Contested Ground

Contested Ground

Landscape architecture continues to experience a professional flowering based on the growing significance of sustainability and ecological issues as they relate to planning the broader built environment. But awareness is also growing among architects that they are no longer kings of the mountain. Gwen Webber scouts the perimeter of a possible turf war in the making.

If Ground Zero were up for grabs today would Michael Van Valkenburgh be a more likely candidate for master planner than Daniel Libeskind? It’s plausible. The recent surge in prestigious commissions going to and being completed by landscape architects has fuelled a fiery discourse over the ether as well as in academic circles as to what this means for the way cities will be made in the future. Traditionally, the architect was the master builder with landscape designers as mere ancillaries. Today that relationship is fast being reversed.

“Traditional roles have flipped,” said architect Stephen Cassell of ARO, who believes landscape architects should have equal footing on design projects because of their specialized training. “A lot of these landscape architecture firms have started to think about green spaces in a synthetic way. How landscape architects analyze a problem is very specific; it is about looking at experience within the city.”

Indeed, commissions that might have been won by architect-led teams just a few years ago are now going to landscape firms. And large-scale urban design competitions are going to landscape-led teams who demonstrate the capacity to design creatively with existing ecologies, such as the redevelopment of Seattle’s waterfront by Field Operations, or urban regeneration initiatives like Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which aims to reinvigorate Eero Saarinen’s iconic landmark through improved public areas by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).


MVVA is a case in point. In 2007 the landscape architecture practice won a competition (among the other multidisciplinary contenders were Weiss/Manfredi of New York and Stoss of Boston) to develop Toronto’s Lower Don Lands, a long-term phased scheme which will reroute the mouth of the Don River to the city’s inner harbour, creating flood protection, new neighborhoods, a river-front park system as well as “humanize the existing infrastructure.”

Charles Waldheim, head of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, cites the Lower Don Lands project as exemplary of a decreasing emphasis on disciplinary boundaries and an increasing appreciation for ecological design, “MVVA assembled a very complex, multidisciplinary team,” he said in an interview. “Landscape urbanists have all the pieces.” As interest in ecological design grows, the need for landscape architects to deal with issues that architects aren’t trained for also increases. “Landscape urbanism emerged to fill a void because planning and urban design had not provided an alternative,” said Waldheim, who has been a key proponent in bringing landscape urbanism to the fore and expanding the definitions of landscape architecture. According to Waldheim, the emergence of this faction of ecological designers snapping up high-profile projects is not a coincidence but rather the result of cumulative conditions.

In the late 20th century urban design was committed to recreating the 19th century shape of the city, he argues, in order to reinstate environmental and social values, while urban planners withdrew from physical planning to focus on demographics and social science. The perceived primacy of cars and demands for an expanded transport infrastructure in the 20th century pushed cities further out into sprawl and placed automobiles and traffic control at the center of city design. Later, during the 1990s, architects felt there was no option in which designers could be culturally progressive and simultaneously engaged with environmental or social concerns, leaving a dissatisfied subset of designers keen to reconcile the two.

Enter landscape urbanism, a term attributed by many to Waldheim, and certainly propagated by him. In any case, landscape urbanists are being recognized as key choreographers of urban space and they are beginning to subsume many of the roles once held by architects, planners, and urban designers. One such practice is London-based landscape architects GroundLab whose project Deep Ground recently won a competition to master plan a 4.6-square-mile area of Longgang in Shenzhen, China, drawing on urban design, planning, and environmental remediation to make a comprehensive, connected urban scene.


That’s not to say that architects will be rendered powerless, but it does mean that they may have to cede total control, shedding the idea of sole authorship and autobiographical building and instead re-cognizing those others with more skill sets relevant to a given project.

Robert Balder, a director of planning and urban design at Gensler, observes that developers still tend to turn to big architecture firms for large-scale projects. But he notes that within many of these firms, landscape architects don’t have an equal place at the table. Balder, who also serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Council for Sustainable Development, predicts that as developers become more knowledgeable about sustainability requirements, cost, and functionality, the expertise of landscape architects will inevitably become more important earlier in the life of projects. “LEED can’t come at the end,” he said. “Landscape architects are often brought in when it’s too late.”

The 21st century is the Era of Ecology, according to James Wines of SITE a long-time proponent of ecologically-driven architecture, who says “the era of monument-building is coming to a close,” and with it ends the architect’s pole position. “Architects who want to build a sculpture in the middle of space live in an antiquated world of endless resources,” he said. “Urban agriculture is the way forward. You can turn a place around based on a vegetated environment.”


As designers across the profession are increasingly faced with challenges that don’t have a precedent and don’t correspond to traditional disciplinary boundaries, such as rising water levels, post-industrial cityscapes, waste, and a crippled climate, practices are repackaging and restructuring themselves in response. But the prospect of another professional group— particularly landscape architects—ascending to a decision-making role in the built environment still makes some squirm.

In a Wall Street Journal interview earlier this year, British architect Will Alsop accused landscape architecture of institutionalizing public space. And last fall at a New Urbanism symposium in New Orleans, the constant pot-stirrer Andres Duany announced in a provocation that quickly exploded on the blogosphere, “It’s not cool to be an architect. It’s cool to be a landscape architect. That’s the next cool thing.”

Deborah Marton, executive director at Design Trust for Public Space, believes it’s a substantive shift rather than a trend. “It is about professional maturity,” said Marton, who believes the hierarchical structure of traditional design practice is redundant. “Each discipline brings something to a project…it should be about which team is working well together and doing the best job of seeing the whole picture.”

Indeed, the rise of landscape urbanism hasn’t escaped public interest with interviews and articles in the national papers as well as on blogs. This kind of attention has propelled it from an academic discussion into a wider discourse, which, says Marton, is important to changing the very structure of design practice and ultimately municipal authority processes as well. Though the change is slow, there are solid examples of it happening. Philadelphia’s long-awaited waterfront redesign recently shifted gears as it dropped plans for multi-story blocks and moved away from using a signature project to jump-start the city’s master plan. Instead, the massive plan focuses on a string of parks as a stimulus for continued development.

Landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations is fitting his practice to the new mold. And while he had to struggle to get credit from architects on the immensely popular re-imagining of the High Line in New York, he is now leading a $569 million project to reconnect Seattle to Elliott Bay and create nine acres of new public space, a kind of prototypical antidote to the narrow commercialized waterfronts so common to many other U.S. cities. “There is a desperate need for a different kind of professional who is capable of seeing a bigger picture and choreographing a bigger team,” Corner told Metropolis in 2008.

Meanwhile at the GSD, Waldheim’s newly appointed staff in the Landscape Architecture department is dedicated to building a trans-disciplinary faculty including ARO architect Cassell, who will be teaching this year alongside Susannah Drake of dlandstudio.


Cassell and Drake have partnered before at the “Rising Currents” exhibition last year at the Museum of Modern Art. That path-breaking exhibition challenged architects to respond to an environmental catastrophe and called for “soft” infrastructures and ecological design solutions, bringing architects and specialists in ecological design together in close and productive collaborative efforts that attracted the close attention of developers and city officials alike.

For his Rising Currents project, Eric Bunge of nArchitects composed his team of designers with various skill sets including Mathur/da Cunha as water specialist. Like the other collaborative teams that were formed for the exhibition, his suggests that in the future it won’t take a constructed disaster scenario to make architects realize the value of landscape designers.

Bunge said that he still sees landscape architecture and architecture as having different trajectories that need one another at points in the design process. But whether or not they are complete equals on the job, Bunge possibly speaks for many architects today when he said, “It is too early to say.”