The Cute, the Bad and the Ugly – On Urban Biodiversity and Ecological Aesthetics
Urban biodiversity? Yes, please!
… Due to the transitional phase of our understanding of nature in the light of the Anthropocene, there are still some important notions, contradictions and misunderstandings that need to be addressed.
To do so, we will operate with terms like nature, ecology, biodiversity, landscape, and aesthetics, and we’ll focus on ecological aesthetics. We will observe the dialectics of these variables that offer few definitive answers as their meaning is ambiguous. Once you form a statement, it begins to fall apart. We will arrange them in several constellations and observe them through a selection of projects. These constellations are a bit like Calder’s mobile: terms attached to one another, yet interdependent, spinning, different from every angle. They are in motion, and we are in motion, and we wish to figure them out. The effort of this essay aims to illustrate the need for an update and consensus about the vocabulary. For the sake of the format, we will also operate with clumsy and simplified notions like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In the ongoing plurality of simultaneous approaches to landscape architecture, there will be some generalisation in order to illustrate a notion or two.
Nature and Anthropocene
Most importantly, we need to be clear about what the transitional phase, the paradigm shift, is about. The old pristine Nature, no longer exists due to the omnipresent global effects of humanity on the entire biosphere. This old, lost nature, famously depicted in romantic paintings as an Arcadian wilderness, is marked by a slippery notion of ‘natural balance’, pristine wilderness and by the absence of humans. This is today considered just another cultural construct, such as the many concepts of nature in the history of humankind, irrelevant and obsolete.
The new, total, absolute nature currently dominated by humans comprises all living creatures, natural processes, physical facts and their interconnectedness. It is about the coexistence of everything with everything. Humans and the consequences of our intelligence and reason are just as natural as everything that exists.
It is still difficult to accept that, in total nature, smartphones are just as natural as birds’ nests, it seems radical thinking. However, in the light of total nature, the thinking about the cultural construct of pristine Nature feels now even more radical. Specifically, it is the radical splitting of our perception of ourselves into ‘natural’ existence that includes human reason and ‘unnatural’ behaviour that consists of acts of that reason.
The first misunderstanding is that nature is too big to fail, that it is some divine consciousness that will help life on Earth get back on track. This is problematic thinking as there is no nature that will ‘take care of’ anything, as it is entirely indifferent and meaningless. Nature is neither good, nor bad, it just is. We seem to be left only with other living beings and infinite complexities of consequential processes for us to understand and utilise. The rest is just the mute, unconscious coldness of the universe.
In total nature, this magpie-built nest from anti-bird spikes is totally natural. It always has been; just the old concept of pristine Nature did not allow it to be, as it was based on an image of how nature should look.
Landscape architect Günther Vogt calls the Alps an urban park. The total nature is urban nature, marked by the global effects of coal, oil, dairy farming, and plastics … Considering the Alps an urban park is a far more productive frame for dealing with Alpine problems. Protection and preservation operate from an urban attitude. Yet we consider cities more urban but no less natural; there is evidently ambiguity to the term urban.
Pristine nature is as relevant to landscape architects as a copy of Venice in Las Vegas is relevant to understanding Italian architecture. It is a historic outdated simulation, essentially an objectified fantasyland.
The experience of the old pristine Nature has been impossible since the Industrial Revolution, and it honestly existed only in its lie. It is impossible to utilise anything for a human experience of human absence in reality, as the human experience of human absence requires human presence. It can only exist on a symbolic, fictional, representational. Is there any ecological value to things that can only exist on a symbolic level?
Already, modernism was dealing with the question of symbiosis and the coexistence of humans and nonhumans. In Europe, many examples of residential projects are based on a grid of concrete cuboids surrounded by a wilderness-looking park, at least from afar. It was, again, on a symbolic, representational level. It aimed to reflect a supposedly symbiotic contrast between buildings and ‘nature’, artificial and natural. This is a depiction of a non-existent dichotomy.
If there ever was such a thing as a natural balance in the billions of years of the dance of natural events full of climate changes, extinctions and effervescent emergence of constantly evolving species and ecosystems, these dynamics are now in the hands of humans to an extent never experienced before. If these dramatically shifting conditions are the natural balance, how can we be outside this balance?
All data points to humanity as the capital threat to biodiversity. We observed during COVID lockdowns how quickly nonhumans claimed cities, how animals like rats that depend on our food were faced with famine and how quickly the growth of human footprint on climate decreased due to the halt in industry. But let’s not fool ourselves; reversing life, to go, in a way, ‘back to nature’ is an entirely futile pursuit. There was never an ideal ‘state’ in time; there have only been processes.
