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Eco-politicas and Aesthetics: Landscape Architecture in the Ecological Era

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In what is often referred to as the ‘ecological era’, the 21st century is faced with the prevailing need for a transformed relationship between humans and their biophysical habitat, including all other non-human actors. In the face of increased ecological awareness, landscape architecture as a discipline is under pressure to develop new concepts and approaches to complex environmental and social challenges (Kaplan, 2009). But the call for more eco-centric design methodologies have provoked an ongoing debate within the profession about the relationship between sustainability and aesthetics. Empirical data and quantifiable outcomes have gained augmented prominence, and many argue that the traditional notions of beauty in landscape design have been rendered superfluous by the urgency for ecological sustainability. In 2008 Elizabeth Meyer, North American theorist and academic, published a provocative manifesto that challenged this view that aesthetics should be subordinate to function. She makes the argument that aesthetics and sustainability are not mutually exclusive, but rather complimentary as landscape architecture can provide solutions to environmental, social and cultural issues that are simultaneously beautiful and performative (Hellemondt and Notteboom, 2018).

This paper will explore the work of two prominent landscape architects, Gilles Clément and Thomas Woltz from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, by using Meyer’s manifesto as a thematical framework for discussing their different approaches to the blending of aesthetics and function in eco-centered design practices. Two projects, Parc Henri Matisse and the Orongo Station Farm, will inform the analysis that highlight the need for an interdisciplinary approach that can create hybrid solutions to challenge traditional binaries between the science of ecology and design as cultural stewardship (Kumar-Dumas 2017).

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Paradigm Shifts in Landscape Related Design

The sustainability agenda of the past few decades have called for a conscious and self-critical re-evaluation of the role of various design professions. The Journal of Landscape Architecture was launched in 2006 as a response to the need for a new body of research and published projects that could contribute to the discipline taking on a more active role in renegotiation of the balance between humanistic and ecological goals (Fatsar et al. 2016, Kaplan 2012) in landscape architecture. Landscape architecture is uniquely positioned to integrate the inputs from various landscape related disciplines (geography, geology, biology, civil engineering, agricultural engineering, architecture, urban planning, regional planning, etc.) to address a broader range of complex issues, but this also means that the discipline has to determine a theoretical and conceptual base to its own unique contribution (Kaplan 2012). To this end, landscape architects must acknowledge their roles as political and institutional actors. This idea is not new to the profession and can be traced back to the multi-disciplinary professional collaborations forged by Frederick Law Olmsted in his designs for Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. But prolific funding for scientific research and the increasing precedent for technocratic solutions shifted the focus to a more functional approach in sustainable landscape design. It is against this backdrop that Elizabeth Meyer raises her question regarding the role of aesthetics, and that landscape architects like Gilles Clément and Thomas Woltz forge their own philosophical practices.

Sustaining Beauty

Elizabeth Meyer has been actively contributing to the ongoing debate about the role of aesthetics in sustainable landscape design since the 1990’s, but her manifesto, ‘Sustaining Beauty: The Performance of Appearance’, evoked the most widespread and varied responses across a range of landscape related disciplines. The original manifesto reads as follows:

  • Sustaining culture through landscapes (Landscape architecture is a cultural practice, not just a professional practice)
  • Cultivating hybrids: language of landscape
  • Beyond ecological performance
  • Natural processes over natural form
  • Hyper-nature: the recognition of art
  • The performance of beauty
  • Sustainable design = constructing experiences
  • Sustainable beauty is, not generic
  • Sustainable beauty is dynamic, not static
  • Enduring beauty is resilient and regenerative
  • Landscape agency: from experiences to sustainable praxis (Meyer 2015 pg. 31; Meyer 2008)

In 2015 she published a follow-up article, ‘Beyond “Sustaining Beauty” – Musings on a Manifesto’, as a reflection on the discourse that was sparked by her eleven-point manifesto. She reiterates that beauty is a malleable and that landscape architects can contribute to transformed cultural ideas and paradigm shifts on what is beautiful, introducing landscapes that are both aesthetical pleasing and ecologically regenerative. The core of her argument is that most people will be moved to protect what they appreciate, not because they are guilted into action or because of a sense of duty inspired by doomsday media.

