issue #12



Despite my chosen and beloved profession – landscape architecture – I do not like to design gardens very much at all. I have sorted out the reasons over the years and they are several. In the main, gardens are usually uninteresting problems to solve, from the perspective of an INTJ personality, which I am. We like patterns and patterning and also developing intricate systems that are layered, multivalent, responsive, and rich. Intriguing and compelling opportunities usually present themselves at larger scales, like park and city where a plethora of factors come into play.

Landscape exists in many milieus, and comprises so many dimensions. There are environmental, temporal, cultural, horticultural, architectural, material, and historical considerations to satisfy. The design of landscape appeals, too, because good spaces/places need to accommodate pairs of superficially contradictory human needs: legibility and mystery on the one hand, and coherence and complexity on the other. The multitude of interdependent constraints and conditions is a siren call to conceptual designers, as together they require and foster extensive creative thinking. A great landscape design is a superbly crafted solution to an immensely complex problem. Fun!

It’s more than scale that limits garden design, though. Small projects could yet be challenging, for not one of the constraints I’ve mentioned is ruled out. Any garden could speak to the environment, to its larger context, rural or urban, to the culture or history of a neighborhood, community, or owner, to architectural stylings, even to the spatiality of its intended plot. To elicit foundations for these layers (and also to reveal preferences), I developed a questionnaire for clients. It usually gets me nowhere. Most residential clients have no interest in a tapestry woven of abstractions, meanings. (Their responses are often contradictory and confusing, too.) Mostly homeowners want something pretty to look at, or a showcase to impress. And the problem to solve becomes simply visual, reducing to personal taste. I find this trivial, and rather distasteful to be honest – it’s too intimate for my comfort. If I put it in terms of home design you may understand better. I would love to design your house, the structure, its faces, windows, and walls, to shape the rooms and movement between them, and even to diagram furniture placement, with general suggestions as to size and type. These are spatial, aesthetic, and contextual relationships to explore, just the same as landscape offers. But I wouldn’t/couldn’t pick out the material for the accent pillow on your couch, or the colors to paint your walls. Nor the flowers in your garden bed, without a great deal of tutoring, teasing out, and investigating you. It all starts to feel like therapy. And really, I just don’t want to get to know anyone that well, for business. Some clients are easy, because they know themselves, they know the options and possibilities, and what they want. Delightful others – artists, musicians, theater folk – are nimble with meaning and its expression in concrete form. I guess I am a designer’s designer.

The most intriguing element to craft into a design is narrative, and this too works at most scales, from garden to park to town to city. For public places in homogeneous communities, a garden or park can tell a local story – one of its founding, history, or even of present day concerns. Ideas are surprisingly easy to express with trees and plants, water and stone, metal and wood.1

A unifying narrative is often hard to come by in diverse communities, however, as histories, meanings and values differ. The designer’s challenge in this case is to create a gameboard – a neutral yet provocative place that holds and handles many personal meanings, played out by each visitor uniquely with each visit, in new and renewed ways upon return. This approach, where audience is recognized as author, is borrowed from the open narrative framework of literary theory, and also from participatory art. Enabled as originators, people create place [art/stories] by their use [interaction/reading]. In such public spaces community itself is made, constantly evolving – restored, revised, remodeled, revived. Crafting such a conditional ‘field of play’ is anything but trivial and boring, as video game makers all the world over can attest.

Despite the allure of the larger scale, I am not bored with my own garden. Though it is small and familiar, I have attended to its myriad of contexts, symbolic and real. It is also an ongoing project, never done. Gardens naturally change over time, and mine is a chess board I return to over and over. As nature makes its plays I tweak and re-imagine in response. I am always inventing, rethinking, resolving, experimenting. The process delights me.

What puzzles and frustrates me instead are the folks who try to copy my design. Knowing as I do how specific the garden is to its site and frameworks, and how impossible to export/import, to re-create with integrity in any other place, I am perplexed by the incongruity, the mal-appropriation. I wonder too, if you like my garden, why don’t you want something one as wonderful and unique and holistic designed – invented – for you and your property?
Or better yet, imagine something of your own?


