DIALOGUES
ON
LANDSCAPE
THEORIES
WITH
CHARLES
WALDHEIM

 

Gandong Cai and Charles Waldheim

Interview

09/09/2020

 

 

 

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?

 

CW: In the past decade or so, a number of people across the design fields--architects, urbanists, landscape architects--have been thinking about the global or the planetary in various ways. There was a discourse emerging in the 20th century around when the so-called "global city" came out of planning and social science. That has been responded to the critics around the topic of planetary urbanization. This has been most effectively and recently argued by Neil Brenner who is following the works of Henri Lefebvre. It relates to the economic network of capitalism, climate change, the physical composition of the environment--every surface of the earth has been urbanized.

 

On the other hand, there is another discourse you point to, about the extraterrestrial. I would refer to the Apollo Earth-rise photograph in 1968, which creates the idea that you could photograph the planet from a distance. From that period through the 1970s, we have seen an increasing global awareness or planetary awareness in part led to the critique of capitalism, and also informed the environmental concern. Landscape architecture has a history of producing knowledge to particular sites, but it tends to be true that architects and urbanists have much more fluency in thinking about the entire planet as being urbanized. That is changing as landscape architects are increasingly adapting to this theoretical and critical framework.    

 

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 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?

 

CW: I agree that these things are all happening simultaneously. I think the enlightenment is an incomplete project done by becoming globalized, rather than by connecting and translating through education, and by both class mobility and geographic mobility. I aspire that we can connect globally and work across languages and cultures, but the enlightenment has its dark side as well--the loss of local culture and identity. I am committed to the idea that through education, communication, and sharing, humanity can persist well beyond something that is tribal. It is true that we are asking ourselves, the GSD and the landscape architecture, a very tough question about not just locality, but about individual identity and group identity. There is no doubt that landscape architecture, urban planning, urban design, and architecture are historically fields that have been about the expression of power. The designs and buildings of the world is a way to express power. A racist society will build a racist landscape, and racist institutions will perpetuate that. The question is how landscape architecture can act in relation to those racist histories, and how landscape architecture can be asking critical questions about that. That frames a very important question for the future of our field: landscape architecture is so sufficiently a product of European imperialism, and therefore it is impossible to imagine using landscape as a medium of addressing these questions. Or to put it in another way, to what extent can we de-colonize landscape architecture? Can we renovate to be post-imperial or post-capitalist?

 

GC: In the New Landscape Declaration, Richard Weller reminded us that in 1966 the first version of the declaration was authored by five white men and only focused on North America without the mention of equity, extinction, and climate change. 50 years later, the 2016 version has included over 600 attendees and 32 presentations cover a much larger range of topics. However, when I went through the bio of all the 32 authors, I found that only two of them are from Latin America, two from China, and one from India, the rest are from the so-called "western world". There must be voices not being heard, practices not recognized and ideas ignored in this version too. What should the 2066 landscape declaration look like?

 

CW: I would say you are right in thinking more about the global south, and the way I will frame the question is: is the global south or these questions addressed through the growth of our field or not? Is landscape architecture as a profession and discipline can be a medium opens to have a more diverse point of view? Or should we develop some other new ways of thinking or working or describing it? To extend landscape architecture seems to be a discourse of practice taking up other parts of the world and we still have a lot of work to do obviously. But I will be also open to the other point that maybe we need a new term.

 

GC: I think it relates to the professional identity issue. In your book Landscape as Urbanism, you argued that landscape architects should be the urbanist of our age. You made this statement at the LAF summit meeting too. What's the role and commitment of a landscape urbanist that differentiates it from a landscape architect?

 

CW: My argument in my last book is that, in the period of economic growth in capitalism, landscape tends to be a byproduct of urbanization for the wealthy classes and elite activities like opera. There is no expectation or desire to imagine landscape being available for everybody. I first coined the term landscape urbanism 25 years ago as a rhetorical act to get people's attention to say that we have to shift our practices. In claiming landscape urbanism, my argument has been that landscape architect is going to be the person you hire because planners, urban designers, and architects have not yet fully develop a coherent environmental position. Landscape Urbanism in the past 25 years has been a claim that landscape architects need to be retooled to work as urbanists, and by that return to the original definition that Olmsted had.

 

There is an interesting debate that I think is always a question. On the one hand, if you never question or critique or change the name of your profession, degree, or program you will never respond to external conditions and there is a danger that you become irrelevant socially. On the other hand, I don't recommend changing the name of your profession or your degree every time there is a new hurricane, pandemic, or a new fire. You don't want to be changing your institutional and disciplinary description every time there is a new topic. In the second half of the 19th century, landscape architecture is invented as a criticism of architecture, engineering, gardening, and art. Urban planning was invented in the first decade of the 20th century, urban design is invented in the 50s, landscape urbanism is invented 25 years ago, all of these are attempts to bring relevant by shaping practice and discourse. It's an open question whether the identity of landscape architect is adequate to the challenge we face. 

 

GC: I think this is an interesting idea to keep the flexibility of our profession to become relevant and responsive to the change of the world. In the mid-20th century landscape architecture was influenced deeply by "rational ecological planning" and environmental science. At the end of that century, architects stepped into the landscape field with architectural theory and strategy through several important competitions. Should we develop a much stronger professional identity with a solid methodology and profound theory that is not borrowed from the outside? But on the other hand, I am wondering if it is the "weak identity" that helps us become a cohesive profession that can glue different disciplines together in this new age?

 

CW: I like your notion of the weak as flexible and fluid. The reason Landscape Urbanism happened is not so much of me, but primarily because there was a series of opportunities, gaps, and voids that landscape was found relevant to. I don't think it's possible to integrate all knowledge. Choices have to be made and there has to be an argument about the shape of the field, how much science do we have to know, how many plant materials, history theory, and how much urbanism. There is a debate going on on a daily basis in the school of that issue. I would argue against the idea that landscape architect has to melt everything. I believe it's first and foremost an idea of design culture, an idea of landscape urbanists playing the role of leading architects and urbanists and collaborate with them. Second, we need landscape urbanist to affluent in the ecological system and strategies not because we are going to design the scale of the region, but the scale of the project site. Third, we need landscape urbanist that is capable of working within and between a variety of different disciplines that are specific and applied.

 

I also think it's a mistake to frame landscape architecture or Landscape Urbanism as primarily a problem-solving activity. It has to be cultural, about imagination, and the conception of the new ways of living and working. If we reduce our work to the purely technical, we are competing in an unfair relationship against other fields, whether it's real estate, civil engineering, or any of the other surrounding fields. In that regard, design culture and the idea of landscape architecture being a cultural form is essential to me. In that regard, landscape architecture is growing incredibly powerful and visible now than it has been in my lifetime. It has been doing that by not being specific to a certain region, but by training landscape architects around the globe.

This text is a SIMPLE VERSION of the original interview. To see the full text in Chinese please go to Guangdong Landscape Architecture journal August volume, 2020. Full text in English will be published later in the form of a collection.