Landscape Architecture as an aesthetic discipline may at times seem irrelevant in the face of such pressing problems as global warming, social inequity, resource depletion, and habitat loss. But there is a fundamental aspect of what we do that tackles these issues, with landscape architects a part of interdisciplinary teams.
This movement, if you will, can encompass the specification of recycled content and the parametric modeling of coastal revetments. We participate whenever we push our projects, clients, and communities to consider data as part of the design, when we reach out to large groups through social media to contribute to democratic design processes, and when we collaborate with horizontally structured interdisciplinary teams. In return, we experience a growing sense of empowerment and capacity; we’re part of an idealistic and values-driven practice that at once ignites a designer’s passion and adds a touch of whimsy to our work. We are the Neo-Victorians.
Like Olmsted and Downing, we have the benefit of following a cresting wave of innovation in tangentially related industries. Olmsted first used asphalt, patented in 1870, to reduce noise from carriages in Central Park; Portland Cement was invented in the 1850s; the Bessemer process was patented in 1856. The first reinforced concrete bridge was built in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1889. The Victorians were inventing urban parks with new high-tech tools developed during the industrial revolution. Neo-Victorians have the information revolution as our wave. We came into practice after the hard work of adapting computer technology to design occurred; we expect open access to information, and using CAD, 3D modeling, GIS and cloud-based collaborative tools to enable precision, processing, and systems analysis.
The similarities between generations is also aspirational. Olmsted’s generation of urban park designers sought to improve the quality of life for the public. Neo-Victorians come out of school with the desire to change our environment and communities for the better. We are embracing the challenges of an urbanizing world undergoing climate change and the Anthropocene. We are exploring the relationship between design and social justice. Public Architecture’s 1% program, B-Corporations, non-profit design firms, and activist designers all push issues at the front of practice.
Since the 1980s, the growth of concept-based design curriculum has become pervasive. Today, “Draw ‘til it’s beautiful” and problem solving is not sufficient without a strong narrative. In seeking narrative, designers are trained to develop higher levels of awareness around the site, as well as the politics of place and systems. Their interventions are tied, however tenuously, to these networks of ideas and this pedagogy develops the expectation of higher levels of meaning to practice. Concept-based design education has raised a generation of unabashed idealists who see landscape architecture not as a job, but as a lifestyle decision.
When considering how landscape architecture as a discipline will address the world’s future, the answers are already embedded in our collective practice. Neo-Victorians are diverse and pluralistic, unhesitatingly technical and optimistic. This mandates the integration of environmental amenities and infrastructure; community involvement; and an aesthetic whereby digital custom fabrications welcome ornamentation.
Neo-Victorians are everywhere: small research-oriented firms, government, nonprofits, and corporate offices. These different types of practice provide varied channels and support for elevating the discipline. Work such as Kate Orff’s Oyster-Techture or Petrochemical America integrates real data and research methods into design processes, revealing charismatic ideas for intervention and experimentation. Challenging typical funding and business practice, Mass Design Group’s work in Rwanda identified the issue first, and the team applies as much creative process to funding its work as to its physical design. SWA Group’s Landscape Infrastructure practice integrates public space amenities with large-scale infrastructure systems such as the Buffalo Bayou Park and flood control system, in Houston, Texas.
Neo-Victorians have a huge advantage over the Victorians: there are so many more of us, and we come from all over, with every culture and background influencing our inspirations. We practice with the last 150 years of technical advancement, cultural development, and design experimentation at our fingertips. We will develop many strategies to overcome the looming crises of our times. Many will not work, but those that do will inevitably have major implications.
Imagine today’s cities without the benefit of Olmsted and the Victorian designers. Tomorrow’s communities will look back on the Neo-Victorians as igniters of an explosion of ideas who just started to harness the power of the digital age to inform place. As we continue to focus on concept, values, and rigor we can look forward to a future enriched by the romantic belief that we can make a difference, and find nobility in giving our best selves to our work.
Chris Hardy is a landscape architect in the San Francisco studio and the creator of the montage accompanying this post.