In his book The Ecological Thought[¹], Timothy Morton proposes to try imagining the time and natural processes outside our perception by utilising slow-motion or time-lapse video techniques. Imagining evolution as a 5-minute video, it is easy to understand that there was no moment in time when nature was ‘as it is supposed’ to be, except for all of them. We are in a balance of motions that will cause the sun to swallow Earth five billion years from now. Human’s notion of balance is the one that sustains the life of human and nonhuman species.
Ecology and Biodiversity
We need ecology in our effort to make life on Earth sustainable, diverse and healthy for as many species as possible. Biodiversity is understood to concern genetic biodiversity, biodiversity of species and biodiversity of ecosystems. It is generally accepted that the quantity and quality of ecosystems condition the well-being of species they are inextricably intertwined with. The most important glue is food availability. If more food is available elsewhere, species will switch habitats. Think of raccoons, a.k.a. Trash Pandas, where more raccoons now live in urban landscapes than elsewhere.
Landscape architects are a part of the means of urbanisation. Specifically, we adapt human habitats and design new ones to host multi-species life. But ecology is not limited only to biodiversity and the ‘green’. It is also about the production processes of the material we specify for our projects, water use, soil, carbon footprint, pollution, and quantity of oil burned to execute our plans on-site.
Another misunderstanding is that if we leave a piece of land to natural processes, the most biodiverse ecosystem will occur spontaneously without human intervention. This is not always true. In many places in Europe, we know that human activity, namely various modes of farming, supports high-performing ecosystems such as wetlands and meadows. Once abandoned, they will gradually evolve into a forest, in our local case, a beech-spruce phytocenosis that is much less biodiverse. It is important to emphasise that by utilising ecological measures, landscape architects can design habitats that will, in many places around the globe, in terms of biodiversity, outperform spontaneous habitats. In other words, some ecosystems are protected not from human activity but from natural processes to sustain biodiversity.
Further contradictions revolve around words like ‘native’. We promote the empowerment of native plant and animal species, yet at the same time, we are inviting them to the urban centres in a non-native typology. If by ‘native species’ we mean their localisation without human interference, and we now know that human interference is globally omnipresent, what is the meaning of the word ‘native’ now? Will palm trees become native to Switzerland? How is it still possible to talk of native species if the climate is non-native? Should we be planting native species in a climate that is already pushing them out? Palms escaping gardens and finding their way into the forests of south Switzerland is a natural process.
We also need to clarify the range of species we invite to our human environment. More insects and birds, water-based species, are generally a positive change to urban sites, and there is hope for a more immediate coexistence in denser urban settings. But when inviting some other, especially larger species, to live with us, we need to be aware we are inviting them to an environment, usually of lower quality. Is it really good for them? Will they really be better off living in cities? Roads, cars and fences are not disappearing from the human environment. Not to mention eating the remains of a McDonald’s already unhealthy meal from the junk bin. Foxes in London, wild boars in Rome, yellow scorpions in Sao Paulo, and raccoons across North America and Canada … It is a natural process for raccoons to eat human trash. If they preferred non-human-made food, they would have stayed outside cities. We project in animals the ability to go where it is ‘good’ for them. But that is also not true. Urban raccoons, like people who eat junk food, also have issues with obesity and high levels of blood sugar. There are limits to our control of urban biodiversity.
Nutrias were bread on farms for fur. In the case of my home city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, they escaped a farm, multiplied, and are now heavily damaging river and wetland ecosystems, ultimately decreasing biodiversity. Based on a study undertaken by experts in ecology and biology, it was decided to kill them all. Some grassroots initiatives were furious about the upcoming killing of nutrias, started a petition and handed in thousands of signatures to sustain their lives. It’s an ongoing dispute, but it seems science will prevail. I suppose it is more difficult to imagine a collapsing ecosystem (life that doesn’t occur due to a phenomenon) than shooting a furry nutria with big brown eyes. We are too often blinded by images.
It is easy to understand the role of bees in the reproductive processes of plants. So, we accepted that bees are good. It became popular among hipsters to have honey bees in urban environments. That way, they can sport a supposedly ecological hobby that looks good on Instagram. But honeybees often negatively affect ecosystems. Beekeeping takes a lot of effort; bees get sick, and they need to be given medicine. For some hobby beekeepers, this is already ‘too advanced’, or they don’t wish to ‘feed them chemistry’, so the sick bees infect the wild bees, leading to ecological damage. Honeybees have become so popular that they are, in some parts of the world, pushing other pollinators and some species of wild bees to extinction. This can happen when ecology gets misunderstood and popular.
Cats are well-represented on social media (a.k.a. social meowdia), which fuels their popularity. Cats out in the open have significant negative effects on urban biodiversity. So, there is a correlation between putting cats on social media and the loss of urban biodiversity.
