critically critical


responding to:

Anita Berrizbeitia and Karen M’Closkey, “Criticality in Landscape Architecture: Origins in 19th Century American Practices,” 2015.

Writing within the context of the recent decade of “attacks” against critical practices in landscape architecture, Anita Berrizbeitia and Karen M’Closkey suggest, through a questioning of the “critical” and analyses of critical practices in the 19th century, that the profession’s proposed alternatives, projective or post-critical practices, may include aspects of criticality, and that all critical practices are in fact, to some degree, projective.

The authors’ main assumptions include those of the origins of “critical practice” and “landscape architecture.” Looking to the emergence of American landscape architecture in the mid-19th century and tradition of 1930s “critical theory” in the Frankfurt School of thinkers from primarily Germany and Austria, they necessarily trace the practices and understandings of the “critical” and “post-critical” from white male dominated Eurocentric ideologies (Berrizbeitia and M’Closkey, “Criticality in Landscape Architecture: Origins in 19th century American Practices,” 2015, 2). While these assumptions necessarily exclude non-western ideas of criticality and landscape architecture practices, they are made loud and clear in the title and thesis, and serve not to maliciously discriminate, but rather to focus the discussion as a means to express and delve deeper (or “critically”) into their personal western-based ideas of criticality—ideas, I think, that could be built upon and altered by future contribution of non-western thought.

M’Closkey and Berrizbeitia directly address the practice of landscape architecture in the United States, as well as the broader European discourse in their examples. They call for “questioning its methods, its boundaries, its field of influence” as a way to encourage more critical practices in the globalizing world. The way the authors present their ideas is extremely clear in content, yet deceiving in structure. It is a well-told persuasive narrative which leads readers to slowly uncover and realize at the very end what the authors’ main takeaways are: that the critical is actually projective and that we should continue to be critical in our drive towards criticality.

I believe all practices, including critical ones, are projective to certain degree, in the sense that they all start with pre-existing tools, whether or not they are found within the profession or in other disciplines, and are grounded in the memory and preconceptions of the designer. Criticality can be either a layering/constructive/complicit or delaminating/deconstructive/resistive process. A complicit criticality is more projective; it involves working with existing tools and techniques (e.g. CAD, ArcGIS, orthographic projections, mapping) in new ways, but one that accepts current value systems and works “within its frameworks” to reform existing practices (18). A deconstructive or resistive criticality is one that is premised on decolonial and anti-oppressive values, which questions the very tools and techniques themselves. It seeks not to reform, but to abolish or revolutionize existing practices, and involves the imagination and positioning of new frameworks.

While “the critical is activated in specific ways to provoke, define, and structure change found in the bounds imposed by the material and institutional,” I would like to participate in critical practice “by questioning its methods, its boundaries, its field of influence,” and propose that designers must deconstruct the “historically determined” context which Berrizbeitia and M’Closkey claim defines “criticality” (19). I believe that designers must seek to be “critically critical,” and engage criticality as a mission of decolonialization and anti-oppression, as does non-western critical social theory, which is a way to say, “that which was critically critical (that which sought to decolonize and defy oppression) in the past is still critical today and will always be.”


Are we really aiming to make maps?

Today, we had discussions over maps, but it was unclear to me the true criticality, limits, and significance behind making these maps, which are produced in studio, far removed from what we’re mapping. From some brief questioning, I understand that mapping, in its internal, isolated form serves to:

  1. Educate the mappers about the places, relationships, and communities we intend to represent or interact with
  2. Enable communication and give agency to those joined in the discussion of the issues highlighted in the map

I think these are reasonable merits to mapping, but my interest lies in the capacity for maps to communicate. Maps, the medium through which empire expansion, exploitation, and current planning practices are imagined, then executed, are not necessarily the best or “fair” method of communication. They use a particular projection (the plan), language (graphic standards, writing), and presume a degree of objectivity (print, scale, metrics).

So I think the question or problem becomes: how we can rethink the ways we map (the re-presentation) in such a way that it actually communicates equitably and empowers all those in the conversation? And in that representation, whatever form or manifestation it may take, would it still be considered a map?

yank and shove, push and pull

The idea of Asia remained central to the invention of America, and European colonization on both sides of the Pacific Ocean led to the first migrations of Asians to the Americas.

– Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America, 4

The Spanish and British Empires, and later the United States Empire occupied and extracted people and resources from India, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, East and West Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Timor, Brunei, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Cocos Islands, and China (5). One could say Asians were subject to the colonial forces of “yank and shove,” to then be exploited and eliminated.