‘This involves the recognition of the role of aesthetic environmental experiences, such as beauty, wonder, awe, ugliness, and repulsion, in re-centering human consciousness from an egocentric to a more biocentric perspective. Such recognition is dependent on new conceptions of human and nonhuman entanglements.’ (Meyer 2015, pp. 32)

Gilles Clément

French landscaper and writer with a background in horticultural engineering, Gilles Clément, prefers to refer to himself as a gardener. His experimental practice started in the 1980’s when he bought a plot in Creuse to build his own house and garden. In his garden he initiated a regime of allowing all flora species to propagate and flourish naturally. He saw his own role as merely steering their growth by strategically trimming or removing plants to make space for other species, guiding the natural processes. This resulted in a ‘wild’ and everchanging environment with surprising outcomes that couldn’t always be predicted from the onset. It was a radical departure from the highly controlled designs of formal renaissance gardens and the park designs of the early 1900’s and informed his design approach to professional commissions. Clément developed three main concepts that underlined his practice, ‘The garden in motion’, ‘The planetary garden’ and ‘The third landscape’, but also writes about ‘Landscapes of resistance’ and ‘The symbiotic man’. ‘Garden in motion’ describes his embrace of natural processes as a horticultural management system that ensures more biological diversity, as established in his own garden and later applied to seminal public park projects, like the André Citroën Park in Paris and recent collaborations with Coloco in Brussels for public parks and urban food gardens. ‘The planetary garden’ alludes the finite, exhaustible and interdependent nature of ecological resources that are becoming more apparent as technology and science allows for more accurate measurements of the human impact on ecosystems. Also, increased globalization has led to the widespread migration of all species resulting in hybrids everywhere with very little ‘pure’ or ‘primary’ landscapes. Within this frame of pervasive human intervention, ‘The third landscape’ refers to spaces that humans have abandoned or neglected and where nature has been allowed to reclaim space and proliferate without human control. Clément identified these residual, ‘waste’ or inaccessible spaces as opportunities where biodiversity could be fostered as genetic reserves and a defense against the ongoing loss of non-human species. To this end Parc Henri Matisse is an iconic public park and landscape art project that serves as a powerful statement about the need urban landscapes that are sequestered only for non-human actors, to ensure diversity and balance.

Parc Henri Matisse

Parc Henri Matisse was commissioned as part of the larger Euralille development, a big masterplan project designed by many well-known architects like Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel (to mention a few). The intention of the overall project was to transform Lille’s reputation as post-industrial city into a vibrant European urban hub for commerce and innovation. As such, it was part of highly visible political campaign driven by an economic agenda (Gandy 2012). The park is 3,2 hectares big and was developed between 1996 and 2003.

The park design itself is best known for the imposing Derborence Island structure, an imposing 2,500 square meter concrete plateau with a commanding presence that encloses a ‘wild’ forest in the lawn-like center of the park. The island itself is impenetrable and inaccessible to the public, a symbolic replica of the few remaining primary forests found in Switzerland (the Deborence forest). Deborance Island is intended to serve is refugia where non-human species can flourish without any human interference. The periphery of the park is hemmed with smaller pockets of ‘wilderness’ where landscape management is kept to the minimum, incorporating the ‘garden in motion’ concept as a public park maintenance strategy (Gandy 2012).

Thomas Woltz

Thomas Woltz is a North American landscape architect at the head of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. In 1998 Woltz initiated a specialized research studio within his office called Conservation Agriculture (ConAg) Studio, focused on design and ecological restoration of productive landscapes. Similar to Clément, Woltz values horticulture and related landscape sciences, and designs with ecological processes in mind. At the onset of every project he spends a week or two in the field with a team of specialists from various scientific backgrounds to gather biological samples and works closely with these consultants to develop a holistic conservation and regeneration strategy.

Although Clément and Woltz share this interdisciplinary approach, their output and design philosophies are very different. Woltz believes that the landscape architect has a much more active role to play in the restoration of ‘native’ landscapes and ecosystems, acting as stewards of conservation. Clément, with his theory of ‘the planetary garden’, argues that human and non-human migration have led to such a hybridization of ecosystems, that it is not so important for the landscaper to remove ‘alien’ species as it is to mitigate the assembly of different species with minimal interference or resources. Another key difference is the scale and nature or the projects they take on. Whereas Clément’s work is very much focused in the urban milieu, the regeneration of post-industrial or ‘wasted’ spaces he classifies as ‘the third landscape’ whereas Woltz is focused on the restoration of productive and cultivated landscapes that have been depleted by industrial agricultural practices. One such project is the Orongo Station Farm in New Zealand, a 1215 hectares sheep farm, that received the AZ Award for Landscape Architecture in 2018.