A friend who rents a house to tourists was having a problem with the guests complaining about scorpions on the walls every now and then. Although the scorpions in that region are not really dangerous, about the same as wasps, the guests smashed them against the walls, killing them and leaving stains. To protect the scorpions and the cleanliness of his walls, he came up with a lie, telling them that it is locally believed that a scorpion on a bedroom wall brings a passionate and healthy sexual life and that killing them brings the opposite. I’m unsure about the sex part, but it worked for the scorpions and walls.
So already, such small nonsense as a supposed superstition, a lie about the existence of another lie, can turn people’s perception of a creature from bad to good, and we are prepared to act on it. But instead of coming up with more lies and superstitions, we should face the multifaceted truth about urban biodiversity and our supposed nobility in tolerating it, facilitating it and empowering it.
In tuning our mindset for a more ecological future, we should absolutely dehumanise non-humans and Nature. Cartoons we show to kids, where animals talk and act like humans, do not contribute to ecological thinking. Imagine a cartoon where the plot and characters consist solely of animal instincts, deprived of human intelligence.
The word ‘animal’ is too coded and, as such, a cultural construct. Philosopher Timothy Morton calls non-human beings ‘strange strangers’, which aims to reset our notion of them and opens the door to a different, less human-centred and more sober observation. Strange Strangers aims at the space outside cultural construct. He emphasises the more we know about them, the stranger they become as we distance them from reality due to the functioning and constraints of human reason.
On another topic, philosopher Slavoj Žižek said he believes in a ‘sincere hypocrisy’. This is by no means a call for being hypocritical, but presumably, the call to deal with it where it obviously can’t be avoided, as might be the case of humans killing other invasive species for their invasiveness and damage to ecosystems.
Being ‘blinded by images’ directly concerns the means of representation that landscape architects use as a tool for communication. In this sense, the popular term ‘ecological aesthetics’ is specifically ambiguous.
Aesthetics and Ecological Aesthetics
Aesthetics alone has long been a sizeable topic in philosophy. Among many philosophers, heavy-duty thinkers like Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Adorno contributed their views on aesthetics, aesthetic experience, aesthetic judgement, value, ethics, etc. It is a vast field in theory, but let’s not get stuck at this point and say that aesthetics concerns a process that happens in the human brain, concerns thinking and feeling, conscious and subconscious, subjective and objective based on an observation of a phenomenon such as art, design, music or basically anything else. Its most banal simplification concerns the scale between what we consider ugly and beautiful and why.
It is more fruitful to resort to aesthetics as a frame for understanding a project beyond the binary understanding of beautiful or ugly. We try to understand what the project is about and how key questions of that place were addressed through design. It deals with the representation of meaning. The more honest and relevant the meaning, the less it becomes important whether we find a project beautiful or not because the ethical component will kick in and alter our perception of what is seen, like with the sex-empowering scorpions mentioned above. That’s why aesthetics are more in the domain of philosophy, phenomenology, and psychology and less, for example, of neuroscience.
For decades, architecture and landscape architecture have dealt with ecological and social issues. An American landscape architect I interviewed said that talking about social issues in America in the 80s was the ‘talk of the time’, as if the narrative itself had an aesthetic quality, where dealing with social issues is just a ‘style of the discussion’, something that is supposed to be done, or even worse, it should look like it was supposed to be done.
In our quest to provide places for a better future, and burdened by the traumatic architectural self-absorption of postmodernism, aesthetics retracted out of focus with a damaged reputation, keeping low, and executing orders from engineering and public acceptance. Designers who attempted to embed their expressive voice in the projects were called ‘egos’, which caused a wave of offices removing the name of their mastermind boss from the office name and usually resort to an abbreviation, something ending with __LA. This abbreviation became a statement that they ditched the ego.
What a pity.
There were egos in the past, projecting their ‘artworks’ onto the public grounds with public money, entirely oblivious of the real issues, betraying the trust of clients and the people. But there are also big egos in architecture and landscape architecture that produce sublime works with a very clear, particular and witty individualistic flare that tackles what is needed and tickles what is wanted.
Censoring ego, geist/human spirit in order to give an impression of responsibility, and being on track of real problem solving is problematic. It is just another style – a style of ‘no style’ as we know it from fashion.
‘Egos’ often gravitated towards finding their own style. While in the eighties and nineties, these personal styles were often based on something incredibly shallow, like a specific set of shapes or combinations of colours, patterns, those more progressive egos let their style emerge through a set of values, personal beliefs and subjects they found relevant. It was more than a style; it was like an apparatus, a personal approach and language. They were based on a philosophy.
In architecture, this is less an issue as buildings need to be built entirely anyway. In landscape, however, a lot of it needs to be grown by natural processes. So, it was thought that to manifest respect towards nature, one should practice restraint. This is again based on a misconception of nature.
