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On the Limits of

Process: The Case

for Precision in
Anita Berrizbeitia
F or almost three decades, process-based design and its In this scenario, as long as key performative indicators are
related terms, such as the open-ended, the indeterminate, present—the wetland, the porous pavement, the graphs that
the aleatory, the dynamic, the fluid, the adaptive, the resil- catalog the plant and animal species—everything is okay.
ient, have been at the forefront of landscape architecture. Yet from the vernacular to the infrastructural, design
Positioned as inherent to the medium, these concepts have unceasingly proves that highest conditions of flexibility
foregrounded landscape’s becoming, and, reflecting shifts in (today’s “adaptability” or “resilience”) are always reached
cultural and disciplinary contexts, have operationalized time through great precision and specificity: in order for some-
and change for different ends. In the late 1980s, the early thing to be adaptable, it has to be precisely designed to be
work of Michel Desvigne, Georges Hargreaves, and Michael adaptable and not just be undesigned. Even more impor-
van Valkenburgh, for instance, lodged a critique against “im- tantly, the idea of process is limiting today because it works
ported” formalism in design. Formal concerns receded, giv- against the agency of design as a political and social project,
ing way to process-based aesthetics of time, change, chance, which entails imagination and critical thinking. The future
and impermanence that were closely related to phenom- of design lies not in focusing on the things that will happen
enology. A second cultural shift based on new paradigms in anyway but in giving shape to things that would not other-
ecological thinking (from an equilibrium-based model to wise happen, and yet need urgently to happen.
a continuously adaptive model of nature) privileged land- The precisely designed, then, is presented here as a
scape’s capacity to self-generate, and resilience rather than counterpoint to loose, process-oriented thinking. Although
poetics became the key operative goal of design.01 More precision is typically associated with top-down agency, with
recently, the focus on sustainability and ecological services the imposed, the static, the stable, it also exists in the bot-
has propelled the idea of the performative—the ability of tom-up, the evolved, the dynamic, and in the active form (or
landscape to carry out work—through which the notion of formation). That is, an expanded notion of precision yields
process has assumed a problem-solving role. Finally, with an expanded notion of form that internalizes process.
the emergence of digital technologies, time and process can Three recent projects suggest that the question of form
now be modeled. Paradoxically, the processual logic of al- in landscape is already being re-examined: the Quinta Nor-
gorithms produces an aestheticization of process that is as mal de Agricultura in Santiago, Chile; the Louvre-Lens
formalistic as those rejected decades ago. Museum in Lens, France; and the gridded plantations in
In parallel with these developments, other concepts and Bordeaux, Saclay. These projects, as well as many others by
attitudes emerged that sought to propose alternatives to this Michel Desvigne Paysagiste’s practice, demonstrate how
mainstream view of process as open-ended phenomenon. shape, materiality, and geometry work to negotiate a dia-
George Hargreaves—in his own design work and also with lectic between the precisely formed and the process-based
co-editor Julia Czerniak in their 2007 volume Large Parks— in landscape, and between past histories and future uses on
introduced the concept of scales of landscape management as the site. The transactional attribute of form in these projects
a way to shape a more nuanced articulation of temporality in suggests that form is not only a thing-in-itself (with its own
the landscape medium, especially as it relates to public space. visual power) but that, in addition, it operates as an inter-
Other landscape theorists have argued for a middle ground face between its own condition of autonomy—producing
between perceived oppositions in order to critique what they an atmosphere, an ambience, a milieu—and those exterior
identify as a new set of false dichotomies—the fully open conditions—such as connectivity to larger urban networks,
versus the static, the performative versus the aesthetic—de- logistics of territory, accessibility, and so on—that act upon
rived from prevalent discourses on process.02 More recent it. In other words, the widespread notion that “form fol-
concepts such as “the curation of ecologies” and “managed lows,” which compromises the agency of form on a multi-
succession” are currently being explored by landscape archi- tude of external forces, is tempered with the recognition of 111
tecture students and practitioners as plausible ways of medi- the necessary autonomy of form, with its possibility of being
ating the relationship between process and design. apprehended as such.03
Although process and its related concepts have been The renovation of the Quinta Normal de Agricultura—a
extremely fruitful to expand the field of landscape architec- 19th-century garden created to acclimatize European spe-
ture and its modes of practice, they also have a less promis- cies of the temperate zone into the semi-arid environment of
ing side. As methods they have run their course and are now Santiago de Chile—took place between 2009 and 2011 and
in urgent need of revision. Often today, process becomes a was designed by Danilo Martic and Teodoro Fernández. The
conceptual glass wall—an impediment to propositional de- project addressed the contradictory purposes of preserving
sign and experimental risk taking—to the point where we a horticultural collection of majestic trees and transforming
are about to see a one-size-fits-all, flattening-out of design. the grounds into a public park in a densely populated and
Danilo Martic and Teodoro
Fernández, Quinta Normal de
Agricultura, Santiago de Chile,
Chile, 2011.

