The Landscape Architecture Foundation gathered in Philadelphia 75 recognized landscape architects and over 700 participants. The speakers delivered short contributions and discussion entries as panellists. The Summit marked 50 years since Ian McHarg and other leading landscape architects composed LAF’s seminal Declaration of Concern, which decried the burgeoning environmental crisis and heralded landscape architecture as critical to help solve it.
It is remarkable that Richard Weller and his colleagues managed to steer such a meeting of renowned landscape architects in the name of the Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania and thus wrestle some valuable recognition points from Harvard, its Ivy League opponent. Although this was an international event, its focus remained in the US, but the themes discussed were absolutely relevant also globally. However, the debate often remained on the level of reheating the same old positions and of reassuring encouragement for that which has certainly been well known for 40, if not 50 years. It is no wonder then that more experienced colleagues such as Cornelia Hahn Oberlander from Canada or Ann Whiston Spirn, who had already made a mark in 1984 with her book „The Granite Garden“ , expressed their disappointment about the progress in knowledge.
The Aha! experience came from Martha Schwartz, who completely unexpectedly acted as a fighter against climate change, presenting scientific charts and data in numbers. She demanded a “collective call for action”, requesting “political will and bold reaction”: “We must become online warriors”. Which role can be then assumed by landscape architects?
Dirk Sijmons from the Netherlands called for an improvement of natural systems and in his view the main task of landscape architects is that of intermediators between engineers and natural scientists. The demand for a systemic thinking was heard often and with regard to this some contributors expressed their fear of being pushed into an inferior position when working side by side with engineers.
They called for new aesthetics, as did Randy Hester, Center for Ecological Democracy, who said that it is important ”to make places that touch people’s hearts”. Several speakers underlined the ability of landscape architects to be “active generators” (Kate Orff) and to constitute the “core of a categorial shift” (Kelly Shannon) – and this was a kind of mantra of self-reassurance.
All speakers were instructed to deliver their issues as declarations on paper. Taken together, these texts will form the base for further debate. At the October ASLA meeting in New Orleans, a draft for a new declaration shall then be discussed. Marc Treib, known to be a profound critic and cynic, said in Philadelphia that the writing of declarations is rather a European thing. But then he took up the cudgels for one of the two key points to fuel further discussion. What is landscape architecture about? Aesthetics. “Without aspirations beyond achieving sustainability, the work of the landscape architects becomes only a form of environmental plumbing“.
Responding to this, the most attention has been given to statements by Ken Smith: “I don’t think you can consider the question of aesthetics without addressing issues of content, meaning and intentionality. Aesthetics are the qualitative aspects of design that allow a designed place, its spaces, program and forms to speak to and provide meaning to human users. It is that part of place-making that provides moments of insight, it may delight, confound, enlighten, sadden, soothe, exhilarate. Aesthetics is the emotional core of what we do as landscape architects.”
Innovation was the second key point. It is hoped that Martha Schwartz will find capable fellow combatants to shake up the profession. For now, let us give the preliminary closing words to Laurie Olin, one of the most respected seniors at the summit and a generous supporter of the Foundation: “Nothing is really new. New is what you do with it.”
In June, the US Landscape Architecture Foundation convened a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “The New Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture”.