Instrumentality as Social Practice

Landscape instrumentalism understands technology as inseparable from human environments and behavior.  There is no dividing line between of the organism and its technologies through which it mediates and metabolizes its surroundings.  As a material practice, instrumentality- the intentional operation of these technologies- has long been cast aside and little understood by designers.  The scaffolds, sump pumps, and dragnets are typically the concern of contractors, fishermen, and hobbyists.  As a social practice, however, instrumentalism has a rich history in modern design practice.

As a social practice, however, a focus on instrumentality has a long and storied history in the design process.  The use of tools and implements to move through space and mediate social exchanges has long been considered as a method for generating landscapes.  Example range from the vernacular- the pop up tents at a local farmers market or the pickup truck and grill at a tailgate party- to the absolute pinnacle of professional landscape design the sinuous paths of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park designed for horse carts, and Lawrence Halmprin’s interest in the movement of bodies through space.  In each of these case, the instrumental aspects of the technology and body of the organism actualizes the potentiality of a given environment.  This actualized potential is the creation of landscape.

"the drive in Central Park" here in 1860, when the rest of the landscape was under construction (instrumentality as a material practice) the drive and the presence of carriages had already created Central Park; image from the Smithsonian

the paintings by Maurice Pendergast at the turn of the 20th century show the layered activities and the landscapes that are generated by the carriages passing by

the may pole in the foreground organizes the landscape and creates the spring landscape of central park; painting by Maurice Prendergast

grills, tailgates, tables, flags, and coolers are all transported and deployed before a New York Giants game in New Jersey; the implements are used to territorialize a space, demarcating and organizing social interactions- sharing a sausage and cheap beer and talking about whether Eli Manning has "it" today.

crates and tents are set up at Union Square in New York City, creating a farmers market and invigorating the plaza; the tools hold wares, mediate commercial and social transactions (where do you grow your food? Oh! that's an adorable baby! That'll be $42) and orchestrating commuters' movements as they try to press through and get to the subway entrance

"Experiment in the Environment", 1962, Anna Halprin; the wife of Lawrence Halprin, Anna's experiments with the methods and experience of moving through space and it's capacity to generate environments were fundamental to the precise and profound interest in choreography and movement found later in Lawrence Halprin's landscape designs.

an example of the "motation" system (movement + notation) developed by Lawrence Halprin in the 1960's; his theories on the experience of the bodied environment- what we would call the instrumentality of embodiment- elucidated the capacity for movement of bodies, not merely static space or forms, to create landscapes; this was is fundamental to any understanding today of the interest in process and change in the designed environment.

The development of sophisticated social-instrumental means have enabled the creation of enduring and appropriate modern landscape types, in particular those dedicated to leisure [recreation and commercial].  But continued development in this vein since Halprin has yielded proliferation of increasingly banal leisure-parks, with riverfronts and former industrial sites everywhere being papered over and populated with claritinmen- smiling yuppies flying kites and pushing bikes.  It is the full realization of the commoditization of public space.

Meanwhile, one sub-current in the practice of landscape design seeks to grapple with infrastructural landscapes, while another intends to expand the agency of the inhabitant, enabling everyone to make their own place, if only for  a moment.  This will not be achieved with a continued fixation solely on the social-instrumental aspect of day to day interaction.  A focus on instrumentality as a material practice might be the method that adds some steel to these well-intentioned impulses and enables the construction of new forms, programs, and landscape types.

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