Orongo Station Farm

The conservation masterplan for Orongo Station farm was developed between 2002 and 2012 and incorporated different landscape terrains. From the onset, the focus was on reforesting coastal edges that would eventually host the Tuatara reserve for endangered animal and bird species and repopulate the cliff edges that had been stripped by exploitative sheep farming practices. Woltz involved a range of different scientists as well as the local Maori tribe in the process.

Secondly, the wetlands were restored but not as an imitated natural wetland but rather as a land art project with fourteen islands with varying degrees of incline that hosted different wetland bird species native to the region. The design was inspired by paintings done by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx in the 1930’s (Woltz 2015).

Thirdly, the remainder of the working farm including the orchards, sheep farming, kitchen garden and estate buildings were designed as a formal landscape with references to the picturesque ideas of ‘setting the scene’. The farm has a rich and diverse cultural heritage, originally inhabited by the Maori tribes and later invaded by Captain Cook as one of the first points of entry for Europeans to the northern shores of New Zealand. Following many years of intensive sheep farming the land was bought by a North American family as an investment and retreat. The various layers of the cultural heritage of the farm was expressed as carefully crafted scenes and experiences. Sustainable farming practices such as field rotation and natural wind breaks were introduced to reduce the impact of the agricultural activities. Although it is still a working farm, it’s no longer an industrial farm for profit. The owners rather intend for it to be a model farm for alternative and more ecologically sustainable agricultural practices.

Orongo Station was visited by Meyer in 2009 and it prompted her to write an article titled, ‘Slow Landscapes: A New Erotics of Sustainability’, hailing Orongo as a sublime project example that answers the main question she raised with her manifesto.

‘Are new forms of beauty and the sensuous effects of being in a landscape relevant to a sustainability agenda? …Before visiting Nick’s Head [Orongo Station], I answered yes, provisionally. Since visiting the station in May 2009, that tentativeness has receded.’ (Abbott 2018 pg. 8; Meyer 2010)

Her article was countered with a critique by Mick Abbott (2018), ‘The sustaining beauty of productive landscapes’, in which he supports her position on the role of aesthetics but questions whether performatively Orongo has achieved all that eco-centric landscapes designs could be achieving. With reference to some of the main points in Meyer’s manifesto as a thematic base, the rest of this essay will focus on a discussion of the two projects by Woltz and Clément to outline their different approaches. Theoretical critiques by Abbott and Gandy will serve to highlight questions in the ongoing debate about the relationship between sustainability and aesthetics.

Sustaining Culture through Landscapes

Landscape design is a cultural act embedded within a social construct of how humans value ‘nature’ or landscapes at a certain point in time. As such the various layers of cultivation on a landscape is a representation of the evolving cultural and political values experienced in a specific context. Based on this understanding, landscape architecture can play a big role in not only understanding the cultural and political heritage of a site, but also in shifting current and future social norms. This is the underlying principle for why landscape architecture is so critical to the sustainability agenda (Meyer 2008).

Clément makes a very political statement with the Deborence Island in Parc Matisse about the position of humans in relation to the wider bionetwork and that fact that non-human actors (in as far as he relies on Latourian principles of actor-network theory) are not valued on par with human actors. Other than Latour, Clément does not assume a post-humanist view, but rather creates a diversity of spaces that can serve different species in co-existence. His ‘garden in motion’ approach produces a ‘wilder’ appearance that challenged the public’s perception of what a public park should be (in comparison with the highly manicured public parks of the early 1900’s) and what is considered ‘beautiful’. Parc Matisse initially drew a lot of criticism from surrounding inhabitants that park was not well-kept with ‘weeds’ growing in the ‘unattended’ edges of the park. In time, as the landscape developed, the criticism has subsided. This supports Meyer’s point that the concept of beauty is malleable and landscape architects are not there to just serve the existing preconceived notions of what is aesthetically pleasing (Gandy 2012).

However, as a cultural landscape Parc Matisse cannot be considered in isolation from the broader context of the Euralille project. The masterplan project was highly controversial and led to the displacement of many poorer communities without providing any significant economical benefit to the local community. The symbolic ‘displacement’ of humans in Deborence Island is ironic if the gentrifying affect of the project is considered. This highlights the contention of many landscape design and architecture projects, inherently agents of gentrification. Designers are commissioned within a highly capitalist system but need to balance the client’s brief with their responsibility to serve a greater good.

