In mid-March the annual conference for the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) brought teachers, researchers, and design professionals together in Utah to present and discuss various topics related to landscape architecture education, research, and practice. I presented my winning entry for the 2015 Wayne Grace Memorial Student Competition, Pretty Heroic, as part of the conference Film track, and enjoyed listening to many inspiring and thought-provoking presentations of current research and ideas.
Below is a two-part post that I wrote for the SWA IDEAS blog, discussing topics from conference talks and debates: 1) The usefulness of academic research in landscape architecture, and 2) The future of landscape architecture education.
Research – What, Where, and for Whom?
Is academic research in landscape architecture of any real use to the profession? Or is most of it merely the theorization and quantification of common sense, structured to be quickly conducted and packaged to be easily publishable in peer-reviewed journals?
These questions were brought to scrutiny and debate with both humor and urgency by Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley. Half-jokingly comparing landscape architecture academia to a medieval guild, “creating a sense of its own importance but remaining marginal to practice,” he criticized a culture of learning that ranks the word above the act, and creates a rift rather than a bridge between theory and practice.
By and large, researchers at universities are required to consistently publish results in peer-reviewed journals in order to advance their academic careers. While this “publish or perish” principle fuels many academic initiatives, it does not inherently promote practically useful research. Indeed, Treib argued that studies often “succeed” by eliminating so many contingent factors that they become inapplicable to the complexity of the real world. Further, there is little incentive to publish findings and ideas in forums accessible to the broader profession since trade magazines and blogs – while often having substantially larger readership – lack academic recognition.
It is certainly not the case that all research is useless or all practice void of scientific underpinning. The problem is a system that holds the publication of results as an end goal in itself – valued over the potential application of the findings – and thereby diminishes opportunities to influence real change. While theoretical knowledge can be incredibly useful, and even highly abstracted ideas can challenge and inspire our way of thinking and designing in constructive ways, we must ultimately test ideas in real-life projects in order to evaluate their potential.
But in contrast to Treib’s harsh assessment of the academic contribution to practice – and, symptomatically perhaps, not addressed during this particular discussion – an increasing number of design firms are launching their own research initiatives, exploring everything from new materials and technologies to ecological and social processes. As Anya Domlesky highlighted in her 2015 Patrick Curran Fellowship project – itself being an example of such an in-house effort – this represents a growing trend across multiple design industries.
The traditional boundaries between research and practice are shifting and blurring. While the discussion at CELA used broad strokes to paint this complex situation, the conference itself offered many examples of highly useful academic research projects. The question that lingers is how different kinds of research efforts can be closer integrated, and better linked, to practice. Landscape architects of our day are facing increasingly complex contexts of work, and in response to new issues both researchers and designers need to draw upon each other’s knowledge and expertise, and work to establish new interfaces between academia and practice, new paths from idea to implementation. Ultimately, as Treib reminded us, the underlying concern in landscape architecture both as a profession and as a discipline should be one and the same – careful consideration of how design responds to and can improve upon the human condition.
The Future of Landscape Architecture Education – Many Paths to Practice?
Where will future generations of landscape architects be trained? Will universities, the brick-and-mortar temples of learning, give way to more fluid forums for teaching in our digital age? What consequences might that have for the profession? This was another topic that stirred up emotions among the CELA attendees.
Caren Yglesias, of UC Berkeley, teaches landscape architecture courses online, and elaborated on the benefits of this approach. First and foremost, the format offers greater flexibility for students that work, have families, or cannot live in proximity to campus. Yglesias stressed that the courses do require continuous engagement in online discussions from both students and teachers, but she also noted how the “delay” between exercises and the required responses allow students more time to process experiences and organize their thoughts – something that benefits especially shy and non-native speakers who may otherwise avoid participation. Similarly, she argued that the absence of physical appearances, gender, age, or other defining features contributes to a more equal platform for communication and learning online.
Flexible schedules, delayed responses, and anonymous interaction. While these characteristics of online courses can make students’ lives easier, it can be questioned how well they prepare them for work in a field that is deadline-driven, fast-paced, and team-oriented. But whether we like it or not (and indeed, Yglesias received much pushback from the audience), there is no doubt that the premise of education is changing. Not only are modes of teaching shifting, but also the ways in which university programs are structured and degrees assigned. An increasing number of universities are offering different kinds of certificates as alternatives for students who don’t have the desire or means to pursue a full MLA, or who wish to build upon studies in other fields towards a career in landscape architecture.
Randy Weatherly, president of CLARB, noted that while this development makes it easier for some people to enter into the profession, it can also create confusion as to what kind of degree or certificate represents what kind of knowledge. Greater variation within landscape architecture education might increase the need for professional assessment, leading to expansions or alterations of the current licensure standards.
Despite the clear divide between digital advocates and defenders of academic traditions at CELA, the future of landscape architecture education can hardly be debated as a matter of either/or. While academic and professional standards need to be maintained, there is no purpose in funneling all aspiring landscape architecture students down an identical educational path. With different routes toward practice, individuals with diverse experiences, skill sets, and perspectives can help increase our profession’s ability to address the complex and cross-disciplinary issues of our times.