Charles Waldheim: The Landscape Architect as Urbanist of Our Age


[Applause] Thank you. First of all, congratulations to LAF, and
to Penn Design, Barbara, Marilyn, Fritz, Richard – everyone involved in organizing the event. It’s already proven to be a very consequential
meeting and I’m sure it will be regarded as such, historically. I’m very pleased to be here to play a modest
role in the proceedings. What I wanted to do briefly, was to situate
my remarks in the context of the identity of the field of landscape architecture itself. I think quite rightly, many of our colleagues
have situated the declarations and the events of 50 years ago, in a variety of contexts,
most notably in the emergence of environmental awareness broadly coming out of the early
and mid-1960s, Beth Meyer with her opening remarks this morning began there, among other
places. Kelly Shannon just referenced that again,
and I think that’s of course among the more important contexts to refer to. Having said that, I do believe that Ian and
his colleagues 50 years ago were also working in a context that had been constructed – that
is they were working within a disciplinary history, within a professional identity that
had been built in certain ways. And so I think it’s fair to take a few moments
and reflect on how their declarations were not only a series of manifestos about the
position of landscape more broadly in civil society and in the environment and in the
world, but also the relationship between their declarations and their impact on the reception
of the discipline and the profession of landscape architecture. In that regard, I think it’s been well established
that landscape architecture as a professional identity was first founded in terms of the
new modern identity in the second half of the 19th century on the Eastern Seaboard of
the United States. I think what’s been less well-reported is
the fact that the first commission for a landscape architect in that new, modern, professional
identity was not for the design of a park, was not for the design of a pleasure ground
or promenade. The first commission for a landscape architect
working in that new, professional identity as such, was for the planning of the shape
of the city. It was a commission given to Olmsted and Vaux
in early 1860 for the planning of northern Manhattan, above 155th Street. Until that time of course, Olmsted and Vaux
had never used the term “landscape architect” or “landscape architecture”. Olmsted, in securing his position as the superintendent
of the public park that would become Central Park, in arguing for a design competition,
in partnering with Vaux among the most nimble architects and landscape gardeners of his
generation, and in winning the design competition along a strict party line Republican-reform
vote, in none of that over several years did Olmsted ever use the term “landscape architect”. And a part of my interest here is to wonder
why it was that the more readily available tradition of landscape gardening was not the
professional identity that emerged here in the United States in the second half of the
19th century. It was in fact Olmsted’s visit to the 3:34?
in 1859 over the course of a fortnight where he made eight visits to the 3:39? during which
he saw implications of Alfons’ work in Paris, and that professional identity of the landscape
architect first fully took hold here in the U.S., following from 1860-61. And subsequent to that, Olmsted and Vaux and
their successor firms, of course, appended the title “landscape architect” as a professional
identity to each of their subsequent commissions, retroactively to the Central Park itself,
and then of course on through the canonical early works of this new field. The founders of the so-called new art of landscape
architecture, specifically identified architecture as the most appropriate cultural identity
for this new profession. And in so doing, they proposed an innovative
and a progressive professional role. The new liberal profession was founded in
the second half of the 19th century in response to a very clear series of social and environmental
crises, not unlike those a century later in the 1960s that McHarg and his colleagues were
responding to. In that context, the landscape architect was
originally conceived as a professional responsible for the integration of civil infrastructure,
environmental enhancement, and public improvement in the context of ongoing industrialization. In fact, I would situate the moment in the
1960s with the declaration and McHarg’s work here, and the work of Carl Steinitz and
others at Harvard around regional ecological planning, as the second moment in which landscape
reemerged in relationships to changes in the industrial economy, underpinning development
in the North American context. The first of those structural transformations
was of course in the second half of the 19th century with the invention of the field itself. The second of those moments was in the middle
of the 20th century around the decentralization of a mature Fordist economy. And then finally, the third would be the last
two decades during which we’ve transitioned again to a new form of industrial economy. That history, while brief from my part, sheds
compelling light on the development of city planning as a new field in the early decades
of the 1920s. I think it’s quite clear that the urban
commitments of the new field of landscape architecture were so pronounced that they
spun off an entirely new discourse and set of practices that came to be known as planning
in the first half of the 20th century, and that left landscape architecture relatively
bereft; it left us with the decorative, the aesthetic, with the plant material – but
without our urban material. In this regard I think that the decision to
identify architecture as opposed to art, engineering or gardening as our proximate, professional
peer-group I think is quite significant, not only for re-reading McHarg in ’66, but equally
for situating our practices here today and going forward. This line of inquiry equally points to this
long-standing lineage of ecologically informed regional planning that grew out of the emergence
of planning in the 20th century. And I think it’s fair in the context of
our conversations here and this meeting to think of the declaration as one – and the
foundation of the foundation – as one set of elements in relationship to a broader reform
of both the discipline and the profession of landscape architecture that McHarg and
his colleagues were clearly engaged in. In that regard I would also – in addition
to mentioning the work of Carl Steinitz and others working in the computer graphics at
Harvard GSD, look to the impact of a kind of regional planning science on the shape
of the field internationally. Arguably – and certainly this is my own
position on this – the more recent renewal of landscapes’ relevance for discussions
of contemporary urbanism – have less to do with the application of these tools of regional
planning that were so central to the identity and formulation of the declaration and the
foundation and the McHargian agenda more broadly. Rather, they have more to do with changes
in the industrial economy that underpin our work, and equally with the rapprochement between
landscape architecture and what one might define broadly as design culture, because
I think it might be fair to situate or re-read McHarg’s declaration among others in response
to that longer 7:53? tradition of design culture among others, among other colleagues of course
Charles Birnbaum mentioned that earlier in his remarks as well. Of course in that context, we see today many
landscape architects who are hybrids, who are bringing together a combination of training
in regional ecology, manifesting that work through design culture, and that twinning
of design culture and landscape ecology is something that I think the declarations in
’66 were utterly unprepared for, but at the same moment might describe our conditions
today slightly differently. In this context, many designers today, as
we’ve seen today, deploy ecology as a model of urban forces and flows, as a medium for
deferral or distancing of authorship, and as a rhetorical device in public reception
and audience participation. They also have recourse to the traditional
definition of ecology as the scientific study of species in relationship to their environments,
but equally in this relationship to design culture, allows designers today, landscape
architects among them, to bring ecology in, not only at the level of metaphor, not only
at the level of natural science, but equally at the level of an epistemological or an ontological
framework. While landscape architecture and urban planning
have historically tended to view ecology as a kind of applied natural science, our twin
field architecture and the arts have received ecology as both metaphor from the social sciences
and the humanities, but equally from philosophy in the last several decades. The sense of ecology has both operating system
but equally epistemological framework for understanding the world. In much of the work of these landscape architects,
we find the urban form is given not through regional planning or policy or precedent but
rather the self-regulation of emergent ecologies upon which urban figure is ultimately attained. In many of these practices, we find today
landscape design strategies led by landscape architects, ecologically informed, precede
what we understand to be traditional planning practices. And in many of these contexts, ecological
understandings inform urban order and design agency propels a process through hybridization
of land use, environmental stewardship, public participation and design culture. In these projects, a previously extensive
planning regime is often rendered secondary, if not redundant to a design competition,
a donor’s request, or community consensus among other things. In many of these projects, the landscape operates
across an extended urban field, reordering both economic, ecological, social and cultural
inputs. In this condition and across these practices,
I would argue, that the landscape architect today is operating as the urbanist of our
age. Thank you. [Applause]

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