DIALOGUES
ON
LANDSCAPE
THEORIES
WITH
BRADLEY
CANTRELL

 

Gandong Cai and Bradley Cantrell

Interview

12/2020

 

 

 

GC: The latest version of the New Geographies has been released with the title "Extraterrestrial", which reflects one of the current academic tendencies to extend the tentacles beyond the earth-scape and into outer space. Following the ongoing planetary research and studies, design competitions in the universe scale such as designing the settlement on Mars are emerging in recent years too. How do you see it affects the field of Landscape Architecture?

 

BC: Very interesting question. There are two ways to imagine how these trends directly touch our discipline. I would say that most of our thoughts that are outside of the earth's atmosphere, take on two realms. One is the concept of bringing the earth's atmosphere to another place. So we are essentially manufacturing a version of earth, bringing it with us, using it as a mediator between the hostile environments outside of our atmosphere. I think in that way, there is quite a bit to learn from the science around us. You see this in some of Nicholas de Monchaux's work with the Spacesuit book that he put together. It's these concepts of the earth atmosphere, the extension of the human body, and the concept of the cyborg.

 

While this idea might seem extraterrestrial, there is a highly localized idea that we will actually take earth with us, and we are always creating the local very close to our bodies. So to me, this aspect is an interesting one. The other is more about the collaboration with science, and particularly geomorphology: the idea about understanding the geology, the mineral composition, the soils, and how these different geomorphologic processes form different features on our planet. I think for landscape architects this extended view of how these processes occur is extremely useful. In the same way, you can take this extended view and tie it into biology, and start to think about what the extraterrestrial biologies might be, and what they might teach us the place we live now. It's an interesting place to begin to imagine, but it's also a great place to understand what it means to be human, in the place human don't belong to.

 

GC: Even though we are looking beyond the earth, all the knowledge and arguments will finally go back to the discussion of the locality. To mention the locality, the Landscape Architecture Foundation recently has its six recipients for the Fellowship for 2019-2020 Innovation and Leadership presented the final outcomes. Among the six topics, at least three of them relate to the issue of "locality": going deep into a specific place, interacting with and listening to local people, and trying to solve an identified problem by the intervention of landscape. Despite the enthusiasm of designing the globe and beyond, there is still another trend to investigate even deeper than we did before into the locality. How do you perceive these two different, if not opposite trends taking place simultaneously in our profession?

 

BC: I think this stems from a couple of things. One is the exuberance of neoliberalism and globalization. While there is obviously a range of things done for human-being in regard to the connection of everyone across the globe, we ignore the local conditions. We see the resurgences in the last decade: things like local food movement on the table and the celebration of local cultures. For landscape architecture, this becomes important as a way to address some of the blind spots of globalization. We don't necessarily want to recede back to just the local, but to build on the effort of globalization that has occurred, while allowing the local to bubble up and connect back with that new framework. It is a technology framework as well as a new culture framework across the world. I think this fascination with the local is similar to the other end of the spectrum, which is to take us off the planet.  

 

GC: I think your research and practice are good examples resonating with both of the two trends: explore computational landscape approaches to address the global ecological complexities which are hard to predict by traditional methodologies; then apply the nascent technologies to specific areas or sites by promoting adaptive infrastructure. I know this is the area you have been studying for years, but for many of us, especially those study or practice landscape outside of the US, it's still unfamiliar territory. Can you introduce and explain this emerging trend of landscape architecture briefly to us?

 

BC: I think you capture well in a way you explain here. When we were talking about the last question, the scales landscape architects working at are from the highly local to the region where we typically find most of our agencies. Move up from there into the scale of territory or the continent, we don't have well-defined methods for design. Part of the research I have been doing is two-fold. One part is about the ways we use computation and modeling to predict longer-term trends and to model those trends. The methods we have used to design and model can never really predict where we are going next. The world is complex, particularly in large scale. How do we develop a new design methodology that allows us to have agencies at the scale of territory without making huge changes to that scale of landscape, which can disrupt ecosystems, or destroy different types of environmental systems? In that regard, we need to begin to develop both adaptive infrastructure and adaptive methods of design.

