alan balfour
Afterward: What Is Public in Landscape? ::
Alan Balfour

The preceding essays offer a varied and provocative view of landscape practices and landscape thought as the close of the twentieth century approaches. They reflect marked differences between Europe and America, particularly in the idea of what constitutes a public landscape. This is especially evident in the examples of Dutch practice; I the Netherlands, over many years and in widely varied settings, landscapes have been formed to enhance public life. This is not simply an extension of shaping land reclaimed from the sea- it is political expression of the need to give form to the idea of community and collective life. Apart from the high taxation that such projects demand, they might be viewed from America as reflecting too much public interference with individual choice. Though America shows little interest in using landscape in such an overt and singular way the production of American landscapes – in all their splendid and confused variety, both good and bad- contain political and public agendas that need better understanding.


Landscape architecture is a relatively new art form that from its inception was intended to provide an entertaining demonstration of political power by the privileged and for the privileged. It is an art of the artificial, bending nature to mankind’s order. No matter with what degree of seriousness we now approach the poetic content of the great parks and gardens of eighteenth-century Europe, these were no more than flattering confections toying romantically with the idea of the classical world- paintings made real.


Landscape gained favor s an art form not simply because it embellished the land-the primary asset of the privileged-but for its ability to make palpable the romance with the classical world, offering a poetic engagement with nature. For the cultivated tastes of the eighteenth century, to discover in the woodland glade a “sacred grove,” seemingly shaped by the forced of nature, was to experience paradise regained.


Eighteenth-century English landscapes were created for sublime effect, often in imitation of paintings, such as the influence of Passing on the compositions of landscape artist and architect William Kent. Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the most influential of the English marks of landscape, condemned such artificiality as a disgusting display of art and shaped his parks ad gardens to appear natural and informal, to the great satisfaction of English society.


In America this recreation of the natural led Jefferson to write, in 1806, that the new nation should look to England as a model for this art. Jefferson, ever the idealist, saw an analogy between the creation of a rich and varied landscape, sustained and renewed by natural laws, and the maintenance of a democracy continually being refined and developed with the guidance of equally unchanging laws.


The American patrons of landscape realities are not longer the landed gentry and the new rich but the federal government and commercial enterprise, and landscapes have evolved from artifacts of public order and private pleasure to a boundless, untidy mix of ordered grandeur, individualism, and mass consumption.


Landscapes of Popular Desire

Essentially, three public and political landscapes have evolved and persist in American culture: the front lawn that unites so much of the domestic landscape, the surviving nineteenth-century city parks, and the state and national parks. One should add others, of course-the landscape of the highways, the visual impact on the land of the powerful technologies of farming, and the vast public projects of the Corps of Engineers. /The latter, through engaging the most complex technologies and commanding vast resources, offers powerful tools to contemporary practices of landscape architecture. Still, the discipline of landscape temporary practices of landscape architecture. Still the discipline of landscape architecture is more traditionally identified more the first-mentioned three landscapes.


The front lawn is perhaps the most American expression of the public realm, framing the idea of community within nature. Leaving the lawn unfenced unenclosed, and consciously modes in its plants and ornaments, remains a popular practice across the nation, creating a continual field in which ideas of individual property and neighborliness are symbolized.


Public parks were, from the beginning, under municipal control and had strict regulations for use, including the discouragement of political activities. They were created by paternalistic city governments to provide release form the harshness of city life ad as instrument of social control. However out of such as constrained beginning the public parks evolved into an art form that enhanced civic life in the United States well into this century. Its greatest achievement, New York’s Central Park, emerged out of the works of Lancelot Brown and Thomas Jeffererson and the dominant figure in nineteenth century English landscape architecture, Joseph Paxton. It was of course the great creation of Frederici Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Central Park was and continues to be American landscape architecture’s supreme achievement and defines to this day the political and social potential of the discipline. Subsequently in pars from New York and Boston to San Francisco, Olmsted’s influence transcended landscape, enhancing and giving form to the very idea of civic life. He became, by many measures, the nineteenth century’s most influential political and public artist.


Yet this very success has created difficulties for the current-day practice of landscape architecture. With the demise of the public ark as an essential complement to civic life, landscape architecture has lost the public context through which to demonstrate its worth, and it has also lost the public visibility and celebrity that attended great public works. Sadly the field has been increasingly marginalized in the modern would, and its practitioners must now work hard to find new ways to reinserting landscape into the larger imagination and public domain.


Olmsted’s parks brought nature to the city, but automobile was able to take people into nature, into the wilderness, preserved in the national and the stimulated would. From coastal beaches and forests to mountains and lakes, being and playing in semi wilderness is much more a conscious part of American life and experience than that of any other developed country. The raw wilderness, in all its danger and unpredictability, is a compelling state of harmonic chaos that demands design and management to sustain its appearance, seemingly unspoiled, while supporting its exploitation for whatever use.