So ‘post-egoism’ brought a period of some kind of norm-core approach, where an increasing number of projects were designed to provide social and ecological functions yet failed in offering a sense of particular, a sense of ambience or any other visible statement visitors could engage with. Aesthetics were reduced to some warm-to-cold ‘pleasing beauty’, to an agreed aesthetical order, seen a million times worldwide over the past decades, if not centuries. It was branded as ‘simplicity’, but in fact, it was oftentimes just plain and dry.
As a response to that, there have been calls in the profession in the past 15 years by different practitioners and theoreticians to dust off the discussion about aesthetics, to empower this layer and to add new words to the language of landscape. We discovered that downgrading the complexities of the term ‘aesthetics’ to merely ‘pleasing beauty’ doesn’t pay off.
At about the same time, we began to realize, with each passing season, that ecological distress is a much bigger and fast-moving monster coming out of the fog. Calls to action were on the rise as a radical change was necessary. It then became fashionable to add the word ‘radical’ to whatever other words one was into, trying the luck of finding a new formula, a new approach that would stick. This ‘radicality’ in problem-solving, mixed with the frustration of how boring things were in the sphere of aesthetics, was translated to the language of landscape in reality, in most cases by the use of colour. Suddenly, there would be courageous red paths crossing flowery meadows, or the entire urban equipment of a project would be in yellow or blue … Yet still, beyond underscoring the need for a radical change, the projects didn’t say anything new or interesting. They just looked ‘cool’. The very radicality was instrumentalized as a style, like punk music, but without lyrics.
I suppose the need for ecological aesthetics emerged on top of all that, and together with the fact that the work of landscape architects was going to be increasingly more technical due to pressing ecological sorrow. The issue is that the term ecological aesthetics often gets mixed with ‘natural aesthetics’ and is, in this instance, expected that ecological aesthetics should reflect ‘natural appearance’. This misunderstanding can be a problem when ‘natural’ and ‘naturalness’ are considered to be about pristine nature as a cultural construct.
As a design process, aesthetics directly concerns the language of landscape. It’s about its words, syntax and meaning. Aesthetics are based on narrative and engineering. Those more witty and versed landscape architects will use means of play to set the relations between meaning, craft and function and render them visible.
Any aesthetics in landscape architecture can ‘occur’ based on how a landscape or a solution works, or they can be ‘applied’ separately from the solution based on another notion of how a landscape should look and feel.
The first is an experimental approach, where we research the site for clues and don’t know exactly what aesthetics we will end up with, whether it is ecology, another function, or any other site-specific fact or process. The site, the function and the conditions will lay grounds for aesthetics to ’emerge’. The design process is a journey, and the result reflects the design process. In this case, aesthetics can be used to read and understand the very architecture of the design intention. Such projects tend to be more interesting for an aesthetic observation, where the discussion goes beyond ‘beautiful and ugly’ and explores a new constellation of facts, play and narrative. In this case, as already noted by Joan Iverson Nassauer in the essay Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames (1994)[²], ecological aesthetics can represent or enhance ecological function.
The second approach ‘applies’ aesthetics for no site-specific reason other than because it is a matter of how things look good in a given society. In this case, we talk about style, a pre-set order, recycled play, and a clearly recognizable landscape language based on a wider consensus on why something looks good. Such projects are quicker to design as they are less interested in getting to know the site and expressing its meaning. They are also less credible as we can’t read what the problem was in the first place. There is less transformation and more replacement. Oftentimes, such projects are based on a poor design process; “select all — delete — paste”.
In other words, if aesthetics were developed each time through the design process, perhaps fewer projects worldwide would look the same.
Approaching aesthetics in the design process often happens by means of play. Play that happens as we are restless and free and because life gets boring otherwise. Landscape architecture is a creative cultural discipline, and precisely because the conditions for play are freedom and purposelessness, the play, in a way, decompresses the aesthetics and the heaviness of the message, the heaviness of context. Play says, ‘Look, we can discuss this topic freely!’ as opposed to monumentality, which wishes to, in an abstract sense, underscore the very importance of the message, certainties, dogmas and, as such, acts against democratic discussion. Through play, landscape architects and designers usually find their own artistic expression because a space in the design process opens up as a space of freedom. One has to be free to express one’s own mind.
Design, which serves ideology, is much less likely to provide such freedom. Whether it is a show of social status, political power (Baroque, colonial architecture, architecture of Nazism), belonging to another social order or something else. There is ecology, and there is eco-ideology, or in Morton’s terms – environmentalism. The latter just screams “green!” and calls designers that play with design and express themselves “egos”, but at the same time, demands images of urban wilderness that render utopian and stylized human-nonhuman relations (HNR?). He states that environmentalism is essentially just another ideology that doesn’t allow a free discussion, doubt, irony etc. True ecology in terms of landscape architecture is oftentimes invisible and not so easy to represent.
