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?