Sunday, April 29, 2012

Designing for depth

The cultural resource management realm is a strangely siloed one, where historians, biologists, archeologists, landscape architects, and other professionals cross paths but don't necessarily work together over time, something that probably contributes in an indirect way to the struggle that many historic sites have in building close relationships with working farms.  We all have our specialized languages and methods, and although we're often talking about the same things, we don't often talk with each other, let alone with people who may actually be working and using the land we're studying.  Movement is often centripetal, continually focusing our attention inward to our own disciplines and professions rather than outward in more expansive and inclusive ways.

I was particularly struck by this on Wednesday, when I viewed the presentations from a landscape architecture studio led by Ethan Carr (left), a professor in the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Ethan's students have been working on new design ideas for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, on which my recent Ethnographic Landscape Study (about to be released imminently, I hope!) was focused.  The students' plans centered largely (although not entirely) around agriculture, particularly on the need for structures, paths, views, and interpretive facilities that will enable the park to tell a broader story about farming at this site, perhaps in partnership with Roxbury Farm, the large CSA farm now cultivating the fields.

Like me, Ethan's students benefited from the unusually cohesive body of existing scholarship commissioned by this park, particularly the two previous cultural landscape reports.  Unlike me, though, they had only a very short time--a single semester--to get to know the site.  Based on what they were able to glean from a handful of site visits and some familiarity with the earlier studies, they produced proposals for various ways to re-narrativize the landscape and enable visitors to come into closer physical and interpretive contact with past and present farming here.

I took two main ideas away from the presentations.  First, I realized how little I actually know about the vocabulary and methods of landscape architecture.  Although cultural anthropologists like me supposedly share a core concern--culture--with those who study and design cultural landscapes, our approaches are miles apart.  Their focus on "contributing features," views, and entry/exit points is as foreign to me as my interest in the politics of class and ethnicity may be to them.  I know intellectually that professional disciplines often end up talking past one another like this, but it's different to see it actually happening in the case of a site where you've done intensive study yourself!

And second, I realized that despite the obvious limitations of this kind of student project, there was still some possibility for ideas that push the conversation outward rather than circling it in on itself.  The strongest proposals were the ones that acknowledged the gaps in the planners' own knowledge and left physical and conceptual room to fill in some of those gaps with on-the-ground encounters and experiences.  Some of the students had rushed to propose what the farm could grow and where, and how they might market it, ignoring the very specific type of growing and selling that already happens here and the kind of long-term familiarity with land and community represented by this mode of farming.  In a sense, they were replicating the hubris of industrial agriculture, which approaches land as a kind of blank page onto which growers can write whatever they want.

The subtler plans left a different kind of blank space--a dialogic one that made room for visitors to ponder the existing farm operations in a more open-ended way.  The most effective designs made room for the kind of looking and listening that might--for attentive visitors--foster greater depth of awareness and understanding of what was around them in both space and time.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the simplest proposals that looked as though they would do that best--a classic case of "less is more."

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