The Figure

Charles Waldheim

John E. Irving Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design

 Director of Office for Urbanization at GSD

Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture(2009 – 2015)

Associate Dean of and Director of  Master of Landscape Architecture program at University of Toronto(2004-2009)

Recipient of the Rome Prize Fellowship 

Author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books 

Charles Waldheim

哈佛大学设计学院John E. Irving教授


哈佛大学景观系前系主任(2009 – 2015)





The Interview

Many people think that landscape architects’ jobs were to deal with trees, dirts, and residual space in the city. However, you have a different opinion. You argued for the landscape architect’s first commission as Olmsted and Vaux first did was not for designing a park, a pleasure ground, or a garden. But it was planning for the northern Manhattan. Landscape architect was originally conceived as professional responsible for designing the shape of the city, rather than exceptions to it. This argument brings about the question-what is the identity of our profession as landscape architecture? How do you define its role?


I think it’s a crucial question. And I also believe that in the academy we are engaged in discourse –disciplinary formation, professional identity. I think these things consistently debated, hashed out over generations. So, I have been working last several years to write a history of the origin of the field that were true. It’s also, I think it’s useful to the role of the landscape architect working today as an urbanist.


纽约中央公园 | © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park

“In periods of economic disruption, periods of economic crisis, when those patterns of street production are disrupted,landscape is invoked or called upon often to ameliorate those conditions. In part, this is because of landscape is faster, cheaper, and more responsive, more flexible. But it is also true that landscape has been invoked because of its potential for addressing the societal and environmental challenges that come with economic disruption.”


Your new book “landscape as urbanism” mentioned that It’s not a coincidence that landscape has just “emerged” in the last 10 to 15 years, but in fact there is structural relationship between transformations in the industrial economy and the spaces that they produce which has led landscape to be more relevant in contemporary cities. I am curious how that economic structure refines the focus, goals, and agenda for landscape as urbanism?


As you said the thesis of the new book is to argue for a structural relationship between landscape as a medium of design and the shape of the city in its economic transformations. So, we began by saying, clearly cities are the resultants of economic processes among other things; and that most often, when those processes are very stable over long periods of time, they produce an equivalence stability in spatial form. Most often that stability in spatial form has been registered in spatial terms through buildings, infrastructure and certain predictable patterns of growth. My argument in the book is that in periods of economic disruption, periods of economic crisis, when those patterns of street production are disrupted,landscape is invoked or called upon often to ameliorate those conditions.

正如你所说,Landscape As Urbanism一书在讨论经济转型背景下,景观作为设计媒介与城市形态之间的结构关系。我们在书的开头就写到,比起其他而言,城市无疑是经济发展进程中的产物。大部分的情况下,经济的发展过程是非常稳定的,这样也造就了相对平衡稳定的空间形式。同样的,大部分情况下,这个稳定的空间形式成为了我们研究的术语,他们表现在建筑,基础设施和可以预测的增长规律中。而我在书里,则是认为在经济动荡,经济危机时期,这些固有的形成规律将被打破,这时景观将被召唤,或者调用,来改善这些情况。

Charles Waldheim的著作Landscape As Urbanism | © http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10694.html

In part, this is because of landscape is faster, cheaper, and more responsive, more flexible. But it is also true that landscape has been invoked because of its potential for addressing the societal and environmental challenges that come with economic disruption. So, my argument is that in the second half of the 19th century was the origin of the field, the claiming of the new profession.In the middle of the 20th century with the kind of development of mature Fordism, decentralization, and then more recently under the rubric of landscape urbanism in the last 15 years. These are three moments that landscape has been found useful to respond to economic transformations,but it disrupted patterns of spatial reproduction.


You have mentioned in your early lectures being said that the most recently renewal of landscape architecture for contemporary urbanism has less to do with the application of ecology as tool for regional planning which were central to Ian McHarg’s agenda, rather they have more to do with changes in industry economy underpinning our work and the design culture. I am curious about what is the design culture that landscape architect can contribute specifically in our material world?


