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Landscape + Architecture, the Great Fusion

by GAVIN KEENEY

The historical, diachronic interplay of landscape + architecture in modern architectural production is/was at times a visionary pas de deux, while at other times an anti-visionary danse macabre (danse mecanique). In the latter case, landscape (milieu, ambiance, ground) is eclipsed and/or flattened in the strenuous and sometimes idealistic (utopian) seige represented by high-borne modernist formalism (technocratic, positivist, pragmatic, and programmatic). In such scenarios, landscape became an almost nothing, not by design, but by proscription, elimination, and/or abstraction. In this essentialist project, landscape became de-natured space.

In the somewhat delicate, often lyrical case of the pas de deux, landscape is situated at the elective nexus of interpenetrating systems (architectonic and environmental fields), as intermediate condition, or simply noted, in passing, as a surplus value incorporated into the development of the architectural object by juxtaposition. The extension of architectural eIements into the near landscape in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto or Carlo Scarpa, and the penetration of the building by so-called free-flowing or layered space suggests the classical disposition of positive and negative, solid and void, and the articulation if not transformation of architectural forms to fully synthetic forms in the rare instances when landscape and site impregnate architecture with a prescient auratic ‘interiority’ and/or formal radiance that plays out in an explicit synthesis of verticality and horizontality — as in early modernist villas — thereby picturing the contingent, material conditions for architecture’s emergence. The most immaterial aspects of ambient environmental factors — the play of light and shadow — often provide architecture with an archaic uncanniness (an elemental timeliness) that is purely ephemeral and, most usually, unintended (purely incidental). Ando and Holl are masters of this poetic/phenomenological genre, while others (Gehry) simply accept the inevitable ‘patina’ of building marked by time. The mutable materiality of architecture supported this embrace of the ambient, as glass curtain walls and metal cladding became ever more common and de-materializations occurred in the genre, noted explicitly by MoMA’s mid-1990s exhibition “Light Construction”. Dan Graham’s mirrored pavilions play wonderfully with this ominiscient quality of glass doubling the field of vision such that the very field of representation breaks down into a prismatic and often kaleidoscopic universe of shards, filters, and superimpositions — the effect entirely dependent on the setting of the object in the landscape. This latter de-materialization invokes the concept of ‘total flow’ and the tendency towards objectifying surface at the expense of depth.

Outside of this cyclic, accidental, and discontinuous emergence of sublimated aspects of architecture’s implicit ground, a third order of symbolization and abstraction is to be found that represents a preliminary and provisional synthesis of subject/object relations — i.e., most often a figurative symbiosis built into form and described as gestural or sublime fusion of ‘form’ and ‘content’ in sculpture and the hybridized field of land art, most especially, where discursive orders are stripped away and an elemental, generative, and formal essence presses forward. In the case of art, and its near-automatic assumption of conceptual autonomy, the works of Noguchi and Smithson, plus the avalanche of land art-inspired landscape architecture after the 1960s, re-present the archaic and liminal nature of almost-first nature (perhaps ‘fourth nature’) through hyper-sensual manipulations of form and a presentiment, if not an acclamation, of pre-linguistic forms and seminal structural operations versus aspects of full-blown discourse (full-fledged signifiers). Here, timeliness is reduced to an iconic presence tipping inexorably toward absence (timelessness). These liminal measures most often take the form of excavations or insertions (interventions) that at the least pretend to re-write the codes of occupying or mapping presence. This type of deep-sea diving comes in many forms and is not limited to the delineation of art-in-the-landscape, or art-as-landscape. The concise, inward-driven nature of such expression is primarily poetic and is found in all of the arts. This archaistic jouissance deliberately invokes the ontological ground as a place ‘before’ — pre-existent to — the emergence of the Imaginary (the phantasmatic world of doubled and/or tripled un-realities). These figures play in the dust of the Self, seemingly before the emergence of the Ego (and Super Ego). Such fictive gestures also act as analogs for the extreme interiority of works of art and architecture prior to their deployment as cultural signs and tropes (figures of speech and thought). In the process of stripping away the detritus of signifying chains (modes of expression and discourse), such maneuvers circle the same ground repeatedly. The eventual collapse of the operative figures of near-speech simply occurs as the work vanishes into the annals of art or architectural history. The dissolution of many of Heizer’s and Smithson’s remote works matters hardly at all given that they were putative gestures at/within ‘wilderness’ but overt acts of defiance aimed at the production of art and the art world.

From 1930 to 1960, the time of the emergence of high-modern architecture (and the International Style), landscape was effectively subjugated by the ordeal/onslaught of hyper-structural and technocratic instrumentalities — cultural, political, economic, and otherwise. The image of architecture and the architect as glossy man accompanied the last hurrah for messianic modernism. The high-architectonic was at best complemented by neutral ground/landscape, though most often ground/landscape was ‘locked away’ in the spatial assault of low-formalist and high-functionalist orthogonal systems — super-functionalisms. The amalgam that came to be known as corporate modernism, and which was typified by Mies van der Rohe’s transcendent glass office buildings (set upon pristine podiums), is/was, according to Cacciari and Quetglas, the pure reification and secularization of the certain abstracted aspects of sacral architectures past. This ‘classicism’ masked the origins of the modernist experiment in socially-self-conscious experiments in form-making — e.g., Mies’ problematical Berlin period — and became hypostatized in the omniscent and omnivorous over-production of sterile corporate architectures. Most mid-century modern landscape architecture, following suit, adopted the dominant visual code of geometricism and the architectonic logic of plan libre as the spirit of the age, overthrowing the last vestiges of romanticism, post-romanticism, and the late-Olmstedian picturesque. The latter continued well into the mid-1900s transposed into the form of national parks and interstate transportation systems. In the case of the exemplars of modern landscape architecture (Kiley, Eckbo, Tunnard, Sasaki, and Walker), an attendant minimalism, expressed in seriality and typological reductionism, secured the accommodation of landscape to architecture, albeit through subjugation and abstraction. Gaudi, Burle Marx, and Luis Barragan, on the other hand, appear to represent unique expressions of critical regionalism before it was characterized as such by Kenneth Frampton.

