The chance of rain diminished hourly—50% at noon, 40% at 1, 30% at 2—so we went ahead with our class visit to Dumbarton Oaks this past Tuesday. By 2:30, after the 30+ students with a few extra Germans had listened to a brief introduction from the docent and filed out of the orangerie, the rain had indeed stopped and an implausibly picturesque mist had settled into the cracks and creases of the hillsides of Rock Creek Park. Without the distraction of a blue sky, the moist gold and red colors of the landscape glowed. And, I didn’t think to bring a camera. (photos here are from the garden's website)

To paraphrase the comment about Bryce Canyon—“it’s a helluva place to lose a cow”—
Dumbarton Oaks is a swell place to lose some students. So I found myself sitting alone in the vaulted and mosaic-ed porch outside the changing rooms by the pool contemplating both the landscape and The Landscape. Washington landscape architect Jon Fitch, who’s teaching studio with me this semester, often reminds our students that the discipline of landscape architecture is technically straightforward, even simple, but conceptually extremely difficult. It probably seems just the opposite to them; cool ideas come easier than mastering the fundamentals of techne. Actually, it is conceptually difficult to understand why it is conceptually difficult.

Every time I visit
Dumbarton Oaks I mull the same questions, enjoying the different answers the place provides me. What purpose does a garden serve? To what question is this an answer? In architecture we have so much function that we’ve been arguing incessantly about its causal relationship with form. All those arguments will eventually trudge back to the question of architecture’s origins in either the temple or the hut, that is, in either our desire to reify our position in the cosmos or our need to get the heck out of the rain.

Certainly landscape architecture has its own parallel question; its origins lie either in the Garden of Eden, or the garden of eatin’. The demands of program, though, are not the same. I’m not sure there is an architectural parallel to the garden as exemplified by Dumbarton Oaks. More like a poem, or a piece of music, such a construction serves absolutely no “function,” yet, as with poetry or music, the world would be lesser, baser place without it. Maybe its function is in fact representational, in the full sense of the word. In a chiasmus of architectural and natural elements, stone is carved in the form of leaves, flowers and fruit, trees are pleached and instructed to behave like columns. On the one hand, the pleaching, pollarding and espaliering—what a great vocabulary we have to describe this strange pseudo-construction—represents our prowess, our domination over nature. Look what we can do! But in these elisions there is a careful parsing of the fine differences between the natu
ral and the cultural.

Maybe we re-present nature to ourselves in such a way so we can begin to c
omprehend it, otherwise it simply can’t fit in our minds. In Dumbarton Oaks the “wilderness” of Rock Creek Park is just outside the fence. The garden is itself is acts as a sentry, keeping the untamed at bay. The landscape architect is lion tamer then, oh so carefully getting a much more powerful force to behave itself and perform. I imagine Beatrix Farrand herself with chair and whip in hand, knowing that the minute she turns her back the trees call a meeting and the bosque sets its own agenda.


Your guilt is waiting...

“I’ve got a few hours before my next pick-up, so I can take you all the way downtown. Where do you need to go?”

That was James, the burly, bald and chatty driver, who picked me up outside of the Fairfax County Government Palace, er, Center, in a black SUV with tinted windows. My mind flashed forward, I’m climbing down--and it is a long way down--from the back seat of this black behemoth, James is holding the door open, I’m alighting on F Street and striding self-importantly into the Museum. The caption in my mind’s eye read “green curator chauffeured to museum in gas-guzzling SUV.” Another example of hypocrisy among the greenerati.

“No thanks, I’m really a mass-transit kind of person. You can just drop me at the next Metro station.”

That was me, demurring. It’s just not in my nature. So I leapt out at West Falls Church--not Vienna as planned because James was having too much fun playing movie trivia quiz with his increasingly self-conscious passenger--and assumed my usual position: stand on the platform, ear buds in, Washington Post in subway fold origami, strangely content to wait for the train. Truth is I was already feeling pretty guilty...*

I had been invited by the Fairfax County Restoration Project to open a day-long workshop with a talk on what other communities can teach us about green. It was held at the Fairfax County Government Center, a center of government business for sure, but not, itself, in the center of anything. I asked the organizers about the best way for a carless individual to get there and they immediately offered to send a car for me...all the way to my door in the District. While black Lincoln Town Cars are ubiquitous in the Kalorama neighborhood, it just seemed a little over the top. Besides, how on this bruised and abused earth could I travel that way to talk about sustainability? Instead, I was picked up at the Vienna Metro in, yes, a black
LincolnTown Car and dropped at the palace gate.

It was a small but engaged audience, led by an energetic and committed woman trying to effect immense cultural change in the paradigmatic American suburb, one backyard at a time. I gave a version of the talk I’ve been giving to public groups all year, pulling out a few favorite anecdotes, and cheering on the transformative forces of density, public transportation, sidewalks, diversity...and even as the words were coming out of my mouth it dawned on me that this was probably not what they thought they were going to hear. They had come, I suspect, to hear about how to preserve their watersheds and green spaces by not developing, how to live righteously outside the city on curvy boulevards without sidewalks and keep the evils of urbanity at bay. As I referenced Leo Marx and his critique of our Arcadian fantasies, I realized that is exactly what Fairfax County is: an Arcadian fantasy, the green component of which is entirely due to chlorophyll.

Things got more interesting during Q&A. When someone in the audience asked what communities around the DC area I thought were good models of green behavior, I immediately said Arlington County. Oops. That’s like telling the Redskins that maybe they should look at the Cowboys’ offense as a model. A woman asked how a citizenry can begin to make change. “What should we ask for?” she said. “Truly viable public transportation, sidewalks, density at transit stations, mixed-use zoning,” I offered, while a polite silence settled. Then a self-described “practical man” asked how all these efforts, Greenburg Kansas in particular, were paid for. “Greensburg,” I began, “has insurance money but also foundation money, as it’s being seen as a demonstration”...then I, filled with frustration at the lack of reality in the Virginia governor’s race regarding taxes, gave the straightest answer I could:

“Taxes, that’s how. Higher taxes. If we want thing to get better, we have to pay for it. Let’s be honest, you can’t get something for nothing. So, personally, I am ready and willing to pay taxes for the things that are important, and these issues are important.”

It felt good to say these things out loud. I’m not running for office, and I don’t even live in Virginia, so it took no special spine to do so, but it still felt good. This was not my choir, but I was preaching. Then I climbed into my waiting SUV and was whisked away.

*I was feeling guilty because I could have taken transit all the way. Had I boarded a train at Dupont Circle at 7:15, changed to Orange at Metro Center, gotten off at Vienna in time to catch the 7:56 Fairfax Connector #623, I could have arrived at the Government Center about an hour later. The $5.10 fare would have been a comically small percentage in dollars, carbon, and human labor of my Town Car/SUV adventure. Why didn’t I do it? Was it because they offered a car? Because I could? Because I was the speaker, and that made me special? Or because it was just so much easier? For those who have a choice, like I did, it’s too easy to choose the car. For those who don’t have a choice, well, they don’t have a choice.