Catherine Seavitt is professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism, co-executive director of The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism & Ecology, and creative director of LA+, the Weitzman School’s interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. She joined Penn in July of 2023, after more than a decade on the faculty at the City College of New York, where she served as professor and director of the Master of Landscape Architecture program. In an interview, she elaborated on a few strands of her research, in which she examines the role of landscape architects as significant participants at the intersection of political power, environmental advocacy, and equitable public space.
Your training and licensure are in both architecture and landscape architecture, and you also have experience with large-scale planning projects. How does that transdisciplinary background shape your approach to design?
As an undergraduate, I studied at Cooper Union in New York, which is a pretty unique place, certainly in terms of the way it considers the education of an architect. I was a student under the deanship of John Hejduk, who brought the landscape architect A.E. Bye, the architect Raimund Abraham, and the anthropologist Remo Guideri to our faculty—Hejduk’s worldview was very expansive. The school had a kind of broad environmental approach to the discipline, which I found quite formative, and this continues to help me see beyond false binaries and disciplinary silos.
Landscape architectural training provides a systemic approach to thinking about the world and our place in it, along with all of the other co-creative living and non-living things that are part of the planet and with whom we are entangled. There’s something amazing about the elasticity of scale that landscape architecture brings to the fore. And because the discipline is so embedded in the natural sciences, we also get the “messy” biology and “messy” ecology of things that are indeterminate, that don’t last forever, that have lifespans, that come and go, that are seasonal, that have the concept of time embedded in them. It’s tricky to wrap your head around something that is impermanent when you think about being a designer. There’s no finality to any of the work that a landscape architect will do. It’s all about suspension in a state of ongoing becoming.
Equity and resilience seem to be top of mind for more and more of our students. What role can academics and practitioners play in keeping them on the landscape architecture profession’s agenda?
First, I want to unpack the word “resilience” a bit, which I think has been somewhat co-opted by the neoliberal project. Yes, we have to think about how things bounce back—but frankly, we don’t always want them to go back to being the same as they were! To be resilient is to bend, but not break. I like to take a more ecological approach to that word, which often describes a process of disturbance that leads to a phase transformation.
I feel like there’s another way of thinking about what resilience might be, which is not about “I’ve been battered down so many times, but I’m strong and I’ll pop right back up,” but rather: How can we transform the force of the disturbance, so were not constantly resisting things but rather moving into a completely different kind of reality that is not as vulnerable? You can see this a social metaphor as well.
Disturbances can happen very quickly. They are sudden breaks. That can actually be a great way to kind of reset and rethink where we want to be and to take a social approach. What kind of people do we want to be, how do we embrace the more-than-human, and what kind of communities do we want to make and live in?
Much of my research has been focused on thinking about and recentering things from the margins. Whether it’s historical characters in the margins of power or the many species thriving in intertidal estuary zones, there’s so much diversity, richness, and creativity in the margins. If you engage in thinking about the productivity of that kind of marginal space, you can often find the capacity to literally shift the center. This recentering can actually shift and redirect our ways of thinking—to bend the arc toward justice, to quote Dr. King.
For many people reading this, your award-winning book on Roberto Burle Marx [Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship] was their introduction to your work. I’m wondering how you came to him and what you think his work holds for young designers.
It was a funny chance encounter, really! I came across Burle Marx’s work in an Italian design magazine in the 1990s while I was living in Rome. I had a fascination with Brazil already, training in capoeira—a Brazilian martial art—at a communist youth center outside Rome, and learning Portuguese. And then I find this incredible landscape architect whose work I had not known previously. This all led to me moving to Brazil in the early aughts.
Burle Marx is such a complex character to study. He’s connected to the most important sources of political power around the country, and to wealth and power. At the same time, he’s the son of an immigrant, not exactly part of the Portuguese elite. He himself would say, “I never knew which door to use.” Should he go in the front door or the back door? He’s kind of like the gardener, but he’s got connections. Despite the fact that he was not part of the colonial lineage of the most powerful families in Brazil, he was able to connect with all of these mayors, governors, presidents, et cetera, and produce an incredibly strong narrative about cultural heritage and landscape conservation. He transformed the understanding of the “landscape” as being part of the many identities of Brazilian culture.
My book looks at the period from 1966 to 1974, when Burle Marx was working as an appointed cultural counselor to the military regime, delivering a series of depositions (speeches) on what he sees as the important issues of the day. And he’s pretty directly critiquing the regime and their developmentalist policies—projects like driving a highway through the Amazon, stripping a native old growth forest to plant a paper-pulp tree plantation, or not recognizing the importance of endemic flora and indigenous plant knowledge.
So, he’s the man on the inside, always a little suspect, but Burle Marx is also speaking back to the regime in a way that’s extremely risky. He’s both working for them—they are the client for several federal plazas and gardens in Brasília—and at the same time critiquing many of their fundamental practices and politics as an early and radical environmentalist. It was a fraught and complicated relationship.
Is it fair to say that negotiating power is something that every designer confronts? Whether consciously or unconsciously, one does need to consider how one negotiates power.
Yes, for sure. Burle Marx really knew his craft. This was his strength. He knew every Brazilian plant species, and could rattle off their scientific names like they were intimate friends. He drew his knowledge from his own lived experiences. He traveled throughout the country, so he was a kind of expert witness with a high level of credibility. He knew his instruments, he knew his discipline, he knew the environment he was speaking of, so he was very well poised to position an argument for conservation, to argue for the preservation of natural landscapes and natural features. And he had this incredible 30 years of built public work under his belt, where he had been trying to think about, “How do we bring these amazing plant species to the urban realm and create a different kind of public space for the everyday Brazilian?” He had knowledge and credibility from an ecological point of view, but also an understanding of design and maintenance…he really had a modern sense of what it meant to build and form a landscape. His credibility allowed him to significantly influence those with power.
You’ve produced a body of work that is widely admired. Who or what do you admire?
Unsurprisingly, I am fascinated by folks whose work explores the margins of the canon, but often, I find that some of the most compelling examples for me are from artists and poets. I have a whole wheelbarrow full of them, but one of the people I find most inspiring is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a performance artist who’s now 85 years old, I think. She has been extraordinary in creating a practice about maintenance art. She kind of launched her career in 1969 with her manifesto, a proposal for an exhibition entitled “CARE.” She has engaged the entanglement of gender, race, labor, and the environment—all things that I care very deeply about. For her performance work Touch Sanitation (1979-1980), she shook the hand of every sanitation worker in New York City over a series of months. I think she is still considered the unpaid artist-in-residence of the Department of Sanitation of New York. I admire her ability to think deeply about the labor involved with the care and maintenance of our cities, and who’s doing that work. So much of this relates to feminist positioning, race, and equity in the public realm and the landscape discipline.
How do you see your role as an educator?
I don’t take that role lightly—I know from my own experience how much influence my great teachers had on how I think, act, and engage with the world. But I’m also ready to admit I’m always learning! I’m thinking about what a student brings with them, of the unique embodied knowledge that they have through their own life experiences, and I try to figure out why they have chosen to come to this particular, and nontraditional, field of study. How do you bring to the fore what the student already has and what their interests are, what their passions are? How can you empower them to embrace those passions or find new ones, and bring that to the careers or practices or professions that they choose? I’m also really interested in radical pedagogies, in the processes of engaging students in collaborative and active learning environments, in field-based learning. Education is not just about imparting wisdom—it can embrace critical ways of co-learning and co-creating, creating trust, and giving students and our graduates the power to take the discipline into new directions.