 

When we receive data, how can we begin to respond to that in real-time? In a typical design process, we try to gather all the information we can gather, then analyses the information to produce a design solution. We implement that by constructing it and we try to maintain the project. The issue with that is, because the world and the ecological systems are so complex, we never really have enough information to address that complexity. On the other side, the solution we are designing and building are often updated before we put them in the ground. How do we develop a way of taking in these data, and constructing back in the world, with just a small amount of information? How does this feedback loop of bringing data in and making the change in the world develop a heuristic that we are not only learning from the data, but also changing the world that we can see these changes in context? That type of design and construction methodology basically collapses all those ideas like data gathering, analysis, designing proposals, and construction. That encapsulates the way how my research works: the idea of adapting infrastructure becomes an idea of incremental and autonomous landscape construction techniques,

 

GC: I always believe that to address the issue either in planetary scale or in local scale nowadays, there is no way to achieve anything by our own, but rather by team up with other disciplines. I notice that you have founded the Responsive Terrains CoLab in UVA, and it is collaboration between Landscape Architecture and Environmental Science departments. The history of landscape architect learning from environmental scientists is long, probably can be traced back to the time of Ian McHarg. Can you tell us more about how this multi-disciplinary project comes into being, and what's new about that?

 

BC: This is a project I am really excited about. A lot of works I did when I was at Harvard was very much from the design side. Before I came to the GSD, I was in Louisiana. There was a lot of collaboration between civil engineers, myself, and environmental scientists, coming together to design new forms of resilient landscape in the Gulf coast. Part of that became my focus on responsive technologies and adaptive approaches to designing infrastructure. One of the things I am really interested in about this new CoLab project is that we are teaming up with environmental science. I am teaming up with Ajay Limaye, who is a geo-morphologist and has a long track record of doing really interesting physical modeling. We come together and try to figure out how can we develop models that allow for design iteration and design speculation that are more closely tied to the scientific model Ajay Limaye is creating in environmental science, and in the field of geomorphology. That becomes very important because it lets us begin to iterate different design propositions, while also developing the interfaces bridge the gap between science and design. This merger between the two disciplines is very much about how do we take scientific modeling and design modeling and create a new way of modeling that helps both disciplines understand one another.

 

GC: I think "responsive" is a keyword in your research, and the meaning of the word worth pondering, especially under the current circumstance. In your book Responsive Landscape, the word refers to the responsive technologies that can be applied to landscape. However, what we have witnessed in the past few months reminded us that we still have a lot to achieve for creating safe and just places. In this context, I am wondering if there is a broader meaning of responsive landscape through which we ask ourselves a disciplinary question: how can landscape architecture be a more responsive profession that reacts readily to the unpredictable social and cultural changes?

 

BC: I don't know if I have an answer for that, but I do think in the technological model I have been trying to envision, we can use this word responsive in a way to think how different technologies allow things to be more responsive. What we have seen in the last few months is a space for us to begin to react to, and space for us to be critical and rethink some of the things that we take for granted. What it means to be a responsive profession is the idea that we are always interested in unpacking the things that we believe are given. This is less about technologies and methodologies, but more about practice and approach. Obviously, it is a discipline we can't rethink everything, but we have to open to the idea that what we were doing come in a certain place, and the world might not be in that place anymore.

 

What I talk to you earlier in terms of adaptive infrastructure, we need to develop an approach that allows us to be always learning. It's almost like we never design landscape as a finished product, but the prototype that teaches us something about what to do next. Technologically, it requires us to think of new tools and new methodologies, which allow us to approach landscape and landscape design in this way. On that end, a lot of the tools I have been imagining--I can't say that they can solve social and cultural issues-- are really about being more humble. It's about not pretending that we know everything, but have this kind of more humble take on what we can do in the world. We need to always be learning, rather than waiting for these technologies to give us an answer.

This text is a SIMPLE VERSION of the original interview. To see the full text in Chinese please go to Guangdong Landscape Architecture journal February volume, 2021. Full text in English will be published later in the form of a collection.