On Cities & Landscape Architecture
by ALBERTO EMBRIZ DE SALVATIERRA
Cities are just like people. There are tall cities, and short cities. Hip cities and more traditional cities. There are growing cities, and there are shrinking cities. There are cities at the forefront of innovation, and there are cities that rely on a certain established modus operandi. There are those who were once capitals of ancient empires, and now are more modern metropoli: cities like Mexico City, Cairo, and Istanbul. There are those who flourished during a historically active past (usually the Medieval Ages and through the enlightenment when in the context of Europe), and now contend with specific pockets of modern city fabric contrasted with more organic city fabric: places like Barcelona, Rome, Berlin, and Amsterdam. There are also those cities which shot to stardom by efficiently meeting the needs of a single era—quickly expanding and incorporating new ‘paradigms’ of urbanism—but then quickly declined once those needs where over: Detroit is the most prominent example, but in Europe, Manchester (until its recent moves at redefining itself) would have also qualified. There are those mega-cities that unfortunately became poster children for the ailments that plague contemporary urban life: overpopulation and poverty (in cities such as Rio de Jainero, Sao Paulo, Mumbai), pollution (Mexico City, Beijing), and congestion and traffic (Sao Paulo, Moscow, Mexico City, Istanbul). There are those rare gems that are as beautiful as they are iconic: cities like Venice and Paris. And lastly, there are those cities that have been largely planned—for better or for worse—and built at once exhibiting their own unique set of qualities: Canberra, Washington D.C, Chandigarh, Pireaus and La Plata (among many others).
It is thus by no stretch of the imagination one can say that cities are not simply a collection of green and built space. They are far more nuanced than that: like the human body, they require the functioning of all organs. At the core, there are needs for mobility (how people move through spaces), productivity (how the cities provides for its citizens), and habitation (how people make cities their home). Further on, language, culture, diversity and religion play a key role in how citizens relate to space. And lastly, there are a mind-boggling amount of layered infrastructural systems to make it all work: energy, water, plumbing, transport, public spaces, service spaces, green spaces, connectors (like a harbor or an airport), defense and surveillance, mutable programming areas, and more recently, the internet. Unfortunately, unlike other professions who are painfully aware of the limitations of their field (no roboticist will look at Deep Blue and call it Skynet), many practitioners—namely architects—have taken to the delusion we have successfully designed large cities. Sure, over time, the collective-subconscious mechanisms at work (from city inhabitants) have led to some incredible cities—Bologna, for example, being among my favorites. This is commonly known as organic growth. However, successful single-instance, master-plan, from-night-to-day, large, designed cities are increasingly hard to come by. Some even assert they don’t really exist. The ones that have thrived from a tabula rasa condition are often quite small (less than 10,000 inhabitants) and succeed in a sufficient amount of areas to be generally passable/enjoyable despite a few shortcomings (like Valletta or Palmanova).
And before we continue, let’s make one thing pointedly clear: When I say designed cities, I mean actual cities—in other words, they straddle the categories listed above (mobility, productivity, habitation, etc...). “Urban design” projects of a single urban block (or even a few blocks), a collection of buildings in a downtown or central area, or even a very large park, do not constitute a ‘designed’ city. Call them urban design, call them architecture, call them landscape architecture—frankly the assignation isn’t important because I am not even discussing those projects. I do find it problematic when projects like those believe their own messianic promises at ‘city-creation’, but that shall be a discussion for another time. Today, we shall be addressing the large-scale, multi-nodal, complex, and comprehensive design of cities and how landscape architecture can take its involvement, and step it up a notch.
It is thus no surprise most designed cities have done few things well: the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, designed in the shape of an airplane, is notably anti-pedestrian and for the wealthy—the poorer populations, for instance, occupy the fringes.
Ricky Burdett, who was Chief Adviser on Architecture and Urbanism for the London 2012 Olympics asserts everything is so partitioned, it renders it lifeless: "It just doesn't have the complexity of a normal city. It's a sort of office campus for a government. People run away on Thursday evenings and go to Sao Paulo and Rio to have fun."
Coatzacoalcos is another peculiar example. A rapidly expanding port city of Mexico located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (with a current metro population of 347,233), Coatzacoalcos’s main industry are four large petro-chemical plants that continuously attract both residential and commercial development to the city. It is built on a grid made entirely of wide avenues (as one of the first Spanish colonial cities), and as such enjoys a unique status as one of the most planned cities in all of Mexico (only in terms of circulation infrastructure). However, for all its functional attributes, it was not built with leisure and entertainment of its citizens in mind. While conducting a site-investigation of the city, I discovered that other than the main plaza in the downtown area, Coatzacoalcos has no parks and an underutilized beach. It has a wide and expansive boardwalk, malecon, but this and the property closest to the shore are routinely pelted with sand and low-levels of inundation from both tropical storms and heavy seasonal rain—its poor maintenance also leaves much to be desired. It has no museums, no cultural venues and no tourism for the exception of transiting nationals to the more popular destination of Cancún.
