The (Dialectical) Architecture of our World

For my final post, I’d like to briefly meditate on a problem which I left unaddressed in my first blog post, and which has loomed behind both of my posts since then.  This blog post was titled “From Design to Practice” (http://upperclassmonroe.blogs.wm.edu/2014/06/02/from-design-to-practice/) and in it I argue with what I call the “design model” of the garden.  This is a model in which a subjective designer – perhaps a landscape architect – develops the idea of a garden and then realizes this idea in the actually existing landscape, much like a painter would to a canvas.  However, as I try to argue, the garden is not something that we dream up independent of our everyday social interactions.  It is not something that we design.  The garden is a process.  It is something that we practice in relationship to the other things that we do and the other things that we think.  Whether these are the cultural myths that we tell ourselves every day or the political economic trends of the cities we live in, our capacity to change things, both in the garden and in the broader city, is extremely constrained.  In this sense, we are all architects, but we show up to a world that is already mostly built.  To make this assertion even more severe I will quote Sidney Mintz, who I read last year for class:

Most of us, most of the time, act within recognition, not invention.  To say this is not to deny individuality or the human capacity to add, transform, and reject meanings, but it is to insist that the webs of signification that we as individuals spin are exceedingly small and fine (and mostly trivial); for the most part they reside within other webs of immense scale, surpassing single lives in time and space (2005:118).

It is scary to think that despite our desire to do as much good for this world as possible – to dream up liberatory myths, utopian communities, and more equitable societies – that our ability to build is somehow neutered by structures that have been built long ago.  It’s frustrating.  Why is it that by trying to know the world and understand it as it is, we always seem to render ourselves incapable of changing anything?  We become architecturally impotent.  I’m sure anyone who’s ever taken a sociology class understands this feeling.  So this is the problem.  The problem of structure – symbolic or political economic.  It is the problem of gardening in a bed that was sown long ago.

However, I’m a little bit critical of this viewpoint, although I seem to have partially adopted it in my first blog post.  I fear that the assertion that things in the world suck because of a hegemonic structure beyond the control of anybody’s intentionality sounds eerily similar to the assertions of laissez-fair economists – the ones who tell us that people can’t afford to pay rent on their homes anymore due to the unintentional intersection of supply and demand (as if the displacement wrought by gentrification was just one big “oopsy-daisy”).  Of course there is intentionality.  In fact, there has to be or else the world we live in could never be reproduced.

As I have tried to show in my posts, there is continuity between the things we think and the things we do – between epistemology and methodology.  Perhaps the prescription for paralysis, for architectural impotence, is not only in the way that we act but also in the way that we know.  Of course the world is structured, but it must also be re-structured.  Things are built – landscapes, gardens, cities, corporate headquarters, and government offices – and these structures exert their agency on the present.  But these material things can only be enacted as a part of our human geography if we choose to show up.  That is if, through our social processes and symbolic communication, we rebuild material space by making it a livable place.  The socio-material web is never fully woven because it is constantly being re-woven.  David Harvey writes:

What has gone before is important precisely because it is the locus of collective memory, of political identity, and of powerful symbolic meanings at the same time as it constitutes a bundle of resources constituting possibilities as well as barriers in the built environment for creative social change (2000:27-28).

If we know the city and the garden through this dialectical register, we can recognize that landscape architecture is something that we do every day.  It is not a moment of creativity which engineers an entire socio-physical world, but it is equally as powerful.  Landscape architecture is the process by which we build, rebuild, and rethink our geography through our labor and communicative capacity – through the things that we do and the things that we mean.

This summer I worked on an urban garden where I witnessed an incredible amount of architectural (and horticultural!) potency.  I worked in a setting where the urban world is constantly changed and constantly renegotiated by the volunteers who garden it – both on-site and off-site.  I think all that can be asked of such an incredible group of gardener-architects, as well as all of us, is that we try our best to understand our position within the processes of social change, and to recognize the possibility of steering its vector.  This is not the activist goal of change, which implies a fictive alternative of passivity, rigidity, and structure.  Instead this is the anthropological goal of understanding socio-cultural processes, and then of changing the change itself.

Bibliography

Harvey, David. 2000. Megacities Lecture 4: Possible Urban Worlds.  Twynstra Gudde Management Consultants: Amersfoot, Netherlands.

Sidney Mintz. 2005. Sweetness and Meaning In The Taste Culture Reader, Carolyn Korsmeyer, ed. Berg. Pp 110-122.