Earth in the Balance | The Nation


Earth in the Balance

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Anonymous is a landscape architect. Not for these placemakers the recognition given to their peers in building. Planners may stand side by side with mayors boasting of some grand projet. Architects may admire "designed by" signatures on their structures. But those who fashion rolling greenswards, transform wasted landscapes into common ground or turn sordid waterfronts into shared edges are unsung, if not unknown.

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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.

"Our contribution to the undertaking is that of the framing of the scheme rather than the disposition of flower beds," Frederick Law Olmsted, the least anonymous of these landshapers, observed. The profession's patron saint (and Nation co-founder), Olmsted invented the name if not the calling of "landscape architecture" in nineteenth-century America. A generation later, as the century turned, his stepson, John, and namesake son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., joined a small assembly to form the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The centennial celebration of that event in the year now ended called forth a reassessment of the landscape architect's role within the field--and in a larger universe in need of the profession's conserving and redeeming powers.

Prepared by training and ancestry to tackle the everlasting and the ephemeral, to map natural systems and push politicians, plant trees and tend to the civic good, landscape architects are endowed with the skills to supervise our shopworn environs. Their dossiers are replete with work for "public improvement" as well as private pleasure, for shaping cities and chaining vast regions in tune to the genius loci--the more the frustration that these lead designers remain bit players compared with their colleagues in architecture and planning. "Landscape architecture has remained environmentally responsible, undervalued as an art form, and desperately needed as part of humanity's survival kit in the face of an impending apocalypse," James Wines, environmental designer and director of Penn State's Department of Architecture, put it on the eve of the organization's centennial conference in Boston in the fall.

So "undervalued" is this venerable profession, in fact, that its members turned giddy with the news that the Postal Service, which will blithely honor an Elvis or a cartoon character, had also allotted a stamp to Olmsted, the bearded sage nestled amid a collage of blooms and bridge. Thus inspired, celebrations were staged, panels were held, chronologies written, books published and introspective landscape architects turned inward and outward to analyze their status in this epoch of ecological challenge.

Inevitably, then, in this era of affluence and environmentalism, the potential for their vision is growing. The profession of 13,000 members (plus the same number, more or less, in unregistered ones) does coordinate many parcels into places, restoring parks and brownfields, managing ecological projects and community planning. For all their work in adorning America's sprawling multimillion-dollar McMansions, planting lawns on the nation's starter castles and decorating multidigit corporate rooftops--or greenwashing destructive projects--some have returned to the social and political ideals of their ancestors. The broader preachings of Ian McHarg's 1969 classic, Design With Nature--to repair the "raddled landscape to create new public values," to survey the bioregion, to argue for nature in the city and to advance the ecological transformation of larger systems--have currency. Environmental regulations have slowly begun to require the presence of those values at the developmental table.

And yet, notwithstanding this recent recognition, the slights endure. Find a massive public undertaking and you are more likely to find a civil engineer or an Army Corps of Engineers member bred on hardtop and right-angle edges than a landscape architect engaged in civic urbanity and guided by nature's aesthetics. Notice the high-profile rejection of landscape architects in the project of the decade: the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The center's $8 million construction project, the Central Garden, was diverted from the profession of landscape architecture to the misconstrued labors of artist Robert Irwin. Meanwhile the names of seven landscape architects, including those doing the main complex landscaping and shaping the slopes, were indiscernible in the stellar glow accorded architect Richard Meier.

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