From the Rooftops is a virtual lecture series hosted by the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Weitzman School of Design.
Monday, June 13, 2020
Sean Burkholder, Andrew Gordon Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
"On Time: Landscape as Event"
A Q&A With Sean Burkholder.
How would you suggest landscape architects foster their intuition, and how can that then affect prediction and vision in the practice?
S.B: I find prediction one of the most problematic and limiting undertakings we do in landscape architecture. It ties us to what our worldview believes is possible, or even worse, likely. Of course our intuition does this for us constantly, based on what we have seen or experienced in the past. For me, intuition is very personal, and not something that is developed by reading books or manuals, but on actual lived experience. It feels so much more liberating as a pool of creativity than what we may consider “common sense”, as it is highly personalized and unique. The process of fostering it requires asking lots of questions, and experiencing as much as possible. Not surprising, in my opinion, intuition is the product of curiosity.
You argue that in order to acknowledge reality, we must give value to the glitches that contradict what we consider common sense in our overall generalizations of the world. How are we to grant agency to chaos?
S.B: I think it is important to acknowledge the fact that most of us have been programed to think a particular way, influenced highly by western ideas of science and capitalism in particular. It is really these constructs that have formed what we think of as “common sense” and it is a process of making clear classifications and generalizations about the chaotic worlds we occupy and influence. This is a system that does everything possible to disarm the anomaly or the glitch. Instead, we could possibly see these anomalies as windows into other ways of thinking that our scripted methods of common sense are programmed to overlook. Tracing these glitches and how they came to be could also be one of the best ways of learning something new, instead of simply reinforcing the assumed status quo.
You present the University of Minnesota’s experiment Vegetation Response to Climate Change as a case for framing design as an act of learning over solving / finding over fixing. In what ways could this reframing shape the future of landscape architecture?
S.B: That project was a clear example of an experiment that is taking place in a landscape context. I am interested in the idea of designed landscapes as experiments themselves. Instead of acting as if we know what will happen, and designing as if we can predict the future, each and every project is actually an experiment, situated around a hypothesis. We should have more humility and less hubris underpinning our work in landscape architecture, and accept the reality that we honestly do not know what will happen. This reality should be liberating, not limiting. Landscapes conceived of as experiments can help us learn about the infinitely complex contexts within which they are situated, and I believe this is one of the most interesting roles built projects.
In your lecture On Time: Landscape as Event, when speaking about the Healthy Port Futures project, you mention how we should be more bold with our speculations of the future, because we will be getting it wrong no matter what we say or show, and instead, to think of landscape architecture as experiments or adaptations. Can you speak more about the value of speculative thinking and conceptual work, and how it compares to built work?
S.B: Landscapes as experiments are one way of leading work toward a paradigm of construction, monitoring, maintenance and adaptation that I believe is more conducive to working in our unpredictable worlds. So there is application to practice here, but there is also value in thoughts or visions as experiments, they simply test contexts that are not physical. Speculate work falls into this category for me. A speculative or alternate vision or history questions social and cultural contexts, just as a constructed project may question environmental contexts. In both cases the design ask a type of What If question and puts it out there as a kind of probe, to see what feedback it generates. And of course these experiments, thought or physical, not only register that feedback, they actually shape and change the context they are enmeshed in. Questions can change the world as easily as answers.