Landscape Architecture

Past is Prologue: Pienza, Italy

Every landscape has a history—geological, ecological, and cultural. The combination and circumstances of their interaction through time has resulted in some regions and communities being seen as of special character and value. It is an irony that many places considered beautiful that attract visitors and tourists from around the world are fragile and struggle with many of the problems that exists elsewhere, that these tourists are trying to leave behind, and are threatened by tidal surges of these very same pleasure-seeking visitors. The Val D’Orcia in southern Tuscany is such a place. Historically rich and physically attractive, it has served as a setting for films that depict the world as it was in the first decades of the last century, before modern highways, modern architecture, engineering, and agribusiness changed the look and character of so much of Europe and America. Pienza, the first Renaissance planned city, 30 miles south of Sienna, is a microcosm of the dilemmas of such situations. A World Heritage site it has an economy that flourishes for three months in the summer and struggles the rest of the year. The young, as elsewhere in Italy, receive a fine education, but then leave the town, the region, and often the country to find work. Certain products of local agriculture are world famous and highly priced—Brunello wine from nearby Montalcino across the valley; pecorino cheese from the sheep—but a general paucity of other economic endeavor, the current cost of difficulties of energy production, physical problems with a welter of historic structures, long tern threats of climate change in an area that already suffers from length droughts, freezing winters and monsoonal flooding—all of these pose planning and design problems that the residents and authorities in the town and region are keenly aware of and are searching for ideas, projects, and help to address them.

For many years I have taught graduate design studios that brought students from different professional fields together to work in collaboration to develop helpful solutions to physical problems that could offer social and ecological benefit to a variety of communities. This work is intended to help the students gain useful skills and work habits while introducing them to challenging issues of philosophical and artistic import. These studios are intended to broaden their cultural perspective, while informed by history and science, and to prepare them to work closely with others with different talents and views on challenging problems of our moment. Our students come from all over the world. When they leave they depart for widely varying places on different continents. For this reason it makes sense to take them to other places they don’t know well to study and work. It forces attention. They can’t assume that they know everything, or that their habits of mind are adequate to understand what is going on, how things work, what others need or think. The setting is different—the birds and plants, the architecture and food, the history and climate. To be helpful they must learn to listen and see carefully. They must study the economic and political realities in a way that most people don’t bother to do carefully, even in their own country, would be extremely useful if they did. University professors, like parents, hope to steer the next generation away from mistakes and bad habits—in architecture, planning, landscape design, infrastructure—believing that history isn’t over, and that we can learn from both our successes and mistakes, and in so doing make the world richer than we found it. 

Laurie Olin