So, what is the problem here? Is city-making—city-designing—not possible? Are we really terrible at it? No. It is possible, and we're definitely getting better, but it is time architecture’s younger sibling, landscape architecture begin to more actively join the conversation with surety and gravitas. Now, more than ever it is of crucial importance to curb misguided notions that singular architectural objects constitute urban design, or worse, that they can fix a city. The most hilarious example of this sort of fantasy is the Milwaukee ‘Ripple Effect.’ In an eloquently researched segment, John Oliver empirically disproves the promises made by a basketball court (which supposedly the city’s tax revenue should pay for) wherein (in summation), this new building would create economic growth and instant vitality. And this is not an isolated example, I have encountered such numerous similar attitudes riding the wave of the Bilbao effect. Most architects have developed a skewed notion of what city-design is, or what can constitute having made a city. However, before landscape architecture can be of any use to the conversation—to continue to push the boundary of understanding the mechanisms of cities—it is supremely important to answer two very important questions: What defines public space? And is landscape tied to context?
The Complexities of Public Space
A quick Google search will assert that public space is “a social space that is generally open and accessible to people,” such as, but not limited to: sidewalks, parks, squares and beaches. However, this definition creates an ambiguous binary. Is the key that it is not private, or that public space is made for a (common) public?
On the one hand, one could say what is public about public space is that it is not private. This is the most commonly held assumption and generally the one that drives both program and policy/planning. Public as non-private then delimits certain architectonic thresholds that private space usually maintains. Public as non-private assumes a certain blanket attitude that if it’s not private, it must be public. Yet, does this definition pay attention to the user? It would not seem so. Because if what is public about public space is that it is not private, then everything about public space is public. However, if the user is considered, then what is public about public space might make a different claim. For example, the majority of the Boston waterfront could be considered public space. Yet, even on a sunny day, in certain areas (especially past South Station near the industrial boating docks), one will be hard pressed to find anyone there. So, is this space truly public when no public engages with it? No. Public space cannot simply be a non-private condition. It must also be a circumstance wherein the public engages with this non-private space.
For the second definition, on the other hand, one could assert that what is public about public space is the intention or thoughtful design for its use by the public regardless of actual engagement. Spaces clearly portioned off, staked or reserved for public uses are then public space. This as a result, eliminates all random, accidental or purely circumstantial interstitial spaces that were a remainder of other programs from the definition. An example of this are the road medians that remain after the turning radii of all converging lanes have been subtracted from the overall area of a road—usually leaving elongated triangles that are too narrow and awkward for any sort of human occupation or activity to take place—which renders it not a truly public space. Furthermore, while the intentionality of a public space is what makes it public seems like an acceptable definition, further probing might find it too exclusive. The historic center of Rome, for example, is a series of open piazzas connected by narrow roads that wind their way amidst dense urban fabric. However, which of these public spaces under the aforementioned definitions could be considered public? Hardly any: a large majority of the carved out piazzas were responses to either narcissistic church buildings that wanted to command as majestic exterior space as their adorned interiors, or to palazzos of the rich and powerful who also wanted to avoid being crammed and desired unrestricted access to their urban bastions. Or even the most critically acclaimed of spaces—la Piazza di San Pietro, isn’t public under this definition! It was designed solely to hold and mesmerize Christian Catholics (and pilgrims). No expense was spared, and it is a truly magnificent interior/exterior condition, but since its design and motivation did not include all the public, then it is more accurately a, albeit highly accessible, private space. Today, certain clothing or ‘immoral’ behaviors are still strictly forbidden in the Vatican City. So, even now (while the genesis of St. Peter’s Square might not have been a public space), it could be said is still not really public since not everyone is actually welcome. To that effect, any parks designed as a result of some commercial enterprise (the primary directive itself) could also not be considered public space—simply because a designer designs a space, doesn’t make it public. To use a metaphor: If I re-gift the reader a gift that was originally gifted to me, could the gift in question be considered a gift to the person I re-gifted it? No. At first glance, it is a lazy and miserly way to solve the challenge of procuring a gift. More importantly, since the intended audience was someone other than the person who ultimately opened it, to that person, it cannot be a gift—it’s a translation of an object with kind affection but with zero intentionality as to the content-receiver compatibility. But I digress…
Why should landscape architecture even bother answering this public space question? Well, for example, a grand majority of cities' most pernicious singular ailment is too many cars. The era of the fascination with the automobile is over, and it is time we moved forward and began designing cities for people. But, to do that well, it is of crucial importance to more clearly figure out what we accept as public space, private space, and everything in between. I think architecture’s window to define it is long past. The most common attitude à propos I have encountered is that public space is simply that nice, paved portion on the exterior of your museum/tower/office building/whatever (underscoring that only the immediate vicinity matters). Obviously there are those who understand it to be much more, but as a whole, the architecture discipline doesn’t concern itself enough with people, and for that matter, public space.
