AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK THOMANN, DIRECTOR OF THE WHY LANDSCAPE WORKSHOP
This interview was conducted at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.
There’s a lot of anxiety about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis. What’s your perspective as a landscape architect?
When you’re working closely with the natural world, you start to recognize those patterns of destruction and renewal that are part of life. You see it in the case of the forest fire, when the landscape starts to heal itself. And you see it with the ecological succession that’s occurring now, as plants and wildlife colonize new spaces in the absence of human beings. Destruction is the interesting point where new growth emerges.
So… Sit back and let go?
I wouldn’t go that far. Giving up agency – it’s just not human. We all want to intervene in a meaningful way – that’s what creates our meaning, that shaping. I’m very interested in the wilding movement, which seeks to restore natural environments but doesn’t deny human involvement. There are different approaches to wilding: there are the people who are playing god and culling off the animals, and there are those who are allowing nature to do its thing. Both approaches involve a degree of human input, an active decision on our part; it just goes to show that we can’t extract ourselves from any ecological system.
I’m fascinated by what happens when you combine that creative input and the processes of the natural world, restoring the wilderness to urban environments in a way that helps cities to function and significantly improves the lives of human beings. I call that process ‘Art and Wilding’ – two ideas which have been in my head for a long time and have become the touchstones of my landscape practice.
If human beings are going through a type of ‘ecological succession,’ how do you see our habitats changing?
In general, I think human beings are very good at adapting. There’s often renewed attention to urban green spaces during and after crises – you see it in the case of Central Park, designed in response to the outbreaks of disease in the 19th century – or the ruin gardens in London which preserved the overgrown rubble after The Blitz, and the potager gardens throughout Europe that allowed communities to survive when supplies were scarce. Japan is really good at this kind of thinking, bringing green space to cities after the traumas of war, earthquakes, tsunamis. I had the chance to work in Japan early in my career, on an urban landscape project in Kobe, just three years after the earthquake. Part of the project was to design benches that doubled up as emergency supply stations. At the time, I didn’t understand it at all – growing up, I wasn’t exposed to wars or natural disasters.
Where did you grow up?
Close to Buffalo, New York, which is an old industrial rust belt city. My family were in the asphalt business – the company was started by my great-grandfather, who had come over to the US from Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed territory between France and Germany. We recently found out that he’d been a landscape architect, and when he came here at the end of the 19th century he started experimenting with new materials for paths – that was that, we switched to asphalt. I love asphalt, I love the smell of it… The polluting, toxic nature of it is not lost on me. I worked for the family business for 10 years when I was a teenager – spending time at The Quaich Project in Edinburgh: Ross Pavilion and West Princes Street Gardens the dumps and the quarries – abandoned quarries, rock quarries, sand quarries. I love all those big spaces, the big weather, the snow and the rain, and the wind which comes off the Great Lakes. Buffalo has its own very specific weather machine – you can have 7 foot snowdrifts in one area, and 3 inches of snow just a mile up the road.
During high school, college, and even before, I’d spend my time roaming, sneaking into the old steel mills and rail lines, and polluted sites – I loved it, loved all of those abandoned spaces and the way plants and wildlife were gradually reclaiming the land. I didn’t know at that stage that I wanted to work in landscape architecture – at university I was a political science major with a concentration in peace and conflict studies, and I was all set to go to law school. But in my last year as an undergraduate I went to a conference at Harvard GSD on ‘Social Ideology, Space, and the Politics of Place,’ and several of the panelists were landscape designers. That did it for me, the different areas of interest came together in my mind.
How did that transition from political science to landscape architecture change your understanding of borders?
Borders – the whole idea is a strange one to me. The only interesting attempt to build a border is the Great Green Wall project now being tested in China, where they’re planting a barrier of trees around the Gobi Desert to prevent desertification. But otherwise, the notion of a wall or a border isn’t particularly useful. If you look at an aerial or a geology map, there simply aren’t borders. The complexity of all our major challenges, climate, air, water, they’re all without borders.
The air which is cleaned in a park benefits everyone outside of the park; the water coming through Chicago impacts people in Mississippi. I’m interested in those connecting pieces and crossing places – those are the spaces where we need to operate. Landscape architects love working at the edges and in transitional spaces – waterfronts, rooftops, abandoned railways, vacant lots – those are our playgrounds.
What makes those spaces so fun to work with?
Unlike designing a building, landscape projects are rarely given a program – it’s just a matter of ‘do the outside.’ We’re faced with an empty or desolate space, and our task as designers is to inspire people to use it in their own way.
When I’m teaching graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, we’ve explored this question by experimenting with game theory and algorithm methodologies. Data collection, mapping, and forecasting is increasingly part of the design process – but there always needs to be that step of human input and whimsy, revealing the need to work with the data in a creative way.
That’s what’s exciting, that’s what takes you to the places where new possibilities arise. A lot of this work was done in collaboration with artists – we held a number of the studios at Mildred’s Lane, a 94 acre project site run by the artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion – their practice is the place.
What can designers learn from artists?
I always tell designers in the studio – this isn’t a methodical practice where we’re building walls or straight lines, you guys have to be painting. I love the work of Robert Smithson, Ragnar Kjartansson, Louise Bourgeois, Olafur Eliasson… And Anslem Kiefer in particular, his way of testing and negotiating that difficult space of destruction, creation, and renewal. Art communicates: it’s experiential, it’s an agent for change. And the art of landscape architecture occurs at the intersection of human creativity and the unpredictability of the natural world. That’s where the mutations, strangeness, and curiosities arise. That’s what ultimately allows for beauty, and the possibility of creating meaningful places which people can make their own.