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Monday, May 02, 2011

Book Review: Landscape Infrastructure

Landscape Infrastructure: Case Studies by SWA edited by the Infrastructural Research Initiative at SWA
Birkhäuser, 2011
Hardcover, 184 pages

Landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm SWA was founded in 1957 by Hideo Sasaki and Peter Walker as Sasaki, Walker and Associates. Over time SWA evolved into an international practice owned completely by its employees and collaborative in nature, a "participatory group practice involving several seasoned and talented principals and associates." This last fact is evident to a certain degree in the Infrastructure Research Initiative of SWA's Los Angeles office, headed by Ying-Yu Hung and Gerdo Aquino, the firm's president. As Charles Waldheim mentions in his introduction to this book collecting some of the LA office's recent projects, the initiative carves a niche in SWA "for experimentation, risk-taking, and the production of landscape projects as cultural forms," as well as a "kind of design think-tank." Waldheim further explains that "by choosing infrastructure as the object of study, Aquino/Hung et al. enter contemporary discourse on landscape as a form of urbanism." This book, a monograph of sorts, illustrates this position through fourteen case studies and contributions from others in the field, including Waldheim, Julia Czerniak, and Adriaan Geuze.

The well-documented case studies are divided into four chapters: performance, aggregate, network, and increment. As explained by Ying-Yu Hung in her essay these attributes of landscape infrastructure, respectively, achieves requirements with measurable results, collects piecemeal projects to remediate negative conditions, brings cohesion and purpose to disparate elements, and sustains growth over a period of time. In a sense all of the projects embody more than one of these, but like any monograph the overriding aspects of the projects determine their location in the book. More importantly, these attributes help to explain what landscape infrastructure is: a way of designing that integrates infrastructural systems to positively affect both landscape and infrastructure, moving beyond single-use infrastructure developed by engineers. A good example is the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which controls erosion along a stretch of downtown Houston, helps remediate the waterway, and provides a park for residents. Simply using pipes to control runoff is no longer an option; solutions are more complex but also more beautiful.

The other case studies range in size from the roof of the California Academy of Sciences by Renzo Piano and the Lewis Avenue Corridor in Las Vegas (two relatively small projects) to linear parks like the Katy Trail in Dallas and a number of mega-projects in Asia. About half of the projects are completed. Documentation is thorough, featuring photographs, renderings, plans, diagrams, details, and some research documentation. Descriptions situate each project in its context yet also delve into the details, such as unique aspects of construction (I especially like the section illustrating the installation of the retaining walls along the Buffalo Bayou) and plant selection. With a broad presentation of the various projects the book should appeal to more than just landscape architects. It is especially valuable for articulating a practical position for dealing with infrastructure, at a time when the term still carries old connotations in need of reconsideration.

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