History in Edgewise

I’m not sure how many magazines with advisory boards actually put them to work, but at LAM, we meet with ours monthly by phone and find their advice invaluable. The LAM Editorial Advisory Committee (you can see its members on our masthead, page 6) is drawn from a cross section of ASLA’s membership. Each month, a different member leads the call,...

I’m not sure how many magazines with advisory boards actually put them to work, but at LAM, we meet with ours monthly by phone and find their advice invaluable. The LAM Editorial Advisory Committee (you can see its members on our masthead, page 6) is drawn from a cross section of ASLA’s membership. Each month, a different member leads the call, along with a backup, and those two people together set the agenda and lead the conversation. The topic is entirely of their choosing. Those of us on the magazine staff occasionally chime in, but mainly we listen.

A recent call was led by two early-career professionals who focused the conversation on the ways landscape history is taught in landscape architecture schools. In particular, they wanted to address the overwhelming bend in the history curriculum toward European design traditions and values. “We don’t see a lot of landscape architecture not designed by white men,” one said. “What do we accept as ‘high design,’ and how can we challenge how these [notions] are rooted in Eurocentric design principles?”

The question expands easily beyond high design to human spatial behavior, preference, and need. In any case, it’s an especially pertinent subject given the broad recognition within landscape architecture that the profession is overdue for diversification if it is to address the issues confronting the modern world. “In the past, landscape architecture history was taught along European garden types and sprinkled in other influences such as Chinese and Japanese gardens,” noted one of several committee members who is a university educator. “Now that it’s a global profession, people are talking about other influences. A lot of people elsewhere are trying to make sense of landscape intention and experience. I think there’s enough out there to at least incorporate some of these aspects and reflect a global understanding of landscape architecture.”

In sharing some notes from this conversation with two teaching landscape historians, Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, and Thaïsa Way, ASLA, I received no disagreement on the points raised. Though each of them did cite entrenched realities that limit the academy’s ability to build up non-European perspectives in landscape history courses.

Problem one: “There is little scholarship,” observed Way, who is on the University of Washington faculty. “Or, I should say, much less scholarship about non-Eurocentric landscape architecture from a historical perspective.” The Garden and Landscape Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., has published volumes on Chinese and Mughal landscapes, and recently produced a book of nearly 500 pages on sub-Saharan African landscapes (that is, landscapes made “by and for Africans”) drawn from a 2013 symposium. These and certain other texts provide rich material, Way said, but have not yet been tailored to introductory surveys of landscape history. “What is a little more available are some urban and architectural histories” outside the canonical landscape realms of England, France, Italy, and the United States, Way said. “But we need urban environmental histories, otherwise we end up talking about architecture as if landscape were merely background.”

Meyer, at the University of Virginia, said she thinks the accreditation standards for landscape architecture degree programs should call for “nonwestern material and exposure in the history class.” (The standards of the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board require history and theory, but don’t prescribe content in detail.) Teaching slots are scarce, as are historians, whose fields of expertise vary and may or may not include what students are currently missing. “But it raises interesting questions about how schools can do the things we’re not doing right now,” Meyer said, such as offering web-based instruction to bring in the teaching of faculty at other institutions—Meyer mentioned, for instance, Dede Ruggles at the University of Illinois for her knowledge of Islamic landscapes. And the Center for Cultural Landscapes at UVA is planning a digital resource for teaching landscape history that would allow broad access to research and teaching modules “related to new methodologies in landscape history,” she said. (For more information on this effort, see “Written in Place,” by my colleague Jennifer Reut, in LAM’s November 2017 issue.) “Until the course material seems more relevant, and until the faculty look more like the students we want to have, all those things have to be happening together.”

Landscape history as it’s now apprehended may indeed begin in the European garden. But that is not where it ends. To confront existential perils that are emerging globally, particularly those wrought by climate change, landscape architecture graduates will benefit from a greater literacy in the ways people are challenged to live the world over, not merely how they construct leisure or beauty. They will need this knowledge, and they are also pining for it.

Source: landscapearchitecturemagazine.org