After the 1960s, as the hegemony of abstract planning and object-oriented modern architecture increasingly fell into disarray (and disrespect), various alternative visions emerged alongside post-modernism (after 1968) both reviving and re-negotiating the language of generic historical form and the geometric and material expressions of late-modernity — modernity being measured, in Lacan’s immortal words, “from the Renaissance to the so-called zenith of the twentieth century”. In the 1980s, as the last signs of the ecological and vernacular movements of the 1970s faded or were absorbed into a new artistic vision of landscape architecture (including expropriated affects of land art), a new wave of design speculation, which premiated or gave equal merit to ground, submerged the last vestiges of high (mid-century) modernism and the ubiquity of the neo-baroque landscapes of corporate campuses and urban entourage (Walker’s “everything 3 meters apart’). Rote geometricism continued as a default methodology in landscape urbanism, especially in the case of 1980s urban projects that sought to revitalize the devastated economic prospects of the city center. The waterfront ‘festival marketplace’ became the new re-urban model, ending — thankfully — with Battery Park City in the late 1980s.

In landscape architecture, various neo-modernist schools attempted a revival of geometricism, but without the stringent and necessary measures of pure (and grave) formalism — as was occuring in architecture — while post-modern schools evolved toward a neo-minimalist, sur-rationalist, or neo-mannerist mode of representation. Deconstructivist-inspired landscape urbanism appeared as figurative ‘storyboards’ in the 1980s and 1990s, primarily in the guise of international design competitions (see Berlin after 1989). Narratology and linguistics permeated the ‘extended field’ (Krauss) inherited from the 1960s, but failed to secure the poetic task of re-writing the foundational language common to landscape + architecture. Rather than search for primordial pre-linguistic analogs in design languages, linguistics was applied in a very literal, superficial, and artificial manner as ‘writing and reading’ the landscape. As landscape architecture attempted to re-align the dysfunctional and infrastructural contingencies of the modern city, late-modernism also clashed with New Urbanism. Landscape + architecture fell into vogue, however, only insofar as the type and scale of projects and commissions required the collaboration of multiple disciplines and aesthetic considerations and/or computer-generated modeling softwares promoted convergence (see Parc Downsview Park). This nascent order only tangentially embraced the artistic jouissance of renascent forms of formalism — that dialectical/synthetic hybridization of milieu and anti-milieu that returns at times of cultural crisis. The deterministic and materialistic (anti-humanistic) systems of planning which evolved from McHarg’s system of mapping produced a new wave characterized by its obsession with terrain vague and junk space while new ecological imperatives were advanced in the necessary re-appropriation of post-industrial wastelands, urban and ex-urban. This latter movement, post-McHarg, returned to landscape the dynamic instrumentalities of process-driven design, while adding whole new representational systems and blurring/obscuring relative scales and normative graphic conventions. Montage and mapping were combined to produce a new avant-garde sensibility, even though much of the intellectual rigor of the Dadaist-inspired idiom was off-loaded or simply repressed.

Today, following this historical melange of schools and movements, the always-already deferred synthesis/syrrhesis of landscape + architecture — that which resides uneasily in the interstices of all instrumentalized and discriminatory systems and/or fields, and that which has been problematized as “in-betweenness” — may be seen exacting revenge in the form of an irruptive other-worldliness in the operations of various latter-day conceptual artists (the irrepressible avant-gardists). This other-worldliness (which is radically contingent versus transcendental) comes to expression in the form of the attempt to bring/harness the figures and forces (gestures) of things and milieux — an ambient intellectual and environmental syrrhesis (flowing together) — that counters cyclical reification, outright expropriation, and rote appropriation. As K. Michael Hayes had pointed out, the late-1990s emphasis on flows (datascapes, vectors, etc) in mostly virtual architectures might, in itself, end in a return to a mere emphasis on imagology and surface without the induction of the intellectual coordinates that support critical-historical consciousness. Virtuality is, afterall, the present-day reified realm of the Imaginary. To this must be added the poetic, inter-textual, and the extreme formalistic gestures harvested from post-structuralism and structuralism. This quest to bring ambient cultural and natural forces to play within the axes of three-dimensional space — to produce the total work of art — stands astride the conflicting claims of architecture to be both an art and a science. It is in the latter instance, in architecture as a hyper-conscious (self-conscious and critical) art, that the more profound exemplifications of landscape + architecture will be found. Everything else will proceed per usual.

GAVIN KEENEY is a landscape architect in New York and writes on the subject of landscape + architecture + other things, a cultural amalgam always-already forthcoming. He is author of On the Nature of Things (Birkhauser, 2000). He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net

 

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