largely neglected part of the city. This entailed the installation and sets up a series of curated successional ecologies in its
of a durable, paved surface over what was previously the soft, gardens. But it is reductive to describe the designers’ inten-
porous ground of the garden, which could potentially harm tions only in terms of the site’s mining past and the resulting
the root zone of the trees. The primary, and most precise, de- anthropogenic ecologies.
sign intervention consists of a series of surfaces built in stone, What is evident here is a series of intentional distor-
wood, and stone dust, all of which together do not amount to tions and reinterpretations that bring all the forces that have
more than 12 inches in thickness. This enables social occupa- been at work—past, latent, active—to coalesce through a
tion of the space alongside preservation of the pre-existing negotiation that critically calibrates their presence. Invoking
trees. Here we see not only the visual and programmatic the words condensation, contamination (of form and uses),
power of a surface precisely described but also the power of initiation, and consolidation, Mosbach describes the concep-
form as performative of the interface. Its formal, expressive tual framework for her project.04 More importantly, she also
character and its precise definition as a series of thinly lami- uses the word transfiguration because it describes what the
nated surfaces that negotiate between the trees lends expres- project achieves: a transformation into a different state. The
sion and a sense of boundedness without restriction to this slight curvature of the brushed aluminum facade and the wet
public park. The ground—with its hybrid geometries that are pavement from the almost constant rain that falls in the re-
self-referential (autonomous) and, at the same time, respond gion produce soft, blurred reflections that bring the larger
to the location of the trees—appears and performs as a sur- landscape, the horizon, and the sky into the space of the
face of contact between old forest canopy and new public site, separating it from the rest. Architecture and landscape
realm. Precise form need not be dismissed as static or formal- collaborate to draw in an entire milieu, an ambiance, a deli-
istic; rather, it can be embraced as an enabler of the evolution cate presence that diverts attention away from the politics
112 of urban space, from a previous mono-functional condition of dominant urban institutions and toward that particular
(in this case, a private institutional garden) to a multipurpose place and moment in time.
public space within a contemporary metropolitan area. Michel Desvigne’s proposition of landscape as an in-
Another highly precise ground is that of the Museum termediate nature is another example of precise form that
Park Louvre-Lens, a collaborative project by SANAA (Ka- works as interface. Although often described as indetermi-
zuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) and landscape architect nate, deferred, and open-ended, it is impossible to overlook
Catherine Mosbach, constructed on a 62-acre former coal- the fact that Desvigne’s work is, at the same time, full of
mining site. As has been often stated, the design registers the definition, most often through the use of specifically dimen-
traces left by the mining economy (such as the landforms of sioned grids and other Euclidean geometries (paradoxically
displaced earth and the tunnels), preserves the vegetation of disdained today as static). To write this work off as only pro-
exotic species that emerged in its disturbed and toxic soil, cess is to disregard so much more that is present in it.

Michel Desvigne, implementation plan for the Right Bank of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France, 2000.

