18 hard-working volunteers, 6 keynote speakers from different parts of the world, 460 excited guests, 150 helium-filled balloons, 15 cans of spray paint, and the biggest disco ball a non-profit budget can manage. These were just some of the ingredients tossed in a large hangar in the Stockholm suburb of Alby for the 2015 edition of the Oyster Seminar.
Being Sweden’s biggest biannual event for the landscape architecture industry, Oyster gathers planners, designers and students for a day of lectures by leading practitioners, and an evening of food and festivities. For me as a member of the organizing committee, the seminar day meant the pleasure of seeing the year-long preparations finally come together, and the back pain from lugging and arranging some five hundred chairs.
The seminar theme was All Inclusive. It is a notion that has grown increasingly pertinent over the past year, particularly considering the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and the intensified conflicts around national and European borders. It is also one that creates an ironic contrast to the striking uniformity of the audience of the day, representative of a generally homogenous Swedish landscape architecture industry. But All Inclusive can be interpreted in many ways, as was made clear by the different approaches taken to the topic by the speakers. I want to share some of my impressions from the day, along with this short reportage published by the Swedish Association of Architects:
A Trailblazer Still Going Strong
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the 94 year old landscape architecture pioneer from Vancouver, lectured together with Susan Herrington, professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia and author of her biography. Hahn Oberlander shared insights and delightful anecdotes from her long and influential career. Having pushed through various hurdles of exclusion through her personal and professional life – for example being one of the very first women to be accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Design – she emphasized the need for collaboration across professional disciplines in order for projects to succeed and endure.
Hahn Oberlander shared the “Five P’s” by which she strives to work – patience, politeness, professionalism, persistence, and passion – and noted that “these days, passions is what sees me through”. Still actively working on new design projects, she is living proof that old age should not exclude anyone from making professional contributions. I’ve found a new hero!
What do You Mean, Nature?!
Eric-Jan Pleijster, one of the founders of the Rotterdam studio LOLA Landscape Architects, talked about inclusion of nature in urban environments. Wanting people to have “nature at their doorstep”, he presented projects, proposals and experiments that served to either bring “nature” to the people, or make it easier for them to go out and get their wilderness kicks.
Interestingly Pleijster’s talk, somewhat provocatively entitled “Natural Urban Landscapes”, didn’t define or address its underlying conceptualization of nature at all. A man-made stretch of designed greenery along an industrialized zone is a nature corridor. Houses for different kinds of birds and insects staggered on a pole becomes a ready-made natural habitat. An excursion trespassing though the grasses and reeds of private lands adjacent to a river is – portrayed with enthusiasm and humor I should add – akin to an exploration of unknown natural wilderness.
I am curious whether it is symptomatic for practitioners dealing with the highly constructed and man-made Dutch landscapes to think of practically anything that lives and grows as “nature”. Or if perhaps Pleijster deliberately left the tiresome and problematic nature-culture dichotomy behind to simply focus on project ideas. Intriguing as I found some of the work, it left me itchy not digging deeper into these questions!
The Landscape Right-of-Way
The Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s talk revolved around his project Memory Wound – the winning entry in the competition for a memorial site honoring the victims of the 2011 massacre at Oslo and Utøya island, Norway. Envisioning a literal cut through the bedrock of a peninsula facing the island from the mainland – creating a physical and visual distance between the visitors, the island, and the proposed engraved names of the victims into the blank stone wall – the proposal positions itself in a land art tradition of large scale interventions.
While the proposed piece itself is powerful and evokes many strong feelings, what I found particularly interesting about Dahlberg’s presentation was his reluctancy to talk about his work from a landscape perspective. Being the only artist in a panel of landscape architecture practitioners and academics – and one that typically works with film at that – it seemed as if he didn’t feel entitled to contribute to discussions relating to the landscape architecture profession, or answer questions he may not have explicitly reflected about.
