The Lines of Thought

Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 02: Buzz or Noise?
Fall 2012
Eliza Shaw Valk

I have a note to myself, writing begets writing, painting begets painting. I am finding that editing begets editing and is ruining reading. No matter for pleasure or research, I compulsively interrupt the narrative and wonder, Why this punctuation? Why this spelling? Or, Too much! Filter yourself! Refine! (And in a related note to these affronts: Cast out the NY Times Styles section and bypass that barbaric “Modern Love” column!)

In kindergarten, I began to accumulate small piles of journals, my own platitudes scrawled in these little books for little hands, “Today, dear diary, we begin ….” Being a child alone in rooms filled with adults clinking and chattering, I found myself for hours—in the corner of a lobby throughout an art opening or the entirety of an afternoon rehearsal—learning to follow, by my hand in cramped bound pages, the vinegar trails of my mind and the bubbling sights and sounds around me.

It’s very easy to write, “I’m so happy!” But closer to my disposition, “I’m confused …” is a little more taxing since confusion doesn’t offer bearings or a way out of the muddle. Sitting there trying to parse out some reliable gist and wrinkle of meaning took some experimenting, comparing the felt to the written. The yelps and laughter, curious flickers of facial expressions, and shifts in breath and weight all needed to be interpreted and worked out to find the nuance and turn of phrase that might capture these rhythms, tenors of voice and emphasis—to translate phenomena into sensible words.

Writing is an exercise of discovery. Drawing is much the same process. Drawing vets and adds rigor—those lines are seams of thought—to our proposals. The act of drawing, whether by hand or computer, records the traces of thought-process. As Andrea Hansen discusses elsewhere in this issue and paraphrases Laurie Olin, we build what we can draw and we draw what we can build. Conversely, if we can’t draw it, then we can’t build it because the design hasn’t been evaluated, not only for structural stability and execution, but for cognitive resolution as well. In a design critique, colleagues point out what assumptions we made, or where we missed steps or made imaginative leaps that convince, deter, or need elaboration. The thinking process is made explicit through the design documents.

A few months ago a phrase popped into my mind, the poetics of design. What are poetics? Aristotle wrote the book, but I looked it up on Google: poetics – the art of writing poetry. Wouldn’t then the poetics of design be the art of design? Here, design is a verb and not its end product: the art of designing. And what are we doing when we design? We are drawing, working out ideas on paper, testing them, brainstorming, creating links, discovering questions, and realizing that there is more to learn.

I have been perplexed by the criticisms of landscape urbanism as being too academic, too pie-in-sky, too avant-garde. Since when was avant-garde something to disdain? Oh right, since forever: those lunatic Impressionists, that heretical Galileo. Do I not know what avant-garde means? Avant-gardefavoring or introducing new ideas; and later, any creative group active in the innovation and application of new concepts and techniques in a given field (especially in the arts).

Explorations are rarely perfect. In her 1996 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska spoke about the creative process: “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” I don’t know, but we can work it out. I don’t know, but let’s take a step and see where we end up. I don’t know, but I wonder what else is out there. I don’t know, but what do you think? Uncertainty makes room for dialogue, for collaboration, for dumping all our toys on the table and sussing out how these discrete bits can be pieced together, synthesized, and integrated into an inventive whole. Landscape urbanism acknowledges the unknowns and, through syncopated programming and implementation, tries to assimilate the contributions and concerns of many into the design’s development.

Szymborska said later in her talk, “All sorts of torturers … fanatics … struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans … ‘know.’ They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all.” I’m not going to join the shrieking fray of “controversies” between landscape urbanism and its detractors; I’m not going to criticize “Complete Streets” programs because our cities need them; but how can we think we have the answer and not realize that we are very likely projecting values on places and people who may have other values, and other processes, and other objectives? In high school, I showed my dad some photos I took at a party. Glancing through them, he stopped at a picture of a classmate. Then, searchingly—I could see his mind trying to interpret Coban’s daring curves of facial hair and what seemed to be low-slung denim culottes—my dad said, “In every generation, the young take what the previous generation considers ugly and make it beautiful.” I knotted together another definition: Avant-garde – to interrupt a normative, dominant, single hegemony or super (designer’s) authority. When we know, there is no room for another to enter our monologue; there is no place for interplay and exchange, no learning or evolution; only taking dictation and dumbly executing direction. Completeness precludes inclusion; it stands alone, arch, and exclusive. The pushback that we are witnessing in streets across the United States, Middle East, and now Moscow suggests that the just-take-it-from-me attitude isn’t sustainable. What do these movements want? Dialogue. Equitable resolutions. Do we designers aspire to be a little tyrant or tycoon, to hold ourselves aloft, running around making pronouncements?

I don’t know. Szymborska continued, “Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement ….” In each project, we try, experiment, investigate—that’s our task: to take what we know and extend the lines of thought into new arenas.

In “We grow accustomed to the dark,” Emily Dickinson describes walking in the woods at night, not knowing where one is stepping. Sure that there is ground underfoot, no matter the obstacles, one continues forward: “The Bravest — grope a little … But as they learn to see –/ Either the Darkness alters –/ Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight –/ And Life steps almost straight.” Writing and drawing, designing and talking—these are acts of wondering, choosing, and exploring. We grope and stumble, get confused and worried, but in this imperfect, woozy situation, we find a groove. And look for others.

Eliza Shaw Valk is a designer and writer with a background in dance and performance. 

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