Further movement of Asians to America was “pushed” by violence and social, political, and economic instability in their home countries, and “pulled” by dreams of education, freedom, and peace (4-5). Though I imagine it could be argued that the “yank and shove” still happens today.


many stories

Obscured by the broad definition of “Asian” and “Asian American” is a staggering diversity of peoples that represent twenty-four distinct groups… Both the diversity and the shared experiences of Asian Americans reveal the complex story of the making and remaking of Asian America. There is not one single story, but many.

– Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America, 3

Many stories, but few are told. In my history and social studies education, the only mentions of Asian Americans were of the gold rush and Japanese internment. Of course, my family’s and my own experience have added to that mix – and what vivid stories they are!


Ceremony is a vehicle for belonging – to a family, to a people, and to the land… the one thing that was not forgotten, that which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land, that we were the people who knew how to say thank you.

…What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 37-38

What does it mean to belong? Rather than thinking of belonging as ownership or control over someone or something, we should think of belonging as a state of being in a particular set of relationships. Imagine yourself in a web of forces representing your relationships with other beings: your parents, siblings, friends, trees, water, land. Some are thicker and stronger than others, pulling in one direction, while others are thin, long, and in tension, representing the strength and nature of your ties.

You are a terrain, a landscape which allows for different flows of relationships. Steep, jagged cliffs represent difficulties and disconnection, while open valleys might mean flexible, public relations. In any case, the landscape thrives not as a single mountain from which everything flows outward, nor a chasm which sucks everything in. It is a complex, diverse field, in which we navigate every day and can find where we really belong.

Ceremony is what can transport us to that world, and enable us to experience the breadth of what connects us all. We should visit this place as often as we can, lest we lose our way.

not belonging

In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity so it could never be bought or sold.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 17

Connection to land is something I’ve rarely experienced. Born and raised in “the big city,” I’ve only visited the land as a guest: foreign camper and hiker surrounded by RVs and flush toilets. One day, I did some weeding in a garden on a 300-acre sheep farm. I was sunburned and my knees were red from kneeling, but there was satisfaction in knowing that the beans could now grow better. I keep a number of house plants but I imagine they are awfully lonely and cramped. If only there was at least a garden of sorts, or even a larger pot for them. These few instances seem like my only connections with the land. These and food. But food, among many other services, are trucked and packaged in such ways that render the land invisible – as mere “capital” or “natural resources” (17).

I try to imagine how a “green” or healthy city might actually exist, and although there are many proposals and ideas, I think we need to stop and first reject “the settler mind” (17). I think it starts with the question of how people might begin a healthy relationship with land – how we might actually start to recognize beings and land as not belonging to anyone but themselves.

Step 1: say “hello” and “thank you” to the land. Introduce yourself. Listen. It’s harder than it sounds. Even if there are patches of soil here and there, they seem outmatched by the miles of concrete, steel, and asphalt strewn across the land, forced into the ground, and raised to the sky. What if electricity and internet worked like fungal networks, through organic material? What if water flowed through streams and marshes, across mountains, and into homes? What if we stopped modeling cities based on how much they can take from the land and instead how much they could give back? We would be thanking and caring for the streams and the mushrooms, our fellow beings, instead of glass fiber and lead pipes.

Step 2: give gifts to the land. Pumps, siphons, pile drivers, and excavators are tools of extraction – of taking from and hurting the land – and our primary tools of construction. What would be tools or devices of giving? Of deconstruction? Is it a matter of the device itself or the way we use it? Maybe it begins with planting a seed, and the tools of gardening and care.

Step X: work together. Relationships are not necessarily step by step, linear processes. Working together requires multiple interactions, unified movement, and nuanced organization. We learn this from ecosystems. There’s constant feedback, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer mentions, reciprocity.

no soloists


Make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense. But trees grow and accumulate calories at different rates depending on their habitats… But they don’t. If one tree fruits, they all fruit – there are no soloists… The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t know yet. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 13-16

Mast fruiting is the “boom and bust cycle” of certain plants, which instead of making fruits and seeds in a consistent yearly cycle, produce a huge amount crop at seemingly random times (14). In order for mast-fruiting trees to sustain themselves, each one fills their roots with sugar and starch to their very tips. When the time is just right, they make fruit all together, all at once, enough for feeding the forest and for birthing new trees (15).