixtures and experiences that have broken down the fixity of contrast and ushered in different perspectives and logics in the relationship between art of the landscape and city, rich in consequences for the whole contemporary art of landscaping.17

Only after these experiences in the United States did the professional activity of landscape (urban) gardeners develop, achieving a leap in scale in parallel to the artistic movements that have served as a continual source of inspiration and models: models that, transferred to public spaces, have become patterns, textures, objects and compositions. Minimalism, land art, abstractionism, pop art and organicism have been blended into a coherent artistic groundswell in which colour, material and form are arranged to reveal and transfigure the nature and form of places. Peter Walker’s public spaces marked out the road onto which were then grafted the pop experiments and artistic inventions of Martha Schwartz, the deconstructivism on a territorial scale of George Hargreaves, and the historicist citations of Kathryn Gustafson. For Schwartz, reference to the methods of avant-garde bricolage is evident, especially in her attempt to take objects of everyday use out of their habitual contexts and use them in radically different ways. Even the European originality of Adriaan Geuze found its cultural references, at Tilburg for example, by reviving expressions of avant-garde painting.18 More recently, Mary Miss has outlined a different role for artistic insertions into Irvine’s Great Park, conceived on the basis of a programme of public space that offers concrete experiences in relation to themes of environmental and social sustainability.

Process not plan

Naturally linked to the experience of landscape art, the project of landscape urbanism formulates a process and not a plan, develops an open configuration and not abstract volumes, and is concerned with urban surfaces and not forms.19 So the task assigned to the plan of ordering the city through a radically horizontal urbanism appears obsolete; in truth it had already been fragmented to some extent over the last 30 years by practices of piecemeal transformation applied by urban-scale projects to the benefit of an ecological way of thinking about the city, and at the expense of the typically inherited urban logic represented by plans, programmes, grids, urban design, etc.

At the beginning of the 1980s, and above all spearheaded by the experience of plans for the regeneration of Barcelona, the notion of the ‘urban project’ was formulated. Today this notion covers a vast, rich and varied range of experiences – one in which the urban project is seen as an intermediate area of city planning outlined as a set of mutable and many-sided approaches, in which forays into the fields of infrastructure and the landscape have represented a necessary condition of feasibility. Incursions that have been decisive moments of suspension of consolidated practices – disciplinary and design practices, technical and regulatory ones, those of decision-making and control – and that have ushered in, at the concrete level of transformation, new theoretical approaches and working methods. Manuel de Solà-Morales defined the urban project as ‘a project to give form to a physical, architectural and engineering process that has to combine land, construction and infrastructure’;20 his younger brother Ignasi de Solà-Morales coined the term terrain vague to define privileged areas of intervention – areas that invite development because of their indeterminacy and sense of incompleteness. How can we forget that in 1984 the completion of the Moll de la Fusta in Barcelona set in motion, with the first section of the Rónda Litoral, an intervention that went on to win back for the city approximately six kilometres of seafront and beaches, offering liveable and participant public spaces that amount to one of the largest public-facing urban projects in Europe, comparable only with certain experiences in New York? The strategy of recuperation, implemented by transforming interstitial squares and spaces, has interacted with the project of completing and expanding major road systems, rendering the themes of infrastructure compatible with the needs of housing and landscape. The Barcelona example was, in fact, a planning intervention capable of transforming the urban landscape without limiting itself to the imposition of rules about the various elements of which it was to be composed over time; it went beyond the idea, in such a fragmented situation, of attempting to resolve the problem with unifying gestures, or by means of grand, so-called iconic works of ‘urban architecture’.