From the beginning of his career, Desvigne received un- through distortions and hybridizations. Related to legibility,
usual commissions for landscapes that did not yet exist as coherence, and res publica is also an insistence on the elabo-
sites of intervention when the contracts were signed. Such ration of “presence,”05 which counters the normative and
commissions include Bordeaux, Saclay, and Euralens. Be- modernist conceptions of grids as spatial and visual struc-
cause these projects have taken many years (if not decades) tures that reject narratives. However, unlike looser vector-
to be fully implemented, they have required new forms of based, process-design approaches, Desvigne’s highly specific
client–designer agreements and, in the absence of programs geometries bridge different temporal regimes on the site and
and real budgets, new forms of working. While this projec- constitute an interface between a present post-industrial
tion in time may classify the work as “process-based” design, (Bordeaux, Lens) or post-agricultural (Saclay) condition of
Desvigne resists the conventional image of process as a spa- fallow land and a yet-to-be-determined future.
tially unarticulated landscape, such as those more typically These landscapes are processes of rapidly replicating
associated with sites in an indeterminate programmatic form, where precise recursive gestures create the possibility
and administrative state. From the project-scale proposals that we can apprehend structure. The designs are not clearly
such as the Governor’s Island competition in New York, the bounded: there is no hard boundary condition that sepa- 113
building terrace at Keio University, Tokyo, or the garden for rates the positive form of the design from its constitutive
the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to the larger, phased negative. Rather, there is gradual variation between the ex-
regional landscapes of Bordeaux, Lens, and Saclay, gridded isting context and the proposed intervention. The landscape
forms serve to structure space, time, and program in an in- is understood as a continuum, and the design emerges as a
tegrated and visible manner. Legibility and a visible coher- precise and abrupt intensification in the gradient of relation-
ence in the landscape are, for Desvigne, constitutive of a res ships, which creates a transition between inside and outside.
publica in that they construct alternative ways of occupying Intermediate natures are, then, not indeterminate natures
and giving form to a place. Such forms of occupation are but highly specific spaces of negotiation between past traces,
both retrospective—they trace past agricultural and geo- geographical structure, agricultural practices, and the vision
logical structures; and projective—they are denaturalized for a future public realm.06

Anita Berrizbeitia
SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue
Nishizawa) and Catherine
Mosbach, Museum Park Louvre-
Lens, Lens, France, 2012.

Top: Michel Desvigne, Keio University, Tokyo, Japan, 2005. Bottom: Michel Desvigne, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2005.
Boundary, then, like form, requires a more nuanced To be clear, I am not advocating here that we leave aside
definition as a dialectical condition. Though boundaries en- what remain as core environmental and social responsibilities
able conceptual and experiential autonomy from that ‘other’ of the field, which are also those that the world today requires.
which is not landscape, they also engage this otherness in What I am arguing for, nevertheless, is that landscape architec-
order to define the particular terms of relationship (such as ture not be reduced to satisfying these responsibilities alone.
what is left outside and what is allowed to be continuous). The projects just described are located in socially and econom-
Such a notion counters the recent veneration of unarticu- ically underserved communities with little prospect of growth
lated flux, fluidity, and change, where everything is posited or change in the short term. These projects do not represent
in equal terms as “urban,” in favor of a negotiated interaction public spaces in the service of a robust capitalism already in
that recognizes the necessary difference between things, existence. Yet they demonstrate that landscape architecture’s
enabling a new imagination to emerge. While still standing greatest effectiveness derives from exceeding the base condi-
for control, definition, determination, and other precision- tions of sustainability, through the self-conscious command
based notions epitomized by the idea of boundary, form-as- over form, geometry, and materiality as both autonomous and
interface modifies that notion in at least two ways. On the relational. These belong to disciplinary concerns that other
one hand, it cancels the agonistic closeness of the bound- fields which share the same environmental agendas (such as
ary, and on the other, it puts the emphasis on the interac- restoration ecology or civil engineering) do not, and cannot,
tion—on the dialectic between two sides.07 In other words, have. Yet, what is at stake is not just the identity of the field but
the boundary is a condition that belongs to none of the sides also the legibility of a socially constructed space that emerges
(such as a wall) and is therefore a moment of separation, through a deeper commitment to the exploration of form. The
whereas the interface belongs to both sides and is therefore precisely designed form reveals rather than obscures. Its high
a moment of negotiation. definition communicates, draws in, mediates, and enables.