Broadly speaking, in the middle second half of the 20th century, the project for regional planning, or ecological planning was quite strong. And I think that both McHarg, as he mentioned and his colleagues at Penn,but also Carl Steinitz at Harvard, were both working in different ways on kind of parallel projects in which the region was both the unit of ecological analysis. So, college was applying nature science in which the ecological region, or the watershed was the principal lens to the analysis. It was also the scale through which spatial intervention or spatial planning was meant to be applied. This of course depended upon over expected, as forms of regional or municipal governance at that scale.

So, what I say is that, both the development of GIS here at Harvard, or the work of Ian McHarg at Penn, these were radically successful projects that changed our field for the better, globally. And yet they reached a limit precisely because of the fact that we chose in the west, not to plan our cities at the regional scale. We seem not to build the political mechanisms, we seem not to build the regulatory mechanism. So, we get better ecological data that we never had. We get better tools for mapping that we never had. And in fact, the intellectual premises around regional planning persist with us today.  And yet it’s been through the ascendency of design culture in the last two decades, the landscape has been joining the renaissance, or the recovery. In part, it has to do with the fact that we decided to allow our cities to be much more an expression of private or neoliberal capital. And that regard designers brought together a combination of ecological literacy with the capacity to improve environmental conditions and to urbanize in certain ways. Most often that is not at the scale of a region.



并且事实上,区域规划的知识理论前提今天依然在我们身边。然而,在过去的二十年中即便它一直贯穿在设计文化的优越中,但风景园林其实已经加入了复兴,或者恢复的行列。在某种程度上, 这与我们决定允许我们的城市更多地表达私人或新自由主义资本的事实有关。而且,设计师将生态认知与改善环境条件的能力结合起来,以某种方式进行城市化。大多数情况下,(这些项目)都已经不再是一个地区的规模了。

The smart of Ian McHarg’s land suitability analysis such as layered maps for Staten Island predicted precisely where the flooded area after hurricane Sandy. In United States, it seems they lack the political and economic conditions to be able to enact that kind of preventive planning. However, in China, given its top-down political structure, the decision makers now are having the strong aspiration to restore the deconstructed ecology on a great scale such as regional scale or even national scale to create ecological security planning for the country. My question is how we can use landscape as a tool to protect the ecological security? Why landscape architect is relevant?


Well I think you’re correct. I think you’re right to point to Staten Island and the work of Ian Mcharg and a range of others working with Wallace Roberts & Todd. In that context, this is a good example of the fact that, the science is quite well known. The reality is in this country there is a venture right of return. That’s very difficult for any public official and the public is either elected or appointed for them to prevent people from returning to their communities after disaster. Even when we know, they are precisely in the wrong place, let’s say scientifically. As you say it’s true that in the political economy in East Asia is certainly in the Mainland China. There are different contexts. And so for example that Yu Kongjian of Turenscape. He did his doctoral work here at Harvard working with scientists. He’s now bringing back in proposals to the national level federal level in China that idea of the ecological security plan, which I don’t know about its potential or where it is politically in terms of its adoption. But I find it on the one hand heartening to think that it might be possible to plan a continental scale or on a national scale and certainly not political context. There might be the possibility for that kind of project. At the same moment, I find it also, ironic. It’s ironic that somehow you know this was a knowledge transfer from a research university here at Harvard, people like Richard Forman who were working for many decades producing knowledge. The third term in Kongjian Yu is dealing with decision making game theory and so a combination of landscape ecology, mapping and planning with game theory could somehow impact Chinese planning. I find it really fascinating.


