In mid-March the annual conference for the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) brought teachers, researchers, and design professionals together in Utah to present and discuss various topics related to landscape architecture education, research, and practice. Two of the topics questioned will be discussed separately in this two-part blog post: 1) The usefulness of academic research in landscape architecture, and 2) The future of landscape architecture education.
Research – What, Where, and for Whom?
Is academic research in landscape architecture of any real use to the profession? Or is most of it merely the theorization and quantification of common sense, structured to be quickly conducted and packaged to be easily publishable in peer-reviewed journals?
These questions were brought to scrutiny and debate with both humor and urgency by Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley. Half-jokingly comparing landscape architecture academia to a medieval guild, “creating a sense of its own importance but remaining marginal to practice,” he criticized a culture of learning that ranks the word above the act, and creates a rift rather than a bridge between theory and practice.
By and large, researchers at universities are required to consistently publish results in peer-reviewed journals in order to advance their academic careers. While this “publish or perish” principle fuels many academic initiatives, it does not inherently promote practically useful research. Indeed, Treib argued that studies often “succeed” by eliminating so many contingent factors that they become inapplicable to the complexity of the real world. Further, there is little incentive to publish findings and ideas in forums accessible to the broader profession since trade magazines and blogs – while often having substantially larger readership – lack academic recognition.
It is certainly not the case that all research is useless or all practice void of scientific underpinning. The problem is a system that holds the publication of results as an end goal in itself – valued over the potential application of the findings – and thereby diminishes opportunities to influence real change. While theoretical knowledge can be incredibly useful, and even highly abstracted ideas can challenge and inspire our way of thinking and designing in constructive ways, we must ultimately test ideas in real-life projects in order to evaluate their potential.
But in contrast to Treib’s harsh assessment of the academic contribution to practice – and, symptomatically perhaps, not addressed during this particular discussion – an increasing number of design firms are launching their own research initiatives, exploring everything from new materials and technologies to ecological and social processes. As Anya Domlesky highlighted in her 2015 Patrick Curran Fellowship project – itself being an example of such an in-house effort – this represents a growing trend across multiple design industries.
The traditional boundaries between research and practice are shifting and blurring. While the discussion at CELA used broad strokes to paint this complex situation, the conference itself offered many examples of highly useful academic research projects. The question that lingers is how different kinds of research efforts can be closer integrated, and better linked, to practice. Landscape architects of our day are facing increasingly complex contexts of work, and in response to new issues both researchers and designers need to draw upon each other’s knowledge and expertise, and work to establish new interfaces between academia and practice, new paths from idea to implementation. Ultimately, as Treib reminded us, the underlying concern in landscape architecture both as a profession and as a discipline should be one and the same – careful consideration of how design responds to and can improve upon the human condition.
Lovisa Kjerrgren, a designer in the Laguna Beach studio, presented her winning entry for the 2015 Wayne Grace Memorial Student Competition, “Pretty Heroic,” as part of the conference Film track at the CELA conference.