Landezine Conversation / Denise Hoffman Brandt: On Ethics and Design with Nature — Debunking Ian McHarg

In the conversation with the landscape architecture professor, artist and writer Denise Hoffman Brandt*, we speak about the morality issues attached to “doing good” while debunking Ian McHarg’s problematic position in Design with Nature.

In the conversation, Brandt points out how our assumptions about nature shape our actions, why stewardship is problematic and what landscape architects could do. Denise Hoffman explores our relationship with nature through the bark beetles killing the spruce trees, misusing Darwinian concepts of evolution and explains how to design for all living creatures. Design “with” holds many answers to our questions.

Brandt is currently finishing a book, on Trees and Beasts, excerpts from which you can read here.

Through the long-haul research, she was searching for an answer to what nature is as the distinction to the landscape is blurry and as Brandt points out

“I told my students not to use the word “nature” because I found they were always confusing a kind of moral judgement with the physical realm”. […]

Thinking about where the landscape architecture fits in with the idea of nature, I realised landscape is a piece of it and the way landscape architecture has situated itself as a practice has actually confined its territory within what I think of as nature. That by denying or dancing around political issues, by being not straightforward about how emotional intelligence is part of a way to understand the landscape beyond a kind of aesthetic, by denying a lot of the things that are wrapped up in these confusing ideas of nature, because nature is an idea, it’s a bunch of moral judgements we attach to physical phenomena – physical phenomena are not nature.”

Ideas of nature have shaped our environments since Aristotle’s Scala Naturae where he puts

“humans at the top because they have reason and possibly souls and everything else is below because they are not rational. I would argue that that attitude, that ontological positioning of humans in nature is what underlies not just our environmental travesties but also our social injustices”.

In response to a question regarding how to design for all living creatures, Brandt suggests respect and parity. Driving through the western USA forests, Brandt discovered 95 per cent of the spruce trees in the area were killed by the bark beetles, questioning how to acknowledge other species’ cycles and our intersections.

“When we look at how we build the city, we surface everything for people who wear shoes and cars and vehicles. Everything else is barefoot. Why don’t we have more spaces that accommodate that type of motion and ground contact? No, we say we have to have more stormwater management. Let’s change the terms of the argument”.

Nevertheless, Brandt sees relations and our actions beyond “good, bad and ugly”:

“We [humans] are allowed to understand ourselves as having habitat that is meaningful to us. Humans are allowed to have what humans want and need, just like the bark beetles. Parity means everything matters. All of our ideas, all of our wants and desires as humans making our habitats, have value at some level – even the bad ones. And very often the bad ones as in McHarg are stemming from really good impulses, from things we would consider morally just. […]

The idea of thinking for other species is not thinking for them – I think McHarg had a good word there – it’s with.”

*Denise Hoffman Brandt earned her educational credentials at the University of Pennsylvania in art history, continuing painting at Pratt Institute and concluding with studying landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to holding a professorship at the City College of New York, she was an adjunct and visiting professor at Columbia University and Pratt Institute. She was also a project manager at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a senior landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, before establishing her own practice Hoffman Brandt Projects, where among other topics, she engages in activist design for crisis situations and critical mapping, say uranium activities across the US or gun cartridge distribution found after the 2015 Baltimore protests.

Published on July 2, 2024

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