Autonomy in Landscape Architecture
On first thought, it would stand to reason that unlike architecture, landscape would not have the luxury to exist without context. Seemingly always engendered from specific site conditions—whether physically material or ethereal phenomena—landscape architecture’s generally understood prime directive is to intervene upon the land and its adjacent milieu to produce a spatial product that is either unlike what exists there currently, or refines a particular experiential condition. Thus, autonomy (understood as the opposite to context as will be evaluated in this writing), does not make much sense. Or does it? Can landscape architecture truly exist without regard to context, in a more autonomous position as the end itself, rather than the medium? I argue, yes. While consideration of context seems a rather immutable characteristic of any landscape architecture project, the evaluation of context itself is a highly subjective, personalized act—thus landscape (and architecture), actually operate within variant gradients of autonomy, not the other way around.
As mentioned earlier, my architectural education took place at Cornell University, a rather traditional, somewhat old-fashioned school of thought that, urbanistically, was dominated by the legacy of Colin Rowe and O. M. Ungers. Arguing for the idea of a “collage city” and the “archipelago,” respectively, one could, perhaps, reduce their positions to one that considered context heavily, and utilized it for the generation of urban form/fabric (Rowe), while the other relished un-connected moments in a city that was more a collection of objects rather than a field (Ungers). This binary, especially with regards to Rowe, made me question the concept of context in general, and while Ungers was unapologetic about it, Rowe felt a self-righteous strength from adhering to context. Yet, it was such a perspective, context ad absurdio that personally revealed the perspective that “context” is as manufactured as “autonomy.” In another reduction (for the sake of brevity), Rowe would literally collage his city from other “productive collisions” or interesting aspects of urban fabric. Yet, this revealed that what he considered “context” was a highly subjective practice that would invariably change with respect to the primary author. Context could suggest a “right answer:” If you consider what exists, then a few conditions of what should occur logically follow. However, this is not the case in any scenario. Context is what you read it to be. Thus, since it’s really in the mind of the beholder, it becomes more of a veiled autonomy. Of course, here we are dealing with issues of urban design, not landscape architecture. So, how do they relate? The tactical operations and territorial scale of urban design has a number of helpful spatial translations to the field of landscape architecture. Thus, coming back to landscape, I view this question as I view the position of Rowe v. Ungers in regards to city making: it all exists in a gradient of autonomy. But, why autonomy and not a gradient of context? This is because, us, as the primary authors, will never be able to divorce ourselves from cultural imprints, manifestations of the ego, or personalized influence over any project—whether it be architecture, landscape architecture or urban design. So, whatever designers consider as “context” or lack thereof, is quite frankly an incredibly subjective exercise. Context does not exist. It does operate, but we are unable to read it objectively. Any attempt at doing so renders it separate from its genius loci, and as such, becomes an autonomous construct—furthered even more as the palimpsest of future interventions become the new context. When designing a landscape architecture project in Rome, is the context the ancient Roman ruins that exist everywhere in the city, or the landscape features that preceded it but where subsequently dominated by the fairly autonomous objects of an imperial agenda? Many don’t even consider the latter, and immediately accept the former as Rome’s characteristic context. Yet, herein lies the subjectivity of context and reveals it to be a purely fantastical artifice that is in denial about everything existing in a spectrum of autonomy.
Landscape architecture is as humble as architecture is self-absorbed. It seems many in landscape architecture believe the fallacy that context should be respected, or built upon. What is the context of Cape Cod for instance? The sandy dune-forests that exist there today? How about the flat-expanses of nothing that were there two centuries ago? How about the forests that were there (different than those today) four centuries ago? Territories change constantly, and while the delusions of most conservationist agendas will be saved for a future exploration, it is key to realize that if landscape wishes to be bolder, and innovate, and invent as dynamic products that architecture has managed to engender, it too must abandon useless shackles of context and embrace autonomy when necessary. This is, of course, not an anti-environmentalist diatribe or a call to forget respect for indigenous species or local geographies. It is call to more critically engage with the question of context, so, that along with defining public space, landscape architecture can begin more soundly moving forward in designing cities.
