Histories of Landscape Architecture II: Topical Questions

Designed gardens and landscapes are cultural artifacts that encompass three main expectations: pragmatic needs, cultural significance, and aesthetic order. Although some landscape narratives often ignore needs (those of the users or the environment’s), reduce cultural meanings to a discourse on style, and focus on order as a problem in aesthetic theory, the fact remains that, almost without exception, one or more of these three criteria—needs, meanings, order—dominates the designed gardens and landscapes of every time and place. Moreover, because gardens and landscapes are ephemeral and subject to many transformations, their practical, cultural, and aesthetic aspects are often embedded in a palimpsest of changing values.

The course is not tightly structured around landscape architectural styles. Rather, it examines a selection of topics, or commonplaces, that bring together thinkers and designers who live/have lived centuries apart. While doing so, this class unfolds several issues that have shaped the profession through built work and intellectual inquiry, such as, for example, giving form to environmental values, balancing science and art, ecology and design, reconsidering the need for the beautiful vis-à-vis the many sites challenged by pollution and abuse. Among the topics of discussion, this course will also take into account contemporary debates, such as the recent reckoning about the discipline’s role and agenda, questions of race and the implicit violence of white archives and memorials, and the limits of the commonly accepted, tripartite taxonomy of nature—pristine, productive and genteel, with its implicit prioritization of the latter category at the expense of the first two or of anything in between.

Instructor’s talks will address designs conceived and implemented by those who preceded us as well as contemporary ones. Within this structure, instead of construing history as “the past,” we will consider, with Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, that every history is “contemporary history”: no matter how chronologically remote the facts under consideration may seem to be, in reality the writing of history always reflects, and is shaped by, present circumstances.