Gandong Cai and Gareth Doherty
GC: The latest version of the New Geographies has been released with the title "Extraterrestrial", which reflects one of the current academic tendencies of the GSD to extend the tentacles beyond the earth-scape and into outer space. Resonating with 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. What's your opinion on this new territory, and how does this scaling up tendency affect the field of Landscape Architecture?
GD: New Geographies challenges landscape architecture as a discipline by letting go of the word “landscape.” I was one of the founding editors of the New Geographies journal. During my first summer in Cambridge, the summer of 2006, myself and two other doctoral students of Hashim Sarkis—who is now dean at MIT—would meet regularly in Algiers, the former café in Harvard Square. We discussed the question of scale in design: why, for instance, does design seem to break down when we move beyond the scale of a neighborhood? After urban design, there is urban planning, regional planning, but not regional or global design. We also were interested in the social aspects of design. Hashim set us a challenge to review journals in the GSD’s Frances Loeb Library. We noticed that most journals are tied to disciplines, and most disciplines are linked to scale. So, naïvely, we decided to start our own journal to address this scalar relationship. NeyranTuran, Stephen Ramos, and myself even taught a course together, Scalar Urbanism. I was actively involved in establishing the journal and in the production of the first six volumes and was the editor-in-chief of New Geographies 3: Urbanisms of Color, which addressed the various dimensions of color in cities, one of my favorite topics. Since 2010, the journal has continued under other GSD doctoral students, and I am no longer involved. I’ve not yet seen the new edition of New Geographies, but surely, the extraterrestrial seems a logical step?
GC: On the other hand, the Landscape Architecture Foundation just announced its six recipients for the Fellowship for 2019-2020 Innovation and Leadership. 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 a specific 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?
GD: They are both essential! This duality existed in the aspiration behind New Geographies and the Ecological Urbanism project, too, for instance. If we are to design in ways that are more ‘ecological’ from a social, cultural, and environmental perspective—in the sense of Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies—we need to understand human-centered ecologies better. In my work, I use anthropology—the study of human diversity—as a lens to understand landscape architecture. An anthropologist, Margaret Mead, famously argued that voyages to the moon and beyond the moon are essential for our humanity. Mead’s point is that it is only in imagining the future that we can have the agency to change the future. The act of imagination is an essential aspect of our humanity. We need to understand human aspirations and practices better to be better designers.
GC: In the discussion of disciplinarity and the structure of the core studios at the GSD with Michael Hays, Dean Sarah envisioned climate change as one of the current tentative totalities which should be included in the curriculum. Other tentative totalities we are having now, in my opinion, are more or less related to the environmental crisis, which put Landscape Architecture in a greater role among the three fundamental disciplines (Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning and Design) at the GSD. Landscape Architecture, with its great capacities of integrating design, social science, and ecology knowledge should take more responsibilities under this new context. Can you talk about how the Landscape Architecture education at the GSD responds to the current meta-narratives by designing the core and option studios as well as the other courses?
GD: The multi-scalar skills of the landscape architect will be of increasing importance in the future. At the GSD, a new required course on climate change has been initiated in the landscape architecture department by the chair, Anita Berrizbeitia, and taught by colleagues, Jill Desimini, David Moreno Mateos, Martha Schwartz, and Emily Wettstein. Climate change permeates most of the teaching at the GSD. Landscape architecture must engage with current affairs and, through research and practice, create the knowledge we need to confront our age’s critical issues. To this end, I lead a new design lab at the GSD. The Critical Landscapes Design Lab <criticallandscapes.com> was established as “a space for speculation on people and places.” The lab’s projects recognize the multi-disciplinary reach of landscape architecture, engaging with climate change and the field's political, social, and cultural dimensions.
GC: The next question is also about disciplinarity. Multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary design becomes popular phrases in the design field, indicating the emergence of collaboration between professions in addressing complex issues. Interestingly, in the book "Is Landscape …?" you edited with Charles Waldheim, instead of asking the question "how landscape can work with other professions", you shift the angle to look at the expanded disciplinary fields and ask the question "What actually landscape is (or can be)". It seems to me that this collection is trying to direct the discussion toward a critical and fundamental issue of the profession: the disciplinarity and autonomy of Landscape Architecture. Is there a tendency at the GSD to discuss this issue more frequently than before, and how these conversations happen?
GD: Landscape architecture has to be open to constant change; otherwise, we risk not adapting to the world around us. Most of the world doesn’t have a professional discipline of landscape architecture. The profession needs to continually renew itself by pushing the boundaries of landscape architecture, rather than retreating into a comfortable core. The edited book, Is Landscape…? Essays on the Identity of Landscape surveys different understandings of landscape across various related fields including ecology, gardening, photography, planning, etc. Rather than seeking a precise definition of the term, the aim is to open up discussions over what landscape is and might become. The book was recently translated into Chinese by Professor Chongxian Chen, of SCAU, and published by the China Architecture and Building Press. Charles Waldheim and I are currently working on a second volume, entitled Landscape Is...
GC: The last question. We have discussed a lot about the scale of landscape design and research as well as the disciplinarity of Landscape Architecture. However, the understanding of these topics will vary significantly in different contexts. You have visited SCAU two years ago and gave lectures to the students there. As alumni of both the SCAU and the GSD, I can tell that the schools and the programs are so different culturally and structurally. From the perspective of the Landscape Architecture program director at the GSD, what's your observation and interpretation of the two different systems?
GD: I spent a few days at SCAU when they kindly invited me to deliver a series of lectures but not enough time to develop an informed opinion, so I can’t answer the comparison between SCAU and the GSD directly. I enjoyed my visit to SCAU, and everyone was very kind to me, and I was impressed with the quality of the student work that I saw. I have some experience of working in China. For a couple of years, the GSD had an office in Beijing, the Ecological Urbanism Collaboration (EUC). The EUC was based at PKU, and I was a co-principal investigator with Mohsen Mostafavi and Kongjian Yu. The EUC had research projects in Xi’an, Guangzhou, Haikou, and Beijing. I also led a GSD-summer class in China, the Ecological Urbanism Field Research Seminar, and we did field research in Haikou. This experience reinforced that we need to better understand the nuances of Chinese landscape, not just a historical understanding but also an understanding of contemporary values rooted in current landscape practice and patterns of urbanization. To gain this understanding, we need greater social and cultural awareness in the design process. Too often, we focus on history, but knowledge of the present is vital as is speculation on the future. Landscape architecture allows us to bring these various dimensions together.
This text is a SIMPLE VERSION of the original interview. To see the full text in Chinese please go to Guangdong Landscape Architecture journal December volume, 2020. Full text in English will be published later in the form of a collection.