Landscape Theory Final Paper
Landscape theory gets so absurd sometimes that it almost feels like we are in a class on theology or essentialism and non-essentialism in transnational feminist cultural production. Or something absurd like that.
The readings are just very dense and incredibly convoluted if you can’t think outside the box, have little appreciation for meaning beyond the material object or if you aren’t able to understand the difference between nature and Nature (capital N). But this is the shit I like to read. This class reminds me so much of Post Modern Theory and Transnationalism from sophomore year when I was still a Fine Art major. It was all about questions. The metaphysical, the ephemeral, the elusive. In architecture many of these theories are being applied to something real, and not just art, or artifice. I mean, landscape and the built environment. That is what this class is about. Dig it.
Operational Study: Geology and the Urban Matrix
“I didn’t do it,” I said to a panel of jurors, “It made itself.” My proposal for an urban park discretely tethers the line between the individual author and the external forces of his production. Being the author of the project, and of this paper, for that matter, it is impossible to remove “I” from the equation. I cannot remove myself from the making of the park. The task is to codify the very process that resulted in an author saying something like “It made itself.” Seamlessness is the driving condition of the proposal—for this is what directs one into assuming that something, for whatever reason, just happens to be there. The formal strategy devised to create a seamless condition of a park within a city can be rooted to an examination of urban and geological order. The quest for seamlessness opens a new paradigm for the development of parks. Where the normative condition is to be other than what is surrounding it, the proposal challenges to be the opposite. This initiates an operational study that belongs to two entities; of city and of nature.
The foundation of Urban Parks is inevitably rooted to the dialectic that exists between man and nature. The formation of “landscape” as an idealized term is rooted to this interplay between such a binary—artifice and nature. Landscape is the “moulding of land by human labour into visibly distinct regions…” (Cosgrove 1). It referred to no more than the formal distinctions of land as a configuration of earth. Cosgrove deconstructed the idealization of landscape into two practices: “the artistic and literary representation of the visible world, the scenery which is viewed by a spectator which implied a particular sensibility, a way of experiencing and expressing feelings towards the external world, natural and man-made, an articulation of human relationship with it,” and landscape as “…the integration of natural and human phenomena which can be empirically verified and analyzed by the methods of scientific enquiry over a delimited portion of the earth’s surface.” (Cosgrove 8). Both interpretations can be reduced to the metaphysical, abstract, of the mind and then the dialectical, logical, understanding of the physical, material condition. Thus, Landscape is a constant conversation between man and earth.
Landscape produced a juxtaposition between the objective and the subjective. There was this clear division between what is of God and what is of man—the nature that is out there and the artifice that I am. Thus, there was this constant need to “tame the beast.” To conventionalize nature was to own the wild—turning nature into artifice. The romanticization of the “picturesque” stems from this nostalgia that exists in the mentality of man as he moves between the landscape or the “pastoral” and the jolt of the city. The “picturesque” has been defined as the “middle-term whose effect on the adjacent categories of visual experience is corrective, relieving the languor of Beauty and the tension of the Sublime.” (Price 79). The “picturesque” is an ultra without its referent, yet a term that is meant to capture space, nostalgia, and beauty in a single moment, frame or state. This became the very fuel that conditioned man’s need to allocate nature, if not near the city, then, better yet, within the city—it was a biologically determined need to escape to the beauty of nature. Man needed to put nature somewhere in the jolt of the metropolis. Thus, the birth of the Urban Park.
