By Fred Kent
Many people through the years have counseled me to speak nicely and not go too far in criticizing the prominent landscape architects of our era. I’ve generally tried to follow that advice, constructively suggesting that the landscape architecture profession ease up on its embrace of high-concept design and focus its talents instead on creating lively places where people will want to gather and interact. But even when delivering this message in the most gentle tones, I’ve been told that I am surely wrong to take a stand so contrary to the beliefs of leading designers–especially when the elite of the profession is so unified in their approach to public spaces.
I frequently hear that we at Project for Public Spaces are staid traditionalists who don’t understand the fine points of contemporary design. Actually, we believe that the fantastic array of modern materials that designers have at their disposal today could launch a new wave of great public places. Our differences with the partisans of high-concept design are not questions of form, but of function. Designing spaces for enjoyable human use has become a secondary concern (if a concern at all) for “star” landscape architects, who seek first and foremost to leave a bold, personalized stamp on every project they touch. As a result, contemporary design seldom offers public spaces that fulfill the hopes and needs of the communities for which they were created. We feel strongly that this does not have to be the case, and are eager to find out about good public spaces that illustrate the potential of contemporary design. (Let us know of any you come across.)
We realize this “landscape-as-aesthetic-object” approach doesn’t characterize the profession as a whole. In fact, each year PPS receives messages of support from hundreds of landscape architects, many of whom subscribe to our newsletter, participate in our listserves and workshops, and are helping us launch a new placemaking movement. The first priority of these designers is helping communities create lively parks, plazas and other public places that attract people. But unfortunately their inspiring work is not always recognized within the profession. The landscape designers who wield the most influence, ironically, are the ones who are most out of touch with their ultimate client, the public.
PPS believes landscape architects play an extremely important role in society when their knowledge, talents, and passion serve the greater public good. Indeed, a core principle of the placemaking philosophy we and others embrace is that designers serve as valuable resources, working side by side with everyday people to give form to a community’s aspirations. But to fulfill this mission, designers must let go of their closely-guarded status as “experts” and open up the creative process to non-professionals.