I subscribe to an American magazine entitled ‘The Dirt’, the monthly publication of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). That designation is important, ‘landscape architects’. Because here we have another one of those common instances where confusion surrounds the language we habitually use to describe something or to make certain subtle distinctions between things.
I, and others in this line of work, am often described as a landscaper. I have even described myself as landscaper. Which is true, but only up to a point. When I lived and worked in America I was known only as a landscaper, the word garden was never to be heard next nor near the context of what we did.
Let’s bring it back to The Dirt. ASLA concerns itself with the work of landscape architects. Landscape architects are responsible for resolving public space; streetscapes, plazas, parks, public recreational areas, urban settings. I don’t work in that realm. I resolve private, mostly residential, spaces. I am a garden designer. A landscape architect might find it challenging to do what I do, and I would certainly find it challenging to do what a landscape architect does.
As we have observed before, transatlantic cultural cross pollination is decidedly one sided, west to east. So, what I think has happened here is that we have absorbed the Americanism ‘landscaper’ and ‘landscaping’ and allowed them to usurp the traditional designation, ‘gardener’ and ‘gardening’.
Now strictly speaking it is probably a tad misrepresentative to characterise someone whose stock in trade is the resolution of private garden spaces as a landscaper, but that is what we do. Like I say the traffic is pretty much one way, so I don’t think they were ever going to adopt our quaint terminology centring on the word ‘garden’.
This, after all, is the race of people who attempt to convey the concept of ‘’I couldn’t care less ‘’ by saying the words ’’I could care less’’. There’s just no talking to them on matters of linguistic erroneousness. They are, in fact, capable of anything.
Anyway, the broader point here is the virtual absence of my profession to any meaningful degree across the Atlantic. The grand summer horticultural expos that we are accustomed to here don’t happen over there. They are on the cutting edge in the choppy waters of landscape but floundering in the paddling pool of garden design.
I have spoken before of how formulaic garden design over there tends to be. It’s not as bad here. I have also lamented how downright depressing public space design here tends to be. It’s not as bad there. They are good in the landscape. We are better in the garden.
What has happened recently in a neighbourhood called Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a case in point.
This small enclave is the centre of technological innovation on the East Coast. But you would never have known it walking the decrepit and dated brick streets. Home to MIT, Google, Microsoft and other tech start-ups, Kendall Square needed a fresh look that reflects the cutting-edge thinking happening in the buildings lining its streets. But Cambridge, a historic district, also has a highly restrictive palette of materials to choose from.
So, landscape architects took the standard Cambridge brick, concrete, lighting and traditional building materials and synthesised them into a streetscape totally unlike anything that the region has seen before. The place has been rebooted and given a new identity. The emphasis is on fluid public transport links, wider sidewalks, plentiful bike lanes, pleasing textures and colour palettes, relegation of the motor car, promotion of the person. The scale of the setting is large but somehow simultaneously intimate.
Would any of that happen in an Irish urban streetscape in 2017? Doubtful. But then again would an American suburbanite take a chance on a Corten steel pergola with black slabs in his back garden in 2017? Doubtful. Swings and roundabouts mate.