Landscape Architecture's Finest Moment?

Is the profession of landscape architecture entering into a new golden age? If the 2012 ASLA awards are any indication, the answer may be yes.

Award of Excellence: “A Green Sponge for a Water Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park,” Haerbin City, China. Design by Turrenscape and Peking University, Beijing. Photos by Kogjian Yu.

Landscape architects have long lived with a dualistic view of the profession. Inside the profession, LA’s see themselves as heirs to Frederick Law Olmsted’s heroic and sweeping ambitions. Landscape architects shape cities, create National Parks, protect the environment, and even stimulate social reform. But this rather ambitious internal view of the profession is undercut by landscape architecture’s relative obscurity in the public eye. Introduce yourself as a landscape architect at a cocktail party and questions about lawn mowers, flowers, or plant diseases immediately follow. Since Olmsted, the chasm between what landscape architects think they do and what the majority of them actually do has been very deep. Until now.

Landscape architects may indeed be gaining influence. “Landscape urbanism,” the theory that landscape—rather than architecture—is more capable of organizing and enhancing cities has moved from obscure theory to the dominant pedagogy in design-related higher education. Large scale urban projects all over the world are being lead by elite landscape architecture firms rather than by architects. Landscape architecture is moving away from merely ornamenting buildings and instead shaping the very infrastructure of cities.

The 2012 ASLA Awards are another indication of landscape architecture’s emboldened scope. The awards feature a stunning array of projects, including a seven thousand acre stormwater park; a park highlighting urban agriculture; a former quarry turned garden; the defining memorial for 9/11; and two new botantical gardens that feature not just plants as horticultural objects, but the ecological relationship between them.

Honor Award: “Quarry Garden in Shanghai Botanical Garden,” Shanghai China. THUPDI & Tsinghua University.

What is remarkable about this year’s ASLA Awards is not just the variety of projects, but the ambition of each of them. The Qunli Stormwater Park in China shows that a gorgeously designed recreational park can also be a green sponge for the entire city. Lafayette Greens in Detroit shows how an engaging public space can also be a productive vegetable garden. The Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus shows how the ecological fabric of the Sonoran desert can be a setting for a campus. Canada’s Sugar Beach shows that playfulness and whimsicality can contribute to the beauty of an urban waterfront.

What’s different about these projects is not just their scope, but their voice. The names of the projects by themselves—“Quarry Garden,” “Green Sponge for a City,” “Sugar Beach,”—suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of all these projects. These projects are not about making spaces that slip quietly into their context; they are instead a declaration of war. Their anthem is a simple: landscape matters.  Lanscape architects are no longer decorators of architecture; they are green knights who march foward with with the conviction that any outdoor space--from quarries to waterfronts, from gardens to cities--can be conquered with design.

Honor Award: “Canada’s Sugar Beach,” Toronto Waterfront. Claude Cormier Associes Inc. Images by Claude Cormier Associates and Nicola Betts.

Honor Award: “Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability,” Detroit, Michigan. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture.  Images by Beth Hagenbuch.

Honor Award: “Sunnylands Center and Gardens.” Rancho Mirage, California. The Office of James Burnett. Images by Mark Davidson and Dillon Diers.

For the full list of the 2012 ASLA Awards, including more images and fuller project descriptions, click here.
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