Copy That

Copy That

I have a problem with copying in general – really it is one of my pet peeves – that goes beyond the theoretical framework of landscape and building called genius loci: that a creation is fit to its time and context, making places that are truly local and distinct. Picasso famously said, “Great artists don’t borrow, they steal,” but I am offended nonetheless. Borrowing is out in the open, transparent, sources acknowledged, whereas copying is covert; it is theft. I have known an artist (not for long!) who stole the work of her students as a matter of practice, people who served others’ recipes as their own, women who replicate hair and clothing styles of friends and the famous, even politicians who co-opt community organizations’ strategies, tactics, and turf for personal fame and glory, to exclude the grass-root originators. Our home and garden are the source of numerous and endless rip-offs, too. I am usually mollified by the thoughtlessness of cherry-picking and by clumsy execution. If nothing else Bruce and I are conceptual designers, which means that each element, every play originates in and pertains to an encompassing idea, and works only in concert with all the others – our choices have no meaning separately, outside the parti. Even so, it irritates me to no end when I encounter imitation.

My husband doesn’t get it – he sees copying as a nod, a compliment, adoption as testament, if you will – “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I think he comes to this honestly, by trade. As architects, we are always citing precedent, the origins of our new take on things, the principles our new work is founded on, the long line of builders who came before, inventing, re-inventing, discovering, re-discovering, assembling, disassembling, reassembling. This is borrowing at its finest, as an honoring of source, and distinct from copy theft. A better precept than Picasso’s, for me, comes from Sir Isaac Newton. “If I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Originality and invention and authorship do exist of course, just not in a vacuum. It is a fine distinction between replication and authorship with attribution, but within our field we know the difference and make the call when we see it: derivative.

Accomplished creatives are undiminished by the work of others, and easily acknowledge influences and inspirations. Here is one of Sam Mendes’s homages to his muses:1

I want to thank Stanley Kubrick for the war room in “Dr. Strangelove,” Billy Wilder for C. C. Baxter in “The Apartment,” Kurosawa for the death of the king at the end of “Throne of Blood,” Martin Scorsese for panning a camera down an empty corridor in “Taxi Driver,” Joel and Ethan Coen for the last scene between Marge and Norm in bed at the end of “Fargo,” Paul Thomas Anderson for the deafening of H. W. Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Bergman for the visit of Bibi Andersson to Liv Ullmann in the dead of night in “Persona,” Francis Coppola for the killing of Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather II,” David Fincher for the first scene in “The Social Network,” Bob Fosse for the audition sequence at the beginning of “All That Jazz,” Quentin Tarantino for Christopher Walken’s speech about the watch in “Pulp Fiction,” Woody Allen for the fireworks over “Manhattan,” Clint Eastwood for making it rain at the end of “Unforgiven,” Michael Powell for the moment Moira Shearer steps into the ballet of “The Red Shoes,” David Lynch for the car journey with Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet,” Mike Nichols for Benjamin in the swimming pool in “The Graduate,” François Truffaut for the moment the boy looks into the lens at the end of “400 Blows,” and Wim Wenders for the moment Harry Dean Stanton sees Nastassja Kinski after all those years at the end of “Paris, Texas.”

The written and musical worlds along with academia and commerce, have protections that designers don’t, like copyright and strict rules about plagiarism. And I embrace these ethical standards for my work and that of others, even without legal merit. What I find most egregious is the passing off of someone else’s idea –their intellectual work – as your own, and this gives me no small insight into marginalized cultures’ issue with appropriation. I think it boils down to the same thing – the denial of credit where credit is due. Disregarding a source – and especially devaluing and discrediting it – is no less an insult if it happens at a social or cultural scale.

Of course, with age comes wisdom, and I find my opinions mellowing a bit.
I appreciate more the quiet, slow inter-fingering of cultures, the mutual give and take that is misunderstood, mislabeled, and maligned as assimilation, and also the subtle satisfactions of influence spread, ideas disseminated, and change wrought over time, even if unattributed. Nevertheless I gloat when copying fails. As it does, more often than not.




Here I cite the main references for my design work previously presented in MUSE, to give credit where credit is due.

