Conference as eschatology: The 2016 International Festival of Landscape Architecture

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Held at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the 2016 International Festival of Landscape Architecture conference explored landscape architecture's place in the Anthropocene.

Held at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the 2016 International Festival of Landscape Architecture conference explored landscape architecture’s place in the Anthropocene. Image: Sophie Seck

Eschatology has historically been defined as the theological study of End Times and the related themes of death, judgement and the final destiny of the human soul. Academic Naomi Stead made this the focus of her contribution as a panellist at the 2016 International Festival of Landscape Architecture conference, and in doing so provided a fitting lens through which to make sense of the event. By questioning what landscape architecture might need to be in the age of the Anthropocene, the 2016 conference, entitled Not in my Backyard, resembled a secular exercise in prophesying the status of the profession at the end of time.

In Cape Town, South Africa in late 2016, a group of experts presented a recommendation to the International Geological Congress for the declaration of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in recognition of the decisive influence of humankind on the state, dynamics and future of the planet. From the perspective of the conference’s creative director, Richard Weller, Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at PennDesign, the new planetary epoch is defined by dynamics that are landscape architectural in nature. He cites urbanization and climate change as planetary phenomena and major disciplinary concerns that are subject to increasing practical and theoretical attention. On this basis, Weller centred the conference on the proposition that the first century of the Anthropocene is landscape architecture’s to claim.

Through two keynote presentations and seven curated sessions (New Views, New Natures, New Cities, New Stories, New Signs, New Techniques and New Practices), the conference explored Weller’s proposition by “thinking” its way, landscape architecturally, through two epochs – the Holocene and the Anthropocene. For the conference’s six hundred delegates who descended on the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, attendance involved reflecting on the earth’s transition from one planetary era to another and imagining a landscape architecture responsive to the planet’s predicted course and probable “future pasts.” Although the conference often lacked the discipline and time required to address its stated agenda, viewed collectively the proceeding’s stronger contributions alluded to a reimagined practice of landscape architecture centred around four related concerns.

The global steward
Weller’s claim of landscape architecture’s increased relevance in the Anthropocene knowingly invoked a similar call provoked by similar circumstances fifty years earlier. In response to the environmental crisis of their time, Ian McHarg and a band of like-minded colleagues asserted a role for landscape architects as “stewards of the earth,” a position enshrined in the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Declaration of Concern and later operationalized in the publication Design with Nature (1966). It was in the same year as the declaration that the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects was formed. It was with these two events in mind that Weller commenced proceedings by reflecting on the past fifty years of Australian landscape architecture, asking what, in addition to growing a profession, have we really achieved?
Weller surmised that the development of place-based aesthetics and improved ecological functions have been the profession’s primary achievements. However, critique was levelled at the extent and location of this activity. Weller’s notional line of “diminishing influence,” running from Barangaroo Reserve to Uluru, provided a lucid schema of the Australian profession’s limited impacts, one that mirrored practice globally. Beyond major urban centres and inner suburbs, landscape architecture is absent. In response, Weller argued for the continued relevance of McHarg’s call for a practice of planetary stewards. In an effort to conserve the planet’s depleting biodiversity in the face of rapid urbanization and a growth in industrial practices of agriculture, stewardship in the age of the Anthropocene according to Weller would involve relocating the profession’s “design intelligence” to the developing global south. Some, recounting stewardship’s historic exploitation by a “European” white male hegemony, met the idea with extreme caution. Their critique found support in Dr Helen Armstrong’s acknowledegment of landscape architecture’s current complicity with and subversion by the urban interests of private capital.

The professional activist
Closing the first day, Armstrong provided a nuanced historic survey of Australian practice, elaborating on Weller’s earlier critical assertions and enriching his opening schema with a temporal dimension. Her presentation emphasized the distance between Australian practice’s activist roots and its modern-day complicity in neoliberal processes of placemaking. Central to Armstrong’s presentation was a goad to consider what may have been lost or precluded as a result of landscape architecture’s increasing professionalization. With reference to the activism of the 1960s, Armstrong pointed to the advantages of marginality, asserting that the profession’s modern processes compromised a practitioner’s ability to advocate and fulfil their strategic duty.

Practising entanglement
Moving from the lived experiences of one epoch’s end to the probable end of another involved little debate on the variety and magnitude of the challenges facing humankind in this new world. Most vividly, the planet’s altered state was invoked through discussion of climate change and its related impacts. Unlike previous conferences, delegates were subject to limited statistical barraging, and the ordinarily ubiquitous carbon dioxide spike appeared only a few times. This was an audience seemingly in full agreement on the science.

In his keynote address, public intellectual and ethicist Clive Hamilton conceived of the earth’s natural forces as our opponent in a continuing and intensifying power struggle, one defined by the fact that both sides, humans and nature, are more powerful than ever. According to Weller our sparring partner is no longer to be thought of as existing “out there” in the world, separate from humankind. The Anthropocene quashes any remaining attempts to maintain nature’s “otherness.” Nature is no longer a benevolent force: victim, lover or mother. In this new epoch, where no corner of the planet remains untouched by humankind, we are co-creators of the earth’s planetary systems, both conceptually and materially. According to Professor Margaret Somerville this “entanglement” in the planet’s future necessitates a need to decentre the human in an effort to allay further harm.

At home in uncertainty
Somerville was one member of the most pertinent and affecting session of the conference. Curated by writer and artist Paul Carter, the New Stories session emphasized the place of metaphor and meaning in a culturally leavened practice of landscape architecture fit for the Anthropocene. The panel, including philosopher Jeff Malpas and RMIT University academic Jock Gilbert, was at pains to stress that as hope begins to evade us, “prophetic armatures” based in “new systems of thought” will serve a vital role in shaping our reasoning and resolve.

The tenor of New Stories constituted a cautionary tale, identifying the shortcomings of technocratic solutions that claimed to redress our place in the Anthropocene. The rhetoric of the ecomodernist movement was cited as an example of business as usual, basing its cause on the use of the same means and meanings that led to the arrival of the Anthropocene. Ecomodernism, imbued with Enlightenment thinking, presupposes that humans possess self-control and the ability to exert control over nature, abilities refuted by virtue of the Anthropocene’s existence. This is no time to find comfort and resolve in feigned certainty. In the words of Gilbert, “certainty leads to The Bolt Report.”

The position expressed by the members of New Stories provided a focus for a number of the conference’s other measured voices. Collectively they could be thought to constitute a call, as stated by Weller, invoking Donna Haraway, to “stay with the trouble.”1 By extension, it seems important to remind ourselves that while the developing prophecies of our new age may make any action appear futile, when found to operate at its most profound and affecting, the practice of landscape architecture has concerned itself with phenomena that evade assimilation and representation.2 On this basis, the age of the Anthropocene is clearly a challenge of landscape architectural proportions.

1. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
2. Peter Connolly, “What is at hand: A re-evaluation of technique in landscape architecture” Kerb: Journal of Landscape Architecture, issue 6, 1999, 70-83.

Landscape Architecture Australia was a media partner of the 2016 AILA Festival of Landscape Architecture.

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