一方面我认为能够从洲际尺度、国家尺度规划非常激励人心,你真的能让这种规模的项目变成可能。但同一时间,也有些讽刺。你知道这些知识是从哈佛这样一所研究性大学传播出去的。像Richard Forman这样的学者在这里耕耘了几十年,而第三代的学者,像俞孔坚,却用他的“博弈理论”,就是结合了景观生态学、地图测绘、规划和他的博弈理论一起,影响了中国的规划。这真是很有趣。

Ian McHarg, Staten Island study | © http://roopurbandesignseminar.blogspot.com/2016/10/design-nature-and-influence-ian-mcharg.html

In LAF’s declaration this spring, you argued that landscape architecture as a profession has experienced three important moments. The first moment was Olmsted and Vaux invented the field itself. The second moment was the in 1960s with the declaration of Ian McHarg and his colleagues’ works at Penn and Carl Steinitz’s works at Harvard GSD around regional ecological planning. And the third moment happened in the last two decades during which country transformed to new industrial economy. I am curious about what’s the next moment will be given the contemporary urbanism trend in a global context?


There are two ways to think about this. On the one hand as I said I believe that landscape is most relevant in periods of economic transformation, economic crisis. And I think that in some ways we’re still in a moment of economic uncertainty economic crisis today. We’ll see how the next decades play out. Another way of understanding this has to do with what are other design disciplines are engaged in, architecture, urban design and planning. And so, I think in both cases I would say that the present moment, the landscape urbanism moment we’re still in the midst of what I would characterize as a kind of mature phase, of an operational phase. But at the same moment I think that an interesting landscape urbanism is being rapidly absorbed into normative practice in architecture and design and urban planning. For me what I see right now is a continuity of these present conditions. We see industry moving a kind of mobility industry around the globe with labor rates and environmental conditions dictating where capital flows will go. So industry will continue to move.My suspicion is that industry will continue to move toward places cheaper and more flexible labor relations.And as that happens I think that we’ll find sites that are left in the wake of a certain formof industry that need to be mediated, that need to be re-urbanized in a different way.At the same moment in the West living in the city is still considered increasingly to be desirableand it will continue to be associated with being a luxury goodas Bloomberg said about living and working in Manhattan a few years ago.In that context, what we’ll continue to see are sites of former industrial activity being convertedfor new forms of urbanization.And most often in a way in which the role of landscape architects I think will continue to be quite relevant for many years.



There have been many researches going on around landscape as urbanism at GSD which related to the large territorial impacts such as resource extraction, energy production, logistics, material flows, and etc. Those topics seem for me are new ways of understanding our living environment by understanding those invisible flows at first and then people are trying to find the strategic position to intervene. Why is it important to understand the contemporary urbanism in that way? What are the advantages of it compared with the traditional understanding of living environment and what are the interesting findings there?


networked corridors in Boston, projected by Allison Dailey, Harvard GSD student. | © https://scenariojournal.com/lu-landscape-urbanism-now/

Situated historically, for my generation of urbanists trained as architects looked as urbanists,we weren’t given very good tools with respect to history and theory, and we were given very good tools with respect to the shape of the tradition city, or the core of the center. But most often, we tended to not be as acutely aware of all of the externalities of both natural resources, infrastructural, economics, all of the flows that underpin and enable urbanization. I recall reading in 1990’s, two articles, one by Alex Wall and Susan Snyder, and one by Alexander Lepore, each one of them pointing to logistics and landscape in the 90’s as relevant. I remember that Alex Wall and Susan Snyder did this amazing diagram of Manhattan as kind of venue for consumption and destination.  And they also mapped in the same scale all of the back of houses, all the ports, all the infrastructure, and in New Jersey, all of the backstage material required to enable that kind of consumption and destination experience. And I found that really quite important as a breakthrough. I think many people have found this line of inquiry productive, not that to suggest the structural focus will replace of the city, but it’s the relationship, it’s the dialect, it’s the tension between those things. Many of my colleagues here would image that Manhattan is the most sustainable urban form that we have, and that may be true, until you want milk. And milk complicates the matrix immediately. So in that relationship, a part of what I found productive here is to think about our interests, our history of urban design, planning, looking at the city as a side piece or as destination, and looking at that in relationship to the global network, global resources, global flows that enable the urbanization. Of course, the work of some colleagues here are quite central to that.