The Urban Park has been traditionally understood as a place of mitigation or a “balancer” of the effects of urban life. It is traditionally understood as a place that is specifically located where not even a hint of the “city” is seen or heard. Given this, such a product of God still had to be independent of the artifice that is the city. These parks had to remain pure and untainted by a metropolis context. Because of this discourse, parks had a reputation of belonging to people whose consciousness allowed them to appreciate such spiritual and metaphysical experiences. The forms of these parks were conditioned by this ideology. Masking itself from the city, the composition and order of parks were rooted to a belief—a relation to nature that man cannot step away from. Man was landscaping parks because from the core of his soul, it is imperative to his existence. To reach the top of hierarchy of needs and to be completely self-actualized—the park became the very sanctuary for this force of life. Urban parks were separate and essentially, disconnected from its surroundings. These parks were conceived as one end of a binary condition. Where man exists in a city was divided from where he went to appreciate nature. Frederick Olmstead’s Central Park is the ideal example of a park constructed to be in contrast with its surrounding elements. “Through this stark opposition, the city becomes more a city and nature, more nature.” (Choay 24). It was idealized that nature was this pure entity and indeed, it was also formalized as such. The only thing “urban” about the Urban Parks was that they were in the city. Ultimately, there was a clear distinction between park and city. Because there was such a stark divide, man did not play an active role in identifying what was park and what was city. It was merely understood these were opposite creatures. While the Urban Park attempted to alleviate the hustle of the metropolis, it only increased the tension between city and nature—thinning this line of division between the two. The formal condition of urban parks gradually “included” the city. A climax is reached between man and nature where a negotiation occurs and different ways to imagine the possibility of urbanism emerged.
To propose and re-envision a new urban park is a task that formulated a multitude of interpretations of urbanism and a given site’s geological condition. The triangular site existed as abandoned terrain between misaligned streets and topographies. The proposed constructed geological condition exploited this disturbance in the urban grid. It was conceived as the nexus of its immediate context, as well as the larger urban matrix and the beach. To be present in the current of contemporary landscape architecture is to understand the discourse and language of which such a proposal exists and filters through theories and ideologies written before. Where the normative condition of the Urban Park was to be other than what is surrounding it, the proposal attempts to achieve the opposite. Seamlessness is the operational study that drives this new paradigm for the development of Urban Parks.
The proposal for an urban park at a critical nexus of Santa Monica, Venice, the metropolis of Los Angeles and the beach involves a reinterpretation and negotiation of a study of ideologies of landscape and the picturesque—where earth is exploited as a biological material between misaligned streets. Herein, the park is engaging in a formal strategy where “Composition as a passive practice is rejected in favor of construction as an active process.” (Berrizbeita 194). Such a proposal is engaging in dialectical process rather than a metaphysical relationship between man and earth. The misaligned streets were due to the geological condition of subterranean forces and a complex urban order at the intersection of Main Street and Rose Avenue. Main Street was realigned to meet its extension at its crossroad with Rose Avenue. This formed a triangular abandoned site that has been reduced to a parking lot where geological terrain is made evident by a four-foot slope. This subterranean condition that occurs beneath the earth is only present to the eye at the earth’s crust. The urban misalignment was the very condition of nature’s geological order and this was the process that conceptualized the urban park’s formal proposal.
The memory of linearity between the former condition and the current condition of the street was recalled and then substituted as delaminated layers of earth where a tear in the topographic fabric became the condition of time. Subterranean tension was emphasized through a push and pull of delaminated layers in negotiation with existing topographic elevations. Herein, the effect is a continuous natural condition of earth. “The park is the result of the conditions of its own making.” (Berrizbeita 194). To exploit this tear in the urban fabric furthermore, the park was envisioned to exist as one with its environment. “The park becomes a trace of a specific procedure rather than a completed, static, totalized object.” (Berrizbeita 196). Pavement and planting materials relate to surrounding elements of the site, producing a camouflaged rendering of a new surface onto its existing context. The former condition of dunes was recalled through distributing beach grasses between contextual hard-scape materials such as asphalt, concrete, etc. To this end, the park engages in mimicry. As an animal is camouflaged to its environment, the urban park evolved to be seamless with the city.
