Landscape and Critical Agency

1-day single-panel symposium to be held at University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

Friday, 17th February 2012

10.00am to 18.30pm, with drinks afterwards

Symposium rationale:

As far back as the 10th century the term ‘landscape’ referred to the ‘collective aspects of the environment’, as J.B. Jackson argues in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). But rather than the scenographic art it later became, landscape design was initially concerned with the production and organisation of agriculture, housing and infrastructure within its surrounding terrain. Today, whilst the ‘collective’ man-made terrain of the 21st century also encompasses the globalised movements of finance, media and digital technology, our most urgent questions still concern how physical landscapes are produced and organised. As Christian Parenti and others observe, the present environmental and financial crises have escalated conditions of inequality, pollution, scarcity, and precariousness throughout the globe.

Seeking to explore the relevance of contemporary thinking about landscape to such issues, this symposium asks the question:

What agency does landscape possess, as a means of territorial organisation and creative production, to engage critically with the conditions that define the collective aspects of our environment?

There is a growing body of literature, to which Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos (2011) is only the most recent addition, concerned with the critical analysis of territorial transformation and the models through which its complexity might be understood. Within this literature can be cited the radical geography of David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference and Spaces of Global Capitalism (1997); the urban political ecology of Nik Heynen et al’s In the Nature of Cities (2006); the model of ‘social nature’ elaborated by Bruce Braun and Noel Castree in their Remaking Reality (1998); Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin’s incisive analysis of the social and political significance of infrastructural development in Splintering Urbanism (2011); and Mike Davis’s unflinching documentation of the global phenomenon of informal settlement in Planet of Slums (2007).

Yet instead of attempting to grasp the significance of these radical perspectives, contemporary landscape design seems largely content to gloss over its practice with a discourse about environmentalism and sustainability, whilst remaining within the scenographic approach through which it has served power elites for the past few centuries. The most celebrated recent landscape productions — Olympic Park in east London, Manhattan’s High Line, or the cosmological gardens of Charles Jencks, for example — attest to this fact. Rather than seeking to locate its own critical agency, landscape design continues to serve the idea of exerting ‘dominion’ over land.

Proposed contributions:

Papers are thus invited for this 1-day interdisciplinary symposium to explore the possibility of landscape becoming a new form of critical agency, as a radical departure from the current state of affairs. In addition to the central question posed by the symposium, applicants may wish to draw upon the following themes in preparing their proposals, or indeed formulate their own themes:

How might we develop a model of landscape which has agency? What place might be accorded to design, to the material and environmental processes of the landscape itself, and to the various users of territory within this model?

Given that landscape design cannot ever constitute an autonomous practice, how and where might its agency operate critically? What arguments, tactics and manoeuvres might it need to develop to do so?

What scales and conditions might a mode of landscape with critical agency be capable of engaging with? How might it address mass mobility, consumption, migration, food insecurity, soil pollution, so-called ‘natural disasters’, scarcity, informal settlements, infrastructural development, rapid urbanisation or everyday life,  for example?

How might the insights and perspectives of thinkers such as Harvey, Castree or Swyngedouw be ‘translated’ into a form of praxis for landscape design? And how might this in turn develop into an ethics of practice?

What would be the relationship of critical landscape design to cognate disciplines that also make claims upon large-scale territorial production and organisation, such as architecture, urban design and planning?

Please send abstracts of 300-500 words in length to Tim Waterman at:  Make sure to include the paper title, author’s name, email address, and a succinct copy of your current CV (maximum of 5 pages).  Proposals must be submitted electronically and should be presented either in MS Word or Adobe Acrobat format. Papers should be timed as being 20 minutes in length.

The deadline for submitting proposals is Friday 11th November 2011.

Notification of accepted papers will be emailed to those concerned by Friday 25th November 2011. Selected speakers will then be expected to send the organisers their finalised paper by Friday 20th January 2012. It is hoped to publish a selection of the symposium papers as a special issue of a refereed landscape journal, or else in a journal from a cognate discipline.

General information:

Although the symposium is being held at University College London, it has been jointly conceived and organised by staff from the following institutions:

Professor Murray Fraser — Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Douglas Spencer — Architectural Association

Ed Wall — School of Architecture and Landscape, Kingston University

Tim Waterman — Writtle School of Design 

Support for the symposium is also kindly being provided by the Landscape Institute, RIBA Research and Innovation Group, and other professional bodies.