Changing Perceptions of Reality

Private lawns and public parks, whether city, state, or national, should be the significant public landscapes of America, yet there are perhaps two segments of the landscape profession for whom these are not necessarily the primary site of attention. As James Corner outlines in his introduction to this volume, one group instead draws on the recent rise of ecology and environmentalism, often with the best of intentions but also, and unfortunately, neglecting to pay sufficient attention to the cultural imagination and the pubic life, especially in cities. The other group retreats into the projects a and concepts of art practice, much in eighteenth-century arguments between Kent and Brown, between seeking to form landscapes from painterly concepts or by improving on nature. The roots lie in landscape architecture’s long-standing relationship with fine art and with changes in the perception of reality.


In the nineteenth century, the physical distance and distinction between the object of contemplation and the eye of the witness was clearly recognized. In the case of landscape, the pleasure for the individual was essentially pictorial- a pleasure of being within a natural setting, albeit idealized. As the first quarter of the twentieth century made fetishes-certainly among the fashionable of self-knowledge and the uncovering of the subconscious in the production of art, the felt distance between the individual and the object began to close. It moved closer ad closer as the century progressed until, finally the actual object became less significant, in fact, than its place in the mind and imagination- the significance residing in the idea, not in the actual.

This had a transforming effect on those art forms based on illusion – such as cinema – extending invention in ways not possible without such a shift. However, landscape architecture is work in reality, complex reality continually changed by natural forces. Overemphasis on the conceptual has confused the relationships among natural forces and cultural ways of life. For a discipline that acts on a vast scale and over generations of time, such conceptualization has led, at best, to some refreshing and peculiar invention and, at worst, to episodic and contrived practice, with little interest in actual plant material or the sense of time and the passage of the seasons.


The difference between such practice now and in the eighteenth century is the absence of an informed public clearly desiring such entertaining and inventive landscapes. The result is a diminution of influence. It is a paradox that while the most ambitious intellectual practice in landscape risks marginalization through overly conceptual practice, our highly commercial culture conceptualizes landscape for equally self-serving reasons, but with much more influence and success.


The Commodification of Landscape

In anticipating the future uses and forms of landscape, the unprecedented power and private purpose of corporate culture must be recognized. Landscape has always been shaped by the power elite and, given declining support for public programs, corporate domination will increasingly affect and mold reality in all forms.


Corporate agendas and corporate visions increasingly manipulate the formation of significant, productive realities around the world. They call for landscapes to aid in the consumption of goods and services, landscapes formed to enhance themed or trademarked realities. Most national and international producers and retailers invest in elaborate fantasy packaging to reinforce the illusion of lifestyle embodied in their product, be it clothing, perfume, or household accessories. Malls assume a carnival spirit as they orchestrate the performances of the retailers. They will soon have to employ stage managers to interweave the various stages and plays together to gain the best advantage (in terms of consumption).


The corporate clients who are the major producers of landscapes of illusion show less and less interest in the security of place. For them, place increasingly is a liquid asset held only as long as it enhances profit. Being held in place is something corporations seek to avoid. In all their actions, they become increasingly light on the ground, always prepared to shift their offices and factories to take light on the ground, always prepared to shift their offices and factories to take advantage of new markets and lower wages, avoiding union interference. Apart from those in the landscape-based recreation and entertainment industries, most corporations have neither the time nor the place for landscape. Yet these same corporations employ the imaginations of a creative army dedicated to the creation of imagined places, landscapes formed from dream-fulfillment scenarios that enhance the consumption of their products and the functioning of their enterprise.


Coca-Cola created a museum in Atlanta. At its center, a picture gallery exhibits art that the company has commissioned since the end of the last century – art that has, decade after decade, related the consumption of Coke to images of ideal social and family life. With great skill, Coca-Cola has anticipated and manipulated shifts in the social landscape. Though commercial, this art reflects a prescient understanding of the importance of landscape to the popular imagination.


Consider the dominance of landscapes in all advertising. A count of advertising in a recent issue in Architectural Digest shows that more than a third of advertisers establish the identity and value of their product through landscape. Yet on the nation’s magazine rack there is not a single publication on landscape, save perhaps House and Garden and Martha Stewart Living. From automobiles to fashion, landscape helps to sell.


Eddie Bauer has moved from being a retailer of clothes to being a prop master of lifestyle. Beyond clothes and home furnishings, they now plan to complete the lifestyle experience by adding travel packages and may even create landscaped artificial destinations in which to play out the image embedded in the clothes and the name. Such events will increasingly be bundled with the products of other manufacturers to allow the consumption of apparently complete realities. These will cover all aspects of life and lifestyle, from food to dress to health to social performance, with all the necessary props – furniture, architecture, sun, landscape – to go with them.


