Autumn foliage

Imagine if Bricks Were Alive?

Please join Julian Raxworthy, author of Overgrown: Practices between Landscape Architecture and Gardening at the MIT Press bookstore for the launch of his book on October 22nd. Overgrown is a call for landscape architects to leave the office and return to the garden. 

“Fall” is not something that we really have in Australia, though it is present in the wine-lands near Cape Town, where I now live. Here, oak trees inside the “werf,” the wall that encloses the main house, remain from Dutch colonial times. Seasonality in the Southern hemisphere plays out in different ways, reflecting fine changes in climate and meteorology. In Western Australia, noongar people have six seasons; from my own experience, Cape Town’s seasons seem back-to-front from Brisbane, Australia, where I last lived, which had dry winters and electrical humid storms in summer. Instead, Cape Town receives all its rain in winter (when it has it, which thankfully it recently has) and none in summer. After winter rains, now, in spring, wildflowers bloom as days grow longer and brighter, and plants make the most of recent rains before things start drying out in summer. Brisbane did have a fall, making the blue flowers of the jacaranda trees more striking in a place that surely was too hot to have an autumn.

I will be coming to Cambridge for the launch of my new book, Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening, and although I may miss the autumn color of New England since my launch is October 22nd (yes, that is a plug; please join me!), I know that the hard work, the practices of gardening, will be well under way by then: leaves will need to be raked up, perhaps blown around first. For those who do garden work, whether owners or gardeners, this is a thankless task where dead leaves are replaced by new ones as soon as the lawn surface is clear. 

While many may not even think of gardens in relation to design, for the profession of landscape architecture, the raking of leaves also seems far away from what designers do: working in offices, designing “space.” While, it’s true that I don’t really talk much about raking in my book, preferring more patently sculptural acts like (fevered) pruning, the calibration of the time and experience of human life to the life (experience?) of plants is a focus of the book, one that I argue landscape architects are often unfortunately remote from in their professional work. Any gardener, even as they find the leaves frustrating, understands that the time of life is something that they share with their garden. 

At the root (yes, one of hundreds of garden puns in my book) of my argument is something amazing about plants that requires me to make a straw man of architecture: imagine if bricks were alive? What would that do to how you understood architecture? More importantly, how would it change the way the architect practices what they do? A drawing of the wall would clearly only be relevant for a certain time, since once the bricks started growing, the architect would have to go to site, check what had changed and, as they say in South Africa after Afrikaans, “make a plan.” 

But for landscape architects, this is already the case. Plants grow! Our materials transform over time, and yet this notion, that is revelatory in relation to the static in architecture, is entirely under-theorized in landscape architecture. In my book I argue that one of the reasons for this is that there is a class-based separation between landscape architecture and gardening, the former white collar, the latter blue (or green) collar. However, gardening as a practice is vital to this idea of growth as a material, because the only way that growth can be worked with is not in representation—in drawings—but in real time, the interval of growth we share with plants, as well as our DNA. In my book I propose a new design language for plants that I call “the viridic,” after the tectonic in architecture, to help to merge design and gardening practices.

Recently a friend asked about gardens to visit in Kyoto, and, looking out the window at Table Mountain through the clear air of spring morning, I replied with excitement “Go to the philosophers walk: it will be a crazy riot of cherry blossom!” I was both embarrassed by my oversight and then reminded that the world is round and that I live at the bottom of it (at least according to first world models). As a man from the southern hemisphere I thought that I don’t really understand autumn, don’t really get to see its riot of color. But I do understand the raking of leaves and the lessons it teaches, each season one less for both me and the tree, but hopefully one more of wisdom.