很多人已经发现了生产力的线索,不是去建议生产设施应该取代城市,而是一种关系,是一种对话,是这些事物之间的张力。我的很多同事把曼哈顿想象成现存的最可持续的城市形态。这可能是真的,但直到你需要“牛奶”。 “牛奶” 让这个矩阵马上变得复杂起来。所以在这种关系中,我认为有效率的方法是思考我们在城市设计规划中的兴趣点、城市设计的历史,把城市看做目的地的一部分,而且把这种关系放在全球的城市化网络、资源与进程中。当然,这也是我们研究工作的核心。

You have very strong proposition about what landscape architect can do in the context of extended urban field, such as reordering both economical, ecological, social, and cultural inputs. The landscape architects are actually acting as the urbanist of our age. In this regard, how do you see the role of landscape architect in relationship to urban designer, planners, architects, economist, policy makers in order to shape the form of the city?


GSD Landscape Architecture Studio led by Charles Waldheim: Sea Rise and Sun Set: Modeling Urban Morphologies for Resilience in Miami Beach | © Boxia Wang

I mean, my experience has been trained as an architect working on cities and becoming aware at some point through graduate school in the late 80s, early 90s and beginning my academic career,

it was clear to me that the debates about the American city would play out in the landscape as much as in any other topic. And at the same moment for me it was curious to find landscape as a field that was relatively defensive. It was in the shadows and a bit insecure about its relationship to architecture and urban planning. And while I have great respect and empathy for that history I understand it. It always struck me as a part of landscape’s strength that access to this material in a certain way. And so part of my work has been to reframe the history of landscape in such a way. I do believe that when it was conceived in the 19th century, it was a discipline and a professional responsible the shape of the city (period). It was meant to be the urban discipline. And in fact it was so successful at that. But the 1920s and 30s that it spun off a new discipline of city or town planning and that of course took from us all of our urban content. And it left us with the trivial, the static, the decorative, the plant material, the soil, the things you reference which were not particularly relevant to many of the challenges we do facing urbanisticlly. And so in that context the part of my work is to go back to the origin and say “Well, Hold on. How did we get here.” And in fact there’s a much more durable, more important history I believe in its origin. It needs to be told.


它的这一方面总是在警醒我让我对这些材料多做研究,所以我的一部分工作就是以这种方式来重塑景观的历史。我相信如果景观都市主义在19世纪被认知并接受的话,它会成为一个肩负塑造城市形态的学科和专业。它也一定是一个非常 “城市” 的学科。事实上它也非常成功。但在19世纪20到30年代,城镇规划作为一个新的学科从中剥离开来。它带走了我们所有的与城市相关的内容,并给我们留下了琐碎的、静态的、装饰性的事物,植物材料,土壤,和很多跟当代城市化进程中的挑战并不是特别相关的事情。所以,我工作的一部分是回到景观的起源,说 “等等,我们是怎么到这一步的” 。而实际上,在它的源头有很多更持久、更重要的历史。它们需要被讲述。

GSD Landscape Architecture Studio led by Charles Waldheim: Sea Rise and Sun Set: Modeling Urban Morphologies for Resilience in Miami Beach | © Jessie Yang

Rem Koolhaas has once said that architecture is a way of expression of political ideology. Then what about landscape architecture? How can landscape architecture get more political influence?

Rem Koolhaas曾经说过,建筑是政治意识形态的表现方式。那么景观呢?如何让景观建筑学更具政治影响力?

I think that by definition, landscape architecture as all the other disciplines in the design school are inherently about power relationships, right?We are inevitably in the expression of space, articulation of material, time, and place. we are about the expression of space as an instrument of power, of course. Our work is always implicated in that. And another way of saying that is there is no value free, or powerless, or power-neutral expression of space. So, in that regard our work has always been political. And it requires we ask questions about by whom, for whom–for whom we are designing, by whom we get the agency to design.

