by Ken Byrne
The following essay was first published in the 2004 issue of con’text magazine.
The first question asked of students on the [orientation] trip, even before the on-the-fly analysis of rotary and roundabout design, is “What do we not need to consider in the field of landscape design?” The conversation that follows inevitably arrives at the conclusion that almost anything could come into play. Or, put another way, nothing can be ruled out beforehand as irrelevant. The lesson here is not that designers must become masters of the known universe before they can begin work, but that they must be open ― to the patterns, structures, tendencies, clues, indicators, arriving from many angles and perhaps unexpected sources. Shift your feet to the left or right and see now what you see.
Furthermore, if landscape designers need to see the world from many different angles, they also need to see it through many different human spectacles―to be comfortable asking: How might an anthropologist understand this? A child? An activist? A historian? A psychologist? A post-structuralist linguist? A non-neoclassical economist? A poet?
This openness to the multiplicity of human experience was what I found so attractive about Conway’s program. Unlike large institutions of higher education where narrowly defined fields of study may leave little room for cross-disciplinary exploration, Conway offered an educational environment that was humane, intimate, flexible, far from routine, and one that ― crucially ― acknowledged the importance of diverse realms of human knowledge.
How has this cross-disciplinarity operated in practice at the school? In discussions among faculty about upcoming curriculum content, guest speakers, field trips, and the requirements of student projects, opportunities to reinforce learning by integrating activities emerge. At the start of this past winter term, for example, as students were just beginning to explore issues around land use planning and community development in the context of their first community projects, a number of activities coalesced around the public debate over the future of big-box retail centers then coming to a climax in Hadley.
GIS mapping and Illustrator software were introduced as technical tools to help generate layered graphics for analysis, using the proposed big-box retail store site as a foundation. Geological and historical land use studies were discussed alongside developers’ memos, traffic studies, and opponents’ letters to the editor. Relevant legal issues were examined with the help of a guest speaker specializing in the legal intricacies of zoning regulations and the specific context of Massachusetts law, leading to discussions of potential alternatives to conventional zoning regulations and existing movements for their reform.
In the humanities class, the rhetorical strategies of the opposing sides of the debate were discussed. What information were the developers leaving out? How were the opponents of the project framing their concerns? How were the maps presented by the two sides of the debate constructed? Broader economic and social issues that emerged ― including the purpose of “development” and possible alternatives to the standard narrative of economic growth ― were discussed in the context of alternative economic community development literature. A short story by Donald Barthelme presented another angle on the potential hubris of planning.
Such a cross-disciplinary approach to the issue of the development of a single parcel, in the context of a debate unfolding in real time, helped prepare students for the multiple shifting and conflicting issues they faced as they began their own winter projects.
Just as environmental monocultures are destructive to our natural resources, what Vandana Shiva has called “monocultures of the mind” are destructive of our ability to understand out diverse world ― and surely the two are linked. Acknowledging that people are complex elements in a complex world, Conway’s approach avoids the trap of believing the truth to be self-evident and available at first glance, while also avoiding the paralysis that comes with believing that only with total knowledge can we ever act.