The High Line, New York City

City Shaping II: Will Architecture Go Horizontal?

Landscape architecture has become very fashionable ... to architects.

Moreover, its co-option and absorption into architectural practices has resulted in a revealing turf war with Andrés Duany as a vocal protagonist. He's the Princeton-trained architect who, as a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, adopted the ideas, vision and values of the early 20th century landscape architects/planners John Nolen and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to launch a movement that led to more than 300 new towns, regional plans, and community revitalization project commissions for his firm. It also exerted a significant influence on planning and development practices in the United States and abroad. New Urbanists, as a coalition, support regional planning, open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and they believe their strategies can reduce traffic congestion, increase the supply of affordable housing, and rein in sprawl.

Well, with suburban home values hemorrhaging and new home construction reeling, there's a societal buyer's remorse about New Urbanism, or "sprawl in drag," as the architect and Harvard Professor Alex Kreiger calls it. Rather than reflect on and address the situation, Duany instead throws stink bombs at Charles Waldheim, Chair and Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD). Why? Waldheim is a proponent of Landscape Urbanism, which sees landscape architecture rather than architecture as the design medium more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience.

Recently in Metropolis, Duany went after Waldheim: "Last April, upon attending a remarkable conference at the Harvard GSD, I predicted that it would be taken over in a coup. I recognized a classic Latin American-style operation. It was clear that the venerable Urban Design program would be eliminated or replaced by Landscape Urbanism. Today, it is possible to confirm that the coup was completed in September -- and that it was a strategic masterpiece."

Wow -- that's a lot of drama!

Could it be that New Urbanism and the design of well-dressed, context sensitive new communities is no longer the reliable source of work for many architects -- in fact, over the past few years the New in New Urbanism has been dropped while the term Urbanism is rapidly gaining traction as its own movement. In Planetizen, Michael Mehaffy notes that the new New Urbanism includes: "'X' Urbanism: Everyday Urbanism, Real Urbanism, Now Urbanism, and so on."

What next? Fragrance Free Urbanism or New and Improved Urbanism? Perhaps calling it Green Urbanism like Green Roofs will accommodate further usurpation by architects.

Wanting to go deeper in understanding this turf war, I called Mark Rios, a licensed architect and landscape architect. He said,

"Architects are trained to design objects. They go through design school looking at form and program. Landscape architects look at voids, space, systems, based in training in ecology. They deal with bringing spaces together -- how they are transformed through ecology. It feels to me that the basic training of the professions is different and landscape architects deal with city building in holistic ways."

Rios asserts, "New urbanism does not do that. It is a holistically fabricated place that does not look at pieces in the puzzle." He suggests, "We need to find ways to be fabric weavers -- you can't have a whole city of objects."

John Gendall, in a recent article about landscape architecture in architecture-centric Architect wrote:

"Not long ago, landscape architects were often dismissed as the consultants who put finishing touches on a building site -- the broccoli around the steak. But with landscape architects increasingly taking lead positions on large-scale projects, winning urban design competitions around the world, and expanding the design market share, broccoli clearly is a thing of the past."

This sounds like a call to action for architects? If so, landscape architects should respond, "game on."

Oh, it gets better, because landscape architect Martha Schwartz is ready to lead the charge. Having the opportunity to push her buttons on who gets to be top dog with Landscape Urbanism, she railed about the systems-icons divide in the two professions proclaiming,

"They will be very opportunistic and this represents another realm being discovered by architects. But architects have increasingly marginalized themselves with their focus on the object. I see that very clearly - you go less and less to architects when you need to strategize how a community or project will work and how people will use space. I don't think that the architects have expanded their remit and they are not at the cross roads of the most interesting thinking on urbanism. Landscape architects however go beyond their own boundaries looking at systems, connections, spaces, and how you build cities. The singular object is no longer a strategy for building cities. It does not help. We are bound and determined to make artists out of every architect which is antithetical to making cities."

Duany, Gendall writes, takes a derisive tone saying Waldheim and his Landscape Urbanist followers "have aestheticized landscapes." Suggesting that this is just spin, Duany diminishes the significance of this burgeoning systems-based movement in saying, "they have developed this exquisite vocabulary." This criticism is ironic considering how New Urbanists appropriated the planning principles pioneered by Nolen and Olmsted, Jr. nearly a century ago in developing their own standards and typologies for the aestheticized suburban villages they then inserted into former open space across America. This irony was not lost on Kreiger who responded in Metropolis:

"Why should not the landscape architecture profession re-assert its voice, as concern about ecological footprints gain broad public notice? It has been the design discipline that has consistently retained consciousness of humanity's impact on land and environments. We at the GSD even recall that the birth of American urban planning, as a serious academic discipline, begins with the lectures at Harvard of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in the 1920s."

It's nice to know that all architects don't see things in such a polarizing way. In addition to Kreiger, Mark Robbins, Dean of Architecture at Syracuse University, and a former Design Director at the National Endowment for the Arts (where he championed collaborative projects), recently noted, "New Urbanism is what I learned in school. It was nothing new, but its marketing was unique. It had a limited bandwidth and well articulated design vocabulary."

Robbins says of the work at Syracuse's Architecture UPSTATE program with Julia Czerniak, a registered landscape architect, as its director:

"We look at design collectively including landscape architecture, planning and real estate and we look at what gets built. At the core there are clusters of study which includes the intersection of planning, landscape architecture, urban design, preservation, real estate, etc."

Landscape architect Kurt Culberston of Design Workshop refers to the collaborative process as "a healthy tug of war." He concludes, rather magnanimously, "as long as the ideas are good we lose track of who drew them." Linda Pollak, an architect who began her education as a student of landscape architecture in botany and plant sciences takes this further. Assessing her work with her partner Sandro Marpillero, she says they are "not interested in blurring boundaries but articulating them." As an architect, she is not comfortable seeing architects taking over professional territory where they don't have expertise -- but in terms of site systems she stresses, "it does not make sense to domesticate them and we should not use landscape as a band aid."

So why, then, is Duany so peevish? Is it more than the fact that Landscape Urbanism is a response to New Urbanism? Is it because Waldheim like Duany recognizes how vitally important it is to define the terms of the discourse and articulate the shared language and the models? John Nolen did this in New Towns for Old (1927) and Duany did this at Seaside, Florida (1984-1991) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (1993). When I asked Waldheim about this he questioned why we have to make a false choice, suggesting that "we can have our architecture on the weekend, as long as our urbanism is sober and walkable."

Since the early 1980s, Waldheim noted, landscape architects have played the role of environmental advocates, concluding, "the advocate scenario reached the limit." He added, "The rise of landscape as a design medium is bigger than all of us and none of us have exclusive access." Waldheim is building a big tent in theory and now in faculty. The approach welcomes shared values, myriad and overlapping expertise and a celebratory embracing of complex social, environmental and cultural systems. He notes, "there is a decentralization to horizontality and it is very difficult to structure urbanism out of buildings."

I am among those that believe that the time for landscape architecture has come and that there is sufficient evidence of increasingly greater global demand for our leadership. Our potential role has never been more central. So to Duany and those that disagree or feel threatened, go back and read Olmsted, Jr., because in addition to the principles that you have liberally borrowed for context-sensitive architecture and planning, much can be gleaned from Olmsted Jr.'s enormous comfort zone, which like the Landscape Urbanism movement, embraces a shared value, systems-based approach that is built on collaboration and open mindedness.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post website on November 12, 2010.