The framework for the production of effects is a code that belongs to the natural conditions of the site and its urban matrix. “As a result, the engagement of the subject with the park is not predicated on the aesthetic comprehension of its forms but on thinking through the processes that are at work behind those forms.” (Berrizbeita 196). The proposed urban park is a landscape where a portion of the earth’s surface has been re-envisioned to harmonize with a geological pattern. It “serves to reinforce a sense of transformation rather than any isolated formation.” (Smithson 161). Thus, a park rendered continuous, seamless, and uninterrupted by its context challenges notions of nature as an unspoiled entity of God independent of the city. Herein, the proposed urban park is a nexus where nature and city co-exist, in form and in content. The site’s geological and urban dispositions are mirrored by its use and interpretation as a park of nature and a park of man. Earth as a biological material that belongs to nature was exploited in negotiation with urban street misalignment—a procedure that belongs to the city. A nexus of urbanism is engendered furthermore, as one unknowingly walks through the urban park, indefinitely unaware that one is even in a park. One’s understanding of the park is then utterly devoid of any level of aesthetic “indexing,” for its complexion belongs to an urbanism of science. The proposed urban park grounds nature to the science of geology, something that is dialectical or of logical understanding, rather than the metaphysical.
The proposal completely negates all the normative strategies of Urban Park construction. The park is not pure, or devoid of any contextual understanding. It is not a proposal to be the balancer or the opposing force of the city. Rather, it is challenging this tradition. The quest for seamlessness engages context in more ways that just blurring the context by hiding the seams. The very process of the making of the park is an operational study that belongs to two entities: of the city and of nature. The site’s urban misalignment and the geological order are the two references that produced a strategy of construction. For this reason, the park creates a nexus between the city and nature that pinches itself through and reinterprets the normative system. The proposal engenders a space between—a threshold between city and nature that is still waiting to be defined.
The dialectics between man and nature is essentially what fueled a reinterpretation of the Urban Park. What began as an understanding of two entities existing entirely separate from each other is now questioned. The combination of city and nature has produced a bi-product. For a synthesis is only the condition of a merging of a thesis with its antithesis. The argument between two opposing ideas can be further deconstructed—for what happens when the line between city and nature is not only blurred but erased? The seamlessness of a park has created an interstitial space—a tear in between two programmatic elements that only provides opportunity in the threshold, not a vacancy. The proposal for an Urban Park utilizes this very condition given that the site is an abandoned “interstitial” to begin with. The site was originally the void that was the condition of two elements—geology and street alignment. Each conditioned a gap in the urban fabric through time. The proposed park is only a condition of what was already there. The park is utilizing context as a material and formal procedure of construction. Herein, the ideal quality of nature and the material quality overlap and attempt to define the other.
The proposed urban park engages in a fashion of mimesis where the line between city and nature is further blurred in a nexus of urbanism, where aesthetic comprehension is conditioned by geological effect and a formal process is inextricably bound to its surrounding elements. Utilizing earth as a biological material allowed for a reinterpretation of a park to exist seamlessly with the larger urban and geological matrix. An operational study of urban and geological order opened a new paradigm for the development of parks—where seamlessness is achieved between city and nature and the role of external forces challenged the role of the author as an active manipulator of space.
Sources + Citations
Denis Cosgrove, “Introduction” and “The Idea of Landscape,” in Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (1998), 1-36
John Stilgoe, “Landschaft and Linearity: Two Archetypes of Landscape” (1980), in Landscape and Images (2005), 29-46
Sidney K. Robinson, “The Picturesque: Sinister Dishevelment,” in Marco Diani and Catherine Ingraham, eds., Restructuring Architectural Theory (1988), 74-79.
Sylvia Lavin, “Sacrifice and the Garden: Watelet’s Essai sur les Jardins and the Space of the Picturesque,” Assemblage 28 (1996), 17-33.
Anita Berrizbeita, “The Amsterdam Bos: The Modern Public Park and the Construction of Collective Experience,” in James Corner, ed., Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (1999), 187-204
R.E. Somol, “All Systems GO!: The Terminal Nature of Contemporary Urbanism,” in Julia Czerniak, ed., Case: Downsview Park Toronto (2001), 126-135.
Francoise Choay, “The Urban Park from Paxton to Olmsted,” in The Modern City: Planning in the 19th Century (1969), 22-24
Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” (1973), in Nancy Holt, ed., The Writings of Robert Smithson (1979), 117-128.