metaphor and landscape – mammoth // building nothing out of something

metaphor and landscape

faslanyc has a good piece on the weakness of metaphor as a grounding literary device for landscape architecture.  The post is in reaction to Andrew Blum’s “Metaphor Remediation”, recently run in Places.

I approvingly cited Blum’s article a couple times, so I re-read Blum’s article with faslanyc‘s criticism in mind.  Having done so, I think maybe its not just that metaphor is the wrong literary device to cite (though faslanyc builds an interesting case for that, which you ought to read), but that, despite Blum’s own stated intentions, he isn’t really talking primarily about literary devices (MVVA’s work certainly isn’t overly preoccupied with them, as faslanyc notes), but about a “technical” shift (to use Blum’s term) in the relationship between ecology, cities, and landscape practice.  The primacy of ‘metaphor’ is shoehorned into the piece in various places, but it doesn’t really fit, and the piece would read fine without it.

For instance, how much is lost in this paragraph if one removes the reference to ‘metaphor’:

To do this — to define the poetics of a new kind of Eco-City Beautiful — landscape architects are tightening the links in their work between the scientific and the aesthetic and the ecological and the metaphorical. MVVA’s work in particular demonstrates a move beyond “postage-stamp” examples of urban nature that are easily contained, labeled and trumpeted. Beginning with the design of Mill Race Park, in Columbus, Ohio, and clearly evident now in the scheme for the Toronto Port Lands, the scale of MVVA’s interventions demonstrates a concern for ecological processes that is not merely illustrative, treating nature as if it were a museum exhibit, but rather that is necessarily rooted in a holistic understanding of site ecology. [6] More strikingly, it requires an agnostic approach toward nature’s coexistence with urban experience: accepting (indeed, insisting on) the presence of nature in the city, while being flexible as to the “truth” of that nature. The future landscapes described in their schemes suggest that there is no such thing as an orthodoxy of nature in an urban park, and that nature cannot be held at arm’s length.

Or this one:

In MVVA’s work of the last two decades, ecological thinking informs landscape making. Throughout, they have drawn on the help of professional consulting ecologists, including Stephen Handel, Steve Apfelbaum and Mark Laska, in search of a richer understanding of the possibilities for best incorporating natural processes into post-industrial urban landscapes. [8] This collaboration between landscape architects and ecologists is complex, and not without conflict. There is a basic difference in stance: landscape architects necessarily apply a design intention to a landscape, while ecologists observe and compare a landscape with an idealized theoretical framework of undisturbed nature. Landscape architects eager to respond to practical ecological concerns must reconcile these fundamentally different approaches to achieve substantial functional improvements — especially if those improvements are to operate both technically and metaphorically, for their own sake and as legible symbols of the Eco-City.

The problem isn’t that landscapes can’t operate as metaphors for a tightly integrated relationship between the city and nature (not that I think faslanyc is saying they can’t), but that they can’t operate successfully as metaphors without first operating successfully as landscapes that function in both ecological and urban systems (“technically”), and so it is backwards (of Blum) to emphasize the primacy of the metaphor when it is the literal reality which gives the symbol its power.

4 Responses to “metaphor and landscape”

  1. namhenderson says:

    Or perhaps another way of stating it is that landscapes “operating successfully as landscapes that function in both ecological and urban systems” is literally the metaphor

  2. rholmes says:

    Sorry, Nam, I don’t follow you… (I’m not even sure I follow my own argument here — usually I feel reasonably clear about what I’m trying to say in a post, but not so much in this one.)

  3. namhenderson says:

    Rob, I guess what I am saying is that it seems like faslanyc is arguing that Blum in his piece he is trying to explicitly include metaphor as a category of interrogation. Whereas you seem to be arguing that in fact Blum isn’t interested in metaphor as a literary category at all, but is focused on a sort of shift in practice (the technical shift you were talking about). Personally i agree and have always found said technical shift to be the more compelling a realm of examination when compared to a more metaphor or literary/figurative method of practice/interrogation..

  4. rob says:

    There’s a relatively well-known piece by the landscape architect Marc Treib entitled “Must Landscapes Mean?”. I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t meaning in landscape (and hence a place for understanding landscape through literary devices, though I don’t think there’s a perfect overlap between the place of, say, the “mythical” and that of meaning), but that a framework for understanding the design of landscapes can’t begin (or stop) with meaning.