I am not highlighting this to put Dahlberg on the spot specifically. But there are some interesting questions surfacing from this tendency to cling to professional titles on the one hand to establish one’s expertise, and on the other to evade responsibility for issues perceived to fall outside of their extent. What does the professional identity of the idea-conjurer of any project in the landscape or public realm mean for the finished work? When it stands completed, how much will it reveal about its creator? And will that matter for how we perceive and evaluate it?
I would have loved to see this discussion brought onboard by the seminar panel, as it represents yet another layer of the All Inclusive theme – who can claim their right to shape the land? Who gets to be an artist? Does the distinction stem from formal education, from practice, or from the sentiment of others? I hope to revisit these queries some other time.
Un-drawing the line
Moving from Dahlberg’s site-specific work into more conceptual territory, Anuradha Mathur, professor in the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, questioned the way we draw and perceive of borders. Using examples from the monsoon landscapes of India, she urged us to reconceptualize specifically the border between water and land. Mathur noted that while maps typically show water as blue lines or as fills between outlined banks and shores, the water is never confined to these cleanly delineated containers. It is a fictitious depiction.
Mathur had us considering this: maps are always drawn when the weather is good. They show neither clouds nor rain or changing seasons. Even in a monsoon landscape, where the water regularly is everywhere – in the air, covering the ground – the map shows the riverbank as a defined and definitive line. It is this very line, she argued, that makes possible the notion of a flood in the first place. The river is considered to flood when the water crosses over the line that we have drawn around it.
But that line is not the river. Nor is the start of that line necessarily the river’s source. Water is everywhere around us, in the ground, in the sky. And although the distinct separation of land from water in our conceptions and portrayals of the landscape is problematic and needs to be challenged, we are forced to deal with it somehow. Rather than an unachievable ideal of absolute inclusion, Mathur called for a recognition of what we exclude – be it people, perspectives, or elements – when drawing the inevitable lines of our work.
No Sissy Landscapes
Wrapping up the keynotes for the day, Julie Bargmann of D.I.R.T studio, New York, delivered some powerful messages. Although this expression never crossed her lips, I would sum up her approaches as a strive to keep it real. Real in the sense of taking onboard the “troubled landscapes” as she called derelict, post-industrial or polluted sites, without trying to erase their pasts. Real as in accepting to “work with tough sites as we find them”. Real as in avoiding any kind of greenwashing – refraining from applying superficial solutions to make a site appear healthy or sustainably by evoking some romantic pastoral ideal of green gardens and lands.
Bargmann called for resourcefulness and the use of restraint in design. For her, this often means including material already available on site into a design proposal. This was exemplified by a project for the Urban Outfitters headquarters, which turned a historical navy yard in Philadelphia into public park space by reusing much of the existing structures and resources. I also see the ideal of resourcefulness echoed in the structure of the D.I.R.T studio practice itself. While the core team is deliberately kept very small, they plug in different expertise from other fields and grow the team for different projects. It represents a temporary adaption of the studio to the conditions and needs of a project, rather than the development of a project based on the present ability of the studio.
In line with this adaptable approach to both the opportunities of any given site, and the structure and work flow of the studio, Bargmann advocated an abandonment of rigid master plans in favor of the “dynamic action plan”. Instead of locking down an idealized image of an end result of a project, it can help to structure and illustrate successive phases and open up for alterations along the way.
And in the development of such schemes, a designer should keep it real also by prioritizing the actual effect of design actions over the prestige of how they may be presented. If words like “sustainability” or “biodiversity” are shunned by a particular client, such considerations can nonetheless be snuck in through the backdoor of a project without ever being addressed as such in meetings or presentations. Perhaps that’s the diametrical opposite to greenwashing – understated but effective. Working in this fashion takes clarity of vision, cleverness and guts, and accordingly, Bargmann left us with a punch of a quote – “No sissy landscapes. Build it like a motherfucker!” Now that’s something to chew on until next time.