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Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: Landscape Futures

Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions edited by Geoff Manaugh
Actar, 2013
Paperback, 308 pages

In the second half of 2011 and beginning of 2012, the Nevada Museum of Art held the Landscape Futures exhibition, curated by Geoff Manaugh and featuring works by David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang (The Living), Mark Smout and Laura Allen (Smout Allen), David Gissen, Mason White and Lola Sheppard (Lateral Office), Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, and Liam Young. The exhibition explored "how planetary landscapes, and our perceptions of them, can be utterly transformed by technology and design." This subject and stance won't be a surprise for those familiar with Manaugh's blog or his writings published in other print and online sources. Yet as the exhibition and companion book illustrate his stance—which opens up architecture to a much wider cabinet of curiosities for influence, consideration and relevance—is not a singular one; it is shared by many individuals and groups writing, teaching, and practicing architecture today.

In Manaugh's lengthy yet valuable and insightful introduction to the book, he acknowledges the impact of Smout Allen (among others, but not to the extent of the British duo) in formulating the particular stance of the exhibition, in which our understanding of landscape is affected by mediated perception rather than by direct experience of it. This influence comes from a studio they performed together in Australia and by the previous work of Mark Smout and Laura Allen, much of it documented in the great Pamphlet Architecture 28: Augmented Landscapes. The valuable role of the duo extends to the exhibition, where their Rube Goldberg-esque Surface Tension occupied a large and central position (video below), and the book, in which a large chunk in the middle documents their piece. This is not to say the five other participants/groups are shafted; they are given as much attention by Manaugh, if not the same amount of printed real estate.

To describe the ideas behind the exhibition, the actual pieces displayed, and the process of getting there, the book is split into three parts—four if we count the introductory essay I mentioned. In the first section Manaugh interviews each of the participants, showing the usual widespread knowledge that he exhibits on his blog, where interviews are a major part. Reading these and other interviews I'm often amazed at the references that Manaugh pulls, but I also wonder about the role of architecture in his framework of influence. Typically he looks to science, technology, history, fiction, anthropology, and other areas as means of influence for architecture and for architects like Smout Allen. Yet what about the influence of architects in the past, be ones who were influenced by wider interests or not? I'm not expecting Manaugh to abandon his interests in favor of an architectural historian's stance, but by the same token, will future architects be influenced by Smout Allen, Lateral Office, and others, or will they go the way of history's dust bin when findings of contemporary scientists are found to be more inspirational or influential? I'm curious if the science-architecture street (among others) is one way, and if architecture's own merits (materiality, spatiality, aesthetics, etc.) have as much relevance in this wider view of things.

The second part of the book documents the works in the exhibition, but it's the third section—the sourcebook—that is particularly interesting, for it presents some of the events and writings that influenced the participants as they developed their pieces. At the forefront of this is the Landscape Futures Super-Workshop, "a solid week of intensive workshops, discussions, site visits, design challenges, hikes, symposia, dinners, presentations, and crits" in which "participants and exhibitors alike [explored] the multitude of ways through which landscapes can be read, cataloged, interpreted, mapped, and understood using specialty equipment, both speculative and real." Following is a solid selection of readings; some, like David Gissen's great "The Architectural Production of Nature, Dendur/New York," are by the participants.

Given Manaugh's predilection for emphasizing quantity over quality, Landscape Futures, the book, packs plenty in its slim (if incorrectly paginated—whattup Actar?!) 308 pages. This is not to say that the book is lacking in quality, as there is plenty, nor that that the great number of contributions and subjects tackled are haphazard—there is the strongly articulated theme around which everything swirls after all—but rather that the book seems to be about the great number of ways of looking at landscape rather than defining a few key means of understanding landscape and architecture via the theme. I'm not going to lump this outcome solely on Manuagh's shoulders, because I believe it is the natural outcome of exhibitions, and particularly exhibition catalogs, which add essays, points of view, and insight to the core artifacts from the exhibition. More than just a document of an exhibition, Manaugh gives readers plenty to learn and think about, as well as a snapshot of how some practitioners and academics are trying to take architecture and landscape in new directions.

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