The Future of Cities as Landscape Architecture: Invention
Ultimately, it is a common opinion that true, pure invention in any field, is nonexistent. Everything that has been made, designed or conceived has had some genesis in some previously made, designed, or conceived project or idea: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Popularly attributed to Isaac Newton, this phrase is, ironically, actually an update to a maxim attributed to Bernand of Chartres of the 12th century. Whether or not he first formulated the expression or, is too, an update on some even older thinker, might not be known for certain—but the supposition remains that true invention does not exist. It only materializes as innovation. Yet, on the other hand, there are particular “innovations” that are so widely divergent, even if just conceptually, it is difficult not to call them “inventions.” The atomic bomb is one such example. What other weapon can instantaneously vaporize an entire city and produce toxic cellular destruction? To many, the atomic bomb is certainly a veritable invention. As an idea itself, there is little precedent, and it created a new dialogue and methodology for warfare. Yet, the object, one could argue, which most closely mimics the trajectory of a projectile such as an arrow, is stronger than several million battering rams, is louder than guns or thunder, and burns hotter than any fire imaginable, could be considered a natural progression from the canon ball and dynamite. Combined with molecular physics, the atomic bomb is an obvious next step. Herein however, lies how continued invention in the field of landscape architecture can contribute to better design of cities: Landscape Architecture as an object (like the atom bomb), is simply about innovation; however, Landscape Architecture as a set of ideas and concepts, has the power to invent.
This dynamic is most clearly delineated in Charles Waldheim’s “Landscape as Architecture.” Tracing back the various etymologies of the term “landscape,” he presents a detailed but concise history of how gardening became landscape gardening, and when in translation to French and back to English it became landscape architecture (of course mottled with a certain story of intrigue between various writers, practitioners and the astute branding exercises of the one-and-only Frederick Law Olmstead—who also happened to establish the first landscape architecture program here at Harvard's GSD). Even before the reader reaches the conclusion, the way Waldheim talks about this new “discipline” and its conceptual underpinnings, it can be clearly understood that the whole of landscape architecture itself, is a conceptual invention. The way it relates to the natural world in direct opposition or in a complimentary perspective to architecture and how it too can modulate space, time and materiality in different ways was a very unique way to visualize this nascent field, and after some wavering of whether it wanted to be planning, gardening or something else, it does come into its own, however troubled, identity:
Of course, what we can do with landscape has become grander and more comprehensive in scope in recent decades. Yet, because the roots of landscape architecture are so ambiguous, it presents an incredible opportunity moving forward. Even today, the definition of what constitutes landscape architecture is not fully defined, so it stands at a crucial intersection of exploring the unknown and refining the understood. Given our present technologies, continued globalization and distinct need to engineer, design, and create better cities, we should continue to catalyze the inherent ambiguity of landscape architecture, and invent new ways to design our cities. Not innovate, but invent. To innovate would mean we have some incredible solutions to build upon. As we have discussed, I am not too optimistic we have found very many useful ‘universal’ truths. So, landscape architecture should ease its efforts to innovate, and simply get wacky—maybe even crazy/bold. It needs to think about cities and issues of mobility, productivity and habitation differently. The voracious character of self-actualization that has defined the field ought to be redirected to dealing with the challenges of urban design, and propose new ways to design our cities. For example, the project Vegetation As Urbanism is a first attempt at discovering latent DNA inherent in large-scale vegetation infrastructure:
Regardless of the direction landscape architecture and its practitioners take, it is imperative to define, or at least understand, what exactly public space is, and what it means for people. It is crucial to remove the boundaries of adhering to “context” too rigidly, for it places landscape in a box architecture doesn’t concern itself with. And, it’s pivotal to bring these two aforementioned perspectives to a table with the intent to invent. If we had already found the solutions to what plagues our cities, we would be more readily utilizing them (or would we?). Sure, we have found some effective strategies, but a Band-Aid and a vaccine operate at different scales. The future of cities lies within a stronger discipline of landscape architecture—mediated by concerns for people and place—that shall seek, like its origins, to transcend and invent itself anew to meet the demands of a new era.
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Alberto Embriz de Salvatierra can be reached at email@example.com.