Early versions of these arguments were pre- between operative and aesthetic capacities 05. Anita Berrizbeitia, in conversation with
sented in lectures delivered at the University in landscape design that is very much pres- Michel Desvigne, as part of Berrizbeitia’s
of Virginia in 2015 and at the Harvard Uni- ent today. See Julia Czerniak’s introduction, lecture “On the Limits of Process: The
versity Graduate School of Design in 2016. I “Appearance, Performance: Landscape Case for Precision in Landscape,” de-
am grateful to colleagues at both schools and at Downsview,” CASE Downsview Park livered at Harvard University Graduate
especially to Pablo Pérez-Ramos, coeditor Toronto, ed. Julia Czerniak (Cambridge, School of Design, Cambridge, MA, April
of this issue of New Geographies, for valuable MA: Harvard University, Graduate School 14, 2016, http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/
discussion and comment. of Design, 2001), 12–23. For the claim #/media/anita-berrizbeitia-on-the-limits
of a midway position between the fully -of-process-the-case-for.html.
01. Equilibrium models of nature defend the open and the static, see Anita Berrizbeitia, 06. Michel Desvigne, introduction to Inter-
idea that disturbances and fluctuations “Scales of Undecidability,” in the same mediate Natures: The Landscapes of Michel
are automatically corrected by negative volume (116–25). In her essay “Sustaining Desvigne (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2009), 13.
feedback mechanisms, whereas more Beauty: The Performance of Appear- 07. Marc Shell distinguishes between the
adaptive models based on complex- ance,” Journal of Landscape Architecture Latin and Norse roots of the English
ity tend to accept natural disturbances (Spring 2008): 6–23, Elizabeth Meyer also word island, the Latin insula meaning
as common and necessary. See, for strengthened the linkage between perfor- “land insulated by and defined against
example, David Keller and Frank Golley, mance and appearance at a moment when a surrounding medium,” and the
“Community, Niche, Diversity, and they were still understood as independent. Norse meaning “water-land”—literally
Stability,” in their edited volume The 03. According to Louis Sullivan, “form the coast, the point where water and
Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to (ever) follows function”; according to land happen at once. Unlike the more
Synthesis (Athens: University of Georgia biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, boundary-oriented Latin notion, the
Press, 2000), 101–10; Nina-Marie Lister, “form follows forces”; according to mod- Norse meaning is closer to the idea of in-
“Sustainable Large Parks: Ecological ernist landscape architect James C. Rose, terface, as the moment where two worlds 117
Design or Designer Ecology?” in Large “form follows plants”; and according to happen at once. See Marc Shell, “Defin-
Parks, ed. George Hargreaves and Julia today’s process-based landscape design, ing Islands and Isolating Definitions,”
Czerniak (New York: Princeton Archi- “form follows performance.” in Islandology (Stanford, CA: Stanford
tectural Press, 2008), 35–58; and Don- 04. Catherine Mosbach, “Atmosphere, University Press, 2014), 13–25.
ald Worster, “The Ecology of Order and Atmosphere, Do I Look Anything Like
Chaos,” Environmental History Review 14, Atmosphere,” lecture delivered at the Image Credits
nos. 1–2, 1989 Conference Papers, Part 2 symposium “On Atmospheres: Spaces 112: Photo courtesy of Danilo Martic.
(Spring–Summer, 1990): 1–18. of Embodiment” organized by Silvia
02. Julia Czerniak’s formulation of appear- Benedito at Harvard University, Gradu- 114–115: Photo © Christian Schittich.
ance versus performance constituted a key ate School of Design, Cambridge, MA, 113, 116: © Michel Desvigne Paysagistes.
moment, marking a sort of “great divide” February 4, 2016.

Anita Berrizbeitia