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01.28.2011
Review> Diana Balmori Issues Marshing Orders
A Landscape Manifesto packed with ideas
Public Administrative Town Masterplan, Sejong, Korea
Courtesy Balmori Associates, H Associates, Haeahn Architecture

A Landscape Manifesto
Diana Balmori
Yale University Press
$65.00

She calls it a “manifesto” but Diana Balmori’s book is much more—a history of landscape, a study of attitudes toward nature, a monograph, and a call to arms with a very radical battle plan.

Balmori traces the ecological disaster we face today to the 18th-century English Landscape School (William Kent, Capability Brown, Humphry Repton) which, influenced by classical landscape paintings, created consciously designed landscapes that erroneously came to be associated with “nature.” Revered as the opposite of the “industrial” and “fueled by the Romantic movement,” the idealized English landscape was brought to America, where there was a very different climate. Here, native forests were cleared, first for grazing, then for 19th-century suburbs and parks where grass-covered land was considered “natural,” though it was grown with seeds from Europe. As this country settled into regions with varying climates, “the American Lawn” persisted in increasingly unnatural ways until it became what Balmori calls “the Industrial Lawn.”

The Industrial Lawn demands pesticides, sucks from the water supply, creates pollution and waste, and minimizes species diversity. “The machines (mowers, aerators, leaf blowers, weed whackers, edgers) that groom our grass all consume fuel,” explains Balmori, which contributes “to the formation of acid rain, ozone, and greenhouse gases, and cause respiratory problems.” The Environmental Protection Agency “estimated that in 1984 more synthetic fertilizers were applied to American lawns than the entire country of India applied to all its food crops.”

Balmori may be uniquely qualified to consider ways to alleviate the problems a romantic idea of landscape has created. An architect trained in Argentina, she later earned a PhD in the Urban History at UCLA and a Certificate in Landscape Design at Radcliffe College. She has worked primarily as a “landscape artist” for the last two decades and taught the subject at Yale, and her firm, Balmori Associates, has won numerous international competitions. Matte finish, soft focus drawings, computer renderings and photographs of their projects (along with some by other designers) are shown here to illustrate the approaches she advocates. The images have a slightly abstract quality, because they are propositional, as well as in many cases, real.

This author has studied the ways that water, pollutants, chemicals and other aspects of the ecosystem interact, and how design can correct some disastrous contemporary practices. Balmori wants to create places where humans, plants, and various forms of animal life can coexist. She also believes that ecological processes need to be visible—and beautiful. Bemoaning the fact that “there are no great visual images emerging from sustainability as there were from industrialization,” Balmori invokes the very strong images of modernism by comparison: “The modern movement’s invention is basically an object (architecture) standing on a flat plain (landscape).”

Balmori’s intention is to stitch these disparate elements back together. She is interested in “shaping spaces… not objects within the landscape” and “in connecting visibly with as many elements of the rest of nature as possible.” The term she uses to describe “the new area between water and land, or the seam between architecture and landscape” is “interface,” a concept she developed with architect Joel Sanders at Yale.

The best example of interface shown in the book is the Public Administrative Town of Sejong, Korea, about an hour from Seoul. Balmori Associates won an international competition to develop its masterplan and to design its first government building, though later ones will be awarded to other architects in subsequent competitions. The plan, at first, looks revolutionary—more like a game board or park than the center of a city. All the buildings have green roofs, which she advocates, especially if they are visible. Since pedestrians can walk on the tops of the buildings as well as on the ground, there are entrances on both levels. Sejong, which is under construction now, seems radical, if not impossible, before you read A Landscape Manifesto. But after soldiering through the book (not always easy, since though it is very clearly written, it is densely packed with ideas), this completely new kind of town makes an enormous amount of sense.

Balmori herself would be the last to see Sejong as a final solution, as she is ruthlessly self-critical. She views every project as an experiment. Hers is a manifesto with hypothetical bent.

Jayne Merkel

Historian and critic Jayne Merkel writes for Architectural Design, Architectural Record, and other publications.