Earth in the Balance | The Nation


Earth in the Balance

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Why does the link between the ecological awareness of the environmentalist and the graceful execution of the landscape architect so seldom generate an alliance of their causes? Why do the words du jour--"sustainability," "livability," "smart growth," "open space"--issue from those who believe in exactly the opposite: the profit-minded builders whose enclosed space, dumb growth, unlivable and unsustainable ecologies have, by and large, excluded any mindful handling of the earth? Can it simply be the fact of landscape architects' lesser numbers--13,000, compared with the architects' 64,000 and the planners' 30,000--that undermines their work? Is it their stars or their search for the stardom of their architect peers that makes them more likely to become lawn arrangers for the private affluents than lone rangers against the shrinking of habitats and piecemeal planning?

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Jane Holtz Kay
Jane Holtz Kay (JHoltzKay@aol.com), The Nation's architecture critic and author of Asphalt Nation and Lost Boston, is...

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Walden Pond is America's environmental holy land, the naturalist's sacred site and Concord's local swimming pool.

Perhaps their secondary place in the public discourse comes from the diversity of their work, which stretches beyond that of their building peers. Join the 5,500 attendees at the centennial conference in Boston and you see a range of landscape architects with projects that go all over the map, so to speak, in place and content, from Disney worlds to Canada's capital, from designing cemeteries to plotting solar plans, from flood control to college campuses, from resorts to therapeutic gardens--enough to give anyone an identity problem. A profession of theoretical artists and land pragmatists, of "specialists and generalists," some irrigate their résumés with high-flown high art; others struggle to supplant the engineers' irrigation projects. There are creators of historic restorations and ecologically minded remediations as well as those who indulge in frivolous showboating or put a green patina on unsound and invasive projects.

"Today, much of our work deals with shopping centers, golf courses, corporate headquarters, large private gardens, and the edges of highways," criticizes Lawrence Halprin in Melanie Simo's 100 Years of Landscape Architecture: Some Patterns of a Century, a hefty tome which traces the ASLA's institutional history. "Drainage guys and parking-lot guys," as one landscape historian dismisses them. Starseekers and fashionmongers, others insist. For every do-gooder, there is at least one artiste-in-excess fantasizing about shaping topiaries touting Nike sneaks, pools modeled after George Soros's profile or executing developer-driven dictates, no matter their aesthetic and environmental cost.

Scan the issue of the lively and informative ASLA magazine, Landscape Architecture, published before last fall's centenary assembly. The title page of the first article shows a hard-surfaced terrace fronting a gridded, black-glass building. The image is softened by a few quivering aspens with white clouds drifting across a blue sky. Two-thirds of the picture consists of the boxy structure and its "corporate plaza" covering a parking garage that seems to have dictated the look of the barren surroundings. The landscape architect has planted those feathery trees above the garage. They are to serve as "a metaphor for the native landscape of Colorado," says the article. "Tree-wash," says the reader.

A second article shows a new project and the 1982 design it displaced--i.e., leveled. The original plaza, a black-and-white checkerboard done with Modernist pizzazz, was the work of landscape architect George Hargreaves. "It winks and talks tough," his fellow landscape architect Laurie Olin observed. For all the winking, it couldn't resist the owner's wish for a makeover. Looking to provide a place for lunchgoers, the company decided to uproot the design, dig in a few feel-good plantings and eradicate a space barely in its adolescence. (Ephemeral is also a landscape architect.)

"What then are landscape architects to make of the circumstance that rooftops--even more than brownfields--are increasingly the locale of their creation?" asks the magazine Land Forum, a sumptuous, quirkily intellectual and inbred if promising new publication from Spacemaker. And what to make of the fact that this searing question is never answered by the author, who skips ahead to project design without probing the deeper question: Why are there so many more requests to fix up private, pricey space than space in the public realm of the street? And why so few who even care to notice? "A profession in peril?" asked an ASLA panel. Why not call us "land architects," not landscape ones, one observer suggested, intimating a broader role.

Whatever name the profession goes by, some of its members do pursue large-scale environmental research or planning goals. Buck Abbey's so-called Greenlaws, codes to zone for nature, shows promise in empowering landscape architects by creating "an environmental law that looks out for nature in the city," in his words. Abbey's survey of 500 communities substantiated his view that by zoning and other land-alteration ordinances, communities can guarantee greenery and ecological siting to stop erosion, improve drainage and protect or renew wetlands to heal communities. And in pockets like California and Florida, they do.

In other ways as well, the profession is returning to its social and political origins. As recently as two years ago, the ASLA singled out the work of two vanguard designers, Peter Walker and George Hargreaves, for the bulk of its annual awards. The criticism of this monopoly of highstyle, high-star strutting surely accounts for 1999's multiple winners, praised under the banner heading "Year of Water." Apparently, "the presence of this life-giving element in the landscape" was enough to sink the celebrity prizes and laud instead a wetlands project, a watershed plan and research on stream restoration. Ironically, the best projects may be the least arresting, a landscape photographer suggests, their subtle contouring of the landscape suggesting nature's beauties and a healthy ecology, not a designer's obvious hand. A "jerky progress toward a greater ecological emphasis," the prize-givers commented in Landscape Architecture, itself now leaning more toward articles on public and environmentally attuned projects.

To be sure, ecologists as well as everyday citizens are equally at fault in ignoring those trained to treat their surroundings "holistically." Those charting the fate of the earth largely ignore the professionals equipped to design their scenic corridors and greenways, to restore their habitats and toxic brownfields. Environmentalists celebrated their own anniversary this year. Fifty years ago Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac became the bible of the ecology movement, spelling out the iconic land ethic of ecology: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." And yet, as the century turned, Sierra magazine's issue on "The Green Millennium," summoning ecologists to offer their planetary visions, skimped on nature in the city or greening settled areas. They and others recording such events singled out engineers, attorneys and environmentalists to set forth their views, with nary a mention of this profession trained to fuse, not to mention "beautify," their wishes.

If the fault lies with both our landscape architects' predilection for corporate cocoons and self-indulgent designs--and ourselves for not calling forth their public face and services--some notetakers managed to look ahead to a new frontier of larger landscapes, parks, university campuses and more public tasks. Learning to love the unloved places, many are retrieving once-filled swamps in New Jersey, cleaning debris-laden lands and restoring indigenous plantings to revive smelly tidal bogs. Landscape architects list new de-paving designs, brownfields reclamations and regional projects à la McHarg, himself bemedaled by his profession last year.

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