Play in architecture peaked during the 70s when the temporary post-WW2 housing was in some parts of Europe still being replaced with new developments. As if postmodernism was a declaration of freedom through humour and play.
What monumentality meant for systems of power (and often went too far) and what play meant for postmodernism (and often went too far), today messiness means for the declaration of an ecological effort. Messiness went too far in censoring order as something that appears un-ecological and play as something that appears un-ethical because only nature is currently allowed to ‘play’.
Considering natural, spontaneous processes, like messy and seemingly random plant distribution as ‘playful’, is as relevant in understanding nature as watching cartoons where animals talk. The messiness we carefully design is a human messiness. By repeating it, messiness became an agreed orderly frame itself, associated with ecology and can, as such, mask unecological project as ecological. Ecological aesthetics affirm the problematic view that ecology is visible and that if we wish to be ecological, we should follow a specific type of image and certain aesthetics – a style.
Urban biodiversity, as something inherent to ecology, is represented in images landscape architects produce as an output of the design process. We use them to communicate logical, ecological solutions through aesthetical representations. Nowadays, they often render this utopian coexistence, depicting urban wilderness, ecosystems full of colourful birds and butterflies flying around human passersby where we live happily in harmony, surrounded by blooming messiness. These images have been rooted in our collective consciousness for centuries. Nevertheless, in terms of ecology and urban biodiversity, this is misleading, as setting liveable conditions for the coexistence of creatures is not about aesthetics. Aesthetic judgement shouldn’t be a criterion when it comes to urban biodiversity.
Urban biodiversity also includes invasive species, species like rats, crows, cockroaches and other animals people often tag as ‘bad’ due to caused material damage or transmission of diseases, ‘ugly’ due to their appearance, or, to put it in modern terms, ‘less aesthetically exceptional’. They, of course, seldom find their way onto the renders even though they will highly likely be there; they are left out of our notion of how ecological aesthetics should look like and what it takes for the client to buy a project. So, there is again an issue with ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’, what sells and what doesn’t.
But even if the carefully selected ‘aesthetically exceptional’ non-humans will come to the party, how will society look at them further down the road when they multiply, get dirty and eat trash? How can hamsters be cute and rats repulsive? Of course, rats have human dirt on them. We feel they are tainted by us, which results in our disenchantment. Raccoons are less so; they are nicknamed ‘Trash Pandas’ as their cuteness remains intact despite the fact that they came for the bins.
Unfortunately, in society, so much is at stake for simply being cute or repulsive. It’s frightening how blinding and important this is! Ecological aesthetics, because it is about aesthetics, is in danger of surrendering to this binary dichotomy with the support of social media and the production of fast and popular answers. According to the laws of natural selection, in a nature dominated by humans, cute endangered animals like Pandas and Whales stand better chances of advocation and protection than, for example, the endangered Giant Gippsland Earthworm. So, human aesthetic judgment may turn into a de facto means of natural selection. The bad and the ugly may be left out.
Masking is the dark side of aesthetics. Landscape architects tend to use landscape structures to balance the appearance of a landscape. Hide the ugly; show the beautiful. If a structure in the landscape seems disturbing, will we hide it behind trees and shrubs, or will we expose its potential illegitimacy? If we need that structure for a purpose, it is not illegitimate and has all the rights to be visible. If we don’t need it and there’s a better, more ecological solution to the problem, then it shouldn’t be there in the first place, and its existence should go unmasked as well because we need to reflect on the issue. We need to face more and more issues and not let them slip out of the picture. We should embrace the aesthetics of problems, which could be about the appearance of a landscape problem left in place for public reflection. Revealing landscape problems that can’t be solved by our design through the language of landscape is ecological. In other words, beautifying, hiding and masking friction robs the spectator of a chance for discussion and reflection. That is an undemocratic design.
At this point, the approach of ‘messy ecosystems, orderly frames’ gets challenged as its purpose seems to be the social acceptance of ecological measures. We should work on the social acceptance of ecological solutions themselves rather than wrapping them into something else.
Landscape architecture is not art, but perhaps it would need a shift similar to the one that happened in art long ago, namely a shift away from the picturesque, away from beautification and pleasing, and away from being naive to conceptual, to honesty, to reveal, to disruption. Urban biodiversity is not a matter of pleasing aesthetics but instead of reason and science, responsibility and commitment, as well as empathy and sacrifice.
This swan in Amsterdam made its nest out of the trash and found human-made objects. Searching on the internet, this is by no means an isolated case. Given that the Netherlands offers an abundance of ‘green situations’ to swans, this swan is, of course, entirely oblivious to our notion of where it should or should not nest and how humans think a swan nest should look like. Sure, we must deal with our waste, no doubt about it! Nevertheless, notice that the swan actually just recycled our trash to build the nest. How does this phenomenon differ from a spider having its offspring behind the fridge? Is it really any different from a park bench made of recycled plastic bottles? We must accept that non-humans evolve and adapt to the human habitat and that ecology will not necessarily look pleasing.
