Speaking with the oratorical force of passion and conviction, one of the three keynote speakers of the 2011 CELA conference, Randolph Hester, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkley, called landscape architects to arms, beseeching them to harness the pantheistic, the prophetic, and the poetic power of landscape architecture in a collective project aimed toward the implementation of ecological democracy. To succeed in this movement, landscape architects must unite against the enemies of nature, virtual capital, the fear of nature, and the paradox of oppositional forces. For Hester, the task of educators is to inculcate a generation of prophets who are willing to challenge the bastions of power. Possessing civic savvy and a radical nature, the new generation must be willing to cross disciplinary boundaries to forge powerful alliances. Perhaps, he posited, landscape architecture would be more powerful as a religion than as a profession.
In similar spirit, the setting for the 2011 CELA conference was Los Angeles, California, whose landscape reflects, as keynote speaker Kevin Starr, Professor and Associate Dean of [End Page 324] Libraries at USC, observed “a vision of the promised lands.” The much-lauded historian provided a lesson on the evolution of the interrelationship between humankind and the landscape of California in his lecture “The invented garden and the modern machine.” The lecture was well situated within the CELA tradition of featuring a speaker who captures the qualities of place. In this, delegates leave a little wiser about local conditions, and hopefully with a desire to be more attentive to our own locale. Paraphrasing Robert Pogue Harrison, Starr noted that “we must seek out healing; this is what it means to tend our own gardens.”
The conference launched on Wednesday morning with two optional workshops, the ever popular Landscape Journal writing workshop, hosted by Jim Palmer and David Pitt, and “GeoDesign: GIS focus session,” sponsored by ESRI and hosted by architect/engineer Bill Miller. Miller’s prophetic vision for the emergent discipline of “Geodesign” was witnessed primarily by the converted. Miller was careful to note that digital technologies were a tool for “managing complexity” as yet under-utilized by the discipline. He accused landscape architects of being hobbled by domain-centric thinking—of being under-educated in systems theory and inadequately trained for “design in digital geographic space.” While well organized and expertly presented, the session failed to inspire the uninitiated as it excluded the 50 percent of analysis that Miller noted can only be provided by human insights and creativity.
The poetic imagination was present and accounted for in the Edenic vision of the genesis of present day Manhattan presented by Eric Sanderson, founder and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project. This keynote presented with captivating enthusiasm, inspired awe, for here the power of technology was harnessed to reconstruct, reconnect, and reveal the rivers, streams, and salt marshes, the flora and fauna, and land management practices in the verdant island paradise that was pre-contact Manhattan. Using GIS to manage complex data from a variety of sources, Sanderson and his team rebuilt Manhattan’s ecological past, literally from the bedrock up. The technology used to render this lost landscape filled the audience with wonder as they witnessed the rise and fall of the great forests, the girding of the landscape as streets traced across the landscape, the spring-fed water sources eradicated and the topography erased. Despite the loss of this magical place Sanderson maintained a hopeful vision, noting that contemporary Manhattan is no less a complex web of relationships and a fulfilling habitat for people. This produced smiles all around.
Sanderson, Starr, and Hester were united with moderator, Qingyun Ma, Dean of the University of Southern California School of Architecture, in a panel discussion based on the conference theme “Urban/Nature.” Is there a desire to draw a line between the urban condition and nature, pondered Ma, to cross this line or to transgress it? Hester noted that...