There was this exhibition at the museum of Modern Art called Groundswell a couple weeks ago, which gather together a decade or two, of most recent landscape practice, in which landscape urbanism was referenced as one of the dominant, or the major threads. And to that exhibition opening, Peter Reed, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, invited David Harvey, to give the keynote address. And many of my colleagues were puzzled to wonder why would the Museum of Modern Art gather landscape architects and all these great works and then invite David Harvey, right? to deliver the keynote address. To me the answer is quite clear, is that David Harvey could answer the questionabout what is the relation of power to this work, who is this work being built for, by whom.And in that regard, I feel that on the one hand is that there is no possibility of design without power relationships, and of course cities are the manifestation of this power relationship in spatial terms. At the same moment, I do believe that design culture can speak to its own formation and its own atomic, let’s say. And needs to form its own cultural project as a long going.In that regard, I’m not so compelled by arguments for any of the design disciplines to become more politically engaged for two reasons.



几个星期前在纽约的当代艺术中心有一个展览,叫做Groundswell,展览内容涵盖了近一二十年以来的景观实践项目,在其中景观都市主义属于核心内容之一,或者说作为重要的线索。在开幕仪式上,当代艺术中心的馆长Peter Reed邀请了David Harvey致主题演讲。当时我许多同事对此表示不能理解,为什么当代艺术中心在召集景观师和这些伟大的作品的同时邀请David Harvey致以演讲。对我而言理由是显而易见的,因为David Harvey能够回答项目与权力之间的关系,项目为谁而建,项目由谁而建。从这一层面而言,我认为一方面是设计本身不可能不与权力挂钩,城市则作为权力关系的主要的空间表现形式。与此同时,我坚持相信设计文化可以证明其本身的形式和结构,并且就长远考虑需要就此形成它独有的文化项目。因此我并不为设计学科应更具政治因素的言论所动,这包括以下两点原因。

Groundswell: Constructing and Contemporary Landscape | © https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/117 

One because I do believe the work we do in spatially is the expression of our power already and to do so as lobbyists to a political problems are probably less effective. And secondly, because ultimately, the form of lobbying to argue for the import of one’s field or one’s work tends to I think to mistake where the true value or critical impact of our work might be. And I have always been the proponent of this field and mostly proponent arguing that we shouldn’t be arguing for a greater influence that work can deliver. I believe that our work is now more relevant than it has been in my lifetime. But not because we’ve lobbied for political influence. It is because of the capacity that we have for making changes or what we bring to the table as a field. That alone will be what our work will be about and I think in that regard the work is of course inherently political. And in that sense, I would have argued for a pluralization of our field. One of the challenges we faced in our field has been… cause, we are relatively modest in size and also relatively homogenous in our ideology formation, in our discipline formation, in our institutional formation. I’m very pleased to see this field grow quite a lot right now because I believe we can see the pluralization of positions within the field. And I think that need a lot of obligation to maintain and develop, but discourse which is plural, and not always so “polite”.


How do you see the new technology such as VR, AR, self-driving car, sensing technology, and computational simulations will change the way how we interpret landscape, infrastructure, and material world?


My general philosophy on this is that only very rarely does change happen based ona discipline or a profession or a design school deciding “we can change the world”,the change happens in the world. It happens in real time socially, culturally, economically, technologically.Design practices and broad publics respond almost immediately.In the academy, we have the luxury of some distance and a part of our responsibility I believe is to try to make sense of the recent past trying to articulate what’s just happened.And then to refashion our tools in respect to that change.Having said that, I think these technological changes that you refer to will continue to take place.I think that we will be unlikely in our field to anticipate them.I think as they appear they will be unrecognizable.And as they see in the immediate past they might become clearer to us.And so I think our footing will most often be reactive to.The flip side of that is that most often people don’t ask us our opinion in this field as it should be.And at the same moment I do believe that means that our footing needs to be quite nimble,attentive looking at the changes that are happening and developing in response to them.In that regard, I would say that of course technical economic cultural social transformations are happening all the time.And I would encourage my colleagues and our students, our faculty to remain vigilant in anticipating and responding to those changes relative to technology within our field. I think our field has had a history of being rather too pessimistic, not nearly open minded enough and very conservative with respect to our tools our professional and technical tools within our field.