Our operating system needs a radical update and new thinking that will steer ambition and openness to embracing the unexpected, curious objects, awkward aesthetics, weird phenomena, the ugly, etc. There will be more anti-bird spike nests, trash nests and ‘Trash Panda’ situations coming.
The important ecological role of any aesthetics is for us humans to appreciate the projects we build. Loving our designed landscapes is one of the necessary steps towards ecology because what we love, we maintain, and we do not replace. Replacing is often the most ecologically damaging part. Buying a used 1990s diesel-powered Volvo is still less ecologically damaging than ordering a new electric car. Buying any new car is never ecological; it can only be less ecologically damaging than something else.
We should be talking more about what and how to replace it. Some landscape architects, such as Wagon or Julie Bargmann’s D.I.R.T., are often guided by the objective that ‘no material leaves the site’. That is a promising attitude fit for the future, even if some structures or materials that didn’t leave the site may not look good or look ‘out of place’. Aren’t they actually beautiful because they have an ecological purpose of staying there? Precisely because they look ‘out of place’, they offer grounds for reflection. New aesthetics may emerge each time out of such unique situations, allowing visitors to engage with their meaning.
In other words, it is appropriate for ecological aesthetics to act as a tool for understanding the language of landscape, the design process, and the attitudes that shape a project. But it becomes problematic once we introduce a binary scale between beautiful and ugly, and recreating an image of the pristine nature.
Some landscape architects go as far as selecting ‘ugly’ trees in tree nurseries to include aesthetical ‘errors’ (which are, of course, not errors) and render their projects more nature-like. By all means, this is mimicry; it is naive, and it is kitsch. Why would you design a project and try to say you didn’t? Whether a plant is ‘ugly’ or nicely engineered, selecting plants for your project is a design act, whether you like it or not. Deliberately selecting ugly plants and categorically applying messines is futile in terms of ecology. Censoring human geist from our work sends a wrong message and obstructs the ecological effort.
As pointed out by Nassauer, “The fact that apparent naturalness can lead to such perceptual mistakes about ecological function underscores the power of the cultural concept of naturalness. If we acknowledge the distinction between ecological function and natural appearance, we can begin to critically analyze the cultural language of naturalness and use it as a language to intentionally communicate ecological function.“
It is important to note that the essay was written in 1994. While I agree with many things written, there is a need to update the vocabulary. Nearly 30 years later, there is hardly any difference between the ‘messy’ and the ‘orderly’. Messiness is the new order, it has become a style in landscape architecture. We are more aware that ‘naturalness’ today also includes the Magpie’s nest built of anti-bird spikes and the swan’s nest built out of trash. Although that may seem radical, there is, in fact, no other viable and less radical attitude. If we can’t accept that as naturalness, then that is the capital issue.
If we want to keep talking about ‘ecological aesthetics’, we must accept that images of crows or rats eating human trash in the back alley are, for our reflection of the Anthropocene, at least an equally credible representation of nature as messy planting designs, or some flamboyant bird in the deep jungles of Amacayacu.
And finally, to put the cherry on top of all the messy contradictions and notions expressed in this text so far, there is another part of Calder’s mobile that will rotate right back to the starting point. Perhaps we have already accepted pristine nature as an entirely cultural construct, and we use it as a ready-made thing, inserting it like you insert a swimming pool or a trampoline in the backyard. If everything is nature, so are our cultural constructs. They are a reality. Maybe this is also Žižek’s ‘sincere hypocrisy’, namely, we know how fake it is, we discard this supposed authenticity, but we honestly embrace the fakeness itself, knowing that the pristine nature no longer exists, and we construct it anyway as we need an escape from our own human ‘too-muchness’[³]. The lie produces a new truth. Similar to how some people resort to taxidermy to ‘immortalize’ their pets after they die or, how they depict Venice in Las Vegas, for that matter.
Constellations in Practice
Here are a couple of ‘constellations’ mentioned at the beginning, projects that embody different relationships to nature, function and aesthetics.
One of the most celebrated landscape architecture of recent years is the Renaturalisation of the River Aire in Geneva. This LILA 2018 winning project comes from the exact opposite of mimicking Natural appearance. It offers a sublime answer to the problematic question of »re-naturalisation«. It introduces an orthogonal grid of sand that, together with the dynamics of water, sunlight and time, gives a fruitful platform for the emergence of habitats. It clearly claims its anthropogenesis, and it reaches its climax once disintegrated by natural processes, allowing for the emergence of an ecosystem. The more the ruin, the better.
