If you’ve heard anything about my work over the past three years, designing with P. Allen Smith & Associates, you’ll know that our design practice - while spread across the southeast - is heavily focused in Arkansas and Louisiana. As I’ve read about and experienced more of the region, I’ve been struck by the central role that place (sometimes rural landscape, sometimes city, sometimes garden) holds in the stories that people tell about their histories, their families, and themselves.
Multigenerational sagas about families in relationship to place seem to be particularly popular in this region. Lalita Tademy’s Cane River explores one family’s upward struggle from slavery to property ownership, particularly the messy hierarchies of life in Creole communities. In Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, the manager of a plantation in Ascension Parish teases out her own family’s complicated relationship to the property as she investigates the mysterious death of a local farm laborer which unfolds alongside the political maneuvers of the plantation’s owner. Throughout these books, the plantations on which the stories occur stand as physical embodiments of the power dynamics between families.
As you move out of the wide flat washes of the Mississippi River Delta, up into the rockier terrain of the Ouachita and Ozark mountains, landscape often enters stories as an isolating agent - the topography and smaller scale of the mountains making large-scale agriculture or commerce unfeasible. Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, set in the fictional Ozark town of Drear’s Bluff, uses the isolation of scattered rural dwellers as a way of exploring the individual isolation of a queer woman who’s been compelled through financial difficulty to return to her rural childhood home. The 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri utilizes the landscape in a similar way to embody the isolation of a mother’s grief after her daughter’s murder. These mountain stories tend to focus more on individual relationships to place, rather than the multigenerational family sagas found in the Delta. In either case, landscape is portrayed as an active protagonist in shaping human life, experience, and identity.
Such a relationship with landscape - as an active force in the life of a family or individual - made sense to me, given the stories I heard growing up. For my father’s family, it was always the Mississippi River. The River brought them to Missouri to work. It flooded its banks and trapped my great-great-great-grandmother in her hotel, killing her in her own home. It sucked my great-great-uncle down off the showboat where he worked, drowning him in its murky embrace. It called to my great-grandfather, who answered, gambling away his wages and weekends. Even my father’s teenage summers were tribute to its call, as he worked the coal barges suspended between its muddy banks.
The way that landscape is talked about in these narratives of Arkansas and Louisiana resonates with me, but I think it’s time to take the narratives a bit further. As a gardener and landscape designer, I don’t just want to have a relationship to a place. Instead, I want a relationship with a place. I see gardening as a practice for cultivating that richer relationship. What might such a relationship look like? As usual, Mark Twain described it best, in his classic Life on the Mississippi:
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
The outskirts of Rome will destroy anybody’s romantic dreams of Italy. Frances Mayes would run shrieking back to California if forced to live in between the cell phone outlets, cheap pizza restaurants, and dubious massage parlors shoved between concrete-balconied 1970s apartment blocks. It’s not necessarily an easy context in which to integrate a new building. On the other hand, it could be said that - in such a context - it’s hard to make things worse.
Richard Meier did it.
The full title is Parrocchia Dio Padre Misericordioso, but they call it the Jubilee Church.
Unfortunately there’s not much to celebrate here.
You drive up the street, cars lining each side, with narrow sidewalks between the road and the surrounding apartment blocks. Out front, there’s a weird trapezoidal plaza with a lone low slab of bench. The church itself rises above a four-foot high white stone perimeter wall, stained with dust streaks and mold. The entry is a gap in the stone wall. Pass through, and you enter a glaring marble. No trees. No furnishings. Just the unfolding shell-like white stone planes, with a few slivers of window in between.
The interior of the building is beautifully crafted. Light shifts through the interior as the clouds drift overhead. Warm wood, exquisite joinery, whisper-delicate sails of stone. Outside, it’s a completely lost opportunity. The building stands adrift.
There are several different approaches to integrating a building - particularly a public building - into its context. One approach is to anchor a building into its context by using a common architectural language: building masses, shapes, proportions and materials. Historically, the urban fabric has often grown up around central public buildings - the buildings set the precedent. Now, they appear as though they were designed to fit into their surroundings.
An alternate approach is to design a public building that contrasts with its setting, stands out dramatically against it. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit stands in rough contrast to the verdant London skyline, the funky twisted tower of red metal stark against washes of green foliage.
In designing anything - a garden, a building, a subdivision - understanding and relating to context is always the most challenging aspect. But it’s also the aspect of design that I love most.
The extents of a landscape intervention are often bounded by survey lines. But, regardless of property boundaries, experience of any given place is part of the constant stream of human experience.. As long as you’re on a planet, you’re enveloped and immersed in landscape. So, if you’re designing something in intergalactic space, you can get away without understanding the context. Otherwise, you have no excuse.