As a cultural landscape, Woltz did an exemplary job of including the different layers of the cultural heritage into the design for Orongo station. He worked closely with the local Maori tribe to ensure that the focal references made to their traditional burial mound, the incorporation of Maori vegetable cultivation pits and their traditional knowledge on native plants were respectfully included. Part of the project included a small nursery for the propagation of indigenous plant species that also doubled as a socio-economic empowerment project. In remembrance of the first European settlers that moored in the bay north of the farm, Woltz planted the Cook’s garden as a kitchen garden of indigenous herbal plants. Cook’s garden was layed out in a very picturesque style reminiscent of European country estates. However, in Abbott’s critique he points out the this is a very pastiche scene since Woltz’s composition did not remain true the combination of local plants species that would have been needed for such an indigenous garden to thrive.

Abbott also raises questions about the current ownership of the farm that initially drew a lot of resistance from the local community, a foreign family buying local lands as a holiday farmstead is a form of ‘gentrification’. Since the estate is now a recreational farm that is not reliant on the agricultural production but subsidized by the owner’s international business incomes, Abbott raises questions about the true ‘cost’ of alternative farming methods. The experiment will be truly successful if it can be proven that sustainable farming practices increases productivity and profitability, as has been the case in other projects. This also brings into question the fixed term of a designer’s appointment; long-term monitoring is needed to provide convincing research. But overall, the introduction of more socially and ecologically sustainable processes on the Orongo farm and Woltz’s conservation approach to agriculture is an important political statement about the destructive impact of large-scale industrial agricultural practices and the need for alternative solutions to ensure long-term food security.

Cultivating Hybrids: Language of Landscapes

Both landscape architects create interesting hybrids by combining traditional landscape elements like meadows, formal garden structures, symmetry, strong focal axis and overall picturesque-like scenes, with alternative planting regimes determined with a more scientific horticultural approach. Where as aesthetics might have been the overruling criteria for earlier landscape designs, both projects discussed here was focused on ensuring more biodiversity and regenerating other biological substrates like soil, water and air (Clément 2015). However, Clément’s design provides a tongue in cheek abstraction of classic landscape elements. For example, on closer inspection the lawn-like central area of his park is merely a meadow of different grass and non-grass species that have been subjected to a rigorous regime, whereas his ‘planted edges’ become ‘wild patches of weeds’, a hybrid between picturesque landscape scenes with ‘wilderness as nature’ ideas.

Sustainable Design = Constructing Experiences

Meyer argues that an important part of sustainable design is the constructing of experiences that can serve to sensitize people to their biophysical habitat. In Parc Matisse the paradox of the design is that although it is a public park, the Deborance Island has been specifically designed as a 7m high inaccessible enclosure. The initial concept include viewing platforms from where the public would have been able to observe the re-established piece of forest, but due to budget constraints on the project, this was excluded. On the one hand, the mystique of the walled island has perhaps been more thought-provoking and challenged people’s social constructs of urban parks, but at the same time it has stunted the educational opportunity to observe how biodiversity increases is left undisturbed. Similarly, Orongo included the very ambitious Tuatara conservation reserve with impressive outcomes in terms of re-establishing endangered species in their natural habitat and reforesting large tracts of the terrain, but the farm is privately owned and can only be visited on appointment. If the farm is truly to serve as a model farm as intended by the owners, additional attention should be given to created more inclusive and accessible educational experiences. Both projects have the potential to provide valuable and ongoing research data but, if we follow Meyer’s argument, both the science and the experience should be shared with the wider public if landscape design is to be a method for changing damaging human behaviour.

Conclusion

Can overcultivated productive landscapes also be considered as remnants or ‘wastelands’ of the industrial demands of our cities? Are the industrial processes of the large scale agricultural production not one of the most spatially intensive modes of production and consumption proliferated by humans? Hence the critical importance for landscape architects to get more involved in this sector. Productive landscapes should also be included in the urban experience, not just as niche urban agriculture interventions, but as way for urban dwellers to once again from a real connection with food, it’s sources, it’s processes, it’s nutritional value, it’s large scale impact – in real way, not a romanticized hipster experience. Industrial revolution drove the imagination of the Europeans to return to an obsession with the ‘wild’. Is this what is happening in the current age of big conglomerations and tech dominated age where people are not only removed from nature, but also from other humans. Food and nature could be a way to reconnect.

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