In terms of Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames, this project would probably be categorized as ‘revealing the ecological function’. Due to the use of the clear anthropomorphic grid to contrast the flow of river, it would probably also qualify as ‘enhancing the ecological function’. An orderly frame was left to disintegration by the natural dynamics of water movement that, with the sedimentation of organic matter, became an ecological phenomenon necessary for the emergence of habitats. It addresses other notions between the lines, like the temporalness of landscape architecture projects and their everchanging processual qualities.
Again in Switzerland, Toni Areal, designed by Studio Vulkan, is also about revealing ecological function and resorting to play as a tool for a structure that together allows for unique aesthetics to emerge.
Due to poor growth conditions in a roof situation, wooden soil-and-plant-bearing boxes are composed into a topography that allows larger plants to establish roots. The funky geometry of wooden boxes and boxes themselves will disintegrate and enrich the soil. This project addresses natural processes through play in a very similar way to the River Aire project.
It also concerns design honesty by posing a question: Should we design a roof garden that will feel like any other garden, or should we ask how a roof can become a garden? What are the obstacles to having a garden on a roof, and how do we expose these obstacles and play with them?
The tools of landscape architecture are not just topography, vegetation, and elements but precisely a spatial interface of layers of meaning that culminate in whatever aesthetics occur based on an attitude, narrative, and with the help of engineering.
Another LILA 2023 recognition, Fish Cycle Wieringermeer illustrates the irrelevance of aesthetics of messiness for the emergence of healthy ecological conditions. It has nothing to do with the old notion of ecological aesthetics that reflects the appearance of ‘naturalness’ and has everything to do with the new notion of ecological aesthetics, where, through an aesthetic experience and ecological judgement, one can observe the coexistence of the design play and the ecology within the design process. Aesthetics are seemingly devoid of the ecological function of this fish habitat project designed by Hosper in collaboration with artist Pé Okx and ecologist Cor ten Haaf.
The following example applies ecological function and, with it, aesthetics that are at the same time a strong personal style, immediately recognizable and increasingly more popular. Both function and aesthetics are entirely applied instead of developed through the design process. The gardens designed by Piet Oudolf were a subject of ecological research, and studies found they work very well in terms of biodiversity support.
As Piet Oudolf is not a landscape architect, his approach is often used as a ready-made ecological solution and style by landscape architects/project leaders. It is based on an image, one of flowery perennials, carefully arranged in a messy-looking composition, almost in a way that suggests they were not carefully arranged. Would those same plants have a different ecological function if they were grouped and ordered by species in a series of monocultural plots rather than appear messy?
Limiting ecological aesthetics to messy plantings of perennials and a notion of urban wilderness is irresponsible, misleading and unfit for future use.
While I applaud those landscape architects who can work with messiness, loosening the rigid, determined, formal designs full of shapes, it is not through the thinking frame of ecology or urban biodiversity. It is through the celebration of the acceptance that determinism in design does not work that well with human engagement with the world. It is a different problem. In the appearance of our projects in the light of ecology, we are more at liberty to play than it seems.
LILA 2018 Office Award Winner Catherine Mosbach is very aware of this liberty. Her Bordeaux Botanic Garden was quite influential around the turn of the century. The aesthetics here again reveal the very question of design: What is a botanical garden about? It is a fantasy landscape with an educational purpose. Like an exhibition of some sort. So, to render various types of vegetation, Mosbach used the design tool of fragmentation to render the very objectification of nature a botanical garden, as a typology, is based on. It is like crushing a piece of the planet on the floor and picking out a couple of pieces that appear different.
And that’s why the design intention is honest, it can be directly read through aesthetics. These micro-gardens, or better, fragments, appear as if they are brought from somewhere else, like sculptures, into a gallery space. The objectification is due to their spatial relations intense, almost Noguchi-like. There is no masking, only illiterate, abstract, suggestive storytelling. The project’s theme seems not to be the plants but the human objectification of ‘nature’ itself. So, instead of focusing on the plants, Mosbach adds a layer that questions our cultural constructs.
Another of her projects similarly reflects the play between function and aesthetics. The Landscape for Louvre-Lens is based on the notion of an interrupted link between the horizontal strata of the soil and the art museum on top that, on the level of meaning and representation, acts as a vertical drill that connects the underlying layers and establishes an aesthetic interface.
True, botanical gardens and rich museum parks are more susceptible to experiment. But how does this translate into the sphere of the vernacular?
Atelierhaus C21 is a wonderful residential garden by rajek barosch in Vienna that is quite significant when it comes to ecological aesthetics. There are two obvious ecological functions, namely the biodiverse planting design and water management. The aesthetics are based on messiness and carefully designed in a non-determinate, relaxed way. As if they correspond to spontaneous plantings of pioneer species usually found by the rail tracks. The question of C21 seems to be: How can housing next to rail tracks provide a liveable garden without trying to avoid its usually undesired infrastructural surroundings but instead embrace it?
