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05.20.2009
Tabula Roses
In Situ: Architecture and Landscape
Superstudio, Continuous Monument (1969)
All images courtesy MoMA

Drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, In Situ: Architecture and Landscape takes a non-dogmatic view of architecture’s relationship to landscape, and the importance of landscape architecture in general, in the 20th century. As it reflects the architecture and design department’s attitudes toward landscape since MoMA’s inception, the exhibit may signal a greater appreciation for the discipline—and for sustainability—in the century to come.

The show’s central premise is that in recent decades, the notion of landscape has taken on an expanded definition in architecture. “In the first half of the twentieth century,” the introductory wall text notes, “the architectural avant-garde celebrated autonomy from nature, and architects devised utopian schemes for creating urban realms ex novo, with little consideration for their surroundings.”

MoMA, of course, played a greater role in defining the parameters and members of the architectural avant-garde than any other institution. The text, again without comment, continues to point out that more recently, environmental challenges and rapidly expanding cities have pushed architects to revise their understanding of landscape: “Harmony between the spatial, social, and environmental aspects of human life has become a priority in political thought, and this has had profound reverberations in both architecture and landscape design.”

Roberto Burle Marx, Dusque de Cexias Square (1948)

In Situ does not offer up specifically what this new understanding of landscape may be. Instead, it presents drawings, models, and a single video with minimal commentary, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps and draw his or her own conclusions.

Some of these works are beautiful, and mine the subject of landscape deeply, while others seem only tangentially engaged with the subject. Indeed the vast majority of the projects, which include houses, parks, cemeteries, and visionary urban schemes, are by architects. These include large models of classics like Fallingwater, which is so well known for its innovative site planning that its inclusion seems unnecessary, and Richard Neutra’s even earlier Lovell House, which in this context looks more literally groundbreaking.

Remarkably, a work as blunt and hard-edged as Superstudio’s Continuous Monument, with its ravishing representations of the superstructure set in cragged seashores and transformed cityscapes, looks sensitive compared to Bernard Tschumi’s or Zaha Hadid’s designs for the Parc de la Villette, which repeat the “ex novo” approach described in the wall text.

Similarly prescient are two of James Wines and SITE’s Best Products Stores, which, though they are suburban big-box stores, engage and comment on their context in intelligent, witty, and—at least in the cases of the Forest Building and the Terrarium Showroom—ecologically responsive ways. Works by Yona Friedman and Andrea Branzi also suggest that designers of the 1960s were thinking critically about urban and environmental conditions, and deserve the current reexamination they are receiving in the academy.


SITE, Terrarium Elevations (1979)

Of the works included, two of these projects depart from the others. A pair of site plans by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx are as aesthetically arresting as many of the paintings in the adjacent galleries. The only work in the show by a landscape architect, the plans clearly conform to the museum’s standards of beauty.

Teddy Cruz’s Non Stop Sprawl: MacMansion Retrofitted Project stands out for its direct political and social engagement—Cruz interviews Mexican immigrants for their ideas about the exurban United States. This work’s recent acquisition by MoMA seems to signal a newly pluralistic attitude on the part of the department.

In Situ suggests that the museum may be as instrumental in integrating landscape and sustainability into the discourse of architecture and design in the new century as they were in defining the architectural avant-garde in the last. That, at least, marks a welcome change of terrain.

Alan G. Brake

Alan G. Brake is an associate editor at AN.