Sega has moved beyond video games to pioneering virtual theme parks called Sega World in several major world cities. Enter one and rise by escalator alongside the screams of willing victims of the free-fall ride. Arrive at the top of four levels of simulated pulsating action driven by the deafening sound of technobeat. Each level presents the most advanced simulation games. Imagine being in a small room sitting on a mechanized bleacher subjected to instant terror. Consciousness of the room dissolves as the illusion begins. Within seconds it compels and captures your every sense. You believe you are traveling out of control across vast landscapes, rocketing into space, charging down volcanoes, narrowly avoiding a rock face that you know is real. This is happening just to you. Your life is in danger as you careen across endlessly elaborate and cunning landscapes conceived by armies of digital landscape architects competing to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for the new.


Commercial fantasies are only as successful as their ability to touch or stimulate individual desire and, as such, they are both constrained and responsive. Yet demands for such consumable illusions will continue to cause anxiety for those who believe that there can be some authenticity to the artifice with which society constructs reality. However, prevailing realities are formed by dominant economic forces, and the illusions of Sega’s world, Eddie Bauer’s world, and Disney’s world are different only in form, not intent, from many of the created landscapes and parks of history.


Disney’s World

Celebration, the new town being developed by the Disney Corporation in Florida, is the most ominous of all these themed and bundled synthetic landscapes. It is the most striking example of the power of the corporation to manufacture and manipulate reality.


Disney has created Celebration as the fullest illusion of American democracy within a legal arrangement that is explicitly antidemocratic. A charmingly landscaped town center with plantings of mature trees and shrubbery convey a sense of cultivation, of rootedness, an illusion of establishment, carefully, and with conscious political intent, controlled. Disney’s designers have engaged in a deceptive consumption of the authentic. The form of the ideal American small town is here shaped into the packaging for a controlled product – co-opting the public realm, franchising myth.


How should the landscape architect react when the most authentic elements of our cultural heritage – small-town America, front yards, tree-lined streets, and neighborhood parks – become mere corporate packaging?


Celebration’s compliant consumers sign charters and covenants that, while politically correct, seem to impose constraints on freedom of action, freedom of association, freedom to allow new social formulations to emerge. Compliant consumers is not an idle name; the tenants of the pretty little houses that form the American streets of Celebration agree to allow their family lives to be used in the testing of new products. Celebration is itself a product made out of the illusion of the quintessential American reality – the small town democratically formed around the city hall, a town structured by laws, not people. But the city hall in Celebration houses not the mayor but the property managers for the Walt Disney Corporation, for whom the just society is only of value to the extent that it enhances the profitability of the company.


Just as the evolution of major cities will become increasingly dependent on corporate enclaves, the creation of franchisable product lines such as Celebration will accelerate the fragmentation of society. Those who can pay the price of admission remain contented behind the borders of their private world. This may increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots, increase the divide between society as compliant consumer and society as a collection of free wills. Architecture and landscape architecture will evolve into little more than packaging and imaging practices of consumable realities.


On one issue Walt Disney was clear from the beginning: the so-called citizens of his town would have no rights to the land. In 1967, he wrote:


It will be a city that caters to the people as a service function. It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT there will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. No slum areas because we will not let them develop. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees. Everyone must be employed


Novelist E.L. Doctorow summed up the project of Disney:


What Disneyland proposes is a technique of abbreviated shorthand culture for the masses, a mindless thrill, like an electric shock, that insists at the same time on the recipient’s rich psychic relation to his country’s history and language and literature. In a forthcoming time of highly governed masses in an overpopulated world, this technique may be extremely useful both as a substitute for education and, eventually, as a substitute for experience.


Yet all our realities are, in essence, fictions. What is revolutionary is the threefold change from their definition by an autocratic elite for their own pleasure to their formation by paternalistic authority in the name of public culture to, increasingly, their appropriation by manufacturers creating illusions of reality, manipulating mass desire for commercial gain. However, satisfying mass desire requires as much understanding as manipulation. There is an implicit public dimension to this exchange. What emerges may be far from the polite civic performances that Europe excels in, but what emerges will order the landscapes of the future.



The ongoing project of recovering landscape cannot afford to be nostalgic for either past vistas or past societies. Instead, the field must continue to develop new forms of theory and practice that will influence and shape the forms of landscape and emerging popular desires, both real and virtual. The desire for new landscapes of transformation and engagement dominate both the cultural imagination and the corporate agenda of flexible accumulation of capital, especially landscapes of recreation, sports, tourism, and entertainment. Can the discipline develop a rich and substantial appreciation of the role landscape plays in the popular imagination and the public realm? Can the field adequately develop a critical understanding of the many public roles for landscape, encouraging diversification and enrichment of opportunities? Can landscape architects recognize and act on the autonomous strength and character of things natural and wild?


The essays collected in this book provide useful and important beginnings to finding and articulating answers to these questions. It is my belief and hope that these ideas will find their way into larger sectors of practice and built reality. In a rapidly changing world, landscape architecture has unequalled opportunity to not only represent the constancy and profundity of humankind’s relation to nature and to others but also to create and effect new modes of relationship.

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