But compared to Oudolf’s planting design, there is a big difference. The messiness in the rajek barosch design seems to relate more to our shifting perception of our human environment and our entanglement with it when Oudolf’s messy plantings that seem to reflect ‘enhanced naturalness’ in a sort of neo-English style. The C21 depicts the new world order, where trains in the background are part of the focus of the design. Keeping the fence towards the rails transparent justifies this project. All facts are responsibly included; there is, again, little-to-no masking. Out of these facts, site-specific aesthetics emerge.
Ecology is independent of the appearance of messiness. To be even more provocative, I would say if there is one design language that we shouldn’t be using to render ecological function, it is precisely this random, ‘natural’ messiness. We are in times when we need to be aware of our actions and their effects, and the random messiness can easily be mistaken for being undesigned, emerging on its own. Here we come to ecology of aesthetics and design honesty. Again, the messiness I appreciate is more in the domain of establishing free grounds for humans. The messy aesthetics often give projects a sense of ‘freedom to use’. Such is LILA 2023 Winner in Public Landscapes, Bridgefoot Street Park in Dublin, designed by DFLA. Representation reflects the process, where play acts as a ‘re-distributor’ of the debris of the demolition of buildings previously on-site in a way that enables open use. The ‘re-distribution’ forms the hills and recycles found objects. The design behind the park does not seem to be afraid of awkwardness and untidiness and is curiously open to unfamiliar situations.
Aesthetics are the tip of the iceberg that is the design process. Layers give depth to projects. The obscure, abstract, suggestive and ambiguous design language activates the mind, contributing to the experience and engagement with the landscape.
An important challenge for us is how to design heavily urbanised areas.
To illustrate the above and provoke a bit, check Snøhetta’s redesign of Times Square (I appreciate this project dearly; apologies for bringing it up again here). For a long time, the square has been one of the most celebrated images of urbanity and human habitat. Snøhetta’s mid-2010s redesign introduces dark pavement and a monochrome palette resembling black and white noir movies from the 50s. The benches reference cars from that period. Furthermore, the coin-sized metal discs inserted in the pavement reflect the light from above, emphasise a dazzling kind of Metropolis or Blade Runner-like experience, and add to the illusion of the rainy night noir situation in dry weather. Snøhetta’s homage to artificial light also comes from the fact that the street was the first in the US lit with electric lights. A true masterpiece! Landscape architects I talked to about this project said things like, ‘You can’t even see the project’ and ‘It’s not ecological’.
I wonder how a well-functioning and well-loved plaza isn’t ecological? Should they reinstate the underlying marshes? Should there be trees, messy perennials, and duck habitats in Times Square? Of course not.
As much as we need the image of the Earth from space, we also need the image of Times Square. They are iconic coordinates in our thinking about our existence. It is about human habitat, energy production, production of materials, concrete, steel, glass, trash, cars, dirt, and Big Macs … It is about the total nature. Ecological aesthetics (the ones that are limited to messy perennials and pretty butterflies) are, at this point of talking about ecology, useless and left behind, completely out of breath. They can’t keep up thinking about real issues. The image is not the goal.
Landscape architecture doesn’t and shouldn’t start with an image, a line or a sketch. It starts with thinking. We need to radically expand this early stage of the design process and refrain from generating images until we are sure what we want to do with meaning. The landscape is in danger of being considered as a facade, especially if we use the term ecology as thinly as an image.
Sure, in the work of landscape architects, painting with messy planting designs works for many non-humans and looks fabulously beautiful to most humans. But this is a fast solution, and only one piece of the puzzle that is landscape architecture. Only breaking free from the old notions of nature and its appearance can create a platform for thinking and acting according to real issues.
Providing ecological function and playing with it, associating it with other layers of a site, is very different from providing ecological function and masking it under known images and orderly frames to please the public and ensure better social acceptance. The latter reflects a less democratic and less ecological mindset in terms of the ecology of aesthetics.
Landscape architects have the tools to implement ecological measures, but what separates us from other professions is the ability to open a discussion about our deepest thoughts about our existence and express the meaning in the language of landscape. This language is not only about images; it is also how we perceive and engage with reality, how we understand it through data, air, smell, sound, production processes and the well-being of other species. The landscape is a part of the ‘everything’, a crossroads of complexities of multi-species existence, but it is also a platform for democratic discussion and reflection.
We must radically disrupt the notion of orderly frames and open ourselves to unfamiliar situations. Painting ecology as aesthetically pleasing pushes us further from the relevant discussion and understanding of real problems into yet another utopia for which we ran out of time.
written by Zaš Brezar https://www.linkedin.com/in/zas-brezar/
Published on August 31, 2023