The shy look in the eyes of landscape designers

1564 Pieter Bruegel the Elder‘s “The Procession to Calvary”

1564 Pieter Bruegel the Elder‘s “The Procession to Calvary”

Because it is Christmas time, I wish you a pleasant experience with this link. It contains a movie about the painting above, creating a portal landscape. Enjoy and take your time.

Each year, new students arrive at my courses in Wageningen University. And each year I recognise a familiar look in their eyes. The same look that was present when I myself started my study and watched my peers. It is a shy look and a serious one at the same time, perhaps it is even melancholic. I am vulnerable to this look because I resonate with it. At the same time, It makes me weary, almost desperate. This look holds something essential and influences this profession that is not the result of years of practice, it is already there from the start.

A particular shy part of this look is related to the subject of success. These landscape architects do not have the look of a successful entrepreneur. They rather appear obedient and open to suggestions. They do not wish to impose their will on others because they are rather more interested in what others have to offer. My students do not bring strong preferences, neither for music, movies, artworks nor for political convictions. Not even for a specific type of landscape. They wish to deliberate on conflicts and solve any disharmony by including all conflicting parts. They are flexible and do not seek the ultimate answer that may provide for eternity. They solve problems according to local conditions, genius loci. As fine as these characteristics may appear, they also hinder a specific type of success that, with the internet revolution at hand, may be disadvantageous.

Success by the opportunities of the internet is illustrative as an alternative. This success is always caused by an immediate connection between consumer and a certain product, information or service. For instance, one of the most recent successes is a site to connect local food, rooms and walks in Asia to tourists (withlocals.com). This re-wiring of services and clients is immediately beneficial to those involved. A shortcut in a system that was, until recently, easily corrupted by intermediate firms that offered high priced and dubious events. The immediacy of internet connections helps to bypass such flaws in global capitalism. The success of whithlocals.com was apparent within two weeks; an incredible achievement by the buzz of social media. Interface design = design.

How will this effect the look within the eyes of landscape architects? Will it increase melancholy because of a slight jealousy of the speed and geographical implications of this initiate? Will it ignite a sense for competition to find equal shortcuts in the services between people and landscapes? Or will it not effect them because they consider this subject not their cup of tea?

By definition, it is their cup of tea. Landscapes offer an immediate connection between a consumer and the vista’s or sense provoking aspects of environment. Mostly there is no guide in between the audience and what the landscape has to offer. No guide other than prior education and the capacity to perceive. This may be the Achilles’ heel of the current practitioners in landscape architecture. They do not design the interface between landscapes and people, they intend to design in such a way that interfaces are unnecessary because they believe that ultimately, landscape experiences are what count. In other words: they undo their opportunities for success. Creating landscape experiences that can heal, that can change perspectives and that can compensate for a busy and stressful life. The landscape design is the hidden interface. Great ambition! Poor entrepreneurial opportunity!

There are two reasons why landscape as a hidden interface is an Achilles’ heel. The first being, that landscape architects do not manufacture these interfaces themselves. A point I made during a symposium in London on farming and landscape design (an event organised by myvillages.org). I am increasingly dissatisfied with the routine of landscape architecture to create concepts that are so holistic that they need a team of 200 people to start up as a business. The mantra that landscape design is teamwork and interdisciplinary is great rhetorical material, it is also useless and deeply shallow if these teams are not initiated by landscape architects themselves. And they are not. Instead, after another project on the paper pile, they practice another depth of melancholy in their gaze. Take for instance my initiative of landscape machines: great concept, but I am neither a farmer to initiate such a living system, nor do I own a company that can buy land to profit from further concept development. I am currently stuck because I lack a team to startup and I lack such qualities myself. Instead I work on the next concept… and the next… and the one after that… which will be my work until the end of it. I need to reconsider this line of work.

The second reason is that landscape architects do not realise that they need to be much more professional if they want to proclaim their great holistic concepts. They either need to work their graphical skills to be able to make commercials instead of reports. If landscape architecture is in 75% of the time concept development, they need to juggle their products accordingly. Their traditional sense of profession is blocking this development. Making 1:10.000 master plans, 1:500 site drawings or 1:10 details is not what needs to be done to market their concepts. The profession of landscape architecture needs to mature towards hands-on pro activity. Currently, the most provocative projects include local people making gardens, possibly even self built housing en urban farmland. This is good practice. Landscape architects that initiate such projects make dirty hands by leaving their adobe software and meeting real people. The gaze in the eyes of these people has changed. It has hardened, as if focussed on a distance that is barely distinguishable. Still, they keep looking. These landscape architects have lost some of their obedience but gained in a seductive and visionary gaze. They are the pioneers that will help to shape an effective type of landscape development.

John Urry introduced the term ‘tourist gaze’ to indicate that landscapes have changed because they were shaped to please tourists. This notion reveals where the Achilles’ heel is most exposed. The very meaning of ‘landscape’ is too intertwined with the tourist expectation. The design of parks, squares, gardens, parking lots and estates is to be expected. The alternative is the term ‘land’. Consider designing land… as if playing the computer game civilisation… suddenly animals, trees, rivers, settlements are part of your concerns. What type of look would land designers have?