Mirror Park – Design for Change
Eugene, Oregon

Panarchy – I adapted and applied the basic ideas of Panarchy theory (Panarchy 101/ Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems by C.S. Holling), i.e. that small frequent adjustments and adaptations moderate (manage) change and evolution, by providing stability and permitting continuity (but also minimizing creation, invention, origination), while rare larger corrections foment catastrophic destruction and revolution (necessitating re-creation, invention, origination).
Kit of Parts – This is a pedagogical practice in schools of architecture meant to focus students on syntactical and phenomenal concerns, rather than the (upper middle class) architectural semantics of amenities that they presume. Its primary exercise is the spatial arrangement of modular elements. Most famously introduced by John Hejduk at the University of Texas in the 1950’s.
Kit of Parks – I borrowed a modular set of building elements encountered in a Swedish park as an example of a flexible, adaptable building kit.
Mirrors in the Garden: There is a long history of mirrors in the garden, dating from at least the eighteenth century. Robert Smithson’s Chalk Mirror Displacement (Oxted Quarry), Study for Glacial Mirror, Ithaca Mirror Trail, and Yucatan Mirror Displacements are contemporary examples.

Riverbend Assisted Living Center
Springfield, Oregon

Building as both ground and figure – This is a well-established tradition in architecture. Most inspirational in this regard were the works of Louis Kahn (Salk Institute), Frank Lloyd Wright (Prairie Style buildings), Alvar Aalto (for the play of natural light), and Luís Barragán’s designs (nature and the manmade as point/counterpoint),.
I found Kahn’s and Aalto’s forms a good starting point too, and also those of James Stirling.
Ecotone theory – This is an ecological principle I applied to the man-made. It delineates middling zones where creatures adapted to different environments nonetheless co-exist and thrive.
Eden Alternative – This practice of elder care was the basis for the project; I adapted it and improved upon it with my design that included the larger community, welcoming it into the facility.

Isla Vista Revitalization
Santa Barbara, California

Landscape ecology – The Isla Vista competition entry for an urban re-design was based on the tools and protocols outlined in Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning (W. E. Dramstad, J. D. Olson, and R. T. T. Forman, 1996 Island Press, Washington D.C.).
New Urbanism and Traditional Neighborhood Development – Many ideas from these practices are incorporated into the design. See Towns and Town-making Principles, edited by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (1991 Rizzoli, New York) and TND Ordinance of Bedford, New Hampshire.

Public Space in the New American City
Atlanta, Georgia

This landscape proposal was my first ever; I submitted as an amateur (before any formal architectural training) and anonymously. So it is unprecedented. Nevertheless it has aspects in common with the land art movement of the 1960’s, e.g. scale and social commentary [links]. It also presents the ideal of living with history, continuing a long tradition of monuments, memorials, and ruins in the landscape, and foreshadows participatory art projects centered on local history (which I encountered much later), notably Irish artist Deirdre O’Mahoney’s X PO.
Also see The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Mall by Charles Griswold, in Critical Issues in Public Art (1992, Iconeditions, New York); and The Necessity for Ruins, by J. B. Jackson (1980 University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst).

Belchertown State School Development
Belchertown, Massachusetts

Here the precedents are my previous work – Riverbend ALC, Bay City (to include their precedents), and Traditional Neighborhood Development. I also found much inspiration in Colin Rowe’s essay (with Robert Sluzky) Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, in Mathematics of the Ideal Villa (1976 MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts).

Bay City Town Design
Bay City, Oregon

There is a long landscape tradition that recalls a Clearing in the Forest, and Bay City’s proposed central Green does just this. Celebrating seasonal changes intentionally with plantings is another ancient garden tradition. Of greatest influence is the vernacular forms and building arrangements found in small towns in New England (and the Midwest), where I have lived most of my life. Other formal architectural ideas such as multi-function spaces – a Commons, for example – are incorporated into the design too.

Springfield Visioning
Springfield, Massachusetts

The idea I drew on for this proposal was that of art intervention, although I modified it to be a constructive force, rather than simply a critique or provocation. See Claire Bishop’s comprehensive book Participation (Whitechapel Gallery, London and MIT Press, Cambridge) for the many forms of engaged art.

Eld Street Revitalization
New Haven, Connecticut

My work here drew on many schools of thought, namely Broken Windows theory, environmentalism, and community design. Our triple purposes of attending to derelict infrastructure, property maintenance, and green space creation and enhancement in order to protect our neighborhood from crime are presented as new insights/strategies in a very recent article in The New Yorker: The Other Side of Broken Windows, by Eric Klinenberg (Aug 23, 2018). Our primary weapon was a cohesive community of residents, landlords, and businesses, which we deliberately and painstakingly built and strengthened. Grass roots organizing like this is, of course, an established practice.


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