So in that sense of technology I’ve been a part here, our role in school has been to try and bring topics of digital media fabrication into landscape pedagogy. I’ve been slightly shocked to find our discipline our field to be remarkably resistant to these tools. And in a way the academy is maybe the worst offender whereas in practice, of course practice, is rapidly digitizing has been for some time now. In the academy that I find most often in landscape pedagogy the kind of resistance to these toolsoften because there’s this kind of false equivalence I find between the medium we work with being soft and fuzzy and the desire for soft and fuzzy tools of analysis and representation intervention.I find that false equivalence really counterproductive. There’s also too often a kind of latent transcendentalism, a kind of conflation of you know transcendentalist philosophy into a kind of fuzziness of tools and ends. In that regard I think what we are trying to do in the GSD for the last several years is to bring the most relevant and useful tools to bear on the kinds of challenges we faced.

我的基本哲学是只有在非常少数的情况下,改变是一个学科或者一个专业决定 “我们要改变世界” 而产生的改变,改变就是无时无刻不在发生的。改变在真实世界的社会、人文、经济和技术各个层面发生。设计时间和广泛大众的回应是即时的。在学术界,我们拥有距离的奢侈,我们的部分职责就是试图阐释刚刚发生的一切。然后基于改变,让我们的工具紧跟潮流。据此,我认为你所提到的这些技术变化将会继续发生。在我们领域,我们不太可能预期这些变化,而且他们似乎是无法辨认的,但他们一旦成为过去时的时候会变得更清晰,所以我认为我们的立足点往往是反应的。



What’s the new staff going on in your new research office at Harvard GSD- Office For Urbanization, what’s the interesting research happening there? Have you done any researches about urban forms, sustainability, landscape impact and design professions in general?


So the mandate for the office for Urbanization comes out of schools research advances and initiatives over the last several years. We’re doing more research as a school. So in addition to individual faculty of the GSD, maintaining their longstanding reputation through individual research, we’re building institutional capacity. The Office for urbanization is one element in a broader array of centers, labs and researchers. Our mandate to develop applied design research projects for questions of contemporary city. In this regard, primary agenda is to bring the landscape urbanism agenda and the ecological urbanism agenda in some ways back to questions of urban form. From the beginning, landscape urbanism has been committed to questions of urban form in relationship to its economic and ecological performances. At its height, the landscape urbanist agenda has been fully matured into a development of urban districts, urban form, from architecture and its performance all the way through landscape ecology and it’s performance. Having said that, both professionally and pedagogically we’ve been more successful in developing strategies of landscape ecology, landscape infrastructure and dealing with landscape systems. And my goal is to maintain and to build capacity through the offs of-urbanization to always connect that back to questions of urban form.


The poster of Office for Urbanization and inaugural conference,”heliomorphism”, Charles Waldheim | © hhttp://www.gsd.harvard.edu/2016/09/archinect-talks-with-charles-waldheim-about-office-for-urbanization-and-inaugural-conference-heliomorphism/

We held a launch event about three weeks ago so we just started, that with fringe on the topic of Heliomorphism, which is a solar performance in urban form. We brought three keynote speakers Thom Mayne from Morphosis, Jeanne Gang from Jeanne Architects and IñakiÁbalos from Ábalos+Sentkiewicz.. And each of those three architects are doing projects recently around urban form and solar performance. We brought a dozen GSD faculty, a dozen GSD doctoral students to address these topics because I’m confident that the Heliomorphic question that is a topic will be able to bring an ecological position but more directly back to questions of urban form. So if landscape urbanism has been for the last 15 years interested in understanding hydrology ecological systems and species and engineering up to urban form, the Heliomorphic looks to the sky drives engineer or drives urban form from a different perspective.




Zhangkan Zhou
Siyang Jing
Xiaoye Xing


Transcription: Xiaoye, Zhexuan
Translation: Xiaoye
Proofreader: Yiwei
Video: Xiaoye
Editor: Xiaoqin, Yueming

Join the discussion 22 Comments

Leave a Reply