Manuel De Solà Morales, ‘Moll de la Fusta,’ Barcelona

Models of urban settlement organised around the creation of a park are also part of the tradition of city planning. They have functioned chiefly for circumscribed areas like small garden cities, university campuses, model villages and science or technology parks, but in recent years have helped to create a series of enclaves visibly incapable of relating to one another or to other nearby contexts. This phenomenon frequently resurfaces today when the notion of planning applied to the creation of housing in disused industrial areas reveals an inability to overcome these limitations and produce ‘localities’. The works of the many landscape architects cited in this essay (and featured in the issue of Lotus international from which it is adapted)21 have been proposed as agents of urban regeneration in difficult places and in zones of the city constructed according to a numerical and dimensional logic without any attention to ideas of habitability and the quality of the urban environment. Often these difficult places are in areas fragmented or cut off by the transport infrastructures that habitually delimit the city, like medieval walls, or by structures used for logistical purposes and the interchange of goods. They are spaces occupied by elements located at different levels or suspended above the ground that cannot be dealt with by calculations of useful surfaces, nor by a horizontal planning that limits itself to generating new alignments which are only on paper and not visual.

Ecosophy

Finally we come to the most recent theorisation of an ecological dimension (or drift) in relation to this approach, as if the question could be resolved in a different use of the terms ‘landscape’ or ‘urbanism’ – as adjectives. Mohsen Mostafavi, editor with Gareth Doherty of the volume Ecological Urbanism (2009), points out that a change of outlook and an idea of progress that necessarily no longer places a certain ideal of humanity at the centre can be traced back to the ethical and political notion of ecosophy, as taken up by Félix Guattari in The Three Ecologies.22 Added to this, in the last few years a far-reaching campaign aimed at awakening public opinion and exposing a quantity of unexpected facts (and mobilising awareness of them) has, in fact, brought the environmental question to the forefront.

While analysis of the premise of ecological urbanism raised to the level of a theoretical framework is not at all banal, it would not be correct to place the results of these diverse ways of thinking on the same plane – if for no other reason than to do so would risk a degrading of the reasoning put forward in this essay. On other occasions, however, people have reflected on how the influence of ‘greenolatry’ has gone beyond the notion of metaphor. It has abandoned mere words to place itself more at the centre of the architectural debate, resulting in profound changes in architectural production in a deviation with regard to what had gone before.

If seen in the context of the exhaustive litany of well-intentioned actions suggested by the inhabitants of the world’s wealthiest nations, the call for more sustainable practices appears, in most cases, to be a sort of ethical camouflage – a strategic manoeuvre that stems in equal parts from the burden of accumulated guilt and the allure of radical chic. The promise of resolution appears in the idea of a ‘green’ aestheticisation aimed at bringing about the return of a figurative unity of the territory – yet all too soon destined to be revealed as a superstructure or, at most, to present itself as ground rather than figure. Purportedly sustainable interventions are designed to conceal and make amends for nature, with a superficial biomorphism assigned the elementary task of covering up the mineral reality of constructions in order to render them familiar and homelike.

In another way, if all this corresponds – as Mostafavi has pointed out23 – to a realisation of the impending need for a series of operative attentions to the sustainability of the intervention in relation to the context (for instance, actions aimed at preventing various types of pollution: noise, air, dust, etc., to the drainage and recovery of water, to operations of planned maintenance, to the growth of plants over time), then the ecological approach is reduced to the plane of technical coordination and the correct application of working procedures. In addition to the architectural digressions that would inevitably ensue, such a scenario would entail the development of a kind of bio-planning governed by advanced environmental standards and techniques, and founded on scientific knowledge.

A different scenario would be the outgrowing or transcending of the urban and architectural culture expressed by the Modern Movement, of the typological, formal and morphological culture that has been at the root of the training of entire generations. Such displacement, brought about perhaps by a consolidation of ecological orthodoxy, would lead to the environmental question being assumed as a condition cutting across all other factors; under these conditions the city would be likened to a permeable, natural or agricultural territory, one in which all action would be guided by this new ethic. Up to now, an important point in favour of this vision has been the premise that the ecological paradigm is no longer the expression of one part of the world or of an elite. Free from the trap of self-referentiality, it presents itself as universal and as the product of a way of thinking common to all rather than of intellectualism. But Guattari himself had already argued, in 1989,24 that this aspiration could be fulfilled only under the conditions of a genuine political, social and cultural revolution, one capable of reshaping the objectives of the production of material and immaterial goods.